In defence of coursebooks

Good morning. My name’s Damian and I like coursebooks. I’ve liked them for about 20 years now.

Coursebooks are a funny beast in our profession. They seem to take a lot of flack from various sectors of the industry, yet they are – and continue to be – all pervasive. Whatever your connection with ELT, every one of us has at least used a major coursebook in the past, and I would venture as far as to say that all of us owe at least one good teaching idea to a coursebook.

So why, then, do they create such negative feeling? There are, of course, some valid reasons why people try not to rely on them too much in class, but that doesn’t mean they should be outlawed as a ‘necessary’ evil. In this post I’d like to set out my defence against some of the most common charges against them.

1 The syllabus continues to be structural.

Grammar is a common organising principle for almost all coursebooks, yes. But it’s not the only one. If you open the contents pages of any coursebook you will see a number of columns indicating the inclusion of different aspects of language in each unit, both skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking) and systems (grammar, lexis, pronunciation). To say that coursebooks follow a structural syllabus simply isn’t true. A topic-based, multi-faceted syllabus is a much more accurate picture.  Having said this, there are some coursebooks which tend towards a certain methodology such as TBL or favour certain aspects of language such as lexis (I’m not mentioning any names here). But you’d be hard pressed to find a modern coursebook which focuses solely on grammar as its organising principle these days.

2 Texts are inauthentic and don’t sound natural.

At low levels, it’s easy to see these. Texts are written in order to introduce a specific, simple language point in context, and as a result don’t sound very natural. But what’s the alternative? Play an authentic radio interview to an elementary group, and ask them to pick out examples of polite requests? I could see many learners becoming completely overwhelmed at such a task.

It’s worth also remembering that a lot of the criticisms of coursebooks are often directed (not necessarily intentionally) at old, outdated books. Developments in coursebooks over the last 5-10 years have been phenomenal. Higher level audio scripts are now often recorded as ‘semi-authentic’. This means that the actors are put in a studio and given subjects to discuss, but given the freedom to do so naturally. The result is a useful balance between the need to be comprehensible and authenticity.

3 PARSNIPs

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Mariquita Farms Jan Delivery by Everett Harper  | CC BY-SA 2.0

PARSNIP is an acronym which stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms and Pork. Basically, a list of topics which should be avoided in coursebooks so as not to cause offence. The charge against them therefore is that the topics covered are seen as too safe and unwilling to court controversy, which makes for bland, uninteresting texts. Coursebooks are huge enterprises, and take years of planning, research, writing, editing, design, proofing and trialling. It’s an expensive venture which needs to reach a wide enough market in order to recuperate the costs, remunerate those who contribute towards them and make a profit in order to be viable. But the argument doesn’t stop there.

What is the benefit, indeed the purpose of all this time and energy invested into coursebooks?

Quality.

The modern coursebook and its repertoire of accompanying materials (resource books, videos, apps, etc.) constitutes high quality material that you can literally (and I’m not necessarily saying you should) lift up and take into a classroom in order to successfully teach an interesting lesson based on sound methodological principles. I would have to say that some of ‘my’ best teaching ideas have come from or been inspired by coursebooks.

4 The topics aren’t personalised.

Given the need to reach a wide market outlined above, it’s unlikely that each text or listening script will be designed with each specific learner in mind. However, they are written so as to have as wide an appeal as possible. The job of the teacher then is to supplement these topics and texts in order to build a bridge towards the individual learners, and provide a human ‘face’ to learning. A truly noble profession.

Another point worth making here is that there is a growing trend now towards publishing coursebooks aimed at national markets, more often aimed at state school syllabuses than the EFL market. This started as big titles being repackaged and repurposed towards domestic markets, but there are now a growing number of courses which are designed from start to finish with a specific market in mind. This allows for some of the best of both worlds: the resources and backing of a major publisher, as well as tailoring materials toward the specific needs of a particular culture.

5 The grammar isn’t accurate

A lot has been made of the inaccurate grammar rules often presented in coursebooks, especially at lower levels. Scott Thornbury even uses the term ‘Grammar McNuggets‘ to describe the convenient rules described to learners (e.g. some for positive statements, and any for negatives and questions), but which inevitably turnout to be inaccurate. However, I strongly believe there is a place for these ‘nuggets’ at lower levels, They’re like stabilisers on your first bike which help you to become accustomed to the language and find your way in it.

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Full Face by KarlOnSea | CC BY 2.0

Perhaps ‘baby food’ is a better term for these ‘rules’ which exist at lower levels. You wouldn’t give a baby prime steak – they just can’t digest it. Instead you give them easily digestible food in liquid form, build their strength and allow them to grow until they are able to fully appreciate the steak (or nutloaf, sorry vegetarians). Ironically though, despite perhaps being more accurate, ‘baby food’ doesn’t have the catchy ring to it that ‘Grammar McNuggets’ does, allowing it to be easily packaged and offered as a convenient label.

There is so much more I could say in defence of coursebooks (perhaps another post?), but I’ve reached the limits of what is possible to say in one post here. If there are any other arguments, either for or against coursebooks, which you’d like to share, please let me know in the comments below.

Further reading

Lindsay Clandfield’s guest post on Scott Thornbury’s comprehensive A-Z of ELT blog neatly summarises the main arguments for and against coursebooks.

Lewis Lansford’s post on the Cambridge English blog paints another well-balance picture, based on discussions with teachers.

Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - https://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00EG71K1Q). I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

20 Comments
  • Mike Griffin
    Posted at 15:05h, 14 fevereiro Responder

    Hi Damien,
    Interesting post! I think you make some good/important points. As a coursebook non-user (generally) and not a huge fan this provided some food for thought.

    I was confused on one part though. I felt like I was missing something in the PARSNIPS explanation.
    It seems that you are saying PARSNIPS are not needed (or should be avoided) because coursebooks take a long time to make (and are used in different regions) and this results in quality. I am not sure this speaks to the lack of PARSNIPS or the contention that coursebooks are bland/boring. Does the fact coursebooks are huge enterprises excuse them from being bland (if in fact they are)? Are you saying blandness is a fair price to pay for the
    years of planning, research, writing, editing, design, proofing and trialing? Does it sound like I am missing something?

  • Damian Williams
    Damian Williams
    Posted at 15:23h, 14 fevereiro Responder

    Hi Mike
    Thanks for taking the time to drop by and leave a comment. And apologies if I didn’t make it very clear. The point I was making was pretty much what you suggested, yes, that in order for the investment to pay off, the coursebook will have to reach a certain level of sales. And in order to do this it means certain issues and topics won’t get approved. I can think of a specific case where, despite the best efforts of the author, a book was banned by the government in one country because of a topic implied within a text.

    But I’m afraid I don’t really buy the ‘bland, boring’ criticism (and I’m aware that you weren’t making it 🙂 ). I think modern coursebooks do in fact provide very interesting topics. A case in point would be the series aligned to an organisation which produces nature magazines and photography. Very interesting topics which I’ve heard learners say they’ve learnt a lot from.

    And then there’s also the issue of what might seem ‘controversial’, ‘subversive’ or ‘cool’ to the teacher in fact seems quite boring and outdated to the learners…

  • Daniel
    Posted at 08:23h, 15 fevereiro Responder

    Regarding PARSNIPs, I’d say that avoiding them does not necessarily make them bland or safe for use in the classroom. If as teachers we believe that the tasks and topics used in the classroom should provide, as far as possible, practice and a simulation of situations that learners may face in ‘real life’, then it is not far reaching to say that learners need to learn to also avoid discussing some sensitive topics.

    Can anyone imagine sitting at a business dinner with international clients or visiting superiors and asking ‘What do you make of abortion? What does your religion say about that? Should laws be changed regarding this issue?’. I doubt that most would ever risk going anywhere near PARSNIPs.

    Having learned English in an international schoolas a teenagers, surrounded by prople of different cultural background, religion and political views, I can recall more than a couple of ocxasions when a discussion had to be interrupted as they got heated and both parts lost temper and manners. Not quite healthy for a classroom, is it?

    • Damian Williams
      Damian Williams
      Posted at 09:00h, 15 fevereiro Responder

      Hi Daniel
      Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. I think there can be a place for controversial topics in adult classes, if they’re dealt with sensitively by the teacher. But only the teacher can know when, where and with whom it’s appropriate. It would certainly be unfair to force a teacher to cover topics like that if they didn’t feel comfortable – just like in the situation you suggest above.

  • Steve Elsworth
    Posted at 08:40h, 15 fevereiro Responder

    I’ve been writing course books for twenty years with my partner, Jim Rose. We take it really seriously. We see our job as making life better for kids in the classroom – we write for state schools at higher primary and lower secondary level. We’ve read the criticisms of course books. If we agreed with them we would have stopped doing what we do: but we don’t. A lot of the critics work in richer regions with better resources than the areas which use course books a lot. These people want to prescribe caviar for areas which like fish and chips. I serve really good fish and chips. It makes me smell a bit fishy, but it’s an honest job and I’m proud of what I do. Thanks, Damian. I really appreciated your article.

    • Damian Williams
      Damian Williams
      Posted at 09:04h, 15 fevereiro Responder

      Hi Steve
      Thanks for taking the time to read the post and leave a comment. I love that analogy (and I also love fish and chips)! You’ve also raised an issue that I hadn’t really thought of, too i.e. that coursebooks can provide support and a framework in places where teachers might not have ready access to training and professional development. Books like yours in those areas are very much appreciated.

  • Thomas Ewens
    Posted at 18:07h, 15 fevereiro Responder

    Steve (and Damian)

    I want to preface my comment by saying that I have taught with Energy 2 (which is one of Steve’s books) and enjoyed it very much. I like using good course books (although I hate bad ones).

    Steve, although you don’t mention the word in your comment, you are clealry referring, at least in part, to Dogme ELT. But you have completely mischaracterised the Dogme argument. Thornbury and Meddings have clearly stated that Dogme is not for everyone and will not be suitable for all contexts. They also acknowledge that teachers may have a hard time and face awkward questions from others (especially superiors) when trying to implement a Dogme approach. Lastly, I’m really not sure that Dogme ELT is prescriptive, Teaching Unplugged talks about tips, techniques and indications of how to proceed. The feeling I get from reading it is that they are trying very hard to avoid being prescriptive.

    • Damian Williams
      Damian Williams
      Posted at 17:41h, 19 fevereiro Responder

      Thanks for the comment, Thomas. I can’t really speak for Steve, so I won’t try to respond to what you said here, though I did get the impression he wasn’t specifically naming Dogme for a reason. Personally I’ve heard criticisms of coursebooks from across the board, not only from Dogmeticians. I actually think a lot of the principles of Dogme are quite achievable alongside a coursebook. It’s more often the outright criticisms which come without a feasible alternative that I find less useful.

  • Russ mayne
    Posted at 14:39h, 19 fevereiro Responder

    I enjoyed reading this and loved the idea of ‘baby food’.

  • Scott Thornbury
    Posted at 08:09h, 20 fevereiro Responder

    Staunchly defended, Damian. Just one clarification I’d like to make: my coining of the term ‘grammar mcnuggets’ was motivated less by the overly-simplified nature of grammar rules in coursebooks (and I tend to agree with you, that if you’re going to give rules, they should be ‘digestible’) but more by the way that the whole business of language teaching now revolves around the delivery of ‘teaching points’ – as opposed, say, to the provision of ‘learning opportunities’ (to use a distinction that Dick Allwright made in a TESOL Quarterly article in 2005 (39: 1)). Coursebooks seem to me to be complicit in this delivery-based (aka transmission) model of education, and the term ‘grammar mcnuggets’ was meant to capture the sense of commodification and consumption we associate with the fast food industry.

  • Damian Williams
    Damian Williams
    Posted at 08:58h, 20 fevereiro Responder

    Thanks for reading the post and leaving a comment, Scott. I’m pleased to hear you agree about the need for rules being digestible. And thanks for clarifying re- the idea of ‘teaching points’ v ‘learning opportunities’. My only question would be though that isn’t providing learning opportunities the teacher’s job? It’s difficult to see how this would fit into a coursebook other than how it already does via teaching learning strategies and providing a range of learning opportunities to arise. For me, the teacher’s job is then to link those opportunities to the learners’ experience in order to facilitate understanding. In this way, I think coursebooks are compatible with Allwright’s idea of ‘planning for understanding’, i.e. as part of the whole process. In fact, one common trend I’ve seen in many of the most recent coursebooks is a move towards much more personalisation in activities, which helps facilitate this process too.

    • Scott Thornbury
      Posted at 13:46h, 20 fevereiro Responder

      “My only question would be though that isn’t providing learning opportunities the teacher’s job?” If only, Damian. The problem is that, The Book (and its pervasive grammar syllabus) tends to rule, such that learning opportunities are reduced to ‘You can say what you want but you have to use the thrid conditional’.

      “It’s difficult to see how this would fit into a coursebook other than how it already does via teaching learning strategies and providing a range of learning opportunities to arise…”

      Well, I don’t think for a moment there is a contradiction between having a book and providing learning opportunities. It would just be a very different kind of book – more like a graded reader interspersed with speaking and writing tasks.

  • Damian
    Damian
    Posted at 10:07h, 21 fevereiro Responder

    Fair enough. Though if teachers are unable to exploit a coursebook without becoming slaves to its ‘grammar’ rules, I hate to think how they’d end up using a graded reader with speaking and writing tasks 🙂

  • Thomas Ewens
    Posted at 15:29h, 06 março Responder

    Hi Damian,

    Who are these other critics of coursebooks?

    I may be missing something, but I can’t think of any critics of coursebooks who aren’t also associated with Dogme ELT.

  • Damian
    Damian
    Posted at 15:38h, 06 março Responder

    Thomas, I’ve heard plenty of criticisms of coursebooks which don’t necessarily equate to support of Dogme. The arguments for using authentic materials outlined in my post (as opposed to the learners as resource) would be one of them.

  • Jason Anderson
    Posted at 04:59h, 19 abril Responder

    Hi Damian,

    Thanks for putting me onto this interesting blog. I think you make an important point that a number of coursebooks aren’t simply structured along grammatical lines any more. A number of them today start units with topic themes, lexical input and text, with an ever-increasing trickle through of influence from ‘text-based syllabus design’. The grammar, while often pre-contrived, is then situated within text which in the best coursebooks provides nice examples of genres where such grammar is often (not always) fairly authentic. I think this approach is much more grammar light than 10-15 years ago.

    My main concern about more recent changes in coursebooks is their ‘magazine-ization’ over the past 10 years. I agree to some extent with John Gray’s article ‘Neoliberalism, celebrity and aspirational content in ELT textbooks…’ from 2012. Although he’s more concerned with the obsession with celebrity, my fear is that they are no longer designed, and activities are no longer crafted according to what helps learners to learn. Rather, they tend more to be designed according to what doesn’t cause focus groups (and user feedback) to complain. This isn’t just about PARSNIPS, it also leads to a lot of things that I like to do and believe facilitate learning to be absent (e.g. memorisation activities, structure transformation drills [I know these aren’t fashionable any more, but they definitely help me when I’m learning languages], more extensive use of the same content to embed the learning of lexical chunks and word strings, etc.), and replaced with quite a lot of gratuitous chat and ‘light processing’ exercises. This can cause lessons to remain fairly superficial, creating possible conditions for learning, rather than attempting to the drive that learning, which I think the best materials can do.

  • Damian Williams
    Damian Williams
    Posted at 12:28h, 29 abril Responder

    Hi Jason, thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. I always enjoy your contributions to discussions like these. Thanks for pointing out the Gray article, too. It’s not one I’ve read but it sounds interesting so I’ll have a look.

    I think you raise some very valid points here, especially regarding so much celebrity culture. Interestingly enough though, more recent writing briefs have asked me to avoid mentioning specific celebrities where possible, for the very same reasons you go on to outline – fear of causing offence.

    As for the range of learning activities you mention, I agree that there is a lot of chat and ‘light processing’ exercises in students’ books, but this is where I see the role of the teacher, as the person who complements the complete picture of learning by facilitating these types of learning activities in conjunction with the coursebook. Though how far this actually happens depends on the skills and experience of the teacher, of course. Teacher’s books can play a valuable role here in suggesting ways to extend the learning cycle taking the coursebook material as the starting point, I think.

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