Beyond the gleaming cover and the publisher's bold declaration that this is THE coursebook for you, integrating THE very best and newest aspects of teaching methodology, made especially for YOUR learners ("motivate!" will almost always appear there), you may also be the sort to glance and see who actually wrote this new bound up set of papers that is going to form the backbone of your ELT class curriculum.
Names can be very important in the English Language Teaching industry. Publishers create this and also feed off it, because a "big" name on a new textbook can have a massive impact on sales. By a "big" name, I refer mostly to those ESL/EFL VIPs that you often see headlining international conferences and appearing as a glowing or halo-crowned figure on promotional materials for special seminars organized by the publishers.
Unfortunately, these people can be rather unqualified when it comes to writing books for certain segments, or - an alternative way of looking at it - over-qualified to the point of being almost completely out of touch.
The best examples of this are textbook courses for children and teenagers written by ELT experts who have either never actually set foot in a classroom with these age groups, or haven't actually done so for an alarmingly long time. This can also happen in terms of contextual relevance - books written for Asian EFL contexts by language learning experts who have no personal experience of the challenges faced in classrooms in this part of the world. Given that books for younger learners/teens and the massive demand for coursebooks in Asia probably make up THE biggest slice of ELT title sales worldwide these days, these examples become particularly poignant.
Now, I don't mention all this to be unnecessarily inflammatory or provocative, but in essence, using a coursebook in an Asia-based younger learner classroom context - written by a bigwig ELT celebrity who rarely visits the area and hasn't actually taught children before (or for a very long period of time) - is rather like having a Nobel Prize-winning biologist (in England) make the best recommendations on how to set up, grow and then maintain your lovely little garden (on the rugged steppes of China).
By way of example, some years ago now there was a lot of excitement around the ELT traps when one of the very biggest ELT names put out a certain coursebook. Sales of this coursebook in Asia broke all sorts of records worldwide, and it certainly was a very zippy and glossy looking product that no doubt incorporated plenty of the methodology and research this famous figure was particularly well-known for. It even made some pretty big claims about being THE perfect coursebook for teenagers, and for teenagers in Asia in particular. Hey, I was taken in! I'd read this person's fantastic books on methodology, and they were great. I took a look, liked the general course structure and emphases, and incorporated it into the curriculum of the school I was managing in Korea at the time.
I really should have looked more closely at it and been more resistant to the hype and marketing plaudits, because the book was pretty darned awful. My teenage learners detested it (as much as I like anything that can encourage students to talk with real emotion, I'd rather it wasn't in the form of creative explanations about how their textbook could be set on fire or - well, other things...), and after a week or so of classes, the very presence of it on my teacher's desk used to fill me with dread. Oh, and don't worry - all those co-teachers I'd sold on using it as well were pretty quick to let me know this reaction wasn't limited to one teacher or one class of teenagers. As I found out (and not for the first time), the choices an academic coordinator makes at the start of a long spring term can really impact on how many invites you get to join the rest of the teachers out at the local restaurant or pub.
"On paper" the book was decent, and seemed to cross all the t's and dot all the i's. However, the methodology in practice was fussy, inflexible, at times bordering on dogmatic, and most often not all that well suited to Asian classrooms. The content did not appeal to the learners at all, and was rather similar to the effect a person in their late 30s or early 40s has when trying to engage teenagers with what they think is the current hip-talk. There were also other complications that the writer and publisher obviously didn't consider all that well. Non-native teachers found the teacher's notes baffling, and the page layout meant there was deceptively more to cover there than at first appeared (and in Korea, you do NOT skip over or leave sections of the textbook unfinished!). The book became a disappointment and something of a major burden for all concerned.
Now I'm usually the first to point out that books are supposed to help a teacher do their core job and not the other way around, and that good teachers can always find ways around non-relevant content or activities. Sure. But in Asia in particular, teachers and learners habitually place a huge amount of regard and trust in their core textbooks. If the book is a flop, it has much bigger consequences than in other (more eclectic) teaching contexts where teachers possibly have greater freedoms and students (and importantly - parents) may be more flexible with how coursebooks operate within a broader curriculum and learning goals. In Asia, for better or worse, the textbook usually IS the whole course. What was particularly disappointing with the publication mentioned here is that it was written by one of the biggest ELT experts EVER, and was promoted straight up by the publisher as being made ESPECIALLY for Asian teenagers. What was abundantly clear to me after that rather horrid experience was that the writer AND the publisher had not actually taught a class of teenage Asia-based students for a very long time (let's talk decades here) or quite possibly never before at all. Just because a book claims learners will "go for it!" doesn't mean they will or can based only on marketing hype and a big name on the front...
This could be rather unfairly pointing a critical finger at a very accomplished methodology and research expert working with a somewhat prestigious publisher, but I think not: they know what they are doing and ought to do it better. However, the real issue is teachers doing better research on their coursebooks and the people who wrote them. Just because the writer shakes people's hands warmly at conferences and entertains big crowds of adoring acolytes doesn't mean that textbook with their name on it is a dead-set winner for your context and classroom.
I write this post because you can expect more of the same on a grander scale when it comes to celebrity coursebooks in the future. The bigger publishers appear to be increasingly unwilling to look for, nurture and support local professionals in order to make age and context-appropriate coursebooks. They figure their well-paid "expert" editors (I could write another whole post on how little actual classroom experience many of these people have as well...) and hordes of sales/marketing staff can handle that side of things while the celebrity prepares some of the content and lends their all-important name to the cover.
So here are my final messages to teachers, VIP writers, and publishers:
Teachers: Don't just refrain from judging a book my its cover: beware of instantly trusting or buying in a coursebook based on a big ELT expert name on the cover. Find out whether this person has actually taught the age groups the book is targeting (most of the bigger name ELT celebrities have never taught children or even haven't taught in Asia before, despite the book targeting that area of the world). Hey - they might have pulled off a fine coursebook, but there's every chance a local expert fresh from current or very recent ACTUAL classroom experience in your context will be able to come up with a better coursebook for you. Most importantly, really take a very close and careful look at whatever coursebook you mean to put in front of your learners, and remember that the names and publisher logo on the front are pretty much irrelevant.
ELT VIP Budding Coursebook Writers: Of course you can make good textbooks (and yes, you'll sell so many more of them than you do methodology books), but if you're going to write a course for young Asian learners, do your already very well-earned reputation a favour, take 6 months off from the glory of the conference presentation track and book-signings, and actually go and teach in the environment you mean to write for. No - I don't mean just make some nice visits and have lots of pleasant video-recorded chats with teachers in that context (doing the research, so to speak) while sitting on a sort of celebrity throne at the back of a classroom, or else enjoying a salubrious time over local cuisine and making charmingly diplomatic compliments about the culture - get into the classroom and actually teach! Look into those learners' eyes, fight your way through grading and class reports at a desk made for a gnome symposium, and really experience what is going on in the places you intend to write for. And in case I make setting that up sound easier than it is, I can recommend some great little schools for you where I can assure you the owners, teachers and students have never even remotely heard of you (and if they have, I can organise some pretty creative disguises for you), and as the newest teacher you'll get the worst split schedule with the most "difficult" students and your desk will either be next to or actually in an already crowded broom closet. But trust me, you really will love it, and your coursebooks will be awesome!
Publishers: Help organise a reasonable amount of genuine teaching time for the above-mentioned VIPs if you're going to have them write THE next miracle tome for English Language Learning success. Pay them a handsome advance that can later be deducted from their initial rounds of royalties... Also, make sure your expert editors are not just faithful hard workers that have worked their way up the convoluted and political corporate tree: either make sure they have actual classroom teaching experience or else organise for them to get it as part of their regular duties. Last but not least (and preferably), do more to find real teachers with real localised experience to write specific kinds of coursebooks for specific learner segments.
No doubt this will have potentially ruffled some feathers somewhere, so please be assured any apparent sarcasm was actually a feeble attempt at humour, and feel free to comment if you think anything I've written is untrue or unfair! One person's opinion can be another person's soapbox...