There was an excellent discussion on the IATEFL YLT-SIG's discussion board late last year about coursebooks for younger learners, and, as you might expect, the issue of grammar soon raised its notorious head.
There will be few surprises to learn that it was the Unplugged Fellow himself (Scott Thornbury) who really addressed and tackled this issue. He had the usual stash of very sensible observations to make on this issue (see for example an excellent summary of what Scott believes is "wrong" with grammar syllabi in coursebooks), but the following one in particular really caught my attention.
"...in the absence of any other credible, marketable organising principle, grammar rules. And, boy, does it rule! Take a look at a selection of current ELT publishers catalogues, and I challenge you to find a general English course, for either adults or young learners, that isn't organised around a (fairly prominent) grammar syllabus."
It's actually best read in its original context in the full post here, where Scott examines why coursebooks use grammar as their organizing principle, but for now I want to focus on Scott's challenge, namely: "to find a general English course, for either adults or young learners, that isn't organised around a (fairly prominent) grammar syllabus."
Well, there is my series, to start with!
Boost! uses skills as its organising principle. First, at a macro level, it is divided into separate strands to focus on Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, Grammar, and (recently released) Vocabulary. Within each of those strands, the syllabus is organised by a series of micro-skills relevant to the broader macro-skill. The units do a lot more than that (the most important that needs mentioning is that the units start with a skill and then expand to include application through integrated skills from other macro-skill areas; for instance, a reading unit features a reading skill but by the end of that unit it will be used alongside writing, listening and/or speaking skills).
Now, Boost! has done exceedinly well in a variety of EFL (and even ESL/EAL) contexts around the world - enough to claim (bravely?) that it *could* be considered a "general" English course, not least because in the contexts where it sells it has often become THE core set of coursebook materials for the pre-teen to young teens age sector (much to my delight, of course!). It is treated in these contexts as a complete language course - and with 24 books in six strands, so it should!
However, to say Boost! has only one organising principle is a vast generalisation. Skills are a starting point, which then need to be aligned with thematic topics; twinned units covering content-based 'academic' skills on the one hand and 'real world' skills on the other; coverage of a variety of text types; and the skills and task types to appear in mainstream international English language tests commonly applicable to Boost!'s age group sector (usually relegated to review units only).
Writing a very involved coursebook series seemed (to me at the time) to require the key ability to understand and cater to a variety of different rivers, and then somehow help to make them all flow together along one navigable but hopefully still "natural feeling" course.
I daresay other coursebooks feature a similar kaleidoscope of considerations to list, match and unite. It could be a matter, then, of not necessarily determining whether grammar/key language is an organising principle, but rather: to what extent? (Coursebook writers - see my question for you at the end of this post!)
In the case of my own series, grammar was not a very prominent organising principle at all - with the very obvious exception of the grammar strand itself, where grammar skills themselves became the guiding influence.
BUT (and this vindicates Scott's initial claim to some extent) although in the end grammar was not the set of signposts orienting the material and lessons, my editors did (at first) make some valiant efforts to try to have grammar addressed in a systematic way in determining how the materials would be written and what sorts of language they would feature. I was sent tome-like lists of key language and vocabulary items organised by public school year level from a variety of MoE official guidelines for teachers, and asked to write my texts so that they "fit" these bullet-pointed lists.
Not only was this a potentially important selling point, I think it was a natural instinct in editors working for a major publishing company: to organise material by "grammatical difficulty" and "vocabulary complexity" - according to strict pre-set lists.
I generally ignored these lists, and (luckily!) my editors and publisher went with the flow on this issue. I had enough on my plate to deal with themes, topics, "academic" versus "real world" styles of input, and integration of multiple skills. Re-writing or re-organising my material based on a meticulous grammar syllabus and vocabulary list would have made the input feel hopelessly contrived to learners and teachers. Even if it didn't feel contrived to them, it was still going to be a horrible diversion from the core aims of writing good engaging material that facilitated the noticing and application of a variety of useful skills. So I wrote using instinct, keeping things as natural as possible and focusing on making the material comprehensible across different levels of overall difficulty. ["Aha!" I hear Scott claim, "but to what extent was this 'instinct' of yours already conditioned by the grammar-syllabus coursebooks you'd already used as a teacher in the past?" Good question!]
So, some questions I have for the blogosphere are:
Is a skills-based approach a viable example of a "credible, marketable organising principle" that can become an alternative to grammar-oriented syllabi? Boost!'s selling record and market share would indicate "yes", but I'm interested to hear what you think!
Can you think of other "credible and marketable" principles that could possibly be used to orient coursebook titles?
Coursebook/materials writers! To what extent would you agree or disagree that YOUR series used grammar as THE (or at least the most prominent) organising principle?
Here's your chance at a free plug alongside an opportunity to either defend the grammar syllabus orientation principle, or point out why and how you are an exception!