Can coursebooks really teach English? Image sourced from here (interestingly enough, a forum posting giving advice about how to choose course books for language classes!)
I was recently looking over a sample from a new coursebook series, and really admiring the thought and work that had gone into it. After perusing (with a genuine sense of admiration) through the texts featured in the unit, I suddenly paused - my eyes lingering on the many boxes and sidebars featuring grammar and vocabulary "noticing" prompts, as well as speaking prompts, comprehension questions, gap-fills etc.
The unit was literally brimming with things to notice and work on. A treasure trove for a busy teacher who wanted a complete course all in/on one plate to serve up in classes, with - of course - the potential to add or subtract something here or there to put his/her personal touch to the unit.
As amazing and thorough as I found this new coursebook unit (and the course's overall emphases and approach), I couldn't help but wonder... If, as a profession, English Language Teachers could be assumed to be getting better at what they do as time has gone by, why does each new coursebook that comes out up the ante on how much is squeezed into a book, and feature ever more activities, prompts, exercises, etc.?
Basically, in looking at the global coursebooks on offer, it appears to me in some ways that there is an assumption that teachers are becoming less skilled and need more ideas and activities provided for them on the page. Publishers, in their professionalism and benevolence, are ensuring that these poor, increasingly unskilled (or dare I say it: de-skilled?) teachers have courses ready made to order - with a good deal (if not almost the whole deal) already done for them in advance.
[A brief digression, if I may: I've been hearing that sales of methodology and resource books for ELT have been on the wane of late. Considering how thoroughly coursebooks are put together these days, I can't help but wonder if this is because teachers figure all the methodology and ideas they need to know about will already be encapsulated in the coursebooks they choose. But, anyway, back to the original stream of thought!]
I've read some very interesting posts around the blogosphere with appropriately critical positions on what sort of content should be in coursebooks. What I'd like to explore a bit here, however, is not so much what kind of content could or should be featured in coursebooks, but what we might want to consider taking out completely. And, in doing so, what sort of knock-on effects would this create for teachers and learners?
This is going to necessarily involve some coursebook butchering, so I figure it is only fair I take out the knives and go to town on a sample from my own coursebook series (Boost! Integrated Skills Series - a strand-divided series of 24 books designed specifically for mid to high level tweens and teens).
Take a look at the 4-page unit from the reading strand of level 1 below:
On page 1, learners get a picture and discussion prompt introducing the theme of fantasy stories. There is a basic reading skill description for finding main ideas, then below that a diagram-based discovery activity to help learners identify quick and basic ways to grasp main ideas. Page 2 features the main reading text (about the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series), followed by some quick reading comprehension questions. Page 3 features specific comprehension questions applying the afore-mentioned skill of finding main ideas, then a vocabulary section allowing students to match highlighted words in the text to simple English definitions for each word. Page 4 introduces some new (but thematically related) content in the form of an integrated activity involving reading, listening and speaking. Finally, there is a space for learners to write about and then present their own favourite fantasy stories.
As a reading unit, it is relatively thorough. Plenty of skillwork and activities have been provided, and there is ample opportunity to work on integrated as well as specifically reading-oriented skills. This is without mentioning or showing all the supplementary worksheets and activities included in a teacher's book and accompanying resource website for the series.
Right (he says, sharpening a hefty butcher's knife in the background)! Let's say this coursebook content were to be presented somewhat differently - like this:
It would be stating the ludicrously obvious to say that a coursebook designed like this probably wouldn't sell well - if at all (because, let's face it: no self-respecting ELT publisher out there would allow something like this go beyond the email inbox - a publishing proposal from a deluded teacher somewhere who clearly hasn't got a clue). However, having used (deliberately designed) materials a lot like this in some of the schools I have managed over the years, I hope you'll bear with me...
Let's frame this as a situation where a teacher has been given this material to use in their class, and this poor lad/lass has come to me - the teacher coordinator (or some other senior, training, or management-style position). Here's how the conversation might possibly progress:
Teacher: Hi Jason - erm, about this reading unit...
Me: Oh hi! Reading unit? Oh, yes, that one.
Teacher: Yeah, this one. The one with a whole lot missing.
Me: Missing? It's there with wide-open arms, waiting for you and your learners to make something of it.
Teacher: Sorry? You mean, I have to fill up all this space... myself?
Me: Well, you and your learners - yes, I guess so. What else would you do with it?
Teacher: Make paper aeroplanes, perhaps? Sorry... But, you know, this is going to be a whole lot of work for me, if I have to go filling these pages out with exercises and activities and all that.
Me: Depends on how you approach it. And, well, the more work you do for this unit, generally the less work the learners are going to end up doing, and the less investment of time and attention, the less learning that will take place...
Teacher: How do you mean?
Me: Well, why do all the work for them? Just because most coursebooks do that doesn't mean you have to. Have the learners fill out these spaces themselves, and stick to facilitating and helping with some occasional stuff on the whiteboard.
Teacher: I'm not really on the same train with you here yet... But anyway - okay then... Well, here on the first page, what should I do?
Me: You've got a picture there and a unit theme title. What do you think you should do?
Teacher: Erm, well... a warm up of some sort?
Me: Okay, that could work. What do you mean by warm up?
Teacher: Like, get the students talking about this theme - something like that?
Me: Sounds good to me. Oh, and look - there's a space there for you to give the learners a prompt to talk about. Or you could even have them make their own prompts and start chatting with a partner or in small groups.
Teacher: Right, right, yes!
Me: Yeah - and now that you've got your learners talking, what do you think you might like to do with that space beneath the picture?
Teacher: Well, they could take some notes about what they heard about fantasy stories from their classmates. Couldn't they?
Me: Absolutely. Do you want to give them any feedback about their chatting at this stage?
Teacher: Do you mean like corrections?
Me: Yes, or suggestions or ideas about some language they could have been using, based on what you heard while you were wandering around and they were chatting about the initial prompt.
Teacher: Yes! I could put some of that stuff up on the whiteboard and the learners could jot them down there on the page. Okay then, good, good... Now this next page - there's the main reading text of course, but there's another space down here under it. I've seen other units with quick comprehension questions - should I do that?
Me: If you want. Just an idea, but why don't you make the comprehension questions fully oral?
Teacher: As in...?
Me: Well, you ask some comprehension questions about the text orally, and they jot down their responses.
Teacher: Sure, right! Then they could share their answers with the class and we could compare responses. There would also be some listening practice there for them, not to mention speaking - and by goodness my students need more of that! But - well, I'm going to be sort of pressed with time, with this new teaching schedule and all. What if I don't have time to get some comprehension questions ready for the text?
Me: Do it when you're in class? After you read the text together, you could ask the questions you immediately come up with or feel are important to an understanding of the text, there on the spot.
Teacher: Oh... Well, what if - you know - the questions I come up with aren't all that good, or the most appropriate for this sort of text?
Me: I'd say two things in response to that. One: you've been teaching for a while, and applied hundreds of reading comprehension questions and queries in class. So go with what feels natural. Back yourself. And two: how different is this in fact to the way real texts are discussed by real people in the real world?
Teacher: Erm, you've lost me a bit there. But thanks for the vote of confidence - I think I can give it a shot.
Me: Great! You know, you don't HAVE to have comprehension questions there straight after a reading text. You could even do a vocabulary building exercise here...
Teacher: Yes, yes, that would be another option. They could choose words they don't know from the text - or don't feel confident about, you know - and we could work on them as a class to provide simple definitions.
Me: Sounds pretty darned good to me. But you probably wouldn't want to do both of those applications here in this little space - would you?
Teacher: No, but hey - there's plenty of space on the next page to apply one of them, or I could just hold off on the vocab stuff for this lesson and use that space for vocabulary work in the next unit, which looks to have the same gap there beneath the reading text...
Me: Hey, variety is the spice of life, as they say.
Teacher: You know something? Given that this whole theme and reading text is about fantasy stories, here on the next page - which has all that space - I'd like to have the learners write something about their favourite fantasy heroes or actors, or even... hey! What about they do an imaginary interview with J. K. Rowling? Or maybe... Anyway, I like to make connections between reading and writing with the learners whenever I get the chance.
Me: Sounds like you've got a variety of ideas there. You could even share them with the learners and let them help you decide what to do there on that page - or perhaps even let them choose individually or in pairs.
Teacher: What? Let them choose what to do? That wouldn't work!
Me: Why not? Have you tried doing that before?
Teacher: Well, no... but, you know -
Me: No, I don't know, actually. And neither do you, and you won't until you give it a whirl.
Teacher: [with a rather dubious tone] Right, right...
Me: Anyway, look - this book has an online resource page with suggestions for teachers. The designer has included literally hundreds of potential applications for all these open white spaces, most with actual samples. I suggest you come up with some ideas of your own first - just like you've been doing here right now - and then go online if you get stuck and need a bit of inspiration.
Teacher: Cool. Yes, alright then.
Me: One last suggestion...
Teacher: That doesn't sound like you... Go on.
Me: I think Mandy did this unit last month with her learners, and perhaps Steve did it, too. From memory, their approaches were very different, but very interesting as well.
Teacher: Oh - I didn't know that.
Me: Might have something to do with having those iPod earphones on every time you're in the staff room... Anyway, go ask them and see if they'll show you what they did with this unit in their classes. They'll no doubt have some good comments about what did or didn't work so well, too.
Teacher: Right. Hey... you know, thanks.
Me: No problemo. Now if you'll forgive me, I have an appointment with a newspaper and a throne like device that'll help calm my temperament before the school owner comes in and wants to have a meeting with me about the most recent complaints from parents... Anyway, see you around!
And so the conversation hypothetically goes, though I have to confess to having had a LOT of conversations just like this one with the many teachers I've worked with over the years.
There are a couple of things worth noting from this conversation:
1. The ideas the teacher came up with for applying the 'spaces' in the book are rather different from the original unit set up (in the first/top example), but equally (and in some cases even more) valid in terms of ways to work around a reading text.
2. This conversation (and the layout of the book) assumes the teacher does have his/her own good ideas about teaching, and given the right space and prompting, they begin to come out rather like a treasure chest falling over and spilling its contents across the sand...
3. The teacher is able to consider the needs of his/her own class in terms of the best activities to apply, and for what reasons.
4. There is ample room to include the learners themselves in activities and activity selection as part of their coursebook application(s).
5. This approach encourages really thought-provoking and motivating discussions amongst teachers, as they share ideas about ways to apply similar units. Discussions amongst teachers tend to be somewhat different (and, in my experience, somewhat less frequent) when they are all applying the same very busy, fully-fleshed out coursebook material.
6. Even for newer or less imaginative teachers, it would be relatively easy to include teacher support materials for a book like this, along the lines of suggested applications. The teacher would still be given the important decision-making authority without needing to feel small or insignificant in the activity selection process.
There are a couple of dozen other things I could say about all this, but I've been long-winded enough already (even without an accompanying newspaper and throne-like device).
I'll finish by addressing one quick question I have no doubt at least some readers came up with as soon as they saw the "modified" coursebook design:
Looking at the new form of the unit, it's basically just a reading passage with some accompanying blank pages. What's the difference between this and just downloading a text off the Internet and taking it into class with some blank paper?
Quickfire response: That's precisely the point.
Additional comments: Using pre-set reading texts that all teachers use with the same levels means there is more potential for the teachers to all have something central they can share and build ideas around (ideas that are likely to have immediate relevance and application). Also, in certain ELT contexts (correlating closely with the ones I've been involved with), having the reading texts all prepared in advance can give school, learners (and parents) something that at least looks like a pre-planned syllabus (which could be an important requirement for attracting or retaining enrollment), while at the same time removing significant layers of shackles for teachers and facilitating creativity and variety in the actual classroom teaching techniques.
Personally, I'd like to have teachers all choosing their own texts for their classes, or - even better - creating classrooms where the learners are choosing and bringing in the texts. But so much of ELT involves making concessions and working within boundaries outside our control, doesn't it?