Watch out... that raven's squawking about coursebooks again! Image: mistercam
Okay, I admit it. The issue of coursebooks in ELT is an itch I just can't help scratching at. But in order to make better sense of it all, I do make sure I read a lot and think about the issue from angles that may be somewhat different from my own.
Tonight I found myself looking through the resource books of two of my favourite ELT mavens: Penny Ur (A Course in Language Teaching, CUP, 1996) and Jeremy Harmer (The Practice of English Language Teaching, 4th Edition, Pearson Longman, 2007), hunting down new angles of thought or perspective about coursebooks in particular.
Both Ur and Harmer appear to have very balanced views about the pros and cons of coursebooks (or not using coursebooks), but two things in particular struck me as I looked over their works again with fresh eyes.
First of all, considering the overall size of these fairly voluminous works about ELT, it is surprising how very little space is dedicated to discussion about coursebooks. We're talking a couple of pages from volumes that have several hundred pages in them. Considering just how prominent a role coursebooks play in global ELT, I couldn't help but wonder: are coursebooks so entrenched and fundamental to language teaching that these resource book writers take them as a necessary given? Or have they perhaps missed something?
But the second realisation was much more profound.
As I mentioned, both Ur and Harmer go to some lengths to maintain a balanced perspective about coursebooks, carefully pointing out both the strengths and weaknesses of them, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of not using them. But one disadvantage associated with not using coursebooks, more or less stressed by both writers, is that teachers opting to take this road are in for something akin to a world of pain, because it will then be up to them to hunt down or produce on their own the materials that will need to be taken into class.
That is, it's sort of a simple choice: Use a coursebook where all the material has already been made for you (but be a good teacher by omitting, adapting or adding to the content as you see fit to cater to the needs of your class); or ditch the coursebook and take over that responsibility for all the materials yourself.
I can't be 100% sure, but I think every somewhat busy teacher (or teacher lacking some confidence in their own English skills) out there reads something like that and gets two clear messages:
1. Learners need materials prepared in advance and brought to the classroom
2. If you're going to avoid using coursebooks, you're in for a truckload of extra preparation time
The huge problem I have with both of these assumptions is that - well... neither of them are true. Or, perhaps better put, neither of them are necessarily true.
I teach without coursebooks. I don't spend very much time preparing, and there is very little in the way of formal planning. Admittedly, I do do a lot of teaching reflection following classes.
A very large proportion (I would say around 90% or even more on occasion) of the material used in my lessons is generated in the class by its participants (the learners and myself as the teacher). I'm not going to say that it is always easy -- it's not (though I might add that it does get easier as time goes by). It requires a lot of skill and energy from a teacher. But it does not necessitate a lot of extra preparation time. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Hey, let me stress here that I do think coursebooks can be useful, and there are a lot of teachers out there doing amazing things with them. I'm not in any way shape or form criticising people who point out the potential benefits of coursebooks to certain types of teachers in certain kinds of contexts.
But the idea of learner-generated materials (or even better: classroom-generated materials, as I do see the teacher as playing a very active and important part in the overall process) is hardly -- if at all -- addressed in most major ELT resource books I have access to.
I hope future resource books (and future editions of current ones) take the time to look at this in more detail and give the notion more credibility. I'm sure most resource book writers would love to demonstrate ways in which learners can become more involved in their own learning process and progress, as well as outline for teachers some of the ways they could be reducing their preparation time and workload while getting the same or even better results from their classes.
Leaving teachers with a message that (1) no effective learning can take place without pre-prepared external materials and (2) teachers are in for a horrific workload if they circumvent the standard coursebook, is missing a couple of potential universes. Actually, more than a couple...