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  • timothyhampson 5:00 pm on June 5, 2015 Permalink | Reply  

    Coursebooks : an unnecessary evil (part 2) 

    Earlier this week I wrote a blog in which I concluded that coursebooks are widely used because they’re good for publishing companies and school owners, rather than because they’re good for students. This second part will look at if coursebooks are a necessary or an unnecessary evil (if you’ve read the title of this post, you’ll know where I stand). Before I get started there was another blog post I wanted to share. It covers some similar territory to this post and part one of this post. You can find it on Marc Jones’ blog here (It’s a new blog to me but from what I’ve seen there’s lots worth reading through on there).

    During the twitter chat there was some talk about how coursebooks were inevitable and how there was no real alternative. There are two strands of argument here. The first is that we’re stuck with coursebooks, schools love them, companies love to sell them, and students have been told they need them. I don’t know how long coursebooks are here for and it may seem like lots is stacked against teachers who don’t want to use coursebooks. I’ve been in situations where I needed coursebooks to get by, because of a lack of time, or because it’s been required of my by my school. I’d encourage people who are in this situation to try to change that situation. You can talk to your boss, secretly use the coursebook less than you’re told to, or look for a new job. I’ve done all three.

    The second strand of the argument is that there is no real alternative. This makes sense in that if coursebooks are bad, but they’re also the best of a bad set of options, then we should be using them. That’s all well and good, but it would take a big lack of imagination to say that there are no alternatives to coursebooks. There are lots of options for a teacher who wants to be less reliant on coursebooks, and I will outline some of them below. If we accept that there are other, better options, then we can call coursebooks an unnecessary evil.

    Good coursebooks. 

    Coursebooks aren’t necessarily bad, they just tend to be. There are some good coursebooks out there. Anthony Schmidt mentions some here. I’ve also reviewed one of my favourite coursebooks ‘Discussion/Conversation Strategies‘ on this blog. Another book I am a big fan of is ‘Teaching Young Learners to Think’  which is full of engaging activities for young learners. The thing about these books is that while we might call them coursebooks, they don’t pretend to be a complete course of English and they’re more collections of fun and interesting things to do in class, than a series of Grammar McNuggets. I like to think of them more like ‘recipe books’ than ‘coursebooks’; when you use a book like this you’re picking out the things you think will be interesting and good, rather than following the book. Importantly, the way these books are laid out discourages completionism and encourages teacher choice.

    Extensive Reading

    Lots of schools have coursebook based reading which is intensive: the students read a passage (that typically is slightly above what they’d be comfortable reading unassisted) and then answer a bunch of questions afterwards. Extensive Reading essentially flips this and asks students to read lots of things they’re comfortable with without any questions or support. They will learn words they don’t know from the context around them. I’m not an expert but everything I read about Extensive Reading looks promising. My students read a graded reader every week and they love it! There definitely could be options for a teacher who wanted to be less coursebook reliant to dedicate some of their timetable to Extensive Reading.


    Dogme is a teaching style that is based around little more than the pupils and the teacher. It’s very discussion focused and what’s covered in the class is what the learners want to say. It’s another thing I don’t get to use much because of the age of my pupils, but I have used it before and I try to embrace ‘Dogme moments’ by changing course if my students want to learn how to say something. This week the were talking about where they lived in Korean, so we spent some time asking each other in English. Dogme looks scary but it’s easy to incorporate moments at least. For more information check out this blog post, it’s full of ideas.

    Total Physical Response (TPR) 

    AKA sing a bunch of songs every lesson.

    TPR argues that if students are responding physically to what’s said in class, it doesn’t matter if they’re not ready to talk yet. This is particularly relevant to very young learners who are often happy to do actions to a song, but not ready to speak English. I use this a lot by using songs and activities where students have to copy what the teacher says.


    In the end, I hope I’ve shown that there are at least some alternatives to basing everything around coursebooks. These are probably familiar to readers; their main purpose was to show that teachers don’t need to rely on coursebooks, rather than to provide a comprehensive overview. There are all other kinds of principles a class can be organised around but I picked these out because they are less planning dependent.

    • Marc 9:27 pm on June 5, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      Worth reading? Whoa! Thanks.

      I basically agree with everything you say but I will split hairs about Dogme with kids. I think it is eminently possible, especially if you know their L1, and provided you are recycling what they have done before.


      Liked by 1 person

      • timothyhampson 2:03 am on June 6, 2015 Permalink | Reply

        My bad, that doesn’t sound enthusiastic enough but I do really like your blog. I don’t know why I hadn’t seriously it much before.

        I used to use some Dogme with middle and elementary schoolers, but I was never in the position to go fully unplugged. My Korean isn’t amazing either which makes things hard. Grabbing the Dogme moments is possible for most teachers though.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Marc 3:47 am on June 6, 2015 Permalink

          No, no, I was really surprised you liked it. Thanks a lot!


  • timothyhampson 3:58 pm on June 1, 2015 Permalink | Reply  

    Coursebooks: a necessary evil? (part 1) 

    I wanted to write something last week about coursebooks but I thought it best to wait until after last nights #KELTchat. The chat actually helped me solidify some of my thoughts about coursebooks. There have been lots of really good posts on coursebooks lately which are worth taking a look at. Here are some:

    Geoff Jordan challenges the coursebook

    Rosie Bard has a few posts worth reading on coursebooks. The most recent one is here.

    Anthony Schmidt talks about some good coursebooks.

    One of the things that came up over and over in the chat yesterday was that coursebooks are ‘a necessary evil’. Something that can be bad sometimes, but we can’t get rid of them, so we should deal with it. The first part of this post deals with the ‘evil*’ bit, part two will look at if they’re necessary.

    *They’re not really evil, but the hyperbole makes the title work, so humour me, okay?

    When I began teaching I desperately needed coursebooks to tell me what to do. I worked at a private school and was (for half of my classes) just given a coursebook and told to cover certain pages in certain weeks. When I started I was very reliant on just doing everything in the book, but I started learning which activities from the coursebooks were effective and worth spending time on, and which needed to be brushed through as quickly as possible.

    Working like that was a very educational experience for me but I’m not sure that the teacher I was in the first 6 months here was really worth learning from. Students went home with workbooks full of answers, parents saw this and were happy and my boss took money from happy parents, but I’m not sure that really good learning took place. Students got better at doing coursebook type activities but struggled with speaking English in class. Eventually I got past this by reading a lot of books and blogs and heavily supplementing what was in the coursebook. Students started finding talking more English more meaningful and became more conversational. (I have some ideas about why that might be but lots of people have already done a better job of explaining why one size fits all coursebooks aren’t the ideal for improving fluency.)

    There’s obviously something wrong here. The prima face ‘winners’ here are unscrupulous academy owners, but how do things look for publishing companies? They’re also pretty peachy. Most books that a publishing company sells get sold, read, then lent to a few friends, but a coursebook sells a copy for every student every year (plus supplemental materials). Students seem to be getting a raw deal, trawling through endless one-size-fits-all grammar exercises and making little progress. Taught by inexperienced teachers like me not too long ago.

    If there’s something wrong, who is to blame? Quite a few people on Twitter (who did seem to predominately be coursebook writers, make of that what you will) wanted to blame schools exclusively and not place any blame on coursebooks and coursebook companies. I don’t think this is really fair. It seems to me like coursebook companies like to publish books that present themselves as an all in one solution. They cover reading, speaking, writing and listening, implying completeness. They’re levelled, implying that completing the book means advancing to the next level.

    This type of coursebook and the companies that promote them lead to a situation where coursebooks use the teacher as a presenter, rather than the teacher using the coursebook as a resource. In this kind of situation teacher training and planning time are seen as unimportant.   Pupils wind up with cookie cutter classes that don’t really prepare them to speak English.

    In conclusion I think that (at least some) coursebooks are pretty bad. My next post will look at some of the alternatives to coursebook reliant teaching.

    • Marc 11:15 pm on June 1, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      Hi Tim,

      I think the bad academy/prescriptive coursebook situation is a chicken-egg cycle.

      Bad managers (often with no teaching experience) get sweet talked by book salespeople and one of the points is that it reduces planning time and teaching gets standardised.

      Unfortunately, lots of learners do not care about talking about the weather or the environment. This means you have to plan something else but you have little planning time.

      As I said on Twitter yesterday, mining texts for useful language helps work within the dreaded unhelpful units but this mining can also be done with realia/authentic texts.

      Liked by 1 person

    • timothyhampson 2:20 pm on June 2, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      I haven’t got much to add but I agree entirely. You are right about being to find texts from coursebooks. I think that’s a much better way of doing things. The problem is that many coursebooks are presented as complete rather than as a resource, which is what I think creates so many problems.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Rose Bard 6:48 pm on June 2, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      Tim great post! Thanks so much for contributing to the discussion. I hope to see more and more people talking about this, challenging their assumptions and arguing against or forth. And eventually some miracle happen. Who knows.

      One thing occured to me. If CBs are so good and have everything we need to teach (well-designed and great input) why do we still have to go to long lengths at times to change it to suit the interest of our students? If you change the text, it means having to change the activities/tasks. If you do the activities in the CBs, it means you have to read or listen the text that are designed to focus on vocabulary or grammar from the text. The texts from CBs or other sort of input will always be used a pre-text for teaching something instead of uncovering the text for meaningful communication. I mean, assuming that one chooses an oral or written text for that purpose. I certainly used to do it when followed PPP framework.

      My point is, in the end it’s never going to be win-win situation. You have the lesson there but you will spend time having to prepare it all the same. I don’t know any teacher in my school who just opens the book only when they are in class. And very often they spend a long time trying to think of what game to bring to teens as reward so they can do what is in the CB. The best classes with my second year teens is when they are paired up to notedown things they like, or they have to prepare a game themselves. I mean when they are trying things out on their own, not when they have to fill up exercises.


    • teachingbattleground 6:54 am on June 3, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


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