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.