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

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.

Conclusion

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.