Wednesday, 14 October 2009

In defence of course books

The blogosphere seems to be buzzing at the moment with reasons for not liking course books – most notably coming from Kalinago English (here, here and here), but also this wonderful parody of Headway on the TEFL Tradesman (although I’d warn sensitive readers that the humour is very close to the edge). Now, of course there’s plenty wrong with many course books, but that’s the same with any market for goods or services – there are good items and less good items, items of mixed quality and some truly dreadful items. But that doesn’t mean the whole concept is rotten.

Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I? – I’m an editor and writer and I’m seriously hoping course books will one day pay my mortgage and enable me to spend more time at home with my kids (and less time with other people’s kids). But I also think this is very true for me as a teacher … especially as a teacher of business English and ESP.

First of all, there have been some great books. You can read my article about two of my favourite old classics, Business Opportunities and Business Objectives, both by Vicki Hollett, here. What I liked about these books was the way they approached and practised grammar in a very systematic way, with plenty of personalised discussions and role-plays designed to practise whatever grammar point was the focus of the unit. The functional language syllabus was also excellent.

Secondly, and this relates closely to my debate on non-experts in ESP, certain course books have opened up new fields of ESP to non-expert teachers. The best example here is International Legal English, which really did transform the teaching of LE for many many teachers. Where before we had to make do with home-made materials of variable authenticity, quality and usefulness, now we had a solid syllabus and authoritative answers to guide us as teachers. Even more important, we now had realistic situational dialogues to listen to and to use as models for our students’ speaking.

Of course there are flaws in the book (just as there are flaws in BOpps and BObjs) – things that I would have done differently, exercises which don’t work as well as they could, but overall this is an incredibly important book. (Again, I don’t want to sound like a salesman – I know I have a kind of vested interest, having written the teacher’s book – but as a teacher I can’t help comparing the standard of my teaching of legal English before and after ILE was published.)

That was the guiding principal behind the Cambridge English for … series, but again I’m wary of sounding like a salesman.

Now I’ll be the first to admit there’s a lot to be said for course-book-free teaching. (I’ll avoid calling it dogme, because I use this technique as part of a course-book-led syllabus, which I’m sure goes against the dogma of dogme). I had a one-to-one student earlier this year who thrived on long discussions about her work, with error correction and spontaneous input from me. It was very satisfying for both of us. But it only worked because she was an expert in her field (IP law) and a naturally talkative person (also, I humbly admit, it helped that I knew more or less what she was talking about, thanks to my experience in this field, and was able to interact intelligently). It also helped that I always had plenty of teaching materials in my bag ready to use if and when the conversation dried up or stopped being useful.

But that wouldn’t have worked with my other students – my less experienced lawyers, my less talkative one-to-one, my low level group ...

Earlier this year I had two business groups that I was teaching without a course book. For the first few weeks, it was wonderfully liberating for all of us. I had plenty of texts and discussions and home-made exercises and student-generated exercises. But then the courses started to drag … and we all wished we had a course book.

Anyway, for most of my teaching, I need a course book to provide: 
  • expertise;
  • listenings – semi-authentic situational dialogues;
  • language input;
  • a springboard for discussions – even lesson-length discussions that go off at a wonderful tangent;
  • ideas to practise the language;
  • a sense of progress – both for my students and for their employers;
  • a sense of structure – a psychological crutch that we were having a course, not just lessons (see my thoughts on DRIFT here);
  • and, last but not least, a fall-back, a safety net, for when the ideas run out and you still have 20 minutes to fill.

OK, that last one may come as a shock to certain wonderful teachers, but I’ve had the sick-stomach feeling enough times. My wonderful worksheet, intended to see me through 60 minutes, has limped on for 40 and the students have had enough. Or it was too difficult. Or too easy. It’s at times like these that the trusty course book pops up like a loyal Saint Bernard to rescue you from the deepest, snowiest crevasse.

(Oh no, I’m getting into metaphor. I’m really sorry about that. It won’t happen again.)

Anyway, I’m glad dogme is recognised as a legitimate and solid approach / technique / methodology. I was getting sick of trying to justify to observers and even some students why all my lessons started with about half an hour of student-generated discussion and language work. But I think course books have their place, and would be sorely (Soar-ly? … Oh no, it’s ELT puns now!) missed.


  1. hmmm.... but Jeremy we don't need a course book specifically to fall back on - it means anything we've brought with us could do that.

    Now, don't get me wrong, I do - I have used course books - and I see their value, it's just they're not the be and end all I guess.

    And I should say also, not buttering you up, ESP books are incredibly helpful for providing the vocabulary and structure especially for teachers who aren't sure what they're doing in this area.

    ;-) K

  2. Sums up my viewpoint very well. I'd add:

    - You'd be surprised how many teachers who hate textbooks are happy to illegally photocopy pages from them to help supplement (or evenly make up) their course. If you work in a school that is strict on copyright law, it's a lot easier to skip bits in a book than completely do without one
    - It does the bits that you don't want to do, which in my case is homework exercises, listening texts and progress texts
    - Dealing with the restrictions of a textbook makes me more creative, whereas the complete freedom to do anything makes me rely on my old favourites or go into a deep philosophical debate with myself about whether I can justify any of the choices I make ever

  3. Karenne

    Generally those sick-stomach lessons coincide with the days when all I have in my bag are old tissues and pen tops.

    I realise I should be as well-prepared as you, the original dogme-teacher-who-prepares. In fact I usually am, but I find that adds to the stress: I end up planning three or four lessons for each one I actually teach in order to have a bag full of goodies ready to pull out depending on how the lesson is going, but in fact many of those lessons never actually get taught. A huge waste of time.

    Much better (from a selfish teacher-centred point of view) to have someone else do that for you.

    But I'm glad you apprediate the value of ESP course books. Can I interest you in some good deals?

    Alex: That's a really good point about photocopying. A course without either books or illegal copies would be quite a struggle for quite a lot of teachers.

    And your last point is spot on: I'm quite good at keeping the conversation going and thinking of new things to talk about, and my students are pretty good at it too, but the course book brings in a third person, the writer, with yet more interesting ideas and topics (as well as a few duff ones, of course, like "food").

    If you take that as your starting point, you can end up with wonderful student-centred lessons. But without that initial spark from the book, you could easily end up talking about work and 'how was your weekend' over and over again.

    Karenne will disagree, of course ...

  4. I lost my really long, cool comment ;-(

    Yes I disagree... when you make classes a series and follow up one conversation with another and another, you never run out of things to talk about.


  5. Ah yes, I've got a special rule set up on blogger that only allows long, cool comments from me.

    (Seriously - sorry about that. I know how you feel. I once lost about 2 hours' work when I tried to change the font size of a wonderful long post, but somehow after "select all" I deleted everything. The program autosaved and all was lost. No way back. Evil program.)

    I don't think we'll ever convince each other, Karenne. I have no doubt you can make this technique work brilliantly and get really good results. Perhaps I could too. But I suspect that says more about your people-skills and perhaps your students' attitudes (and that of those who pay for the lessons).

    I'm very happy with my own eclectic way of teaching - a bit of book, a bit of chat, a bit of worksheet, a bit of game, a bit of role-play ... It works for me and my students.

    Cheers, and please do write up that long cool comment if you get the time and energy ... either here or on your won blog. (Tech tip: maybe write it first in MS Word and then paste it in ...)

  6. Or as you are writing (and especially just before you press Post Comment), just highlight, right click and copy every couple of minutes. If it does mess up, this can just be pasted into the Post a Comment box to try again, or into Word to save if it's really not working and you want to try again later

  7. Good idea Alex ...

    The danger zone seems to be when you click 'post comment', so as long as you copy before that, everything should be fine.

    (I'm sure Karenne's loving all this tech advice, especially coming from me, who can't even add hyperlinks to comments yet).

  8. A little late here, but I definitely fall more on the "textbooks are okay i guess" side of the debate as opposed to the "coursebooks are the devil".

    don't they tell everyone who passes through a TEFL certificate class that a coursebook is never enough, that they have to Add, Adapt, or...oh, hell there were three A's, I can't remember the third...

    That having been said, I'll have you know I just received a box of four "Cambridge English in..." books to test and review for Just so you know, so far so good! :)

  9. Many, thanks for your very kind comments about BOpps and BObjs, both here and elsewhere. When I’ve recovered from my surprise, I’d like to thank you properly, but meanwhile, I'd like to chime in with your eloquent defence of course books. In particular, I’d like to pick up on the ideas of a springboard for discussion and a sense of progression and structure.
    Speaking is the key skill for many professional English learners. In a pre-course survey of more than 500 learners that I totted up years ago, 96% named speaking as a top skill that they wanted to practice. If I remember rightly, listening was about 52% and reading was 25%. Writing was only 17%, but it was a long time ago and I bet that’d be higher now because of emails. This means a lot of class time needs to be devoted to speaking activities and any materials we or our students take into class need to be springboards for discussions.
    Like you, I reckon when I'm teaching short courses, creating them on the hoof is often a good way to go. We need to be plugging the major 'lacks' as Hutchinson and Walters might have put it, and I don’t know a better way of working out what they might be than by listening to the students in action.
    But also like you, I’ve met lots of pretty advanced students who want to check their grammar – not the frillier bits that we might find in advanced exams but more often some pretty basic stuff. I can’t rely on students to provide the content for that –it’s stuff they feel they’re lacking after all.
    There’s an abundance of controlled gap-fill grammar stuff about. It’s all well and good but I don’t think relevant sections of Murphy-style exercises (book or web based) are going to solve the students’ main problem. They want speaking opportunities where they can put the grammar into action. Relying on youtube videos, articles or whatever else comes up to provide that practice seems like more of a long shot to me. They might provide it or they might not. But someone writing a course book will have tried to structure the speaking tasks so it does provide it, and that should increase the odds a good bit. What with that and the recycling, (practice, practice, practice) I think that’s why course books can provide a sense of progression to learners.
    That said of course, it always depends on the students, but we all know that anyway. Hope you had a great time at IATET and look forward to reading more.

  10. Nicky
    Thanks for joining the discussion. I remember from my own traumatic CELTA course (or CTEFLA, as it was then) that we had to adapt the course books so thoroughly for our observed lessons that there was barely any trace of the original genius of Headway Pre-Int left in the lessons. I think the third A after ADD and ADAPT was BIN or DITCH or something like that.

    When I started teaching properly (if you can call it that, after just a month of psychological torture at IH Picadilly), I was amazed to discover that teachers were actually allowed to follow the book, with lesson plans consisting of little more than 1. Check hwk 2. p31 3. p32 4. Game TB p16 5. Hwk WB p28.

    Of course we need a balance, but there's no need to go over the top. At that stage in my career, I have no doubt that Jan and Liz Soars were far better at planning lessons than I was.

    Glad to hear you're checking out the series. Note that it's Cambridge English for ... (not Cambridge English in ...). Looking forward (nervously) to the review.

    Vicki: I have nothing really to add - I agree with you completely. You've reminded me of a student I once had, super fluent, very confident, very senior manager, but who was desperate to tighten up her grammar. She knew the theory (so Murphy wouldn't have helped much) but couldn't use it in fluent speech. So I put her on BOpps - even though on paper she was way above upper int, and it worked a treat.

    The point is this: students perform at their own level of fluency, so as long as the speaking/grammar practice activities are relevant, personalised and varied, everyone can benefit, whatever their level of fluency and vocab. (Not sure if that makes any sense, but i know what I mean ...)

    I'm not actually at IATET, by the way. I'm in Brno as part of a tour of the Czech and Slovak Republics. 2 presentations done, 2 to go, and so far so good. I'm glad you mentioned Hutchinson and Walters' focus on LACKS - that's a key part of my presentations.

    Right, better get out and explore Brno ..


  11. Just to let you know that the review I did of Cambridge English for...(got it right this time!) is up at, if you're curious. Don't worry, it's, like, 99% positive!