Research Bites: Coursebooks and EAP, part 1

I was more than happy to participate in “The Great Coursebook Debate” of 2015, chiming in with my own thoughts that not all coursebooks are equal (or equally bad), especially in EAP. It was my view that to demonize them all was to make a ridiculous and illogical claim. Though my ideas enjoyed some praise, I may have written too much, too soon. I stumbled upon two articles that seem to somewhat contradict my view on the subject. These articles offer unique, well-researched perspectives on the issues of coursebooks that are not likely to be found on the typical blog. In this post, I’ll summarize the first article, which analyzes the concept of an EAP textbook from anti-coursebook and corpus-based perspectives.

(note, the article uses the word “textbook” rather than “coursebook,” which, for many, are interchangeable)

Harwood, N. (2005). What do we want EAP teaching materials for?. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 4(2), 149-161.

First, Harwood explores anti- and pro-textbook arguments, drawing on research from Richards, Hyland, Swales, and other well-known researchers in ELT.

  • The anti-textbook perspectives can be seen as either strong — a rejection of all commercially published ELT materials — or weak — finding most materials unsatisfactory, but not against the textbook “in principle”.
  • Anti-textbook critics find that textbooks often present a discrepancy between what language is taught and what language is actually used.
    • Particularly relevant to EAP, studies have found that what textbooks teach about academic writing does not, in fact, represent how academics actually write.
    • This is likely due to the lack of research that goes into coursebook writing, despite claims to the contrary. John Swales and others have argued that these books seem to be based more on intuition and educated guesses than research.
      • Writing deadlines and publisher pressure may be one reason for this.
      • The fact that coursebook writing is seen as low-status rather than scholarly may also be a reason.
    • In general, it is felt that textbooks are seen as unnecessary authorities (especially when compared to locally published or self-made materials) when they are very likely pedagogically unsound
  • Pro-textbook perspectives typically claim that textbooks serve more as “recipes,” “bridges,” or sources of creativity rather than an instruction manual.
    • The syllabus provided in a coursebook is seen as a logically and sequentially organized plan that shows clear paths and goals
    • Textbooks are also seen as time-saving, especially since teachers developing their own materials inadvertently create materials and activities that are already published, essentially “reinventing the wheel” – which requires too much of a teacher’s time.

Then, he reviews corpus-based EAP textbook analyses to further understand the validity of these materials.

  • In general, corpus studies have found a number of issues with EAP materials. Namely, they do not represent the language usage of experts in academia.
    • For example, numerous articles have concluded that EAP textbooks’ treatment of modals is sub par. These materials either don’t teach modals enough or dismiss modal usage (e.g. hedging) as unnecessary despite corpus research finding that modals are ubiquitous in scholarly writing.
    • Some textbooks, such as Swales and Feak’s “Academic Writing for Graduate Students” actually ignored or underrepresented a number of lexical items which turned out to be used quite often academia.
      • However, Swale and Feak’s coursebook was written before corpus linguistics was established.
    • The claim that EAP coursebooks teach genre across the disciplines is also not represented in the corpora, which show that academic writing is too varied.
    • The conclusion here is that most books do not represent how experts actually use language. However, Harwood then questions the very notion that learner materials should be based on expert language use.
      • Harwood makes the argument that student writing and expert writing are completely different.
      • Comparing what second language learners are writing to corpora based on published journal articles seems inappropriate
      • Corpus-based analyses of EAP textbooks should be based on more diverse corpora that take into account student writings at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Harwood concludes from these findings that EAP textbooks are inadequate because they are not based on research and are therefore pedagogically unsound. Hardwood argues that the weak anti-textbook perspective is likely the proper perspective to take: textbooks can be useful if they are good, but none are actually good. Instead of dumping textbooks altogether, more effort should be put into improving their quality by consulting proper corpora and appropriate applied linguistics literature. Harwood identifies one such book that may fit the bill: “English in Today’s Research World” by Swales and Feak (2000). This book includes discussion of informal language use in academic writing such as personal pronouns. It also asks students to become active researchers, analyzing genre and discourse in their fields.

Harwood’s article was published in 2005, and the corpus studies he references were contemporary for the time or older still. So, the question is: is the corpus-based critique of EAP textbooks still valid? In part 2, I’ll be summarizing another slightly more recent article that takes a different perspective on EAP coursebooks.