It’s no secret that a large number of people dislike coursebooks, myself among them (though not always). Through blogposts, argument and even research, we have expressed our dissatisfaction with them and suggested alternatives and remedies. Yet, the fact remains that many of us – those who find ourselves dissatisfied with coursebooks, railing against them online and off – still use them. I am lucky enough to have a director that allows me to innovate and teach sans coursebook (“going commando” as I call it). Yet, the truth is, I still use a coursebook for most of my course. Even if we are free to adapt and supplement, many of us still use one. Some have argued that pressure from big publishers forces coursebooks into teachers’ hands, but I don’t buy that argument. I think the reason coursebooks persist is because they are part of teaching culture. And this teaching culture expects teachers to be contortionists. Let me explain.
Students often expect coursebooks. Other teachers expect them, too. They are often already there (in inventory, perhaps). There is this unspoken obligation to use them. There is this feeling in the air of “When are we going to crack open that book?”. If you don’t do it on the first day or the second, students get antsy. They have it out at the beginning of class, just waiting to be cracked open. Coursebooks are like some antiquated cultural habit we have that has long ago lost its purpose but still persists – think superstitions like walking under a ladder or not having a 13th floor, daylight savings time, or tipping.
So, use the books I do – often with great aches and pains. I find myself a contortionist as I try to intermix within these books what I know to be both interesting and effective teaching strategies and activities. If I used these books as they appear, or as they are intended to be used via the “teaching manual”, my courses would be in sorry shape, as would my students. The books lack substance, they lack life, and often, they lack pedagogy.
But no one treats these books as the Gospel, right? We don’t follow them blindly, continuing from page 1 to page 300 in an unthinking manner, unit by unit, exercise by exercise. That would be insane and I think this argument is facetious.
So, how do people use these books? Adapt, supplement. We are all expected to do this. It’s taken as a given: this is what good teachers do. But why? Why are we given an imperfect tool and told to use it by finding ways to fit more tools into its jagged nooks and ragged crannies? We find ourselves bending and twisting to the will at the coursebook while trying to subvert it with more effective learning material, like some sort of radical contortionist. (I’m using the metaphor of a contortionist, but the phrase polishing a turd comes to mind.)
Rather than making our own materials, we waste that creative energy fitting into someone else’s box. It is neither our creation nor based on what we know to be good teaching. And where do learner needs fit in to these books? Where does research from the past decades fit in, showing that:
- language is not learned step-by-step, accumulating grammar points until one is fluent;
- writing should be based on sources (text, audio, video, or primary), as that is what often occurs in the real world, especially in university;
- learners need extensive and intensive practice in all skills;
- listening is as much about decoding as it is about metacognitive strategies;
- phonology plays an important role in listening and reading;
- vocabulary needs to recycled as much as possible to be learned;
- guessing from context is likely not that useful unless learners have a massive vocabulary;
- critical thinking needs to be practiced, and it’s not just asking about opinion;
- there are more genres than just “essay”;
- oral corrective feedback plays a big role in speaking accuracy;
- vocabulary is not a list of words, but also their collocations and colligations;
- and so on…
There is the argument that making our own materials takes longer. I disagree. If you have a good source from which to take most of your materials, and know how to exploit them well (from comprehension to decoding to textual and linguistic analysis to application), it actually takes less time. For example, I spent less time scavenging and developing materials last term without a coursebook than I have this term trying to incorporate writing from reading in a course book that tries but fails to make students “fully prepared…moving from brainstorming to final draft.”
I have worked with vocabulary that seems useless or chosen at random. Words and concepts that are not recycled. Exercises that don’t offer enough practice. Practice that doesn’t seem rooted in real life. Examples that are lacking. Context that is missing. Readings that cause narcolepsy. Models that are not models. Inauthenticity in text and task.
No book is perfect. So we must adapt. Supplement. Work around the issues. Bend ourselves up and down, over and under, to fit good learning into poor design. But, that begs the question: why bother, when we can do it better, ourselves?