The Contortionist Act

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.

Let’s do exercise 6

 

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…

How to use a coursebook

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?

The perfect teacher

 

 

5 thoughts on “The Contortionist Act

  1. Although I’m quite sympathetic to much of what you have said here – as well as highly amused by the tags ‘COURSE BOOKS, RANT’ – I nevertheless have a few nagging doubts about the question you conclude with: “why bother, when we can do it better, ourselves?”.

    Coursebooks are deserving of criticism for a number of reasons, but I often feel those reasons do not justify the conclusion that we need to dispense with them altogether.

    To start with, there is the question of who “we” are (beyond the immediate readers of this blog). I can’t help noticing that often the people most keen to see coursebooks thrown in the bin are often also highly experienced teachers – whether this is the intention or not, it can therefore come across as bit of a chest-thumping display of that superior knowledge and experience over more novice teachers new to the profession (i.e. ‘What? You don’t use a coursebook, do you? Yawn! How yesterday’).

    But there’s another issue, perhaps even more important, which is one of harmonisation. Schools use coursebooks because it is the coursebook that is meant to signify that there is a degree of standardisation – more or less – across the school or institution. So that Adele in Group 01, Berenice in Group 02, and Carlos in Group 03 – again more or less – get the same or almost the same bang for their bucks.

    That idea of standardisation is even more important if there is an assessment at the end because it’s no use having radically different courses if all the students have to take (and more importantly pass) the same exam at the end of the programme.

    I’m not at all advocating for ‘cookie cutter’ lessons. In fact, I am fully supportive of the idea that teachers with their students should feel free to make the standardised course their own by adapting it to their own needs and interests – the kinds of contortionism that seems to make you feel uncomfortable.

    Finally, I was curious about this:

    > “Students often expect coursebooks [ … ]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”.

    This really caught my eye, but then you left off talking about the student experience to focus on the experience of the teacher. That’s not a criticism by the way, you had a point to make and you made it.

    But I would nevertheless be interested to know more about how you (would) deal with students getting “antsy” and this feeling of “When are we going to crack open that book?”

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      Great response!

      I understand the need for standardization. There are standards, and they need to be met to ensure students are learning and teachers are teaching. Coursebooks are one way of doing this. But, is it the only way? I don’t have an answer, but I feel like there must be alternatives. Material creation does take time, and thinking that a busy group of teachers can work together to make their own book or curriculum from scratch is ridiculous – I don’t wish to argue that.

      But, I think standards in some contexts (more local, more flexibility) can be achieved in a number of ways, and don’t necessarily require the same even approaches. For example, teacher A can use a writing coursebook to teach the essay genre while teacher B can use a set of reading texts, a few models, and accomplish the same goal. Now, that’s simply meeting the standards. However, I feel that teacher B may be able to accomplish the same more efficiently and more effectively (and more interestingly) than a coursebook, and likely accomplish and teach so much more along the way.

      This leads to your second point – they can do this because they are probably more experienced. I wrote that “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.” When I wrote this, I did have the experienced teacher in mind. So, coursebooks do act like a sort of training wheel. Maybe the problem is that they never come off? Also, what if teachers learned to teach from the beginning without a book? Would this be a non-issue? Maybe we need more examples of teaching without a book (and by this, I don’t mean in the Dogme style of ELT). I am experimenting with this myself and hope to share my struggles and successes so that there are examples out there.

      Which brings me to your final, valid point:
      “But I would nevertheless be interested to know more about how you (would) deal with students getting “antsy” and this feeling of “When are we going to crack open that book?”

      Keep in mind, I DO use coursebooks. From day 1 students have their books out. I tell them to put them away. Day two comes and the books are out. I have them put them away. Sometimes it takes a week before we finally crack them open, but every day before that time, when we start class the books are out. There is that feeling – and maybe I am projecting – that real learning doesn’t start until the plastic is taken off and the spine is creased. I try to stress to students that the book is just a tool and we will use it when it is helpful, we will not go in order, and we certainly won’t finish it. I don’t know if they are skeptical at first, but by the end, most enjoy the lack of use of the book – keep in mind, it gets used. On evaluations my supplemental materials (which often end up replacing the book by the end of a course) are often rated more highly than the book.

      As an experience teacher, I feel my time would be better spent building my own box than fitting into that of others. Maybe it’s not for everyone, and I can accept that, but I think if some get experience teaching in a different way, maybe they’d find it better.

      • Thank you for taking the time to get back to me with a detailed answer.

        “Coursebooks are one way of doing this. But, is it the only way? [ …] So, coursebooks do act like a sort of training wheel. Maybe the problem is that they never come off? Also, what if teachers learned to teach from the beginning without a book? Would this be a non-issue?”
        It may seem obvious, but this very much depends on the context someone is teaching in – of native speakers who take an initial qualification such as a CELTA only a relatively small proportion are actually interested – at least initially – in becoming a teacher. I don’t have the numbers to hand, but I think the number of people doing CELTA each year is in excess of 10,000 and the number of DELTA candidates 500-600.

        When I did my CELTA in 1996, I was encouraged to ‘Select, Reject, Adapt’ (SRA) and on that particular course, I created all of my own materials for every lesson that I was observed on. This was something that I was enthusiastic about doing. Needless to say, spending 4 ½ hours preparing a 20-30 minute long lesson did not exactly prepare me for a 22.5 contact hour week so inevitably I had to rely on coursebooks hugely at the very beginning. It was a few months after that that I was finally able to do the SRA I had enjoyed doing.

        The point I’m trying to make is that I was one of those people who made an effort to try and professionalise and while of course I was hardly the only one there were far more people in my staffroom (when they were there at all that is) who had quite other reasons for taking a job at a language school. It’s for the latter teachers (and more importantly their students) who benefit – I would argue – from coursebooks in such situations.

        This inevitably raises the question of native-speakerism and just why it is that so many students have a strong preference for a native speaker teacher who may have little training (or even none at all) and who have no plans to be a teacher full-time over non-native speaker teachers who not always but often have studied language and pedagogy at university level and over many years. But that’s a discussion for another day (though I will add that sometimes the case for NNESTs can be over-stated – there are many NNEST teachers in the education system who fail to deliver what students feel they want and need and which provides the impetus to seek out a native speaker).

        “As an experienced teacher, I feel my time would be better spent building my own box than fitting into that of others.”
        Absolutely.

        • Anthony Schmidt says:

          I think there are a number of ways to go about not using a coursebook. There is Dogme, which is essentially having a germ of an idea and letting the lesson flow from there. It is absolutely not for beginners, and lacks consistency across multiple lessons. I have toyed with it, but do not like it.

          There is what you mentioned: SRA – the first I am hearing of it, but it does sound like good advice for a novice teacher.

          And then there is the method I use, which is to find a text (reading, audio) with which to ground the lessons and then exploit it in a number of different ways. The hardest part was always selecting the text, but once you have a good source of texts (e.g. Newsela, The Great Courses), then the rest of the time is just working on the materials. For example, from a single 30 minute lecture, I can generate about a week’s worth of lessons (5 days) with minimal effort. Most of the time involves actually listening and analyzing the text for vocab, language use, etc. I can then generate a number of activities with minimal time because they are part of the repertoire I have already establish through experience: pre-teaching vocab through games, note-taking practice, cloze activity, critical thinking practice, speaking practice, etc. I mentioned some of these ideas in this post: http://www.anthonyteacher.com/blog/working-with-long-videos.

          I’m wondering if, were a text + exploitation model like this taught in place of something like SRA, if it could serve as a good model of material writing minus insane prep time. A rumination for another time perhaps, as I don’t have a fully fleshed out model to explain yet.

          To your second point about native-speakerism, there is so much to say there, but in sum, I believe I agree with your ideas! The teacher-traveler vs professional teacher issue is a major one. I started as the former and ended as the latter, so my thoughts on this topic are a bit in the air.

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