Yearning to Breathe Free – an anti-Coursebook reflection

I have had a love/hate relationship with coursebooks, moving every term close and closer to the “hate” side. I have written in their defense, and most recently against them, for the most part. I also enjoy indulging in the just cruelty of Geoff Jordan’s ceaseless attacks against coursebooks, with him constantly offering a summary of coursebooks’ more damning qualities: 1) they assume declarative becomes procedural knowledge1, 2) they assume language is learned in a linear fashion2, and 3) learners learn what they are taught. At the 2017 TESOL conference in Seattle, I gravitated towards sessions that dealt with subverting or suspending coursebooks or their content, in particular a session on the myths of the five paragraph essay (common coursebook fodder)

Admittedly, hate is a very strong term. Depending on the book, I find some to be useful supplements, some to be annoying, others to be a nuisance, and still others to be a downright hindrance. This term, I have been lucky enough to teach coursebook free for one of my courses – an advanced listening and speaking course that has a thematic focus on US history. I can’t explain just how liberated I feel in this course! Not having a book means I don’t have to become a contortionist, trying to fit in curricular goals, interesting content, and other important skills, all the while using the damn book because they students have it with them every day.

Instead, I’m using content in the classroom, and what I have fully realized is that textbooks are not content, and the “content” in textbooks is also not content. Because they are presented as exercises, practice, tools, they seem to be mostly disconnected from the entire purpose of language: learning and communication. They are what Leki and Carson (1997) referred to as something that serves “to infantilize our students, denying them a stance of engagement with serious and compelling subject matter”. Yes, students can learn from the texts in a book, but there is always that sense that they are in a language classroom, moving on from one page to the other, one topic to the other, without building up an substantial knowledge of a topic. Leki, in another article, argued that this topical knowledge building is an important tool for true engagement with a text. In other words, when there is a greater purpose – learning rather than practice, students are truly reading for meaning and reading to go beyond only language development skills.

So, does that mean we don’t have language practice? Nope, not at all. There is still vocabulary, there is still grammar to work with, there is still bottom-up listening practice, structured and open speaking practice, and so on. However, this language work is all done to facilitate our main goal of learning a subject rather than learning English.

So, does this mean I spend hours preparing materials? Nope, not at all. In fact, I’m actually finding that I can spend less time preparing (or contorting, as I mentioned earlier) and can go slower and offer more discussion and activities because I don’t have to rush to move from my material to the book in order to feel like student’s got their money’s worth. In fact, I think that by learning a subject through English, they are getting more bang for their buck than by finishing a few units in a coursebook.

So, does this mean I am scouring the internet for resources every week? Nope, not at all. Instead, I am using a staple of articles from Newsela, VOA History, and a lecture series from The Great Courses as my main sources of material. For example, this week, we are learning about immigration in America throughout its history. We started with several background articles on immigration, are working our way through the lecture (which includes various listening and speaking activities), and next week, we will be reading about Emma Lazarus, who penned the famous lines “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” in the poem “The New Colossus”, which was written to help fundraise the Statue of Liberty and can be found in the museum at its base. This article references Donald Trump and makes a great transition to understanding the immigration issues of the present. We’ll also be watching a clip from The Search for General Tso to look at Chinese immigration and how to explain why Chinese people make up 1.5% of our population, yet there are three times more Chinese restaurants than McDonalds. Needless to say, the content is useful and numerous.

I was yearning to breathe free, and now, like Lady Liberty, the chain lies broken at my feet. I am wondering if I can simply stop here. When I think of all the ways I could teach a course without a coursebook, Lady Liberty’s torch burns bright in my mind!

Pryjatys hen Belma

Notes

  1. This is one of Jordan’s arguments that I tend to disagree with, as Skill Acquisition theory is a well researched area that does show a connection between practice (with feedback) and the internalization of a skill.
  2. Sometimes I wonder if Jordan is only referring to grammar books, or books that rely heavily on a grammar-based syllabus. Does this particular argument hold true for a book based on a functional syllabus or a topical syllabus? What about books with little to no grammar? His point, I think, is that there needs to be a greater focus on emergent grammar, and that can never be found in a book.

 

One thought on “Yearning to Breathe Free – an anti-Coursebook reflection

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I find myself more in the “loathing” camp. I teach a course for conditionally-admitted undergraduate students who come in at a WIDE range of levels due to their superior TOEFL/IELTS abilities -_-. Textbooks have been THE number one issue in my courses thus far; they are always too high or too low for whatever cohort I have at a given time. Currently we have had quite a population shift and have agreed that we need to take another look at curriculum and materials. I have been piloting with ARCs this semester to see how they could work as a replacement to traditional textbook in conjunction with a coursepack. What texts have you been using in your program for higher level reading courses?

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