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.

 

On PARSNIPs…or how to offend without offending

I recently saw an article announcing the publication of a free e-book called “PARSNIPS in ELT: Stepping out of the comfort zone (Vol. 1).” This book promises to help teachers and students discuss taboo and controversial issues avoided in most classes and all coursebooks. These issues – Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms, and Pork – form the acronym of PARSNIPs, something I have discussed before here.

Genevieve White wrote an interesting article reviewing the “PARSNIP” book. To her, the book did not meet its claim of helping students and teachers “step out of the comfort zone.” In her view, the book falls short because it seems to be too caught up in the current trend of shocking people by not hurting their feelings, depowering controversial issues to make sure everyone everyone talks nice and no one gets offended.

After looking at the book, I have to agree with her. This book may serve as a great stepping stone or companion for those who want to dip their toes in PARSNIP-flavored water, but it really is not a book that will make students or teachers challenge anything.

My question, though, is whether a PARSNIPs book should even exist? PARSNIPs lessons deal with controversial, challenging, and complex topics. This requires several elements that coursebooks, and even resource books (such as the “Taboos and Issues” book Genevieve mentions), cannot bring to the classroom. PARSNIPS requires understanding learners, their backgrounds, and how much you can challenge or offend them. As she writes, you don’t want to make your learners “feel distressed or uncomfortable in what should be a pleasant environment.” There is a difference between academically challenging their opinions (academically “offending” them) and making them feel under attack.

Another important element is relevancy. I don’t think you can walk into class and say “OK, today we’re gonna learn about gay marriage.” There is nothing wrong with this topic, but unless the topic is connected to something else, such as a student experience, recent news, an interesting discussion in which it arose organically, previous comments students made, or even as a supplement to a coursebook unit – if it is not connected to something, then it seems like you are bringing in controversy for controversy’s sake. Controversy needs context.

One final element that I think is important is recency. As in real life, we usually discuss controversial issues when they arise, are in the media, or are being talked about by everyone else. This is very much related to the context idea above. Talking about recent topics that are in the news and on everyone’s mind will make any PARSNIPs lesson more meaningful. This is also another reason why I think the idea of a PARSNIPs book is bound to fail. And one doesn’t need a book. The news media (textual and visual) is filled with relative, recent, and controversial topics. For ELLs, Newsela is a great resource for this. Newsela offers lots of news articles – from the mundane to the controversial – at a variety of different proficiency levels.

Overall, I think the attempt to bring more attention to PARSNIPs-based lessons is noble, but without recognizing these elements, a book like this is bound to fail, or at least not meet the full potential it hopes to. PARSNIPs is not a five minute lesson. It’s not a lesson in a can, a lesson for busy teachers, or a filler. PARSNIPs is responsive teaching, and responsive teaching requires no coursebooks, no resource books, and no prefabricated lessons – responsive teaching requires students, teachers, and meaningful content that is relevant and current.

These posts and books come at an interesting time in the world of education. Just as higher education is discussing trigger warnings, some trends in ELT seem to be pushing in the opposite direction, purposely wanting to shock students. This warrants a whole different discussion which I do not feel qualified to participate in at the moment. However, it is a discussion that needs to take place.

My Favorite Coursebooks (or: Not All Coursebooks Are the Same)

There is a very lively discussion right now on Twitter and in some blogs (ex: here and here) about the value of coursebooks. What is being presented seems to come down to an either/or fallacy in which coursebooks are taken to be something monolithic that you either support or your don’t – that are either good or bad. These arguments also assume that every coursebook is the same, and all teachers utilize them the same way. All of this is, of course, nonsense, as the value of coursebooks and how they are utilized is not an easy thing to decide and is not uniform. The whole coursebook debate is something very complex that is being too simplistically argued. Furthermore, in my view, you cannot simply categorically reject all coursebooks, as coursebooks don’t all fit in the same category! That is precisely the point of my post today.

This debate has occurred many times, but Geoff Jordan’s excellent presentation at InnovateELT seems to be the catalyst of the most recent online debate. To summarize his main points, he argues that coursebooks have no value because they make these three assumptions:

  • that the declarative knowledge taught in these coursebooks, especially in terms of grammar, will lead to procedural knowledge;
  • that languages are learned by accumulating rules;
  • that learners learn what they are taught when they are taught it.

What Geoff Jordan is making here are valid arguments, with evidence to support them. The problem is, however, they cannot be levied against every coursebook. Take, for example, my two favorite coursebooks: Sourcework and Contemporary Topics.


 

Sourcework is a coursebook dedicated to helping students learn how to write research papers. It provides practice in research, summarizing, paraphrasing, making citations, organizing research papers, using evidence to make strong arguments, etc. It provides numerous research articles to help guide students in building their first research paper. I have used it numerous times on its own and to supplement other texts. It remains my favorite advanced writing text. How does it hold up to Geoff’s argument?

1. Assumption: declarative knowledge leads to procedural knowledge

You will not find grammar or vocabulary in this book. Yet, you will find declarative knowledge. Model sentences (e.g. paraphrased sentences), model paragraphs (e.g. introductions or body paragraphs with evidence) and model research papers fill the book, along with explanations of the why and how of writing techniques, style choices, APA citation formulae, etc. Will this translate into procedural knowledge? Possibly, but the book does not make the assumption that a little practice will lead students there. In fact, the book makes no assumption at all – it’s a book. Only the teacher can make such an assumption, and if they do, clearly they are wrong. The book is a guide, as is the teacher.

The point of the book is to give students a lot of writing practice (structured and free, with tons of teacher feedback) and a source of models and support for writing their own research papers. There is no guarantee that students will be able to complete this course and coursebook, toss it in the fire, and write beautiful research papers with nary a peek at some book or website to assist them. Then again, no course, coursebook, or teacher can promise that. (And even native speakers need help in writing these kinds of papers!) As Geoff has said, the link between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge is not clearly established, nor are the means to move between the two. So, there are few instances where we can guarantee that students internalize and automatize everything that is taught, whether they are in a grammar translation or dogme classroom. All we can do is provide meaningful practice, feedback, and revision – and pray that it works (spoiler: it often does).

2. Assumption: languages are learned by accumulating rules

There are no rules taught in this book, but there are skills, so this assumption could still apply to them. It begins with summarizing and paraphrasing, moving to researching, outlining, planning, writing, editing, etc. – what’s known as the writing process. Do these skills have to be learned in order to be a good writer? No. But, the skills do represent the usual order people take when they begin to write a research paper – perfect scaffolding for a fledgling university student. They read research, summarize and paraphrase it to better understand it, generate arguments, plan and draft, and finally revise their papers. If anything, the structure of this coursebook is simply following the natural writing process that most people – students and professors alike – go through. Nevertheless, the skills do kind of accumulate and culminate in some end product. Therefore, the assumption above is somewhat met. Here, writing skills accumulate in order to produce an end product. Does it devalue the book itself, the course, the teacher, or the skills learned? I highly doubt it.

3. Assumption: learners learn what they are taught when they are taught it

This book recycles over and over again the skills of the previous chapters. It is working on the assumption that you must constantly use all skills to write a research paper effectively. For example, in looking at body paragraphs and integrating evidence, one needs to not only find evidence to use, but decide whether to summarize or paraphrase it, and then figure out how to go about it. Clearly this is asking students to recall, re-apply, and recycle a fundamental writing skill (which may be why summarizing and paraphrasing were selected as one of the first chapters).

Beyond the coursebook, what will the students be writing in class? Will they write a single research paper and that’s it? Probably not. A good teacher would make sure students write multiple research papers, recalling, re-applying, and recycling all the writing skills they have learned while receiving support and feedback all the way. Unless students are truly only given the chance to practice these skills in a singular one-off fashion, this coursebook clearly does not meet the above assumption.


 

Contemporary Topics is a multi-level academic listening and speaking course (I believe they have 3 levels of books) that offers short 5-10 minute academic lectures (audio and video) as well as model study group student discussions (audio and video) to accompany vocabulary and listening skill building exercises, as well as group discussion techniques and presentation ideas. Each unit represents common academic courses that students will likely encounter (e.g. science, psychology, linguistics, anthropology). Each unit also follows the same structure, which, in truth can be a bit dull. However, the best thing about this book is that its sparseness and brevity of activities, which leaves it wide open for deeper exploration, adaptation, and supplementation. I believe this book was left intentionally sparse, knowing that the teacher will teach what students need to know in terms of grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary etc. It is up to the students and the teacher to explore the language – the book just gives a source for academic listening. However, it is still a coursebook, so how does it fare under the assumptions?

1. Assumption: declarative knowledge leads to procedural knowledge

There is no declarative knowledge being taught in this book. There are no grammar rules or pronunciation points. No why or hows here. Just some vocab exposure and listening practice – lots of it. Maybe one can argue that this book makes the assumption that hearing vocabulary will lead to true mastery of that vocabulary? If it does, that assumption, of course, is incorrect. However, I believe it is working on the assumption that multiple exposures to vocabulary through reading, writing, listening and speaking help cement vocabulary. I believe this because the vocabulary is presented in these different modes, and it is recycled throughout the book.

2. Assumption: languages are learned by accumulating rules

There are no rules in this book. Nothing gets accumulated. I’m not even sure that the lectures get lexically or structurally more complex – they all seem to be at the same level of difficulty. This book is operating under the assumption that listening needs to be at an appropriate level and improving listening requires motivating listening texts and repeated exposures.

3. Assumption: learners learn what they are taught when they are taught it

This book explicitly teaches one listening strategy and one speaking strategy for each unit. For example, it may teach that keywords that speakers use for defining words or concepts (“that is,” “or,” “in other words”), and it may teach phrases for disagreeing. These are discrete skills in an otherwise holistic coursebook. However, these are secondary to the listening practice. And the listening practice affords multiple chances to recycle this knowledge. Does this book fall victim to this assumption? I’m not sure. However, I know that when I use this book, I never assume students have learned the discrete skills, so we are constantly reviewing and recycling. I also never assume the two suggested listenings are enough for the students. I get students to listen many times, to the whole lecture, to parts of the lecture, with subtitles, without subtitltes, in-class with discussions or at home for homework – we do lots of different activities that go beyond the textbook.


 

I’ve presented my two favorite coursebooks to show that Geoff’s arguments, while valid, do not apply to all textbooks. The textbooks listed above are far from perfect. No textbook is, just as no teacher, class, or student is perfect. One could argue that the textbooks I presented here are not the type of coursebooks we often refer to when making these argument. But, then, what kinds of coursebooks are we referring to? You’ll find that there is no categorical coursebook that can be argued against, and by constantly changing the parameters of what a coursebook is or isn’t, we may have slipped into a No True Scotsman fallacy.

As you read in my examples above, I never divorced the textbook from the teacher. This is because there is more to what goes on in a language class than the textbook. Teacher agency in terms of following, not-following, utilizing, supplementing and/or adapting a textbook is very important. Student agency is of equal importance. Geoff’s arguments hold up much better if they are applied to teaching in general and not to the specific tools that the teacher uses.

And, it should be obvious to all by now that there is no one correct way to teach a language. Textbook, no textbook, CLT, TBL, dogme, learning styles, data-driven learning, explicit, implicit, grammar, communication – all these are minor variables in a very complex process that we can only seem to make educated guesses at. Out of all the factors that affect teaching the most, time and time again teacher plausability seems to have one of the greatest effects. I highly recommend reading this article by NS Prabhu to learn more about teacher plausability and why there is no best teaching method.