Over nearly two decades of language teaching, I have experienced many different approaches to the use of materials in lessons. My first job after getting my Cert TESOL was at a school with vast banks of ‘supplementary material’ that had been created over the years by the teachers of each level. The best bits and pieces had been combined into a small booklet and we were expected to dip into files of original material and add to them as well to ‘supplement’ each course further. With no computers in sight in the teacher’s room that meant hundreds of hand-crafted creations (including a few of my own – click here to see my ‘early’ efforts!).
I later got a job with young learners which provided my first real exposure to glossy colourful coursebooks complete with teams of cartoon characters, usually time travellers or aliens who learned English with the kids. Moving on to secondary students, the coursebooks became heavily exam-focused packed with study skill tips, ‘grammar bites’, ‘culture corners’, and ‘phrasal with Francis,’ one of the photo story characters.
I soon became frustrated with the repetitive approach of published materials, the quickly out-dated texts, the unnatural sounding dialogues, and the over-generalised grammar ‘rules.’ When the opportunity to deign my own skills course for young learners came up, I jumped at the chance to ‘teach unplugged’ with a materials light course based on building upon the learners pre-existing knowledge and encouraging them to put their language to use.
Fast forward to the present day and I find myself in more of an enforced no coursebook situation. As an EAL teacher in an international school, I teach a mix of small group and whole class language support sessions. The current library of resources is a mix of grammar exercises and editions of books that have been around longer than I have been teaching. New titles have been evaluated and ordered but they will arrive too late to be of any use with my current classes. For the first time since the early days of my teaching career, I have started to wish I had access to coursebooks. Why?
1. They provide structure
One struggle at times this year has been putting together a coherent course. I have had plenty of short-term goals based on diagnostic tasks such as writing assignments or feedback from subject teachers, but I am conscious of the fact that overall my courses at times lack flow. We have switched themes and topics frequently to reflect emerging needs and it is not always possible to make connections to earlier lessons in the programme. Some of the better coursebooks I have used ensure a solid structure is in place, each unit building on the last with a balance of skills and plenty of recycling of key language.
2. They have plenty of optional extras
Of course, the material within the main pages of a unit may not be sufficient to facilitate understanding for every student. That is where optional extras such as the workbook, photocopiable worksheets, digital resources, and language extension tasks come in. These can be used to provide extra support as well as to challenge stronger learners. If designed well, they offer an alternative approach and different examples to those featured in the main part of the book that may well make the difference for our learners. The key point to stress here though, is that these extras are ‘optional’. I have worked in schools before where teachers, or even heads of department, have taken the stance that all the materials should be used and the poor students have ended up overloaded!
3. They save time
Taking a moment for a selfish thought, this is the main aspect I miss at present. As mentioned in my February post, finding time to stay on top of things has been a challenge at times this year and part of that comes from having to create my own materials from scratch. It is not simply a case of finding a relevant text or video clip; it is a case of having to find a text or video clip that is both age and level appropriate and contains examples of the target language to extract and analyse. Failing that, I often find myself adapting texts to include more examples or remove unnecessarily complex or lengthy sample of prose. And that’s before I even get onto designing the activities, comprehension questions, discussion points, and language summaries to go with it!
Give me a coursebook and the bulk of that work is already done. Texts, audio, and other resources are already present in suitably targeted language; the activities are already written; and the language reference sections are all there as well. Of course, to get the most out of these pre-made resources, there is still work to be done as I rarely take a coursebook page at face value. Activities will most likely need to be adapted to fit the context or challenge the learners more. Extension and consolidation exercises may be needed and a few tweaks to ensure more learner-centredness may be required but it takes much less time than sourcing everything from scratch.
4. The materials have been professionally produced and edited
I have moved on from my early hand-made efforts to become quite adept at designing worksheets and other materials now using a variety of digital applications. However, I am no graphic designer and cannot match the polish, colour, and efficient use of space of a well designed coursebook page. I am also not an editor and the odd typo or ambiguous examples may creep in unnoticed until an eagle-eyed student has questions about it. True, coursebooks may over-generalise at times or focus so much on target language that it loses an element of authenticity, but I generally find it easier to address those shortcomings than the ones in my own materials that don’t become apparent until too late (Of course, my own materials have the advantage that I can go back to them to edit and revise but that’s another discussion for another day).
5. They have engaging characters and stories
There have been plenty of groanworthy characters and stories in coursebooks I have used over the years, especially some of those aimed at teenagers with their ‘real life’ characters attempting to appear ‘cool’. Having said that, when recurring characters have been done well, they really enhance the course, adding to that sense of structure discussed earlier. In primary school situations, well thought out characters have become very popular with my classes, often featuring in the kids’ own project work and posters. Even with teens and adults, recurring video stories and skits have captured my students’ attention and become an anticipated event at the end of each unit. Not having the time nor resources to conduct my own shoot or animation session, this is something the coursebooks definitely handle better.
6. We can work around their limitations
As has been mentioned a few times now, whatever limitations a coursebook has, we can work around them. They do not have to be followed completely (though it is easy to see why some people end up doing that with the carefully laid out teacher’s books and ready-made lesson by lesson plans) nor do they need to be covered sequentially. Once we get to know our students, we can adapt and enhance the materials provided to produce a tailored learning experience. We can take advantage of the abundance of multimedia materials on offer while still incorporating our own creations and encouraging the students to take ownership of the language.
I am glad that I have had the opportunity to work both with and without coursebooks in my career. I have had the opportunity to see the advantages and disadvantages they bring along with the pros and cons of working without them. As always, it’s a matter of finding what works best for your students and your context.
What’s your view on the coursebook debate? Do you see them as an essential foundation to a course? Do you feel we can manage without them? Or do you prefer a flexible approach? Please share your ideas in the comments section!