This post is based on material originally used in our Delta Module One course, and looks at the advantages and disadvantages of basing your course on a textbook, the alternatives to doing so, and how the textbook might be modified to overcome the disadvantages.
a) i. What are the advantages of basing courses on textbooks?
1. Richards points out that they provide structure and a syllabus for a program. Without textbooks a program may have no central core and learners may not receive a syllabus that has been systematically planned and developed. Clandfield adds that this can give a course a sense of security, of purpose and achievement as the class advances through the book.
2. They help standardize instruction. The use of a textbook in a program can ensure that the students in different classes receive similar content and therefore can be tested in the same way (Richards) In addition, if halfway through a course a learner wants to change class or the group’s teacher has to be changed, the student or teacher knows exactly what has been covered up to that point and con continue from where the previous course/teacher left off.
3. They maintain quality. If a well-developed textbook is used, students are exposed to materials that have been tried and tested, that are based on sound learning principles, that are paced appropriately (Richards), that provide graded content suitable for the learners’ level, a full syllabus that covers language skills and language systems, and a source of ideas and methodology. Modern teacher’s books come packed with extra ideas, tips and language explanations, plus “step-by-step” Teacher’s Guides. This kind of material can help teachers improve their teaching and knowledge of language lesson by lesson (Clandfield), and is particularly valuable for inexperienced staff, contributing to their continuing professional development.
4. They provide a variety of learning resources. Textbooks are often accompanied by workbooks, CDs and cassettes, videos, CD ROMs, providing a rich and varied resource for teachers and learners. This “up-to-date aspect” can be engaging for learners. (Clandfield)
5. They are efficient. They save teachers time, enabling teachers to devote time to teaching rather than developing syllabuses and materials (Clandfield) – again, something that inexperienced teachers may not yet be capable of doing effectively.
6. They can provide effective language models and input. Textbooks can provide support for teachers whose first language is not English and who may not be able to generate accurate language input on their own. (Clandfield)
7. They are visually attractive and appear “professionally produced” Commercial textbooks usually have high standards of design and production and hence are appealing to learners and teachers. (Richards) yet again contributing to the learners’ feeling that they are following a quality course.
a) ii. What are the disadvantages of basing courses on textbooks?
8. They may contain inauthentic language: Textbooks sometimes present inauthentic language since texts, dialogues and other aspects of content tend to be specially written to incorporate teaching points and are often not representative of real language use. (Richards) Examples of this include the type of exponents often taught for eg agreeing and disagreeing like “I agree/ don’t agree with Riccardo” which may make learners sound stilted when they use them, or grammar “rules” that suggest to learners that forms must be used in a certain way when the reality is much less clear cut.
9. They may distort content. Textbooks often present an idealized view of the world or fail to represent real issues. In order to make textbooks acceptable in many different contexts controversial topics are avoided and instead an idealized white middle-class Western view of the world is portrayed as the norm (Richards). This may not reflect the reality of the learners’ world and makes the book less engaging for them.
10. They may not reflect students’ needs. Since textbooks are often written for global markets they often do not reflect the interests and needs of students and hence may require adaptation (Richards) as eg the syllabus omits items that Ls need or includes items which they don’t. For example, the majority of modern coursebooks follow a very similar grammar syllabus which forms, if not the backbone, then a very important strand of the course (Clandfield). This often makes them unsuitable for ESP, BE and 121 courses which need to be based on the specific needs of the students, and even in GP courses may leave the students unengaged with the language being taught.
11. They can deskill teachers. If teachers use textbooks as the primary source of their teaching leaving the textbook and teacher’s manual to make the major instructional decisions for them the teacher’s role can become reduced to that of a technician whose primary function is to present materials prepared by others (Richards).
12. Richards also points out that commercial textbooks are expensive and may represent a financial burden for students in many parts of the world.
13. Coursebooks often contain too much material to cover in an academic year (Clandfield). Language schools where I have taught often tell teachers, for example, that they must cover a two-page spread in every lesson, which leaves no time to deal with the learner’s real learning needs – full explanation of the language in the texts, recycling and consolidation, a focus on emergent language etc.
b) i. What are the alternatives which overcome the disadvantages?
14. If a course is based on an initial analysis of learners’ communicative and learning needs and wants, a course can be designed to meet these. These may draw on published materials (if schools have class sets for group courses, or if the Teacher’s Guides include photocopiable material), or may be materials produced by the teacher. However, the course will not be “based” on a single textbook, thus avoiding disadvantage 10 for ESP and 121 learners.
15. A “Dogme” approach can be used. The Thornbury and Meddings book “Teaching Unplugged” provides a series of activities that can be used at various levels to stimulate T/S and S/S interaction. Language Focus and practice is then based on the “emergent language” which comes up as learners enact the activities. Thornbury and Meddings argue that has the advantage of engaging learners more, as they are learning to express in English what they want to say at that moment, again avoiding disadvantage 10. Thornbury has also argued that there is no proof that a systematic “Grammar McNuggets” approach to syllabus design is the most effective way to learn a language.
16. The course can be based on authentic materials taken from the net or print sources on topics which specifically interest the learners - and possibly provided by the learners themselves. The teacher can develop tasks around these materials. Working on them again engages the learners more, and also overcomes all the other disadvantages (8,9,11,12,13) mentioned in section b.
17. In appropriate contexts – eg a state school – CLIL or project based courses can be run. The language teacher can liaise with a teacher of another academic subject and “shadow” the content being taught, so that the students learn to understand, discuss, and/or write about the topic in English. This is another way of making the course relevant to the learners’ needs outside the language classroom, and is particularly relevant at secondary level where learners may be going on to university courses taught at least partially in English – which now happens in many countries – and therefore need to develop academic skills in English.
18. When cost, and possibly quantity of material is an issue (points 12 and 13), the textbook can be replaced with courses available (free) on websites such as the BBC Learning English site. This has the advantage that the courses are designed for self-study, so that even if the web course is too long for the time available, the learner(s) can continue working on it independently after the taught course finishes.
b) ii. How can textbooks be adapted to overcome the disadvantages?
17. By modifying content (Clandfield) to overcome the problem stated in point 9. Content may need to be changed because it does not suit the target learners, perhaps because of factors related to the learners’ age, gender, social class, occupation, religion or cultural background. For example, the PARSNIPS policy followed by most publishers means that by just following the book, elementary learners never learn the words for ham, pork, wine, beer etc and would therefore be unable to recognise them on a menu (possibly in order to avoid those dishes) or order them in a restaurant. In my adult courses with European learners, I have often changed the menus provided for restaurant roleplays in order to include these.
18. By adding or deleting content (Clandfield) to overcome the problem stated in point 13. If, for example, the book contains a large amount of “new” material in every unit but insufficient controlled practice of any of it, additional controlled practice tasks may need to be added. Or a course may wish to focus primarily on listening and speaking skills and hence writing activities in the book will be omitted.
19. By modifying tasks (Clandfield). Material in the book may also be re-used in a different way to recycle language items, again solving the problem mentioned in point 13. Eg. If specific lexical chunks have occurred and been focused on in a reading text, the teacher may re-use a paragraph of that text in a later lesson (perhaps as a dictogloss or running dictation) to recycle them.