We need to talk about course books.

When I started teaching in a private language school, one of the big rituals of each year was choosing your course book. You’d have a look at previous ones, check out the catalogue and thesample copies, and then order a bunch in, paid for by the students themselves, built into the course fees. Over time I developed some favourites. I always liked Landmark from OUP for not being too fussy, and quite solid. Cutting Edge Intermediate i also liked, because it was new back then. But none will ever compare with the mighty Headway Pre-Intermediate, the original one with the yellow cover, my first ever text book. I learned how to explain most of my grammar out of the back of Headway (and later New Headway). They certainly stopped me from having to worry about sequencing language items in the syllabus, or indeed about choosing content, so that I could just get on and do my thing in the classroom. Using course books has had a huge impact on me in terms of how I develop activities in class, and indeed how I develop materials. I will hold my hands up right now and say that I owe a lot to having had the chance to work from course books in the early part of my career.

These days, however, I barely touch the things. Primarily, I think, this is because my teaching context has shifted dramatically, from teaching the privileged and wealthy in private EFL schools to teaching the far more linguistically, socially and educationally diverse students in public sector ESOL in the U.K. When I first made this shift, I used to lament the amount of “wasted” time on selecting or developing resources, when there were perfectly good resources already out there, although I think there was some justification for this: I met some ESOL teachers at that time (c.2004) who would go out of their way to avoid using anything “EFL”, whether it be course books, “recipe” books or photocopiables because they were “too EFL” whatever that meant. This mindset is dying, although is not entirely dead: not so long ago did an observation alongside an external consultant and when I said that the materials were not really appropriate (and eminently adaptable to make more so) she prononced sniffily that they were “too EFL.”

In the last fifteen years or so, my practice has changed. I have shifted my stance to a pragmatic middle ground, picking and choosing what I want from what is out there, in particular resources or activities available online for free. However, what I won’t do is use a coursebook as it is intended to be used: as syllabus, resource and record of learning. And here’s why.

There are the “universal” complaints about global coursebooks. There’s the pinned down, controlled and controlling syllabus. Then there’s the way they date terribly (anyone remember “Guy and Suzy” from a pop band in New Headway Intermediate, or perhaps the badly disguised Posh’n’Becks? Totally, as my children would say, cringe). Then there’s the general blandness of the content – just so much meh. But all of these pale into insignificance when compared to the major problem with global coursebooks in ESOL- relevance.

Global EFL coursebooks are often culturally, socially, and ethically wrong for migrant students to the U.K. precisely because of their intention to appeal to as broad a range of people as possible. You might have a few pages of fairly neutral and recontextualisable stuff in the book, maybe a couple of token safe “issues” like the environment, but then you’ll still have something about wealthy white people on holiday or in an office. I’m really sorry but this sort of thing leaves me cold. How am I supposed to take some glossy magaziney piece about a New York TV presenter, or whatever and make it relevant to the students in front of me? I just had a little look at a more recent book and oh my goodness the middle class privilege apparent in that sample chapter: “a weekend break in Prague” “renting a karaoke booth” “my end-of-year trip to Disneyland”? Or how about renting holiday lets in Vietnam, hotel information or perhaps a short reading on “Young Europeans flock to Argentina for job opportunities.” in this series? There would be so much adapting or repurposing – so much so that I might as well just start from scratch. The course book editors, writers and publishers know where the money is, of course, and I’ll tell you now, it’s not in a community centre in West Yorkshire. Ultimately, and somewhat ironically, the more global course books aim to be global, the less relevant they have become to my local teaching context, even though it typically features students from at least three continents.

When you say things like this the producers of these books will wring their hands and point out their own socially liberal beliefs. They may simply argue that the contextual stuff is irrelevant as “it’s just a vehicle for learning English.” Perhaps they might prefer to argue that politics and criticism has no place in the ELT classroom (PMSL). Really, guys, though, it’s fine, honestly: we all have a living to make, and yours is by making internationally sellable product for large corporations, something which millions of people around the world do all the time in all sorts of industries. I’m just saying I won’t be buying a class set, the teacher’s book, and all the rest because the content is not apprpriate for the students I teach. Soz.

Materials development and selection these days is a deeply eclectic affair. If I use anything preprepared, it’s likely to be something selected from sites like the British Council’s Teaching English or ESOL Nexus. It might be something from SkillsWorkshop, or something taken from one of the big collections of photocopiables. I often adapt authentic texts, because that fits the ESOL context best of all – our students are surrounded by real language all the time, after all, and it makes sense to equip them with the skills to cope with this. And then, from time to time, I might even choose something from a course book. It’s likely to be one I already know, because, let’s be honest, it’s ten times easier to hunt something up online than it is to rummage round a bookshelf, especially when there’s a high probability it won’t fit in some way.

Ultimately, I think, this goes back to how I approach lesson resources. Even when I used to follow a course book, I used to get frustrated when I had an idea of how a lesson should work but the materials didn’t quite fit, and out of this came the notio8 that materials should fit the lesson, and not the other way round. It seems wrong to me to rethink the lesson so that it fits a particular resource. Sure, there’s a lot of people saying “don’t reinvent the wheel” when it comes to resources but it’s my wheel, and I want it to roll my way, and not along the steel rails of some distant course book writer.

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