Teaching Material | Teaching English Better

Course book: A master or a servant?


The course book constitutes the compass for the completion of the syllabus (mid-term) and the curriculum (long-term) development of the E SL/ EFL school year. It serves as the foundation for the development of cognitive and linguistic skills of second language learners. Course books are necessary for the successful outcome of language instruction and the development of learners’ mental and cognitive needs. 

By Marina Siskos

An attested reality is that a poor course book, if managed wisely and supplemented appropriately, can enhance learning. At the same time, an outstanding course book could be degraded in unwise management. Course books comprise the collective mental labor that composes the formal outline and the prescriptive explanation of the English language for the designated needs of EFL/ESL students. Each publishing house has to offer at least one exquisite work that has left its mark in the EFL/ESL classroom.

Suitable allocation of context, level appropriateness, syllabus compatibility and effectiveness for an extended number of L2 learners confer to the making of an accomplished classroom text book.


  1. Immanent limitations of course books.

Course books carry inherent limitations to the EFL/ESL procedure. Overreliance on the course book sequencing and context might lead to inflexibility of understanding and acquisition. Occasionally, the course book language is pseudo-authentic, that is language adapted (and this is why many course book items are of very low-frequency), so that learners do not feel demoralized and find it impossible to comprehend.

Another inbred risk of course book instruction is compartmentalization of knowledge. Chunking of linguistic material facilitates memorization, but concurrently students should experience exposure to fluent and variegated forms of linguistic inputs from external sources. Having disclaimed the potential negative impacts of erroneous utilization and management of a text book, an insight into the criteria on their selection and reliance follows.


  1. Strategic decision-making to the course book selection

The grounds upon the selection of an appropriate course book, out of the host of options that are available in the market could be:

  • Its appropriateness for the specific group or individual
  • the students’ responsiveness to its context, which is based upon the decoding of the L2 learners’ profile
  • The longevity of the book in the L2 classroom

Certain books, having endured the test of time and have created generations of fluent learners. Commonly, those are the landmarks for the publishing houses as well.


Personal scrutiny and context adaptation

Before deciding to use a coursebook, even one of the most popular ones, teachers should reflect upon its realistic utilization and respond to a set of questions:

  • Does this course book fit into my modus operandi and the school curriculum?
  • Is there qualitative correspondence between the course book layout and its material with my learners’ needs?
  • Is there a peril to create a classroom of different speeds?                                                                   
  • Will it seclude certain students from taking it to their stride smoothly and efficiently?

Tailor the book into your individual specifics so that it optimally satisfies the needs of your learners, their interests and your personal approach of teaching and assigning tasks. If, for instance a course book necessitates noticeable increase of vocabulary items into a classroom constituted of learners with limited memory capacity, then one needs to revisit their decision, as the course book needs to serve the student, not the opposite.


Material authenticity

Originality of the use of language and effectiveness of grammatical and vocabulary digestion is a point that overrides the novelty of a course book.


Completion of designated material

Does the book cover the material that is intended for the specific year? The caution is majorly directed toward the course books that merge -or promise to merge- two learning years in one. If such a promise leaves the teacher exposed to the constant need of supplementing each unit, then it might be prudent to reconsider.


Cost-effectiveness as opposed to economical books

It might be tempting to base one’s resolution on the price of the book. However decision makers should bear in mind that poorly developed books may need to be supplemented.

  1. The extent of the course book influence on the EFL/ESL course

Course books are highly ranked in language learning. This has its critics in the education circles. The course book dependence restricts individual potential: everyone in the class is expected to be on the same path and proceed at the same rate, as set by the course book designing. Even experienced teachers tend to be drifted away and define the pace of the course book sequencing as the normal measure.

Universal learning principles, such as the Critical period for Second Language Learning, the Silent Period and the Vocabulary Spurt -phases that all learners are expected to undergo- are not taken into consideration. A course book ideally should match your students’ learning styles, interests and needs. 

Prioritize the synthesis of your existing learning groups and select the most fitting book accordingly. Course books’ main aim is student linguistic development. Apropos of its context, it is worth to broach the principle of the “desirable difficulties”, a theory that professes that human brains are conditioned to respond better to difficulty, retain more over the long term and understand on a deeper level.

Moreover, as every kind of source, the course book material would ideally align with the theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), developed by psychologist and constructivist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) , referring to the gap between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement  (Vygotsky, 1978, 86).

The term “proximal” refers to those skills that learners are “close” to mastering.

In EFL/ESL terms, the “desirable difficulties” theory translates into opting for a course book that is acceptably challenging, in order to stretch L2 learners’ linguistic and cognitive abilities. •


Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

The Economist 1843.  www. 1843magazine.com/ content/ideas/ian-leslie/uses-difficulty.