Do we only learn from coursebooks?

For most educators the textbook represents the main source of ideas for teaching. Therefore little attention is paid to other resources such as videos, interviews, popular TV series adapted for teaching, songs suitable for teaching on Youtube, virtual tours and visits to places of interest –museums, galleries, libraries, archaeological sites, universities- all readily available at a click of a button.
In the Italian course I am doing online, we learn new vocabulary and we are exposed to the culture of the country through videos, interviews, power point presentations and articles. For example, we practice vocabulary about fruits and vegetables watching a video from an open air food market where we see groceries on display, listen to vendors selling their products; we also see these beautiful medieval buildings in the town square, we hear the church bells ringing. And then an interview follows with an architect who gives information about the buildings. It’s real, it’s authentic, as if you are there.

Text by: Anastasia Spyropoulou

In the French course I am doing online, foreign university students, who attend language courses in French universities, show us their favourite places –gardens, museums, castles, coffee and pastry shops, traditional cheese shops, bakeries etc. The students enter the shops, talk to the owners, taste or buy something. It’s real, it’s authentic, as if you are in Paris, in Lyon or Marseille. You want to go there and visit these places.

In the Spanish course I am doing online, we learned the interrogative adverbs through the all-time classic love song by Nat King Cole ‘Quizás, quizás, quizás’.
‘Siempre que te pregunto
Qué, cuándo, cómo y dónde
Tu siempre me respondes
Quizás, quizás, quizás’
(I always ask you
What, when, how, and where
You always answer me
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps)

These additional resources make the lessons interesting and engage the students in the most effective way; they also expose learners to language as it is used in the real world. In most EFL settings there is limited exposure to the language outside of the classroom, and often limited opportunity to use it. In addition, the burden for providing the cultural dimension to the curriculum very much rests with the teacher.

Teaching becomes more complicated by the fact that teachers are usually non-native speakers of English who may lack opportunities to use the language outside of the classroom, or lack confidence in using it. In such situations it is important for the materials to provide rich and diverse linguistic input that EFL learners encounter in the real world.

So what is the reason for such dependence on the coursebook? Lack of time? Lack of self-confidence? Inability to evaluate the appropriateness of digital materials? Lack of ICT skills? Preference on the easiest way to go?

The main reason, in my opinion, is that coursebooks provide a linear model of learning, which creates the illusion that students learn incrementally, and allows teachers to provide “evidence” of “success”. This is useful for private and state institutions, both of which are accountable to their stakeholders.

“We have finished the book so the level has successfully been achieved.”

Private ELT institutions need to sell their courses as “products”. Using a series of books that ostensibly “cover” each “level” of English allows them to offer this.
In our country it’s possible to call yourself, and be regarded as a qualified English language teacher with limited qualifications that can’t provide the knowledge and skills required to be good at designing your own tasks and activities, so many teachers have to rely on pre-published materials. They are a captive market.

Teachers in most contexts are contracted to teach as many hours as their employers feel they can get away with giving them. If the employer provides a coursebook that can be used without the teacher having to do too much planning (or none at all), this reduces the need for planning time and increases their potential to spend more time in front of a class.

Most coursebooks avoid selecting topics that might potentially make students feel “uncomfortable”. The result is that many teachers lack the skills to effectively manage class activities that are centred on some of the most serious issues dominating the world today. Instead, they prefer to focus only on topics that are bland and inoffensive.

What does the future hold for coursebooks? We’ll still have coursebooks because we have been trained to rely on them, and our school managers will still want us to use them, and our students, who are familiar with the norms of the English language classroom, will still expect us to use them.

ELT practice tends to be informed by Applied Linguistics research. However research and academic literature that relates to general education plays a relatively minor role in shaping our teaching practice. This means that the whole idea of education as a transformative, emancipatory act, and its potential to contribute towards creating a fairer, more equitable world, is often absent from discussions about effective language teaching. •


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