What is there to choose when you choose a coursebook?

Most teachers use a coursebook as the backbone of the course. More often than not, the coursebook provides the syllabus as well as the majority of the materials to be used in the classroom: usually accompanied by a number of related books and resources (for example, workbooks, learning companions, online reference and practice materials, tests, grammar books, etc.), the coursebook, or more accurately the coursebook package, has clearly become much more than just a set of materials that can help teachers do their job – it is rather the basis on which almost everything done in the classroom is based.

Text by George Vassilakis - Teacher, Teacher Trainer & Author

This is problematic in principle, but it doesn’t necessarily look like bad news in practice. In principle, it makes sense that decisions about the form and content of the syllabus and the methods to be used in teaching should come first, while the coursebook should just be one of the means of implementation of these decisions available to the teacher. In principle, therefore, allowing the coursebook package to determine and dictate both the syllabus content and the teaching approach is problematic: surely such decisions should be made by the people involved in the specific learning context, taking into account the parameters and limitations of that specific learning context.

In practice, however, it could be claimed that coursebook packages, at least those produced by major publishers, are based on the perceived needs of the market, i.e. of the schools that are going to use them: the linguistic content is based on the CEFR specifications and associated research (for example, English Profile); the methodology is based on well-known and widely accepted linear paradigms, and the non-linguistic content is based on the commonsense idea that topics and audiovisual material should be mildly interesting, but under no circumstances capable of offending anyone in any of the markets in which the material will be used. In a nutshell, coursebook packages are generally safe. No matter which coursebook a teacher chooses, as long as it has been published by a reputable publisher, they can be fairly certain that the topics will not cause trouble, that the main features of language and skills appropriate for the level will be ‘covered,’ and that the techniques and activities used will not challenge conventional perceptions of what constitutes good practice in language teaching.

Content decisions

Unsurprisingly, what this all means is that there are only very small differences among the coursebooks different publishers publish these days. Even if a publisher wanted to produce something radically different, even if an enlightened editor or author came up with an idea for a book that could make a difference, there is no way the market forces would allow it to be published. Teachers and school directors and owners have very specific expectations, which publishers make sure to identify and satisfy: the present perfect must appear in Level A2, because that’s where it is in the Bible, i.e. the CEFR, or at least that’s what we have been told by unnamed experts; the word weird can’t appear before Level B2, because that’s where it is in the Cambridge dictionary, or the English Profile vocabulary list; topics like the environment and shopping must be there at all levels, not only because they’re supposed to be “in the CEFR” but also, and perhaps more importantly, because that’s what students are asked to talk and write about in exams; there have to be at least three exercises per unit practicing the main grammar taught in the unit and at least one freer speaking activity, because that’s how students will learn the grammar (this last claim doesn’t really need to be substantiated; it is always presented as a self-understood, axiomatic truth).

The vicious circle

Whether these beliefs and expectations are legitimate is actually immaterial. For example, the fact that a word is said to be an A2 or a C2 word has nothing to do with the nature of the word itself, or with the nature of vocabulary acquisition. The CEFR-associated lists of words and grammatical structures are themselves based on the opinions of teachers who filled in relevant questionnaires. What the obsession with quantifiable data embodied in the “CEFR” ideology has resulted in is that these opinions are then used as if they were facts for other teachers to base their opinions on. These teachers constitute the market that publishers will then research. Publishers will do their market research and find out what the market wants; they will then make sure their product does what the market wants; the market, that is teachers, school directors and school owners, will buy and use the product; by using books (products) that are based on the exact same philosophy year after year, the users’ belief in the truth of that philosophy will be strengthened; next time they are asked to select a coursebook they will expect to see the same kind of content that they have inevitably come to consider normal. There does not seem to be a way to break this vicious circle.

Can we be optimistic?

What, then, should we look for when evaluating a coursebook with a view to adopting it? If all coursebooks are essentially, substantially the same, the criteria that we can use to select among them will have to be limited to purely aesthetic or purely mercenary ones: which book has a more impressive cover? Which publisher will give us more free copies?

Or we may want to take a harder look at the books themselves, but instead of checking things off a mental or actual checklist (does it have listening in every unit? does it have videos in every unit? does it have grammar explanations?), ask ourselves the question in what ways is this coursebook different from all the others? What material does it contain that might excite the learners? If we were prepared to do that, at the risk of deviating from standard practice and conventional wisdom, that might be a way out of the vicious circle! Choosing a coursebook because it is not what everyone expects it to be would certainly prove the market research wrong. I don’t have any hope that during my lifetime this might result in liberating education from the corrosive influence of market forces, but perhaps younger teachers might see the day when this happens.•


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