The significance of the ELT coursebook

The teaching-learning experience is mainly comprised of three essential entities: the students, the teacher, and the instructional materials. One of the most commonly recognized and used forms of instructional materials is the ELT coursebook (CB). The CB offers structured content in a uniform format for ready implementation. As such, it is a primary resource for use in the teaching-learning process.

The CB conveniently and compactly serves a number of useful purposes: it bestows a notional authority on the teacher as mediator of its content; it provides students with a quantifiable record and token of what is to be studied or ‘learned’; it acts as a resource and point of reference; often, it is the tangible element that gives a language course face validity to many learners and teachers. Where no curriculum exists it may form an entire study course.

The prominent role that CBs play should therefore make them the focus of attention with regard to theoretical and practical ideas on the nature of effective pedagogy, important in assessing and understanding their limitations, parameters, and potential. CBs are a mainstay of the commercial ELT market. The English language teaching market [for CBs] is huge globally. Intended for sale to teachers and administrators, CBs need to be more-or-less identifiable with a recognized methodological approach, set of theories, or type of pedagogy, in order to promote them as ‘informed’, ‘relevant’ and up-to-date’.

At the same time they are produced in response to a perceived market demand that may be at variance with the latest theoretical developments in ELT, particularly where local cultural contexts might not be predisposed to new and challenging ‘foreign’ ideas, emanating from the native English-speaking countries of Britain, Australasia and North America.

The non-native teacher market is the largest market; hence the importance of the local cultural context and its notions of what is appropriate regarding teaching practice and materials. This implies particular CB features that may be expected in order for the product to sell. Market appeal is clearly a primary consideration over and above considerations of pedagogical or theoretical worth.

Coursebooks dominate current ELT practice to an alarming extent. The main pillars of the ELT establishment, from teacher organisations like TESOL and IATEFL, through bodies like the British Council, examination boards like Cambridge English Language Assessment and TEFL, to the teacher training certification bodies like Cambridge and Trinity, all support the use of coursebooks. The increasing domination of coursebooks in a global ELT industry worth close to $200 billion (Pearson, 2016).


Course content

Course content is of primary importance. The learners need to become involved in interesting themes and exciting tasks. The systematic organization of the course, in this case, might be derived from a thematic approach. Themes/topics would be selected and sequenced according to the learners’ interests and background knowledge, while lexis, semantico-grammatical features, and communicative functions would be selected to serve the treatment of each theme. All language skills would be utilized in a coursebook. Ideally, topics for use in ELT should have the should have same interest-value as they would if exploited in the students’ own native language. In order for students to fully engage with a topic it should be personally meaningful to them at some level. Intrinsic motivation will spring from an interest in what is being communicated by the language. If students are given opportunities for self-expression and personalization, interest and motivation will be stimulated.

Personalization is a form of ‘investment’ by the student in the teaching-learning process. Involvement does not just mean ‘activity’. Involvement means investment related not simply to ‘participation in classroom activities’ but to decision-making, and the whole business of the management of language learning. One of the main reasons students become ‘disengaged’ is because they are effectively required to take on ready-made situations and language that they have had no part in shaping.

The materials writer and the publisher have more direct control of the course design processes than the teachers. The degree of dominance depends on how much and how closely the teachers choose to follow the coursebook or how much teachers take initiative in making flexible use of the materials.


Course adaptation

Textbooks are tools that can be figuratively cut up into component pieces and then rearranged to suit the needs, abilities and interests of the students in the course. The material in a textbook can be modified to incorporate activities that will motivate students and move them beyond the constraints of the text. Adaptability needs to be incorporated in two ways: firstly, (procedural) options for exploiting a particular topic, function, notion or situation and secondly language options and scope.


Coursebook-driven ELT vs Non-Coursebook-driven ELT

The debate on whether the textbook could cause teachers to be over-dependent on books or not was initiated about 20 years ago and is still in process. The course-driven ELT supporters believe that a coursebook helps provide a route map for both teachers and learners, making it possible for them to look ahead to what will be done in a lesson as well as to look back on what has been done. Not only do they serve as the general framework for teachers to follow in accordance with the curriculum, but they also function as a guide through the courses offering a wide collection of relevant examples and practices regardless of the subject matter. The non-coursebook-driven ELT supporters claim that precise instruction which the materials give, reduces the teacher’s role to one of managing or overseeing a preplanned classroom event; that coursebooks oblige teachers to work within a framework where students are presented with and then practice dislocated bits of English in a sequence which is pre-determined and externally imposed on them by coursebook writers. Furthermore, results of coursebook-based teaching indicate that most learners don’t reach the level they aim for, and most don’t reach the level of proficiency the coursebook promises (English Proficiency Index, 2015). At the same time, alternatives to coursebook-driven ELT which are much more attuned to what we know about psycholinguistic, cognitive, and socio-educational principles for good language teaching don’t get the exposure or the fair critical evaluation that they deserve.



It is important that textbooks should be so designed and organized that a great deal of improvisation and adaptation both by teacher and class is possible. Such a design would need to be more obviously and explicitly open and not obscured by a ‘surface methodology’ needing to be ‘navigated’, which those lacking expertise, time or patience feel obligated to follow.•