Making the Most Out of Your Coursebooks

Making the Most Out of Your Coursebooks
Making the Most Out of Your Coursebooks

The role of coursebooks in EFL is a topic of some controversy.  For many, language books form the backbone of their curriculums, and some EFL teachers have a strong loyalty to a particular series. On the other hand, many teachers find them restricting, especially the way the Most out of your coursebooks seem to compartmentalize the language.

The ‘unplugged’ movement, associated with Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings, derives from a sense of frustration with coursebooks-or at least coursebooks in their contemporary form. As a result, some coursebook writers have felt the need to defend the coursebook and demonstrate how teachers can better use them. 

This piece summarises and reflects upon an excellent talk that Andrew Walkley gave at English UK Scotland’s Academic Conference, held in February 2019 in Edinburgh. Andrew Walkley is well known in the EFL sector as a teacher trainer and course book author. Along with Hugh Dellar, he is co-director of Lexical Lab.

https://www.lexicallab.com/ In recent years, he has been involved in the successful Outcomes series of Most Out of Your Coursebooks https://www.eltoutcomes.com/ published by National Geographic and used by many EFL schools and teachers. It was interesting to hear the views of a leading coursebook writer on the limitations of coursebooks (and why these limitations exist) and how teachers can make the most out of them. 

A hindrance or help?

Walkley began by discussing the view that a coursebook can teach by itself- that it can do virtually everything for you as a teacher.  This is, of course, an erroneous view. Simply following the book is unlikely to be enough- the teacher must use coursebooks judiciously and as a tool for teaching.

Walkley related this to the ‘demand high’ arguments of Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener. They argue that there is plenty of speaking going on in lots of lessons but a lack of focused language input. In short, a lack of clarity about what is the target language. A good coursebook can, argued Walkley, provide that clear focus.

Walkey argued that coursebooks can help teachers, but they can also hinder. They can hinder because the grammar point is sometimes isolated from other grammar. It neglects that most conversations include a variety of grammar forms. For example, the different responses you could imagine to the question – fancy a coffee?:

  • I’d love one
  • Cheers
  • I’ve just had one
  • To be honest I’m not a fan
  • I’m trying to cut down

Coursebooks, argued Walkley, tend to artificially limit things because many of these forms are seen as too advanced for that level and may confuse students. This does not fit the usual approach of coursebooks (one grammar point per lesson). Also, many of the short conversations we teach at lower levels are inauthentic.

For example, the use of auxiliaries in answers to basic questions. Have you been to Italy? Yes, I have/ no, I haven’t. Instead, we should be teaching authentic answers such as ‘yeah, I was there last year’ (‘yeah’ should be taught as well as ‘yes’- it’s probably more common among native speakers).

Recycling

There is also a tendency for coursebooks to fail to revise and recycle language from previous lessons. Teachers generally don’t like repetition/ going over the same language again (they like variety)- but students need it. Their first exposure to a language form is unlikely to be enough for the point to sink in. There tends to be insufficient continuity between different sections of many coursebooks. Publishers can see such recycling as unnecessary or repetitive. As a consequence, these sections are often cut when it comes to the final edit.

There is a continual desire-from the publishers- to keep points to a two-page spread. This often leads to the crammed feel of many coursebooks. This is undoubtedly my general impression when looking at a typical two-page spread. It feels as if there’s too much to cover and a lack of cohesiveness. Often, lesson planning consists of selecting which sections to use and in what order. The time spent doing this can aggravate some teachers, who usually do n0t get paid for preparation time.

Dialogues

The importance of dialogues is often overlooked in textbooks. Walkley was involved with the earlier series Innovations, which was very much dialogue-based.  Walkley and his co-authors received feedback that some teachers found it difficult to teach from, and perhaps it was more suited for experienced teachers. I think that the Innovations series is underrated and, though the books are dated, I still use sections from them.

The dialogues are a great way to get students to use authentic chunks of language. The Teacher’s Resource Books that accompany the Innovations coursebooks are also excellent and can be used independently. I would strongly recommend that teachers dig out copies of Innovations. Though the Outcomes series had many plus points (not least the fabulous photos, which stimulate a lot of discussion in class), its relative lack of dialogues was a blemish. 

Teachers can, Walkley argued, make up for the lack of dialogues in coursebooks by using the language from the Most Out of Your Coursebooks in dialogues and promoting dialogue creation between students. Walkley also discussed the very purpose of dialogues in coursebooks.

Teachers should, he argued, remember that the dialogues in books and listening activities are there ‘modeling the conversation rather than the grammar.’ The aim is to get students to hold good conversations, not necessarily using specific grammar. There was a tendency, especially with grammar points, to ’force’ the target language into dialogues, often rendering them inauthentic and unnatural.

In terms of identifying authentic language to teach, Walkley suggested involving your colleagues. One thing that teachers should do regularly is to do the speaking activities in the coursebooks themselves with a colleague and see what language comes out of that. Doing so will provide dynamic language that coursebooks may not be able to offer. I have tried this, and it is often surprising what proficient speakers say as opposed to what the coursebook suggests they might say. 

Active note-taking

Walkley proposed that teachers should regularly integrate revision activities into their classes. Using the students’ notebooks as the source for these would help students promote sound, more conscious note-taking. In my experience, there is insufficient attention paid to what students put down in their notebooks and then what they do with their notes after class.

Ideally, students should be doing something with their notes-reviewing them, typing them up, etc. Walkley suggested that every so often, get your students to go through their notebooks and find:

– Five words they have forgotten the meaning of.
– 5 words you’ve not used yet.
– 10 words you have used or could have used.

Divergent CCQs

Not all texts in the coursebooks are interesting. Some will fail to engage some or all of your students. All teachers will have used materials that fell flat in the classroom. However, Walkley emphasized that all these texts will have interesting language, which you should highlight and use. In short, do not be disheartened if a text fails to engage – it is the language that it contains which should be your central concern.

To test whether students have understood a particular word/ phrase, teachers should be using ‘divergent’ concept checking questions (CCQs). For example, to test the understanding of the word ‘exhausted,’ we might ask the students, ‘why might you be exhausted?’. Or ‘when were you last exhausted -and why?’.

Going off-topic- how problematic is it?

Lots of the off-topic ‘chat’ that occurs in the classroom is rich in language. However, it is often ignored by teachers who want to/need to focus on the language point set out in the coursebook. Dealing with this ‘emergent language’ there and then may lead to some relatively unstructured lessons.

So, suggested Walkley, why not turn the ‘chat’ into material for future lessons. Instead of creating something on the spot, go away and find the ideal material for that language point. I have done this and found that students appreciate it if you create lessons in this way. They see that the teacher is engaged with the language used by the students, not just robotically churning out lessons by the book. 

A variety of users

Walkley tried to answer why contemporary coursebooks have a similar form and feel, dominated by the two-page spread packed with language and activities. In contrast, coursebooks from previous eras often had a different look, with less crammed pages. For Walkley, the main issue was the tendency for editors to strip away speaking activities. There was a perceived need to have a clearly defined grammar point for each section.

There was also the issue that the Most Out of Your Coursebooks are for a mass market. In short, well-qualified and experienced teachers in the UK are not the principal market. So, this is where teachers may need to adapt the course materials. This is a product of the growth and spread of ELT across the world. It raises the question of whether different editions of books are required for different types of teachers and levels of experience.

This is unlikely to be practicable, so love them or loathe them, mass-market coursebooks are likely to remain a core aspect of language teaching. Using some of the ideas outlined by Andrew Walkley may assist teachers in getting more out of the coursebooks they use.