Oh heck – not another course book debate post!

Debating or sunbathing? Hm…

I’ve been following the #neverending course book debate with interest over the past week or so. If you’ve missed it, well you must have either been locked up in your cupboard or roaming free, feeling the warm summer sunshine on your face.

Either way, you can get up to speed by reading this post. And this one.  Also this one.You’ll have seen it’s getting pretty hot in that particular kitchen and given the amount of soi-disant critical thinkers involved in the debate, ad hominem attacks are surprisingly frequent.

Anyway, now you’re all caught up it’s time for me to (briefly) add my tuppenceworth here.  This is not really going to be another course book to-use-or-not-to-use post. Rather, this piece will introduce a series of pieces I am planning to write over the next week.

But first of all, it’s probably necessary to come out and say which leg I’m kicking with.  So read on…

My thoughts as a material writer…

The materials writer side of me knows that I put a lot more time into planning and writing materials-to-be-published than I do writing materials for use in my own classroom. This comes down to simple economics. My institution pays me a (rather miserly) hourly rate to teach a class with half an hour extra added in for preparation time. In contrast, I am paid relatively well for material writing. Nobody proof reads my self –produced teaching materials. Yet materials I write for publishers are carefully proof read, content and copy edited and returned to me with feedback (often a couple of times over the writing process).  I am also paid for redrafting materials. Therefore, I know all too well that my published materials are produced to a higher standard than my self- produced ones.

Having said that, some of my most successful and exciting  lessons have emerged like butterflies from chrysalises during serendipitous classroom moments. Such lessons would be hard to publish: their success derived from the spontaneity of their realisation.

Publishers are cautious regarding content, it’s true. A few years ago, a leading ELT publishing house rejected a sample course book unit from an aspiring writer on the grounds that it was “too quirky and depressing”, containing as it did a lengthy listening script extracted from a gritty play set in a Scottish woman’s prison, verses from a Philip Larkin poem and a literary problem page (um yes, the sample was indeed written by yours truly). I have just re-read this sample, alternating between shudders of embarrassment and laughter and have to conclude that the publishers knew what they were talking about in this case. I would have enjoyed teaching this unit, it’s true. But would anyone have enjoyed learning from it? Publishers have done their homework and they know their markets.

The publishers in question were sensible to veto my nutty content. Yet, I’m sure many less nutty and more sensible ideas about SLA are also dismissed. Perhaps, over time, new ideas about language learning will gradually become adopted into the way that course books are designed.

My thoughts as a teacher…

For the past seven years I have been lucky enough to work in an institution which has granted me total freedom in what I do with my learners. I’ve experimented with numerous ELT teaching methodologies and creative writing projects, and I’ve also designed several lessons on a PARSNIPS theme. During this time, I’ve endeavoured to keep on top of all the most recent SLA research too.

So why do I find myself using course books as a basis for my own teaching?

  • I like the structure which course books provide. I think my learners appreciate being able to look ahead and see what they’ll learn next week and the week after that.
  • I am too disorganised to go sans course book. To be honest, I tend to lose the words I’ve taught, and often recycling just doesn’t happen, or at least, doesn’t happen in any systematic way (unlike with the course book where new words and structures are reliably recycled).
  • My learners enjoy the security of having a course book and hesitate to make suggestions about what they’d like to do when asked. I think this is understandable – they’re tired after a hard day’s work, after all and don’t feel they want to do my job for me.
  • The material I find funny, interesting and/or thought provoking does not necessarily correlate with my learners’ idea of what constitutes a good time.
  • When I am absent from work a course book helps a cover teacher know where I’m at and what I’m doing (rather than forcing them to go Dogme with a group of people they don’t know).
  • I don’t find the course book a strait jacket. I can use it to head off on tangents where appropriate. Course book activities can be used as a springboard to take my learners to other places, and with a little forethought content can be personalised and related to local events and contexts.

Where this is all going

Over the next few posts I will be reviewing three leading course books. These course books will be evaluated under the following headings:

  • Appeal to teacher
  • Appeal to learners
  • Content
  • Focus on skills
  • Focus on lexis
  • Opportunities for localisation and personalisation
  • Springboardability

First up will be Navigate B1 + written by Rachael Roberts, Heather Buchanan and Emma Pathare and published by Oxford University Press. Watch this space!

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4 Responses to Oh heck – not another course book debate post!

  1. geoffjordan says:

    Hi Genevieve,

    I enjoyed your articulate contribution to “the never ending course book debate”. Just one thing. I tried not to indulge in any ad hominem attacks on Dellar, despite his frequent use of them in his replies. If you tell me where my lapses are, I’ll immediately delete them.

    I look forward to reading your coursebook reviews.

  2. joco75 says:

    Hi Geoff,

    Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog. I only recently discovered yours and have been enjoying it immensely, although I still have a good deal to catch up on.

    Now onto the subject of ad hominem attacks… From my understanding of it, this term describes a kind of argument which attacks the person (rather than the argument itself). At the end of your blogpost “Dellar defends the coursebook” you describe Hugh Dellar as being “too busy peddling his wares to bother with principled criticism”. Isn’t this an attack on a man you see as being unprincipled and greedy?

    Having said all this, I have myself only recently begun to read up on critical thinking. If it turns out that I have misused the ad hominem term, then I apologise and will happily delete the offending paragraph in my own blog post.

  3. geoffjordan says:

    Hi Again,

    Well, I think that counts as a parting crack, and not really part of my argument against coursebooks. I didn’t say, or even imply, that Dellar was wrong because he was too busy peddling his wares to bother with principled arguments; I said he was wrong because what he said was either untrue or failed to address my arguments. If that’s the only example you saw, then I feel OK. But please don’t delete anything from the post. When you’ve done your reading, you’ll probably decide that my remark counts as an ad hominem attack on Dellar, but just in case you don’t, you can say “given the amount of soi-disant critical thinkers involved in the debate, ad hominem attacks are surprisingly frequent, although Geoff himself doesn’t stoop so low.” 🙂 And just BTW, my remark doesn’t infer that I see Dellar as being unprincipled and greedy. I commented on a decision he made on a particular occasion, and that doesn’t infer a general judgement on his character. Dellar often makes the same fallacious inference. When I say, for example, that Dellar’s reply is a badly-written string of non-sequiturs, he accuses me of insulting him, but of course I’m doing no such thing. It’s important to distinguish between the meaning of the statement “You’re stupid” and the very different statement “What you just said was stupid.”

  4. joco75 says:

    Thanks for this, Geoff. I do see your point, although I can also see why Hugh Dellar felt personally insulted.

    Anyway, plenty for me to think about and a lot more reading to do! 🙂

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