Lessons learned from the great ELT coursebook trawl

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been busy reviewing and road testing coursebooks over the past few weeks in a bid to get to the nitty-gritty of “What makes a good ‘un?”


I’ve been pondering this all week. As both ESOL teacher and materials writer I’ve been considering the question from two slightly different yet overlapping points of view.

These are:

  • Which coursebook best fits the needs of my multi-lingual ESOL learners? How can I adapt this material to make it work even better for them?
  • What has this coursebook-crawl taught me about materials writing?

Today, I’m going to focus on the second of these two questions. My blog’s strapline is, after all, “Ideas for ELT teaching and writing” and a glance at the previous posts reveals precious little on the latter theme.

So, what have I gleaned from all this reading and reviewing? In true internet flotsam style, here’s a list of 5 lessons I’ve learned. There are more, but summer is finally here and I have a tan to work on. *


1. Clickbait is Queen.

I came off Facebook recently. I am chronically weak-willed and waste far too much time being baited by articles containing interesting lists that I just have to read (5 ways to be more productive, anyone?).

I therefore hate clickbait with the dull anger of someone who has lost hours of their life to perusing it.

However, it works well for coursebooks. Why?

It’s accessible in terms of language and content, often funny and (crucially) it’s short. Clickbait reading text fodder needs to be a bit more than readable to work in an ELT course book though. The teacher needs to be able to link it to learners’ own experience. The topic of the text should also offer opportunities for further discussion and research. Finally, there has to be some payback for the learners: having made the effort to read the text, they should come away knowing something they didn’t know before (not always the case with some of the books I’ve been working with recently)


2. Worthy is not always worthwhile

ELT course book writers have worked hard to shrug off their “celebrity and consumer culture obsessed” image. After all, no one wants to read “Hello” style interviews with an ersatz version of Posh n’ Becks. Do they? Probably not…

Having said that, I do wonder if course books might be in danger of becoming a little too worthy. I was chuffed with myself for including an activity on Buy Nothing Day in a course book I penned last year (to be published later this autumn). Pretty original, eh?  I thought, patting myself firmly on the back. Then, last month, I opened up OUP’s new Navigate course to find a reading exercise on the very same topic.

To make matters worse, my learners didn’t seem very interested in the ethics of shopping at all. In fact, out of all the Navigate lessons I’ve taught, the one on ethical shopping seemed just a bit ‘preachy’. It seems a little as if the international thought police are now patrolling the streets of ELT. Where will all this lead?

Perhaps in a few years teachers and learners will be crying out for a return to a wee bit of glamour and conspicuous consumption.


3.Keep listening short, light and full of laughs

Listening texts work best when played multiple times. This just doesn’t work with longer texts – learners start to fidget and it’s hard to occupy the ones who feel they “got it” during the first listen.

Also (note to self and fellow materials writers) there is nothing like a humorous listening script – the coursebooks I reviewed were a little light on laughs. Learners feel proud when they get the humour in a script – it relaxes them and this helps them to listen more effectively.

When listening texts are airy, the tasks can be even more solid with plenty of opportunities for both repetition and the development of top down and bottom up processing.


4. A well- designed video lesson is worth its weight in ELT gold

Sounds like I’m stating the bloomin’ obvious here, but it has to be said. We all know learners enjoy watching videos. But a well designed lesson (rather than a hastily sourced YouTube clip with some discussion questions scrawled on the back of an envelope**) with a variety of comprehension and vocabulary tasks on an interesting subject really is a joy to teach.  Added to that, recent SLA research has shown the benefits of learners’ listening and reading subtitles simultaneously – possible with videos.

Hats off to the Life team for their great video lessons!


5. What is ‘real life’?

Looking back over my reviews, I see that I was frequently critical of the writing lessons. I have a thing for teaching writing, particularly “real – life” writing. On reflection though, what is ‘real life’ to my learners (CVs, council housing application forms, job application forms) might not be real, or useful, for yours.

However, it did strike me that the writing skill was, overall, a little underrepresented in all three coursebooks. GIven that we all spend so much of our time writing (texting, emailing, tweeting, messaging) I’m not quite sure why this is.

Well, that brings me to the end of the list. I realise this post has not even begun to navigate through the tangled undergrowth of second language acquisition, let alone tussle with grammar syllabi and lexical chunks. Perhaps next time…

The blog will be having a holiday until mid-August. Have a lovely summer everyone!

*Not so much work on a tan as make a vain effort to turn my poor lilac sun- starved Scottish skin a warmer shade of pink.

** I have NEVER done this, obvs.

Photo credits:

photo credit: N08/8689623437″>Crappie via photopin (license)

photo credit: N00/5162093700″>DSC07935 via photopin (license)

photo credit: N00/5286741251″>Op Art Holiday Card for Jeff Mahoney via photopin (license)

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4 Responses to Lessons learned from the great ELT coursebook trawl

  1. BerLingo says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Genevieve – as a newbie ELT teacher, a former publishing person and also someone who is keen to move into ELT publishing further down the road 🙂
    I totally agree about a good video lesson – I work in a big school where I often am asked to cover lessons, so having some good fallback video lessons is always a great option. I think Speakout has some great ones too 🙂
    Thanks for the insight into materials writing!

  2. joco75 says:

    Thanks for this, Rachel. I’m really glad you liked the post. I’m not familiar with Speakout – so thanks for the recommendation!

    Hope life in Berlin is still treating you well….

  3. Nicola says:

    I think writing is under-focussed on too but the problem is that teaching it via the styles those mediums like Twitter, email etc need ends up outdated once a book comes out. Only online courses could probably manage it as they can be more reflective of the times.

    • joco75 says:

      Hi Nicola,

      Thanks for commenting! Very nice to see you here.

      Yes, I see what you’re saying – publishers need to “future proof” their books or else risk appearing terribly dated a few years down the line.
      To whatever extent mediums evolve over the years, I believe that (broadly speaking) what we need to teach will not change that much. Whether teaching learners to structure a written argument (either on an online discussion forum or blog post), write delicately yet firmly (whether via email, messenger or by good old snail mail), or sell yourself to a potential employer (either on LinkedIn or traditional CV) the set of sub skills we will need to teach will be broadly similar.

      I felt that these sub skills were underrepresented in the course books I reviewed.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment,


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