This essay is taken from Conversation Cookbook—the new book from The ELT Workshop. We’ve been working hard on rethinking what a coursebook should look like and are excited to share our ideas.
The ELT coursebook (and its associated PPP framework) has been the subject of a great deal of controversy over the years. Frustratingly, for me at least, a lot of that controversy has centred on whether we should use coursebooks at all, rather than ways in which coursebooks can be improved. I say frustratingly as for most teachers, there isn’t really an option to stop using coursebooks altogether. Either because their schedule dictates that they rely on coursebooks instead of In this chapter I want to talk a little about some of the benefits of coursebooks, some of the weaknesses, and some of the ways I’ve tried to fix those weaknesses in this textbook.
The big strength of coursebooks is that they save time for teachers. I have worked in offices where everyone was teaching the same modules, but everyone was individually planning their own classes. This is a lot of duplicated effort. For freelance teachers, planning time is usually unpaid time. While for teachers in some language centres or schools, there may be little to no planning time allotted in the schedule. Having a coursebook can improve the lives of teachers, by saving duplicated effort, unpaid planning time or stopping them from taking their work home with them.
Another strength of coursebooks is the structure they provide. Having a pattern that repeats in more than one class means that students have a better idea of what is going on and can help them feel less anxious about learning.
Finally, coursebooks give teachers support to do things they might not be comfortable doing themselves. In English language teaching you can be asked to teach subjects or areas of English you lack experience in. For example, in my first year teaching academic English, I had to rely quite heavily on the coursebook to have an idea of what to teach. Without the coursebook, I wouldn’t have known where to begin with these classes.
Despite these strengths, there are also several problems with coursebooks. The traditional presentation practice production model is supposed to take students through a process of having explicit knowledge of a rule and then proceduralising that knowledge through practice. While there is evidence that explicitly known rules can be proceduralised, there is also evidence that a ‘little but often’ approach works better than the ‘all in one go’ approach taken by PPP.
Dörnyei writes that:
Some people can communicate effectively in an L2 with only 100 words. How do they do it? They use their hands, they imitate the sound or movement of things, they mix languages, they create new words, they describe or circumlocute something they don’t know the word for—in short, they use communication strategies (1995, p.56).
Communication strategies are a set of techniques used by speakers when they are struggling to express themselves. This poses a problem for textbooks as they generally don’t allow students to practice communication strategies. For communication strategies to be necessary, there has to be a meaningful communicative intent, but for most textbook activities this doesn’t really exist. For the most part students are saying what they are saying to practice rather than to get their message across.
The last issue is that textbooks can be deeply problematic. Coursebook authors use the acronym PARSNIP to list the topics that should not be included in coursebooks to avoid ‘offence’. PARSNIP stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms and Pork’ and while the intention of avoiding offence may be a positive one, the effects are overwhelmingly negative. Students end up not being able to talk about topics that are important to them. This approach often leads to a politically awkward approach to teaching. If you pick up a typical ELT textbook, so much of the conversation will be about spending money, travelling to different countries and general consumerism. While many students will be suffering from inequality or discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality or other factors, coursebooks generally train them to be good consumers rather than give them opportunities to discuss these issues that really affect them. Representation can be a huge issue in coursebooks too, particularly with an almost complete lack of LGBT people in most if not all global coursebooks.
Building a better coursebook
We have spent a lot of time since forming The ELT Workshop discussing exactly what format a coursebook could take to keep the benefits while losing their negative aspects. What we have come up with is a ‘cookbook’ model. A coursebook offers you a complete course to be followed through from the first to last page, while a cookbook offers you a set of ‘recipes’ from which you can build a ‘meal’ or whole class. With a real cookbook, you may be given some suggested menus, but no one is expecting you to follow these to the tee, nor are you expected to stick to one cookbook. Similarly, and ELT ‘cookbook’ can offer a suggested order of classes, but is equally suited to someone dipping in and out. You might reorder elements from an ELT cookbook or take from several cookbooks to prepare your classes. In this way, the teacher saves time without the more rigid structure of a traditional coursebook.
The cookbook model is not structured about grammatical items. We believe explicit grammar teaching is important, but this should be done on an ad hoc basis based on what the students are struggling to communicate. There are various other ways to structure a coursebook but one half of this book is structured around specific communicative and conversational strategies while the other is structured around topics. These types of strategies and topics aren’t subject to the same order of acquisition as grammar items. The ad hoc grammar instruction allows for the little but often approach that better leads to automatication.
A good cookbook is adaptable and gives suggestions for ways to adapt the recipe to your tastes and we believe the ELT cookbook should be similarly adaptable by students. This will look different for different types of coursebook, but for this conversation book, we have classes that teach and encourage students to change the subject and ask follow up questions. While this book is full of prompts to start conversations, these are a starting point and a safety net and we hope that students use these to start conversations about topics that interest them. This flexibility also means that problematic worldviews are not forced on students. We have included topics designed to have students discuss polticcal issues in a progressive way.
We think what we have put together in terms of changing the structure of ELT coursebooks for the better is significantly better than traditional coursebooks for both students and teachers. That said, we know there may be further improvements to make. We love to talk about this stuff and would love any feedback or ideas about coursebooks in general or this coursbook specifically. Leave a comment below or give us a message via @eltworkshop on Twitter.