Since Monday, Mercury is no longer in retrograde and affairs are to be moving forward. Translated into the ELT world, this means fuel to the fire under the waning coursebook debate. There was a day-long debate yesterday on Twitter, and Peter Pun and Hana Tichá wrote new posts about coursebooks. Now although I don’t use coursebooks for teaching English, I understand Peter’s frustration. I used them a great deal in the past and I use them for teaching Czech but if I can make a choice, I avoid them for teaching English. My clientele, however, isn’t a mainstream one. I teach a lot of 1-2-1 courses or small groups and not general public courses or schools. So although I don’t generally like coursebooks – I find there is just too much content in them and they take me ages to get through – I have dealt with them and I know how to deal with them.
Mind you, I think we’re missing the point somewhere. In the debate, we hear words like neo-liberalism and the ELT industry and a lot of other serious, even political words. Now I don’t do politics. To me politics is a bunch of shadows, like my friend Ivo so well put it. Shadows that take different shapes for each one of us; and what one person might see as a werewolf another sees as a harmless butterfly. I don’t use these words in my normal life, why should I use them to talk about my lessons? It seems to me a coursebook is a werewolf for some teachers but a useful dog for another. Another commonly brought up issue is whether coursebooks are crutches for the new teachers or whether we should call them coursebooks or textbooks and whatnot.
Let me tell you one thing. In Czech, we call them učebnice, from učit se – to learn. So they are, in fact, learning books. And I really like that because that’s what they are. So I am going to call them that from now on. Nobody sensible can oppose the fact that learners need books to learn from. The questions I ask is are the current learning books designed to learn from?
To my mind, a learning book should have some texts to read, some vocabulary to study with indicated pronunciation and possibly translation to save me time looking things up in a dictionary, language explanations and tables so that I don’t have to work out the rules for myself each time; some audio to listen to with a script to read, and lots and lots of exercises in form, let’s call the grammar exercises, to practice the form of the language, manipulate the forms, learn the different conjugations and declensions and questions formation etc. It’s nice if a learning book has some cultural points and tips for learning a language.
A learning book should be here for the learner to study from at home, after class.
What I, as a teacher, do not need is the different tasks often seen in between – work in pairs and… do a class survey and…. Give me a text or an audio and I’ll give you a lesson. But please, do give me a lot of exercises so that I don’t have to think of twenty verbs for daily routines at A1 level which we could use to make questions to.
Czech-for-foreigners learning books are like that. There is poor funding in this country to produce books and the industry (here you go, I’ve said it) is not that developed. So we have some great books. Some common traits for my favourite books are: not photos but hand-drawn illustrations – which work just fine and even sparkle imagination; no teachers’ books – only occasionally there are teachers notes online; simple audio/MP3 CDs or free audio available online, which I love. I love the idea of not making too much fuss about audios and selling sophisticated packages in formats my PC cannot read. These books are often no-nonsense. When you’re in the Czech Republic, you need to learn how to go to the post office and what to say, so here is the language. The workbooks that come with the packages are full of exercises to practice at home, which is an absolute must if you want to learn Czech well.
It seems to me that the nowadays’ ELT coursebooks are there mainly to be used in the lessons, but less so to study the language outside lessons. The exercises there are insufficient. The keys are often poor or non-existent. Let us trust the teachers out there. Teachers can make fantastic lessons using very little material. It is the learners that we need to help, but we hear very little of the learner in the debate. Let’s think of the learner first when talking about language teaching.