Summary of #ELT Chat Discussion on “How to avoid death by course book: suggestions and advice for teachers stuck in a very regimented teaching situation.”

Course books. Manna from Heaven or spawn of the Devil? Well, during the #eltchat discussion at 12.00pm on Wednesday 11 June 2011, we managed to firmly establish, via a “fast and furious” (as described by @hartle) debate, that I could barely keep up with (!!), that the answer is, in fact, neither of the above.

Welcome to my summary of the #eltchat discussion topic that took second place in this week’s poll. [This is my first #eltchat summary and the topic was my first #eltchat topic nomination. {As you might have guessed, I’m new to this Twitter game!} Today, the 11th June 2011, is also the first time–on attempt number 3!–that I have managed to successfully participate fully in an #eltchat discussion. “Hat trick” and “Red Letter Day” spring to mind!!]

The topic of coursebooks–and how to avoid death by them–inspires strong feelings amongst ELT teachers and tonight was no exception to this. I will attempt to summarise, as best I can, the opinions and suggestions put forward. I will also avoid giving too much word count to that overly-voiciferous @LizziePinard, as we can all agree her situation with regards to course books is beyond repair and the only real solution for her is to continue to do her best for the remaining weeks before she moves on… (;-) ) I will, however, indulge myself by adding an extra section at the end of this post, in which I will reflect on the topic. I will also make it clear when this begins so that those who wish only to read the summary of the discussion may stop reading!

Ok, let’s start on a happy note! When are course books a good thing?

@rilberni suggested that course books can be useful for teachers with a heavy schedule who “don’t have time to create all from scratch from every class”, which was seconded by @shaunwilden who put forward his “36hrs a week” teaching days as an example while @barbsaka mentioned experienced teachers of her acquaintance who prefer course books so they don’t waste creative time on recreating basics. Course books can also be a Godsend for new teachers as they need to find their feet and learn so much, said @rilberni and @hartle added that the same is true of teachers books, which have taught her a lot over the years. Meanwhile, @bcnpaul1 sang the noble course book’s praises as a doorstop! Finally, a substantial number of tweets also came in support of @rilberni who reckoned “when you’re having a bad day, ‘let’s do the listening exercise on page 33’ is bliss”. (And let’s face it, who of us has not at one point or another in our teaching career been quite relieved to let the book take over the class for a spell! ;-))

So, if we can agree that course books are a reasonable invention, that can come in pretty useful, where does it all go wrong? The general consensus was that the problem does not lie with the course book itself. As seen above, it is a useful tool. It would seem that the problem often lies with the management. @SimonGreenall told us that many teachers in state schools are obliged to use course books because they ‘interpret’ the English curriculum. Whereas, in private language schools, of course, money becomes the reason behind the obligation. As @gknightbkk said, the book is expensive so there is always pressure on teachers to cover the whole thing at the expense of extending it.

@Chucksandy went as far as to say that the problem goes beyond use or non-use of course books, it’s “schools not knowing what they are doing, hiring teachers who don’t know what they are doing”, backed up by @harrisonmike who believes that management trust a course book more than their teachers because there is a lack of understanding of pedagogy. Meanwhile, in developing countries we also have parents who expect course books to be used, while dogme is considered to be very strange, as @yitzha_sarwono pointed out.

The final problematic element, when it comes to our friend the course book, is time. @Barbsaka rightly points out that often the course book is a good book but there is too little time to cover everything required (never mind delve into the wealth of learning that could be found beyond it!). @Marisa_C summed this up most succinctly by saying,”the excessive amount of material to ‘be got through’ chews into teachers’ creativity.”

Right, so thus far, we have determined that course books can be great but that limited teaching time and unimaginative management-enforced constraints can turn an otherwise sane, law-abiding teacher of English into a murderous mass of frustration! Now to the meat of the discussion: How can we prevent death-by-course book taking over in the classroom? How can we win the fight against becoming book-slaves? I was positively heartened by the buzz of ideas that was flowing in response to this question.

Here are #eltchat tweeters’ top tips for avoiding “Death by Coursebook”. I am including peoples’ twitter handles alongside their suggestions, so that you can contact them if you want to further discuss any of their ideas with them.

In no particular order, then…

1) Try to do at least one ‘books closed’ part of every lesson, e.g. have students brainstorm vocabulary and elicit example sentences before letting them look in the book. (@sandymillin)

2) Using a course book doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t!!) mean you have to do absolutely everything in it. Try to prioritise. Think about what your students really need from the pages in question. If they don’t need, for example, the vocabulary, then skip it. Try assigning chunks of it for homework and then pinning up the answer keys on the wall in class for the students to self-correct. Explain to students why covering everything is not necessary, and give them answers keys for self-study. (@Shaunwilden, @sandymillin, @barbsaka, @janetbianchini, @brad5patterson)

3) If you are selective, as described in number 2, this frees up some time, in which you can supplement with more relevant material. (@worldteacher)

4) Use the course book as a springboard to discussion and learner-centred work rather than be enslaved to it. (@hartle)

5) Try teaching the content with books closed. This way you can cover the same ground but in a more fun way. You can open the course books afterwards in order to review. (@barbsaka)

6) Use learning circles, where groups of students are working on different activities and then after 15 minutes they change activities. (NikkiFortova)

7) Use the course book like a good cook uses a recipe book. (@Chucksandy summed this up beautifully: “Good cooks know what can be left out of or put into a recipe, or added as a side dish. Good teachers using course books know the same thing.”) Or, as @OUPELTglobal put it, the course book should be used like a map with the route and pace being set by the students and the teacher.

8) Use the book as a framework but allow space for investigation and negotiation so that unnecessary stuff can disappear.(@emmy_c)

9) Don’t follow the book blindly, you know your students better than the book does! (@NikkiFortova)

10) Encourage new teachers to learn how to spring away from the book rather than using it slavishly. (@hartle)

11) Adapt course book topics to suit your students, so that you don’t end up with students like @Cintastella’s 76 year old dad, who is learning English with a course book that talks about teenage pop groups!

12) Give students a list of the topics, grammar and skills to be covered in the course book at the beginning of the course and have them identify the parts they find interesting and the parts they need. Keep returning to this to reaffirm. Also let students choose which grammar exercises to do during the course, first explaining what each one is for, so that you guide them to do what will be useful for them (@bcnpaul1, @cerirhiannon)

13) Look on publisher websites, there you can find lots of activities and games, for free! (@barbsaka)

14) Encourage students to keep a grammar diary, where they write sentences about themselves, using the target grammar from the course book. (@brad patterson)

15) Have the students open the book, look at it briefly, then close it again. Ask them what they saw, what they can remember, whether they can re-tell any of it. (@brad5patterson)

16) Stimulate student interest by encouraging discussion about the topic titles in the course book at the start of the course. Ask the students what projects might be good fun to do that could be related to course book themes. Ask the students to identify images or texts that appeal to them.(@harrisonmike, @kenwilsonlondon, @Chucksandy, @cerirhiannon)

17) If you are doing revision, let the students work at their own pace through the activities and come to you to check answers. Have extra tasks for the faster students. This is a way to avoid always teaching lock-step i.e. always at the same speed. (@sandymillin)

18) Localise the course book content: make links with the student’s world, their home town, their friends and family. Adapt the work, language analysis and further discussions to reflect this. Try using reader response codes instead of comprehension questions and taking the grammar points and/or vocabulary from the required pages to teach in a more personalised way. When working with vocabulary, have students extend the set according to their personal context and related needs. (@sandymillin)(@cerirhiannon, @hartle)

19) Set a homework task of planning how to teach the next part of the book. This way, the students have learnt it and thought about it, and you can do something else to use the language in class. Or give students a course book treasure hunt, so that they feel they have looked at the whole book even if they haven’t studied it in detail. (@bcnpaul1, @naomishema)

20) Variety is the spice of life: Try to keep the students moving, even if you have to use a course book. For example, use running dictations, different groupings for different activities, presentations etc Or, turn a reading activity into a listening activity, using dictogloss* (@worldteacher, @theteacherjames)

I think you will agree with me when I say this is a useful battery of tips to draw on for the teacher who starts to feel stifled by their centre’s requirements. Of course, when it comes down to it, teachers can only respond to the demands of the context they are in. As @ShaunWilden put it, “creativity is fostered by the micro-climate of an institution – not always self-generated.” So, perhaps, we also need to think about ways to address these contexts. For example, @Marisa_C indicates that very often it’s the parents who need educating about the role of course books in language learning. This requires knowledgeable and strong leadership from the language centre. @Hartle, meanwhile, would like to see DoS’s investing more in training teachers on how to use course books effectively.

There are, however, some things teachers *can* do, as well as drawing on ideas such as those listed in the twenty tips above. @Shaunwilden suggests that teachers should learn to recognize activity aims. Sometimes exercises 1, 2 and 3 are merely repeating the same thing in a different guise. @Rilberni recommends that new teachers learn the ropes and develop the confidence to throw out the teacher’s book. While @janetbianchini made the very good point that, yes, it is time-consuming to make your own materials all the time but they are good for re-using later and sharing with other teachers. (Wouldn’t it be lovely if this were common practice? A bunch of teachers being creative and sharing the fruits of their creativity with each other as well as their students, minimising the need for dependence on course books…)

To conclude this summary, let’s take a brief look at the future of course books, as predicted by the tweeters of #eltchat. @hartle believes that the future of course books is to adapt to 21st century learning. That is, to provide information outside of class and promote language usage inside the classroom. A “choose your fate” style course book was touted as a possibility and apparently, according to @hartle, the new digital materials/blended courses are supposed to be set up to offer something along those lines! We will just have to wait and see what effect this will have on the classrooms of the future… Whatever the future of course books is, it would be as well to remember what @yearinthelifeof pointed out to us: “The course book is the scientific element of language teaching. It’s up to us to humanize it.”

Thank you all for a stimulating discussion!

Now, here are the multitude of interesting links that were thrown up in the course of the discussion:
A Global archive of topical e-lessons. Popular with @hartle’s students who access them independently too.
@kenwilsonlondon’s webinar for @MacmillanELT, on adapting the course book. This is recommended by @theteacherjames.
@Marisa_C’s slide presentation that offers a great selection of ideas for adapting your course book.
@OUPELTGlobal wants us to remember the all-important issue of motivating language learners.
@Cybraryman1 shares his Curriculum Writing page
@ddeubel’s slide presentation on adapting course book material.
@marisa_c illustrates death by course book–for a 6 year old!
@ddeubel shared this essay by Jack C Richards about the role of course books in language learning.

– For those unfamiliar with dictogloss, here is English Raven’s detailed and useful blog about it.


As promised at the beginning, here are my reflections on the issue:

As the proposer of this discussion topic, I can assure everybody that the aim was not to suggest a course book bad/dogme good polarity. (I’ll leave that for the dogme experts!!) I believe the reality is far from that simple.

My current-but-not-for-much-longer-thank-God situation is one in which the length of the course is at odds with the volume and density of the course book. We have a new programme, but unfortunately it does not address the issues that plagued the old one. We have gone from using one eight-unit course book per course (too much!) to using one eight-unit course book for two courses. However, the units have also been trebled in length (So, still WAY too much!) Meanwhile, not only do the poor old elementary students still have to cover eight units in one course but the units have also been pumped up with an increased volume of material…

This, coupled with student obligation to purchase the franchise-made course book (money spinner!) and the management’s emphasis on using the book (the whole book and nothing but the book, so help you God!) makes for a very constrained position for a teacher.

Things happen in the outside world (for example the Royal Wedding) that I can not bring into the classroom, however rich in language and learning potential they may be and however popular it would be with the students, due to time constraints and course demands. This is the case EVEN IF the material were fitted around the grammar points under discussion in the book.

Students are expected to learn the vocabulary for the book topic and the grammar, as related to that topic, with the aim of passing a gap-fill and interview test at the end of the course, in order to get their certificate. (See my blog entry on “Re-evaluating value” for my views on such test-driven teaching and learning!)

So, the course book has become my enemy. I thoroughly resent it! Even though, in different, more liberal circumstances, I would, in fact, happily use one. I’m not against course books per se, at all; I’m not that extreme. What I’m against is the complete lack of teacher autonomy. *I*, the teacher, have to defer to a flipping book ALL the time! (I mean seriously, who knows my students better, me or a wodge of paper?) Much as I love books, I don’t want to be enslaved to one.

In an ideal world, I’d like to have the autonomy to pick and choose, when it comes to course books. I’d like access to a variety of such resources, that I could dip into and mix with a generous helping of authentic materials, a pound of student-centredness, and liberally sprinkle the whole with my own creativity and awareness of what my students want and need. Of course, I would happily do all this within the general framework/syllabus laid out by a centre’s course structures.

I’d also like to have the autonomy to discard the books altogether for a session or two when something real-world happens (such as the Royal Wedding) that I could exploit in the classroom. I’d like time to do projects on areas of student interest, and mine them for all the valuable language and skills work they’d yield. I’d like the students’ focus to shift from getting a particular percentage, deemed to be successful, in a gap-fill test at the end of a course to the actual learning and usage of the language throughout the course. Let them aim to use it more effectively by the end than they could at the beginning, for whatever purpose they intended, rather than for x %.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, I must continue to do battle with the ludicrous course content: course length ratio. However, thanks to my fellow tweeting teachers, I now have some extra ideas at my disposal that will hopefully give me the edge I need to win this ridiculous battle!

(And, as @barbsaka said: when I finally get free of the course book, watch out world!)


17 thoughts on “Summary of #ELT Chat Discussion on “How to avoid death by course book: suggestions and advice for teachers stuck in a very regimented teaching situation.”

  1. Great first summary -you’re a natural, and congratulations on the hat trick!
    I read all the way to the end and I can sympathise with your plight at the moment. I suspect (without knowing much of the details of your situation) that it is the franchise and their management style that is at the root of the problem. The situation you describe as being ideal is actually a very real one – one I’ve been lucky enough to work in for the 25 years of my ELT working life. I hope your next job takes you to one of these schools or organisations where the teachers and students are valued and the books are tools, not dictators.
    Thanks again for the summary,

    • Hi Ceri,
      Thank you for reading and commenting on my first summary 🙂 I enjoyed writing it! I might start writing “alternative summaries” whenever a topic really grabs me. (I wouldn’t have done one for the 9pm talk on being an online teacher, for example!)
      I believe I will be a better fit in my new job. My DoS to be has seen my blog, such as it is so far, and has given me a positive response, so that is a good start! 🙂
      Glad you enjoyed reading, despite how long it turned out to be!!

    • Hi Valeria,

      Thank you for stopping by and reading the summary AND the reflections. Glad you enjoyed. 🙂


      (Edit: There was one “and” too many there!)

  2. Great great stuff! I couldn’t stay for the whole chat, as I had a class at 12:30, do many thanks for this detailed comprehensive summary!

    Mike =)

    (PS – echo Ceri’s comment above. Good luck in your new position!)

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  4. I found the way you organized the multitude of information on the ELTCHAT into such a clear summary to be very inspiring and informative!
    I’ve subscribed to your blog.

    So sorry to hear of the restrictive conditions in your workplace! I’m not quite sure -are you moving to a different job? If so – all the best!

    • Hi Naomi,

      Thanks for stopping by and having a look! 🙂 Glad it didn’t disappoint.
      Yes, I’m moving to a new job soon. First a summer school in the UK, then a longer term job in Jakarta. Not sure how the former will be in terms of this issue but the latter will hopefully be more liberal than my current job, as far as I can work out! 🙂

      Now, I will try and find my way to where you linked my blog from and have a look!


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