IATEFL 2016 What makes an outstanding ELT coursebook? The publisher’s perspective (Heather Buchanan and Julie Norton)

The final talk I’m attending today is by Heather Buchanan and Julie Norton, who teach at Leeds Beckett University and University of Leicester respectively. They have been involved in materials development for about 20 years, from a theoretical academic perspective for a long time, and more recently worked on the Navigate series, which was a wonderful opportunity to see things from another more practical perspective. They did a talk last year about expertise in writing, where they asked writers and editors what constitutes expertise in course book writing but predominantly responses from writers. At the end, an editor said it was a shame that the sample was so skewed. This talk is to put that right!

Apparently the voices of editors are very rare in the literature.

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Heather and Julie are interested in redressing that so that expertise can be shared. Another reason to do this is because practitioners, teachers and researchers understand a bit more about how course books are produced. Understanding this helps to understand why materials are the way they are and understand the pressures that are faced in producing a multiple level series of course books in a short space of time. They’ve noticed in recent years at IATEFL that that seems to be a goal, for example with SIGs like MaW SIG and groups like ELT Teacher2Writer. They are all trying to help people understand how to write materials and get foot in the door. Heather and Julie hope to contribute to this process.

They have been collecting data since January this year, some of which before the MAWSIG day and have continued since and have x hours of interview data, which is a lot. They have learnt a lot from the process of interviewing people. They’ve interviewed 21 editors and publishers this year, some in focus groups and some in individual interviews. This happened over Skype. They’ve spoken to a variety of different kinds of publishers and editors both in-house and freelance, with various experience, and designers as well. So lots of different perspectives. It’s been interesting to understand more about the process of how course books are developed in this way. They have a lot of rich data even though it’s a small-scale study really. They thank all the respondents as it has been both useful and very enjoyable.

They are going to highlight some of the main themes and give their interpretations and comments on this. Then we are going to be asked for our opinions. As it is a workshop, there will be a few discussions as well. We are will look at the four research questions one by one, discuss them and hear about what Heather and and Julie found out.

Research Questions

  1. Coursebooks are now said to be more publisher-led than author-led. Why is this and what impact does it have on the end product?

  2. What makes an outstanding coursebook? Please give examples.

  3. What is the editor’s role in creating outstanding ELT coursebooks?

  4. If you planned to launch a new global coursebook series, what would you look for in an inital sample from a prospective writer? What skills do writers need to produce outstanding materials and how can these skills be developed?

Deliberately broad, in order to get people talking about it. The main question very broad – what makes an outstanding course book. They also tried to get at this idea of the course book being more publisher-led, in the development and instigation of ideas. They wanted to know why this was and how it affects the product at the end of the day. They were also interested in the editors role and in what publishers are looking for when writers send in a sample, what makes them take on a writer and what makes the reject? And finally what skills are needed, how can the skills be developed?

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These are some snippets from the data as an overview. We need to discuss them. Some are direct quotes and some are paraphrasing.

Following the discussion, we are asked for any comments we have on the quotes. The broadness of the questions allowed Heather and Julie to explore and then drill down into areas of interest.

Next we moved onto individual points.

Here are some of the things that people said in response to question 1:

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An audience member felt there was an element of truth in the digital uncertainty comment – there has been. For example the one laptop per child policy that got dropped.

Julie says a lot of people talked about the impact of technology but also about that course books are more market led than publisher led. A long time ago, teh author was more instrumental in the conceptualisation of the series than now and there are various reasons for that. Firstly, digital makes the projects huge, for example 450 people. Trying to manage that, including getting information about what is wanted by the market, what has to happen in house (Design, production, a range of editors, techie people, marketers etc). There is also huge time pressure to get all the levels out at the same time if possible, so if you have a six-level course that is a huge undertaking, maybe you have to split into two years. You also need to meet consumers’ needs in order for the book to sell. Some publishers draw on massive corpora that they have collected and use them to inform the materials. So it has to be publisher led as the publisher has the information. The impact should be positive in terms of people feeling their needs have been met. A problem might be that it lacks freshness as people asked what they want are unlikely to ask for too much change, they might want something very similar, leading to that “vanilla anodyne effect”. With some courses it might be possible to have the necessary local expertise in terms of authors, producing something for a clear target audience, which might be very positive. It might feel like the author’s role is downgraded as the publisher is trying to take on so many other views.

There is a tension or balancing act to try to innovate within particular constraints.

 

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An audience member suggested it should be user-friendly, easy to use. Another suggested it should be open to adaptation. Two closely related points, as Heather says. The person who said the quote in the orange speech bubble was talking about imposing methodologies on people in different cultures, whereas some people discuss it as including teacher training within the materials. It depends how its done, how its introduced, is it imposed or not. It’s a very complex issue.

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Heather said the first point was no surprise. It’s important to meet all kinds of different needs e.g. SEN. Will the students be able to relate to the materials? Then, the second point, the teacher needs to be able to pick a course book up, walk into class and teach from it, knowing it would be reliable and they wouldn’t have to spend a long time planning. However, teachers may also want to do more with the materials, adapt them, use some bits but not others. The tricky thing is catering for both types of teachers. Of course we also need to know that the course book is accurate, answers all correct. Then there needs to be a sound theoretical basis, which can be a range of things from being based on corpora, to the methodology used etc. The architecture is about the flow and shape of lessons and units, how they are built. People talked about the personality of the course book, based on the type of methodology, the look and design, the author voice, the kind of texts you are using. Some people also talked about it being aspirational for teachers, they may feel they are becoming a more communicative teacher by following those materials, for example.

Some finer points:

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Moving on to the editor’s role:

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Heather and Julie were interested in what the editors bring to the course books and found that some of the points were contradictory as the editor plays a tricky role and has to handle complex situations. They thought it was a nice way to look at it, to think of the editor as a bridge between the people involved in the process.

We are reminded that there are different types of editor, e.g publishing and commissioning, development/content, copy editors for the nitty gritty and there is also the free-lance/in-house editor split.

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As well as coordinating, feeding back information. Also sticking up for the author to the publisher and vice versa, so the critical bridge role. They might do some research post publication and realise that certain things have been omitted and produce pdfs to go online to address that issue. A crucial role is giving feedback on drafts, which involves being quite diplomatic, it is a complex relationship between author and editor. The editor has to represent different teachers to the author as the author can’t have experience of teaching in evert different contexts but the editor can do research into different contexts and feed that back. Often they have been teachers themselves too. They have to be devil’s advocate/critical friend, which is quite a challenging/daunting role (imagine doing it for Michael Swan’s grammar!). Authors are going through all kinds of things in real life – so, knowing when to send a bunch of flowers is important too.

We ran out of time for the remaining question/rest of the slides but are invited to email Heather and Julie to get them.

However, the conclusion is:

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The editor is instrumental in controlling quality in course books and sometimes we forget what a useful process it is. We often talk about how difficult it is to receive feedback but the end product is going to be better for that. Heather and Julie are calling for more transparency and communication about the process.

They agree with Tomlinson on the following and would love to be involved in the process! This sort of research could be really important to feedback into future products.

 

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It was a really interesting talk and it’s a shame we didn’t get on to the final question!

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2 simple ideas for adapting your course book

After a very prolonged silence (life gets  in the way dontcha know!), here I am again! Greetings, all. For my first post back, I thought I’d share two very simple ways that I adapted two standard course book activities from New Headway Upper Intermediate unit 1 (so this was a while back, as we are now on Unit 3, but it’s taken me that long to get round to writing this post!), which worked very well with my Level 7’s. Both adaptations could easily be applied to other activities of this type, at any level from pre-intermediate upwards.

At upper intermediate level, in my context, we have the luxury of TIME: instead of 6 units to be covered over the duration of the course, the magic number is 4. So, as I wasn’t in a hurry, and I wanted the learners to mine the maximum possible out of the activities in question, which are both linked with tense review, I did some adapting…

1)

Course book activity:

A grammar-focused warmer activity consisting of a list of sentences, a box of time expressions. Students to insert the time expressions into the sentences. The time expressions can be used more than once and some will fit in more than one place in a given sentence.

My adaptation:

  • Write each sentence on a separate piece of paper
  • Stick the sentences up around the room
  • Give each pair or small group (3) – depending on numbers – of learners the box of time expressions.
  • Pairs to go round the classroom, stopping at each sentence to decide which time expressions could be used with it and where they should fit.
  • Once all have finished, whole class feedback: the teacher reads out each sentence with the time expressions where students have put them. The class as a whole decides if the sentence is correct or not.

Benefits:

  • A lot of discussion, both at the pair/small group stage and at the whole class feedback stage: learners really engage with the language.
  • Pairs/small groups can see what other pairs/small groups have done, and decide whether they agree or disagree.
  • Provides a nice energetic start to the lesson, as learners are moving around rather than sat still.

2. 

Course book activity:

A set of sentence starters which between them will generate a range of tenses. Students to complete the sentences with their own ideas, then read their sentences to a partner and respond to their partner’s sentence.

My adaptation:

  • In advance of the lesson, teacher completes the sentences with own ideas
  • In the lesson, teacher focuses learners on the sentence starters and tells them that she has completed those sentences making them true for her.
  • Learners to try and guess what the teacher has written. E.g. for the sentence starter “At weekends I often…” Students might say, “At weekends, you often go out for a drink with your friends!” or “Do you often go out for a drink with your friends at weekends?“. Of course, the teacher can feed in clues to help the learners guess. This stages provides the model for the next stage.
  • Learners then complete the sentences to make these true for them.
  • Then learners repeat the guessing process in small groups.

Benefits:

  • The teacher can provide linguistic feedback at the modelling stage, if learners make mistakes when guessing. Learners will then hopefully produce sentences that are more correct than they would have been, in the subsequent stage. (Of course teacher monitors to check for any errors)
  • The activity is more interactive and engaging. Rather than a learner reading out their sentences and another learner half-listening, there is some genuine communication going on, which requires use of the various tenses under review.
  • The nature of guessing means that learners produce multiple sentences using the sentence frames and target structures.

Nothing very earth-shattering or “new”, no great deal of preparation required, but sometimes the simplest things can be pretty effective. This was the case with the two activities described above.

Hopefully, at the very least, I have reminded you of these two different ways of going about approaching the activity types in question: lately I have been reminding myself of various classroom management techniques via Jim Scrivener’s book of that name, so I am a fan of reminders!

Enjoy 🙂 (And I hope it won’t be so long till the next time I post something!)

Nigel Harwood: Content, consumption and production: three types of ELT textbook research

ELT Textbooks (or ‘coursebooks’): not just books, all the paraphenalia that goes with. The focus for today is on global coursebooks e.g. Headway.

Why should we do research on textbooks at all? 

  • One powerful argument: teachers have to use them! Most teachers in most parts of the world are required to use textbooks to some degree.
  • Often responsible for end-of-term exam content and things like that.

Important to see if they are fit for purpose.

  • research that has been done can be criticised for lack of rigour, so more rigorous research is needed.

Harwood proposes a research agenda for textbooks:

  • studies of content: look at what textbooks include and exclude in terms of language, topics and culture. So, traditional content analysis.
  • studies of consumption: how the books are used by teachers and learners. Looking at lesson plans, looking at what happens in the classroom, looking at how learners feel about the book etc.
  • studies of production: the process of writing, the process by which the book are shaped and distributed.

Why does this matter?

Content analysis: for accuracy and appropriacy

E.g. of a content study of language:

There are lots of studies comparing language in corpora with language in textbooks. E.g. Ruhlemann (2009) – reported speech in seven intermediate level course books and BNC data. Evidence suggested that the corpus wasn’t being consulted.

E.g. of a content study of culture: 

Solokik (2007) – focused on grammar books and found that they are helping to transmit certain cultural images.

Gray and Block  (?missed the date, expect you can find it on slides online at some point) – earlier textbooks contain more reference to the working classes, but in none of the books was there any discussion of class issues. This is part of the discourse of textbooks as entertainment rather than serious education. Nowadays, the working class appear in pictures, in service encounters, but still no discussion.

Limitations of content analysis: 

Only gives us the “what”, not the “why” – we need to talk to writers and publishers about that. Also doesn’t tell us how material is used.

Consumption studies

This is focusing on actual use. Why does this matter? Because teachers use books differently. We need to try and explore the relationship between teacher’s profile and what they do with it. A book could look fantastic at page level but be used ineffectively.

Shawer (??) divides teachers into 3 categories:

1. Curriculum-makers: rare use made, they make their own based on learners’ needs.

2. Curriculum-developers: use it but supplement it with own materials

3. Curriculum-transmitters: slavish use of the book

Teachers do use books very differently.

Why? The content affects use; the teacher’s beliefs etc; the learners’ needs, age, level etc; institutional factors

So textbook use is context-bound and influenced.

Harwood then told us about a study he did with his PhD student. They found “john” used the book very rarely and they looked more deeply into this via various means. Turns out he was a “curriculum maker”. Looked at an exercpt; John didn’t use it. Why? Don’t like the topic, don’t think it’s useful, don’t like the visual presentation of the book; the topic wasn’t suitable for the level (his learners’ level was too low); the learner age was wrong for it; it’s too Euro-centric etc.

This study took Shawer’s work further in that Shawer developed the categories, they looked an example of one and tried to identified the reasons why. The findings map well onto Hutchinson’s (1996) model.  Also shows how textbook use is mediated by the teacher.

Textbook production

How writers write, what publishers do and so on. Why does this matter? Can help us understand how difficult it is to write a book. Very easy to criticise a textbook. But studies like this reveal all the hidden pressures at work. Can also reveal things that writers believe and publishers believe. May explain why there are problems.

Bell and Gower (2011) – chapter about all the compromises writers have to make. The unenviable task of the materials writer; trying to be all things to all people, but with constraints of space, tight deadlines (affecting piloting).

The new book

Contains, amongst others, a study by Dr. Ivor Timmis (the one and only!) – describes his experience of writing a textbook for publication in a context he had no firsthand experience of. It discusses the compromises as well e.g. conflict between text driven approach that they wanted to use vs the requirement “there must be three grammar points per unit” meaning he had to put in exercises that he otherwise wouldn’t have. Some material had to be cut due to influence from the ministry of education via the publisher. Very difficult to meet all requirements.

Conclusion

These three areas provide us with a framework for future research.

Harwood also briefly discussed the contents of this edited book: a variety of studies related to each element of the framework put forward in this talk. It looks like an interesting book.