"Coursebooks are…"

Lewis Lansford

There’s a perennial debate in the ELT profession about the value – or lack thereof – of coursebooks in the classroom. The great Scott Thornbury and many other high-profile thinkers in our field often question loudly the value of coursebooks and argue that classrooms would generally be better off without them.

So when I asked a number of working EFL teachers to complete the sentence “Coursebooks are …”, I expected to get a thoroughly mixed response and was certain that quite a few anti-coursebook voices would be heard. I write coursebooks for a living, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that nearly all of the teachers who responded felt that coursebooks have their place. Here’s what the teachers said:

Coursebooks are…

… a good start.
… good allies.
… just one of many resources in ESL teaching.
… a great tool if used selectively and exploited, not just followed slavishly. I don’t like how people dismiss them out of hand.
… useful.
… like “pick and mix” sweets. I rarely use a full unit, but I start with photo or audio and then create a more personalised lesson.
… a useful tool that can been adapted depending on your learners’ needs.
… an essential tool but not the only one.
… limiting.

First the bad news …

I followed up by asking the teachers what they and their learners dislike about coursebooks. Here’s what they said:

  • Coursebooks can turn into enemies if teachers teach the coursebook, not the students.
  • Coursebooks don’t always meet my students’ needs and focus on structure too much.
  • I hate the fact that everything is thought for you and planned beforehand. Teachers have to adjust to the book and not the other way round.
  • I don’t like how the topics in them can become outdated very quickly. They’re out of date as soon as they go to press and so are only good for general topics. Books or units on technology date extremely quickly.
  • Students dislike the same type of tasks that are used throughout most coursebooks.
  • I dislike the heavy “heads-down” use of books in schools and the lack of ownership of language usage.
  • It’s impossible to write a book matching every student’s needs exactly.
  • Topics and language are not always relevant and often need to be supplemented.
  • Some coursebooks are too big or too long. It can be disheartening to only get through, say, three out of 12 units in a course.
  • There are so many coursebooks on the market and they are not all of the same quality, so it’s difficult for schools or teachers to select the most appropriate one(s).
  • The language is not always natural – for lower levels, texts tend to be graded and for all levels, audio material is usually scripted, which can make it very unnatural or artificial.


Then the good news …

Of course I also wanted to know what teachers and students like about coursebooks. Here’s what they reported:

  • Coursebooks provide basic framework lessons and so save time.
  • Coursebook structure is especially useful for lower level learners and for inexperienced or busy teachers.
  • I love the fact that they afford you time preparation – you have your listenings, your readings, your exercises.
  • They can be great for training newbie teachers. But teachers need to be trained to use them effectively.
  • Some students can be reassured by having a coursebook.
  • My students really like the songs and chants in coursebooks.
  • Students like the topics if they can expand on them and express their thoughts.
  • Coursebooks that rely on students’ personal oral input are effective.
  • Professionally written materials by experienced EFL authors and teachers are tried and tested.
  • Coursebooks contain some good ideas and topics that I wouldn’t have thought of. In ESP, they include specialist language that I might not have known about.
  • They’re good for audio materials and to ensure a balance of the four skills, and they often provide additional video, online, and self-study support.


Have we missed anything? And what about you – how would you complete the sentence “Coursebooks are …”? 

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