going by the book

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I think even the most rabid of coursebook critics, amongst whom I count myself, would concede that, on the whole, published course materials have been getting better over time.

New examples of unsuccessful work will always come to light, and older gems will always lead us into the fallacy that “they don’t make ’em like they used to”, but it seems quite undeniable that the range and quality of material, created by the depth of talent, available to teachers today is overwhelming.

Of course, my use of the word “overwhelming” is deliberate.  While it is wonderful to think that there is such an embarrassment of material for the modern teacher, it is also obvious that this sea of stuff requires skilled navigation.

Published courseware is naturally used by teachers of all levels of experience, to a greater or lesser degree, but it is probably true to say that novice teachers make heaviest use of it.  They probably use courseware more often, and they probably use it more purely, by which I mean they subject it to less adaptation than more experienced teachers might.

This is a natural aspect of a novice teacher’s early development.  When I started teaching, there were four or five coursebooks available and they were all called Headway.  Today, the landscape looks very different.

The novice teacher learning the ropes today is faced with a vast range of allegedly supportive material, but if they are not careful, this life-raft in the early days of their career may well turn into a shipwreck in class.

Let’s look at a concrete example of what I mean when I suggest that well-meaning but unsuspecting coursebook writers and editors today are laying traps for unsuspecting teachers.

Let’s take unit 4.3 of Total English Intermediate (by Antonia Clare and J.J. Wilson, Pearson) as a working example.  Before going any further, it’s important for me to make clear that my choice here is purely illustrative.  I use the series myself frequently and willingly, and I like it a lot.  It just happens to include an example of a problem I think is worth observing.

The stated language focus for this unit is first conditional with if/when/unless/as soon as, and this is preceded by some text work, based on a reading, situated within the general topic area of spending and advertising.  An experienced user of courseware would look at this material and understand exactly what was going on; her or his internal conversation would go something like this:

“Aha, nice, some visuals to focus attention and some decent discussion questions to get the group warmed up and oriented to the topic.  Hmmm, halfway interesting set of texts, can make something of that…questions for comprehension aren’t bad either.  OK, where’s the move to the grammar point?  Aha, over the page, I see… examples chosen are from the reading texts, nice…nice practice ideas too.  More than enough for the hour I have.  Might have to strip down the reading work to start with, but that looks good to go.”

This probably took the experienced teacher a matter of minutes, if not a matter of seconds, to work out.  He or she probably didn’t even need to refer to the teacher’s book for any guidance.  That’s what professional competence looks like, in a way.

But what this apparently easy appraisal of the material obscures is the fact that the link between the receptive skills work (in this case a jigsaw reading) and the language work (in this case a focus on conditionals) is left completely unstated on the page at the point where the grammar focus kicks in (on p. 56, to be precise.)

At the outset of this section, there isn’t anything like “look at these examples from the articles you just read” or something of a similarly signposting nature.   Even more interestingly, after the guided discovery section has been completed, there is an instruction to “underline six more examples of the First Conditional in the three texts…” read earlier.

It isn’t a great demand to make the tacit connection between this instruction and the previously provided sentence examples from the preceding grammar focus stage, but it is nonetheless being made.  The teacher is left entirely alone to make this connection for themselves.

Now this is a problem for novice teachers for several reasons, the first of which will be obvious even to a layperson: people get lost without signposts.

It may seem patronizing or even just a waste of space to state the apparently obvious, but what is obvious to the writer may not be quite so obvious to the reader.  This is as true for my making this banal point as it is for coursebook writers who leave things of import unstated on the page.

This leads on to the next problem: for a novice, nothing is obvious unless it’s your own idea.

Understanding someone else’s thoughts or processes is always more difficult that doing things your own way.  This is not to say that the outcomes achieved will be better or worse, only that the grasping of what and how will be that little bit harder when someone else is telling you what to do and how to do it.

Why else do most of us ignore instruction leaflets and recipes?  It’s because they make our brains hurt, and there is a good reason for that.

Humans appear to have evolved in such a way that we perform as little conscious processing as we can get away with.  Note the word conscious here.  Our processing of a problem may be deep or shallow, but our conscious attention to this processing, and our ability to make this explicit to ourselves and others, is linked to the degree that we are forced to do so.  What Van Halen once said about the key to their success could well serve as a motto for our species: “in general, we try not to think too much.”

Then there is the problem of time, and more particularly time pressure.  Teachers tend to plan at speed, for better or worse, and even though a novice teacher will spend much more time planning the same lesson than their more experienced colleagues, they still feel like they are working as fast as they can.

Whenever anyone is trying to get somewhere in a hurry, the likelihood that they will take a wrong turn, or get completely off-route, is increased in the absence of clear signposts and landmarks.  It takes a skilled person to navigate featureless terrain, and it should be obvious by now that novice teachers, by definition, do not fall into this category.

So how can such a small lack of explicitness cause problems?  In one observed example, it led a novice teacher to completely fail to see the relationship between the reading texts and the grammar focus.  This led to their failing to see any relationship between the grammar focus section and examples provided and the overall context of the lesson.  This led them to view the entire context (including the texts) as disposable.  This, to cut a long story short, led to a planning disaster.

So what we can see is that this very small omission on the part of the coursebook writers (one which, in all fairness, appears not to be their default approach, but which for this very reason is all the more interesting and problematic) can lead to very large and challenging consequences for the novice coursebook user.

One could defend coursebooks on the grounds that it is not their function or duty to serve teachers everything on a plate; some thinking has to be done by the user to avoid degenerating from thinking teacher to mindless courseware technician.  And how far do you want to take this hand-holding anyway?  There is only so much available real estate on any page, and wouldn’t you rather it was taken up with more useful input or practice ideas?

Fair enough, but this is tantamount to suggesting that it is reasonable to expect teachers to see what isn’t there and, by extension, to read minds.  Would we consider it fair if the same attitude were taken towards language learners?  How about removing reading tasks?  Or those “now check your answers with a partner” instructions?  Or information about how language works?

Perhaps that wasn’t a very convincing riposte, or perhaps it was.  But as coursebooks are the way they are, and as therefore it is down to the novice teacher to watch their own back, here are a few tips to help avoid some of the more obvious pitfalls when using published materials.

  • Locate or develop any resources you feel you may wish to use (e.g. idea for a story, grammar reference to research a language area) and familiarise yourself with it thoroughly as early as possible.
  • If your lesson involves listening or reading something you have not personally created, actually listen to the recording or read the reading text before you start planning what you are going to do with it.
  • If you have a language focus lesson (grammar, function or lexis), do not assume that all you need to do is work through a page of a coursebook if you choose to use one: coursebook designers assume that the teachers using their materials know how to focus on meaning, form and phonology, and so they often provide less of this themselves – you have to fill this gap as part of your lesson planning.
  • To do this, some useful questions to ask the material as you read it include:
    1) is the target language presented in example sentences listed on the page anywhere?
    2) Are these examples embedded in any reading or listening texts preceding the language focus section (remember to read the typescript, and check at the back of the book for any reading texts relegated there)?
    3) Does the guidance in the language focus section explicitly tell the students to refer to the text or to use it in any way?  If not, might it be helpful to do so?
  • Do not make the mistake of bolting on a language focus stage of your own devising before starting with the coursebook material if you have a language focus lesson: locate how the coursebook is trying to do this work for you before bothering to create a custom-made solution to avoid useless duplication.
  • If you include any written practice activities or exercises for your students, do them yourself first and check your answers. If this activity comes from a coursebook you should check the answers in the teacher’s book even if you think you have answered them “correctly”; you may not have, or your answers may not match those of the coursebook writers for other reasons, and your students will always want to have answers in line with what they have been taught.
  • If you ever design an activity yourself, get one of your colleagues to try it out and take serious account of their feedback.  Remember: the end user is not you and will be seeing this for the first time.

And finally, to all the coursebook writers out there: never tire of stating the obvious to the reader.  We were all newbies once.

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