Please don’t shoot coursebook writers, they’re doing their best
By Vince Palombo
ELT textbooks still attract harsh criticism from many teachers, who say that topics are trite and uninspiring, and that coursebook units revolve around ‘grammar McNuggets’, as Scott Thornbury (2010) calls them. In this article, I’d like to counter these arguments.
The IH YL conference which took place in Reggio Calabria, Italy in March 2018 was a great opportunity to exchange ideas with teachers working in different countries and cultural contexts. As we all know, the small talk we make with colleagues at these events — we’re always talking shop, aren’t we? — can be as interesting as the training sessions we attend and the speeches we listen to.
From my point of view, it also confirmed the existence of a widespread anti-coursebook climate. I believe it’s worth taking a closer look at two of the main arguments advanced by opponents of coursebooks.
Holidays or euthanasia?
First of all, the stereotyped topics covered in textbooks draw heavy criticism. “Oh no, not another unit on holidays!”, thinks the poor teacher who’s had enough of talking about tropical islands when it’s a cold January day in Warsaw. She’s rightly frustrated, but that topic is there for a reason: apart from its wide appeal, learners are likely to discuss it with other English speakers in real life. How much time do we spend talking about the weather in our daily lives? So, I guess this bland conversation topic deserves to be part of our textbooks, too. It’s up to coursebook writers — and to teachers — to make such units more exciting.
A heated debate on euthanasia would certainly make our dull winter evening in Warsaw more interesting. But would it be appropriate? The PARSNIP policy, according to which politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, -isms and pork are taboo in coursebooks, seems to be based on rational arguments, and the fact that these books are written for the global market is just one of them. Fourteen-year-old Rocco from Reggio Calabria, who wants to know how much I earn, needs to understand that he shouldn’t ask his host family in Leicester why they don’t believe in God — the answer might come as shock, anyway. As for adults, I’m sorry but I’m still trying to forget the class debate that followed Donald Trump’s presidential election victory. At least I can say it was the students’ idea. Never again.
This doesn’t mean we should censor any sensitive issue and spend our lessons talking about the weather. On the contrary, although we should ponder the appropriateness of certain topics. It is our duty to foster critical thinking among teenagers, especially in countries like Italy, where such skills aren’t always promoted by state school teachers.
However, while we’re busy looking for stimulating lesson topics, we seem to ignore the risk of ‘preaching’, of influencing our students to accept our own beliefs and moral values. Such influence can be exerted unintentionally, or simply because we think we’re sharing positive ideas, but it’s always intrinsically wrong. No matter how strongly we believe in veganism, Conservatism or Sardinian separatism, we shouldn’t try to convince our students of the worthiness of our cause. We should keep our secular religions to ourselves and teach teenagers to think independently and to base their opinions on individual reasoning. I don’t think teachers are responsible for making a better world, but we can certainly improve our social micro-context by nurturing critical thinking. And there’s nothing cynical about this.
Another common complaint is that the Weltanschauung expressed in ELT coursebooks is excessively Anglocentric or Western-centric. Finding the right balance between a global, multicultural approach and the need to promote comprehension of the sociocultural contexts of English-speaking countries is a delicate task, but common sense tells us that learning a language means understanding a different viewpoint on the world. Once again, critical thinking is the tool that can enable students to analyse, comprehend and accept different ways of thinking and living. Our sense of cultural guilt shouldn’t be stronger than our students’ needs and desires.
I like grammar and fast food
Some teachers openly express their loathing of grammar and gleefully boast that they don’t teach it explicitly. Others blush with embarrassment, shake their heads and admit to teaching it because they’re expected to do so. I belong to the lunatic fringe that teaches grammar and even likes it. I don’t think that over two thousand years of traditional grammar should be dumped and forgotten in the name of methodological progress — or in the name of ‘fun’. In my opinion, an approach that overestimates the importance of any system or skill — be it grammar or speaking — is wrong.
It’s certainly true that coursebooks tend to offer simplistic rules that must be taken as broad generalisations, but this doesn’t mean that such rules aren’t useful. Most of all, we shouldn’t deny that learning a second language as teenagers or adults is a process that involves a degree of rationality. No, it doesn’t just happen by exposure, osmosis or miracle.
They’re there for a reason (but please get rid of those typos!)
It’s normal for newly-qualified teachers to panic when they see a coursebook unit that focuses on a ‘boring’ topic. They worry about their students’ reaction and end up using self-prepared materials. Such work is invaluable and promotes professional reflection and development, but — when a book has eight ‘boring’ units out of ten — it can become time-consuming and stressful. The end product might not be up to scratch, and there’s also the risk of forgetting about the original syllabus, which is particularly dangerous when they’re teaching exam classes. I believe that experienced teachers who want to render a service to the whole ELT industry should reassure their newly-qualified colleagues that coursebooks are written by competent people — do we tend to forget that? — and can make life easier and better for both teachers and students.
On a final note, as a self-appointed advocate for coursebook writers, I’d like to ask ELT publishers to do their best to reduce the number of typographical errors that flaw textbooks. Such mistakes, which seem to be on the increase, are presumably due to the pressure of a global market that is constantly asking for new books and new editions. Nevertheless, getting rid of typos would be of great benefit to learners and teachers. And I’m sure coursebook writers would be very pleased, too.
Thornbury, S. (2010) ‘G is for Grammar McNuggets’, An A-Z of ELT: Scott Thornbury’s Blog, 18 September. Available at: https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/g-is-for-grammar-mcnuggets/ (Accessed: 25 October 2019)
Vince Palombo teaches at IH Reggio Calabria (Italy), where he enjoys preparing teenagers and adults for exams. He believes in applying common sense to teaching and is interested in literature, history, art, football and food (in any order).