Will we be using them in 60 years’ time? The future as a matter of course books

by Wayne Rimmer

There are multiple different contexts for teaching and learning English but the one common feature to be found in almost any curriculum is the course book. Many have been the prophets foretelling the end of course books, but their words have fallen on deaf ears if judged by objective sales figures: of the billion-pound industry which is ELT (Bryson, 2013), a good chunk of that consists in revenue from course books. From an IH perspective, several best-selling titles have come from IH authors, notably Headway by John and Liz Soars. Commercial success is not necessarily an indicator of quality standards but it does show the direction pedagogy is moving in. Money definitely makes the ELT world go round. You may love or despise course books but such is their importance to ELT, you cannot be indifferent to them.

As befits this IH anniversary edition, let’s review the course book trajectory into ELT. Smith et al. (2013) give a useful potted history of the development of course books during the 20th century and includes a reference to the Warwick ELT Archive (www.warwick.ac.uk/go/elt_archive), which is invaluable for anyone doing serious research into this topic. In the previous century, there were various English-teaching reference books and simplified texts around but what we would recognise as course books only emerged after the Second World War. When IH first started, the strongest title on offer was Charles Eckersley’s Essential English for Foreign Students (Eckersley, 1952). There were several innovations in Essential English which made it a proper course book. First, it was a full series of four levels. Second, it had a teacher’s book. Third, it consistently applied a particular methodology, the Direct Method.  Essential English really was the Headway of its day, going into several editions and still being in print in the 1970s.

The 70s was the decade which heralded the Communicative Approach and, starting with the immensely popular Strategies series (Abbs, Ayton & Freebairn, 1975), the trickle of course books turned into a flood, so that IH teachers today have a bewildering range of titles to choose from.  To see what is in vogue today, I checked the latest available sales figures from the major ELT bookseller BEBC and found the top 10 titles for February 2013.

1. New English File Intermediate Student’s Book

2. New English File Upper Intermediate Student’s Book

3. English Grammar in Use plus CD-Rom

4. Speakout Intermediate Student’s Book

5. New English File Pre-Intermediate Student’s Book

6. English Grammar in Use plus Answers

7. New English File Elementary Student’s Book

8. Speakout Elementary Student’s Book

9. New Cutting Edge Intermediate Student’s Book

10. Language Leader Intermediate Student’s Book

(Acknowledgement to Karen Bickers of BEBC)

Only one non-course book makes the top ten, English Grammar in Use, which, incidentally, is used as a course book in many traditional markets, like Russia. The titles and positions may change with revised editions and new products coming out but I would suggest that the dominance of the course book in the bestselling lists is a permanent feature of today’s ELT world.

The facts and figures make the course book look impregnable. Still, as mentioned above, course books have their critics. Anti-method advocates have always cautioned against championing a particular book with its set of assumptions and one-size-fits-all approach. The most extreme carnation of the anti-method movement, Dogme (cf. Meddings & Thornbury, 2009), basically rules out course books on the grounds that they condition the lesson and warp it away from the learners. Other commentators, less drastic with their recommendations, in arguing for better rather than no materials appeal to the mismatch between the content of course books and research into what promotes learning. For example, Tomlinson & Masuhara (2013) evaluate six contemporary – all first published this decade – adult course books on 15 measures only to be disappointed with the results.

Our criterion-referenced prediction is that most of the courses we have reviewed, whilst being very appealing to the eye and to those users favouring discrete focus on and practice of language items, are unlikely to be very effective in facilitating language         acquisition and development (p.248).

The parenthesis, ‘whilst…items’, implies two things. First, that publishers are aiming more at style than content, ‘appealing to the eye’; second, that decontextualised grammar and vocabulary teaching is of limited value. I would agree that the face validity, so to speak, of course books is being over-emphasised perhaps because so many users do judge a book by its cover. I take issue with the second point because there is not a convincing body of empirical evidence establishing that it is more effective to present and practise language in context rather than in isolation. However, this is a distraction from the main conclusion of the survey, which is a well-motivated caveat against trusting even the most state-of-the-art course book publishing.

Course book-bashing is a nice ELT pastime but it is important to be realistic. English teachers, especially native-speakers who are over-represented in private language schools, receive relatively little pre-service training and once in employment they face severe time constraints. Course books simply make the load easier. Yes, it is probably better to rely less on course books and produce your own materials which suit the specific needs of your particular learners, but the people advocating this are hopelessly out of touch. Hutchinson & Torres (1994) put this in a lovely metaphor: ‘everyone knows that it is better to bake your own bread but they still prefer to get a loaf down the supermarket’. Teachers are not blind to the drawbacks of course books, and like anybody in a consumer society they can be seduced by slick packaging, but they overwhelmingly opt to work with a course book rather than without because the alternatives are not feasible.

We’ve looked back 60 years and at the present situation but, returning to the title of this article, what of the future, will we still be using course books in 60 years’ time? None of us will still be in the profession then – unless the trend towards raising the pension age continues its unnatural course – so we can speculate in the comfort of knowing it won’t be our problem. I am sure that course books will still exist in some shape or form. The teaching and learning culture of ELT makes them indispensable. Technology will shake things up but, to echo an earlier point, we need to be sure that innovations are based on research into best practice rather than marketing considerations. Electronic publishing – anyone can get a book out there nowadays – poses an increasing challenge to the big-boy publishers and it will be interesting to see how they respond to this in the course book market. Whatever happens, the essential challenges of teaching a language, with the associated professional, social and ethical duties of care, are unlikely to be ameliorated. Course books will continue to fascinate and divide opinion but they are very much a sideshow to the incredibly complex question of how teaching impacts learning.

Author’s Bio: Wayne Rimmer is Director of Studies at BKC-International House Moscow.


Abbs, B., Ayton, A., & Freebairn, I. (1975). Strategies. Strategies: Integrated English Language Materials. Student’s Book. London: Longman

Bryson, E. (2013). ‘What makes a “good” coursebook?’ In The Newsletter of the ES(O)L Special Interest Group, January 2013 Issue 1, pp. 14-18.

Eckersley, C. (1952). Essential English for Foreign Students. Book 4. London: Longmans, Green.

Hutchinson, T. & Torres, E. (1994). The textbook as agent of change. ELT Journal 48(4): 315-328.

Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching unplugged. Surrey: Delta

Smith, R. Gray, J., Freeman, D., Wanjira Kiai, A., Tanaka, M.. & Banegas, D. (2013). ‘Symposium on ELT course books: past, present and possible. In T. Pattison (Ed.), IATEFL 2012 Glasgow Conference Selections (pp. 74-77). Canterbury: IATEFL

Tomlinson, B. & Masuhara, H. (2013). Survey review: adult course books. ELT Journal 67(2): 233-249.