Published 27th April 2017

the case for and against coursebooks

New English File. Cutting Edge. Total English. SpeakOut. Touchstone. Inside Out. Outcomes. These are just a few of the popular coursebooks in English language training. In our English as a Foreign Language classrooms, TEFL teachers use these coursebooks to help plan their lessons and teach the target language. They are usually chosen and supplied by the school and the teacher is given guidelines or a timeline for the completion of the book. Each student has a copy of the coursebook and the teacher should have a Teacher’s Book with answer keys, reference notes, photocopiable worksheets and extra activity ideas. Today we are looking a the case for and against coursebooks.

It all sounds pretty harmless, but some teachers love them and some hate them. What’s the big deal?

Let’s look at a few of the arguments in favour of and against coursebooks to try and unpack this controversial issue.

1. Coursebooks present language in a linear fashion

Coursebooks assume that we learn in a straight line. First we learn the first conditional, then the second conditional and only then can we understand and manipulate the third conditional. This makes planning and teaching a lot easier, of course, but it doesn’t necessarily mimic the way we really learn language.

How to make it work for you: 

Be open and responsive to your students’ needs. Utilise a dogme approach every once in a while to ascertain where your students are in relation to the coursebook. This will highlight what language points your students may still need to work on and which others they have a good grasp of.

the case for and against coursebooks

Read more: 3 Ways to Introduce Dogme Into Your EFL Classroom

2, Coursebooks present language to be learnt in bite-sized chunks

Each unit in a coursebook presents a snippet of language to be presented, practised and produced on demand. Again this makes assumptions about the learning process which is not supported by the research. Noticing, understanding and producing a language structure in 60 minutes will not mean that it is forever etched in our students’ minds. There are many other factors at play which need to be realised before a language structure can be classified as “learnt”, and coursebooks don’t seem to take these into consideration.

How to make it work for you: 

Use the coursebook as a guide. It is a helpful tool to have to show you which language items you should be teaching for a particular level. However, make sure you take your specific learners into account. Understand that you may need to supplement the coursebook to either make your lessons easier or more difficult for your learners. You will also need to incorporate extra activities for revision purposes.

3. Coursebooks provide us with structure

Having a coursebook allows us to plan relatively easily in advance. We don’t need to spend ages coming up with our own curriculum because we can assume the coursebooks have been based on research so they have a good foundation for their structure.

How to make it work for you:

Don’t fight the structure! Use the coursebook however you want but respect that the coursebook has been designed by professionals. At the same time, if you are still a relatively inexperienced teacher, use the curriculum as a way to get to know the capabilities of the different levels.

4. Coursebooks are teacher-centred

Coursebooks assume that teachers have control over the classroom. Coursebooks give the power to teachers to decide what should be taught, when and how. They do not take into account the fact that classrooms differ according to the students in it and that materials may work for some students but not for others, or that students don’t always learn at the same pace.

What’s more, teachers are the ones who decide what pages of the coursebook are going to be covered during a lesson. Teachers are the ones who can choose to do Exercise 5 but not Exercise 6. Teachers are the ones who are allowed to pick and choose what they would like to do in class. The learners generally have no say, which is contrary to our desire for a student-centred classroom.

Read more: How Can I Make My Classroom More Learner-Centred?

How to make it work for you:

Hand the coursebook over to your students. Give your students more autonomy when it comes to the coursebook. Give them the chance to look at the material and decide which topics they’re not interested in or which topics they would like to work more on. You can then adapt your lessons to take their preferences into account.

5. Coursebooks are a rich source of materials

Finding materials for your lessons can be incredibly time-consuming. We all know it’s possible and it contributes to our lessons being personal and relevant and all those other good things, but who really has the time to find age- and level-appropriate materials for all our lessons? Coursebooks are able to provide us with a range of reading and listening texts, as well as level-appropriate tasks to use in the classroom.

How to make it work for you: 

Be critical of the texts and activities given to you in the coursebook. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to use it. Make sure you choose whatever suits your learners best and if that means adapting or omitting any material, then so be it.

6. Coursebooks can be outdated or inappropriate

A major problem with coursebooks is that they can be outdated or inappropriate. Firstly, a coursebook may be using images or topics which are outdated for your students, not culturally relevant to your teaching context or inappropriate for your students’ age. Many coursebooks are Western-centric so you need to be particularly aware of this if you are not teaching in a Western country.

How to make it work for you:

Getting to know your students is essential in any EFL classroom and being cognizant of your teaching context will tell you if you are dealing with any problematic materials. If you do think it would be wiser not to use anything, there are plenty of resources available online for you to find something better to use. 

As you can see, there are definite pros and cons to using coursebooks. You may find you actually don’t have a choice in the matter – whether or not you use a coursebook or which coursebook you use. You will have to get to know your coursebook and find a way to make it work for you and your classroom.

Remember, even though it starts on Page 1, there is no reason why you have to use a coursebook in the way it was intended. It is a resource and should be utilised as such. You have more experience than the coursebook, so trust your instincts and use it as you see fit, to complement not dominate your lessons.