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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 3; Issue 5; September 2001

Short Article


by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings

HLT wishes to thank the authors and MET for permission to republish this article.

If you take the view that learning a language is like learning any other subject (history, maths, molecular biology...), and that it is best learned when it has been pre-assembled into bite-sized units (e.g. grammar mcnuggets), then a coursebook seems as good a way as any of delivering the goods. Moreover, if you view language as essentially "out there" – an entity external to the learners and their concerns, interests, desires, and needs – then, again, it probably doesn't matter a lot that the texts in coursebooks are necessarily pre-selected and pre-masticated by the absentee coursebook writer. And if you take the view that the teacher is a purveyor of socially sanctioned norms as to how the language should be organised and used, and that the teacher gains authority by proprietary knowledge of these norms, then a mass-produced coursebook seems a neat way of embodying that authority.

If, on the other hand, you take the view that language is an emergent phenomenon, and that the learning of it is a jointly constructed and socially motivated process, contingent on the concerns, interests, desires, and needs of the user, then the argument for coursebooks starts to look a bit thin. Moreover, if you take the view that the teacher's role in language learning is to scaffold these emergent processes, and that the teacher's authority derives from her ability to manage and facilitate the social processes out of which – and for which - language develops, then the coursebook looks positively redundant.

In fact, maybe the notion of coursebooks is something that has been mistakenly appropriated from another educational paradigm, a notion that has about as much to do with language learning as did the teacher's lectern and stick – and other items of classroom furniture once thought indispensable.

Maybe other subjects – like geography or history, or mathematics – do need textbooks, but we're not sure that language does. For a start, language is not a subject – it is a medium. Giving language subject status by basing the teaching of it around books is a sure way of paralyzing its capacity to convey messages. The medium becomes the message, and the only message. As in Today we did the present perfect. Not Today we talked about the meaning of life. Or What I did last weekend. Or Whether pigs can fly.

What does a coursebook bring to the language classroom? Texts? Would you ever read a coursebook text in preference to a text in a magazine, a novel, an anthology, an encyclopedia, on a website? Coursebook texts – because they are in fact pretexts for packaging the structure of the day - are dead on the page, and it takes all the teacher's skills to re-animate them for the learner. More insidiously, they have subtexts – the dissemination of cultural and educational values that may have little to do with the needs of the learner of English as an International Language – and may even serve to "undermine the alternative styles of thinking, learning, and interacting preferred by local communities".

Besides, there's no shortage of texts in the world without re-packaging them in coursebooks. Even for learners who don't have access to the internet, there are very few who can't get their hands on English language print material. (We know of a teacher whose class agreed to subscribe to Cosmopolitan: this was their textbook for the year). And then there are the learners' own texts, reformulated from their first language into their second: these constitute a highly potent and exploitable source of language use. And there are the teacher's texts, and graded readers, and real books. A classroom library of cheap readers and magazines is worth any number of overpriced coursebooks.

What else, apart from texts, are coursebooks good for? Facts about the language – specifically grammar and vocabulary. But these facts are much more conveniently and durably packaged in other kinds of books. Let the students buy a grammar and a dictionary – there are plenty of serviceable student grammars and dictionaries on the market and they will get much more value out of one cheap grammar than a whole series of expensive coursebooks. (To follow an English course for five years in Spain, for example, students will have to fork out something like a hundred and fifty pounds on coursebooks and workbooks alone, whereas a grammar and dictionary would set them back a mere tenner).

The coursebook also provides tasks – activities designed to stimulate communicative interaction. We argue that many of these so-called activities are in actual fact passivities, serving merely to put words into their mouths rather than as vehicles for the communication of their own meanings. Rather than stimulate, they simulate. Michael Swan characterised coursebook "communication" as being of the type: "You are George – ask Mary what she does at Radio Rhubarb", and added: "There are times when the same language practice can take place more interestingly and more directly if the students are simply asked to talk about themselves", a view that we Dogme teachers hold as axiomatic.

What else does a coursebook offer? A "coherent syllabus", Jeremy claims – "the result of many years of experience and… much research and discussion". The result of many years of carbon copying, more like it. Syllabus design is largely a process of reproduction, the "original" lost in the mists of time and based on no other principle than a long since discredited view of structural complexity. Would this matter if the canonical syllabus were a good one – a serviceable blueprint for learning? Unfortunately, there is not a lot of research evidence to suggest that grammar mcnuggets are internalised in the order and at the pace they are delivered. Coursebook syllabuses have about as much relation to learning processes as the night sky does to whether you will be healthy, wealthy or wise. Yet coursebook writers make claims that no experienced teacher could possibly take seriously, such as: "By the end of Level 1, students will have learnt to express themselves simply but correctly in the present, past and future…" And pigs will fly.

Finally, the case for coursebooks is argued on the grounds that they fulfil the learners' need for, and expectation of, a planned and systematic curriculum. A "Dogme colleague", David French, solicited his Polish students' views on this. Here is what one (Agnieszka) said:

    I think that learning English or any other foreign languages could be interesting using coursbooks or not. Using coursbooks sometimes is the easier way to teach, because the man who teachs don't have to think what to do on classes. Pupils do everything or quite everything from the book, but sometimes they don't wonder if it's important for them or not. My opinion is, that lessons without coursbooks are more interesting, because everybody takes what is needed (for him) especially when you want to learn more practical, not only grammar constructions. Having no books requiers imagination and makes people more open for other things. Besides most of people who learn English, have it amost every day because of films, songs, public use things.

What is left, then, of coursebooks, when you take away their texts, their tasks, their teachings? Not a lot. What happens if you remove them entirely? The visionary New Zealand educationalist, Sylvia Ashton Warner, burnt hers and discovered that "teaching is so much simpler and clearer as a result. There's much more time for conversation … communication. (You should have heard the roaring in the chimney!"


1 Pulverness, A. 1999. 'Context or pretext? Cultural content and the coursebook'. In Folio, 5, 2: 5-10

2 Canagarajah, A.S. 1999. Resisting linguistic imperialism in English teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 104.

3 Swan, M. 1990. 'A critical look at the communicative approach'. In Rossner and Bolitho (eds.) Currents of Change in English Language Teaching.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 94-95.

4 Oxenden, C. and Seligson, P. (1996) English File, 1 (Teachers' Book). Oxford: Oxford University PressΈ p. 8.

5 Ashton-Warner, S. Teacher. 1963, 1980. London: Virago, p. 119.

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