Views on coursebooks


July 29, 2012 by Willy Cardoso

Following Dick Allwright (1981), here are two views concerning classroom activities which are predetermined by coursebook syllabi, practice of which is among the most common ways of teaching, as far as I could notice.

The deficiency view: coursebooks are needed to compensate for teaching deficiencies, to make sure the content of the lessons are well thought out and covered properly. In essence, it seeks a teacher-proof curriculum, i.e. a curriculum that regardless of who delivers it has its aims achieved. And this is only achieved if there is a high degree of control over what is taught, how and when. This became a predominant system in the teaching of English as a Foreign Language mainly because of the rather informal nature of the job, which is largely performed by what in the profession is, unfortunately, known as backpacker teachers (low-qualified traveling native-speakers of English). For example, it is widely known that to teach in a private language institute in the UK one needs no more than a 4-week certificate course in TEFL, and in some other countries (my native Brazil for example) one needs only to speak the language well (in some desperate cases not so well).

The difference view: coursebooks are needed because decisions are best made by experts (authors and publishers) since they have a different expertise from that required of teachers.

For some this conception may seem to ‘reduce’ the teacher to the role of mere classroom manager. For others, it ‘frees’ the teacher to develop the expertise needed for dealing with practical and fundamental issues in the fostering of language learning in the classroom setting (Allwright, 1981: 6).

The difference view, if taken, creates a clearer division of labor; one which places the teacher at the bottom of the education hierarchy, making him/her an operator of materials and curricula created by others who are better credentialed (and better paid) to make such important decisions.

Although the two points above must seem reasonable due to various circumstances, they do neglect the fact that, quoting Allright:

“the question of who takes the decision might be more important than the question of whether or not the ‘best’ decision is always taken”

Having worked not only as a teacher, but also as an academic manager and recently as a materials writer, I know quite well when and why coursebooks are needed, and in many cases, at a practical/efficiency level, I actually support the use of coursebooks. They can, in the end, save time in planning, syllabus design, training, etc. And when working for the sake of profit (like any business I suppose) these are important factors. However, I have also come to realize how coursebooks can easily support laziness, more precisely intellectual laziness, for teachers might easily just follow the book at the expense of more careful consideration of matching students’ needs and learning materials. But then again, it’s the teachers’ fault, isn’t it?

It is perhaps unnecessary another debate on coursebook. But I feel the coursebook debate has gone a little too much like some talks on tobacco and alcohol. Lots of people blaming the producers, forgetting a bit that the consumers is just as important. So I reckon coursebook aren’t gonna get any better if we keep saying how ‘evil’ publishers are, but only when (a) we become critical of other aspects, such as economical and political ones across schools and their market places; therefore (b) starting to demand solutions that are educational as much as they’re economical and political; and ultimately (c) developing critical teachers who can actually care about the choice of materials given to them and who are (d) resourceful in their material selection and, perhaps, creation.


Allwright, R. L. (1981) ‘What do we want teaching materials for?’ ELT Journal 36(1) pp. 5-17.


31 thoughts on “Views on coursebooks

  1. I’ve taught in all sorts of contexts, some of which were totally bookless and learner centered, especially in ESP settings where the student brought me their expertise and I brought them the language they needed in the real world. I prepared all the materials myself and that was back in the early 90s when we didn’t have internet in Brazil. We did a good job but I would have liked to have a coursebook to share the burden of lesson planning. First of all, coursebook writers are not to blame if their materials don’t meet specific students’ needs. It is the teacher’s judgement, adaptation, and implementation of tasks and language within the coursebook that lead to successful learning. By adaptarion, I mean relating the materials to students’ specific context and needs. Here in Brazil we teach monolingual classes whereas in the UK, where many materials are written and published, many classes are made up of mixed nationality groups. That being said, it’s only natural that coursebook writers may have that reality in mind, but I think we’re going more global and more and more people are writing EFL materials that cater for different realities all over the world. Finally, language institutes and schools have an enormous impact on the coursebook content and delivery depending on their beliefs of how a lesson should be. They may even prescribe which contents can be used — and how ithey should be delivered. Even books written under the communicative approach beliefs can be adapted to fit a different methodology. It is not uncommon for directors of studies to tell teachers how many pages should be covered each class or which lessons should be left out only to meet operational needs. It usually backfires in one way or another: teachers under pressure to cover the material and students who can’t cope with the demands of short-term learning and test backwash teaching as if a certificate of course completion were the same as effective learning. Unfortunately, this is how many materials written with the best of intentions end up being used. However, any coursebook that is wisely used by experienced or even novice teachers who have their students’ needs in mind are welcome and sharing the workload with a writer can help teachers enormously to select and implement tasks and language practice in various contexts.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Teresa!

      On the whole, I agree with you. You say we’re going more global and that it can be good; on the other hand, the production of global coursebooks is still abundant, and when done right, it’s a major hit for publishers. This is a bit frustrating for markets like Brazil, which gets a complete ‘sanitized’ version of language learning materials since it’s many times the same material they use in stricter countries, like Turkey for example; when in fact Brazil is one of the first places we could actually have books that are genuinely heavy on critical thinking and taboo topics.

      • Teresa Gomes de Carvalho says:

        Hi Willy, thank you for your feedback. You know, I hadn’t thought about that. It is really true that Brazilians are more open to critical thinking and taboo topics and yet we use materials that avoid such discussions. However, the internet can add a lot to our classes if we know where to look for extra resources . One thing I can tell you is that coursebooks are much better nowadays and many of them offer online resources for further learning — still a lot of room for improvement in this area, though, since some resources are merely a list of extra exercises or test-your-english types rather than engaging collaborative tasks.

  2. I don’t think course books are the root of all evil. I think they help teachers make sure their classes are well balanced. Teachers of EFL these days aren’t paind enough money to develop fresh new classes e very time, nor do we have the time. I use course books and sometimes I don’t. Even though I don’t think my teachin is lazy or uninteresting or without thought. There are some good course books out there, but it’s up to the teacher to dose them correctly while teaching. It’s getting harder and harder to stay in this profession and we need all the back up possible to make working easier. Teachers need to preserve just a bit more of their leisure than they do because that’s what encourages them and makes them creative in teaching.

    • Every now and again, I talk to one workmate about how great it would be if we taught half the number of lessons we usually do, but with this new spare time dedicated to preparing the lessons with much more individualization for students; but of course we would need to be paid accordingly. So, yeah, I agree with you, with current pay conditions who would really want to spend even more time creating new lesson plans when there are plenty out there already?
      I know a lot of teachers who do that, but even so they’re a minority.
      Another point, and one that appeals to me very much, is to start to focus not on pre-planned materials firstly, but on natural conversations and interests that come up in the course and use them (also because they’re already there – no need to import) as a syllabus leader, know what I mean?
      That way, a lot of the work is actually ‘planned’ in-lesson.

  3. Coursebooks are NOT the root of all evil. But the grammar syllabuses on which they are based ARE the root of all evil. Until coursebooks free themselves from the narrow, mean, costive, hand-me-down grammar syllabus, they will never address the needs of a truly Communicative (capital C) curriculum.

    Great post, Willy, by the way!

    • phil wade says:

      There’s a great name for a new blog or even book ‘grammar is evil’. It does upset me that when you look at some there light be skills sections and input, speaking, vocab etc sections all in the contents but if you look closely everything is adapted and warped to fit the bl@@dy grammar. This means texts and listenings and even discussion bits are all moulded round the grammar of each unit. It also means that every book of the same level will always have the same progression. How dull! Why are people so afraid to put the grammar to bed? Perhaps because they were taught in a grammary way and this is still the case in many countries.

      I was going to mention something related to this on my blog but this seems a better place so…

      I recently read a paper by an old colleague which he wrote about ELT and using videos but which was for a publication not directly related to ELT. Whilst reading I noted several Thornbury references to grammar and the importance of communication. On the surface he had quoted and got support for his argument that discussing the content of films was more useful nowadays than just doing gist and detailed comprehension tasks. Yet, that was it and the quotes were just quotes. He hadn’t absorbed them and tried them out and then come back to them, reflected on the ideas, his practice and then created his own beliefs. He was just following the dots and copying other people’s ideas and sticking them together with a bit of frosting on. This, to me, is what many grammar-obsessed books are like. They are bland grammar books with a bit of frosting on to look like coursebooks that force teachers to follow them exercise by exercise because they have to as the grammar thread runs progressively through every page.

      I bet if you look in your staff room at the grammar section then looked at which coursebooks were grammar-oriented then that section would get a lot bigger. I wonder which publisher would publish a coursebook with no grammar in?

      • Hi Scott and Phil

        I haven’t seen yet a coursebook that is not grammar-driven. I heard some people mention Widgets (I think) by Marcos Benevides as a TBL coursebook, though I’ve never had the opportunity to use it, or even hold one (!).
        [And don’t come talking about the Cutting Edge series, it is very grammar-led]

        So, I may say grammar-syllabus is the evil, not coursebooks, but if at least in my experience all coursebooks are grammar-oriented, hence… Socrates is mortal 😉

        What I’ve done though is to simply disregard the grammar point of the unit, and the linearity from which the book is based on and just use the themes and texts as springboard for some more messy language acquisition. Then refer to the back of the book, where a better explanation of the grammar is, when questions arise.

      • phil wade says:

        Sounds good Willy. I used an ESP book a bit last year that had tons of functional stuff but still grammar. Everyone complained about it. the grammarians moaned that there wasn’t enough grammar but the communicative folk said there wasn’t enough speaking opportunities. It just seemed to be really topic-driven but just didn’t please anyone. I saw the newish English for Scientists too which is great for those specific students and really covers stuff they need but I wonder how much grammar has influenced each chapter and the overall design.

        What I’ve been banging on about is having a book of basic units or just texts but the teaching having all the other choices in his book of tricks that he can EASILY pull out and work on without being a slave to following point 1 to 30. Maybe a bit like ‘make your own adventure’ books.

  4. I agree, Willy, that caution is needed so as to avoid this laziness when planning, but I guess the difference (especially in quality) lies in choosing whether to be a true, responsible educator or just someone transfering information. Coursebooks play an important role in our profession, but it is we who need to reflect on the best way to use them according to course objectives, integrating content with goals and interests while aiming towards achievement, satisfaction and growth.

    Nice post.

    • That’s right, Lucia, but, although I agree with you, I also see over and over again teachers who are eager to use less coursebooks but can’t due to institutional constraints. How to solve mismatches between teachers’ and other stakeholders’ expectations concerning pedagogy? That’s something worth a better look.

  5. Great post Willy!

    As we come from similar teaching backgrounds – though you’re in a different one now – I know exactly what you’re talking about. There are soooo many aspects to what you’re saying that I hope to address… I hope I can do it – and be clear about them.

    The first one is that yes, it somewhat provides a “teacher-proof curriculum”which unfortunately may be necessary in many contexts (many of which you mention in the post). Reality is, there are many teachers who lack the necessary training / ability / language skills to teach without a coursebook. Be it because they’re the “backpacker” teachers you mention, or because they teach in remote areas and have few resources… While conducting teacher training sessions I have come across some very committed, passionate teachers who just didn’t have access to the opportunities, materials – and whatever else you can think – you and I have. And that is by far not the desired setting, but it’s a reality and coursebooks are key to English teaching in such cases.

    I also agree with Teresa when she says it shares the burden of planning lessons, especially in contexts such as Brazil when a teacher has to take up one too many groups to make ends meet. I have recently met a teacher who had 21 (!!!!) groups, the largest with 70 students. How can she possibly plan for all those classes without a coursebook? Too many needs to attend, too little time, too little resources.

    As an experienced teacher, just as Teresa said, I adapt the classes and the syllabi of the coursebooks to best tend to my students’ needs. But I believe I am fortunate for being able to do such. I also have groups (and especially 1:1 students) where I can go coursebook free – or at least have a coursebook but not necessarily respect/follow the syllabus.

    But most and foremost I agree with you and especially Scott, that coursebooks are NOT the source of all evil. Passiveness may be. And especially having coursebooks that have grammar-based syllabi. We have to demand (and maybe even before that propose!) communication-based coursebooks. After all, our students want to be able to do things, accomplish tasks using the English language, and not just doing well in a test. And if doing well in a test is what they need, then we can use the coursebooks designed for that!

    Bottom-line, I agree with you we have to start demanding a change in coursebooks. But I’m afraid before we do that, we may have to change the mindsets of students and parents around the world who still see grammar as the core of the English language. Critical thinking, anyone?


    • Hi Willy,
      While I agree with you that using a coursebook might encourage some teachers to go on automatic, as it were, let’s – for the sake of argument – imagine a coursebook-free world, where teachers would need to draw up some sort of syllabus, choose their own texts and create their own tasks, based on their students’ (perceived) needs and on their own (perhaps still subconscious and inarticulated) beliefs. Can we automatically assume that those teachers – enhtusiastic, well meaning and committed as they might be – will have the necessary skills to write their own lessons (in a way that is minimally conducive to learning)? I don’t think so.
      The more teachers I meet / train / observe, the more I convince myself that the ability to write good, coherent, interesting materials is a skill in its own right, which is not necessarily realted to one’s command of L1, classroom management, ability to convey meaning, etc. If I were an editor, of all the teachers I’ve met since 1990, I’d only have three or four names I’d consider commissioning to write a book.

      • I agree, writing materials and teaching are different skills, with some overlap of course. I tried to imagine your coursebook-free world – it was difficult 🙂
        I’d say it wouldn’t be desirable for each and every teacher to design their own stuff, but for example, if in a given setting (a school for example) teachers shared resources (created and imported) and fomented a collaborative learning culture, perhaps in the long run they would be able to rely more on their localized, bottom-up methodology (way of teaching) than on, as Scott put, costive, hand-me-down grammar syllabus found in coursebooks.
        Now, this is also maybe a dream — I’ve tried twice to foment this kind of mindset within schools, and one thing I learned is that it’s never ever going to be 100%, 50% maybe. So, the answer would be more like having flexible courses and guidelines so that each teacher has space to develop their own best way of teaching. In my experience as course coordinator, that happened with having some teachers good at following a more predictable programme, with coursebooks, some others good at unplugging, and some at creating materials/tools/resources. I would then match teacher profile with student/course profile.

    • Hi Ceci, thanks for your thoughtful comment.
      I agree with you in many aspects. For example, if I had 20 large groups, I would be more likely to *need* a coursebook; however, as I said in my reply to Scott and Phil, I wouldn’t necessarily (or desirably) follow the book’s proposed sequence and there would need to be a lot of adaptation; which I can now pretty much do on the go, but I understand, like you said, many teachers are not yet ready to change plans in light of emerging information and will instead stick to the sequence given to them.

      In the end, I think coursebooks just make everyone’s lives easier, but it’s the kind of “technology” (method and material used to achieve a commercial or industrial objective) that can be very detrimental to the kind of education in which commercial and industrial objectives aren’t a priority. With any course material comes a load of ideologies, values, and beliefs about language, people and the world — it’s serious business.

  6. johnfield1 says:

    This is a great post Willie, thank you very much. We have been reviewing coursebooks in my department for the last term, and have found that nothing we have seen really measures up. Coursebooks go out of date too quickly, they quickly become dogeared and tired and need replacing. The only way forward as far as we are concerned is with relevant, up-to-date choices of primary texts and good use of current affairs.

    • I think a well thought-out collection of very good texts is the way to go, followed by an array of communicative task types and teachers who are language-aware and are good listeners — that would make a good, solid base, wouldn’t it?

      Do you involve students, or feedback from students, in the selection of coursebooks? I would be interested in knowing more how you go about choosing them.

      Thanks for commenting, John!

  7. By the way, I’m not talking about dogme-esque lessons, in which the syllabus will evolve on the basis of students’ output and teachers will use that as raw material for learning. I’m talking about teachers writing their own textbooks, with a pre-determined syllabus and so on.

  8. Jon Duckett says:

    As you mentioned, I think a lot of it comes down to the quality of the teachers you have around you. Some teachers will struggle just to teach what is laid out in the course book, never mind have an opinion on it’s effectiveness. For instance how many TEFL teachers are advanced enough to engage with some of the higher level debates within the TEFL blogging community, 1 in 50, 1 in 100? Surely teaching standards and the length/difficulty of entry level qualifications into TEFL need to be increased before we can start to talk about radical departures away from course books.

    • Hi Jon
      I’ve seen a good number of TEFL certificate courses in which teacher-students were asked and encouraged to create their own materials instead of relying solely on coursebooks. Maybe they’re a minority, I don’t know, but I think in this regards it’s not a matter of the level of entry level qualifications. I suppose if one has never taught EFL, learning how to teach using PPP or TBL, or even Dogme, will be equally hard; if they have great tutors, and further support when they start teaching for real, I think they can become good teachers sooner than usual. But that, on the other hand, would require course providers to make some drastic changes.

  9. kirstindijon says:

    I teach business English in France, and really appreciate having a text book for many of my students. That said, it is very important that a text book is chosen to best match their learning objectives. We use mainly the Oxford Business Result series. Each book has a series of units, each focussing on a particular function of business English. I like to pick and choose, depending on the student’s needs and the length of the course, and use it as a guide as to what can be covered in each class.

    • Hi Kirstin
      I’ve taught a lot of business English and have used coursebooks many, many times. I reckon BE materials are less grammar-led than general English ones, and they focus more on skills (I mean real skills like presenting, negotiating, etc; instead of a general “reading skills” section as we find in some books), that’s why, as you said, it’s easy to just pick a function and work on it.

      I’ve used the book you mention and interestingly enough (actually as expected), it worked amazingly with some students, mainly in Brazil, but I could never be happy with it here in London.

  10. What a great post and thread, Willy! Thanks so much for covering this important discussion here. I’m a big fan of Dick Allwright, not only because he worked for most of his career at my old Uni… Lancaster, UK, but also of course because of his brilliant work on Reflective Teaching. When I was Director of English for the British Council in Brazil, we were able to fund his visit to Brazil to give a course at PUC-RJ…. a real eye-opener for many teachers who took part. I agree wholeheartedly with your own view, and can certainly empathise with all the points raised by our esteemed colleagues in the follow-up comments. I would only add that there is also an issue of student-client expectations and the perception of progress. Whilst I’m certainly not saying Ss don’t obtain a sense of achievement unless there is a coursebook completed at the end of the semester or year, my own experience as a teacher and course owner-director during the period between 1995 and 2007 did show me that when a coursebook is not used and teaching is, effectively, unplugged, students tended to drop-out sooner than in groups/1-to-1 classes in which a coursebook was used. Now, as somebody who works in ELT publishing (since 2000), I have a vested interest in the use of coursebooks by schools, but can certainly see the merit and usefulness of dogme moments and open lessons in which the coursebook is set aside. Hope to see you in Liverpool next year, Willy! Abraços.

    • Teresa Gomes de Carvalho says:

      What a nice thread, really. I agree with you all and I agree with you, Graeme. It’s not only about the advantages or disadvantages of coursebooks in ELT, rather, it’s about students’ and parents’ mindsets. Schools have relied on books for centuries and indeed books are traditionally the symbol of knowledge. Changing this mindset and challenging existing paradigms should be our goal as 21st century educators. I also agree with you, Willy, when you say that ideologies and beliefs about language and the world are embedded in coursebooks and many people — including teachers and students can be easily led to think accordingly. Despite all that, it was my first coursebook teacher’s guide that got me through my first term, and needless to say, coursebooks do help a lot of inexperienced teachers out there to take their first step. In my opinion, experience is the best remedy against poorly designed materials — at least we can use solid arguments to refuse to use them. I think books and other resources can coexist in our classes as long as we use them wisely and take into account our students’ contributions and needs, after all, we know our students better than anyone. I love designing my own materials and resources but I wish I had more time to do that.

  11. Hi Willy,

    Send me a private message with your address, and I’ll be happy to send you a copy of Widgets. It’s a 100% non-grammar-syllabus-based coursebook which is–whatever its faults–probably going out of print soon… But I guess that in itself is a point to be made in the ongoing argument of whether publishers can or should change what they offer! 😉

    Thank you for a great post,

  12. Abdessamad Elyounoussi says:

    Wonderful posts
    There is two kinds of contractual obligations in this world: an obligation to meet results, and an obligation of deploying the best means to meet those results. I think since we agree to some extent that we don’t know what students acquire and when ? that makes our teaching a means only obligation. In other words, we should do our best ,with or without the textbook, to deliver an interactive lesson that would mark the learner’s day 🙂

    Thank you all 🙂

  13. Ronnie Em. says:

    I teach English to low ability students in an Australian high school. I find course books are often a good source of differentiatian of work for students of different abilities. I can use course books designed for younger students to gain insights into skills students have not yet grasped. I can utilise course books pitched at a higher level for students who are more capable. Well designed course books can also be used to allow students to work at their own pace, freings me up to work one-on-one as students progress through individualised workbooks.. They don’t all have to be working from the same course book in order for the whole class to learn.
    Course books are often a source of student led inquiry which can help to develop whole-class activities which all can contribute to.
    Great blog by the way.

  14. A. G. Storm says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. Textbooks, like most things in life, has its good side and bad. For example, when I first began teaching the textbooks I was told I had to use were so full of errors it was horrible. I’m not exaggerating when I say I found incorrect dates, improper referencing, and flat out incorrect information. Needless to say that particular textbook was shelved and I used my own supplemental material for the rest of the year. Today, however, I have textbooks that are far more in touch with today’s educational philosophy. As to the textbooks themselves, I believe they should be used. They keep in line with curriculum requirements and they serve as a reference for students (as not all students have access to the Internet at home). However, I don’t believe textbooks should be the end all be all material, and a teacher should include supplemental materials to increase the value of their lessons. Anyway, these are just my thoughts, and as a teacher with over ten years experience, it’s worked well for me.

  15. […] sheds light on teaching English? Willy Cardoso will not disappoint. For example, he provides some interesting insight on using coursebooks. I also like that he is not American (he currently lives in […]

  16. Grover says:

    That’s why Dogme ELT hasn’t exactly taken the ELT world by storm. There ARE a lot of teachers who lack the skills, confidence and — yes — competence to ditch the books altogether and wing it. My recently published iPad book, Catalyst: A Conversation Taskbook for English Language Learners, represents a happy medium. Though not written expressly with the dogme movement in mind, there are nonetheless a number of features that support teachers who want to create a learning environment that is almost exclusively student-centred. The approach spawns relevant teachable moments that the more gifted can seize upon to squeeze even more from the learning process. Check it out here:

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