Challenging The Coursebook

Here’s a version of the presentation I gave at the InnovateELT conference. Click here.

I’m sorry to have missed a lot of it, but I was there long enough to appreciate the energy and warmth of the event. It was fresh, buzzing, and exactly the right scale. Great – innovative! – idea to have the “speed dating” session at the end where 6 presenters zoomed round groups who quizzed them. I tip my hat to the organisers and to the perfect support staff. Now THAT’s the way conferences should be run!

32 thoughts on “Challenging The Coursebook

    1. I’m very flattered that you’re following my rants, Patrick and glad the presentation helped bring together some threads.


      1. I guess geeky details are definitely in if you are a serious post grad in the field of App. Ling. I tend to gloss over all that as it doesn’t offer the practicing teacher much in terms of daily practice.


      2. Doesn’t it? I found it gave me a sort of subconscious insight into why learners might or might not remember certain things, or what activities would be most effective with certain learners or in certain situations.


  1. Hi Paul,
    Sorry you had streaming problems – I think that’s a problem of the speed of your internet connection, but for all I know, it might be low-flying migrating birds or the CIA 🙂


    1. Hi Geoff No worries I ended up downloading it! Don’t think it was an Internet problem as I am using OUP server but probably the secret services! You are gaining notoriety as being anti-establishment and by the way I love reading your blog! I’m the teacher trainer (Inspirer more like) and training coordinator for OUP Gulf States, Lebanon and Yemen. I enjoy Scott’s posts very much and of course yours. Where are you based?


  2. Oops sorry just read your bio – Visca Barca! Tomorrow will be a tough one but I think we can get a goal or two on the break after relentless hammering from Bayern. I used to live in Bilbao for 12 odd years and became, ironically a Barca supporter. I taught several Athletic players and used to get free tickets to watch them (endless, mind-blowingly dull score draws while the rain pelted down and soaked you to the bone! Je je So when Barca came and won 3 -0 (i seem tro remember) with Gary Linecker and Mark Hughes charging down the flanks I was hooked for life!


  3. I feel much better now, thanks for that! I’ve always felt a bit of a fraud or “pretend teacher” for never liking, using or understanding the point of course books and, as some would say, “making it up as you go along”. Very often I just felt plain silly mindlessly following instructions while constantly apologising for the sheer banality and inappropriateness of the suggested activities.
    Language learning and teaching is, for me at least, both infinite and chaotic, full of creativity and intuition; a search for authentic uncontrolled communication in an artificial classroom setting. To leave the comfort and safety of the course book and feel confident and at ease in a fluid unpredictable environment where both learners and teachers cooperate their way forward to a successful outcome is by no means and easy task.
    Daunting though it may be to go it alone without the course book, it is worth considering that without its constraints teaching can become “real” in a sense; highly rewarding not only for learners but also for teachers who wish to grow and develop within this fascinating profession.
    Having firmly closed the chapter on course books I’m now wrestling with the distortion to real language learning created by testing, particularly the suite of Cambridge exams. It seems that learners and teachers are being pulled in a particular direction and anything that cannot be measured or tested is somehow worthless. Any pointers or comments on this topic would be very much appreciated.


    1. Hi Mark,
      Thanks very much for this comment. I think it’s one of the very best anyone’s contributed to this blog.
      As for the “distortions” caused by testing, unless you’re teaching an exam preparation course, my advice is to ignore them. Learners need to feel that they’re making progress and there are alternative ways of doing this. See this article, for example:


      1. Thanks a million for the reply Geoff, totally unexpected and very much appreciated! Sometimes we just don’t realise how far reaching and influential our words can be. I for one have new found confidence to plod on, to keep learning, experimenting, observing and developing.
        A truly teacher-student centric learning environment, rather than slavishly spoon-feeding textbooks to unsuspecting language learners, is simply electrifying and empowering to both parties. Once you open the floodgates to collaborative creativity there’s no turning back.
        A sincere thanks for your blog; a gust rather than a breath of fresh air.


  4. I enjoy the invective directed towards coursebooks. To play devil’s advocate, can’t the principle of locally-made materials work against many of the other principles you’ve put forward? In Japan, it’s often the NNS teachers who are the advocates of otherwise undemocratic teaching methods, such as grammar mcnugget teaching and “management-style” education. Ironically, NNS teachers here (and I suspect elsewhere) are rather strong advocates of inner circle English as the ideal, and didactic, pre-CLT ISLA in general.


  5. Hi Mark,
    I’m aware of the issues you touch on here and it seems to me that there’s a vicious circle going on in Japanese ELT – and elsewhere. NNESTs are given 2nd rate jobs and even worse teacher training opportunities than the NESTs. Surely if this discrimination were done away with everybody could work together towards a better approach to ELT – including a better use of materials.


  6. I enjoyed reading the presentation. I do have a question about your the first assumption though. The first assumption is that declarative knowledge can be translated into procedural knowledge, and you argue that knowing why is not the same as knowing how. I agree with this. However, next you state that even practice won’t help. “Practice” here seems vague because you don’t say what kind of practice and for how long. Are you talking about practice exercises in the textbook? Are you talking about supplemented practice? Why won’t practice work, especially if it is meaningful, contextualized, and not one-off? Is this a flaw of the textbook or the teacher if practice doesn’t work?


  7. Hi Anthony,

    The false assumption is that by presenting a structure (the present perfect, say) and then practicing it (by doing drills or doing an activity like “Have you ever …?” or “How long have you …?” or something where you hope the structure will be used) it will turn into procedural knowledge. This 2-step process is not how SLA works. We don’t know how SLA works, exactly, or how instruction helps exactly, but we know enough to say that the assumption mentioned is false. Many think that the presentation is a complete waste of time, and most think it’s unlikely to help the process much. Practice does of course help procedural knowledge but it’s not a linear process – the form is slowly re-structured as an evolving part of interlanguage development. Most theories agree that drills, input flood etc., can speed up the process, but it’s not clear how much.

    Liked by 1 person

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