Challenging the Coursebook 2

My presentation in Part 1 argued that ELT should break the bad habit of relying on coursebooks. In response to comments, I offer here a bit more about interlanguage. My thanks to Alessandro Grimaldi for his paper which I’ve used to help me write this.

U-shaped learning behaviour is one of the patterns observed in the development of interlanguages. I should say at once that “interlanguage” is a theoretical construct, not a fact. While interlanguage as a construct has proved useful in developing a cognitive theory of SLA, the construct itself needs developing, and the theory which it is part of  is incomplete, and possibly false. Any good theory must allow that empirical observations can be made which will falsify it, but, so far, interlanguage theory has stood up to a number of such challenges quite well. Part of the support for the theory comes from observations of U-shaped behaviour in SLA, which indicate that learners’ interlanguage development is not linear. The same data can be used to show that the approach taken by all coursebooks which present and practice a sequence of discrete, formal aspects of the English language, on the assumption that these will be learned in the linear order that they’re presented, is wrong      

An example of U-shaped behaviour is this:


The example here is from a study in the 70s. Another example comes from morphological development, specifically, the development of English irregular past forms, such as came, went, broke, which are supplanted by rule-governed, but deviant past forms: comed, goed, breaked. In time, these new forms are themselves replaced by the irregular forms that appeared in the initial stage.

This U-shaped learning curve is observed in learning the lexicon, too. Learners have to master the idiosyncratic nature of words, not just their canonical meaning. While learners encounter a word in a correct context, the word is not simply added to a static cognitive pile of vocabulary items. Instead, they experiment with the word, sometimes using it incorrectly, thus establishing where it works and where it doesn’t. The suggestion of cognitive theory of SLA is that only by passing through a period of incorrectness, in which the lexicon is used in a variety of ways, can they climb back up the U-shaped curve. To add to the example of “feet” above, there’s the example of the noun ‘shop.’ Learners may first encounter the word in a sentence such as “I bought a pastry at the coffee shop yesterday.” Then, they experiment with deviant utterances such as “I am going to the supermarket shop,” correctly associating the word ‘shop’ with a place they can purchase goods, but getting it wrong. By making these incorrect utterances, the learner distinguishes between what is appropriate, because “at each stage of the learning process, the learner outputs a corresponding hypothesis based on the evidence available so far” (Carlucci and Case, 2011).

The re-organisation of new information as learners move along the U-shaped curve is a characteristic of interlanguage development. Associated with this restructuring is the construct of automaticity. Language acquisition can be seen as a complex cognitive skill where as your skill level in a domain increases, the amount of attention you need to perform generally decreases . The basis of processing theories of SLA is that we have limited resources when it comes to processing information and so the more we can make the process automatic, the more processing capacity we free up for other work.  Active attention requires more mental work, and thus, developing the skill of fluent language use involves making more and more of it automatic, so that no active attention is required. This is what I was referring to in my presentation when I compared learning a language to learning to drive a car. Through practice, language skills go  from a ‘controlled process’ in which great attention and conscious effort is needed to an ‘automatic process’. Such a process is mediated through constant restructuring of the interlanguage along the U-shaped development curve.

Automaticity can be said to occur when associative connections between a certain kind of input and some output pattern occurs.  For instance, in this exchange:

Speaker 1: Morning.

Speaker 2: Morning. How are you?

Speaker 1: Fine, and you?

Speaker 2: Fine.

the speakers, in most situations, don’t actively think about what they’re saying. In the same way, second language learners’ learn new language through use of controlled processes, which become automatic, and in turn free up controlled processes which can then be directed to new forms. Segalowitz applies this idea to a wide variety of skills when he says:

”Automatizing certain aspects of performance in order to free up attentional resources is fundamental to skilled performance in a number of areas because it allows performers to allocate their limited capacities to where they are most needed. That is, to a large extent, fluent performance in such areas as music or reading (e.g. performing particular runs or arpeggios on the piano; word recognition) involves being able to carry out certain activities with little or no investment of psychological resources (memory capacity, limited attentional capacity).”

We must now add to the hypothesis that learners are constantly restructuring their language as they move through the stages of the U-shaped learning curve the hypothesis of a fixed order of acquisition of parts of English, which I referred to in my presentation. I won’t repeat all that again, but I should make it clear that we don’t know very much about this fixed order – and even if we did, this wouldn’t mean that we were in a position to prescribe an order ofr presentation of structures or lexis in a syllabus. The research into SLA so far has only scratched the surface: most of the work remains to be done. But at least we know enough to say that learners don’t learn English in the way assumed by a coursebook series such as Headway. My argument is that coursebooks demonstrate a common underlying view of how language should be presented and practiced. This view rests on 4 false assumptions about proceduralisation, accumulation, teachability, and the product syllabus.

Needless to say, but say it I must, my arguments are no more than that, and I invite rational discussion of them. In his most recent response to these arguments Dellar says coursebooks are different from each other and teachers use coursebooks in different ways. This fails to address the issues. Much more interesting is Laura’s question “What can realistically be done as an alternative to using textbooks?” I’ll try to answer that very soon.

Carlucci, L. and Case, J.  (2013)  On the Necessity of U-Shaped Learning. Topics.

13 thoughts on “Challenging the Coursebook 2

  1. Hi Geoff. I’m interested to know whether you think that any coursebook, necessarily, is committed to the four false assumptions you identify or just that all the presently available coursebooks are so committed to (some? all?) of them. Many thanks for another invigorating post.


    1. Hi Patrick,

      Any coursebook which suggests that the teacher guides the learners through it systematically, and which provides most of the classroom work and homework done in the course, imposes a product syllabus on the course and I’ve outlined some objections to such a syllabus type.

      To the extent that the coursebook’s guiding principle is the presentation and practice of discrete items of linguistic form in a simple-to-complex way (implementing a grammar-based syllabus), it makes the 3 false assumptions I’ve discussed.

      To the extent that the coursebook adopts some different organising principle – Halliday’s systemic functional grammar, or Willis’ Lexical Syllabus, for example – then it might manage to respect the learners’ interlanguage development more, but it’s still making false assumptions about declarative and procedural knowledge and about the accumulation of bits of knowledge.

      The issues about just how anodyne, culturally-offensive, artificial, etc. the texts and activities in coursebooks are; the usefulness of the plethora of additional materials offered by them, and the amount of flexibility they offer, all have to be examined on a case-by-case basis. In some ways, coursebooks have improved (for example, the absurd national, cultural, class, race, and gender stereotypes which characterised the early coursebooks have been steadily modified) but all the 2015 editions of coursebooks I’ve looked at (not including Outcomes, because there’s no website I know of that allows you to examine the books) warrant Long’s accusation that they contain impoverished input.

      I think it’s almost impossible to produce a good coursebook because, by definition, it’s supposed to largely determine the syllabus, and thus has too great an influence on what happens in the language course where it’s used. The best alternative, it seems to me, are materials banks, and I’ve promised Laura that I’ll talk about that soon.


  2. I don’t think books do enough revision and building on words. Often, it seems like a quiz whizz form this to that and then a test. Me, I like to build a strong interlinked foundation with connectivity. By building up slowly and building those connections between last week’s and this week’s vocab, you are constantly providing exposure and will never be asked “how do I use this?”. You are also making that knowledge into automatic usage and also more memorable as it has been recalled, used, added it and put back into your little bran.

    I often hear myself say things like “what were the 3 collocations from last lesson? How can we use them with these new words?”

    A good book should and many do include this ‘building up’ but I am yet to see it stressed upon much in an activity.

    I think the coursebook fight has been lost. When I taught in primary schools, we all used copied worksheets that students stuck in their own books. In highschool, there were some class books but not many. In uni, handouts. In language schools, lots of copies.


    1. Hi Phil,

      Thanks for this. Coursebooks all claim to give a lot of attention to re-cycling and your “building up” work, but I’ve no idea if it works and it’s interesting to hear you say that you don’t think it does.

      I agree that the coursebook fight has been lost. But at least those of us who oppose the dominant role coursebooks play in ELT can voice our opinion and encourage teachers to rely less on them.


  3. Firstly, Geoff, let me say that I really resent the fact you’ve continued to couple this critique of coursebooks in general with some kind of personal attack on me. I am but one of many, many authors out there; I write with a co-author, Andrew Walkley, and we’ve tried to address many of the concerns you raise about PPP-dominated courses through our own series over the years. Meanwhile, authors of other far more traditional courses are out there and yet for some reason, this has become all my fault.

    The fact that you’ll admit you’ve never even actually seen or read or taught from the material I have written and yet still see fit to implicate me in all of this does further damage to the academic veneer you add to your posts. Hardly standard academic practice is, it, to slag someone off without having actually seen the work you’re supposedly referring to! Has it not occurred to you that much of what coursebook writers have to say about coursebook is said through the medium of writing coursebooks?

    Anyway, with that said and done, I have a few points to make and questions to raise about the post above. I do hope that this time you’ll manage to get through them without feeling the need to remind me further that my standard of English and mode of expression falls far below what you’d expect of a writer.

    I think the first thing to say is that as with much research of this kind, the studies mentioned above are primarily interested in grammar rather than lexis. Foot – foots – feet seems to be to be far more of a grammar issue than a lexical one, with the problems of usage connected to pluralisation rather than any aspects of use. Point taken on the Carlucci & Case study regarding the word SHOP, though. I think it’s important to recognise that the studies tend towards the exploration of how grammar is learned far more than lexis, and that where vocabulary does get looked at, it’s far more often – as above – single words that are considered, rather than chunks, collocations, etc.

    There are also several questions that such studies prompt, but fail to answer. Here are a few:
    – Is the suggestion that all students go through these stages with all items of language?
    – If so, is the suggestion that learners at a similar level will all have issues with foots, say, and supermarket shops at similar times? or are these simply examples of one student’s issues at one time? Or, in fact, are they hypothetical examples of what COULD happen, rather than real-world examples of what DID happen? It’s not clear from the description of the research above?
    – How does the U-curve relate to things like chunks? Is there research into how a range of students learn, process and start to produce things like, for instance, YOU’RE OPERATING ON THE ASSUMPTION THAT or THE TIME COMES WHEN . .

    It would seem to me to be almost impossible to research this in any serious depth as it’d involve taking a large number of students who’d not met these particular chunks before – which would involve self-certification from the off – and then presenting them to them (which in itself is highly problematic in terms of research, as there are so many variables: what would the presentation involve? Would there be translation involved? Would the students get the chance to add extra context / language around the examples or to practise in some way, etc?) and you’d then need to record their every subsequent utterance and monitor their writing over a long period of time to see if and when these items were produced, what issues they have with them, etc.

    As I’m sure you’d agree, such research just isn’t possible. So instead, we’re back to fairly simply and tidy hypotheses about the fact many students meet language and then produce failed experiments with this language before usage becomes normalised over time.

    Now, if your point is simply that students don’t (always) learn exactly what they’re presented with and aren’t suddenly able to use what they’re presented with immediately after the first encounter, then you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who’d argue. It’s a stating of the obvious, though I’d argue that the degree to which different students retain and re-use what they meet will vary quite considerably, and the degree to which they subsequently re-use and adapt what they’ve met will to, as it’s influenced by other input they may or may not be exposed to, who they intrect with and how, etc.

    However, if that’s true, then it’s true for any learning context, surely – and certainly can’t be exclusive to language encountered in coursebooks. You’ve mentioned the idea of materials banks (aka illegal photocopies in the case of many private language schools!!) as an alternative, but how would language met through material taken such a bank avoid or be immune to the kind of interlanguage issues you raise here? It wouldn’t.

    If the point is that input – of ANY kind – takes time to filter through, that it may well get reshaped in odd ways and emerge in ways that don’t match norms and may well need further modification, then I’d agree 100%. For me, though, this means a few things:

    (a) that classroom material – whether it be coursebooks, materials banks, teacher-led input or whatever – has a responsibility to layer exposure, to recycle and to provide opportunities for noticing of features over time.

    To give some sense of how this works in those books of mine that you’ve not bothered reading, here are just a few of the many encounters with the word SHOP students get across the Pre-Intermediate:

    I’m running the shop while my boss is on holiday.
    We live above the shop.
    They’re building a new shopping centre near here.
    Do you like going shopping? How often do you go?
    They said in the shop it was easy to use, but I think it’s really complicated.
    We went shopping at the weekend.
    I got them in a second-hand bookshop near here.
    Most online shopping happens between 8 and 9 in the evening.
    55% of us use a laptop to do our online shopping, while 20% use a smartphone.
    In the UK over 10,000 shops close every year.
    Do you have any favourite sites for shopping?
    Do you think online shopping is bad for local shops where you live? Why? / Why not?
    Usually, my online shopping experiences are good, but . . .
    Take it back to the shop

    This is not accidental! It’s very much the way we’ve tried to write – in such a way as to ensure repeat encounters over time, in slightly different contexts – and if nothing else, it hopefully addresses the concern you raised earlier when you said: “Coursebooks all claim to give a lot of attention to re-cycling.” In our case, at least, it’s not a claim. It’s a reality. And can you be so sure that the same will happen when teachers are simply using materials banks or pure Dogme? If so, what encourages this certainty?

    (b) teachers themselves need to take on board the need to notice, polish, upgrade student output – and the need to encourage performance of memorization in the classroom, as well as to revise and ‘test’. This is something I’ve written about in far more detail elsewhere, and anyone interested might wan to read here, for instance:

    That post talks a lot about the importance of encouraging and facilitating automatisation, which I agree is central.

    This has turned into a far longer response than I was anticipating, and I guess will have to do for now.

    I look forward to being told I’m wrong, having some obscure research flung at me as if to prove for once and for all that I now nothing and to having my writing ripped to shreds again.


    1. Dear Hugh,

      1. I haven’t coupled my critique of coursebooks with some kind of personal attack on you. I replied to your comments on my original post and made no personal attacks.

      2. Paragraph 2 of your comment is based on a non-sequitur: my argument about coursebooks in general doesn’t depend on whether or not I’ve read your coursebooks. And BTW, you could have done what Anthony did and explain how your coursebooks were an exception to my generalisation, but chose not to.

      3. I didn’t slag off your coursebooks, I criticised what you published on your blogs and other places.

      4. The studies I referred to are not only of elements of syntax (grammar), and they show an appreciation of the fact that SLA is not a matter of acquiring “grammar” and “lexis”. You ask me to respond to your interpretation of research which you haven’t read, and to the illogical conclusions you draw from what you suppose is possible and not possible in research. I suggest you read the research; get some some basic understanding of research methods and theory construction in SLA; and then make more informed comments.

      5. Here’s an example of your prose: “So instead, we’re back to fairly simply and tidy hypotheses about the fact many students meet language and then produce failed experiments with this language before usage becomes normalised over time”. Does that merit criticism or not? I think what you’re trying to say is that the result of research into interlanguage development can be boiled down to U-shaped behaviour. If that’s what you mean, then you’re wrong.

      6. My point is not “simply that students don’t (always) learn exactly what they’re presented with and aren’t suddenly able to use what they’re presented with immediately after the first encounter”. No proper reading of what I said can lead to that conclusion.

      7. I didn’t suggest that “classroom material has a responsibility to layer exposure, to recycle and to provide opportunities for noticing of features over time” because I don’t believe any such thing.

      8. Your examples of “the many encounters with the word SHOP students get across the Pre-Intermediate” (whatever that means) seem to me – though, since I haven’t read the book, I stand ready for correction – typical of your approach which puts great store in giving long lists of small chunks and sentence-level exemplars of the items you want to teach. I’ve asked you several times to explain your rationale for all these lists (what makes you think they’re so helpful, what you expect learners to do with them (learn them by heart?), and so on), but I’ve never got a coherent reply.

      9. You say that it’s “central” to encourage and facilitate “automatisation”. What does this mean? How do you think a teacher using your coursebooks would accomplish this “central” objective? I, following the work of Breen, Candlin, Widdowson, Ellis, Krashen, Selinker, Pienemann, Towell, Hawkins, Michell, Miles, Carroll, Schmidt, Skehan, Cook, Long, Doughty, Robinson, Hulstijn, Norris, Ortega, Chaudron, Meddings & Thornbury and a long list of other obscure sources, think that discourse, not chopped up bits of language, is the essential component of classroom practice, but maybe you do too, and you think that your long lists help. What we need to hear from you is a coherent explanation of your approach, which you’ve so far not managed to present.


      1. Well, you’re nothing if not predictable Geoff.

        As expected, I’m wrong, I can’t write properly and you can wave references of things that I’ve not read at me, and therefore must be right.

        Well done. If this is what passes for academic debate round your way, your MA students must have a right old giggle.

        None of the above actually answers any of the questions I’ve raised, though, does it!

        And none of it addresses the issue of why you feel things like U-shaped behaviour seems to mean coursebooks are bad, but somehow doesn’t apply to your beloved materials banks.

        I suspect this is because it’s easier to mock typos instead.

        A few other things before I give up – again – as life really is too short to engage in repetitive cycles of ritual abuse, no matter how enjoyable they may be for the perpetrators.

        1 If you’re going to quote selectively, at least make sure you’re quoting things I actually said., As it stands, you’re MISQUOTING selectively.

        I never said that you had claimed to believe that “classroom material has a responsibility to layer exposure, to recycle and to provide opportunities for noticing of features over time.” That’s something I said and that I believe. What I DID say was that you wrote in an earlier comment that “Coursebooks all claim to give a lot of attention to re-cycling”. I was merely trying to show you that in our case at least this isn’t merely a CLAIM, but a reality.

        Your misquoting does raise the question. by the way, of why you don’t believe that classroom material needs to layer exposure, recycle and provide opportunities for noticing of features over time. I’d be interested to hear your theoretical rationale for thinking this is NOT important. Maybe you can enlighten me?

        2 You claim I’ve chosen not to show how my books differ to other books. Interesting claim. Has it never occurred to you that just because something does not happen on your actual blog, does not mean it has never happened anywhere!? In a sense. the books themselves are the main way I’ve tried to show how material that differs to other books is possible! In addition to this, though, there have countless conference talks, blog posts, articles and so on that have tried to outline these issues. The idea that I somehow have to come here and collate them all for your entertainment – and when you demand them – or else I somehow became invalid is frankly laughable. If you were really interested in engaging and critiquing, you could at least have bothered to seek out what I may or may not have said about this area before. Instead, you selectively choose the od tweet as it suits your rhetorical ranting.

        Here, for instance, is a recent talk through of one double-page made following a request from someone on Twitter.

        See. All you have to do is ask nicely.

        You’ll probably decide my accent doesn’t match what’s deemed appropriate for a speaker, by the way.

        3 You claim to be unable -or unwilling – to respond to my interpretations of research you think I’ve not read. The suggestion I didn’t read it seems to provide you with an easy get-out clause here. I suggest you assume I have read it and attempt to answer the questions I’ve raised rather than assume I haven’t and avoid them!

        4 In your Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells critique of my prose style’s many failings you cleverly twist my words to claim that I somehow believe that “the result of research into interlanguage development can be boiled down to U-shaped behaviour.” As I’m sure you’re aware, that’s not what I was saying. What I WAS saying is that this seems to be the conclusion of the research you outline IN THE POST ABOVE. I fail to see the post above as saying much more than many students meet language and then produce failed experiments with this language before usage becomes normalised over time.

        If that’s a failure to understand the research you outlined above, it’d be good if you explain what I’ve missed – because it’s not obvious to me at least.

        5 You note that your point is not “simply that students don’t (always) learn exactly what they’re presented with and aren’t suddenly able to use what they’re presented with immediately after the first encounter”. Fine.

        Perhaps you could summarise in brief what your point actually is, then?

        6 To return to a recurrent theme, had you bothered to look at my books before you started making assumptions about them, you’d realise that the extracted examples of the way the word SHOP is used across one level of the series is NOT part of some attempt to give “long lists of small chunks and sentence-level exemplars of items” to students. Instead, it’s a mini corpora sample of the way this word gets used IN DISCOURSE across the book. These are extracts from vocabulary exercises, listening texts, reading texts and so on.

        Given that you have assumed I’d not read the research earlier, it seems incredible to me that you feel so free to make these assumptions and base whole blog posts around my name when you’ve not done the reading yourself. To use a piece of contemporary jargon you’ll probably sneer at: epic fail!

        7 If you were really interested to know what I think “encouraging and facilitating “automatisation” means and how I think a teacher using my coursebooks would accomplish this “central” objective, why don’t you pull your finger and read the post I linked to which explains that very thing!

        Who knows? You may even find yourself agreeing with some if it.


  4. Dear Hugh,

    1. If you don’t see the emptiness of this motherhood statement, no I can’t enlighten you.
    2. Not a very good example, now is it?
    3. An amazing request.
    4. You’ve missed the rest of the research.
    5. My point is that learners don’t learn what teachers teach them when teachers use a coursebook .
    6. Your appreciation of the applications of corpus linguistics to ELT classroom practice speaks for itself.
    7. I went to that link and I wasn’t impressed.


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