MA students question Coursebooks


September is “marking month” for those of us involved in MAs in TEFL and Applied Linguistics courses, and this batch of marking has been interesting because, for the first time, I’ve been asked to mark papers that address the subject of coursebooks. I’d love to think that I had something to do with this welcome new development, but, alas, I can’t take any credit for it. No, the credit has to go mostly to Scott Thornbury, who alone in his own steady stream of well-argued publications, and together with Luke Meddings in their joint works on Dogme, has managed to publicise this “elephant in the room”, this supremely important matter in the ELT world – the domination of the coursebook, to such an extent that it’s now being widely discussed not just in teachers’s rooms and at conferences, but also in academic departments such as the one I work in at Leicester University. Thornbury is the most cited name in the references of the papers I’ve read, even ahead of Tomlinson.


The Tide Turns

I think we may actually be witnessing a change of the tide here. Scott has often said that he’s pessimistic about the chances of throwing off the shackles of the coursebook (my words, of course, not his), but I reckon that the widespread revolt against the hegemony of the coursebook is gathering splendid momentum. It might be fanciful to link this growing disenchantment with the coursebook to what we’re seeing in the political sphere, but I’d like to think that the way citizens in so many so-called democracies are currently revolting against the choices they’re offered shares something in common with the revolt among teachers against the choices they’re offered.  It’s a revolt against the ELT establishment, and its symbolic figurehead, the coursebook.



When I read the papers on coursebooks submitted by our MA students, what was so invigorating was that, in place of the hopeless homilies of Harmer, the plodding platitudes of Prodromou, the superior sneerings of Scrivener, the dour drudgery of Dellar, the bilious boredom of Billocks (Is this right? Ed.), the papers argued their case coherently. They cited sources for their opinions, they debated the issues carefully, and they unanimously concluded, as Scott does, that coursebooks are a stifling influence on teaching.

The MA papers I’ve read recently have reminded me of how far back the challenge to coursebooks goes – back further than when, in the late 1980s, modern coursebooks took over as the core syllabus for most ELT around the world.

  • Breen and Candlin (1980), were earlier protesters;
  • Breen (1987) gave his criticism of product syllabuses;
  • Allwright (1981) claimed that the course of second language learning is too complex to be packaged neatly into the pages of a coursebook.
  • Littlejohn (1992) argued that language learning through coursebooks is achieved mainly through “reproductive’ tasks which require learners to reproduce, often identically, the content they are presented with”.  He suggested that this degree of scripting in the materials places teacher and learner in a subordinate position to the materials writer.
  • Fox (1998) made similar objections. (Just BTW, his study found that children in South Korea were taught “like/don’t like” using food, and that the “extension”, where they were asked if they liked their classmates left them horrified. Not a good argument against modern coursebooks, you might rightly say.)
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More Recent Stuff

On to the 21st century, then.

  • Thornbury and Meddings (2001) argue that so-called communicative tasks in coursebooks merely simulate genuine communication rather than stimulating conversation and enabling learners to communicate their own meanings and intentions.
  • Crawford’s (2002 ) anti-coursebook view describe them as a ‘debilitating crutch’, that de-skills teachers and stifles their ability to be creative and innovative, which in turn reduces their capacity to respond to learner needs effectively.
  • McGrath (2002) highlights the ideological bias of coursebooks, noting that “ideology, like culture, can be built into materials by design”.

And on and on it goes, through the excellent criticisms found in Tomlinson (1998; 2001; 2003; 2010; 2013); Gray  (2002; 2010; 2013); Thornbury (too many to mention, but see 2013 in Gray); till we reach Long’s (2015) careful dissection of the cousebook, which I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog.



We might take a moment to look at McGrath (2013) who looks at how coursebooks can be adapted. He states that adaptation is a ‘necessary and natural’ part of using a coursebook and is achieved through “evaluative-creative decisions that lead to three processes: omission, addition, and change”. This is surely the crux of the argument used by those who defend the coursebook: “It’s not the coursebook, it’s how you use it!” is the mantra. But what does this actually mean? It means, in my opinion, and pace McGrath, that teachers actually teach despite the coursebook, not with it.  One study that I read last week in an MA dissertation showed that the participants used less than 30% of the coursebook’s contents (omission); spent most of their time finding or creating other material (addition); and changed the order of the units of the book (change).  Isn’t this patently absurd?  Isn’t it obviously better to throw the damn coursebook out the window and devote your energy elsewhere?



My arguments against the coursebook chime with Scott’s and many others. We in the anti coursebook camp are against the use of coursebooks because we have a radically different view of what ELT should be. We see coursebooks as an obstacle to be overcome. They represent the commodification of education, they suffocate good teaching practice, and they stand in the way of progress towards a more local, a more humanistic, a more efficient way of helping our students towards their goals.



Breen, M., & Candlin, C. N. (1980). The essentials of a communicative curriculum in language teaching. Applied Linguistics, 1(2), 89-112.

Crawford, J. (2002) ‘The role of materials in the language classroom: finding the balance’, in Richards, J.C. and Renandya, W.A. (eds.) Methodology in language teaching. Cambridge: CUP, pp. 80-91.

Fox, G. (1998) ‘Using corpus data in the classroom’, in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 25-43.

Gray, J. (2002) ‘The global coursebook in English language teaching’, in Block, D. and Cameron, D. (eds.) Globalization and language teaching. London: Routledge, pp. 151-167.

Gray, J. (ed.) (2013) Critical perspectives on language teaching materials. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gray, J. (2010) The Construction of English: Culture, Consumerism and Promotion in the ELT Global Coursebook. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Littlejohn, A. (1992) Why are ELT materials the way they are? Phd. Lancaster University.

McGrath, I. (2002) Materials evaluation and design for language teaching. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

McGrath, I. (2013) Teaching Materials and the Roles of EFL/ESL Teachers. Bloomsbury Academic.

Rixon, S. (1999) ‘Where do the words in EYL textbooks come from?’, in Rixon, S. (ed.) Young learners of English : some research perspectives. Harlow: Longman, pp. 55-71.

Thornbury, S. (2013) ‘Resisting coursebooks’, in Gray, J. (ed.) Critical perspectives on language teaching materials. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 204-223.

Thornbury, S. and Meddings, L.(2001) ‘The roaring in the chimney (Or: what coursebooks are good for)’, Humanising Language Teaching, 3(5), pp. 22/08/2016.

Tomlinson, B. (ed.) (2013) Applied linguistics and materials development. New York; London: Bloomsbury.

Tomlinson, B. (2010) ‘What do teachers think about EFL coursebooks?’, Modern English teacher., 19(4), pp. 5-9.

Tomlinson, B. (ed.) (2003) Developing Materials for Language Teaching. New York; London: Bloomsbury.

Tomlinson, B. (2001) ‘Materials development’, in Carter, R. and Nunan, D. (eds.) The Cambridge guide to teaching English to speakers of other languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 66-71.

Tomlinson, B. (ed.) (1998) Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tomlinson, B. and Masuhara, H. (eds.) (2010) Research for materials development in language learning: evidence for best practice. New York; London: Continuum.

Tomlinson, B. (2012) ‘Materials development for language learning and teaching’, Language Teaching; Lang.Teach., 45(2), pp. 143-179.

6 thoughts on “MA students question Coursebooks

  1. Thanks for this post, Geoff. Your list of older sources of coursebook critique reminds me of the number of times I’ve been surprised to find such perspectives in my readings. Far and wide, really, and certainly going back a ways. Not sure I should have been all that surprised, though! Smart people have always seen these issues for what they are, while the gears of industrial publishing turn and churn as they will.

    One of my favorite posts on this topic is Thornbury’s “Writing by numbers: The myth of coursebook creativity” (and its long comment thread dialgoue) over at ELTjam because it focuses on what has most bothered me most about textbooks: the lack of any real creativity and originality they so typically display. Do I always want the precious ‘freedom’ to teach a full term with nothing for materials but what I can generate for and with my learners? Absolutely not, especially when I’m not paid for the (often intensive) work involved. A coursebook, a ‘course in a book’ is a godsend. So it’s not that they are there; it’s that they just aren’t good enough.

    Thornbury mentions older books sometimes being better, and many of the comments talk about how the bigger the industry became, the worst coursebooks got. Of course this makes perfect sense, and has been borne out for me so many times poring over resource room shelves and grabbing for anything that looked of any vintage at all knowing it’d likely have some kind of refreshing uniqueness to it.

    It also makes sense to further let go of mass-produced coursebooks in this day and age when we know much more about learning AND have access to so much more rich material to use in the classroom. I’m tempted to say the issue really is: when we “throw the damn coursebook out the window”, what exactly is the “elsewhere” we ought to devote our energy to? And just maybe said in a way that essentially questions the wisdom of banishing them after all…

    But NO, I think there’s just always a local and unique answer to that question, of course. That’s the whole point! Taking the really radically non-local and radically generic “course in a book” out of the equation will absolute help do exactly what needs to be done: simply MAKE SPACE…and make every classroom a courseroom, a “course in a room”. Until then, ‘life is elsewhere’ in so much of ELT.


  2. Hmm two follow up clarifications to the above: First, I seem to contradict myself, first saying I’d rather have an imperfect coursebook than none at all for practicality’s sake and then later say something quite different. I should have framed the former as something I’ve often thought and felt rather than an opinion I hold. Second, reading back I think the old vs new books part is a simplification. And what feels ‘refreshing’ about some older coursebooks is sometimes simply the nicely hand-drawn illustrations (over stock photography visuals in newer books) or some other retro novelty, not the actual content. I do realize that! But perhaps it goes back to the point that ‘different’ is good and energizing, not only for the students but also for the teacher.


  3. Hi Thom,

    The App.Ling. Ph.D. programme is run by Glenn Fulcher, an exceptional scholar, in my opinion, who’s an expert on testing, and also a really good educationalist. I can’t think of many people I’d rather have as a supervisor. I’m not involved with doctoral students (wish I was!), but I know it’s well-regarded and those who do it give very good feedback. As always, it depends what you want to do your thesis on – if there’s a member of staff, apart from Fulcher, who you’d like as your supervisor.


    1. Hi again,
      Sounds interesting. I did my MA with them. I am tempted to go back to do some more. But full-time job, and full-time parent. And somebody in the house says “can we have a life?”


  4. Hi Thom,

    “Can we have a life”? Well that’s a promising question to kick off some serious thinking about a thesis for a doctoral study. Yes, very promising. Coincidentally, Glenn was just saying to me the other day that ontological questions very often prove to be fertile ground for studies where a mixed approach to …. (cont. p.56).


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