Let’s slay the Cousebook


He took his vorpal sword in hand;

      Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree

      And stood awhile in thought.

(Lewis Carroll: The Jabberwocky)

There is a maxmome foe stalking the ELT hinterland: an ELT Jabberwock; and it needs a vorpal sword to off its head and leave it dead. It is, of course, the dreaded coursebook.

The Jabberwock of ELT, the cousebook, is a lumbering, huge, oppressive, mind-numbing, life-sucking monster.

The ELT Jabberwock certainly burbles, but it doesn’t have eyes of flame; rather, its eyes are horribly hooded; they’re myopic, void of sparkle, mean, narrow, blighted and unblinking.

The ELT Jaberwock is a huge beast. Its hulky bulk strides through the world of ELT, carelessly flattening dissent as it plods its steady, purposeful way on towards its food supply – the bank.

The ELT Jabberwock’s brain is the size of a pea. It lacks any trace of critical acumen, it stomps mindlessly on, carelessly ignoring reasoned criticism.

The ELT Jabberwock’s habitat is big cities. London, Oxford, Cambridge, New York, Boston, Chicago, Amsterdam, Sydney, Hong Kong, Bejing. Here are the centres where decisions about the different facets of the multi billion enterprise of ELT (publishing, testing, acrediting, ELT training, even representation of teachers’ interests) are made.

The ELT Jabberwock sits slimy and slothful at a table meant to be shared by all, slobbering over duck’s livers, lark’s tongues and other people’s dreams. It sleeps under duvets stuffed with the duck’s feathers, serenaded by the lark’s song, oblivious to the dreams it daily destroys. It lives in luxury. It luxuriates in an atmosphere of smug self satisfaction. It wallows, stuffed to bursting, smothered in excess, in its protected lairs.

The ELT Jabberwock stinks. It gives off an offensive smell of decay, complacency and corruption. It does dirty deals in China, Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam, Hungary,South Korea, Mexico, Canada, and Kazakstan, for example, ensuring the use of a particular coursebook through wining and dining, favours and bribes.

The ELT Jabberwock takes possession of its owner’s home, like some huge, now unmoveable, untrained, out of control domestic pet, naively brought in by a gullible, well-intentioned family, to brighten things up.

The ELT Jabberwock is reluctant to move, It sits there, defiant, unlistening, too big to be challenged, suffocating development towards a more liberal, a more humanistic, a more shared way of doing things.

The ELT Jabberwock snarls at any attempt to challenge it. It insists, through silence and bad tempered grunts, that things be done its way.

The ELT Jabberwock  insists that each unit of its cousebooks should contain a test what’s been learned. The content of each dead, pre-dissected corpse of language contained in each awful unit should be tested, as if its rarified content could be learned without respect for the learners’ non-linear development of their interlanguage. And each external test of proficiency, run by the Cambridge Examination Board, or by the truly awful Pearson wing, or by anybody else, should fall in with the fatally flawed Jabberwocky agenda.

The ELT Jabberwock presides, like a flatulent, overweight, dying old beast, over teacher education. It breathes its noxious fumes into CELTA and DELTA courses, encouraging students to use couesebooks and to believe the crap peddled by coursebook writers. It bankrolls the IATEFL and TESOL conventions; it promotes the superstar agenda that typifies these conventions, and it does everything it can to stifle objections to its rotten view of ELT.

I’m tempted to re-name this blog “The Tumtum tree”, a place to rest by, there to indulge in uffish thought, but it’s a tad too contemplative. We need to slay the Jabberwock.

And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

13 thoughts on “Let’s slay the Cousebook

  1. I know you’ve written better, more comprehensive posts about coursebooks elsewhere on your blog so I shall point people to just do a quick search in the navigation bar.

    I think I’ve reached a point where I’m resigned to the coursebook being the be-all and end-all if we non-book advocates don’t actually advocate anything to replace it, which I know you have advocated.

    I think some people might be scared of a negotiated process syllabus, even learners. In which case, the teacher needs to have a few ideas, especially for a formative assessment/needs analysis. For the new, less-qualified or inexperienced, some kind of fallback is required, and I’m not saying book, but some kind of task that should provide an open-ended possibility to display what can/can’t be done. For people who like to put data on this, the CEFR could be used but I don’t see it as so useful for those with a few years in the job: just listening and taking notes should see needs and requirements popping out or further tasks to assess what didn’t come up.

    The only problem is that a task-pack would end up just being a book by any other name, with people slavishly following through. Something like a materials bank, commercially available, with guides to not just teaching grammar but things like pragmatics and discourse patterns would be useful, I feel. A pain to produce, but there we are. Our best bets are books that are open ended [Teaching Unplugged (Meddings and Thornbury), 52 (Meddings and Clandfield), At Work (Walsh)], else on the lookout on blogs to nick ideas and documenting our own successes. People, share your good lessons!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t the point that we don’t replace coursebooks with anything, and allow individual teachers to source and create materials for their own courses? This would create the context for genuinely relevant and useful course content, but of course the publishing companies wouldn’t have anything to sell, and ELT would be a lot cheaper to provide and therefore less interesting for publishing companies. That’s how you slay the jabberwocky.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Another issue, which seems to be kept getting swept under the carpet, is that not all teachers, or even school directors, are/feel capable of preparing a materials bank.

        Personally, I feel this is part of a wider problem of attitude, and encompasses such things as native speakerism (which, somehow, is still a thing in EFL!), where barely competent teachers are given precedence in the job market over experienced, knowledgeable counterparts because…native speaker.

        That, along with a quick, 4 week Celta course and lots of people taking up the discipline to do a bit of backpacking, and you have a high turnover across lots of schools, and the feeling that it would be a waste of time to bother making materials banks, or training teachers to do so themselves, because so many of them will just leave after a couple of years, anyway.

        So, everyone turns to the coursebook as an easy alternative. The publishers make money, ELT consultants make money promoting it, and schools make money selling it to students (who then make money copying it and selling it on those dodgy sites with cyrillic characters.)

        All this, of course, falls back to EFL being an industry first and foremost, and a pedagogical discipline second. Money-making coursebook schemes (better word lacking) are a symptom of this, but I don’t feel the coursebook is, itself, the Jabberwocky of the tale. One of its jaws, maybe, or claws.

        Anyway, all ramblings aside, perhaps, aside from a materials bank or coursebook-alternative, what’s needed is a more rigorous grassroots teacher-training system, so people enter the profession armed with the skills and expertise to cope without the coursebook. Feasible? Maybe not, but maybe worth a try.

        (That said, I’d be one of the teachers who wouldn’t pass the entry-level training, since I barely passed my CELTA, anyway).

        Then, if needs be, the coursebook can be tossed out, or cut into worksheets and individual pages serving as teaching aids, or some such.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree with you but so many teachers are used to the books that I think there needs to be some kind of weaning measure, if only as a guide to imagine what can be done. The only problem is how to get such kind of interim measure into the hands of teachers.


      3. Hi Steve

        As robettaylorefl and Marc both suggest, teachers on the whole like coursebooks, since they make the teacher’s life easier. I wholheartedly agree with both you and Geoff about coursebooks and their baleful influence. I fear though that you’re being a bit disingenuous when you suggest that the solution is to ‘allow’ teachers to ‘source and create materials for their own courses’. This seems to imply that there is a widespread, frustrated, desire amongst teachers to do this. Is there such a widespread desire? If there is, I have to admit I haven’t noticed it. My personal experience is of course limited.

        Liked by 4 people

      4. I should have included this in my previous comment but I think that it is relevant to note that for the past year and a half or so I have not used a coursebook in any of my classes. This has never brought me into conflict either with my employer or with the demons at Pearson. It has, though, from time to time, brought me into conflict with my colleagues.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. “Anyway, all ramblings aside, perhaps, aside from a materials bank or coursebook-alternative, what’s needed is a more rigorous grassroots teacher-training system, so people enter the profession armed with the skills and expertise to cope without the coursebook. Feasible? Maybe not, but maybe worth a try.”

    I do like imagining a “grassroots teacher-training system”! And thinking about the specific ‘skills and expertise’ most necessary for teachers to bloom forth from it as more creative co-generators of classroom content and excited instigators of classroom inquiry and fresh, fragrant learning experiences. Imagining space for work on language awareness and analysis skills, space for experimentation, for expertise in sourcing relevant compelling input, space for more context-specific teaching practice, space for learning and practicing mindfulness techniques to apply to one of the most complex and cognitively demanding jobs out there.

    Another thing I like to imagine: that the shift away is already in progress. That the internet has had a profound effect on teachers’ choices and learners’ expectations, that Dogme made an influential mark on the profession, that increased scrutiny of NS vs. NNS myths plays an indirect part, that teachers connecting in community online generates potent questions and critiques, etc., etc.

    That many different people in many different positions are ‘woke’ and in their own small ways doing something to affect change. I’ve been introducing trainees on an initial teacher training course to a wider array of sources of classroom materials and allowing them greater autonomy in making choices about what to use, along with better focus on the why.

    I’m a bit pessimistic about the fruitfulness of a discussion focused on “what replaces coursebooks”. I’d much rather hear about more specific things specific people have done/are doing/plan to do in their own ELT work in specific contexts having “eaten the red pill” and looked beyond coursebooks for achieving various educational goals.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. To answer the question that Patrick asked me above, you’re probably right Patrick that there aren’t that many coursebook-using teachers who would just love to stop using them if only they were allowed. However, when you consider that the majority of coursebook-using teachers were probably trained to teach using a coursebook and have probably spent most of their careers using a coursebook, it’s not surprising that they are perfectly happy using a coursebook. They don’t know what it means to not use a coursebook. About 5 years ago I had got to the stage where I used things from coursebooks but didn’t follow a single one as a course, so to speak. Then I changed jobs and found myself in a place where the coursebook was the course, and all the teachers were just expected to plough through the course, page by page. After having had the freedom not to do this for several years I found it very difficult to go back to using a coursebook, and I still find it very unsatisfying to follow a coursebook for any more than about an hour.
    I think what I’m saying is that teachers think they like coursebooks until they are put in a position of not having to use them any more. After they have gone without coursebooks for a bit, it’s really very difficult to go back to using one again. Try it, Patrick.
    I also think that a key reason why coursebooks are popular with teachers is because their initial course and their formative years are frequently dominated by coursebook use. But if they weren’t, if, like Matthew suggests, we had a different kind of approach to initial training, we might get a professional workforce that was a lot more open and responsive.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi Steve

    I totally agree with you about coursebooks. I haven’t used one for over a year and wouldn’t go back now, for reasons similar to yours. Then again, I don’t have kids and can spend time sourcing texts and creating accompanying materials. I still think that it is this, lack of time, that makes many teachers reluctant to abandon coursebooks, rather than because of some massive corporate conspiracy to brainwash us through certificate and diploma programmes. Actually, as I recall, over-dependence on coursebooks is frowned on on those programmes.


    1. That said, I have been told, after several sans-book lessons “Yes, but the students have paid for the coursebook, so they expect to be using it.”

      By the person selling them the book. Lessons deemed good, students reported as being happy.

      Not a centrist conspiracy, however, but a small school owner putting profit above all.

      Liked by 1 person

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