What are classrooms good for?

5285506260_8969d9afc7_zMy recent experience as a student on a short intensive Spanish course has given me pause for thought. While I can’t claim that the experience was representative of all classroom language learning experiences, there were nevertheless a number of features of it that I think are fairly typical, such as the way that the coursebook determined the lesson sequence, the alternation between teacher-fronted and more learner-centred activities, a focus on form as well as on meaning, and, notionally at least, an overall allegiance to the practices (if not the principles) of communicative language teaching. (The centre’s publicity material claims that they use un método comunicativo).

So, what follows is not so much a critique of the classes themselves, nor of the teachers, nor of the materials that we used, but more a critique of the current orthodoxy, in the sense that I have described it above. I should also stress that, since the classes were experienced as if refracted through the lens of my own specific needs and dispositions (some would say obsessions), these comments should be interpreted solely in that light: the other students may have had a very different experience (and this diversity of perceptions is itself a typical feature of most classrooms, I would think).

So, what was the class good for?

The fact of the matter is that I didn’t ‘learn’ a great deal, if learning means ‘the acquisition of new information’, ‘the internalization of input’ etc. I did pick up a number of potentially useful formulaic expressions (of which I’ll be writing more about later) and had some fossilized errors brought to my attention (as mentioned in my last post), but if this was learning, it tended to be sporadic, incidental, and, in fact, largely accidental – a by-product of tasks that had an altogether different purpose.  This mismatch between what I was taught and what I learned may owe to the fact that I had been placed in a level slightly lower than my supposed one; however, it seems to me that the accidental nature of the learning is symptomatic of an approach to language teaching that presumes to know what learners need, rather than teaching them ‘at the point of need’, an approach, in other words, that imposes an agenda that is not the learner’s agenda.

For me, the real benefit of these classes was the chance to be communicative within the safe ‘climbing frame’ that the classroom dynamic offered. ‘Chance’ is the operative word here, since most of these opportunities to be communicative were fortuitous, a case of grabbing some pretext to talk and running with it, rather than the pretext being built into the overall design of the lessons. For example, in one lesson, a passing reference to dogs (in a grammar exercise) precipitated a discussion about the rights and wrongs of keeping big dogs in small apartments, about attitudes to dogs in the different countries represented, and about films about dogs, during which I was able to tell a story about a neighbour and her annoying dog, this whole (highly productive and interactive) digression taking up about 25 minutes of classroom time.

To their credit, the teachers not only allowed these opportunities to evolve (in most instances), but were maximally supportive in providing help (in the form of recasts, for example) or feedback (in the form of correction).  These teacher interventions seemed to represent real learning affordances, and served to distinguish what is called ‘instructional conversation’ from the kind of talk that occurs in ‘the real world’. The conversations we had were like dress rehearsals. They gave me the confidence to make the transition into the real world, where – for the first time – I deliberately sought out opportunities to initiate talk, and elaborate on the talk of others. I remember one day in the second week where I experienced a real ‘turning point’ moment, as I crossed the street to talk to an acquaintance at length, even breathlessly, about the classes I was taking. In the old days I would have crossed the street in the other direction – i.e. to avoid such an encounter.

5285505744_7049ab1ef1_zBut it has to be stressed that these emergent and scaffolded classroom conversations were seldom planned. They emerged. What was planned was a succession of coursebook-based exercises, where the primary focus was on grammar. And on a relatively narrow range of fairly low-frequency grammatical items, at that. Or it was on vocabulary, but, again, often vocabulary that not only took the form of isolated words (as opposed to words in their typical phraseological environments) but were words of relatively low frequency and utility.

The problem is (you guessed it) the coursebook. Not this particular coursebook (which was as good in its way as any comparable EFL coursebook) but the culture of the coursebook in general. Once you pin your curriculum to the mast of a coursebook, you effectively circumscribe the learners’ ownership of the process, undermining the very sense of agency that might have impelled them to the classroom in the first place.  (It was perhaps ironic that the coursebooks were on loan: we didn’t own them).

Over the two weeks of the course there was a constant tension between the coursebook agenda and the agenda that we, the students, managed to fabricate from random affordances. The salient learning moments tended to occur when we moved away from the book, not when we were immersed in it. (This is not to say that the book’s themes, texts and tasks didn’t sometimes stimulate a conversational detour, but these detours were unintentional, and might just as easily have been motivated by copies of the local free newspaper).

Defenders of the coursebook might say that these teachers did not know (or had not been trained) how to use the books in a discriminating, and productive way. There may be some truth in this, but it seems to me that the very presence of the coursebook imposes constraints that even the best teachers find difficult to circumvent.

First there is the grammar: one of the teachers herself admitted that the grammar problems that learners of our level typically face involve structures ‘lower down’ the grammatical hierarchy, such as past tenses, por and para, and so on. Certainly, the bulk of the correction we received when we were in ‘free talking’ mode had much more to do with ‘lower level’ (and more frequent) grammar items than anything to do with the immediate syllabus.

Then there were the texts, themselves chosen or written because they embed the ‘structure of the day’: rarely authentic, inevitably out-of-date and only accidentally relevant or of interest. Then there were the tasks: primarily form-focused, and narrowly focused, at that.  Rather than the coursebook expanding opportunities for learning, it seemed to shrink them.

I have to stress that none of these criticisms is directed at the teachers themselves, nor at the actual coursebook (whose writers I happen to know!) but more at the kind of education that prioritises imported content over the locally generated. Generating lesson content locally would, of course, make a different set of demands on teachers (but demands that these teachers could easily have risen to, and, in fact, often did). More importantly, it requires a different attitude, the kind of attitude shift that a ‘dialogic’ approach assumes. As Claire Kramsch (1993: 31) put it,

A dialogic pedagogy is unlike traditional pedagogy… It sets new goals for teachers – poetic, psychological, political goals that … do not constitute any easy-to-follow method. .. Such a  pedagogy should better be described, not as a blueprint for how to teach foreign languages, but as another way of being a language teacher.

So, what are classes good for? They are good places for incidental learning to occur, particularly of the kind that emerges naturally out of classroom tasks. They are even better places to rehearse, experiment, take risks – and get ‘at the point of need’ support. These opportunities, and this support, combined with the total immersion in the language that I experienced four hours a day, five days a week, hugely facilitated my transition from the learning context into the using content. For that I am very thankful.


Kramsch, C. (1993) Context and Culture in Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Next week: What drives me?


About Scott Thornbury

I write books about ELT methodology and teach on the MA TESOL program at the New School in New York. I live in Barcelona. View all posts by Scott Thornbury

46 responses to “What are classrooms good for?

  • alexbaileywriter

    So there is a tension between the planned sequence of activities manifest in the coursebook (or even the worksheet) and the desire to use the language in *real* ways (such as your spontaneous conversations about dogs). Of course, students sense that only the latter is real and so start on-topic off-task conversations with the teacher – and the other students, sensing something real is happening, prick up their ears. So what’s the root cause of the unrealness of coursebook work? Students see the coursebook as something generic that was ‘prepared earlier’ without their input. A solution is to involve the students in the planning and creation of their lesson. I call this process participatory planning and, when I use it, students are far more motivated. More importantly, they start thinking about what they need to learn, which prepares them to extend their capability through self-teaching, in the future – which is in turn a more *real* way of learning than the classroom-based lesson.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for the comment, Alex. Yes, when we were given the chance to present to the class on a topic of our own choosing (notionally related to the coursebook topic, admittedly) things really took off. For me, at least. I’ll be talking about this next week.

  • tichahana

    Hi Scott,
    Thanks for another inspiring post. I especially like the part about coursebooks – the major bone of contention ELT.
    Yesterday I happened to be at a wonderful methodology conference where I could choose different workshops to attend. In one of the workshops the guy gave us tips on how to prepare our students for the FCE exam using authentic materials (recipes, weather forecasts, etc.). It was really interesting and useful. But then there was another workshop where the lady said that NOT using coursebooks can hinder learning. She gave us some strong arguments, e. g. the author has done the research and knows which words are the most frequently used ones in an FCE exam. So, what should we, poor teachers, do now? Well, we should keep in mind that passing an exam is not the ultimate goal of an EFL learner but, no matter what we believe, it is one of the goals. So here we are, again, dealing with the needs analysis problem.
    And back to fossilization, I have recently come across a few fossilized errors Czech speakers occasionally make (and now I’m talking about speakers who speak perfect English, with a perfect accent, almost indistinguishable from the native one). These mistakes will always reveal the speaker’s true identity (for example, the best way ‘how’ to + verb…. and ‘make’ risks). Although I’m sure they know that they are mistakes (I suppose they stayed or studied in an English speaking country for quite a long time), they can’t avoid them under certain circumstances, e. g. under pressure or when being surrounded by speakers of their native language. I’ll finish off with question is: Do we need to be 100% perfect unless we want to fool somebody?

    • Scott Thornbury

      “Do we need to be 100% perfect unless we want to fool somebody?” Good question, Hana, and I suspect you have answered it in your own mind already. As I’ll be arguing in next week’s blog, the achievable aim for the (adult) language learner is not 100% native-speaker competence, but a ‘miniaturized’ version, i.e. one that is co-extensive with native-speaker competence but less granular, less detailed. The map, but not the territory.

  • adelesoracco

    It is certainly tricky to balance following the curriculum set by the school while also maintaining a learning environment in which the needs of the group are given the proper space in class. As a teacher, I certainly want to embrace those learning moments when students deviate from he original plan, but do bring about more relevant language and topics to the lesson; however, I think it’s intimidating to facilitate these ‘learning detours’ when you are not an experienced teacher. Although I now prefer teaching without having a course book dictate the curriculum, it wasn’t too long ago when the course books I used provided a much-needed guide so I would sequence lessons appropriately. Since I began teaching without having any formal training in TESOL, those textbooks did provide a lot of support at first. I do have to say though that I would have rather started my career by getting training on how to use any text with students without it necessarily being tied to a course book. I think it’s much more useful to learn how to teach vocabulary, how to facilitate productive class discussions, and how to use the students’ own interests to set up an engaging classroom. Because there wasn’t an investment in teacher training related to ELT at my first job, most of my training came from the publishing trainers and it related to how to use the textbook. I wonder how many classrooms would look if schools sponsored a type of training where teaching does not rely on using course books to set the curriculum, but rather students and their particular needs and interests dictate the lessons. In any case, thanks for sharing your reflections as a Spanish language learner. Much to reflect on after reading this post.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Yes, Adele, the support that coursebooks give to new (and even untrained) teachers can’t be denied, or undervalued: many teachers, like yourself, learned to teach effectively by ‘following the book’. And because most current books subscribe to a communicative methodology, this ‘training’ stands them in good stead. Nevertheless, as you suggest, there comes a time when maybe this ‘scaffolding’ needs to be dismantled, when the coursebook needs to be put aside because, far from fostering the teacher’s development, it might be stifling it.

  • adamfromteachthemenglish

    I wonder how many of those reading this will be nodding their head throughout? As you note, others in the class might have had quite a different experience; were you able to discuss this with the other language learners and, if so, will you be discussing these perspectives in later posts?

    Excellent selection of photos this week, by the way!

  • Philip Quick Republic of Moldova

    Its a pity you didn’t engage with your teachers in this dialogue and explain your ideas. Then you would have got to the core of your own language needs and improved your Spanish at the same time.
    I’m amazed your teachers, who if I understand correctly know of your fame, didn’t seize the chance to enter into a dialogue with you on teaching.
    Were you too shy to have an after class chat?

    • Scott Thornbury

      Philip, I deliberately kept my identity secret: I didn’t want any special treatment at the expense of the other students, nor did I want the teachers to feel self-conscious, knowing their classes might be described on this blog.

  • Mark Makino

    I’m very glad Geoff recommended this blog…
    Maybe the existence of a coursebook could be seen as form of advertising to students who would hesitate to go to a school that didn’t use one at all; more of a chef’s hat than a chef’s knife.

    • Scott Thornbury

      I agree, Mark… I think that coursebooks have an iconic value – they confer authority on the teacher and the institution because they satisfy students’ expectations, based not on any real understanding of how languages are acquired but on how education ought to be managed.

  • stevebrown70

    Hi Scott,
    Of course, it’s hardly surprising that you have a problem with coursebooks as a student, considering how you view them as a teacher.
    It’s not just the materials though – you seem to have had a problem with the fact that the lessons had a pre-conceived plan; it was the unplanned bits, the moments where you and the other students were able to “hijack” the lesson, that you found most productive. Was this just because the plan originated in the mind of some coursebook writer who was too distant from the learning environment, or would it still have been a problem if the teachers planned lessons without using a coursebook?
    I think you already know how I feel about coursebooks (and lesson planning for that matter), but your post has made me think again about where the problem lies. As teachers, we all want to create situations that maximise the learning process, but there’s something about planning in advance that diminishes our ability to do this. Is it the materials we are using? Or the way we are using them? Or is it more to do with the language aims that we set?
    I think I might have to blog about this again myself – thanks for the inspiration (again).

    • Scott Thornbury

      I’m not against planning, Steve, but I rather wish that the planning had taken the learners more into account, rather than simply ‘following the book’. If I sign up for a guided tour (of Venice for example) I want more than I could have got through simply following the Rough Guide.

  • sallyhirst

    Will learning in a classroom, not always be to some degree incidental ? It feels as though you are attributing this result to a large degree to the use of a book, though I may be reading that in the wrong way. Unless it is just you the topics will sometimes be things you are interested in and sometimes not, will sometimes address what you see as one of your more urgent learning needs and sometimes not, whether those topics are introduced by a course book, created from sources by a teacher or brought in by other learners ? I can see that some things in some books (and even some books altogether) may not be so engaging or appropriate and either the teacher or members of the group could find routes they feel are more relevant, but not that all that happens will suit any one learner in a group all the time. ‘Sporadic, incidental and accidental’ make it sound as though there was something specifically concrete you hoped to walk away with and that the book got in the way of that. Was there ? Or was it just a more coherent sense of accomplishment ? Though what you list at the end – the opportunities, support and immersion sounds like quite a lot to walk away with.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Yes, Sally, there was a lot I walked away with, as you say. But not a lot of that had to do with the coursebook. It seems that the coursebook fills a kind of void that exists in the absence of the teacher (or the institution) identifying the specific needs and/or interests of the learners – or, having identified them, finding them too diverse to cater for as a group. When in doubt, teach the language of shopping.

      What would it cost to ask the students, at the outset, to nominate topics, and to ask them to take responsibility (using the internet) to find and present material that relates to these topics? Especially at the more advanced levels.

  • Simon Greenall

    If you continue to provide such lengthy, well-rounded and well-justified arguments about coursebooks, written in such an engaging and episodic way, then I may not only give up supporting coursebooks, I may even give up writing them. This is one of the best language learning/language teaching narratives I’ve read, possibly better than A Diary of a Language Teacher. Thanks.

  • laoshi

    Thank you, Scott. Your post explain exactly the feeling that I have as a teacher: I do not have to teach anything, I have to be near the students when they learn, But sometimes the tradition of teaching makes it difficult. No excuses, we have to improve. And I absolutely agree with you about the textbook. In fact, I’m trying to work without one.


    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Elisabet. As I said to Adele above, it’s all about teacher development (and, rather than ‘improvement’, I prefer ‘development’ which doesn’t imply that teachers are always bad to start with!). The teachers who taught me Spanish were all very experienced and had many of the skills in place that would have allowed them to handle a more student-driven curriculum expertly. So why didn’t they? As you say, it’s all about tradition.

  • geoffjordan

    Fantastic, yet again, Scott. This makes excellent reading, and, not surprisingly, sparks lots of interesting comments. I find your analysis of your experiences constantly honest, perceptive, well-informed and, most of all, stimulating.

    Your remarks on how the coursebook skews teaching and learning, despite the best efforts of all, and despite the fact that many coursebooks are, in themselves, well-intentioned and well-assembled are, IMHO, extremely insightful and valuable, You manage to be fair and yet to suggest that there’s something fundamentally mistaken about much classroom practice. They give much support to your Dogme manifesto!

    This blog started well, and just keeps getting better. It’s as well-paced as anything I’ve read, and has remarkably good cohesion.

    I hope that once you’ve finished this fascinating account, you’ll write an article on it, where the issues so splendidly raised are discussed in more detail.

    I lift my hat to you.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thank you, Geoff. This is very gratifying, coming from the person who wrote ‘the whole Dogme thing is, in my opinion, vastly overblown’. 😉

      • geoffjordan

        I misjudged (underestimated) the importance of what you were saying in the Dogme Manifesto, which, on closer reading, increasingly appeals to me. While I’m on bended knee, “overblown” was a poorly-chosen adjective in the first place.

  • David Weller

    Thanks for a great article! It’s great to be reminded that language learning often happens in spite of the coursebook, not because of it.

    An area you touched on, that I’m fascinated with, is that the emergent connections that students make in class – with the teacher, with each other, and with the material used. It’s from these stimuli that genuine language emerges, and of course, students’ willingness to communicate is never a problem, as the motivation comes from themselves.

    It’s great to read your account of putting yourself back in a learner’s shoes again. Looking forward to your next post! 🙂

  • Beatriz

    Hi Scott:

    I have met along the years many students that were not able to identify their needs. They feel puzzled when I ask them about this point, as they think that I -the teacher- or the coursebook is going to reveal that stuff for them.

    To me, it’clear now that in your intensive Spanish course you didn’t feel your interests or your needs were taken into account. I can´t resist the temptation to ask you the same question that I ask to my students: could you detail for us what your interests or needs were? That is, could you be more specific at this point? I’m curious about it.

    As a Spanish teacher, I’m following this new blog of you with higher (!) interest than the previous one A-Z. If you don’t mind I’ll write a few lines in Spanish (I apologize to the rest of your audience). Me habría encantado ser una de las profesoras de tu curso y tener la oportunidad impagable de debatir contigo todo lo que aquí estás analizando (en español, por supuesto). Yo sí te habría reconocido a pesar de tu seudónimo 🙂

    Gracias por compartir tus reflexiones.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Hola Beatriz, thanks for your perceptive comment. Regarding my own particular needs, these were initially only vaguely defined: something like ‘I just want to be better/ more fluent’ etc. In the light of the classroom experience I am now starting to define my needs more exactly, as I look for alternatives to the group situation, such as a one-to-one teacher. I’ll be posting about this shift in perception tomorrow, if you can wait that long!

  • Hywel Care

    “What was planned was a succession of coursebook-based exercises, where the primary focus was on grammar. And on a relatively narrow range of fairly low-frequency grammatical items, at that. Or it was on vocabulary, but, again, often vocabulary that not only took the form of isolated words (as opposed to words in their typical phraseological environments) but were words of relatively low frequency and utility.”

    This theme of low frequency and utility in the language of coursebook lessons is one that I find very frustrating in my own English teaching. It’s interesting to see you experience it from the other side.

    I’m a far less experienced teacher than many posting here (to give background I’m 20months post-CELTA, and now 15 months into working in Japan, having had some brief but valuable work opportunities in the UK and Spain after my CELTA), but in my own development as a teacher, this is coming up as a striking point.

    One salient example is a 2 learner intermediate level class that I teach, where I had assessed the learners were ready to move to upper intermediate at the start of the new school year 6 months ago, but due to a miscommunication with school staff, they were assigned another intermediate text (don’t ask how this happened or why it couldn’t be rectified, other than to say that it isn’t a fair reflection on how good the staff normally are, or how well they communicate with the teaching staff). This year, using the intermediate text, the language that has emerged has been as pleasing as any class I teach. This language has often emerged from the text, but largely as in your example, in a way that might equally apply if the discussion had been motivated by a free newspaper. Had the class studied at upper-intermediate level, I feel that the focus of language in the coursebook would have been on exactly the kind of lower frequency, low utility items discussed. This is the nature of “progression” in many coursebooks, to introduce more challenging but less useful structures. My feeling is that my well-intentioned students are of a mindset to strive to understand these structures and complete the planned exercises, and the greater level of challenge would actually inhibit the spontaneous use of higher frequency and higher utility language. It would also encourage in the ‘freer practice’ sections more of the ‘say anything you want as long as it’s in the second conditional’ type of conversation that you have previously criticised.

    With the use of the book being mandated, I find a bizarre conflict whereby I could almost assign any book of the student’s level or lower (ok foundation or elementary and the students might start to lose confidence in me!) with no adverse impact on the likely learning outcomes. Nonetheless, I feel duty bound to try to have the students at the ‘right’ level, both to tangibly show them their progress, and to maintain the integrity of the system when new students join a class (as one new student has just done with this small group) after their level check.

  • Hywel Care

    Permitirme de añadir “Buena suerte” para tus estudios. (I’ve probably already betrayed the rustiness of my own Spanish with that.)

  • wezjohnson

    Hello Scott,

    This is a very well-written, interesting, and provocative account of what life is like from a student’s perspective. Your comments more or less confirm what I already believe about language learning i.e. its incidental, emergent, student-driven nature.

    I use the word ‘confirm’ here deliberately. One thing I worry about when it comes to theories of learning and teaching, is the phenomenon of ‘confirmation bias’. When confirmation bias goes unchecked, those who – for example -support coursebooks (or those who have an agenda to promote them) will tend to select bits of theory and experience which confirm their view that they are useful or necessary. Naturally, the same effect could occur in those – like myself – who favour an emergent, unplugged view of language learning. Which brings me to my main point. Nobody would deny that you are a well-informed, open-minded and critical thinker when it comes to language learning; nevertheless, you went into the classroom with a pre-existing set of beliefs about language learning and the role of coursebooks. Isn’t there a danger that this ‘coloured’ your experience so to speak, so that you perhaps saw (and lived) the situation in a way that confirmed your current views?

    I don’t wish to be deliberately challenging on this; only, confirmation bias is something that should not be underestimated. After all, it is well known that the nature of teaching and language learning mean that we will never to able to control all the variables in laboratory conditions. And if, as Chomsky says, linguistic theory doesn’t have much to say to teachers of languages and that teachers need to conduct their own action research themselves (which is what you are doing with this experiment in a sense), then the danger is that teachers/trainers/materials writers become unwitting victims of confirmation bias, and that, in this post-method landscape, theory becomes rather flimsy and ‘tribal’? I suppose that in the post-modern view, this is to be welcomed, yet this divisiveness has a real impact on the lives of teachers and learners alike.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Wez, for your measured – and important – comment. Yes, I was well aware of my bias when I went into the classes – and in fact strongly hinted at this in my post, when I talked about seeing the experience through the lens of my own obsessions. So, whatever I have to say about the experience has to be taken with a strong pinch of salt. As someone has already pointed out, the opinions of the other students in the class should, ideally, have been sought.

      Nevertheless, when I look back on the experience it is very clear to me that the confidence I gained which enabled me to take risks outside the classroom seemed to derive almost entirely from the conversations we had inside the classroom, the bulk of which were triggered by stimuli that had only an accidental relationship to the syllabus and the coursebook. By the same token, the syllabus/coursebook content that was the explicit focus of instruction seems to have had little ‘uptake’ in terms of what I can retrieve in the form of intake. Ergo, coursebooks 0, conversations 1.

  • Scott Thornbury

    As a footnote to this post, I was intrigued to read a paper in the latest Modern Language Journal (Guerrettaz & Johnston 2013) that explores the way that a textbook provided language learning affordances in an ESL class. The researchers found that ‘the materials more often than not provided emergent rather than intended affordances for language learning and use’ (p. 790) and that ‘there is a noteworthy discrepancy between intended and unintended affordances of the book’ (p. 792). They conclude that ‘once an artifact such as a textbook leaves the hands of its designer(s) and is actually used in the world, it often provides affordances that were not intended or perhaps even imagined by the designer’ (p. 789).

    This confirms my own experience of the way the activities in the Spanish textbooks triggered diversions that could not really have been foreseen by the writers.

    This also raises the question: Is the enormous effort (and expense) that goes into textbook design justified, if their effects are so random? And, more importantly still, would any other artifact have worked just as well, or even better?


    Guerrettaz, A.M., and Johnston, B. (2013) ‘Materials in the classroom ecology’, Modern Language Journal, 97/3, 779-796.

  • hanaticha

    Interesting, Scott. What immediately sprang to mind was the following question: Which textbook is better then… the one that provides intended affordances (so the more ‘successful’ one in terms of the author’s aims, the more ‘valued’ one) or the one that offers a plethora of unintended affordances? For me it would probably be the latter; a book which contains interesting content upon which I can build the lessons creatively and from which the language would emerge naturally. So I understand why you question the effort spent on textbook design. It’s the same with lesson planning; a well-thought and detailed plan doesn’t guarantee a good lesson and sometimes it’s better to ditch a plan completely.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for the comment, Hana. Since it’s (by definition) impossible to gauge unintended outcomes in advance, my money is on materials that are more likely to engage the here-and-now, such as materials the students themselves bring to class, and not the textbooks, however ‘good’ they are. That is to say, it’s not really possible to say which coursebook is ‘better’ since every coursebook is as good as another, in terms of the affordances it might accidentally provide. But a short story or a free newspaper or a website that the students themselves have elected has to be better.

  • Duncan MacKenzie

    May I set out my stall immediately: I am no fan of a structural syllabus, over-reliance on the course book and certainly no fan of pre-service courses that fail to focus on the emergent needs of learners, whether personal or linguistic.

    But I am also no fan of the black-and-white argument that has emerged, never to evolve, always to stagnate: ‘to use the course book or not to use the course book? That is the question.’ Frankly, it isn’t. And any covert operation to discover the truth is bound by intransigent preconception and implicit criticism of the teacher, peers and other educators, no matter how warmly and insistently that is denied.

    As a parent of young children, I have realised the importance of structure and repetition in their educational journey. As an uncle of teenagers, I know that rightly that structure will be questioned, agreed with, rebelled against, modified, ignored. Fair play. Let’s remember that these are the kind of learners considerably more likely to be in an English learning classroom than someone who has lived in the target language country for the best part of 30 years, let alone someone who brings an agenda about the way language learning should take place.

    Critical thinking is needed in any classroom I feel. And while a group can bring their own thoughts and opinions, they can never bring everything to the table. External stimulus is necessary at times otherwise we just learn to express our own unchallenged thoughts in a slightly more sophisticated way.

    I suppose I’m disappointed. It’s disappointing that someone I have read and respected is intent on ‘proving’ an agenda. And it’s a tiresome agenda a million miles away from the realities of daily teaching. If Fahrenheit 451 burns up all course books, will it also burn up the (I presume) publication that follows this very atypical experiment?


    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for bringing a dissenting voice to the table, Duncan. I have to admit that I am a bit surprised that the dissent wasn’t forthcoming sooner – but, then, I guess that many who follow this blog are the already converted.

      I totally agree with you that ‘external stimulus is necessary’, but what I query is why (and especially at an upper intermediate level) this stimulus has to take the form of a coursebook whose primary organizing principle is rarefied grammar items? Why not a book of short stories by Roberto Bolaño, for example, or the Sunday supplement of El País? Or material off the internet that we students ourselves could have provided? Anything, surely, would have been more conducive to skills practice, vocabulary acquisition and incidental grammar learning than the coursebook, with its contrived texts and obsessive concern with forms.

      And would a more content-based approach really have been ‘a million miles away from the realities of daily teaching’? The push towards content-based second language instruction at primary and secondary levels is already well-established in many parts of Europe, including Spain. Maybe it’s time it penetrated the language academies, too?

  • Sheena

    Hi Scott,
    I have to say that it would be lovely if all teachers were able to deal with authentic texts at all levels, exploit them to focus on useful grammar and lexis and so on but it is so unrealistic. Young teachers are often not able to think on their feet or deal with a variety of language areas without full preparation and the help of a teacher’s book. Teaching 24 hours a week at a variety of levels when you are not fully confident in how to best help learners with a variety of areas of English is amazingly daunting and, let’s face it, impossible without some kind of structure. As Duncan said above, can’t there be some happy medium where the teacher and students get some kind of structure and safety in a course book? Who says you have to follow it slavishly? Perhaps you dip in and out, but you don’t have to throw it out with the bath water – especially if you are newish to teaching and cannot deal with all the lexical and grammatical challenges of the language without some help.
    Content language programmes have very ‘strict’ syllabi to attend to – and are often restricted by course books too; subject course books!

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thank you, Sheena, for your comment.

      Yes, the argument that novice teachers need coursebooks in order to provide structure (literally and metaphorically) to their teaching is an old one, and is used to justify prioritizing the use of coursebook materials on initial teacher training courses (e.g. CELTA). Few such courses attempt to inculcate the skills of simply working with the learners’ output, but those that do (see, for example, http://teachertrainingunplugged.com/) report impressive results. This suggests to me that there might be an element of mythology in the view that new teachers can’t teach responsively (and responsibly).

      Certainly, in the case of my Spanish class, the teachers were very experienced and were able to respond promptly and constructively to learner output, which was what made me wonder why they still based their lessons round the somewhat turgid and pedantic coursebook material.

  • Eli Daniel Driscoll

    I’ve just started working in two different, coursebook based environmnets after several years of mostly ‘off-book’ teaching. Coursebooks seem to me to fulfill the following functions, among others.

    1. Provide a syllabus: how do you know what you should be teaching, and at what pace, for students at this level? There’s your answer, in that book.

    2. Exam classes. FCE, CAE, CPE. The books are basically compendiums of exam practice, guaranteed to be true to the exams and therefore useful in preparing for them. Like it or not, many students’ main motivation is to get a piece of paper with B2 or C1 on it.

    3. Assessments. How do you assess if a student is progressing over a year-long course? Base your tests on what they have covered in the book.

    4. What do I do today? I don’t get paid enough to spend hours scouring the internet for material, editing it and developing exercises for every group, every day. Also I want to provide a balanced range of activities. What page am I on?

    5. Standardisation. This is a level X group. This school, or organisation has more than one level X group. They should be doing the same kind of thing, shouldn’t they?

    6. Forward momentum, or a sense therof. Important for teachers, students and parents of students.

    7. Level-appropriate reading and listening. ‘Authentic’ materials are often demotivating for even relatively high-level students.

    I’d like to add that, in my years of ‘off-book’ teaching, I used coursebooks, but in a much more selective and I think, student centred way, taking materials from different books and using them as I saw fit. I think there is a lot of very useful material in some coursebooks.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Eli, for the comment, and the comprehensive list of benefits (for the teacher, at least) of using a coursebook. I’m not sure that the benefits for the learner are so clear, unless we assume that language learning occurs in a step-by-step, incremental way, one structure at a time. If, on the other hand, you take the view that learning is opportunistic, idiosyncratic, non-linear, and emergent, and that it occurs principally through language use, then are opportunities to use the language contingent on there being a book? In my recent experience as a learner of Spanish, the coursebooks only accidentally provided such opportunities, and more often as not inhibited them.

  • Kevin Westbrook

    Hi Scott. In my experience, learners want a book. They want structure. In my experience as a language learner, I wanted to know where I had been, where I was going, and what I could do to fill the gaps. It is very hard, especially if you are not learning the language where that language is spoken, to simply use the language, in a natural way or not.
    I would also suggest that several of Eli’s points are very much benefits for the learner in that they benefit, for example, from activities that have been developed for the level they are at.
    I am a long way from being a fan of the kinds of text books published these days. They have basically remained unchanged for the best part of two decades, and I am sure we have learnt a few things about teaching and learning languages in that time, but I do agree with Eli that in many situations they are at least the lesser of various evils.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Kevin writes: ‘in many situations they [coursebooks] are at least the lesser of various evils’.

      I would have to agree, Kevin. I have been in schools (especially under-resourced state schools in developing world contexts) where there is simply no viable alternative. In other contexts, where there are viable alternatives, e.g. content-based teaching, I suggest that these alternatives should not be dismissed out of hand.

  • philipquick

    Why do so many coursework books think that teenagers around the world have the chance to go travelling around the world to places like Australia or Goa.???[i’m sure they get pissed off]
    Let’s see a coursework book talk about the frustrations of young people who can’t travel cos they can’t get a VISA!!! That’s the reality of most EFL students around the world.

  • Duncan MacKenzie

    Content-based learning, which you have mentioned before. Now there is a really interesting area to turn your knowledgeable mind to. I look forward to that: there is a common goal and learners can take what they will from the linguistic input. But how much focus on language is there? As, rather cynically, a former colleague once said about Spanish-English so-called bilingual schools: “it means half of the lessons they understand and half they don’t.”

    • Scott Thornbury

      Balancing and combining the twin goals of content knowledge and language development is certainly a challenge in content-based teaching, a point addressed by Roy Lyster in Canada, who proposes ‘a counter-balanced approach’. Put simply, this means that, where the focus is primarily on content, an extra effort needs to be made to engineer a focus on form, and vice versa.

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