A response to Sandy Millin’s ‘Coursebook requests’ (March 10, 2018)

Note: This started as a reply to Sandy Millin’s post Coursebook Requests, which she posted on March 10, 2018. I have been following Sandy’s blog for some time, find her content interesting, and have even bought her book, Richer Speaking, published by The Round. However, the fact that I find something interesting does not necessarily mean I agree with it. Besides that, I am also a firm believer in open discussion so … with all that out of the way … let’s proceed (all block quotes are from Sandy’s original post; “you” here refers to Sandy sometimes, and indefinite ‘one’ at others – it should hopefully be clear which is which)

1200px-William_Holman_Hunt_-_The_Scapegoat
The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt, 1854

“This is a post from somebody who [sic] regular says ‘Why?! Why would they do that?’ It’s written to publishers and materials writers.”

Criticism of coursebooks is, of course, entirely valid and there are many well-deserved points which could be made about them. But what I find exasperating about the bulk of such criticism I see is that it invariably makes the coursebook a scapegoat for all manner of frustrations teachers face on a daily basis. And so while the real source of the problems go unaddressed, the scapegoat, metaphorically speaking of course, is once again loaded up with ire before being whipped out of town.

And while you are obviously free to say what you like on your own blog, this post seems to be a good example of that kind of scapegoating. For instance, I’m not sure what your intention was behind refusing to name “specific coursebooks” – perhaps you felt it would be more discreet that way? – but whatever your reasoning, the effect is the same – it seems to suggest that all coursebooks are equally guilty of the same sins and so all must be equally punished in the same way.

This seems to be not only very unfair and very unjust, but more importantly it is very unhelpful to your readers. Many of the points you raise have already been addressed by coursebook writers and publishers and not just recently, but over quite some many years now. So it sounds very much like the real issue might be with your school’s selection of books for the courses you teach and not the books themselves. To take your very first point as an example:

“Introducing 20-30 out of context new items (which may be tangentially linked to the topic of the unit if you’re lucky) on a single page is not useful [ … ] Doing this twice in a unit, giving 50-60 new items is just far too much”

Without knowing what kind of classes are being taught – at what level this is, in what kind of institution, for what age groups, for what purposes, for what length of time and so on – it is literally meaningless to declare such lists useful or not useful. (And without knowing which book and which class you are talking about in particular it is similarly rather meaningless).

Besides that, at lower levels especially, learning lists of cognates has proved for decades (if not centuries) a popular and efficient method for learners of foreign languages to quickly build up a lexicon of the most basic vocabulary. Admittedly, if this is the only way someone learns then it is far too limited – but that is not the same as saying as it is useless altogether as you appear to do here.

And it depends on the contents of the list of course, but if the lists are thematically linked doesn’t that create a context of its own? A list of 20-30 food vocabulary items would do this; ditto cooking utensils; parts of the body etc. And also how are you able to make a judgment on whether or not “50-60 new items is just far too much” on behalf of the learners?

I quite understand the learning of these “50-60 new items” may be trying in *your* particular context, but that is kind of my point here about the scapegoat – the real source of the issue is not with the coursebook material in this case, but in the kind of classes you currently have. Similarly, you say:

“Exam tasks are only helpful if you know which exam they’re for. Having an entire book where all of the skills tasks are ‘exam’ tasks without a clearly labelled exam that they relate to is just plain depressing.”

This surely begs the question – ‘Why are you using this book with that group?’ If you do not know which exam it is for it is kind of a sign that you are not teaching an exam preparation class in which case the choice of the book was made by someone much closer to home to you than the writer or the publisher – i.e. your current or former DoS chose that book, or maybe it was requested by parents, or maybe some other reason which is local and relevant to where you are based, but may have no relevance elsewhere.

If the Ministry of Education of a country insists that all students take State Language Exam ‘X’, but the majority of parents want their kids to do e.g. Cambridge: First then there might be a dilemma for a head teacher about whether to ask parents to buy two books or to ask their child to choose to do one exam rather than the other. If this isn’t acceptable or viable for anyone involved, then an alternative would be to produce a book which includes task types for both Exam ‘X’ and for Cambridge: First. What is key to note about this is that this is a case of the publishers producing a book which responds to customer requests, and not an example of a giant foreign corporation imposing its whim and will on lowly subject teachers and their students.

If you in your context find that that coursebook content is not relevant to you, again why are you using that book at all? If there is no apparent reason why you are, then why not change it? And if your DoS or Director explains that you cannot change it for reason P, Q, and R then your problem is definitely not one with the coursebook, but with your local institution.

The next point that caught my eye was this:

“Check that the reading and listening tasks are at a similar level of challenge to the grammar points and writing tasks that are being introduced.”

This is quite simply baffling – how can we possibly rank the difficulty of a continuous stretch of discourse by the grammar points that are related to it as teaching points? I have absolutely no idea what you mean by this and, again, because you refused to mention which specific coursebook you are talking about I cannot even begin to guess what you could have meant by it.

“Don’t just list linking words, ask students to categorise them by function (adding, contrasting etc. – words the students don’t necessarily know either!), and assume they will understand the words and be able to use them.”

Surely, if you have the reading texts (and listening scripts) on the one hand and the list of linking words on the other, students can be asked to identify the linking words from the list in the reading texts (and listening scripts)?

I hope this has not sounded too harsh, but I really do feel that coursebooks get such a relentless and undeserved beating from all sides that someone has to finally call time on the bloodletting and scapegoating.

And moreover, it is not that coursebooks are beyond reproach – there are many things that someone could legitimately take issue with them over. But if I could make one plea it is if you are going to criticise a coursebook do please make sure it is actually the coursebook that is the real problem being addressed and not one much closer to home.

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4 thoughts on “A response to Sandy Millin’s ‘Coursebook requests’ (March 10, 2018)

  1. Thank you for writing such a long and considered response to my post. I’ll reply to it properly at the weekend as it’s late here and I need to go to bed. In the meantime, I’d like to give you something else from my blog to read as well: https://sandymillin.wordpress.com/2015/06/20/what-do-i-think-about-coursebooks/ I wrote that one nearly 3 years ago, and I think my thoughts have evolved since then even more in favour of coursebooks. It’s probably time for an update… briefly, I generally find coursebooks really useful, and the post from Saturday was meant to be requests, not bashing (of which I believe there is far too much, without much on the other side to balance it out).
    Sandy
    (I’m not sure who I’m writing to I’m afraid – can you tell me your name? Thanks!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Sandy and thanks for taking the post in the spirit it was intended. My name is Nick (or Nik).

    I also wrote a long and rambling response to Geoff Jordan’s ‘Challenging the Coursebook’, which I never finished as it spiralled out of control (I find it really is true that it is far harder to write something concise in a short amount of time) – anyway, if you are interested to see that it is here https://sal0nderefuses.wordpress.com/69-2/ (though I would not blame you if you are not)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Nick,
    Sorry for the delay in replying, but I think you’ll understand why when you read this: https://wp.me/p18yiK-1GQ I hope it answers most of your questions, and probably raises a few more besides. If you can help me with my dilemma, I’ll be incredibly grateful!
    I think the only point I didn’t cover there was about linking words. I probably didn’t express this clearly enough in my original post, for which I apologise. The thing that I find really frustrating is that books consistently present a big long list of words that goes something like this: however, although, despite, in spite of, for example, for instance, such as, because, due to, in order to, whereas, on the other hand (you get the idea!) Students are asked to categorise them based on their function. The end. They sometimes manage this, but often struggle with it due to not knowing the names of the categories (more vocab to learn!) If you’re lucky, they are then asked to complete a gapfill by choosing items from the list or do some kind of sentence transformation task. However, there is no explicit focus on all of the other differences between the items, like formality, punctuation, whether they’re primarily written or spoken, what kind of grammar goes with them, or any of the other things that make them quite challenging to use correctly. Passive understanding is fine, but I’ve yet to see a coursebook above intermediate level that deals with linking words in any kind of depth – please prove me wrong!
    Thanks for your patience, and for the link to your other post. It made fascinating reading.
    Sandy

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