Talking textbooks

If you’ve been teaching English as a second or foreign language for a few years, you’ve probably taught using a wide variety of textbooks. Over the years, textbooks have evolved from layouts you could easily create (now anyway) in Microsoft Word, to sophisticated, full-color extravaganzas that seem designed to cater to limited modern attention spans. Textbooks also mirror evolving approaches to language teaching, from the decontextualized sentences of grammar-translation, through the drill-and-kill repetitions and substitutions of audiolingualism, information gaps and situational dialogues of communicative language teaching, to…whatever it is we have now, which is not entirely clear. 

Teachers use textbooks in various ways, sometimes as a springboard for whatever will happen in class, sometimes as a ‘pick and mix’ assortment of activities and exercises, and sometimes – perhaps too often – as the lesson plan itself. The latter seems to be increasingly true of those sophisticated, theme-based texts which can lead to what I think I’ll call ‘textbook lock-in’ – the tendency of the textbook to bind you to its content. The way this works is that each unit is based on a topic, and all vocabulary, grammar, speaking, listening, and reading exercises are based on that topic. It’s hard to do what’s on page 23 unless you’ve already done page 22. And 21. 

While this kind of textbook offers rich content, the language practice and the methodology tend to get a little lost in the mix. If learning involves analysis of the subject at hand, then it’s a good idea to isolate a piece of it (let’s say the present perfect tense), examine it closely, practice it in a structured and then a freer way, and then integrate that new piece of the subject into one’s total knowledge. This process of analysis and synthesis can get a bit lost when you are confronted with the whole language, everything all at once, and you (the teacher) are expected to also teach about volcanoes (been there, done that). 

This content-based, ‘locked-in’ approach in textbooks is very likely useful for students preparing for academic study, but it makes you wonder what the teacher is supposed to be expert in. Many ESL teachers are not expert in the specialized content of the textbook, so the textbook becomes the content authority in the classroom. And with all the exercises tied to the content, there may not be much for the teacher to do but manage the delivery of the textbook content to the students – or not stick to the textbook. 

Which creates its own problems. If teachers stay close to the textbook, they may be giving up some of their teacherly authority to determine content and method. The lesson is derived not from the teacher but from the publisher. The teacher is reduced to a delivery system, just as in the days of the old Berlitz schools (when teachers didn’t have to be qualified to teach in a language school). But if teachers don’t use the textbook, students may complain about having paid for it but not having used it, or may feel overwhelmed with all the content in the book plus what the teacher is supplementing with. What a bind this is. 

Do you like your textbooks? How do they position you in relation to your students? What is your role with regard to the book you are using? Does it support you in freeing up your creativity, or lock you in to pre-defined content? There’s a lot more to say about textbooks, but I think these questions are worth discussing. 

The image for this post is from Lessons in Vocabulary by Robert Lado and Charles Fries, The University of Michigan Press, 1956

One thought on “Talking textbooks”

  1. I must say that there were a few textbooks that I just couldn’t look at – especially the ones for young learners. Last year I had a problem with a textbook that was just too childish for my students. All I could do is to replace some of the tasks and do something else. The parents and the academy expected me to finish the book, so I did.

    However, in general I do like working with textbooks. Mostly because it really keeps me organized, students can catch up on everything we do in class or just revise any content. Moreover, if you teach 20 hours a week it’s exhausting coming up with lesson plans from scratch.

    I guess it’s a different story if you freelance or have one to one classes.

    Liked by 1 person

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