Metaphors for teaching materials

What are coursebooks to you? This question prompted plenty of discussion on our materials development course. We were given various metaphors to choose from – a springboard, a straitjacket, a recipe, a compass, etc. I opted for a crutch, as I felt it was something that supported the students learning (and my planning). Mind you, one coursebook I used recently felt more like a headwind. More specifically, a headwind while running on a sloping, pebbly beach in winter during a mild storm. I won’t name the book in question…!

Overall, I quite like coursebooks. That’s because I’ve used them quite sparingly, and I’ve overcome my feelings of ‘deficiency’, as I just mentioned in another post. For me, the key to appreciating a coursebook is not having to use it!  I’ve just seen this tweet from Jim Scrivener, which pretty much sums up my views…

Previous schools I’ve worked at didn’t place too much emphasis on following the coursebook. The attitude was that the book was there mainly to appease ‘stakeholders’ (students, parents, etc) who felt following a book was necessary. Second to that, it provided a rough outline of the syllabus. However, my schools made it clear that materials should be adapted, selected, rejected and/or supplemented as necessary, at the teacher’s discretion. As Scrivener says: teacher power and choice.

There are things I appreciate about coursebooks. A couple of random examples: I’m ‘deficient’ when it comes to mapping a syllabus so I let coursebook writers do that for me (though I still deviate from it!). Also, I use coursebooks for reference when I write instructions in my adapted materials – my rubrics are often too complicated. But as my experience increases I find I’m unpicking these books more – I question some of their underlying principles, get annoyed about their poor choice of reading texts or just get fed up with seeing pages full of gap fills.

My context

My company in this region are not coursebook-driven as such – we’ve done away with coursebooks for General English classes and replaced them with our own in-house syllabus. One of the best things about this syllabus from a teaching point of view is that it’s definitely not ‘a straitjacket’. Each lesson in the syllabus is task-led – students have to complete an authentic task (speaking focused) lasting around 25-30 minutes in the final part of the lesson. The first hour of the lesson is used to model the task and provide learners with target language they need/could use in order to achieve it. It’s clear what learners need to achieve, and there’s support there if they need it through various activities on the handout. However, teachers are given full licence to adapt/reject any materials in the lesson handout and supplement existing resources to help learners complete the task. The approach we take is up to us, but we still need to keep the end goal in mind (sounds a bit corporate :-/).

I prefer this approach rather than following a coursebook. I feel it allows me more independence and creativity, but there is also structure there if you need it. It also makes me feel empowered, as I know the school have confidence in the teachers’ ability to deliver materials appropriately for their context.

I don’t know what metaphor I’d use for the materials though. I guess ‘a recipe’ fits well. If you follow the stages and add the right ingredients you end up with a nice dish. Still, you can tweak things along the way (new flavours, substitute ingredients, etc) to cater for your own tastes. Actually, this metaphor works well – I often end up adapting the materials to suit what I think learners need (my own tastes), only to find that they wanted something else. Maybe that’s what happens if you give a teacher too much freedom, or it’s more likely the result of bad teaching!

What do you think:

  • What metaphor would you use to describe coursebooks?
  • Do you use materials produced at your school (in-house)? How would you describe them?
  • How much freedom do you have to adapt materials?


  1. The metaphor I’d use is a freezer stocked with ready to eat meals. Sure it ain’t healthy but it does the job when you most need it. I agree with your comment about liking coursebooks because you’ve used them sparingly. I find myself using coursebook more now than ever in the past. I honestly find them liberating (perhaps counter-intuitively so). I reflected on this trend in a post from last year (

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