Coursebook activities and SLA theory – do they match?

According to Tomlinson (2013:12-15), ‘it is generally accepted that [Second Language Acquisition] is facilitated by:

  • a rich and meaningful exposure to language in use
  • affective and cognitive engagement
  • making use of mental resources typically used in L1 communication
  • noticing how the L2 is used
  • giving opportunities for contextualised and purposeful communication in the L2
  • being encouraged to interact
  • being allowed to focus on meaning’

Plus, Tomlinson cites research that suggests language learning is facilitated by motivation, having individual needs catered for, making use of non-linguistic communication and being relaxed (among other things).

Taking the above points as a basis, Tomlinson analysed various popular ELT coursebooks to see whether their contents included principled activities based on accepted SLA research findings. He gave each book a score out of 5 for categories related to the list above. From reading a chunk of Tomlinson’s work I’d say he’s a harsh marker, but there are some really interesting patterns. Including…

  • low scores for affective engagement – Tomlinson suggests materials may be bland, neutral or perhaps learners rarely need to share an emotional response in activities
  • mixed scores for ‘Noticing’ activities – none of the coursebooks score more than 3 out of 5 in this area.
  • all six books scored ZERO for both making use of non-linguistic forms of communication and utilizing mental resources
  • low scores for focus on meaning – none of the coursebooks scored more than 2 out of 5 in this category.

(Table taken from Tomlinson 2013:16)

Further general observations on these coursebooks included:

  • they were mostly form-focused
  • they lacked tasks involving creativity and encouraging students to think for themselves
  • reading texts were too short and simple
  • few tasks encouraged extended speaking or writing
  • a focus on practice rather than use, and few tasks recycling language

Tomlinson’s research is a pretty damning critique of these global coursebooks. He suggests that teachers make use of materials based on pedagogical approaches which are underpinned by SLA theory, notably task-based materials or text-driven materials. I’ve written about Tomlinson’s text-driven approach here.

I do really like Tomlinson’s research and his reasons for it, but I think it’s flawed in some ways. Here are some examples…

  1. Some of Tomlinson’s assumptions about SLA are debatable

Take noticing for example. Tomlinson writes…

‘most applied linguists would accept that noticing linguistic features in the input is an important facilitator in language acquisition. The more a learner pays willing attention (either deliberately and consciously or incidentally and subconsciously) to a feature of the language the more the brain is likely to notice that feature as salient in subsequent input and the readier the learner will be for acquisition’

Then later, in a section titled ‘what we would like to know about SLA theory’, he writes about…

‘…the often heated debate as to whether we acquire L2 best through implicit mental processes or from paying explicit and conscious attention to the language we are learning’

This is not contradictory, it just hints that the most effective way of noticing is still debated – should it be incidental or ‘is conscious effort necessary?’ (Schmidt 1990) With this in mind, did Tomlinson distinguish between types of noticing tasks in his coursebook analysis? He assumes that having any noticing tasks in a coursebook is better than having none. This is principled in some ways given that noticing is considered an important part of intake, but what if a coursebook includes a load of noticing tasks that are less effective compared to others? Wait, researchers disagree on which noticing techniques are most effective! Aarrgh!

  1. Was Tomlinson’s approach comprehensive?

I feel it’s really important to know whether Tomlinson analysed things like the teacher notes as well as the coursebooks. He doesn’t state this, he just writes that he analysed ‘six intermediate level coursebooks’. Did he only analyse activities in the coursebooks themselves? If so, how many noticing tasks (for example) may have been mentioned in teachers procedural notes?

It’s too easy to make assumptions about coursebooks if you don’t consider the materials as a whole. I criticised a coursebook I was using last year (Beyond A2+) for many reasons Tomlinson mentioned – the focus on form, poor comprehension tasks, lack of extended writing activities, etc. Some of that criticism was unjust once I realised what was available via online resources and teacher notes accompanying the book.

  1. Other approaches and SLA theory

When Tomlinson mentions ‘other pedagogic approaches which do apply SLA theory to their practice’, he includes task-based materials. I love task-based methodology, but even its proponents concede that it’s not entirely based SLA research:

‘… it would be a mistake to look to SLA for a definitive account of the role that tasks should play in language pedagogy if only because there is, as yet, no agreed theory of how an L2 is acquired’ (Ellis, in Harwood 2010:52)

The value of Tomlinson’s research

I think Tomlinson just has a preference for different approaches – doesn’t every teacher?! His preference seems to skew his research a bit here, but his attempt at a principled analysis of various ELT materials serves a useful model. It may also be a useful tool for informing practice.

It could be valuable to do Tomlinson’s analysis for a particular coursebook unit (including all supporting materials). I can’t see this being really time consuming. Rather than treating the results as a critique of the unit, just use them to tell you what holes need plugging. If there aren’t enough noticing tasks, include some. Not enough cognitive challenge, make some.

This is the type of thing we do in our planning all the time. Tomlinson’s categories just make sure that there are principles underpinning the planning – one’s which relate directly to SLA research. Hang on, didn’t I just suggest some of the criteria were debatable?! Hmmm…


Harwood, N [ed]. (2010). English Language Teaching Materials. Cambridge: CUP

Schmidt, R. W. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied linguistics, 11(2), 129-158.

Tomlinson, B [ed]. (2013). Applied Linguistics and Materials Development. London: Bloomsbury

Categories: General

Tags: , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Hi Pete,
    I’m not really sure I understand what these two criteria mean when applied to coursebooks: “all six books scored ZERO for both making use of non-linguistic forms of communication and utilizing mental resources” What kind of things/activities would be involved here?



  1. Coursebook activities and SLA theory – do they match? | nataliaeydelman
  2. How I plan with coursebooks | ELT planning
  3. Webinar notes: What about principles for materials development? (Brian Tomlinson) | ELT planning

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: