I clearly love coursebooks

I always feel embarrassed when I speak up for coursebooks. I think I’m supposed to hate them. Everybody else seems to, so I guess that’s the right thing to do. According to Steve Brown’s latest post (well worth a read), even coursebook writers themselves are getting bold enough to criticise the practices of big publishers. Steve reckons that, in the grand scheme of things, such criticism is pointless. I say that the writers should keep doing it. The more they bite the hand that feeds, the more likely that publishers get annoyed and look for writers elsewhere. I’d love to get a message in my LinkedIn mailbox one day that reads:Dear Pete,

Hugh Dellar has got all contrary and we’re a bit fed up with him. We hear you’ve done a bit of materials writing. Are you likely to keep your mouth shut and maintain the status quo if we offer you £30,000 to write our new coursebook?


Big Publisher

It goes without saying that I would turn them down (note publishers – this paragraph is NOT true). I mean, I’ve got my pride to think about. How can I justify writing a global text that perpetuates neoliberal ideology given my various political and social stances? Because ELT coursebooks do perpetuate neoliberal ideology, don’t they? It’s obvious, right?

Geoff Jordan explains:

Neoliberal ideology internalises entrepreneurial behavior: as Holborow (2007, p. 51) puts it, “the ideology of the global market insinuates itself everywhere.”  The primacy of the market pervades all areas of our lives, in such a way that we act as atomised individual agents, part of a global society where competitiveness is the overriding goal of our activity.

Wow! That is exactly what my coursebooks do! How did I not see that? The other day, when a teen class and I did a reading on ‘What do your doodles say about you?’ our thoughts instantly turned to neoliberalism. The text made a series of fleeting assumptions about the doodler’s personality – drawing big doodles means you’re confident, dark colours mean you’re serious, etc. Clearly, this is evidence of the overriding goal of competitiveness in society. You should have seen how competitive some of my learners got when one of the shiest students in the class turned out to have the most desirable personality traits of being confident, patient and ambitious. Ambitious, wow. That’s big in neoliberal terms.

On the surface, this text seemed to be a fun way to shoehorn in a bit of vocabulary related to personality. But deep down, it was designed to perpetuate the ideology of the global market, shaping the way we doodle to build ourselves as individuals.

Is it at all possible that, as might be the case with Keith Copley’s recent article, if you want to find that coursebooks are perpetuating neoliberal ideology then of course you’re going to find it? Behind all big concepts and jargon in both Copley’s article and Geoff Jordan’s summary (I really do need things dumbed down to be honest) there’s this interesting line from Geoff:

The extent to which students, the consumers of the product, are critical of the content of ELT coursebooks is a sadly underresearched area, and would certainly be a productive area of research for future study.

Seriously, we make all these assumptions about how coursebooks are manipulating and shaping this global market fuelled by neoliberalism, yet we seem to be completely ignoring who the market is for anyway. I posted about an article by Hewings a while back who showed that his Vietnamese learners ‘misinterpreted’ many of the images used in coursebooks. These publishers have got a tough job pushing their neoliberal agendas on the learners then. They don’t even interpret a picture as we intended it, let alone a text.

Oh wait, it’s more subtle than that isn’t it? The publishers know this is what they are doing, but they are imparting these neoliberal ideals more subliminally. They do other neoliberal things too, like sanitise coursebooks to make them bland or inoffensive, in turn making them globally more appealing.

This sanitised approach is, of course, contrary to my own style of teaching. The first thing I want to achieve in an ELT classroom is to rile my students and force them to consider a load of social or political ideals that they vehemently disagree with. It’s bound to make them comfortable. Yeah, stop sanitising coursebooks why don’t you?!

We’re not bound by coursebooks, and neither are the learners. I often feel like people who hate global coursebooks want us to think of them as a straitjacket. In reality, I’ve heard anecdotes from teaching friends about dealing with a whole number of ‘taboo’ and PARSNIPy issues in the classroom. Because they are teaching people, and people have opinions, and often they like sharing them. Normally, when they are not forced into confrontation or to express an opinion they don’t want to – which coursebooks facilitate by sanitising their content. Or maybe that’s not what learners actually want. Maybe they do want coursebooks that are full of taboo subjects and they want a full blown argument for 90 minutes. I don’t know – and I’m guessing not many of us do. As Geoff Jordan says, what learners actually think of these books is under-researched!

Ok, rant over. There are certainly overriding issues with coursebooks that do influence our day to day practice as teachers. The grammar-based syllabus, grrr. Pretty much every coursebook I’ve used follows this structural approach. I’m happy that writers like Hugh Dellar are (reportedly) trying to address this (link to Steve’s post again, he mentions this). But as for all the neoliberal stuff, I’m getting fed up with the term to be honest. And PARSNIP, well I’m back to self-interest again, because that’s neoliberal. I’d like to write coursebooks but I’d be rubbish at writing about politics. Doodles? Doodles are where it’s at. And very neoliberal.

Categories: General, materials writing

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26 replies

  1. I felt moved to comment because I think this is a superb post. Well said! Unless a teacher is at one of those ridiculous schools that force their staff to teach directly from a book without deviation, the book should never be a straightjacket and should be exploited and adapted as the teacher wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cheers Richard! I wrote a post on “metaphors for coursebooks” a while back after the topic was mentioned on my MA. Out of interest, what would be a good metaphor for coursebooks in your opinion? A crutch? A straitjacket? Etc. Sometimes I think of a coursebooks as the laundry. Ive got to do it, it kind bugs me until I do, then I bite the bullet and realize that it wasn’t such a chore in the end, and it didn’t distract me much from doing the things I actually wanted to do.


    • Not a crutch or a straitjacket but those lines of lights on the aisle of a plane to get you out when the fuselage is filled with toxic fumes. I miss course books. I like the ‘syllabus’ of it but only if I can jump in and out when I want. Trampolinesque, if you like. I agree we should tackle some of the parsnip issues. How else can younger learners grow into people that behave with maturity and can express their opinion while listening to opposing views?


  2. You make points that are not only worth making, but ones that in my opinion are not made nearly so often enough. In a way, I feel duty bound to say that as I have been making broadly similar arguments since at least 2013 or thereabouts online (and even earlier in private conversation).

    There are, of course, many valid criticisms that can be levelled at coursebooks and these should be addressed. But it’s also important to recognise the very particular position out of which writers like Block, Copley, Gray, Holborow, Pennycook – and others – are writing and to consider, too, what makes it possible for them to make such statements.

    On a slightly different but related note, and if you can get a hold of it, I recommend reading Henry Widdowson’s response to John O’Regan (Widdowson, H.G., 2014. Contradiction and Conviction. A Reaction to O’Regan. Applied Linguistics, 36(1), pp. 124-127 https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amu026).

    To say that Widdowson does not pull any punches is to put it mildly – here’s a taster:

    “What for me is so distinctive, and so disturbing, about [O’ Regan’s] article is its epistemological intolerance. There is here a sort of fundamentalism: a zealous adherence to a way of conceiving of the world based on an unthinking trust in the wisdom of the pronouncements of some guru, sage, or prophet, whether this be Karl Marx or Thomas Aquinas or Ron Hubbard. But the discourse of academic scholarship, which this article (considering its origins and its place of publication) presumably purports to exemplify, is surely meant to open up intellectual enquiry, not confine it in conviction by promoting a particular doctrine, no matter how appealing it might seem to be. One has to wonder what credence readers of Applied Linguistics would attach to arguments which claim validity on the authority of the Koran, the Talmud, or the Old Testament. One would hope that the meetings of the Marx reading group are rather different from an Evangelist Bible reading and encourage a genuine critical skepticism rather than a confirmation of faith [ … ] The irony of [O’Regan’s] article is that while dogmatically asserting a particular way of thinking, it makes a claim to be a rational critique.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, cheers for comment and I really want to get hold of that Widdowson article now! You’ve knocked the nail on the head with what you’ve quoted from him there, that was my line of thought (although I did articulate myself rather facetiously, so well done for working through that!). I’m not really a fan on this self-fulfilling approach, although I guess it’s inevitable in some ways, because being grounded is really hard. I remember reading a post years ago titled: a feminist post-structuralist analysis of girls and boys talk in the secondary classroom. Well, the title pretty much gave away the line of thought anyway! I instantly thought about that when I read Copley’s piece. Basically, you’re always find what you’re looking for if you approach the research with a particular paradigm firmly in mind.
      Anyway, please send me some links to any posts you’ve written on this topic. I’m reassured that someone else thinks the same!


      • Yes, I think you’d like that Widdowson/O’Regan exchange.

        It’s not that I don’t think there’s a place for pieces like Copley’s, it’s just that, at times anyway, it really does feel as if such papers are being promoted for the position they represent as opposed to any inherent quality of the content.

        That’s probably too harsh a claim to make and it may reflect my own ignorance … but that said, I am at times baffled by the popularity of e.g. Norman Fairclough and CDA. He has been – rightly in my opinion – criticised for doing exactly what you complain of – i.e. always finding what he set out to look for (his ‘New Labour, New Language?’ is a particularly gratuitous example if I remember rightly).

        Incidentally, if you’re interested, I also highly recommend a superlative paper by Peter E. Jones:

        Jones, P.E. 2007. Why there is no such thing as ‘‘critical discourse analysis’’. Language and
        Communication. [Online]. 27, pp. 337–368. [Accessed 03 April 2018]. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0271530906000450

        All my comments in this area have been BTL discussions on posts by other people – I’ve had a few exchanges on ELTJam, another on the Dogme Yahoo group (that seems to be defunct now as far as I can tell), so can’t really link to any that are quite the same.

        That said, two comments which were too long to go BTL ended up being posts by default – this one was a response to a post by Sandy Millin [ https://nmwhiteport.wordpress.com/2018/03/12/a-response-to-sandy-millins-coursebook-requests-march-10-2018/ ] and this one was a response to Evidence Based ELT [ https://nmwhiteport.wordpress.com/2017/01/03/comment-on-evidence-based-efls-enough-of-experts-post-of-december-29-2016/ ].

        Though I don’t strongly recommend either.


        • Cheers again, some good links there to delve into. Yeah I agree with your comments about Copley, Fairclough, etc. of course there’s a place for it, maybe I’m too damning of it as I don’t understand it! Who knows. Keith Copley works in Bangkok at one of our schools here so I hope to chat about his article at some point. I’ve been far more aligned with such ideas in the past so I do see the value in them, but these days I see more value in spending time working to adapt or enhance coursebooks than criticizing them I guess. That’s probs due to lack of time, and perhaps laziness in getting to grips with the overriding theories. I admit that.


  3. Hi Pete,

    You know my stance on coursebooks, so I’ll say I politely disagree.

    I would say that there is a good study waiting to happen on the representations of people within pictures and listening texts in coursebooks. This can perpetuate English language as a white language, and British, North American and Australasian communities as racially homogenous and very middle class – so doesn’t really prepare learners for who they might meet if they go there. Some books for the Asian market do so on the surface only, with the weirdest accents from the ‘Japanese’, ‘Korean’ and ‘Taiwanese’ or ‘Chinese’ characters, and with a near total absence of Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian and Filipino characters and other Asian nations just not even considered.

    There are some coursebooks out there that have ‘bits’ I like. I would never choose to pay 3000-5000 yen for a book I’d use only 15-30% of, though. The listening overall is rarely satisfactory, in my opinion; reading texts are sometimes very decent, sometimes not.

    However, I have to use two textbooks at the minute, one a collection of reading texts (easy to manipulate); the other a business coursebook (with some awful listening but some good situation setups). People argue that coursebooks help new teachers. However, I would say that if I didn’t have the experience I do, making the lessons from the latter book remotely acceptable would be a very difficult task indeed.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi mate, cheers for comment. Actually I agree with all you’ve said. I often find listening texts in coursebooks inadequate for a whole number of reasons too. Lack of representation re: accents for sure. Lack of authentic listening another, it’s often semi-authentic which leads to contrived sounding situations or exaggerated pronunciation… anyway, yeah I with you on all that. Plus, from personal experience, you’re right about coursebooks not always helping new teachers. I do see them as a crutch in general and a useful way for new teachers to develop subject knowledge re: grammar. But I remember the first teaching job I had when I was presented with a copy of Headway and told to teach it as a curriculum. I had no idea how to use it effectively!
      I didn’t think of accent bias as being part of the sanitisation of coursebooks, but yeah I guess it is. I was ranting more about PARSNIP and stuff, but I guess the accent thing is a taboo itself. Good point.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes. Nothing is useless to a teacher!

    I’ve always been one to see coursebooks as “necessary evils”. But there are very basic pedagogical reasons (related to language) as to why they don’t promote acquisition (which is the goal) but only learning.

    I see coursebooks as a great aid for an experienced teacher who knows how to exploit them, dip in and out and use them as a supplement in the classroom. A good coursebook should have a strong workbook for students to exploit out of the classroom, on their own. Most publishers have dropped this (go figure …). But I don’t think in a perfect world, a coursebook does any good for developing a beginning teacher into a strong, effective long term teacher. A coursebook detrains teachers.

    I don’t think anyone mentioned what I find the major drawback of a coursebook – that it imposes curriculum and language as a “fait accomplis”. It doesn’t build on student knowledge and where they are at. It conquers rather than partners. The best coursebooks should have a lot of blank spaces and activities for students to build from their own language knowledge and learn from there ….


  5. To summarise:

    I love coursebooks. I’d like the chance to write a coursebook.

    When I did a classroom activity about doodles with my students we didn’t think about neoliberalism.

    You can make a case for any view of coursebooks.

    We don’t know what students think of coursebooks.

    We make assumptions about how coursebooks are manipulating and shaping the global market fuelled by neoliberalism, yet we ignore who the market is for.

    Some students don’t want to talk about PARSNIPy issues.

    We’re not bound by coursebooks. They’re not straight jackets.

    I’m fed up with the term “neoliberal”.

    Did I miss anything?


  6. If you ever get tired of dishing out this very thin satirical soup, you might consider raising your sights a bit and attempting to write something that pursues a coherent argument.

    Meanwhile, you don’t mind using coursebooks – “just another resource”. This breezy “take it or leave it” attitude towards coursebooks ignores the reality of current ELT practice around the world. You make no attempt to deal seriously with the argument that in the global industry of ELT (worth $192 billion in 2016 according to the 2016 Peasrson Global Report), coursebooks are the biggest factor determining how students are taught English as an L2. Global ELT today is characterised by de-skilled, poorly-paid teachers delivering badly-designed, uneffective lessons to passive students who too often fail to reach their goals. Some of us argue that coursebooks are an important factor in explaining this dire situation, and that the domination of coursebook-driven ELT needs challenging.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is very true Geoff, I haven’t attempted to deal with the argument seriously – I’d certainly concede that. I’d say I’m probably not capable of doing so to, especially to your much more experienced, informed standards. Perhaps I’m not yet versed enough to have made such generalisations, and should avoid poor attempts at satire. Apologies. It’s probably better that I stick to sharing my lesson ideas and leave such analysis to those who can articulate themselves better.


  7. Far be it from me to disuade anybody from attempting satire, or from taking pot shots at those who find compelling evidence of neoliberalism in a packet of cornflakes. Fire away! But it would be good to see you throw your talents into a more careful critique of coursebooks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dissuade, I meant.


    • I know what you mean, I am lazy in that respect. Although I think we might view change differently. To me, critiquing coursebooks is not change, that’s just talking (writing) about change. Well, I mean it’s not change now. I’m a doer, I’d rather spend my time accepting that coursebooks are the dominant force in ELT and working to improve them. At least I feel I’ve had some measurable or tangible impact. I think it would be arrogant for me to suggest a) I understand the global ELT market better than others b) I know what would make it better for everyone. I’ll leave that to the experts and aim for more small scale change


  8. Criticising coursebook raises awareness of their weaknesses and invites discussion about what can be done to change ELT.

    Those who criticise coursebooks – like Meddings & Thornbury. Doughty & Long, or even those of us involved in the SLB cooperative in Barcelona, suggest alternatives: Dogme, TBLT, and various kinds of NA-fronted ESP, supported by a materials bank, respectively.

    You don’t have to suggest that you understand the global ELT market better than others in order to accept the argument that the enormous profits involved in coursebook-driven ELT, push it towards a “bottom-line” business model, where easily recognised and marketable products replace a more chaotic, organic model. And it’s surely not arrogant to suggest that teachers would be better off using locally produced materials which respond to local learners’ cultures & needs than using successive units of “English File”.

    I’ve finshed: no more, promise. Thanks for letting me have my say.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry, I think you took that personally- I wasn’t suggesting you were being arrogant but I see how that reads now.
      Of course locally produced materials that respond to learner needs would be better. The company I work for made a great change in ditching coursebooks and creating their own task-led (we say task-based but not exactly) regional syllabus in direct response to learner needs for adults. I’d say even the regional element was a step in the right direction, albeit still far too general. Still, it’s great to see some of the resources following an approach that veers away from grammar syllabus. It’s a work in progress, but it’s something. Actually, back to the post itself, be interesting to hear Keith Copley’s views on it as he must be teaching it at our other centre…

      Cheers for comments anyway, I certainly appreciate there are two sides to the coin


  9. “Is it at all possible that, as might be the case with Keith Copley’s recent article, if you want to find that coursebooks are perpetuating neoliberal ideology then of course you’re going to find it?”
    Actually, I really didn’t have to look that hard. My paper was a comparative study, looking at a glaring difference between a set of ELT course books produced in the mid to late ‘70s and some of the most prominent ones produced by leading ELT publishers in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. The content of the earlier examples came as a genuine (if pleasant) shock to me. Both sets of books reflected a number of things about the context they sprang from. In the case of the former, that included community language learning and new ideas about communicative language teaching, but also the wider political radicalism of the time as well as, crucially, the audience they were writing for. In the main, this was recently arrived immigrants and refugees integrating into working class communities in the UK, although the books sold well beyond the UK. In this sense, they resemble contemporary initiatives like ‘participatory ESOL,’ which sees improving English skills as helping migrant workers negotiate with their employers and the state from a position of greater strength, as well as helping them to communicate and collaborate with co-workers and other people in their communities. These early books were also hugely popular, by the way.

    Comparing these to the later examples, it was striking how in contrast they portrayed the world as made up of largely self-interested, entrepreneurial individuals, and English as a prestige brand that will help you in your ‘go-getter’ quest for individual success. These were consistent themes found across a number of adult course books, which appeared to be populated by individuals who spend their time shopping in high-end malls, engaging in international travel or planning to study in expensive western universities. The point about what I termed the ‘neoliberal’ course books was that any realistic portrayal of work, any hint of conflict, or indeed anything that reflects the ups and downs, joys and tribulations generally of life as it is experienced by the majority of people on the planet has been systematically written out. As Scott Thornbury has noted about course books used in Spain, it seems strange that with unemployment running at 50% in some sections of the population, there was simply no mention of it. It is this everyday experience of that majority that is the ultimate ‘taboo’ subject in many ELT materials. If you think that is not the case, feel free to provide arguments or examples that refute it. You haven’t so far.

    I’m certainly not intending to be preachy towards those trying to eke out a living working in this industry, as I am one of them. Course books are mediated by real people, students and teachers. My study did not touch upon how course books are used or interpreted by either group, aside from noting the irony of teachers in an industry noted for blazing the trail in casualization, zero-hours contracts and low pay using materials that systematically ignore the fact that such things exist. By all means do whatever you think works in the classroom. Doodle away to your heart’s content. Most teachers have limited control over their practice in the classroom, anyway. Many teachers are deeply cynical of course books, although I suspect it will need more than a touch of dogme to really address what’s wrong with the ELT business.

    However, I’d say that Geoff Jordan is right to suggest that you are willfully ignoring the reality of current global commercial ELT practice. Your emphasis on ignoring all this stuff and being a ‘doer’ chimes with changes in teacher training not only in ELT but also in the mainstream sector, away from considerations about the wider context in which education happens to a supposedly pragmatic emphasis on ‘what works.’ (In terms of mainstream teaching, that tends to mean what helps your students pass the next test.) When I did my MA in Tesol I recall being encouraged to be a ‘reflective practitioner.’ Perhaps I’ve interpreted that in a different sense to you.

    Liked by 1 person


  1. Learning Books – Kamila of Prague
  2. My first post in a while… there will be more soon. I clearly love coursebooks – jamesbeddington
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