The benefits of using an ELT coursebook

Late last year I read the Jordan and Gray/Hughes exchange on ELT coursebooks, which appeared in ELT Journal. It’s an interesting discussion if you haven’t read it yet. I generally agreed more with Hughes, but that’s to be expected; I write coursebook materials for publishers, I use coursebooks and generally value them as a classroom resource. I also tend to find more radical stances against coursebooks polarising and distant from classroom practice. A bit repetitive too. I’d like to see more research into learner perceptions of coursebooks, and direct engagement with publishers to explore the theoretical and pedagogical underpinning of these resources in more detail.

Anyhow, the exchange prompted me to consider my views on the use of coursebooks, I’m keen to write a few of these down so I can see how they evolve over time. There have been a few posts I’ve revisited on this blog that I felt were a good snapshot of my thinking at one moment in my career – thoughts that have since changed, developed, etc. There is only one post I’ve come to completely refute over time, my views on multiple intelligences. So much so that I deleted it! Nooooo! Never do that, it misses the point of a learning journey!

So, some of my current (10/01/2020) views on coursebooks.

Do I actually ‘value’ coursebooks?

Overall, I feel that coursebooks have a place in various formal settings for learning English as an L2. I agree with Hughes on a lot of points, most of which I’m summarising (with my own take) here:

  • We need to frame our view of coursebooks more on where they are being used (e.g. if in state schools, private language schools, etc).
  • There is a general misunderstanding of the coursebook being one object of study – the true object of study is the coursebook package. I would say that – generally speaking I’m a ‘behind the scenes’ type of guy (digital add ons, workbooks, etc)!
  • The concept of a ‘General English Coursebook’ is somewhat shaky – it would be better to underpin discussion with clearer, (and if possible) multiple examples of resources we are critiquing.
  • Publishers don’t make fleeting, uninformed decisions about their products. Lots of research and time goes into creating a coursebook, and there is plenty of input from (this is a term I hate by the way) ‘multiple stakeholders’. It would be fair to say (in my opinion obvs) that the theoretical underpinning of a coursebook isn’t always made explicitly clear, whether in marketing, writer briefs, and so on. But it does exist – and the artefact itself (as a package) is representative of it.
  • There may well be valid alternatives to coursebooks. There may also be more similarities between coursebooks and approaches that are deemed alternatives. With this in mind, we should probably approach coursebook analysis with a view of searching for both presence and absence of ideas or approaches (such as TBLT for example), rather than with pre-conceptions of one or the other. We also shouldn’t forget – a coursebook has been created as a learning resource, it has not been designed maliciously to prevent or hinder learning!

I’d also say that, regardless of my role as a freelance writer, there are important changes that I feel publishers should and CAN make to coursebooks. Tyson Seburn/David Valente (representation), Laura Patsko (pronunciation), Hugh Dellar (recycling, grammar) are among some of those who have raised valid issues, but it is not for me to cajole them into discussion – nor would discussion here really help their cause(s). Besides, most have done so elsewhere to good effect.

‘False assumptions’

I think the ‘false assumptions made by coursebooks’ mentioned in Jordan and Gray’s article are worth looking at. I say this because their article seem space restricted, and I’d guess they have a lot more to say on these. We don’t really have a legitimate source for these ‘assumptions’, so they are kind of assumptions about the assumptions made (get me?). But, on the surface, I can imagine them as valid if viewing coursebooks from a certain angle.

Extract from Jordan and Gray (2019)

The top two points are connected I think. They are definitely worth asking:

1 Do coursebooks* assume that explicit knowledge about the target language is the basis of language learning?

2 Do coursebooks* assume that declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge?

(*those involved in writing coursebooks)

Hmmm. Tough questions. I’d love to quiz some expert materials writers on this (say Clandfield, Bilsborough, and the like) as I’m sure an extra 10-15 years’ experience (I’m guessing!) of reading research that underpins materials writing would lead to a really worthwhile answer.

My views

1 Do coursebooks* assume that explicit knowledge about the target language is the basis of language learning?

My answer: No, in actual wording. If the wording was:  Do coursebooks assume that explicit knowledge about the target language contributes to language learning? Yeah, I would say so.

2 Do coursebooks* assume that declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge?

My answer: I cannot vouch for the thousands of people involved in coursebook writing. For me, no. I don’t think coursebooks do that. I’d say it’s true that:

  • they are often geared more towards declarative learning
  • what a coursebook presents to do as a ‘written’ and ‘taught curriculum’ is not the full story.
  • the ‘declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge’ idea doesn’t really work if you see these systems in language learning as (predominantly) working independently.

Why I think this…

My view of cognition may well be scatty and out of touch. I did an in MSc in Reading, Language and Cognition a while back, so I’m somewhat familiar with debate related to declarative/procedural knowledge. Something I was warned about (well, against) during that MSc was the idea of ‘hierarchy’ – i.e. the idea of either knowledge/memory system being more important in some way. Interestingly, that’s something Jordan and Gray referred to in referencing Whong et al (2014). Ullman (e.g. 2015 in Van Patten, Ullman and Lovelett 2018) has summarised the role of declarative memory in language learning in my view very well, and this aligns with the perspective gained from my own MSc studies.

A focus on declarative learning should not be seen as a hindrance to language learning. The declarative memory system is able to learn items based on just one exposure (of course it benefits from more). It is extremely efficient at learning semantic and episodic information quickly, and also serves us well in learning items as exceptions. That includes irregular past tenses, which in fact was a questionable item of recall that Jordan and Gray referenced in their article.

Automatizing production of L2 as an implicit process is of course desirable. But that is not the same to me as saying it is more important. That’s because we are (usually?) learning a language in order to use it, and both declarative and procedural knowledge help us to do that. A lot depends on the stage we are at as learners, age, and (according to research) preference or dominance for a particular memory system. The fact that the declarative memory system can learn language as unanalysed chunks, and is able to recall these to relatively good effect, is the ultimate compensatory strategy given the (relatively) slow speed at which our procedural memory system works.

Procedural, automatized language may be the end goal, but if we are learning a language to produce it with any immediacy in context, it is likely that the declarative memory system will come into play. And with that, the hierarchy of memory systems diminishes. They both serve their purpose at times in the learning process. Importantly, they both do so independently. Declarative knowledge does not (necessarily) convert to procedural knowledge in language learning. Theorists like Ullman believe that these systems work independently. In my opinion the role of a coursebook is to provide explicit learning opportunities to enhance declarative knowledge, while also providing incidental learning opportunities. It shouldn’t be forgotten that implicit learning is something that is always taking place, and the items that are explicitly taught are not all that a learner implicitly receives.

Sounds abstract. How does it actually play out in a coursebook?

Learning activities geared towards a developing declarative knowledge dominate coursebooks. At lower levels, there is naturally more new vocabulary to introduce, and these tend to veer more towards more explicit teaching and declarative learning – by which I mean a heavier emphasis on PPP or teach-and-test type vocabulary activities (see English in Mind A2, Beyond A2+ for examples) although not exclusively (Speak Out A2). This is not exclusive to lower levels – I’m currently teaching from Gateway B1+ and there is still a heavy element of more explicit teaching of vocabulary and grammar. However, there is also recognition that learners will have proceduralised certain vocabulary (possibly more in isolation), hence there is more a focus on collocation and matching activities involving longer chunks of language – there is a sense of upgrading on previous learnt (or rather ‘acquired’[?]) items.

Follow up tasks related to vocabulary input in coursebooks are a chance to practice the language input. Again, these are meant to be tasks drawing on (recent) declarative knowledge, although some proceduralised language may of course appear. There is not a suggestion, well, from what I’ve ever been told by a publisher, that coursebook tasks are attempting to proceduralise declarative knowledge. My assumption is that they are there to practice and consolidate memory of taught items, that is, the declarative memory of taught items. The same applies for aspects of the coursebook such as unit reviews. They have a focus on recall/retrieval of taught items in a declarative sense. They do this because procedural knowledge is not the goal of a coursebook, nor should it be. Procedural knowledge seems too unpredictable to be a goal of classroom learning, and it is certainly not time bound. The goal (one goal) is to equip learners with a declarative understanding of language to compensate for the temporary inefficiency of our procedural memory.

The examples above are a bit crude, and relate only to vocabulary learning/acquisition and use within the context of coursebook teaching. Jordan and Gray’s comments about declarative knowledge converting to procedural knowledge being an underlying assumption of coursebooks go far beyond the context I’ve described, and presumably relate to acquisition of the four skills too (and other integrated skills). Nevertheless, what I think is worth saying about the claim is that:

  • The strong-interface model does not seem to be something that underpins coursebooks. This might be a stretch of the imagination from Jordan and Gray.
  • However, for me as a writer there is a focus on learning vocabulary in a declarative fashion
  • There may be some immediate benefit to this…

I may be off the mark here, After all, I’m a teacher who values research, I am not a scholar. I welcome corrections, refutations, and any other comments that will help myself and others explore this topic. As a writer, I will only benefit from a deeper insight into SLA theory and how this is applied in coursebooks. I’ll hopefully get around to musing over those other assumptions in more detail too.

Cheers, and Happy New Year!

Feature image from Tech Differences


Selected references

Hughes, S.H., 2019. Coursebooks: Is there more than meets the eye?. ELT Journal73(4), pp.447-455.

Jordan, G. and Gray, H., 2019. We need to talk about coursebooks. ELT Journal73(4), pp.438-446.

Ullman, M.T. and Lovelett, J.T., 2018. Implications of the declarative/procedural model for improving second language learning: The role of memory enhancement techniques. Second Language Research34(1), pp.39-65.

Categories: General, materials writing, reflections

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