The lose-lose folly of coursebook consumption



One of the main aims of this blog is to draw attention to the detrimental effects that using coursebooks has on both teachers and learners. I’ve already done a few posts challenging coursebooks (see bar Menu on the right), but here I try to draw the strands together. My argument is twofold; first, coursebooks are based on false assumptions about second language acquisition (SLA), and second, coursebooks deprive teachers and learners of ownership of the learning process.


Coursebooks embody a synthetic approach to syllabus design. Wilkins (1976) distinguished between a ‘synthetic’ approach, where items of language are presented one by one in a linear sequence to the learner, whose job is to build up, or ‘synthesizes’, the knowledge incrementally, and an ‘analytic’ approach, where the learner does the ‘analysis’, i.e. ‘works out’ the system, through engagement with natural language data. Coursebook writers take the target language (the L2) as the object of instruction, and they divide the language up into bits of one kind or another – words, collocations, grammar rules, sentence patterns, notions and functions, for example – which are presented and practiced in a sequence. The criteria for sequencing can be things like valency, criticality, frequency, or saliency, but the most common criterion is ‘level of difficulty’, which is intuitively defined by the writers themselves.

Different coursebooks claim to use different types of syllabus, – grammatical, lexical, or notional-functional, for example – but they’re all synthetic syllabuses with the same features described above, and they all give pride of place to explicit teaching and learning. The syllabus is delivered by the teacher, who first presents the bits of the L2 chosen by the coursebook writers (in written and spoken texts, grammar boxes, vocabulary lists, diagrams, pictures, and so on), and leads students through a series of activities aimed at practicing the language, like drills, written exercises, discussions, games, tasks and practice of the four skills.


Among the courseboooks currently on sale from UK and US publishers, and used around the world are the following:

Headway;     English File;      Network;      Cutting Edge;      Language Leader;      English in Common;      Speakout;      Touchstone; Interchange;      Mosaic;      Inside Out;      Outcomes.

Each of these titles consists of a series of five or six books aimed at different levels, from beginner to advanced, and offers a Student’s Book, a Teacher’s Book and a Workbook, plus other materials such as video and on-line resources. Each Student’s Book at each level is divided into a number of units, and each unit consists of a number of activities which teachers lead students through. The Student’s Book is designed to be used systematically from start to finish – not just dipped into wherever the teacher fancies. The different activities are designed to be done one after the other; so that Activity 1 leads into Activity 2, and so on. Two examples follow.


In New Headway, Pre-Intermediate, Unit 3, we see this progression of activities:

  1. Grammar (Past tense) leads into ( ->)
  2. Reading Text (Travel) ->
  3. Listening (based on reading text) ->
  4. Reading (Travel) ->
  5. Grammar – (Past tense) ->
  6. Pronunciation ->
  7. Listening (based on Pron. activity) ->
  8. Discussing Grammar –>
  9. Speaking (A game & News items) ->
  10. Listening & Speaking (News) ->
  11. Dictation (from listening) ->
  12. Project (News story) ->
  13. Reading and Speaking (About the news) ->
  14. Vocabulary (Adverbs) ->
  15. Listening (Adverbs) ->
  16. Grammar (Word order) ->
  17. Everyday English (Time expressions)


And if we look at Outcomes Intermediate, Unit 2, we see this:

  1. Vocab. (feelings) ->
  2. Grammar (be, feel, look, seem, sound + adj.) ->
  3. Listening (How do they feel?) ->
  4. Developing Conversations (Response expressions) ->
  5. Speaking (Talking about problems) ->
  6. Pronunciation (Rising & fallling stress) ->
  7. Conversation Practice (Good / bad news) ->
  8. Speaking (Physical greetings) ->
  9. Reading (The man who hugged) ->
  10. Vocabulary (Adj. Collocations) ->
  11. Grammar (ing and ed adjs.) ->
  12. Speaking (based on reading text) ->
  13. Grammar (Present tenses) ->
  14. Listening (Shopping) ->
  15. Grammar (Present cont.) ->
  16. Developing conversations (Excuses) ->
  17. Speaking (Ideas of heaven and hell).

All the other coursebooks mentioned are similar in that they consist of a number of units, each of them containing activities involving the presentation and practice of target versions of L2 structures, vocabulary, collocations, functions, etc., using the 4 skills. All of them assume that the teacher will lead students through each unit and do the succession of activities in the order that they’re set out. And all of them wrongly assume that if learners are exposed to selected bits of the L2 in this way, one bit at a time in a pre-determined sequence, then, after enough practice, the new bits, one by one, in the same sequence, will become part of the learners’ growing L2 competence. This false assumption flows from a skill-based view of second-language acquisition, which sees language learning as the same as learning any other skill, such as driving a car or playing the piano.


Skills-based theories of SLA

The most well-known of these theories is John Anderson’s (1983) ‘Adaptive Control of Thought’ model, which makes a distinction between declarative knowledge – conscious knowledge of facts; and procedural knowledge – unconscious knowledge of how an activity is done. When applied to second language learning, the model suggests that learners are first presented with information about the L2 (declarative knowledge ) and then, via practice, this is converted into unconscious knowledge of how to use the L2 (procedural knowledge). The learner moves from controlled to automatic processing, and through intensive linguistically focused rehearsal, achieves increasingly faster access to, and more fluent control over the L2 (see DeKeyser, 2007, for example).

The fact that nearly everybody successfully learns at least one language as a child without starting with declarative knowledge, and that millions of people learn additional languages without studying them (migrant workers, for example), might make one doubt that learning a language is the same as learning a skill such as driving a car. Furthermore, the phenomenon of L1 transfer doesn’t fit well with a skills based approach, and neither do putative critical periods for language learning. But the main reason for rejecting such an approach is that it contradicts SLA research findings related to interlanguage development.

Firstly, it doesn’t make sense to present grammatical constructions one by one in isolation because most of them are inextricably inter-related. As Long (2015) says:

Producing English sentences with target-like negation, for example, requires control of word order, tense, and auxiliaries, in addition to knowing where the negator is placed. Learners cannot produce even simple utterances like “John didn’t buy the car” accurately without all of those. It is not surprising, therefore, that Interlanguage development of individual structures has very rarely been found to be sudden, categorical, or linear, with learners achieving native-like ability with structures one at a time, while making no progress with others. Interlanguage development just does not work like that. Accuracy in a given grammatical domain typically progresses in a zigzag fashion, with backsliding, occasional U-shaped behavior, over-suppliance and under-suppliance of target forms, flooding and bleeding of a grammatical domain (Huebner 1983), and considerable synchronic variation, volatility (Long 2003a), and diachronic variation.



Secondly, research has shown that L2 learners follow their own developmental route, a series of interlocking linguistic systems called “interlanguages”.  Myles (2013) states that the findings on the route of interlanguage (IL) development is one of the most well documented findings of SLA research of the past few decades. She asserts that the route is “highly systematic” and that it “remains largely independent of both the learner’s mother tongue and the context of learning (e.g. whether instructed in a classroom or acquired naturally by exposure)”. The claim that instruction can influence the rate but not the route of IL development is probably the most widely-accepted claim among SLA scholars today.

Selinker (1972) introduced the construct of interlanguages to explain learners’ transitional versions of the L2. Studies show that interlanguages exhibit common patterns and features, and that learners pass through well-attested developmental sequences on their way to different end-state proficiency levels. Examples of such sequences are found in morpheme studies; the four-stage sequence for ESL negation; the six-stage sequence for English relative clauses; and the sequence of question formation in German (see Hong and Tarone, 2016, for a review).  Regardless of the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented in coursebooks, learners analyse input and create their own interim grammars, slowly mastering the L2 in roughly the same manner and order. The  acquisition sequences displayed in interlanguage development don’t reflect the sequences found in any of the coursebooks mentioned; on the contrary, they prove to be  impervious to coursebooks, as they are to different classroom methodologies, or even whether learners attend classroom-based courses or not.

Note that interlanguage development refers not just to grammar; pronunciation, vocabulary, formulaic chunks, collocations, sentence patterns, are all part of the development process. To take just one example, U-shaped learning curves can be observed in learning the lexicon. Learners have to master the idiosyncratic nature of words, not just their canonical meaning. While learners encounter a word in a correct context, the word is not simply added to a static cognitive pile of vocabulary items. Instead, they experiment with the word, sometimes using it incorrectly, thus establishing where it works and where it doesn’t. Only by passing through a period of incorrectness, in which the lexicon is used in a variety of ways, can they climb back up the U-shaped curve.

Interlanguage development takes place in line with what Corder (1967) referred to as the internal “learner syllabus”, not the external syllabus embodied in coursebooks. Students don’t learn different bits of the L2 when and how a coursebook says that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. As Pienemann demonstrates (e.g. Pienemann, 1987) learnability (i.e., what learners can process at any one time), determines teachability (i.e., what can be taught at any one time). Coursebooks flout the learnability and teachability conditions; they don’t respect the learner’s internal learner syllabus.


 False Assumptions made by Coursebooks

To summarise the above, we may list the 3 false assumptions made by coursebooks.

Assumption 1: In SLA, declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge. Wrong! No such simple conversion occurs. Knowing that the past tense of has is had and then doing some controlled practice, does not lead to fluent and correct use of had in real-time communication.

Assumption 2: SLA is a process of mastering, one by one, accumulating structural items. Wrong! All the items are inextricably inter-related. As Long (2015, 67) says:

The assumption that learners can move from zero knowledge to mastery of negation, the present tense, subject- verb agreement, conditionals, relative clauses, or whatever, one at a time, and move on to the next item in the list, is a fantasy.

Assumption 3: Learners learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it. Wrong – as every teacher knows! Pienemann (1987) has demonstrated that teachability is constrained by learnability.


Five Objections to Coursebooks

  1. As the section on interlanguage above indicates, presenting and practicing a pre-set series of linguistic forms (pronunciation contrasts, grammatical structures, notions, functions, lexical items, collocations, etc.) simply does not work, unless a form coincidentally happens to be learnable (by some students in a class), and so teachable, at the time it is presented.
  2. The approach is counterproductive: both teachers and students feel frustrated by the constant mismatch between teaching and learning.
  3. The cutting up of language into manageable pieces (or “McNuggets” as Thornbury (2014) calls them) often results in impoverished input and output opportunities.
  4. Both the content and methodology of the course are externally pre-determined and imposed. This point will be developed below.
  5. Coursebooks pervade the ELT industry and stunt the growth of innovation and teacher training. The publishing companies that produce coursebooks also produce exams, teacher training courses and everything else connected to ELT; Pearson’s GSE initiative is a good example. Publishing companies spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing, aimed at persuading stakeholders that coursebooks represent the best practical way to manage ELT. Pearsons is one example, another is the the British ELT establishment, where key players like the British Council, the Cambridge Examination Boards, the Cambridge CELTA and DELTA teacher training bodies among them, accept the coursebook as central to ELT practice. TESOL and IATEFL, bodies that are supposed to represent teachers’ interests, have also succumbed to the influence of the big publishers, as their annual conferences make clear. So the coursebook rules, at the expense of teachers, of good educational practice, and of language learners.


An Alternative: The Analytic or Process Syllabus

An analytic syllabus rejects the method of cutting up a language into manageable pieces, and instead organises the syllabus according to the needs of the learners and the kinds of language performance that are necessary to meet those needs. “Analytic” refers not to what the syllabus designer does, but to what learners are invited to do. Grammar isn’t “taught” as such; rather learners are provided with opportunities to engage in meaningful communication on the assumption that they will slowly analyse and induce language rules, by exposure to the language and by the teacher providing scaffolding, feedback, and information about the language.

Breen’s (1987) distinction between product and process syllabuses contrasts the focus on content and the pre-specification of linguistic or skill objectives, with a “natural growth” approach which aims to expose the learners to to real-life communication without any pre-selection or arrangement of items. Figure 1, below, summarises the differences.


A process approach focuses on how the language is to be learned. There is no pre-selection or arrangement of items; the syllabus is negotiated between learners and teacher as joint decision makers, and emphasises the process of learning rather than the subject matter. No coursebook is used. The teacher implements the evolving syllabus in consultation with the students who participate in decision-making about course objectives, content, activities and assessment.



Hugh Dellar has made a number of attempts to defend coursebooks, and here are some examples of what he’s said:

  • “Attempts to talk about coursebook use as one unified thing that we all understand and recognise are incredibly myopic. Coursebooks differ greatly in terms of the way they frame the world and in terms of the questions and positions they expect or allow students to take towards these representations. …. So hopefully it’s clear that far from being one homogenous unified mass of media, coursebooks are wildly heterogeneous in both their world views and their presentations of language.”
  • “Teachers mediate coursebooks”.
  • “The kind of broad brush smearing of coursebooks you’re engaging in does those teachers a profound disservice as it’s essentially denying the possibility of them still being excellent practitioners. I’d also suggest that grammar DOES still seem to be the primary – though not the only – thing that the vast majority of teachers around the world expect and demand from material, whether you like it or not (and I don’t, personally, but there you go. We live in an imperfect world). To pretend this isn’t the case or to denigrate all those who believe this is wipe out a huge swathe of the teaching profession and preach mainly to the converted.”
  • Teachers in very poor parts of the world would just love to have coursebooks.
  • Coursebooks are based on the presentation and practice of discrete bits of grammar because that’s what teachers want.
  • Coursebooks help teachers do their jobs.
  • Coursebooks save time on lesson preparation.
  • Coursebooks meet student and parental expectations.

These remarks are echoed by others (e.g. Harmer, Scrivener, Prodromou, Urr, Lansford, Walter), and can be summed up by the following:

  1. Coursebooks are not all the same.
  2. Teachers adapt, modify and supplement them.
  3. They’re convenient.
  4. They give continuity and direction to a language course.

I accept that some coursebooks don’t follow the synthetic syllabus I describe, and don’t make the 3 assumptions I suggest they make (see Anthony Teacher’s post, for some examples). But these are the exceptions. All the coursebooks I list at the start of this article, and I’d say those that make up 90% of the total sales of coursebooks worldwide, use a synthetic syllabus and make the 3 assumptions I suggest, including Dellar’s. All the stuff about coursebooks differing greatly “in terms of the way they frame the world and in terms of the questions and positions they expect or allow students to take towards these representations” has absolutely no relevance to the arguments made against them.

As for teachers adapting, modifying and supplementing coursebooks, the question is to what extent they do so. If they do so to a great extent,  then the coursebook no longer serves as the syllabus, but they’ve rather contradicted the main point of having a coursebook, and one wonders how they can justify getting their students to buy the book if it’s only used let’s say 30% of the time. If they only modify and supplement to a small extent, then the coursebook drives the course, learners are led through a pre-determined series of steps, and my argument applies. The most important thing to note is that what teachers actually do is ameliorate coursebooks; they make them less terrible, more bearable, in dozens of different clever and inventive ways. But this, of course, is no argument in favour of the coursebook itself; indeed, to the extent that students learn, it will be more despite than because of the damn coursebook.

Which brings us to the claim that the coursebook is convenient, time-saving, etc.. Even if it’s true (which it won’t be if you spend lots of time adapting, modifying and supplementing (i.e. ameliorating) it), the trouble is, it doesn’t work: students don’t learn what they’re taught. And that applies to the other arguments used to defend coursebooks, such as that parents expect their kids to use them, that they give direction to the course, and so on: such arguments simply ignore the evidence that students do not, indeed cannot, learn in the way assumed by a coursebook.


Thus, the points above fail to address the main criticisms levelled against coursebooks, which are that they fly in the face of robust research findings and that they deprive teachers and learners of control of the learning process, leading to a lose-lose classroom environment.  In order to reply to these arguments, those wishing to defend coursebooks must first confront the three false assumptions on which coursebook use is based (i.e. they must confront the evidence of how SLA actually happens) and they must then argue the case for dictating what is learned. That coursebooks are the dream of teachers working in Ethiopia; that coursebooks are cherished by millions of teachers who just really love them; that the Headway team have succeeded in keeping their products fresh and lively; that Outcome includes recordings of people who don’t have RP accents; that coursebooks are mediated by teachers; that coursebooks are here to stay, so get real and get used to it; none of these statements does anything to answer the case against them, and none carries any weight for those who wish to base their teaching practice on critical thinking and rational argument. No matter how “different” coursebooks are, or how flexibly they can be used, coursebooks rely on false assumptions about L2 learning, and impose a syllabus on learners who are largely excluded from decisions about what and how they learn.

Managing a process syllabus is no more difficult than mastering the complexities of a modern coursebook. All you need to get started is a materials bank and a crystal-clear explanation of roles and procedures. Part 2 of Breen 1987 provides a framework; the collection of articles edited by Breen (2000) has at least 5 really helpful “road maps”; Meddings and Thornbury (2009) give a detailed account of their approach in this excellent book; and I outline a process syllabus on my blog. As befits an approach based on libertarian, co-operative educational principles, a process syllabus is best seen in local rather than global settings. If the managers of local ELT centres have the will to break the grip of the coursebook, they only have to make a small initial investment in local training and materials, and to then support teachers in their efforts to involve their students in the new venture. I dare to say that such efforts will transform the learning experience of everybody involved.



Coursebooks oblige teachers to work within a framework where students are presented with and then practice dislocated bits of English in a sequence which is pre-determined and externally imposed on them by coursebook writers. Most teachers have little say in the syllabus design which shapes their work, and their students have even less say in what and how they’re taught. Furthermore, results of coursebook-based teaching are bad; most learners don’t reach the level they aim for, and most don’t reach the level of proficiency the coursebook promises (English Proficiency Index, 2015). At the same time, alternatives to coursebook-driven ELT which are much more attuned to what we know about psycholinguistic, cognitive, and socio-educational principles for good language teaching don’t get the exposure or the fair critical evaluation that they deserve.

Despite flying in the face of what we know about L2 learning, despite denying teachers and learners a decision-making voice, and despite poor results, the coursebook dominates current ELT practice to an alarming extent. The main pillars of the ELT establishment, from teacher organisations like TESOL and IATEFL, through bodies like the British Council, examination boards like Cambridge English Language Assessment and TEFL, to the teacher training certification bodies like Cambridge and Trinity, all support the use of coursebooks.

The increasing domination of coursebooks in a global ELT industry worth close to $200 billion (Pearson, 2016) means that they’re not just a symptom but a major cause of the current lose-lose situation we find ourselves in, where both teachers and learners are restrained and restricted by the demonstrably faulty methodological principles which coursebooks embody. I think we have a responsibility to raise awareness of the damage that coursebooks are doing, and to fight against the suffocating effects of continued coursebook consumption.


Anderson, J. R. (1983). The architecture of cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Breen, M.P. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part I. Language Teaching, 20, pp 81-92.

Breen, M.P. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part II. Language Teaching, 20, 20, Issue 03.

Breen, M.P. and Littlejohn, A. (2000) Classroom Decision Making: Negotiation and Process Syllabuses in Practice. Cambridge: CUP.

English Proficiency Index (2015) Accessed from  9th November, 2015

Hong, Z. and Tarone, E. (Eds.) (2016) Interlanguage Forty years later. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Long, M.H. (2011) “Language Teaching”. In Doughty, C. and Long, M.  Handbook of Language Teaching. NY Routledge.

Long, M.H. (2015) SLA and Task Based Language Teaching. N.Y., Routledge.

Long, M.H. & Crookes, G. (1993). Units of analysis in syllabus design: the case for the task. In G. Crookes & S.M. Gass (Eds.). Tasks in a Pedagogical Context. Cleveland, UK: Multilingual Matters. 9-44.

Meddings, L. And Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged. Delta.

Mitchell, R. and Myles, F. (2004)  Second Language Learning Theories.  London: Arnold.

Myles, F. (2013): Theoretical approaches to second language acquisition research. In Herschensohn, J. & Young-Scholten, M. (Eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. CUP

Ortega, L. (2009) Sequences and Processes in Language Learning. In Long and Doughty Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.

Pearson (2016) GSE  Global Report Retrieved from 5/12/2016.

Pienemann, M. (1987) Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. In C. Pfaff (Ed.) First and Second Language Acquisition Processes. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. 143-168.

Rea-Dickins, P. M. (2001) Mirror, mirror on the wall: identifying processes of classroom assessment. Language Testing 18 (4), p. 429 – 462.

Selinker, L. (1972) Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics 10, 209-231.

Statista (2015) Publisher sales of ELT books in the United Kingdom from 2009 to 2013. Accessed from 9th November, 2015.

Thornbury, S. (2014) Who ordered the Mcnuggets? Accessed from 9th November, 2015.

Walkley, A. And Dellar, H. (2015) Outcomes:Intermediate. National Geographics.

Wilkins, D. (1976) Notional Syllabuses: A Taxonomy and its Relevance to Foreign Language Curriculum Development. London: Oxford University Press.


31 thoughts on “The lose-lose folly of coursebook consumption

  1. As you say, there are coursebooks out there which challenge the status quo, and people who try to push coursebooks onto the market which don’t favour the pocket-lining practices of the EFL publishers. But, predictably, these people have a hell of a job getting anywhere, because the system is designed to keep those at the top in their place.

    This phenomenon, of course, is not unique to EFL, and having come from both sporting and catering backgrounds, I’m fully aware of how difficult it is to break through the quasi-hierarchical ranks of authority.

    I’m not sure that EFL is maliciously set up as an industry. One of the problems is, rightly or wrongly, deliberately or not, the whole system is set up to keep things as they are. You can see it from PGCE students whose assignments boil down to “There’s this thing called Behaviourism…” and observations which judge the value of a teaching approach on what is achieved within an hour, not taking much account of what and how learning may occur beyond that hour. Aside from that, judgements are made in accordance with preconceived notions as to how people learn.

    The same applies to course design, on courses like the Delta, where word limit precludes the chance to properly argue the case against synthetic syllabi, or grammar-based approaches. Delta candidates churn out essays and lessons about teaching the past continuous passive or phrases we all (!) use to book a holiday over the phone, because that’s easier than developing texture in text-based lessons, or exploring metacognition, or deriving output from an internal syllabus.

    One thing I have got from the Delta (aside from learning I can get through a course without opening a coursebook – bit too afraid to try it, before) is access to masses of research, a lot of which does not seem to be making its way into mainstream teaching. It’s a shame that, when I get back into teaching, I’ll probably be in a school being told to use a coursebook, and concept-based teaching, conversation analysis, interlanguage, metacognition, etc, will play second fiddle to synthetic splodges of grammar.

    And yes, I might have a different perspective when I’m a bit less burnt out, but right now the whole system strikes me as being little more than bollocks.


    • Hi Robert,

      I hope I didn’t suggest that ELT is maliciously set up as an industry; I certainly didn’t mean to. The problem is that, as in other parts of education (and other parts of the economy, as you point out) it’s set up to maximise profit, and the small minority who get rich do everything they can to promote and protect their interests. The whole system is, as you say, set up to keep things as they are, and as to whether this is right or wrong, deliberate or not, I’d say that’s its clearly wrong, unless you’re one of those who make lots of money from it, and it’s clearly not accidental. Teachers in the ELT industry suffer in many ways; most have poor pay, low job security, little chance of professional development, and unfair contracts, and most have very little say about what and how they teach. They should, I suggest, organise locally, join the Teachers as Workers group, (see, and be more critical of all the crap they’re told by smug, self-satisfied members of the establishment about the joys of teaching with coursebooks.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I should make it clear that when I refer to “the small minority who get rich” I`m talking not just about those who hit the jackpot like Mr. Raymond Murphy, and Mr.and Mrs Soars. Senior managers of publishing houses, examination boards, teacher training outfits, ELT institutions big and small, the British Council, TESOL, IATEFL, and on and on, there are tens of thousands of people doing very well thank you from ELT, and just about all of them defend the coursebook.


  2. While I agree with the central thrust of your criticism of coursebooks, there are two assumptions that I think need some examining. First, “The approach is counterproductive: both teachers and students feel frustrated by the constant mismatch between teaching and learning.” I think it’s a fair assumption that “education” in many people’s minds is at least as associated with a set of rituals and behaviors as with end-states in ability and knowledge. I’ve found that students can grow very frustrated when the teaching they encounter, for example in a Dogme class, doesn’t match what they’ve come to consider hallmarks of good education – often students sitting and readily absorbing, certainly not co-creating anything. Second, that students enjoy feeling empowered and want to have a say in what they learn. I think it would be ideal if they did, but my experience has been that many students come to language classes to take up a “student role” in relation to an expert who knows what they need and doesn’t wait to be told.

    I outlined my pro-synthetic syllabus argument here: I get the feeling you’ve seen it already. Again, I don’t disagree that synthetic syllabi evince mistaken assumptions about how people learn languages. I just think people enrolling in courses do so with more than just effective paths to language ability in mind.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I suppose the rebuttal would be, if the analytic way isn’t preferred by stakeholders, then it is at least on equal footing with the synthetic way. In that case, SLA research hands the point to the analytic way (in which case the argument then becomes about whether the analytic way is more effective).

      I’m not sure that the ideas of interlanguage and an intrinsic route of learning are, in themselves, sufficient to make a cogent case for an analytic syllabus. A problem may be, for instance (and I’m not saying it is), that whether content is determined for ss or by ss, language input is never realistically going to lead to decent output, ergo practice and gains, in a classroom setting.

      Hence, possibly, whether one uses a coursebook or not, one is, by dragging learners into a classroom, slowing their potential rate of language acquisition.


      • Hi Robert,

        There are, of course, problems with implementing an analytical syllabus, and they depend on how that analytical syllabus is put together. Mike Long (2015) gives cogent arguments against Breen’s and Candlin’s Process syllabus for example, and in favour of his own special type of task-based syllabus. Thornbury and Meddings give what I think is a good argument for Dogme, and I personally think that my own suggestion for a process syllabus has potential, although some of the questions you and others raise still need more attention.

        We need to discuss all these questions about alternatives to the coursebook more fully, more widely – and maybe more urgently.


    • Hi Mark,

      I quite agree that there are problems involved in going against the grain.

      In my experience, students will take on unfamiliar roles just as soon as they see that it works. Students need to feel secure, properly supported, in the safe hands of someone who knows what he/she is doing. Once they “get it”, and once they see results, the problems you mention diminish.


      • That sounds like a good class. I will point out, not necessarily in opposition to your point, that students are more likely to keep attending even if they don’t make progress if the class adheres to their expectations of what a class should look like. Meanwhile they may give up and quit before the very long process of acquiring English by non-traditional methods bears fruit.


  3. 1. What’s the value of attending if they don’t make progress?

    2. My experience (over 40 years) as a teacher, a teacher trainer, and a DoS is that students value the commitment and skill that teachers bring to the job more than the materials they use, and that teachers who buck the trend and use “non-traditional methods” tend to be more committed and more skilled than the average.

    3. I wonder what evidence there is for reasons why student drop out of classes. Obviously we can’t settle these issues by swopping anecdotes, we need proper evidence from studies, and there isn’t much published stuff that I know of. But it’s surely wrong for those defending the status quo (I don’t include you) to use “It simply won’t fly!” cynicism to dismiss any alternatives.

    Likewise, lots of people seem to share the views expressed in comments made by “Hada ELT” on Twitter yesterday. She said:

    “some teachers just can’t function without coursebooks so there’s still a need”; and:

    “I personally hear it all but wonder about all newly certified teachers”.

    These are legitimate concerns, of course, but they sound to me like apologies, almost excuses. What does it mean to say that some teachers “just can’t function” without coursebooks? As for the newly certified teachers, they’d certainly need a bit of help – don’t we all need help when we start a new career, and don’t most of us get it from our colleagues! – but I think they’d get off to a brighter, more invigorating start if they weren’t shackled to a coursebook.

    Anyway, the important thing is to talk about these concerns, so thanks for your thoughts, Mark.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Dear Geoff,
    This runs deep in your blog and you are fair about it announcing the drift on page 1. You are taking on “the commercialization of the ELT industry and the corresponding weakening of genuinely educational concerns.” The commercialized industry of language teaching is piggybacking on the commercialization of much of what we experience. After all we just managed to pack up Thanksgiving décor to yank out the Xmas trees. I’d say, educational concerns are at service of commercialization. I do not know how old the first MBA is, I guess it does not predate the 1950s, but when it came something Greek was dragged into the university. So, this discussion is awash in a greater concern for what we think people are and, more risky, should be. Neo-liberalism has made many rich and richer, and depending on how one views social justice, purpose and nature of humankind, one can approve most, some, or nothing of it.

    That discussion, however, is irrelevant when it comes to discussing the merits of textbooks. It can be irritating that some get their pleasure islands on the back of supposedly faulty teaching ideology. But the fault is not in getting rich. The fault is in the fault. And that is up for discussion (which I thoroughly enjoy and benefit from).

    (I do not have a breakdown of the ELT industry, but I do not think that I would be so alarmed by what people make. People are getting posh on selling sugar, bananas, cattle meat, etc. And we are to blame for eating bananas. What about pharmaceutics, oil, or nuclear energy? Here it gets really dark. By contrast, I find textbook authors quite likeable people lacking ulterior motives almost completely, I think. That is, I cannot picture that a talented writer at the outset of his or her career goes about writing this NY-bestseller textbook–the 50 shades of Headway. Rather, hardworking teachers gather their lesson plans and favorite activities, enrich the blend with their particular philosophy of language teaching, and with some flair for design and catchiness, viola–un chef-d’œuvre. If they are lucky, others will find their text useful. We are to blame is we eat them bananas.)



    • Hi Thom,

      I don’t criticise textbook authors for getting rich.

      I bemoan the commercialisation of ELT in particular and of education in general more than the commercialisation of eating bananas.

      Your story of how a coursebook is born is delightful, even festive, but it doesn’t deal with the writers’ “particular philosophy of language teaching”. Unless this philosophy coincides with the dominant “philosophy” in ELT (or ideology as some of us might want to call it) it has almost no chance of being published, let alone of becoming a best seller.

      The coursebook is defended by the relatively rich and powerful minority who make up the ELT establishment. They control how ELT is organised, run, and carried out, and they make it difficult for alternatives to the coursebook to get a fair hearing.


      • Hi again,
        Yes, of course, while banana money is stained, our professional concern is education. Yes, I agree, having an inspiring moment with oneself and producing a nice textbook is no assurance that the underpinning thoughts reflect reality. That’s just the point. The flaw with textbooks resides in the possible errors they are based on or that they propagate,… not that they are sold widely. Or to put it differently, textbook writers do not grow tobacco pretending they do something for world health. I think most textbook writers defend their books because they think they can deliver what they promise.
        Some questions I have:
        1. I can’t quite see that there is a) a dominant philosophy and b) that such a philosophy would lead straight to sound methodology (I wish it did) as in: Does UG inform us how to teach language, or does it inform us what the brain can do?

        2. Would lexical knowledge be named declarative, as in memorizing phrases, words, expressions?

        3. How can interlanguage be traced? Or would teachers have to assume that somewhere under the ice a whale is swimming along?

        4. Is interlanguage an instrumental agent in language acquisition or is it the outcome of ongoing acquisition?

        5. Does interlanguage address vocabulary learning?

        6. If learners do not learn what they are taught, what principles and aims justify teaching? Maybe we would have to abandon the label “teacher” and replace it with “coach”.

        7. Why would a systematic description of the language, presented one at the time, impede learning, assuming that there is no direct interface between learning effort and what is actually being learned, when students stress the benefits they get from systematizing the messy task of language learning? We have created taxanomies that serve orientation for all kinds of hard to grasp phenomena, the periodic table, maps, taxonomies in botany, etc.

        8. Can we conclude then, for language development, it seems, discussing vegan cooking recipes are as beneficial as reading narrations with the aim of familiarizing students with verb tenses?



  5. Hi Geoff
    Many thanks for an interesting criticism. Whilst not a slavish follower of coursebooks, I feel a little balance is required.

    Firstly, might there be a grain of optimism from your above claim:

    “…The acquisition sequences displayed in interlanguage development don’t reflect the sequences found in any of the coursebooks mentioned…”

    That being the case, could we tear up the coursebooks, but not throw them away? Instead, pick a page or chapter at random and go with that to set off the day’s learning?

    After all, since we clearly don’t know the route to SLA, trial and error could be just as useful an approach.

    Also, I can’t help feeling that the assumptions you attack as lying behind coursebook design are, at best, straw men.


    • Hi SD;

      Trial and error might well be as useful as going through a coursebook page by page, but it’s unlikely to be as useful as working with an analytical syllabus.

      I wonder if you can explain why you can’t help feeling the way you do.


      • Hi Geoff
        It’s still a mystery how SLA happens. No one has come up with a pathway. So, it’s easy to dismiss something as not helping. But, where is the evidence for how SLA actually does function so that we can definitively say that the materials in coursebooks don’t help?

        Anyway, I accept the rate of SLA can be changed – I seek that all the time. I also accept that the route remains the same (unless we restructure our brains). But there are no directions to this route. So who is to say what you need to take on this route?


  6. Hi SD,

    It isn’t a mystery how SLA happens. There is an interlanguage route, which can’t be overridden in the way coursebooks assume. We also know that SLA is not a process of acquiring a succession of bits of language. Thus, it seems reasonable to abandon coursebooks, which clearly contradict what we know about the SLA process, and explore other approaches, among which, in my opinion, some kind of process syllabus, Dogme, and Long’s version of task-based teaching look promising.


    • Hi Geoff

      Abandon coursebooks for a process syllabus. Sure but where’s the evidence for a better result?

      This all strikes me as different forms of cooking – but with the same ingredients. If coursebooks are the cookery books, teachers bake the cakes from the recipes, offer morsels to the students and then it’s up to students to use their innate/inborn ability to bite, chew and swallow (identical to L1 acquisition). Then the subconscious/autonomic processes carry out the digestion and absorb the nutrients that are needed whilst eliminating the superfluous matter (L2 specific). These nutrients/building blocks (e.g. grammar bites) are stored away to be polymerized as needed into the complex structures that form memory and learning (and syntax) [SLA]. It’s a rubbish analogy but has as much evidence going for it as anything else I’ve seen – unless someone can point the way to real data, please.

      Many thanks


      • Hi, Stella,

        To be honest, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that a process syllabus would do learners more good than a synthetic syllabus (on which many coursebooks are based).

        Yes, there’s the whole hypothesis about acquisition of language following a fixed route, but that’s far from proven (sorry Ellis!). You’ll find plenty of data arguing the case for a learner syllabus, and interlanguage, and fixed route of acquisition, and the pitfalls of the synthetic syllabus, but as you allude, there’s not really anything out there that justifies the synthetic syllabus brigade hanging up their robes and handing the keys to the analytic brigade. As good, or bad, as synthetic syllabi may be, the jury is still out on which syllabus is better.

        I know there are a number of people here who will vehemently disagree with me (and I will point out that I’m only putting forward a negative case for the synthetic syllabus), but there is research that points towards language acquisition being effected by teacher-led instruction, including a number in recent years on the acquisition and development of morphological understanding. This might fly in the face of SLA research, but SLA research does not often take place in a classroom setting, hence various factors (such as the role of an instructor) are not always accounted for.

        Of course, someone could pull up a study that proves categorically the fixed rate of acquisition hypothesis to be correct, but at the moment, it’s a hypothesis. Supported by SLA research, but in the same sense that, say, arguments for and against God are supported by logic: it can work either way.


      • Hi Robert. Thanks. This is very helpful. It would be a great deal more so, of course, if you could provide a reference to the research you refer to that indicates the efficacy of teacher led instruction, so that we can evaluate it for ourselves. Apart from anything else, it might help to clarify what exactly is meant by ‘teacher-led instruction’. Many things that could reasonably be described as TLI I think are perfectly consistent with the view that a processs syllabus more closely respects learners’ language acquisition than does a synthetic sylllabus.


      • Hi, Patrick,

        To begin, there is a study by Cholo Kim on learning affixation.

        Cholo Kim
        University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa)

        in which an experiment group is instructed on the use of affixation, whilst a control group is not. The experimental group showed significant gains (as in statistically, not massive) above the control group.

        This next article may not be accessible if you’re not part of an academic institution, but assuming you are,

        Hadley examines the constant shifting between focus on form and focus on process. This, at least, indicates that the superiority of one over the other is not obvious. Again, I’m not advocating that the synthetic syllabus is superior, merely proffering a negative case in its defence.

        My own view, if I am to throw it into the mix, is that there isn’t a unified theory of everything second language, and the success of any type of syllabus is going to depend heavily on myriad factors including learner expectation, cultural background, linguistic proximity, etc.

        There is also the issue of affective filter (see, for example, Burgess and Head, 1995), and learner expectations of having an instructor. Granted, expectation in itself does not justify keeping the teacher in the classroom, but it is well known that affective filter hinders learning, and a teacher/instructor can, if doing nothing towards facilitating acquisition directly, guide the learner, thus lowering affective filter and thereby increasing the potential to learn.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Since you’ve mentioned process syllabi as viable alternatives to synthetic syllabi and the coursebook, I’m wondering if a process syllabus can be reconciled with an exam course such as IELTS or the Cambridge exams (KET to CPE)? To me, the two don’t seem compatible: exam classes require a syllabus derived from assessment content (even in exams such as IELTS and TOEFL, there is a criteria regarding what systems students must have competence over, and what language they must know, to pass). Process syllabi, however, strike me as being forward or central designed, being derived from emergent language or communication skills.

    On the one hand, it could be contended that (certain) EFL exams are part of a money-driven system, and they’re not valid assessments of language acquisition. However, many academic institutions and employers demand them, and students, whether they like it or not, need those certificates to get into those jobs and universities.

    Does throwing out the coursebook require us to throw out exams, as well, or do they have a (temporary) place in the world of the process syllabus?


    • Hi Robert,

      Testing / assessment is obviously a very important area of ELT. Leaving aside placement tests and diagnostic tests for a moment, high stake L2 achievement tests can have enormous effects on people’s lives, and there’s a lot wrong with the tests you refer to. Tests should assess what people can do with the language, not what they know about it, and thus should be task-based performance tests as Long discusses in Chapter 11of his 2015 book on SLA and TBLT. They should be criterion not norm referenced. Fulcher (2008, cited in Long’s 2015, page 332) stressed the need for empirical studies of learner and real-world task performance to provide a way of assessing task-based test validity.

      If teachers have to help students enrolled in exam preparation courses, of which there are hundreds of thousands going on around the world right now, then there is no place for a process syllabus, and indeed, no need for it. “Passing the exam” actually provides an excellent “needs analysis” – it’s crystal clear what the needs of those enrollled in the course are! It’s then up to the teacher to design appropriate pedagogical tasks which will help students to get through the tasks set by the exam. The fact that many of the questions in the test are silly, and that perfectly acceptable answers are deemed “wrong”, is something everybody has to accept as the rules of the game.


      • RE exam preparation courses, I forgot to say that books that offer “FCE Preparation”, for example, will be judged on their merits, and that past papers will probably be the most useful materials.

        During such courses, the teacher can, and in my opinion should, hold planning and feedback sessions with the students to make sure that they are involved with decisions about how the course is organised and run.


    • Expanding on this discussion, here’s an interesting piece I just stumbled upon

      In short, the author investigates the notion that L1 affects route of morphemic acquisition, concluding that it does.

      Admittedly, I’m still getting my head round the whole route of interlanguage malarkey. If, as seems to be concurred, the route is fixed, universal, that suggests it is external to the learner? In that case, irrespective of the nature and function of interlanguage, a syllabus which presents language in a particular order would be more effective than, say, TBL or dogme, in which what the learners produce does not necessarily match the fixed order of acquisition?

      What I infer from Geoff’s position is that SLA is fixed but internal: the route is determined within the learner, and cannot be affected, but regardless differs from person to person. I assume this inference as it seems more logically consistent with analytic syllabi.


      • Hi Robert,

        My position isn’t that “SLA is fixed but internal”; only that SLA is a process whereby learners successively refine interlanguages, which are linguistic systems different from their L1 and the target L2, but linked to both by interlingual identifications by the learner. The process of interlanguage development is dynamic, idiosyncratic, irregular, etc.,; it’s influenced by L1 transfer, depends on input and inake, etc.. Despite all the variation, it seems that interlanguage development passes through various stages of development, and if this is so, then it’s reasonable to argue that learners will not learn what they’re taught when led through a coursebook based on the presentation and practice of a pre-determined sequence of linguistic items.

        You touch on a core issue: the difference between first and second language acquisition. Corder and Selinker used the construct of interlanguage to explain fossilization. Since few adult L2 learner’s succeed in learning an L2 system which approaches that developed by children acquiring their L1, Selinker suggested that adults use a latent psychological structure instead of a LAD to acquire second languages. “The five psycholinguistic processes of this latent psychological structure that shape interlanguage were hypothesized (Selinker, 1972) to be (a) native language transfer, (b) overgeneralization of target language rules, (c) transfer of training, (d) strategies of communication, and (e) strategies of learning” (Tarone, 2006. You can download it free from here: ) I recommend that you read the Tarone article, which will help clarify the questions you ask about transfer and external and internal constraints. The article also discusses the more recent “Revised Interlanguage Hypothesis.”

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post Geoff,

    From where I stand, coursebooks are an example of over-centralisation within ELT – to the detriment of language learning! (As you point out…)

    I’ve been trying to solve this problem with my concept of ‘Decentralisation’ – which, I argue, is an road map to get us from where we are now, to a better place for learners and teachers.

    I lay out the arguments for Decentralisation in a paper for the Learner Autonomy SIG, and point out flaws of Learner Autonomy as concept. For example, when Learner Autonomy becomes mainstream and ‘top-down’ – how democratic is it to ‘force’ learners to be autonomous? Here’s the paper:

    Needless to say, publishers I’ve pitched book proposals too have responded to ‘Decentralised Teaching and Learning’ with a gigantic, silent, shrug.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for this. I hope everybody will download your excellent article by clicking on the link here. Hats off to IATEFL for agreeing to publish it, and hardly surprising that the publishers aren’t falling over themselves to grab the rights to your book 😦


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