Walkley and Coursebooks: Part 2

In Complicating the coursebook debate, Part 3: Coursebook use  Walkley continues his defence of coursebooks. He starts by quoting this from a post I wrote called “The lose-lose folly of coursebook consumption”:

The coursebooks listed 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.

I’ll now summarise the points he makes and reply to them.

Point 1

Coursebooks vary in many ways, and they’re used in an incredible variety of ways.

Reply

To the extent that coursebooks follow the format outlined above, and to the extent that teachers generally follow the coursebook (doing the warm-up before the listening exercise, reading the text before doing the discussion, etc., and doing Unit 1, then Unit 2, then Unit 3, etc.) the variations referred to don’t affect the argument in any serious way. Of course teachers make creative use of coursebooks, but unless they use them only here and there, unless they deliberately subvert them, the coursebook plays a defining role in the organisation and content of the course it’s used in.

Point 2

I don’t believe that everything I present and encourage practice of will be learned, let alone learned in the same pre-determined sequence as its presented in.

Reply

Walkley doesn’t expand on this, or explain just what he thinks happens to his students when he presents and practices bits of the L2 that are presented in the coursebook.

Point 3

From the point of view of ‘Natural Approaches’ such as Task-Based Learning or Dogme, in their strongest forms there seems to be a denial that teaching or the study of lanuage has any benefit at all. I would argue that is because these theories were born out of a concern about the development of grammar and grammatical accuracy, with vocabulary only getting a look in at a later stage in these theories’ development.

Reply

I’m not sure what “Natural Approaches” Walkley is referring to, but no Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) approach I’ve heard of denies the value of teaching or studying language, and neither do Meddings and Thornbury (Dogme’s founders). The objection is to spending too much time on it.

Note: TBLT and Dogme are not theories.

Point 4

There is, though, a clear benefit to be derived from studying vocabulary. Non-coursebook users also need to consider how many tasks can be covered in one lesson, how quickly the complexity of these tasks can develop and how often similar tasks can be repeated within a lesson and across lessons. For the weaker forms of TBL which may both present models of tasks and use of materials banks to focus on form, we need to ask how those models and materials are different to those that may be found in a coursebook.

Reply

The difference between TBLT materials and those found in a coursebook is that in the  case of TBLT,

  1. they’re informed by a needs analysis and other consultations with the students who will do the course at a local level;
  2. most of the materials are used as input which helps in the performance of communicative tasks, where the L2 is used to perform particular functions, not studied as an object.

In the case of Long’s TBLT, his use of “input simplification and elaboration” is the key.  In the case of Dogme, the materials differ in that students themselves are encouraged to contribute a lot of them, and, as with TBLT, they are not used in the service of a synthetic syllabus. (See Meddings and Thornbury (2009) and my post on Two types of TBLT for a fuller discussion.)

Point 5

If you look at the ‘activities’ in Unit 2 of Outcomes Intermediate you’ll see that “the various speaking tasks don’t suggest that new bits will be learned one by one in the same sequence as they are presented in”, and “there is no reason why you couldn’t do the tasks in a completely different order”. Nevertheless,

“the sequence of activities derives from the goal of wanting students to have a realistic conversation about giving good and bad news and to express their own feelings about how others are feeling. So firstly, while we pick out some vocabulary and grammar to focus on in the exercise sequences, we would expect this to be a relatively minor part of the conversation that students practice. A teacher may find numerous opportunities to look at other forms during the lesson – and that’s exactly what I do when I use the material. With many of the tasks that we suggest students do in our books, there is a similar kind of relationship between input and skills. If students and teachers don’t take advantage of these opportunities or take a narrower view of the material, hey, what’cha gonna do?”

Reply

First, one might have some questions about the goal of Unit 2 of Outcomes Intermediate (What sense does such an abstract goal have? What’s “realistic”? What feelings? What are the contexts? Etc..).

Second, what criteria inform the “picking” of the bits of vocabulary and grammar which are focused on “in the exercise sequence”? Frequency? Level of difficulty? Appeal to students of “Intermediate General English”??

Third, if you look at Unit 2 of the book, you’ll see that it concentrates on explicit instruction and makes it likely that a majority of total class time will be spent learning about bits of the L2 rather than using the L2 for communicative interaction. Walkley’s comment that “a teacher may find numerous opportunities to look at other forms during the lesson – and that’s exactly what I do when I use the material” is telling: he wants to do even more teaching.

Point 6

Walkley ends by saying that when using Outcomes, he has somtetimes started with the conversation practice, taught aspects of language not included in the unit, dropped some tasks, adapted the exercises, and “asked students to look at some vocabulary from the unit before starting”.

Reply

See the reply to Point 1 above.

Walkley fails to address the main issue, which is that most coursebooks, including his Outcomes series, embody a synthetic syllabus where the target language is treated as an object of study, and chopped up into bits which the teacher presents to students and then practices. Coursebook-driven ELT flies in the face of what we know about how people learn an L2, and requires all the creativity and ingenuity that teachers possess to rescue it from being both ineffective and tedious.

Reference

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009)Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching, Delta Publishing.

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2 thoughts on “Walkley and Coursebooks: Part 2

  1. There is No Way I can find fault in your argument.. Geoff. As a teacher with 45 years of experience the best thing you can do with course books is use them as a support when you have a wobbly kitchen table !!

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    • Hi Connie,

      I’m afraid there wasn’t really much to reply to in Walkley’s second part, but I’m glad you agree with the general arguments against coursebooks. It hardly comes as a surprise, as you were so outspoken against their use in the late 80s and early 90s when they began to take hold.

      Monday 6th May, 1994. Scene: The teachers’ room in ESADE Idiomas.

      Newish teacher to Connie: “Do you use Headway Intermediate for the I2 course or the I3 course?”

      Connie: “Actually, I don’t use it at all. If ever I decide I want to use a nausisatingly cute drawing of a happy hetrosexual family having breakfast together in a suburban semi in order to kick off some anodine discussion of toast and cereals, leading to meaningless practice of the present simple tense, then maybe I’ll use page 26 for five minutes. Fancy a coffee?

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