Giving your Coursebook the Coaching Twist

I’m an ELT materials writer as well as one of the authors of this blog, so I was interested to find some research looking at the compatibility of coursebooks with notions of learner autonomy. In it the authors conclude by saying that the textbooks they looked at ‘do little to foster learner autonomy and that when they do, they offer limited opportunity for practice to students’(1). This criticism echoes a more widespread view, not just that coursebooks do a poor job at fostering learner autonomy but that by their very nature, serving up on a platter one publisher’s vision of what learning English should look like, they cannot but deny choice: ‘the whole idea of developing autonomy may be difficult to reconcile with the use of a textbook in the foreign language classroom’(2).This perceived fault in coursebooks lies at the heart of some teachers’ dissatisfaction with published materials.

newspaperA comparison. Just because we subscribe to one newspaper doesn’t mean we cannot dip into alternatives when we like, or watch the TV news. We choose a newspaper over the rest because in general we like its style, or the choice of news, or because it has a good crossword; we accept it has faults and we don’t read every page. Without a newspaper, we are free to read from any source (and these days this is definitely possible) but most of us enjoy the convenience of a version condensed and edited for us by experts. Does subscribing to the same paper every day limit our independence and freedom to choose as consumers of news? It doesn’t have to.

Now, I can imagine a class with an experienced teacher, using effective coaching techniques, that manages to create the sort of learning environment we aspire to in this blog, where a coursebook might just get in the way. Nevertheless, the reality is that coursebooks are an expected as well as valued element of most language courses, and they provide a convenient framework to structure learning for most teachers and students. I think that within this framework there is plenty of scope for coaching, and ways that students can take control of their learning. It may also be possible to see coursebooks as a power for good in this regard, an integral part of a learner’s road towards independent learning.

Learner coaching focuses on the inner game behind learning, the psychological side: motivation, organisation, goal setting, prioritisation and self-evaluation. For a coursebook to reflect this there needs to be a deliberate focus on the learning process in the book; it should encourage students to reflect on their progress and give students opportunities to make their own choices about what or how to learn within the book, as well as opportunities for reflection. For example, it should include regular sections for self-evaluation at the end of units or every few units:


The Big Picture Elementary, Richmond Publishers

 More explicit awareness raising of ways of learning seems to be making a comeback:


 Outcomes Intermediate, Heinle

 Space needs to be provided for learners to reflect on their needs and priorities:


The Big Picture Advanced, Richmond Publishers

Do this Coaching Coursebook Survey to find out whether your coursebook ticks the right boxes. Bear in mind that coursebooks may include the Students’ Book and accompanying Workbook and Teacher’s Book, as well as other components such as CDs, DVDs, online resources, student portfolios and online learning platforms. In each space award the book

0 stars   if you cannot find anything

1 star     if you can find it but you wouldn’t use it (and say why)

2 stars   if you can find it and you would use it, or some of it(and say why)

3 stars   if you can find it and think it would work really well with your group

My Coaching Coursebook Survey

My coursebook has                                                                  in the SB     elsewhere (where?)

activities that help raise awareness of how we learn best

activities that ask the learner to think about their motivation and needs

regular activities that ask the learner to reflect on their progress

activities that help learners organise their learning

activities that allow learners to listen to other students’ opinions and learning methods

(One activity may tick more than one box)

In the next blog I’m going to argue that many modern coursebooks have plenty to say to the learning coach but that unfortunately, the relevant sections in coursebooks tend to be ignored or underused by most teachers. I am going to outline what those sections are and how we can exploit them best as learning coaches.

(1)‘Do classroom textbooks encourage learner autonomy?’, Hayo Reinders & Cem Balçikanli, Novitas-ROYAL (Research on Youth and Language), 2011, 5(2), 265-272

(2) Fenner, A-B. (2000). Learner Autonomy. In A-B Fenner & D. Newby (Eds). Approaches toMaterials Design in European Textbooks: Implementing Principles of Authenticity, Learner Autonomy, Cultural Awareness. (pp. 151-164). Strasbourg: Council of EuropePublishing.

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8 Responses to Giving your Coursebook the Coaching Twist

  1. I’d love to know if there are any techniques in particular you employ to exploit these less obvious sections, or how it has changed your style. We’re always looking for fresh approaches on LearnerCoachingELT!

  2. ciforschools says:

    (PS the above comment is from Philippa- former Dip student in Barcelona!)

  3. ciforschools says:

    I also think that many teachers follow a typical history in relation to coursebooks; when you start teaching you are utterly, terrifyingly, dependent on the coursebook as your safety blanket in the classroom, and you lack the experience to be more analytical about how to use it (and the workbook). Also, in many contexts, you are forced to have to teach every part of it, whether appropriate or not, as it is expected from the culture you are in (I remember a particularly awful episode when I was teaching a class consisting of three males, from Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and the next unit was on speed dating…). By the time you develop enough confidence in your own teaching skills and knowledge, you are usually so disillusioned by the coursebooks that you use them very little in the classroom, so all the useful tips about learner coaching go unnoticed.

    • Hi Philippa,
      Good to hear from you. I agree that coursebooks become less and less important as experience increases. Unless, of course, you are required to use the book extensively by the institution you work for. I these cases, I would argue that the experienced teacher could do a lot worse than exploit these metacognitive sections in the book to raise awareness of learning and increase mindfulness in the learners.

      • ciforschools says:

        Hi Dan,

        I fully agree with you! My point was mostly that they don’t, as they have become used to ignoring large sections of any coursebook by that time…! Also, they tend to be squirrelled away in little boxes or corners and are very easy to overlook when planning. Once I started diving into those sections it actually changed my teaching style a lot.

  4. Pingback: Activities for giving your Coursebook the Coaching Twist | Learner Coaching ELT

  5. Duncan says:

    I agree that coursebooks can be a support for learners and develop autonomy. After all, whatever the course book’s shortcomings, it is a source of texts and information about language that students can use outside class. I think coursebooks were better when the workbooks were more complete. The workbooks are the bit designed for independent use, but these seem to have been shrunk in recent years by publishers which is a pity. They tend to be a mine of useful info and exercises whereas the classbooks themselves waste a lot of space on glossy pictures which are of less use to learners

    • Dan says:

      Definitely. I think that underlines the need, when evaluating your coursebook, to look at the coursebook as a whole, including online elements, the teacher’s book and so on, because the traditional workbook has been fragmented into these different components.
      One important weakness with all coursebooks, it seems to me, is the publishers’ fear of recommending that the students look not just at their wares but at the wider world – you won’t find links to other sites on their online platforms, for example. Coursebooks’ claim to be comprehensive -all the learner needs- is an unfortunate marketing lie. Fortunately, I don’t know any teachers or students who believe them!

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