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.
A 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.