Tuesday, November 01, 2005

the nature of EFL textbooks

A little while ago, I volunteered to answer a questionnaire about a textbook that a large publishing house is in the process of editing. It gave me the opportunity to think about textbooks. My opinion is that with the given technology employed by publishers, that is words on paper and accompanying audio program on CD or tape, the definitive textbook has already been produced. I don't know what book that may be, and it may change from class to class, teacher to teacher, but it's probably out there for you already.

This should not be confused with satisfaction. Publishers haven't really come close to making a really good text yet. The texts available do not do a very good job of integrating skills, for example, including listening activities in the writing section, or speaking in the reading section. Nor do they exploit trends in language learning, like extensive listening/reading, or process writing.

Texts are organized into several units/chapters/sections. Each unit is composed of sections, usually uniform throughout the text, that present a variety of language to be learned by the students and activities that are intended to entertain and provide opportunities to practice with the vocabulary and grammar that are the centerpieces of the unit. The organized presentation of material must be one of the reasons that people consume them, but, especially with beginner learners, even after they go through a unit, the material presented doesn't ensure that they have mastered learning objectives of the unit. My students can zoom through a unit totally unaware of what is going on. They are masters of spotting patterns and manipulating them without having a clue about the meaning. For example, I am nearing the end of one unit in a textbook that deals with the word like in the context of personality or personal characteristics. As I worked with learners in some roleplays, I found that they were confusing the like we were using and like meaning preference.

What does he like?
What is he like?

I knew that would happen, because it always does when we get to this particular unit. Maybe it's just the way I teach, but about half of the class reaches the end of this unit, and still has problems making a distiction. I went back and explained the difference and reviewed some of the practice dialogs, and then proceded to the end of the unit again. This time everyone seemed to have gotten it.

I could go on with a litany of things that I think that writers and publishers should change about how textbooks are written, but these are some of the comments that I made in the questionnaire.

Question: Is the material easy to use? Are the activities clear? Please suggest any changes.
Answer: I find that many texts give very little help with helping teachers and learners to master language that appears in the text.

How are teachers and learners supposed to approach dialogs? Audiolingual, mim/mem, by memorizing the dialog, doing drills and extrapolate from there to develop their own conversation about themselves?

I suggest that if the vocabulary in the boxes are words that are thought to be useful words, suitable for learner acquisition, that there be some kind of expansion of this activity and all similar activities, with flash cards, drills, and clear goals for accomplishment.

Activities border on irresponsible without some kind of framework for teachers and learners to work toward mastery of the material included. I end up creating the course from the hastily prepared lists of vocabulary and dialogs in the texts that I use now. I make my own flash cards. I develop the criteria for successful completion of a unit. If you want to make a useful textbook, include that kind of material. Otherwise, I can use any text on the market, because no matter which one it is, I supply the missing parts.

Question: Do the Listening activities work well? Is the language level appropriate? Are the task types appropriate?
Answer: Yes, they are fine, but they are like every other text on the market. Some voices on a CD say stuff, and the students’ job is to figure out what they are saying. This is just a modified listening exam. Are the students listening to each other when they practice a conversation, or are they just doing substitution drills? Do learners listen to each other read their answers out loud to each other, or are the fill-in-the-blank activities just desk work to fill time? Include other listening activities that support other sections of the text.

Question: Are there any features that you think we should include? If so, please list them below.
Answer: With every text that I use, I have to supply a writing activity and culture activity. If you want to make a text that is more than just a book of practice tests or drills, then a writing assignment on learners’ answers in the conversation would be a good place to start. Then the text should also outline various options for publication of the learners’ work. If the writing just ends up in the garbage after the activity, then it isn’t real writing.

Finally, a section on culture would make this text a time saver for me, because then I wouldn’t have to do my own. There are may possible culture topics here, for example a comparison of values concerning food, nightlife, dating, or travel.

The publishing company was doing market research on a "new" product that is just like all the other products out there. Why should I change from the text that I have used for the past three years and embellished with my own activities to make it a complete course when all I'm going to get from the new one would be the pleasure of redoing it all? No thanks.


otter57 said...


I just stumbled across your post. I thought that your criticisms of textbooks were well thought out and written.

As a textbook writer and small publisher (www.perceptiapress.com), I thought that your advice was very useful, particularly the part about flashcards. I was thinking that it would be easy to make downloadable flashcards in PDF format. The teacher would still need to download them and print them out, but it would at least save the time of making them. Alternatively, they could be in the teacher book. I guess that would make sense - even if the teacher book itself were downloadable.

I agree with your comments on integrating skills across activities, but I know that many teachers do not. I still see some Japanese universities dividing textbooks into listening and reading sections (taught by Japanese staff) and speaking and writing sections (taught by native speaker staff). Bit crazy in my estimate. Apart from the rather odd message that it is sending to the students, it removes any integration of activities that may have been intended in the book.

It does tie in however, to your point on haveing more help on using dialogues etc. While the writer or publisher can include a strict methodology to follow, this may actually limit the teacher in some circumstances. For beginner teachers, I would say detailed advice on each step as very useful, but for an experienced teacher, I think that it may reduce flexibility. Often, I use a dialogue in a way completely different to what other teachers of the same book are doing.

Anyway, I enjoyed your comments. I see that you're in Yokkaichi. If you're up in Nagoya at some point, drop me a line (briancullen@perceptiapress.com)and we can have a chat.

All the best,
Brian Cullen

Daniel said...

Thanks for the comment, Brian.

I was just using some of my homemade vocabulary flashcards, thinking how it would be nice to have them properly printed on paper that would last longer than mine will.

As for integrating skills and the Japanese/Non-Japanese teacher distinction, I did that for one semester in Kumamoto when I worked there. The teacher had chosen a text that I would never for a million years have even looked at were it not for him. I got through it by using the book as a departure point from which to build my own course for the year. There was no attempt to coordinate our efforts, "textbook as syllabus" teaching all the way.

Textbooks have their functions. You've seen my wishlist. Otherwise the teacher has to be flexible. That's what the profession is all about, isn't it?