Learner Beliefs about Coursebooks

A recent #keltchat discussion got me thinking about how coursebooks fit into teacher and learner beliefs and expectations.  I realized that I had a story to tell that illustrates the differences that can exist here and how I reacted to them.

About six years ago, I picked up a part-time gig working as an online English teacher for Japanese adult learners.  The company I worked for gave me several interviews and then shipped over a lot of coursebooks.  When I say a lot, I mean the box must have weighed easily around 15 kilos.  All of the coursebooks were different too.  So I easily had about 80 to 100 books in there and it was expected I could potentially use all of them with all of my different students.  Based on a short interview with each learner during their first lesson, I would have to decide on an appropriate coursebook for them, based on their English speaking ability and their goal for learning English.  Almost always, I would get a beginner learner who just wanted to be able to speak general daily conversation level-English.

Anyway, I once had a learner who was a nice older gentleman who fit this bill perfectly.  The first lesson had gone well enough as I went through a checklist of questions with him and then filled out my report.  I assigned him a very generic run-of-the-mill coursebook that the both of us could do together.  It had vocabulary exercises, gap-fills, dialogues, and a couple of easy conversation topics that were inoffensive yet managed to stop just short of banality.  During my next twenty minute lesson with this learner, I would add to the coursebook questions with my own statements and follow-ups and try to engage in casual English conversation – nothing too crazy, just a “How was your weekend? What did you do?” type of stuff. This guy was having none of it.

Even though we were doing a phone lesson and unable to see each other, I could just sense the sudden stress and tension that filled the learner as soon as I tried to do or say anything not covered by the coursebook.  If I pushed him too much, I could start to hear actual anger and frustration in his voice.  When I about-faced and got us back on track with the coursebook activities, this guy was happy as a clam. Thinking about it now, it seems that for this learner the coursebook was the way to “do” English and by God, anything else was just wasting his time.

This guy actually did become a regular customer of mine and he would schedule lessons several times a week (sometimes every single day) at great expense.  He zoomed through all five levels of the coursebook series, completing them in record time.  Unfortunately, at the end of this he was still barely able to articulate himself in a basic English conversation.  Any time I suggested doing anything different than coursebook work or move us on to something other than the generic coursebook offerings, he would refuse with angry silence.  When I moved to a discussion book with lots of interesting topics to talk about, this guy requested going back to a similar coursebook that we originally started with.  So back to a beginner-level basic texbook we went, working our way up again through a different series.  This went on for two years.

Thinking back on it, I also believe the guy also had confidence issues with his ability to speak English and socialize with foreigners.  The coursebook served as a comforting barrier between our personalities.  It was when I started asking him questions about his daily routines and hobbies that I realized through this guy’s answers that he was either being evasive or he was an extremely boring person.  In either case, the banality of the textbook sort of helped to protect him.  Is this another of those hidden reasons for why coursebooks are so popular?  Is it that they serve as sort of a neutral territory where the teacher and student meet upon to negotiate peace terms so that everyone can save face in a stressful situation?  Are they a third party in the class that silently assures students of progress – that elusive “magic method” that will deliver each learner to the promised land?  I’m not sure.  You may argue that I am basing too much on one learner but I would often sense the same thing from other learners I taught in that job.  It’s just that my experiences with this guy in particular were most vivid and drew me towards these thoughts and ideas.


  • Marc

    Hi. Interesting topic and you have brought up a particular point that is a bone of contention between teachers and students. English as something one does is not necessarily conducive to a situation where English becomes something one uses.

    In a quick, eyes-closed hands-up poll among my students at university this afternoon (students I have trained to escape the reliance of a chalk-and-talk lesson style) only two said they wanted the teacher to use the book every week.

    At the university level we have a good opportunity to break the stranglehold of Grammar McNuggets by asking the questions “How long have you studied grammar? How has it worked for you so far?” In my experience of asking this question it does seem to free up a majority of learners to use the language and learn by doing rather than attempt to take on yet more procedural knowledge of the second conditional.

    Cheers for this post. It’s really important for us to remember that demand for books has been created as a dominant form of ‘study’,much in the same way that the Coca Cola Company has positioned it’s beverages as the hydration source of choice in family socialising.

    Apologies for hijacking the comments! 🙂

    • admin

      You’re absolutely right, Marc! Thanks for the comment. I can relate to what you have said about university teaching as most of my first-years are painfully aware of how long they have studied (or “done”) English and seem ashamed of themselves for not having learned it despite being on the receiving end of a failed teaching method for 6 or more years. Many of them believe that there is one true path towards learning the language and they just need someone to point it out to them in order to do it. Some of them put their faith in a book or a teacher without having first considered that it all starts with themselves. I think one of our first duties, as language teachers, is to point this out to students early on in order to demystify the learning process and point towards communicating as the method rather than the end result. Some coursebooks can be a useful tool for learners and teachers if put into the right hands but it all starts with looking at learning histories and questioning assumptions (as you pointed out). And feel free to comment any time! It’s great to hear back from others about this or any other topic! Thank you very much!

  • Bob Latini

    Hi. Thanks for a very interesting read. From my experience, students like the one of yours that you describe are in the vast minority. However, they apparently do exist, so I found it quite enlightening to read about your experience with this one. Cheers.

    • admin

      Thanks Bob! Glad you enjoyed it.