Using Textbooks in ELT


Hermann / Pixabay

#KELTChat is talking about using textbooks in ELT so I wanted to write a quick blog post about them today.  As a teacher, textbooks have always been a big part of my professional life.  They line the shelves of my office, fill my classes, are shoved in my briefcase on the way to class and are usually within arm’s reach of my physical location.  Catalogs from various textbook companies fill my pigeonhole at work and I occasionally get a visit from a hard-working and polite textbook company sales representative.  When I talk to other teachers, the topic inevitably turns towards a textbook and I hear various comments about which one is “good” or “bad”.

I suspect that the main thing that makes a textbook good or bad for someone is usually how closely it hews to that person’s specific style of teaching.  I think this is why I hear so very few comments about “good” textbooks.  I don’t envy the job of the poor textbook writer – eternally trying to design activities and materials that can suit any teacher and thereby failing to really suit any of them.  Having said that, EFL/ESL textbooks are here to stay.  Despite the constant complaints about them, we just can’t seem to get rid of textbooks.  And I think that’s because they actually fulfull a very important purpose in teaching English.

Textbooks as Artifact

For better or worse, textbooks provide a continuous physical reminder of a subject beyond the classroom.  They are an English “presence” that stays with the students beyond the confines of my once per week 90-minute period.  For me, this artifact of English is perhaps the only thing in the students’ possession that represents something outside of their own native language.  Most of my students are aware that 90 mintues of spoken English per week is nowhere near enough to become fluent in the language.  In Japan, the students have no exposure to English beyond my class.  Lacking a physical reminder of the language allows them to simply switch off and ignore the reality of English for the other 166.5 hours out of the week when we do not have a class.  It is the same principle behind sending a physical copy of your resume to an employer rather than simply e-mailing it to them.  It is just harder to ignore.  It becomes a part of their lives – just as I hope English becomes a part of them too.  I’m sure there is a philosophical term for all of this but I just don’t know it.

Textbooks as “Jump Starters” for Lesson Planning

The second reason I like to use a textbook for my classes is because it creates a stable jumping-off point for my own lesson and course planning.  At my job, I have complete control over the syllabus, content, grading scheme, topics, and textbook in all of my courses.  This is a blessing and a curse.  Having 100% freedom to do what I want is nice but the burden of designing and creating 15 weeks of lessons for 7 or 8 different courses in a single semester is back-breaking at times.  It’s hard to be inspired each time I sit down at a computer to design an activity or a powerpoint.  At least with a textbook, the initial sparks are there to work with before building my lessons.  This helps to save a tremendous amount of time and energy.

Textbooks as Traditional Classroom Props

Finally, I have to admit that the reason I sometimes use a textbook is simply because students often expect it.  My first year students have been raised on textbooks.  Quite frankly, they have never experienced life without textbooks in the previous 12 years of their memories.  Textbooks – even bad ones – have been essential props for each classroom performance they have attended throughout their schooling.  Not giving them a textbook for a class would be as absurd to them as not giving an actor a script.  For a course to be “real” and “serious” to my students, many of them simply need to have a textbook (and for there to be tests and quizzes – but that’s another post entirely).   So to add a bit of perceived legitimacy and to make some students feel more comfortable, I will adopt a textbook for a first-year course.