Walk into any bookshop selling English language materials and you’ll be met by a bewildering array of options. Some have straightforward names, usually with the word ‘English’ in the title, whereas other names, such as Cutting Edge or Headway, could be used for other products, such as razor blades or hair gels.
Choosing a coursebook for your EFL (English as a Foreign Language) class that will meet the needs of your students, your teachers, and your employers (and parents if you are teaching kids) can be tricky. As the old adage goes, you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’.
Bearing that in mind, we can confidently state that there is no perfect coursebook. They take a long time to plan, design and produce, which means they are always slightly dated when they are published, especially those aimed at Young Learners or Young Adults. They are also aimed at the typical class rather than individual learners. As we all know, no learner is typical. Finally, great teachers can create great lessons with mediocre coursebooks but poor teachers are unlikely to give great lessons even when they are using great coursebooks.
So, assuming that the stakeholders (your students, other teachers, and employers etc) want to use coursebooks, we need to make an informed choice about which ones to invest in. The aim of this article is to give you a set of questions to help you choose the best coursebook for your students.
How attractive is the design?
First impressions count, unfortunately some might say. If a coursebook looks cheap, tacky, unprofessional or dull, our learners might not respond positively to it. If the content is good, they might change their minds after using it for a while, but a coursebook that doesn’t match what your students consider to be visually stimulating may prove to be a tough sell.
Length of Course.
How long is the course you are teaching? Coursebooks are designed to provide the teacher with enough material for a set number of hours. This can, of course, be extended by using supplementary materials, often provided online or in the form of a DVD-ROM. A common complaint of teachers and students is that coursebooks contain too much material and teachers have to rush through the units to ensure that students feel that they are covering all the essential material. This can be a serious problem as it can result in teachers going at the pace of the stronger students and leaving the weaker learners behind.
Most coursebooks are accompanied by a workbook, classroom activities (usually found in the Teacher’s book or DVD-ROM) and, increasingly, online practice materials. These materials are often ideal for homework but they should supplement the coursebook rather than provide new content. Remember that learners need to recycle and review materials to ensure they retain new language.
Have a look at the Teacher’s book. Does it clearly state the thinking behind the coursebook? What approach to learning does the book recommend? Does it match the teaching philosophy (often expressed in the promotional copy) at your school? Check that the approach proposed in the Teacher’s book is reflected in the choice of activities found in the Student’s book? Refer to the contents page.
Ease of use for students
Put yourself in the role of a student – or better, ask a student to test-run the book – and think about how easy or difficult it is to work your way around the book. Are the goals for each unit clear and appropriate? Are the topics clearly stated? Where are grammar explanations and how clear are they? Is there enough white space to prevent overwhelm? Where are the review activities? Are tapescripts to listening texts found at the back?
Ease of use for teachers
Experienced teachers can generally navigate any coursebook. Inexperienced teachers may struggle if the Teacher’s book is not well-designed. Go through the first unit in the coursebook and see how easy it is to follow the teacher’s notes. Are there some clever ideas for adapting or extending coursebook activities? Where are the answers? Do you understand any technical terms used?
Appropriate and relevant topics
Are the topics likely to engage or bore your learners? Are the cultural references specific to English-speaking countries? If they are, they may not hold the interest of your learners. Are the images, in particular, the images of people, likely to appeal to your learners? In recent years, coursebooks have made a concerted attempt to appeal to a global rather than local audience.
Have a look at the contents page. Is there good coverage of the 4 skills? What about grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation? Are there review activities at the end of each units? What about tests? Are there regular progress tests and an end-of-course test?
Good coursebooks should provide the right blend of authentic and scripted materials for the level of the learners. Advanced learners can find some scripted listening activities condescending if the materials are obviously scripted. Coursebooks now include a mix of native and non-native English speakers conversing in listening activities. How will your learners respond to being asked to listen to people from their own country speaking English?
Coursebooks, at least those created by established publishing companies, are the product of a long and thorough research and development programme. They are tested and trialled with a large number of teachers and students before they are let loose in the marketplace. Good teachers should generally be able to create effective learning opportunities for their students when using coursebooks.
Which isn’t to say that you need to use coursebooks in class…….that’s for another post.