coursebook writer / coarse book-writer responds…
was originally written as a reply to an article by Mario Rinvolucri
on the tefl-farm website.
a member of that much-maligned group, ELT authors, I'll do my best
to reply to Mario Rinvolucri's stimulating article. I'm replying
because because Sab Will has asked me for comments, not because
I was outraged or offended.
first met Mario in the late-70s when we were both union reps in
the ill-fated attempt to create some kind of career structure in
TEFL, and I'd rather listen to Mario than the great majority of
TEFL pundits. ELT needs both mainstream and radically different
thinkers. The whole concept of a reply brings up the idea of an
adversarial debate. Think of this instead as some additional points
inspired by the article. I'm also going to refer to the responses
from Liz & John Soars, Michael Swan & Catherine Walters
and Scott Thornbury.
in ELT … and more …
think one at least of Mario's conclusions is sexist, when he talks
about “the soft, fudgey, sub-journalistic woman's magaziney
view of the world.” Taken with his earlier remark on the “crooning,
slow maternal didactic speech of female colleagues” and
the quoted text “A Woman”, I wonder what he's saying about women
teachers or a female viewpoint. I also wonder if Szkutnik's expects
the students to understand the ambiguity in “late”. And whether
he expects it to be explained. The point (women are always late)
is as stereotypical and sexist as a mother-in-law joke. When I set
out to make notes, this was my first point. It was Michael and Catherine's
first point too. You walked straight into that one, Mario!
ELT teachers are a distinct minority, almost an endangered species.
I've spoken to audiences of 200 with only 5 or 10 males present.
As a result, male teachers often have an easy run, in that they
provide contrast in the classroom. When I started teaching at ACSE
in 1971, there were no women teachers. The first arrivals,
like Karen, had a great advantage in the classroom because there'd
be three men and one woman teaching a class. The reverse is generally
true in similar schools nowadays.
beginners means letting go of standing on your dignity. The wise
teacher taps into lightness and humour, because being an adult beginner
is an intrinsically undignified activity. You have to switch the
class into the cheerful mode so that dignity does not impede communication
in broken English. You have to be supportive rather than critical.
I think women find this naturally easier to do (that's also
sexist stereotyping, OK).
might be a hidden agenda here. Scott implies that publishers
are only interested in pleasing women “decision makers” (as publishers
call them). I don't believe this to be true, but it opens another
area for debate. In the UK, the “feminization” of ELT has
grown apace over the thirty years I've been involved in it. Look
at any university language department and you will see a majority
of women students, so there is a logic behind it. When there was
a major financial scare in the UK ELT market in 1980, hundreds of
permanent teachers lost their jobs. A career became a part-time
job overnight for many qualified and experienced people.
The response of many ELT schools was a sudden timetable change.
The 8.30 or 8.50 a.m. start became a 9.15 start to help women with
children. This was a socially positive measure, but in many cases,
this meant that ELT became a “second income” job. Those women
and men who wanted to teach ELT as a full-time career found themselves
undercut on wages, and appeals to unionize began to fall on deaf
had another effect. The best place to teach was now a state college.
After a few years of sharing staff rooms with colleagues who enjoyed
reading weeks, exam prep, and very low intensity teaching, what
emerged? The doctrine of learner independence or BOTLIB jumped like
a virus from tertiary education into ELT. BOTLIB stands for “Bugger
off to the library. I'm busy.” You may think I'm being unfair and
want to list the positive points from the moves towards learner
autonomy. There are many. But the best way to teach a language is
with human beings interacting with human beings.
is shameful and scandalous that UK schools take money from students
who can't read or write adequately in the Roman alphabet and place
them in classes with students from Roman alphabet cultures. Little
or no attempt is made to deal with the problems these students have.
Teachers then complain that beginners books don't cater for these
students. No, they don't. If they did, they'd be useless for the
rest of the class from Europe or Latin America. Teaching adults
who are already literate in one linear sound-based code (Arabic)
is a different exercise to teaching children who can't yet read
or write. Literate adults don't have to learn to read ; they
have to learn to crack a different code. Bernie Hartley and I wrote
two small supplementary books designed to cope with the problem,
one an accelerated code-cracking reading programme ( Basic
English Reading Programme, OUP),
the other an accelerated writing programme for adults ( Learn
English Handwriting, Nelson).
They were published in the early 80s and are now both out
of print, because “There's no longer a demand to teach adult beginners
students should get extra lessons. Even more, they should have an
intensive pre-course on reading and writing. We used to insist on
a two week pre-course for students who couldn't cope with the alphabet,
which consisted of reading, writing and oral survival English. The
problem in the UK is not so much the teacher's lack of awareness,
but the schools' financial interests. In real terms schools are
much cheaper than 20 years ago because there is a continual downward
pressure on fees. Whatever a school charges for a course, they will
find someone handing out leaflets outside their premises offering
lower prices. This is why experienced professionals are made redundant.
That's why teachers discuss the problems of “RoRo” (roll on, roll
off or continuous enrolment). Pre-1980 none of the serious schools
allowed this, and rightly so.
may have seen the “first practical book” on the problems of Japanese
learners in 1999, but if he were to include more populist books
aimed at tourists and business travellers, rather than teachers,
he could have mentioned books dating back to John La Farge's
An Artist's Letter From Japan
(1897) through to more recent ones like Ian Buruma's A Japanese
Mirror (1984) or Takeo
Doi's The Anatomy of Dependence (1971)
which carried useful cultural information. Any Western hotel
bookshop in Japan has at least twenty titles, and there is now a
literary sub-genre of novels by Westerners who have taught English
in Japan. The ubiquitous “Culture Shock” series can be recommended
as a brief guide to various countries. There was also a dedicated
book on Teaching Japanese Students ,
which I think was published by OUP, Tokyo at least ten years ago.
I had a copy, but in an uncharacteristic burst of generosity I gave
it to a teacher who was on their way to Japan.
Mario means, and he's right, is that there are very few books directed
at UK based teachers who are teaching (e.g.) Japanese students.
Michael Swan's Learner English (CUP)
is an essential classic. I'm sorry, but not surprised, to hear that
it was an unprofitable publication. Basic English Reading Programme
with other cultures is an essential quality in ELT teachers. As
a poor linguist myself, I disagree that being a good or “natural”
linguist is essential. I can spot “instantaneous language learners”a
mile off. As a quality, it's a different category of intelligence,
like musical intelligence, spatial intelligence or emotional intelligence.
I once sat in a restaurant in Rome, where several erudite Italian
language teaching gurus took it upon themselves to discuss the “appalling
slang” of the waiter who had been speaking to us in English. Actually
the guy was a total “instantaneous learner” and spoke
better English than any of them. I talked with him, and he'd “just
picked it up”. He'd tried some lessons to consolidate his English,
but found he had a better accent and more colloquial English than
his teachers. That sort of person can learn swiftly by ANY method.
I assume that language learning is hard and needs to be broken into
manageable chunks. I also think for many people it's extremely dull
unless the content is interesting, and I guess Mario and I would
be in agreement here. We just differ on what is interesting content.
I may be unfair here too, as Mario is embracing all levels, while
my remarks refer almost exclusively to the lower levels, which I
am most interested in. I don't disagree on Upper Intermediate and
also agree with Mario that some teachers (but I think more
men than women) wrongly equate language level with intelligence.
I once came out of a zero beginner class, and the next teacher said,
“Have you just had the thickies?” I pointed out (with some heat!)
that this particular class included a Spanish sea captain, a Mexican
pilot, a Japanese university lecturer, an internationally-renowned
German photographer, a TV Presenter from Brazil and the European
marketing director of a major French company. Yes, I'd have to admit
that they were all “from the elite classes” in their own countries.
also all taught Upper Intermediate students who have simply been
at the school a long time. They have not become intellectuals in
the process, and are no more likely to demand Shakesperean tragedy
than the beginners. I believe that the number of foreign students
who are motivated by English literature is about the same as the
number of Germans deeply motivated by German literature. That is,
a significant minority, but still definitely a minority.
very best students can fly without a great degree of grading, but
the majority do better with it. That's where we coursebook writers
(or “coarse book-writers”) come in
seems vexed by perceptions of PC influences in textbooks, and John
& Liz Soars appear to agree with him. Let's step back a little.
First, I'd agree that political correctness in materials is of less
importance in UK language schools. But we're also discussing global
courses, the MacDonaldization of language teaching, if you like.
Look at in a positive way, MacDonalds don't serve beef to Hindus
or pork to Moslems.
agree that most ELT authors write to an agenda,which is a mix of
publishers' guidelines with their own intuition. Pictures of people
with cigarettes can get books banned in some school systems. Low
cleavage in pictures gets them banned in others. Inadequate ethnic
balancing is a serious problem in the USA. Representation of women
will be analysed and counted in many countries. Some countries don't
like to see disputed territories labelled on maps. You could have
a section on holidays in Gibraltar, Israel, The Falklands and Taiwan
and get effectively banned in several countries with one unit. In
other countries there is a dislike of brand names in school texts,
as this could be seen as product-placing. This is why some ELT courses
prefer the generic “cola” in print to the brand names Pepsi and
Coke. I guess the teacher always encourages use of the real words
in class. Books for the Arab world would avoid pork products, which
is odd, because if I wanted to avoid pork products, I'd want to
know the meaning of bacon, ham, salami etc.
through the last paragraph again. Do you object to fair representation
of women? Do you object to ethnic balancing in course books? Liz
and John said:
you think British publishers are coy, try working with Americans.
There, only an “apple-pie” world is allowed – no booze, no
ciggies, no eccentric American characters – tell that to Scott
Thornbury's crusade. they'd have to get out smelling salts at any
mention of gays. But funnily enough there has to be a % quota of
coloured people per spread .”
worked on four American multi-level courses with two publishing
houses, I beg to differ. America is a multi-ethnic society.
The case for ethnic balancing and gender balancing in educational
materials is unanswerable. Can you think of one justification for
not doing so? We asked for more non-white characters back
in the first edition of “Streamline” in 1978, and were well ahead
of the publishers. We got very few though, because in those days
there were few guidelines. When we first saw American guidelines
on ethnic balancing in 1980, it all seemed eminently sensible. Read
through On Balance the
IATEFL guidelines on the representation of women in ELT books, IATEFL
Newsletter, October 1991 (which Catherine put together).
Do you disagree with the idea behind it? Or with any of the suggestions?
I first worked with American English in 1980, all of us were worried
about combining humour in contexts with ethnic balancing,
and so the ethnic balance tended to fall on “serious” characters.
When I did the revised edition of New American Streamline in
1995, ethnic balancing was applied, but no longer limited to serious
characters. Funny, eccentric and non-W.A.S.P. characters appear
throughout. Put it simply, no book without adequate ethnic balancing
will be used in any California institution receiving state funds.
What's the editor going to do? Wipe out the biggest domestic market?
The remark would be seen in the USA as a typical British
condescending attitude to Americans. American editors I've
worked with have been highly professional, interesting people. I'll
take exception to the “apple pie” and “smelling salts” on their
is the magic in “booze and ciggies?” The affectionate “ciggies”
seems approving, as well as rather old-fashioned. Do you really
want to promote cigarette smoking to school kids? Books might start
selling in the UK adult sector, then they move to adult sectors
abroad, and then the good ones move into secondary schools. This
has happened to every major “adult” course I can think of. I have
received advice from editors, but it was along the lines of “Cigarette?”
“No, thanks,” would be preferable to “Cigarette?” “Yes, please.”
because even twenty years ago, smoking was a sensitive topic in
Germany and Scandinavia. In 2000, the advice might be not to have
the dialogue at all.
applies the “censorship”? It is unjust to give the impression that
it was the big, bad publisher. I suspect most experienced authors
apply guidelines subconciously.
avoided by course books?
is problematic. Adult classes in one country are one thing, secondary
schools in deeply religious countries another. We assume that the
text book is the outline and that teachers will use their own discretion
on where they can let the discussion go in their own situations.
Does a single gay student want to discuss their sexuality in a class
of heterosexuals? Maybe. Maybe they'd prefer their privacy, especially
in some countries. It will differ from situation to situation. It's
up to the teacher to be sensitive to the situation and open to the
possibilities. The teacher, not the text, creates the learning environment.
Illustrations help, because many places worry more about texts,
and illustrations carry a subliminal message.
read Scott Thornbury's piece, and I have to agree that most of us
… all of us maybe … are guilty of a sexist attitude by omission,
and I intend to give the issue some thought. I think the
way to show more gay people would be by implication or “covert signs”,
as he suggests, rather than with a sledgehammer. I agree
with Scott writing “should teachers choose to use (a covert implication)”
because it is all about teacher choice. You can provide the opportunity
for discussion without waving the rainbow flag on every page.
are five areas to consider on topics:
The teacher's role
students have 40 hours. No more. What is the most efficient use
of your time and their time? In short courses, everything you do
should be balanced against their needs. They're in your class to
is from the Heinemann Guide for Authors ,
to the sensitivity of some of the markets for which we produce books,
we have to be very careful about the topics which we cover. Obviously
when producing books for the UK and Northern European markets most
subjects are acceptable, but in more conservative and religious
markets there are various things we must be careful with. The list
below should be used as a guideline but please do discuss any topics
you feel strongly about using with your editor.
list includes abuse, aids, narcotics, terrorism, disputed borders,
sex, rape, religion, pornography.
have the chance to discuss what are appropriate questions, and what
are appropriate topics for conversation in their cultures. Whether
they then go on to discuss the topics themselves is their choice.
degree of intimacy do you have with your students? What degree of
intimacy do they have with one another? Topic is related to degree
of intimacy. Crossing a student's own intimacy barrier is poor communication.
Some people have the knack for escalating conversation to a deeper
degree of intimacy. Others don't.
the lower levels, limited language level can cause serious interpretation
problems. In one class of Libyan students, I was doing a text which
involved a black bear. One student became increasingly sullen and
angry. After the class I spoke to him. He was darker than his classmates,
and was also a big lad. After about ten minutes discussion it became
apparent that he thought he was being referred to as a black bear.
are always best when students think they have introduced them, rather
than the teacher. We've often used the teacher's book to suggest
routes the discussion might follow, rather than banging them overtly
in the student book. Sidetracking the teacher onto a risque or controversial
topic is something students enjoy. Allowing them to think (a) they
introduced the topic (b) no other class had their originality in
doing so, is a great teaching skill. A forced discussion on a controversial
topic is a bit like sex education discussions when you're eleven
years old. Embarrassing. I'll never forget my biology teacher, “Stop
sniggering! If there's any more sniggering, you'll leave the class
and then you'll never learn how to do it.”
let the students think they've brought up the topic. Secondly, let
them believe it's their friendly, daring teacher rather than the
coursebook. The textbook writer cannot know your class. An appropriate
topic for a Thursday morning might fall dead at 9 a.m. on Monday
or 9 p.m. on Friday.
over-emphasis on verbs in course books
I started teaching multilingual classes at Anglo-Continental in
England in 1971 four teachers saw each class. Each class did 20
hours. Work was divided into four sections at Elementary level,
using in-house materials: verb grammar & language lab (7 lessons),
oral practice (5 lessons), text book (only 5 lessons!) and non-verb
grammar (3 lessons). One of my first actions when I became responsible
for designing materials was to remove the bizarre and artificial
distinction between “verb grammar” and “oral practice” and “non-verb
grammar.” So what Mario is saying about the over-focus on the verb
rings a lot of bells for me. I don't disagree, though I do feel
that Acklam's Index (which I haven't
read, but will) seems, as quoted, to overstate the case.
Karen and I wrote Grapevine we felt
that at beginner level the obsession with ticking off new tenses
was counter-productive. Too often, teachers only see the syllabus
in terms of structure, and only see structure in terms of tense
grammar. One criticism we kept getting was that the first twenty
units in Grapevine One focussed
too heavily on “non-verb grammar” (if I may exhume this odd distinction).
We felt that students needed to be confident with using possessive
determiners /adjectives, object pronouns, adjectives, prepositions,
demonstratives, mass and unit, articles and so on before entering
the race to tick off new tenses. We examined other books at the
level, and we also perceived an obsession with verbs, to the extent
that some books never bothered to focus on these “minor” non-verb
areas at all. This obsession with verbs gets worse if you add a
category that Acklam wouldn't have used, “honorary verbs”. This
just-coined phrase refers to those big blocks of “non-verb” structure
which are accorded the same status marker as verb tenses in course
books – main chapter titles. Comparative and Superlative and
Mass and Unit spring to mind.
when we wrote Handshake
we immersed ourselves for three years on books on communication
skills which were aimed at a native-speaker audience. We used Communication
Skills as our framework for the course, and had categories like
Closing A Conversation, Making the Right Noises, Checking Information,
Making a Story Interesting, Praise and Appreciation. At pre-intermediate
level we found a grammar syllabus to be an essential component,
entwined with communication skills.
do you describe the contents of a coursebook? At one point, books
went for the totally comprehensive index. There would be pages of
contents divided into multi-coloured columns. Grammar, Functions,
Vocabulary, Pronunciation, Reading, Speaking, Listening, Writing,
Learner Skills, Topics. It was indigestible and teachers still resorted
to saying, “Unit 12 is the present perfect.” It was a shorthand.
We found that teachers wanted less full descriptions, possibly alongside
the full multi-column analysis. It's easy to take column 1, which
is generally Grammar (but sometimes Topics), and say (e.g.) New
Headway Intermediate unit
4 is “about” modals of obligation and permission. But it's also
“about” describing people, word formation, offers and requests,
cross-cultural work on manners, stereotyping, education, talking
about past experiences, entertaining friends and filling in a form.
But in the staffroom, teachers will still say “Class 23 has just
finished Headway unit
mentions the “joint EFLese wisdom of the course book writers” and
lists a few of us, while failing to mention others like Swan &
Walters, Alexander, Oxenden and Seligson, Hutchinson, Greenall,
Granger, Whitney, Richards and O'Neill. They'd fit the list too.
That's one hell of a lot of accumulated expertise, and it's only
by analysing and then trying to synthesize a syllabus that you truly
come to understand the relationship of the components. I think there's
common agreement that you teach things in a broadly similar order.
The differences in recent course books revolving around the introduction
of the present simple and present continuous, or when to introduce
was / were are relatively minor. It's rare for someone set out to
(say) teach the present perfect before the past simple. ( Access
To English did this)
the mid-70s everybody strove to put functional titles on units,
so that a lesson on the present perfect might be labelled as “Talking
about the recent past.” This was a fake (as well as inaccurate)
functional label. As Mario says “(functions) are an absurdly unwieldy
classifactory system”. Any four or five line dialogue will
display multiple functions. Mario's list of glaring omissions are
definitely tongue-in-cheek, and Praising God and Keening the Dead
are of limited use to a beginner. I imagine that most learners
would prefer to perform both functions in L1. We're tring to teach
English, not eradicate the mother tongue. Some religions specify
the language to be used for the purpose of praising God, and English
is not on the list. As for “Offering Condolences”, “I'm very sorry”
will suffice at Elementary level. They'll learn this anyway.
Add “I'm very sorry to hear (about …)” at a slightly higher level.
In Handshake we are
not alone in covering Expressing sympathy and
that will fulfill the need.
O'Neill demonstrated that you could choose among three titles for
the same unit.
would you choose?
Prepositions of Place - grammatical
Asking for Directions - functional
Lost in The City - situational.
third is the most enticing, and it's the one I'd have gone for.
In recent years the tendency would be “Where's the nearest cashpoint?”
which is based on an example sentence.
content of all four might be identical.
last statement, that “UK EFL writers' topic choice and treatment
is powerfully ideological, precisely because of its avoidance of
any specific ideological statement” is one for discussion in political
philosophy classes. The ideologues have always claimed that lack
of an ideology is an ideological statement. I would say that
–ologies and –isms are a substitute for thinking. I've
had adult classes with senior military officers from radically conservative
regimes sitting next to party officials from communist countries,
and Asian pillars of the capitalist system as well as devout students
from conservative religious systems. Someone with Mario's great
talent and teaching skills would probably regard this as an unrivalled
opportunity for promoting language learning. Others would believe
that a multilingual co-operative learning environment is only possible
when the –ologies are left outside the door and that ELT classes
are a neutral zone. During the Arab – Israeli conflict of
1973, I had Arabs and Israelis together in most of my classes. They
preserved an air of politeness, as after all they were travelling
companions, which is a culturally sacrosanct relationship. Before
one class, I was stopped outside the door by two Arab students.
They knew that an Israeli man in the class was deeply concerned
about his family, and that he was listening to the radio news. They
felt that my unusually prompt arrival would cause him to switch
the radio off, and asked me to delay my entry to the class for five
minutes. The display of this kind of mutual help and sympathy is
one of the rewards of multi-cultural classes and ELT teaching. If
you go in with a personal agenda to promote on “the shadow side
of life” you risk destroying it. I just peered into the dustiest
recesses of my filing cabinets and pulled out some original Streamline
reviews. The ones that struck me were “definitely not highbrow”
and “of no literary merit”. I can live with those.
not saying that contexts should all be Blind Date, Bingo, Spice
Girls and Pokemon. There are serious topics which do not confront
the deepest personal belief systems – the environment, globalization,
cross-cultural similarities and differences. Language teaching is
about imparting a skill, not about changing people's basic belief
systems. There's something intrinsically honest about being
a language teacher. On the other hand teachers of politics or history
or economics are invariably selling a theory or a view.
On the whole, ELT courses do present a broadly humanistic view.
They win hearts and minds without confrontation. I know many people
assume that ELT authors are deadly rivals competing for sales, but
like any other professional group – footballers, musicians,
accountants or bricklayers – there is a good degree of mutual
respect and admiration “off the field.” I can analyse a “rival”
and see bits where I think the syllabus has slipped, where an instruction
is confusing or an activity is flawed, but I can also see how many
long hours and how much deep thought has gone into the book. Sadly
too few people are prepared to even try following the logic of the
course. A tatty photocopy replaces a carefully thought out activity
which recycles the vocabulary from the previous unit. When I've
trialled material I've found again and again that it works best
if you try trusting in its logic.
Viney, February 2000