A Voice in the Desert
It isn’t very popular these days to like coursebooks, and I like many of my colleagues, feel that following a course book can, at times, be extremely limiting.
Often we tend to equate using the course book with “lazy” teaching. We talk about slavishly adhering to someone else’s program me, and there is the stereotype of the far from motivating teacher who goes into the classroom and says something like:
“Right, turn to page 35 and let’s see where we are up to…” Not, of course, that any of you would ever do that!
Apart from the jokes, it is difficult for course books to cater for specific needs and interests and since each group is different it would seem to be so much easier to develop content which is learner centred and addresses the needs of the specific group. We are living in a world of information, much of which is in English, so why can’t we simply take content from the Internet etc. and adapt it to our needs?
Living with our Feet on the Ground
In an ideal world we would all have enough time and energy to do this all the time but the truth is that many teachers are under stress and are teaching far too many hours every week, with the result that the course book provides them with a structure, which is more or less reliable, and they can take it as a springboard finding what is relevant and what is interesting for their learners. This doesn’t mean that the teaching is not learner centered, but it means that the learners have a collection of materials there that can be used. This seems obvious but is worth pointing out at times. Of course, some people will misuse casebooks, just like they will everything else. Video, for example is a great resource when used appropriately, but not so great when a teacher just puts on a film and leaves the students to it. This does not mean that video as a resource is any less valuable and the same, I think, may be said for many course books.
Having said all this, I must admit that I find it hard to work with course books myself, and I am the last person, really, who ought to be writing this, as very few of my groups use them. In recent years I’ve looked at quite a few of them and rarely find much to excite me, which is why “Speakout” the new book by Pearson Longman came as such a nice surprise to me. I have been dipping into the Upper Intermediate book and have found that it is refreshingly effective and interesting, and my learners like it too. This book has been developed with BBC media, which is well done and realistic, and each student’s book comes with an active ebook, a DVD which includes all the materials, videos, audio texts etc. so it can be projected in the classroom and used at home too, but what do I like it?
Why I and my learners like it
To give you an example, I have a C1 level group that have to do a composition exam, which includes narrative writing. I noticed in our recent January exams that a lot of people were having trouble with narrative tenses, which is probably because they had studied these tenses as single items rather than looking at them as parts of discourse, and learning how to put them together. When I looked at the storytelling unit (And I know the book is a B2 level but that doesn’t really matter. They are learning from it anyway!) I saw a motivating lesson where learners read two texts, discuss the morals in the stories (the exercises were very well scaffolded too) and then analyze the tenses as parts of the narrative text:
Past continuous for interrupted past activity, yes, but also for setting the background to the story.
Past Simple for the events in the story etc.
This rang very true to me, and is what I, and many others, have been doing for years, but somehow in this book it all hangs together really well.
Another nice example is the lesson on Larks or Owls where learners listen to people being interviewed by the BBC about their habits, whether they are larks or owls. The vocabulary for this activity is pre taught in a quiz activity which is motivating and fun, and it all leads very naturally into the listening activity.
Using the book as a Springboard
Of course, as with any course book, as I said before, if it is going to be made relevant it needs to be used discerningly. Teachers need to think about what their learners need, what they need to be able to do and what the best way is to help them to do that. Having said that, though, I must say I really like this book.