Evaluating centrally produced language learning materials: some pros and cons

What should we expect from a language coursebook to foster language learning?

Here are some tips on maximizing language learning opportunities through the use of centrally produced materials

Even though we need to be careful when selecting coursebooks for our specific classrooms, we cannot completely break away from textbook material as they, most of the times, form part of a coherent syllabus and provide a sense of security, structure and progress to our learners. Textbooks, without a doubt, create a much needed order in the teaching-learning process. We cannot rely on the teachers’ ability/ effort of being consistent enough in order to cover the syllabus on their own. Following a textbook helps to lessen the variability between what teachers do and say in the language classroom. Most coursebooks nowadays are also a very good source of cultural information and can be motivating for our learners with their attractive illustrations and the added material they provide.

    The truth is that we cannot expect materials to actually predict or determine what is being learnt in the language classroom. But if we want learners to be autonomous and responsible for their own linguistic development through their active involvement in the L2 process, then the materials need to be designed in a way that encourage learners to make as many L2 learning decisions/choices as possible for themselves. As Harmer (2001), points out, ‘it is important to ask ourselves what coursebooks are good for and how they should be used so that their advantages outweigh their disadvantages”.

What should be expected to be found in a ‘good’ textbook?

Richards and Rodgers (2001) suggest the following:

  • Interactive tasks that require the use of communicative processes such as information sharing, negotiation of meaning. Classroom activities that involve completing tasks that are mediated through language or involve some sort of information sharing.
  • Tasks that provide both input and output processing and give our learners opportunities for a productive use of the TL.
  • Activities that engage learners in meaningful and authentic language use and that enable learners to reach and achieve the communicative objectives of the curriculum. Activities in which language is used for carrying out meaningful tasks.
  • Activities that involve the use of language that is meaningful to the learner and that trigger intrinsic motivation.

What can teachers do to maximize the learning that is provided by the materials?

  Harmer (2001) considers coursebooks as a ‘good starting point for teachers’, as ‘proposals for action, not instructions for use’.  The key is for teachers to find ways in order to alter the materials to their own circumstances in order to increase both learner motivation and their learners’ linguistic development. Materials need to be made less preemptive and more responsive to the ongoing changes of our students and their learning needs. Teachers therefore need to be encouraged to use their own professional judgement to deal with the materials and their methodology in ways that are appropriate to their learners.

    We always need to remember that materials are there to provide input at a certain level. This input is made up of a selection of L2 content which our learners are supposed to mentally process in some way. Our students’ existing language ability, their L1 and TL background knowledge and their existing cognitive and mental abilities should all be taken into account. In order to foster language learning, the teachers’ main goal, therefore, would be to carefully select the material and tasks found in the coursebook and adapt them to their specific language classrooms in order to cater for their learners’ specific learning styles/preferences/age/needs. Our primary focus should be to combine our learners’ background knowledge with the input and tasks found in the coursebooks in order to trigger learner interaction. The more interaction, the better the opportunities for promoting our students’ interlanguage development.

  • Making conscious decisions about the lesson:

    Active involvement is key to a successful learning environment. By letting our students have their say and choose the topics and coursebook tasks they want to focus on, we instantly give them a more active role, we make them co-designers of the lesson. Learning is then more meaningful to them as it is connected to their everyday lives, their preferences and interests. Through this inclusiveness our learners feel they are in control of the lesson flow and become more engaged in the language tasks. Reflecting on the lesson and on the coursebook material is also beneficial. We must show to them that their opinion matters by giving them the opportunity to comment on what they liked from the lesson, what troubles them or any changes they would make.

  • Activating learner schemata

    Cultivating the anticipation of discovery should be one of our main tasks in the language classroom. We must use the material and tasks we find in the coursebook to our classrooms’ advantage and find ways to add some degree of unpredictability to the activities. We must activate our learners’ schemata and previous knowledge by having them guess what the topic and aim of the lesson are through brainstorming, through authentic and engaging activities that trigger our learners’ minds and imagination. We must train them to expect the unexpected. The teacher is there not feed them with input and instructions but to provide the stimulus and let the learners give the response and be actively involved in the learning process.

  • Promoting learner creativity

    A lesson that is relevant and meaningful to our learners will most definitely help increase their willingness to participate. Promoting learner creativity by carefully adapting or altering the activities found in learner coursebooks will kill boredom and boost student motivation. We must give them the opportunity to share their interests, their ideas, whatever excites them with the rest of the class. We should let them use their imagination to come up with stories, role plays, games, quizzes. This way they get the chance to learn the foreign language and construct knowledge in a context that is meaningful to them.

  • Encouraging learner interaction

    In many cases our EFL learners have limited exposure to the TL outside the classroom and therefore they do not have many opportunities to practise the language. In order to foster their language development we must create the appropriate environment to help them do this during the lesson by adapting the coursebook material to fit their needs. We must help them develop communicative skills that will eventually promote language acquisition. By encouraging interaction among the students through collaborative writing or speaking tasks, STT (student talking time) is increased and our learners gradually begin to develop language fluency and learn from one another.

    We must give them the freedom to interact in the TL, to try to communicate successfully and appropriately (not necessarily accurately), to get their message across without the fear of errors. Our learners’ interlanguage will constantly evolve through creative mistakes. It’s not just the drilling and the exercises that will boost their linguistic development but the interaction, the constant effort to turn their passive vocabulary into active.

  • Encouraging autonomous learning  

 In addition to focusing on our learners’ active involvement during the lesson, we must also encourage independent thinking. This learner autonomy needs to take place outside the lesson hours too, during individual study. To boost our students’ successful self-development, we must teach them the strategies they need to use (listening strategies, reading strategies, organization, etc.) to be in charge of their learning and make conscious decisions about it by carefully studying the material found in their coursebooks and selecting the ones that will help them in their learning path. They must be trained to set their own personal goals, to notice what their strengths and weaknesses are and to reflect on what they should be focusing on based on their individual needs. This of course greatly depends on our learners’ age and level and involves a great amount of effort from the teachers’ part as well in order to effectively guide and train their learners towards success.

Published by Joanna Nifli

ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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