"If we don't adapt we will die!"

Those were the stark words that jumped out from an otherwise mundane BBC article about changes in format and time to the Radio 1 UK Chart Show.

"The BBC needs to stop thinking about TV channels and radio stations and just think about content for certain demographics, certain age groups,” the article also warned.
And this has struck a chord with my current thinking on course books. To blatantly rip off adapt the words of our friends at the Beeb:
“ELT needs to stop thinking about course books and published materials packages and just think about content for certain demographics, certain age groups.”
I have worked with and without course books over the years, sometimes by choice, often by force. My experiences range from no book at all in my early teaching years to the relief-soon-to-be-followed-by-disappointment of finally getting a glossy grammar-based package of units, and through various ups, downs, and abandonments with young learner titles (there is no need to go into all the details here as I have already done that recently on my own blog).
During my time in ELT I have seen course books grow and expand, both in the virtual sense of catering to different target groups and in the literal sense of offering more and more components and more and more resources to meet the increasing demands of teachers, administrators, imposed frameworks, and external exams.
But amongst all that something vital has been forgotten – the learners. Modern course books are often in danger of swamping learners with too much stuff, leaving little room to manoeuvre, breathe, think, and learn. Of course, this is not solely the fault of the publishers or course book authors. It has often puzzled me when I see teachers furiously ploughing through the material in course book and work book, handing out worksheets from the resource book, and then creating their own extra activities for homework. Surely the work book should be something for out of class study? And the photocopiable material something to provide extra practice for those students who need it? That is one of the major problems with the plethora of material available in a ‘package’ these days – teachers often see it as all obligatory to be used in class instead of as optional.
Many teachers, of course, rework course book material to better fit their students’ needs but there are practical limits to such adaptations. I was recently involved in a discussion with colleagues about how to adapt an activity for young learners which required the students to read some sentences and colour a picture accordingly. Various ideas were shared from covering up the sentences and dictating them to allowing the students to colour the picture first and then write sentences to describe it. We eventually ended up talking about scanning parts of the picture to show on a projector, cutting up sentences of bits of paper and passing them out to different groups, and finally piecing the activity back together like some sort of giant puzzle… all of which made me think, why not just ditch the book and come up with our own idea? It would be a lot less time consuming!
Course books are not all bad of course. I have had some great lessons that were entirely pre-produced material based but I do feel we need a rethink. The idea that grammar points, vocabulary sets, and lexical areas can be divided up and neatly presented in little units has never sat well with me. Too many times, I have had students disengaged by material that offers no challenge or moves to quickly for them and never affords them the chance to go back and consolidate.
The best books I have used have been on the thin side. They are not overloaded with activities and ‘extras’ which end up being used as compulsory classroom activities. They simply have a language point and some related activities, with plenty of space to respond to students’ needs and focus on areas they are struggling with. It ıs often said that as teachers we don’t have enough time to ‘cover the syllabus’ but I have always felt that the syllabus doesn’t give us enough space to put our time to the best use. If I have to use a course book, I would rather it be a sparse one!
However, those books still contain a proscribed learning programme and a strong element of ‘time to learn past continuous because the last unit reviewed past simple.’ So, what would I suggest instead? Well, this is where I refer back to my adapted quote from the BBC at the top of this post:
“ELT needs to stop thinking about course books and published materials packages and just think about content for certain demographics, certain age groups.”
I would love to work with a ‘recourse book’ to help my students out when they are in need of some external input - a collection of texts, images, questions, and ideas suited to their needs, age, and demographic. No exercises, no fixed units, no fixed order of learning points – just a source of inspiration for discussion and thinking with plenty of space for exploring language. It would be ring-bound for easy addition of extra sources found by the teacher and students alike (and removal of unwanted features!) It would have space for their own work, notes and doodles to make a truly personalised learning portfolio…
This is just the initial seed of an idea at present and ıt may be hard to find any takers. However, I really think it’s time we reconsidered the role and format of the course book in class. It’s time we ditched the pre-determined grammar and vocabulary for something more open to interpretation. It’s time we cut down on the overwhelming amount of content (like Radio 1 in its decision to abandon playing the entire top 40 and just focus on a select songs) and let our students have some time to think and make some choices about what they want and need to learn.
Change the course book to a source book, and use it as a recourse more than a resource.

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