COURSEBOOKS: PROS AND CONS.
Nina MK, Ph.D.
In many countries, there is either the National Curriculum, or its equivalent in existence. Quite often, it includes a list of recommended and/or obligatory course books to be used. Any teacher has to deliver a certain number of topics per term, use the corresponding number of units, and conduct all the relative tests. Supposedly, an average student can absorb all that by diligently plodding (or flying, as the case may be) through one designated textbook cum work book. But of course, there is no such thing as “an average student”. On the one hand, we teachers are confined by the ministry’s strictures; on the other hand, we have to deal with real children, and do the best we can for each and every one of them.
A few years ago, the local education authorities in my city made a sweeping decision: no foreign EL textbooks could be used at schools anymore. All the teachers had to suddenly switch to the local course books, about two months before the end of the academic year, not to mention the upcoming final exams for seniors. The said exams are usually modeled on First Certificate English books, the likes of which are not to be found in any locally produced manual. What any local textbooks lack are the authentic audio materials which are such an invaluable part of any authentic teaching set. In my country, a weird way of teaching speaking is still practiced: teachers compose whole pages of “topics”, that is texts devoted to a particular theme, for pupils to learn by heart and parrot back when their speaking skills are tested. Needless to say, those textbooks are forgotten the moment the test is over. Nor is it real speaking, since students are not required to engage in a conversation or to answer some questions. Truth be told, I have yet to see such a “topic” written by a local teacher in which there are no mistakes. Consequently, pupils memorize those texts with all the mistakes, and it is next to impossible to get rid of them later.
This whole situation made me look closer at the textbooks I used, and to make some comparisons, as well as to decide whether a course book is really needed today. If yes, what kind of book? If no, what can be done instead?
Back in 1996, when I just started working at school, I was the only teacher who came to meet the (then) Heinemann publishers representative who came to my city to offer whole sets of course books, for free, to an EL teacher who would agree to try them out with their classes and to write a report afterwards. Why was I the only one? My colleagues told me they were simply afraid of meeting a native speaker, accepting unknown books, and later writing reviews in English! I gladly collected all the books, cassettes, posters etc. and lugged them to my school. Primary school children and their parents were delighted. For the first time in my life, I learned what a Teacher’s Book was. Wow. Good-bye, long preparations for the lesson! Having read my teacher’s unit, I could come into any classroom, open the book and conduct my lesson, following the instructions. All the necessary materials were easy to copy, all the answers were there for me, all the authentic recordings ready to use, with accompanying transcripts. The books were bright and colourful, the tasks were age- and level-appropriate. I enthusiastically reported all that to my department, and received an unexpected reaction: “But they are all in English only! How can you understand Teacher’s Book?!” By studying English, I suppose. I began conducting Teacher Training/Refresher Courses in the same year.
From Heinemann, we naturally progressed to Longman, and then to Pearson teaching aids. DVDs came after cassettes, and web links became a standard part of any level set. I added grammar books when needed to consolidate some skills, to study a difficult theme in depth, and to introduce variety into our lessons. With the development of ICT, I began to use more and more materials from the web, to compose my own lesson plans, and to teach my senior pupils how to make their own presentations at conferences and seminars. We also took part in various international projects.
The National Curriculum sets up a coherent plan and several achievable aims for every school year. For a beginning teacher, using some approved course books is a bonus. One can be a gifted educator by nature, yet one usually does not accumulate a lot of methodological experience at the start of one’s career as a teacher. As we progress, provided we never stop learning, we gather more and more knowledge in all the fields which are connected to our work. We learn how to see our new class at a glance, and how to differentiate between our pupils according to their abilities. We know which tasks may seem boring and which are fascinating, we can distinguish between routine exercises and those which present a challenge. One class may need extra listening sessions, while another will enjoy a new dispute. Some pupils grasp all the new grammar themes, while others groan and ask the same questions again and again. Flexibility is a great asset for a teacher.
There had been very lean years when we had no course books at all due to financial reasons. Thanks to that, I know that I can compose lesson plans for a whole year of studies. It is not easy, yet one can do it if one has enough experience teaching, reading and writing. We all have to modify our lesson plans and to change or skip at least some parts of a unit in any course book, because they all become obsolete quite fast. ICT is the fastest developing tool we have today. All the children use the technology daily, and often they are more savvy than we adults. We cannot lag behind our pupils.