Coursebook: Take it or leave it

by Dimitrios Thanasoulas, B.A.

When I was a student, I used to wonder, "What's a coursebook in aid of, really? Why do we always have to do the exercises on page, say, 45 and not those on 62? Are we supposed to write a letter instead of a descriptive essay?" and so on and so forth. Experience has provided me with an answer, albeit a tentative one. I have partly realized the necessity of a coursebook in English language classroom but I am still all at sea when I try to teach English according to some rule or method prescribed by this or that book. I do not pride myself on being a good teacher, yet I feel that this dilemma of mine is shared by many a teacher and student - at whom the coursebook is aimed, after all! Sometimes I catch a glimpse of my students scratching their heads, listening to me with cloth ears, reminding me that something is going on. Yes. Something is going on! Whether this has to do with my teaching strategies or the books I choose, the fact remains that we all have to ponder on our inclination to use one coursebook instead of two or this coursebook instead of that! Someone once said that a bad coursebook is better than none, but this is no consolation, really. Much to my chagrin, there is no magic wand to wave and put things right, even though a lot of teachers and students seem to regard a textbook as such.

No doubt, a coursebook is looked upon as an indispensable vehicle for foreign language acquisition whose validity and significance are seldom impugned. In my opinion, many students working on a coursebook feel secure and have a sense of progress and achievement. They always have a book to relate to; they are not groping in the dark. Consequently, they become more confident and satisfied, as they tackle the target language within a certain framework. Furthermore, a textbook provides them with the opportunity to go back and revise. They can also use the textbook for self-study and as a reference tool. Besides, a well-illustrated book, interspersed with eye-catching phrases and sensational pictures or titles, is preferable to tons of photocopied material, which teachers and students often take a dim view of.

Certainly, a coursebook is held in high regard by the anxious teacher who strives to put his / her message across, to teach the necessary vocabulary and help the students to acquire and consolidate the four skills: reading, writing, listening, speaking. It is a kind of panacea, a sine qua non for him; something that can bear the full brunt of the preparations for the lesson - obviating the need to produce or photocopy material, on his or her part - and thus take the sting out of a tiring, exasperating day. Personally, I find a coursebook extremely helpful, as it guides me on what and how to teach, giving me some useful advice on the best techniques for presenting the material. How else could I make up all these stories found in every coursebook that efficiently illustrate a tense or introduce the relevant vocabulary? I am always pressed for time! How else could I write all these long or short articles on various topics, with which I only have a nodding acquaintance, while simultaneously trying to make my material presentable and workable? Without a textbook, everything would be a fine kettle of fish! There would be no guidelines, no signposts; students would feel insecure and teachers would rack their brains to collect, edit and photocopy materials - which are culled from other textbooks!

I am well aware that a coursebook has a very important role to play in the classroom. Indubitably, it is a repository of ideas which the teacher and the students can draw on and avail themselves of. Nevertheless, I think that we have accorded it too much importance, without bothering to see its "side-effects." It is often the case that the students get the wrong idea that the textbook is there to "do the job" for them; they no longer have to think, to work towards a goal, i.e., learning the foreign language. They always follow a regular pattern: they read a text, then they answer some questions, then they discuss, then they write a letter, then, then, [...] They do not have to worry, although they are eventually fed up with this monolithic process. What they have come to appreciate, that is, the book, they most detest; and what they have come to regard as indispensable, they find meretricious and unbearable - and I am on their side! There are times when I want to break loose from the meshes of its conventions; when I feel constrained by its sequence of activities and units. Yet, there has to be a textbook!

We all know that this textbook sometimes becomes the bone of contention between publishers and Foreign Language Schools or frontistiria. There are many teachers and schools "pledging allegiance to" a specific publisher or book, which has little to do with the educational process itself. Many of these publishers and school owners are actuated solely by greed, and place most teachers and students in jeopardy.

So, what is the bottom line? Do we have to toe the line, to inure ourselves to the idea of teaching English with a textbook that someone else has chosen for us? Do we really have to have a coursebook that imposes its presence on us and our students? Should we dispense with it altogether? We do not have to dispense with the textbook. We only have to disabuse ourselves of the tendency to take a coursebook as gospel. Nothing should be taken at face value. No textbook is good enough. The onus is on the teacher to tap into its sources and potential. If we feel constrained and want to provide remedial work or further exercises, and we want to do all this in our own, individual way, then we should put our textbook aside and compose our own opera! It all boils down to our expectations and the goals we set, and whether we are prepared or willing to implement new ideas and methods. Of course, we cannot go about blaming our inefficiency on textbooks! It is always ourselves that we have to criticize when "something is going on"...

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