How to judge an EFL textbook for adults
These tips are designed to be useful for people who are trying to choose whether a book is suitable for a future class, are trying to evaluate a book they are using in order to compare it with others, or who are writing a review of a TEFL book for sites such as Amazon.com or TEFL.net Book Reviews. Such evaluations can be both hard to start and hard to stop or keep on topic once you do start. Thinking about, writing about or discussing a book under one, several or all of the headings underneath can help.
Although this may seem to be a trivial way of judging a book, in fact your students experience of using the book and confidence in it will be much affected by how it looks. First impressions last! Cheap production values (lack of colour, stock photos that are not closely related to the topic of the unit, cartoons or other line drawings where photos would be better) can also be a sign of general slackness on the part of the publishers, or at least can give students and teachers that impression. As well as the things mentioned, sensible use of white space on the page is very important to make it easy to navigate and easy on the eye.
Like shoe and clothes sizes, “Elementary” or “Intermediate” does not mean the same thing with every book. This can be difficult to judge before using a book, but you can get clues from other books in the same series (for example all the New English File books are suitable for people who only just make it into the lower end of each level band), the points that are covered (if they include points that are usually done in a higher level book it is probably for people towards the upper end of the level that it says), and any mention of a range of levels (“suitable for Beginner and Elementary students” usually means most suitable for high Beginner and low Elementary). An enquiry to other teachers who have used the book, for example on a TEFL forum, will also usually produce a consensus on whether an Advanced book is “high FCE/ pre Advanced” or “very Advanced/ near Proficiency”. Unfortunately, being told the target ALTE level does not really help with judging the true level of a book.
Like following the work of a favourite or famous film director, it is sometimes (but by no means always) possible to judge the chances of getting something good by the previous works of the writers, series editors or publishers. One tip that many people are not aware of connected to this is learning to spot which books in the catalogue you are given are sold internationally and which ones are just produced for the local market, for better or worse.
4. Other people’s reviews
Although not quite as subjective as a review of some music or a movie, it can be very difficult to go from knowing whether someone else liked a textbook and found it suitable for their classes to being able to predict what your own reaction would be once you started using it. Parts of the review to pay particular attention to are the bits where the reviewers say what kinds of classes they teach, and the part (usually in the conclusion) where they say what kinds of students or teachers they think the book is suitable for.
Many students will spend more time studying English outside class than in it, so a well-designed workbook is a very important but often ignored factor. Things to look for in the workbook include use of colour, use of pictures, a CD, a CD ROM, an answer key (preferably with some explanation of why particular answers are right or wrong), and teaching new language as well as revising the language in the students’ book. Some workbooks also cover whole areas of language that are neglected in the students’ book, such as pronunciation or writing.
6. Teacher’s book
Another component that may be at least as important as the students’ book itself if the teacher’s book. You may want to see if it has photocopiable materials at the back, photocopiable tests, general advice on teaching, answers to the exercises in the book that clearly stand out on the page, tapescripts in an easy to find place, variations on the lesson plans, an easy to navigate format (e.g. a double page spread for each unit), tips of typical student difficulties, help on language presentations (e.g. examples of timelines you can copy), a guide to language or cultural things you might not know, realistic estimated timings of activities and lessons, and warmer and filler suggestions.
7. Other components
Other things that you might want to look for include videos/ DVDs, CD ROMs, a little pocketbook tucked into the back of the students’ book or workbook (often something like a phrasebook, guide to writing genres, or mini dictionary), books of accompanying placement and progress tests, and books that tie in and teach further language and skills. Check, though, that the students and/ or school won’t have to pay extra money for extras that the textbook is much worse without.
Things that the students’ book itself could contain include a detailed contents page, clearly marked aims for each unit and exercise, a variety of exercise types, personalised language practice, exercises of various lengths so you can fit it in with the lesson times, discussion questions, instructions for pairwork, speaking tasks based on the pictures and texts on the same page, stimulating unit titles and text titles, prediction tasks, error correction tasks, boxes with grammar explanations and other useful language, reading texts of various lengths and genres, and listening texts of various lengths and genres. At the back of the book, you might also want to look out for grammar reference sections (sometimes with extra grammar practice), word lists (sometimes with definitions and pronunciation guides), tapescripts (maybe with pronunciation help or important language highlighted) and pairwork activities (e.g. roleplay cards).
Things that you might want to look for in the table of contents at the front of the students’ or teacher’s book include skills work (e.g. emailing), functional language (e.g. “advice”), cultural information (“intercultural meetings”), study skills, grammar (not just tenses), vocabulary (including collocations), pronunciation, free speaking tasks, and controlled practice tasks. Some older courses and short courses have just one or two language points per week, whereas newer books tend to have lots of little grammar and vocabulary points in a response to a more realistic analysis of what language students need to communicate. There are advantages and disadvantages to both extremes.
10. The target audience
Although publishers often try to hide this kind of information in case it puts anyone off buying the book, you should be able to work out from information hidden in the teacher’s book or reviews of the book if it is particularly designed for beginner teachers, a particular age range (“and young adults” often means no good for older adults), particular class sizes, students who are intellectual, particular institutions (e.g. university classes), students from particular cultures or countries, students who have studied in particular ways before (e.g. lots of functional language for students who have studied too much grammar already), or people on short courses.
If the teacher or students disagree with the assumptions about language and learning that the writers and editors had when the book was written, they can often (but not always) have problems using the resulting book. As with “The Target Audience” above, the publishers are only too aware that a detailed explanation of their philosophy is likely to put off more people than it attracts, but you can usually find some details hidden in the “how to use this book” part of the teacher’s book or in interviews with the authors.
This is one particularly important aspect of the philosophy behind the book. Are the listening and/ or reading texts from native speaker sources, and if so are they simplified in any way? If they are authentic texts, are they also useful, interesting and representative of texts more generally? If the texts are completely made up for the sake of the textbook, do they strike you and will they strike the students as realistic, interesting and suitable as preparation to be able to deal with authentic texts?
13. The native speaker model/ cultural bits
Another aspect of the philosophy behind reading and listening texts that can have a big impact on how useful, interesting and manageable a book will be is whether the accents of the speakers and the topics of the texts are connected to places the students think are relevant to them. For example, will having a presentation by someone with a heavy French accent or a reading about punctuality in different EU countries be good practice and a lead into interesting conversation or just create problems of comprehension and/or showing its relevance?
14. Connections to exams
The influence of EFL exams on the industry has become such that books for non-exam classes can also be written with the syllabus etc of exam classes in mind. This is more of a factor with children’s and Business textbooks, but is always a selling point if you think students will go on to take exams at some point and almost always a negative if you are sure they will not. Again, this information can be tucked away well inside the book or even completely unstated.
15. Something new
Will the material in the book and the approach to teaching it be new to the teacher and/ or students? If so, is that a good thing (stimulating, maybe better than older methods as based on new research) or bad thing (difficult to adapt to, a seemingly good idea that is still untested) for you and your classes? If it could be a problem, is the book adaptable to more traditional ways of using it, and are there tips on how to do so?
i`d be grateful to you if answer my question.
Writing is considered as productive skill. How do different approaches differ in teaching it and which approach considers including writing in the classroom activities from the beginning?
John Brezinsky says:
Thank you for such a good breakdown on selecting a textbook. As a publisher, one of the most difficult things to do is help instructors see how a given book would be more or less appropriate for a given course and group of students. Many people tend to get caught up on one thing and ignore a lot of other factors.
I especially appreciated your sense that any characteristic of a textbook could be good or bad depending on the classroom in which it’s being used. I intend to recommend this post to teachers and administrators as an good independent breakdown on how to analyze a textbook.