A General Critique of Learning Materials

May 2012

I’ve written before invoking Sturgeon’s Law in relation to the shortcomings of ESL coursebooks. I know I ruffled some feathers with that and maybe 90% is a bit high. There certainly are some good activity books around, but at the same time it has to be said that there is a lot of rubbish. Sorry if that’s too blunt but I can’t see the point in equivocating.

Most coursebooks are, in structure, more alike than they are different and equally uninspiring intrinsically. It’s not the grammar mcnuggets that bother me but the lack of imagination in the activities you typically see. The vast majority of lesson plans you pull off the internet or see in a book revolve around comprehension checking questions and matching exercises. That’s about it. It’s easy to find an interesting topic or make a mundane topic interesting but the pedagogy is so typically routine. It inevitably takes the form: here’s a text, answer some questions, examine the grammar.

Bell curve
Regression to the mean: Coursebooks are a commodity and thus blighted by mediocrity.

The same goes for the ubiquitous ‘discussion questions’. They are a waste of space. The teacher can easily think of such questions by his or herself and they are non starters anyway. Simply asking a question to the class is not active. Learners don’t retain a lot by answering one-off questions or looking at glossaries on a random topic. You need repetition for that to happen. Answering questions is good a way of testing what you know, but a bad way of learning new things.

Q&As just don’t cut the mustard and vague suggestions for conversation are weak editorial and pedagoical content. They are too obvious. Questions and ‘points to consider’ might be nice intellectual ideas but they just passively stare at you both on the page and in the discourse space of the room. Questions are typically teacher-centred and unless easy enough to do in pairs, they don’t do a great deal in the furtherance of students’ skills.

Why have we not yet moved beyond this as a industry? Why do so many course designers omit creative activities utlising group work with rules intended to achieve a finished product or goal? What happened to communicative tasks with structure, purpose, and possibilities? What happeneded to specific and obligatory roles, interactions and scenarios with truly unexpected outcomes? Why don’t we see more information gaps instead of fill-in the gaps?

Coursebook exercises: little more than silent time-fillers

I’m inclined to think that you don’t see many great activities in published materials because hatching them involves too much ingenuity. It’s easier to stick to the formula of glorified worksheets with appealing design, illustrations, and quality topics yet lacking in the one area that requires real brainwork, both in creation and in use. And I think there is certainly a factor that if you are salaried or even commissioned to create content for a large publishing house, you may not always take as much pride in it as you would if it were your own.

Coursebook content, in an attempt to be edgy, is often slangy and idiomatic. This is counterproductive. The students do not use the niche words they are expected to learn. Ok, idioms are interesting but they are a minefield because of the tricky contexts in which they are appropriately used. Below an advanced level they don’t further your skills very much at all beyond a rather small, cliched, and cosmetic knowledge of cultural phrases.

Linked to this is the explicit teaching snippets you see in course books. I.e. “Don’t study that way, do it this way because [insert technical term here] blah blah.” Or “It’s easy to do x, if you do y.” These are wasted words. Students need to learn study strategies in a practical way — via demonstration and suitably in their L1, not by being told about it on a page in a coursebook.

Thirdly, and of course I’m not the first person to say this, is the studious avoidance of the PARSNIPS taboos. This makes the content in coursebooks gratingly inauthentic. Take this text I came across recently.

“Of course for the true couch potato there are inherent risks. Perhaps the greatest of these results from lack of exercise, and is referred to by professional couch potatoes as telly belly. Some however, see their telly belly as a mark of their commitment to leisure inactivity, and wear it proudly over the top of their trousers. (Interestingly, this is a highly fashionable style known as muffin top. Find out why next time you’re in Starbucks.)”

Now it could be argued that the grading of the language is too high for the learners it is aimed at (IELTS band 3 or 4). This is not a huge problem, but the phrase “telly belly” is an odd choice. It has almost no results on Google and the word ‘telly’ is a slang British term which I’m not sure is used by anyone outside the UK. Furthermore, it is explained in the most obscure and ironic way. All of which makes it an incredibily pointless and confusing ‘learning’ point that would befuddle most non-native speaking teachers never mind learners. Any good English speaker will tell you that the phrase ‘beer belly’ is how people describe an overflowing gut. But a publisher couldn’t possibly include an x-rated word like ‘beer’, while they would make an esoteric reference with the word ‘Starbucks’ quicker than you can say cheese. How disgustingly puritanical and obsequiously corporate.

The sad thing about this is how many teachers and learners are suckered into thinking this kind of coursebook phraseology reflects reality and the language as it is used. If this is the lameness that modern-day teachers have to contend with then it would seem to me that grammar mcnuggets are the least of our worries.