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How the future of textbooks has to be
by Alex Case
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Workbook = work your way through a book?

For those students who cannot wait for some practice once they find out what a particular grammatical structure means (whether that be because of the learning style they are used to, because of their personality or because of a particular need for that language as soon as possible) we need to offer them a way to take that interest further without holding up the rest of the class. That is exactly what a workbook should be- a way of each student taking their interests further.

Again, there is a simple way of working our way towards this- just by arranging a workbook not by unit but by sections on grammar, vocab, reading etc. Although both the teacher and the students would have easy access to a guide on how to use the workbook in a traditional tied-to-the-units way, the fact that the teacher can also say "Have a look in the grammar section under 'Present Perfect' if you want some more details/ practice" should help the students start to use their book as a resource rather than as a task. If that "self-study book" also gives links from that grammar point to a reading and from that reading to a page on the internet, we should be able to then make that resource something that absorbs students like surfing the internet or flicking through an encyclopedia. This would also mean that good students would not be held back in mixed level classes.

A structure dividing things by language point, topic and skill rather than textbook unit would also give us the chance to offer content that doesn't easily fit into a "one section per unit" workbook, like articles on study skills, inspirational stories by successful language learners, quotes and jokes containing target language to learn, and separate sections of communication and accuracy. This also gives us a chance to really concentrate on leaving the things that students can do at home out of our classroom time.

Another possibility would be to organize each section (vocab etc.) by how long each part would take (five-minute "bits of grammar" sections, two-minute trivia readings, fifteen minute "breakfast listenings" etc.). If the whole thing is also electronic, so much the better.

Testing or testing me?

In my opinion, testing is where all the new books have really fallen down, including in the halcyon days of the early to mid 90s. If you accept that language is not being learnt in a linear way and not being learnt the same by every student, testing needs to reflect that or the whole textbook becomes meaningless. For example, if you train the students mainly to cope in real life tasks but then grade them on a grammar test they are going to feel they are being cheated and that you don't really believe in the method you are using.

To tackle this problem, we can start with something as straightforward as "write 7 different types of weather" rather than "use these weather words we have given you". At the other end of the complication and technology scale, you could go as far as having a computer-based test that was linked to their electronic workbooks and tests their ability to reproduce or exceed error correction etc. tasks that they did before. All sentences would also be personalized, with the teacher or the computer picking out only the grammatical parts you wanted to test them on to be marked.

Conclusion

Most of the ideas above are quite straightforward and on their own they might not make a huge difference in how we teach and how students learn, but I fully expect that other people will come up with much better and more radical ideas on how to bring the three basic facts above into the reality of our classrooms. If after reaching the end of this article you feel a little disappointed that I haven't quite lived up to the provocative 'have to' in the title, I must say I often felt the same after having used those radical-sounding new books of the 1990s. Before that disillusionment came, though, I found myself stimulated and challenged to change my teaching. In fact, often just the title of the book itself would catch my attention enough to think of new ways of looking for "innovation" or the "cutting edge" in my classroom. I hope the title and some of the contents of this article do the same for any teachers, teacher trainers and material writers that read it and inspire you to try something that could inspire us all.

Biodata

Alex Case is working as Senior Teacher (Materials and Teacher Development) and a freelance EFL writer in Tokyo, after working in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, Italy and the UK. He is also Reviews Editor of TEFL.net and you can comment on this article and other TEFLy things on his blog- "TEFLtastic with Alex Case" (www.tefl.net/alexcase)

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