How the future of textbooks has to be
by Alex Case
Looking back on my 12 years of teaching English, if it is not just old age speaking I could swear that the first couple of years after I did my initial certificate (CELTA) were a golden age for EFL textbooks. It's not that they made your lessons any easier or taught the learners the language any better than the textbooks coming out now, but there was just a feeling in the air that books like Cutting Edge and Innovations were the beginning of a new wave of books that was going to fundamentally change the way we teach forever. You could call that period the Modernist Age of Textbooks.
But modernism leads inevitably, it seems, to post-modernism. Since those optimistic days the ELT publishing industry seems to have given up that radical mission as if changing the world was just a hippy dream. Not that the world of textbooks has entirely stood still, but even the most different-looking of the new bunch (e.g. Natural English) only concentrate on what we should teach rather than how we should teach it- which is strange, because the conclusions that lead people to look for new ways to teach have been backed up by more and more research and have gone from controversial to commonly accepted during that time.
The three most fundamental parts of our newly certain knowledge are:
-What we teach is not the same as what students learn
-There is a long delay and many stages between coming across the language for the first time and mastering it
-People learn differently and so learn different things at different speeds
Until a textbook deals with the points above (and I have yet to see a teacher's book that even mentions all three in full), whether we teach more natural English, more collocations, more international English etc. is not really a question I can get excited about. The question is how we teach any of these points.
Below are my initial ideas on how to create a textbook that takes the three factors above into account.
That language now
If we accept that language is not just a set of building blocks that we place one at a time into our students' heads ready to support the next one until we have built the Tower of Babel of fluency, we need a whole other way of choosing which grammar to cover. Luckily, the concept we need to use has existed for years in Business English and ESP teaching- needs analysis. Not that I am suggesting most of our General English students need English in their work or daily life today, although that could be a factor. In this case the 'need' in needs analysis is the language that most of our students need to reach the stage where they can read, listen and interact at another level and so get the input they need to move on further.
When we introduce each language point depends on these fairly easily decided aims, e.g. "How can I get Upper Intermediate up to the level to watch and enjoy Friends?" or "How can we get our Elementary students quickly up to the level to be able to be paired up with the guy who is nearly Pre-Intermediate?" My unscientific predictions for what the conclusions of such a process could be include introducing future and past forms and/ or time expressions at a very early stage, and promoting modals and demoting There is and There are. With functional language, similar changes can be made. And with those objectives set, all we need to do is to decide how to teach that language...
Our five-pronged language learning weapon
When we learn grammar naturally we first learn to recognize it and understand it. Then we learn to respond to it. Thirdly, we learn to produce it. And finally we learn to not mix it up with a lot of other grammatical forms. And teach it how we might, that is how all our students learn- and not in the one lesson, one week or even one month our textbooks try to fit all those stages into.
The simplest response to these facts would seem to be to split those stages up. First, students cope with a grammar point in a reading or listening test, with maybe a little explanation. We let that seed germinate in their brains for a while and a few lessons later they answer questions that contain that grammatical form, but only using it in the answers if they are ready. Let their brains do some unconscious magic for a few more weeks, and then we get them to use a sentence stem using that structure (e.g. If I were you...). When we judge they are ready to do some controlled manipulation and practice of this point for the first time, their brains will be completely primed to receive it. We can then repeat all the stages when it is time to contrast that grammatical point with other forms, all the while intertwining the syllabus for this grammar point with the stages for other unconnected grammar points, letting the students' brains make their own contrasts and connections between them. The same approach would also work for vocabulary, sentence stems, functional language etc.
Of course, an approach where the stages are clearly divided also frees us up from having to use all those stages all the time and allows us to judge with each grammar point etc. whether students would benefit more from polishing something up or seeing something new, depending on our aims.
Another useful side effect of having different stages for different language points in one lesson/ week rather than having to go through a step-by-step approach with just one language point is that teachers can choose to do the easier stages at any part of the lesson/ day/ week, depending on the time of day, student tiredness due to lots of new input etc. This is another way in which we can get away from the idea of language learning as a series of steps up, and see a lesson and course rather as a marathon race where there are times you put your foot on the gas and push students, and others when you take your foot off and let them drift on neutral while their subconscious learning processes do their work. Where PPP feels like a factory production line and the Task Based Approach feels like pit-stop service of an F1 car, this approach is more like making a Stradivarius or a loaf of bread. Which do you think learning a language is more like?
One problem that could come up is students who are not happy to move on until they think they have done something 'properly'. There are solutions to this below, but I have also often seen the opposite effect where the look on students' faces when you have covered a point to complete exhaustion seems to be one of never wanting to see that grammar again. This is not the effect that a professional story teller or a TV script writer aims for, and giving students a taste and leaving them wanting something more is definitely a good thing here too.
Another objection I anticipate to this approach is it will make the whole learning process more unpredictable. However, as we cannot predict what each individual student will learn and when they will learn it whatever method we choose, having an approach that accepts that randomness seems sensible. And the next stage for producing the next generation of course is to take that idea a step further.
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.
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.
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