After a bit of a longer COVID chaos-enforced hiatus than I would have liked, this guest post is from Neil Anderson. It is a little longer than most posts here – but we will excuse that given the the wealth of knowledge and useful insights into incorporating more of a task-based approach into our lessons. In all honesty, his blog (co-written with Neil McCutcheon) has saved me hours in lesson planning and is one of the few that offers lessons that I don’t feel the need to tweak!
Is there a case against coursebooks?
You could be forgiven for feeling that discussion of coursebooks – their pros and in particular their cons – has been done to death in recent years. It’s not, though, a topic that will disappear so long as we continue to use them as the basis of our language courses, whether in private language schools or primary / secondary education. The SLB podcast hosted by Neil McMillan recently covered the topic (https://www.slb.coop/the-slb-podcast/). On the one side, Nick White and Matthew Ellman offered a robust defence of coursebooks, how they are used and the extent to which they matter; on the other, Geoff Jordan reiterated the persuasive arguments against them that he has deployed elsewhere (e.g. https://applingtesol.wordpress.com/2019/03/24/coursebooks-a-recap/).
There was in the end broad agreement that coursebooks are not monolithic, that some are more effective than others, and that in general they serve a need for teachers. What was not really addressed in this particular episode – hopefully it will feature in a follow-up – was Jordan’s central objection to coursebooks being based on a synthetic syllabus.
A synthetic syllabus is organised around the language to be taught; this is divided up into convenient elements (discrete grammatical and lexical items) and these are sequenced in some way (often by perceived difficulty – simpler structures first, more complex ones later); the learner is expected to master them one by one, “synthesising” the knowledge into a communicative whole. Many coursebooks follow a mixed syllabus (with topics and skills as playing a part in organising units) but the approach to language is synthetic – lessons are arranged around gradual mastery of a language point, from analysis to use. PPP (present, practice, produce) is the mainstay of a synthetic syllabus: a language item is studied, practised in more restricted ways and then produced through some form of (hopefully) communicative task.
This is familiar, well-established and comfortable for teachers and learners. So, what is the problem with it? You can argue against it from various perspectives:
- it presupposes that language items are mastered one at a time, in a linear fashion, and this is not borne out by much SLA (second language acquisition) research; the process is more complicated and does not seem to follow the order dictated by explicit instruction (see Long, 2015, pp.21-25 for a detailed summary);
- assuming you consider yourself to be a communicative language teacher, authentic production should be a significant lesson event and yet with PPP this is largely relegated to the end of the class: it takes a backseat. Pressures of time and pacing may even mean it does not occur in the lesson (especially in contexts where lessons are only 45 minutes long e.g. secondary schools);
- it can be input-impoverished: much classroom time is focused on a single structure at the expense of a wider range of grammatical and lexical items;
- as much time may be spent discussing the language as using the language.
Analytic Syllabuses and TBL/TBLT
An alternative is an analytic syllabus, which is organised according to the communicative purposes for using language rather than individual language items. Learners engage in holistic input and output-oriented tasks and analyse the samples of language they are exposed to.
An example would be a task-based syllabus in which the primary focus of given a lesson is the completion of some form of communicative task – for instance, learners share experiences, or compare opinions, or work together to solve a problem, perhaps using different sources of information (e.g. some form of jigsaw). They do so to achieve an outcome rather than display (temporary) mastery of a single language item. And in doing so, there are opportunities for learners to notice language, to enquire about the language they need and to receive reactive focus on form from the teacher.
We can argue that task-based learning, or task-based language teaching (TBL / TBLT) potentially confers the following advantages:
- there is, in theory, motivation to process and use language as there is a goal or outcome for the main task;
- learners are exposed at different points to a range of samples of language;
- communicative use of language is the central focal point of the lesson;
- there is still a focus on form, one that is largely reactive and therefore responds to learners at the point of need.
Following Willis (1996), a task-based sequence is broadly made up of:
- a pre-task to ready the students for the task (e.g. set the context, establish and prepare for the task);
- the task cycle itself (students complete the task, report back on their findings);
- post-task language focus (e.g. students examine related texts for language, teacher gives feedback on learner output).
With its prioritisation of the task and delayed language focus, it resembles, as Willis notes, PPP “upside down”, albeit with the potential for a much richer focus on language as it does not prioritise a single language point. It is inaccurate to say there is no focus on accuracy; it is just that meaning and fluency comes first, and the language focus emerges from this.
A Third Way? “Taskifying” the coursebook.
There are, though, significant issues with implementing a task-based approach. Even if we want to, most teachers of general English are not free to do so, because we have to use coursebooks. Nor do we have the freedom or resources to carry out extensive needs analysis, as Long (2015) proposes, to identify the target tasks that are useful for our learners.
I think the key question is not whether or not we should use a coursebook, but how we can use it well. My colleague Neil McCutcheon and I have an abiding interest in task-based learning. Over the years as both teachers and teacher educators, we have adopted (and adapted) a few strategies that help more closely align a coursebook – particularly the language focus part of a unit – with some of the principles of task-based learning. These five practical tips or “hacks” are as follows:
- Turn the unit on its head: ignore the grammar / lexical set, and instead look for the “language production” stage, usually at the end of the particular section. Use this as the starting point (after generating interest and establishing the context): create a central task. Sometimes there is no decent language production stage in the book; in this case, devise one that creates a need for the upcoming language input. For instance, if the lesson is focusing on be going to for holiday plans, students can start the lesson by sharing their plans.
- Give this task a goal or outcome: check if the production in the book is communicative i.e. it encourages the learners to both speak and listen to each other. If it is not, build in a reason for learners to interact e.g. find commonalities or differences in opinion / experience, try to reach agreement, evaluate / react to their partner’s position. For example, if students are discussing holiday plans, they can listen to their partner and decide if this is a holiday they would enjoy; or (even richer from the perspective of negotiating meaning), they can plan and report on a joint holiday.
- Cast your net wide: although you may have a particular language point in mind (that which is in the coursebook e.g. be going to), don’t limit yourself to this or you fall into the trap of input-impoverished PPP. It is highly likely that while students are preparing for, doing or reflecting on the task, there will be plenty of emergent opportunities for learning, with the students needing certain language items to help them complete the task (or post-task, when they may be curious about salient language they could have used). This language can be captured and added to the learning via e.g Quizlet, meaning the syllabus now has an emergent dimension.
- Mine texts: if you follow the Willis framework outlined above, the post-task language focus can centre around the texts / tapescripts present in the unit of the coursebook. Set simple tasks that encourage learners to mine the texts for relevant language e.g. find 3 positive adjectives used to describe the holiday; find 4 collocations to describe holiday activities. Note that there is no guarantee that these texts will provide rich, authentic samples of language (though I believe most coursebooks are increasingly good at this); an alternative where possible is to devise your own “live listening” to provide learners with comprehensible input.
- Repeat the task: have the students repeat the central task, but with variables in place to keep it fresh and interesting e.g. a new goal, new partners, tweaked content (e.g. plan a holiday in a different place / different time of year) or with different demands (e.g. a written rather than spoken itinerary). A number of researchers have reported improvements to task performance in terms of complexity, accuracy and fluency based on task repetition (Ahmadian, 2012).
The coursebook is going nowhere soon – and nor should it, unless useful alternatives that work effectively for underpaid and overworked teachers emerge. I do think though, given the significance of the coursebook to many ELT courses, it is useful for teachers to reflect on how to use it effectively with their learners, while keeping in mind some key findings of SLA. Teacher educators also have a responsibility to facilitate this process.
Ahmadian, M.J., 2012. Task Repetition in ELT. English Language Teaching Journal. 66(3). [online] Available at: <https://academic.oup.com/eltj/article/66/3/380/439513> [Accessed 20th July 2020]
Long, M. 2015. Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.
Willis, J. 1996. A Framework for Task-Based Learning. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.