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How the future of textbooks has to be
by Alex Case
- 1

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.

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