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Fine words butter no parsnips


Melanie Butler argues the problem with text books is the text.

The endless reports of the death of the ELT course book have, like reports of Mark Twain’s death, been greatly exaggerated. General English text books make up 80 per cent of all UK ELT book sales and their sales have remained constant for decades. Though, as our graph shows (below), many of the best-sellers are looking rather elderly, on average the first edition of the first version of a current top ten series was published nearly twelve years ago.

It is April. The publishers are polishing up their bookstands for conference season, the Elton Awards long list, see page 17, is out and as Wayne Trotman reminds us in his reviews on page 36 , all over the world academic managers are pondering what book to adopt for next year. There are a host of fresh faced new titles rolling of the presses, will any of them hit the charts and stay there for the next ten years? We shall see.

Meanwhile, teachers are complaining. From the twittersphere to the staffroom, from Facebook to the frontline the moans are going up. Why aren’t course books well-graded? Well –written? Well-designed? Why aren’t they full of comprehensible authentic input? Why are they all so boring?

One answer put forward by the anti-coursebook Cosa Nostra is the myth of the dreaded PARSNIP . The seven subjects supposedly secretly banned by the major publishing houses : Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms and Pork. After all, says one teachers’ blog, ‘these are the things we talk about’.

Oh really? When was the last time you sat down with your friends and talked about pork? Or discussed the political situation in any county but your own, the one you currently live in, or America? For that matter when was the last time you discussed Hinduism down the pub? How much do you actually know about the hadiths of Islam? And as for isms, apart from the ones appertaining to aforementioned politics and religion, how many of them do you imagine are actually banned? Anthropomorphism? Aphorism?

As for sex and drugs and rock and roll, do you regularly regale your male and female workmates with your stories of your alcohol and cocaine fuelled sexual exploits? Or asked a group of teenagers about theirs? Be careful if you do the latter, in a liberal Western country or you may well end up accused of sexual grooming.

If you want to teach ‘taboo’ subjects go ahead. You know your class. But remember the only thing worse than being told to avoid teaching contentious topics, is being forced to do so. And in the UK we are.

Under UK law, every language school in the country now has a statutory duty to teach British values: democracy, the rule of law, tolerance. Frankly if I was an Italian teenager or an Iraqi businessman and my English teacher made me do a unit on the wondrousness of the post- Brexit British I would be sorely tempted to punch them on the nose.

In my view whatever it is that is wrong with coursebooks, it has little to do with a lack of sex and drugs and rock and roll and much more to do with what Mario Rinvolucri has called subjournalism, of the kind you find in women’s magazines.

I am a journalist. I like journalism. But I am very well aware of its limitations. It is a culturally-specific genre with its own vocabulary, its own peculiar conventions and a particular grammar: British journalism is the genre with the highest use of the perfect aspect, according to the Longman Grammar of Written and Spoken English. It bears little if any relationship to the spoken form.

But for 30 years journalism, whether authentic or simplified, has become the holy writ of much of English language teaching. Sometimes it’s authentic stuff taken from the internet by a teacher determined on authenticity. Sometimes it has been simplified, often badly, by teacher-writers who’ve never been near a newsroom. Either way students are being asked to learn language from a bunch of words first written by a hard pressed hack working to a strict deadline and to fit a specific space and following the strict criteria set out on their magazine’s style guide.

Students brought up on a diet of such stuff can end up with a very weird view of English vocabulary. In one class I observed a student was asked to give an example sentence with the word plummet. ‘The apple plummeted,’ she announced. Only apples don’t normally plummet. Stock markets do, and prices and politicians’ popularity. But that’s a set of collocations you only need if you’re a journalist. A B1 student is going to look like a prat if, which is extremely unlikely, she sees the word plummet again often enough to remember it and use it.

The new buzz word in course book publishing is content rich. But if you end up with all the content produced in journalism, you’ll end up with the same old problem.

Journalism alone, whether authentic or simplified, is not written to be studied. It is written at a specific time, to attract a specific audience to at least start the article. The average time a reader spends on an internet article is around 2 minutes. The average time it stays on line is a day. Content it may be, but rich?

What course books need is new authors and dedicated editors. People who have a passionate view of teaching and methodology. People who can write not just journalism, but narrative, and descriptions, make radio scripts and do live interviews. They need the eye to spot the perfect poem, the film clip, the cartoon. Such people are few and far between. But when you find them, their books will hit the charts and stay there twenty years.