How do I decide on the textbook for my new class?" – Peter Viney

I’d say you have to sit down and think hard about what YOU are looking for before you begin looking for a textbook. I’d make a table of what I was looking for. Start with the publishers’ catalogues which should give you a basic framework.

There are fixed items, such as the length of the course, and the length of each lesson. If you have 40 contact hours with your students, there’s not much point issuing a textbook that will take 150 hours to complete. You have to bear in mind whether this particular course of study is free-standing, or whether it’s part one of a series of courses of study. Your aims and priorities will be different. I’ve found that students have more of a feeling of progression if they are issued with new textbooks each year or semester or term (or whatever your period of study might be). This is why so many series are available in split editions (Part A and Part B).

Other fixed items are available resources in your school such as video, audio, computers, language laboratories, and self-study centres.

Moving on, I’d consider age and background next. In my experience, “adult” coursebooks can often be (and often are) used with secondary students. It doesn’t work in the other direction. Background involves the students’ occupations, the time they have available, their general educational level and their experience of learning English.

Only after you’ve considered these do you come to level. The level descriptions used by publishers vary widely. Even the “beginners” tag covers an extremely wide range of textbooks. The “beginners” volume in certain series will actually be harder than the pre-intermediate volume in another series. You have to make your own judgement of the operational level of a text.

The syllabus comes next. Even if books are using functional, skills-based, communication skills, situational or lexical syllabuses, there will be an underlying structural progression and framework. Does this fit your requirements and the students’ level? What about sub-syllabuses on skills development, pronunciation, learner skills, communication skills?

By the time you’ve eliminated several textbooks on the criteria you have established, you will be able to focus on the essentials of methodology and content. These are variables, but they’re what creates the experience you and your students will have with a text. All textbooks have an underlying methodology, a philosophy even. This may or may not impact on your use of the book. Is the methodology so overt that it forces you to teach in a particular way? It’s possible to like a book, and use it in a different manner than the author intended.

At this point you can check which items you would want to add to the basic textbook and whether they are available (for me, an integrated video would be “essential”). Does the publisher provide tests? a website? photocopiables?

What kind of activities will the book promote? Will it lead you to busy interactive lessons, or will it lead you to plowing through long texts explaining endless vocabulary problems? Is it dull? amusing? interesting? stimulating? up-to-date? At the moment British publishers are very troubled about putting prices into realia and texts in the next generation of textbooks which are currently in preparation. If the euro is adopted by Britain, books with pounds will soon look very out-of-date. In our forthcoming works people are saying “one seventy five” (which fits pounds, dollars and euros) rather than “one pound seventy five”. This isn’t a political choice, just a practical one. By the way, the individual accuracy of prices is irrelevant as long as students can express the language of prices.

Having narrowed down your choice, the teacher’s book might be the deciding factor. Read the introduction. Few people ever read the introductions, so much so that an error in the introduction to one of my books has passed unremarked for many years! I believe that the student’s book should provide the necessary stimulus, context and summaries of what goes on, but only the teacher’s book will show you what happens in an actual lesson. This gives teacher autonomy – you can vary the methodology according to your own preferences without the students knowing you’ve done so. A good teacher’s book makes your life easier, and I believe in highly detailed notes.

Design and illustration are vital to me. Nowadays, full-colour is an accepted fact. It’s easier to produce a full colour book than it ever was, but beware of “clip art” and library photographs. I was looking at a unit on Work in a recent book. It had a beautifully-detailed full colour stock photo of a bee taking up more than half the page. In the classroom this has no benefit beyond a bright initial impression. Illustrations are there to help the students and to promote interest and classroom activity. We use a great majority of specially-commissioned photos in our books, and often our manuscripts contain more than a page of artwork instructions for each drawing in the book. It’s easy to throw stock photos and clip art all over the page, but not effective in the classroom.

Some books are highly market-specific. But many textbooks are global, and you will find them being used in many countries simultaneously. Some learners prefer a book addressed to their particular problems, others like to feel part of a global pattern. Most of the major adult courses used in Japan are also used in other countries. There are some odd patterns, but the reason that Japanese characters in books tend to meet Latin Americans is because of the sales pattern of books in American English.

One final piece of advice. Give the book a good chance. Try teaching it in the way suggested in the notes. You will certainly want to improvise later, but run it through once according to its own precepts. You might just learn something. A good course book should offer variety, consolidation, a logical progression of some kind. Vocabulary and structures should be recycled. Someone has spent a long time putting it together, trialling, cross-checking. Allow that they had some sense of purpose before you try the variations.

Finally …uh, hum … check that my name is somewhere on the cover!

See also my article “A course-book writer / coarse book-writer responds …” on the TEFLFarm website (from Paris). This was a response to an article by Mario Rinvolucri, and Michael Swan and Catherine Walter, and John and Liz Soars also contributed to the wide-ranging discussion on textbooks.

| Books | Exercises | Videos | Resources | Home |
©Peter & Karen Viney 2004