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A coursebook writer / coarse book-writer responds…

This was originally written as a reply to an article by Mario Rinvolucri on the tefl-farm website.


As a member of that much-maligned group, ELT authors, I'll do my best to reply to Mario Rinvolucri's stimulating article. I'm replying because because Sab Will has asked me for comments, not because I was outraged or offended.


I first met Mario in the late-70s when we were both union reps in the ill-fated attempt to create some kind of career structure in TEFL, and I'd rather listen to Mario than the great majority of TEFL pundits. ELT needs both mainstream and radically different thinkers. The whole concept of a reply brings up the idea of an adversarial debate. Think of this instead as some additional points inspired by the article. I'm also going to refer to the responses from Liz & John Soars, Michael Swan & Catherine Walters and Scott Thornbury.


Women in ELT … and more …


I think one at least of Mario's conclusions is sexist, when he talks about “the soft, fudgey, sub-journalistic woman's magaziney view of the world.” Taken with his earlier remark on the “crooning, slow maternal didactic speech of female colleagues” and the quoted text “A Woman”, I wonder what he's saying about women teachers or a female viewpoint. I also wonder if Szkutnik's expects the students to understand the ambiguity in “late”. And whether he expects it to be explained. The point (women are always late) is as stereotypical and sexist as a mother-in-law joke. When I set out to make notes, this was my first point. It was Michael and Catherine's first point too. You walked straight into that one, Mario!


Male ELT teachers are a distinct minority, almost an endangered species. I've spoken to audiences of 200 with only 5 or 10 males present. As a result, male teachers often have an easy run, in that they provide contrast in the classroom. When I started teaching at ACSE in 1971, there were no women teachers.   The first arrivals, like Karen, had a great advantage in the classroom because there'd be three men and one woman teaching a class. The reverse is generally true in similar schools nowadays.


Teaching beginners means letting go of standing on your dignity. The wise teacher taps into lightness and humour, because being an adult beginner is an intrinsically undignified activity. You have to switch the class into the cheerful mode so that dignity does not impede communication in broken English. You have to be supportive rather than critical.   I think women find this naturally easier to do (that's also sexist stereotyping, OK).


There might be a hidden agenda here. Scott   implies that publishers are only interested in pleasing women “decision makers” (as publishers call them). I don't believe this to be true, but it opens another area for debate.   In the UK, the “feminization” of ELT has grown apace over the thirty years I've been involved in it. Look at any university language department and you will see a majority of women students, so there is a logic behind it. When there was a major financial scare in the UK ELT market in 1980, hundreds of permanent teachers lost their jobs. A career became a part-time job overnight for many qualified and experienced people.   The response of many ELT schools was a sudden timetable change. The 8.30 or 8.50 a.m. start became a 9.15 start to help women with children. This was a socially positive measure, but in many cases, this meant that ELT became a “second income” job.   Those women and men who wanted to teach ELT as a full-time career found themselves undercut on wages, and appeals to unionize began to fall on deaf ears.


This had another effect. The best place to teach was now a state college. After a few years of sharing staff rooms with colleagues who enjoyed reading weeks, exam prep, and very low intensity teaching, what emerged? The doctrine of learner independence or BOTLIB jumped like a virus from tertiary education into ELT. BOTLIB stands for “Bugger off to the library. I'm busy.” You may think I'm being unfair and want to list the positive points from the moves towards learner autonomy. There are many. But the best way to teach a language is with human beings interacting with human beings.


Cultural awareness


It is shameful and scandalous that UK schools take money from students who can't read or write adequately in the Roman alphabet and place them in classes with students from Roman alphabet cultures. Little or no attempt is made to deal with the problems these students have. Teachers then complain that beginners books don't cater for these students. No, they don't. If they did, they'd be useless for the rest of the class from Europe or Latin America. Teaching adults who are already literate in one linear sound-based code (Arabic) is a different exercise to teaching children who can't yet read or write. Literate adults don't have to learn to read ; they have to learn to crack a different code. Bernie Hartley and I wrote two small supplementary books designed to cope with the problem, one an accelerated   code-cracking reading programme ( Basic English Reading Programme, OUP), the other an accelerated writing programme for adults ( Learn English Handwriting, Nelson).   They were published in the early 80s and are now both out of print, because “There's no longer a demand to teach adult beginners to read.”


These students should get extra lessons. Even more, they should have an intensive pre-course on reading and writing. We used to insist on a two week pre-course for students who couldn't cope with the alphabet, which consisted of reading, writing and oral survival English. The problem in the UK is not so much the teacher's lack of awareness, but the schools' financial interests. In real terms schools are much cheaper than 20 years ago because there is a continual downward pressure on fees. Whatever a school charges for a course, they will find someone handing out leaflets outside their premises offering lower prices. This is why experienced professionals are made redundant. That's why teachers discuss the problems of “RoRo” (roll on, roll off or continuous enrolment). Pre-1980 none of the serious schools allowed this, and rightly so.


Mario may have seen the “first practical book” on the problems of Japanese learners in 1999, but if he were to include more populist books aimed at tourists and business travellers, rather than teachers,   he could have mentioned books dating back to John La Farge's An Artist's Letter From Japan (1897) through to more recent ones like Ian Buruma's A Japanese Mirror (1984) or Takeo Doi's The Anatomy of Dependence (1971) which carried useful cultural   information. Any Western hotel bookshop in Japan has at least twenty titles, and there is now a literary sub-genre of novels by Westerners who have taught English in Japan. The ubiquitous “Culture Shock” series can be recommended as a brief guide to various countries. There was also a dedicated book on Teaching Japanese Students , which I think was published by OUP, Tokyo at least ten years ago. I had a copy, but in an uncharacteristic burst of generosity I gave it to a teacher who was on their way to Japan.


What Mario means, and he's right, is that there are very few books directed at UK based teachers who are teaching (e.g.) Japanese students. Michael Swan's Learner English (CUP) is an essential classic. I'm sorry, but not surprised, to hear that it was an unprofitable publication. Basic English Reading Programme was too.


Fascination with other cultures is an essential quality in ELT teachers. As a poor linguist myself, I disagree that being a good or   “natural” linguist is essential. I can spot “instantaneous language learners”a mile off.   As a quality, it's a different category of intelligence, like musical intelligence, spatial intelligence or emotional intelligence. I once sat in a restaurant in Rome, where several erudite Italian language teaching gurus took it upon themselves to discuss the “appalling slang” of the waiter who had been speaking to us in English. Actually the guy was a total “instantaneous learner” and spoke    better English than any of them. I talked with him, and he'd “just picked it up”. He'd tried some lessons to consolidate his English, but found he had a better accent and more colloquial English than his teachers. That sort of person can learn swiftly by ANY method.


However, I assume that language learning is hard and needs to be broken into manageable chunks. I also think for many people it's extremely dull unless the content is interesting, and I guess Mario and I would be in agreement here. We just differ on what is interesting content. I may be unfair here too, as Mario is embracing all levels, while my remarks refer almost exclusively to the lower levels, which I am most interested in. I don't disagree on Upper Intermediate and Advanced.


I also agree with Mario that some teachers (but I think more men than women) wrongly equate language level with intelligence. I once came out of a zero beginner class, and the next teacher said, “Have you just had the thickies?” I pointed out (with some heat!) that this particular class included a Spanish sea captain, a Mexican pilot, a Japanese university lecturer, an internationally-renowned German photographer, a TV Presenter from Brazil and the European marketing director of a major French company. Yes, I'd have to admit that they were all “from the elite classes” in their own countries.


We've also all taught Upper Intermediate students who have simply been at the school a long time. They have not become intellectuals in the process, and are no more likely to demand Shakesperean tragedy than the beginners. I believe that the number of foreign students who are motivated by English literature is about the same as the number of Germans deeply motivated by German literature. That is, a significant minority, but still definitely a minority.


The very best students can fly without a great degree of grading, but the majority do better with it. That's where we coursebook writers (or “coarse   book-writers”) come in


Political correctness


Mario seems vexed by perceptions of PC influences in textbooks, and John & Liz Soars appear to agree with him. Let's step back a little. First, I'd agree that political correctness in materials is of less importance in UK language schools. But we're also discussing global courses, the MacDonaldization of language teaching, if you like. Look at in a positive way, MacDonalds don't serve beef to Hindus or pork to Moslems.


I agree that most ELT authors write to an agenda,which is a mix of publishers' guidelines with their own intuition. Pictures of people with cigarettes can get books banned in some school systems. Low cleavage in pictures gets them banned in others. Inadequate ethnic balancing is a serious problem in the USA. Representation of women will be analysed and counted in many countries. Some countries don't like to see disputed territories labelled on maps. You could have a section on holidays in Gibraltar, Israel, The Falklands and Taiwan and get effectively banned in several countries with one unit. In other countries there is a dislike of brand names in school texts, as this could be seen as product-placing. This is why some ELT courses prefer the generic “cola” in print to the brand names Pepsi and Coke. I guess the teacher always encourages use of the real words in class. Books for the Arab world would avoid pork products, which is odd, because if I wanted to avoid pork products, I'd want to know the meaning of bacon, ham, salami etc.


Look through the last paragraph again. Do you object to fair representation of women? Do you object to ethnic balancing in course books? Liz and John said:


“If you think British publishers are coy, try working with Americans. There, only an “apple-pie” world is allowed – no booze, no ciggies, no eccentric American characters – tell that to Scott Thornbury's crusade. they'd have to get out smelling salts at any mention of gays. But funnily enough there has to be a % quota of coloured people per spread .”


Having worked on four American multi-level courses with two publishing houses, I beg to differ.   America is a multi-ethnic society. The case for ethnic balancing and gender balancing in educational materials is unanswerable. Can you think of one justification for not doing so?   We asked for more non-white characters back in the first edition of “Streamline” in 1978, and were well ahead of the publishers. We got very few though, because in those days there were few guidelines. When we first saw American guidelines on ethnic balancing in 1980, it all seemed eminently sensible. Read through On Balance the IATEFL guidelines on the representation of women in ELT books, IATEFL Newsletter, October 1991   (which Catherine put together). Do you disagree with the idea behind it? Or with any of the suggestions?   I don't.


When I first worked with American English in 1980, all of us were worried about combining humour   in contexts with ethnic balancing, and so the ethnic balance tended to fall on “serious” characters. When I did the revised edition of New American Streamline in 1995, ethnic balancing was applied, but no longer limited to serious characters. Funny, eccentric and non-W.A.S.P. characters appear throughout. Put it simply, no book without adequate ethnic balancing will be used in any California institution receiving state funds. What's the editor going to do? Wipe out the biggest domestic market? The remark would be seen in the USA as a typical   British condescending attitude to Americans.   American editors I've worked with have been highly professional, interesting people. I'll take exception to the “apple pie” and “smelling salts” on their behalf.


What is the magic in “booze and ciggies?” The affectionate “ciggies” seems approving, as well as rather old-fashioned. Do you really want to promote cigarette smoking to school kids? Books might start selling in the UK adult sector, then they move to adult sectors abroad, and then the good ones move into secondary schools. This has happened to every major “adult” course I can think of. I have received advice from editors, but it was along the lines of “Cigarette?” “No, thanks,” would be preferable to “Cigarette?” “Yes, please.” because even twenty years ago, smoking was a sensitive topic in Germany and Scandinavia. In 2000, the advice might be not to have the dialogue at all.


Who applies the “censorship”? It is unjust to give the impression that it was the big, bad publisher. I suspect most experienced authors apply guidelines subconciously.  


Topics avoided by course books?


SEX is problematic. Adult classes in one country are one thing, secondary schools in deeply religious countries another. We assume that the text book is the outline and that teachers will use their own discretion on where they can let the discussion go in their own situations. Does a single gay student want to discuss their sexuality in a class of heterosexuals? Maybe. Maybe they'd prefer their privacy, especially in some countries. It will differ from situation to situation. It's up to the teacher to be sensitive to the situation and open to the possibilities. The teacher, not the text, creates the learning environment. Illustrations help, because many places worry more about texts, and illustrations carry a subliminal message.


I read Scott Thornbury's piece, and I have to agree that most of us … all of us maybe … are guilty of a sexist attitude by omission, and I intend to give the issue some thought.   I think the way to show more gay people would be by implication or “covert signs”, as he suggests, rather than with a sledgehammer.   I agree with Scott writing “should teachers choose to use (a covert implication)” because it is all about teacher choice. You can provide the opportunity for discussion without waving the rainbow flag on every page.


Here are five areas to consider on topics:

•  Priority
•  Inappropriacy
•  Intimacy
•  Misinterpretation
•  The teacher's role



Your students have 40 hours. No more. What is the most efficient use of your time and their time? In short courses, everything you do should be balanced against their needs. They're in your class to learn English.




This is from the Heinemann Guide for Authors , 1991:



Due to the sensitivity of some of the markets for which we produce books, we have to be very careful about the topics which we cover. Obviously when producing books for the UK and Northern European markets most subjects are acceptable, but in more conservative and religious markets there are various things we must be careful with. The list below should be used as a guideline but please do discuss any topics you feel strongly about using with your editor.


The list includes abuse, aids, narcotics, terrorism, disputed borders, sex, rape, religion, pornography.


In Handshake   students have the chance to discuss what are appropriate questions, and what are appropriate topics for conversation in their cultures. Whether they then go on to discuss the topics themselves is their choice.




What degree of intimacy do you have with your students? What degree of intimacy do they have with one another? Topic is related to degree of intimacy. Crossing a student's own intimacy barrier is poor communication. Some people have the knack for escalating conversation to a deeper degree of intimacy. Others don't.




At the lower levels, limited language level can cause serious interpretation problems. In one class of Libyan students, I was doing a text which involved a black bear. One student became increasingly sullen and angry. After the class I spoke to him. He was darker than his classmates, and was also a big lad. After about ten minutes discussion it became apparent that he thought he was being referred to as a black bear.


The teacher's role


Topics are always best when students think they have introduced them, rather than the teacher. We've often used the teacher's book to suggest routes the discussion might follow, rather than banging them overtly in the student book. Sidetracking the teacher onto a risque or controversial topic is something students enjoy. Allowing them to think (a) they introduced the topic (b) no other class had their originality in doing so, is a great teaching skill. A forced discussion on a controversial topic is a bit like sex education discussions when you're eleven years old. Embarrassing. I'll never forget my biology teacher, “Stop sniggering! If there's any more sniggering, you'll leave the class and then you'll never learn how to do it.”


First let the students think they've brought up the topic. Secondly, let them believe it's their friendly, daring teacher rather than the coursebook. The textbook writer cannot know your class. An appropriate topic for a Thursday morning might fall dead at 9 a.m. on Monday or 9 p.m. on Friday.


The over-emphasis on verbs in course books


When I started teaching multilingual classes at Anglo-Continental in England in 1971 four teachers saw each class. Each class did 20 hours. Work was divided into four sections at Elementary level, using in-house materials: verb grammar & language lab (7 lessons), oral practice (5 lessons), text book (only 5 lessons!) and non-verb grammar (3 lessons). One of my first actions when I became responsible for designing materials was to remove the bizarre and artificial distinction between “verb grammar” and “oral practice” and “non-verb grammar.” So what Mario is saying about the over-focus on the verb rings a lot of bells for me. I don't disagree, though I do feel that Acklam's Index (which I haven't read, but will) seems, as quoted, to overstate the case.


When Karen and I wrote Grapevine we felt that at beginner level the obsession with ticking off new tenses was counter-productive. Too often, teachers only see the syllabus in terms of structure, and only see structure in terms of tense grammar. One criticism we kept getting was that the first twenty units in Grapevine One focussed too heavily on “non-verb grammar” (if I may exhume this odd distinction). We felt that students needed to be confident with using possessive determiners /adjectives, object pronouns, adjectives, prepositions, demonstratives, mass and unit, articles and so on before entering the race to tick off new tenses. We examined other books at the level, and we also perceived an obsession with verbs, to the extent that some books never bothered to focus on these “minor” non-verb areas at all. This obsession with verbs gets worse if you add a category that Acklam wouldn't have used, “honorary verbs”. This just-coined phrase refers to those big blocks of “non-verb” structure which are accorded the same status marker as verb tenses in course books – main chapter titles. Comparative and Superlative and Mass and Unit spring to mind.  


Later, when we wrote Handshake we immersed ourselves for three years on books on communication skills which were aimed at a native-speaker audience. We used Communication Skills as our framework for the course, and had categories like Closing A Conversation, Making the Right Noises, Checking Information, Making a Story Interesting, Praise and Appreciation. At pre-intermediate level we found a grammar syllabus to be an essential component, entwined with communication skills.            


How do you describe the contents of a coursebook? At one point, books went for the totally comprehensive index. There would be pages of contents divided into multi-coloured columns. Grammar, Functions, Vocabulary, Pronunciation, Reading, Speaking, Listening, Writing, Learner Skills, Topics. It was indigestible and teachers still resorted to saying, “Unit 12 is the present perfect.” It was a shorthand. We found that teachers wanted less full descriptions, possibly alongside the full multi-column analysis. It's easy to take column 1, which is generally Grammar (but sometimes Topics), and say (e.g.) New Headway Intermediate unit 4 is “about” modals of obligation and permission. But it's also “about” describing people, word formation, offers and requests, cross-cultural work on manners, stereotyping, education, talking about past experiences, entertaining friends and filling in a form. But in the staffroom, teachers will still say “Class 23 has just finished Headway unit 4. Obligation.”


Mario mentions the “joint EFLese wisdom of the course book writers” and lists a few of us, while failing to mention others like Swan & Walters, Alexander, Oxenden and Seligson, Hutchinson, Greenall, Granger, Whitney, Richards and O'Neill. They'd fit the list too. That's one hell of a lot of accumulated expertise, and it's only by analysing and then trying to synthesize a syllabus that you truly come to understand the relationship of the components. I think there's common agreement that you teach things in a broadly similar order. The differences in recent course books revolving around the introduction of the present simple and present continuous, or when to introduce was / were are relatively minor. It's rare for someone set out to (say) teach the present perfect before the past simple. ( Access To English   did this) .




In the mid-70s everybody strove to put functional titles on units, so that a lesson on the present perfect might be labelled as “Talking about the recent past.” This was a fake (as well as inaccurate) functional label. As Mario says “(functions) are an absurdly unwieldy classifactory system”.   Any four or five line dialogue will display multiple functions. Mario's list of glaring omissions are definitely tongue-in-cheek, and Praising God and Keening the Dead are of limited use to a beginner.   I imagine that most learners would prefer to perform both functions in L1. We're tring to teach English, not eradicate the mother tongue. Some religions specify the language to be used for the purpose of praising God, and English is not on the list. As for “Offering Condolences”, “I'm very sorry” will suffice at Elementary level. They'll learn this anyway.   Add “I'm very sorry to hear (about …)” at a slightly higher level. In Handshake we are not alone in covering Expressing sympathy   and that will fulfill the need.


Robert O'Neill demonstrated that you could choose among three titles for the same unit.

Which would you choose?


(1) Prepositions of Place - grammatical  

(2) Asking for Directions - functional

(3) Lost in The City - situational.


The third is the most enticing, and it's the one I'd have gone for. In recent years the tendency would be “Where's the nearest cashpoint?” which is based on an example sentence.


The content of all four might be identical.




Mario's last statement, that “UK EFL writers' topic choice and treatment is powerfully ideological, precisely because of its avoidance of any specific ideological statement” is one for discussion in political philosophy classes. The ideologues have always claimed that lack of an ideology is an ideological statement.   I would say that –ologies and –isms are a substitute for thinking. I've had adult classes with senior military officers from radically conservative regimes sitting next to party officials from communist countries, and Asian pillars of the capitalist system as well as devout students from conservative religious systems. Someone with Mario's great talent and teaching skills would probably regard this as an unrivalled opportunity for promoting language learning. Others would believe that a multilingual co-operative learning environment is only possible when the –ologies are left outside the door and that ELT classes are a neutral zone. During the Arab – Israeli conflict of 1973, I had Arabs and Israelis together in most of my classes. They preserved an air of politeness, as after all they were travelling companions, which is a culturally sacrosanct relationship. Before one class, I was stopped outside the door by two Arab students. They knew that an Israeli man in the class was deeply concerned about his family, and that he was listening to the radio news. They felt that my unusually prompt arrival would cause him to switch the radio off, and asked me to delay my entry to the class for five minutes. The display of this kind of mutual help and sympathy is one of the rewards of multi-cultural classes and ELT teaching. If you go in with a personal agenda to promote on “the shadow side of life” you risk destroying it. I just peered into the dustiest recesses of my filing cabinets and pulled out some original Streamline reviews. The ones that struck me were “definitely not highbrow”   and “of no literary merit”. I can live with those.


I'm not saying that contexts should all be Blind Date, Bingo, Spice Girls and Pokemon. There are serious topics which do not confront the deepest personal belief systems – the environment, globalization, cross-cultural similarities and differences. Language teaching is about imparting a skill, not about changing people's basic belief systems.   There's something intrinsically honest about being a language teacher. On the other hand teachers of politics or history or economics are invariably selling a theory or a view.


  On the whole, ELT courses do present a broadly humanistic view. They win hearts and minds without confrontation. I know many people assume that ELT authors are deadly rivals competing for sales, but like any other professional group – footballers, musicians, accountants or bricklayers – there is a good degree of mutual respect and admiration “off the field.” I can analyse a “rival” and see bits where I think the syllabus has slipped, where an instruction is confusing or an activity is flawed, but I can also see how many long hours and how much deep thought has gone into the book. Sadly too few people are prepared to even try following the logic of the course. A tatty photocopy replaces a carefully thought out activity which recycles the vocabulary from the previous unit. When I've trialled material I've found again and again that it works best if you try trusting in its logic.



Peter Viney, February 2000

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