Advantages and Disadvantages of ESL Course BooksPeter Tze-Ming Chou
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Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages (Kaohsiung, Taiwan)
This article examines the advantages and disadvantages of ESL course books and what English teachers can do to improve their lessons. The use of course books in the ESL classroom is very common because the course books have the advantages of being visually appealing, easy for the teacher to prepare, and the activities fits well into the timetable. However, from the researcher’s own teaching experience, there are several problems and issues with the course books such as uninteresting topics, repetitive activities, and not enough language exposure. This in terms may affect the student’s learning attitude and motivation. It was suggested that if ESL course books are to be used, it is necessary for the teacher to prepare and develop other activities, especially extensive reading to keep the classroom atmosphere more interesting and the students more interested in what they are learning.
There are many different kinds of English as a Second Language (ESL) course books that are designed for students of all levels and ages. Therefore, the process of choosing the right course book for use in the classroom, especially at the college level, is a daunting task. In addition, what we choose for our classrooms often shapes the syllabi, and sometimes even the entire language program (Angell, DuBravac and Gonglewski, 2008; Byrnes, 1988). There are many reasons why English teachers choose to use ESL course books in the classroom. Sometimes it is based on our impressions and expectations of what teaching materials should look like. Other reasons might be that the course books are visually appealing, easy for the teacher to prepare, and the activities fits well into the timetable (Angell et al., 2008). However, all course books should be chosen based on its educational values and whether or not it meets the program objectives. Most importantly, students should learn something beyond just simple practices of ABC’s. According to Cheung and Wong (2002), the major premise of an academic curriculum should aim at developing students’ intellectual abilities in subject areas that are most worthy of study. This means that the curriculum should provide intrinsically rewarding experiences for the students while developing their affective and cognitive domain. Schwartz (2006) mentioned that a good curriculum is not only designed for the students, it is also designed for the teachers as well. In other words, a good curriculum not only educates the student, but teachers can also teach something of value to the students. Therefore, what could teachers do to improve their courses when they are restricted by the ESL course book assigned to them by the administration?
Advantages of Course books
From the school administration and some teacher’s point of view, there are several advantages for basing the curriculum on a series of ESL course books. First, the course books have a clearly identified set of achievement objectives which include what the learners are expected to be able to do and what to expect next. These ready-made syllabi contain carefully planned and balanced selection of language content that can be easily followed by teachers and students (Kayapinar, 2009). Second, when the teachers are teaching each unit in the course books, there is a consistency in the topics and genres in the four skills area (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). This allows for greater autonomy in the learning process. In addition, many inexperienced teachers may find ESL course books to be useful and practical because the ready-made activities and lessons are easy for the teacher to prepare. In many of the ESL course books, the designers even have prepared achievement tests for each units of study and a teacher’s manual to guide the teacher in their instruction. Finally, ESL course books are the cheapest and most convenient ways of providing learning materials to each student (Kayapinar, 2009). All of these reasons make using course books a very popular choice in the English learning curriculum.
From the researcher’s own experiences, there are a number of issues to consider when using ESL course books. First, most course books contain a lot of activities where students do "questions and answers". After a few lessons, many students may find the learning process boring and uninteresting. In addition, the reading selections in the ESL course books are often quite short and they often fail to present appropriate and realistic language models as well as fostering cultural understanding (Kayapinar, 2009). The lack of challenging reading materials could also slow the students’ language development creating a plateau effect.
The second issue that teachers should consider is student motivation. Most college students expect their English courses to be something different from their high school English classes. So when we give them course books that are similarly designed as their past learning materials, the students may quickly lose their interest and motivation to study. This is because the similarities in the ESL course books may cause the students to feel bored due to the “sameness” or “repetitiveness” of the lessons and activities. This is a major problem because the English courses are designed around using a single course book for the whole academic year. According to Harmer (2007), it may be relatively easy for students to be extrinsically motivated; however, the challenge is sustaining that motivation. Although motivation can be sustained through varied class activities, if the content of the course book is uninteresting and repetitive, then sustaining the motivation will be problematic for the teacher no matter how hard they try.
Finally, although most ESL course books are well organized with many different kinds of activities, however, they do not provide enough details in other aspects of language study. A good example would be in the study of grammar. The grammar section in each unit of the course book usually does not provide enough explanation or practice questions. Relying on the course book to provide the students with adequate knowledge of grammar would not be enough, especially when a teacher spends between two to three weeks to cover a single unit of the course book. This means that in a typical semester, students only receive between four to six different types of grammar instruction, a number far behind from what they could have been studying if the students had a grammar textbook where they can study a different unit every week with lots of practice activities.
The following suggestions are proposed to make any English program that relies on ESL course books more effective. First, if an ESL course book is to be used, outside reading materials will need to be added to the curriculum. This would greatly increase and develop the student’s language ability. In language learning, reading is considered one of the most important lessons for the learner. Researches in extensive reading have shown many beneficial effects on students. Nation (2001) claimed that when learners read, they not only learn new words, but they can also develop their syntactic knowledge as well as general knowledge of the world. Other recent studies have also shown that students who participated in extensive reading increased gains in the areas of vocabulary knowledge ( Hirsch, 2003; Horst, 2005) as well as in reading comprehension and reading fluency ( Hirsch, 2003; Iwahori, 2008; Sheu, 2003). One possible explanation for the increase is that students acquire new words incidentally through reading thousands and thousands of words every day. Learning vocabulary this way may be considered more effective than rote memorization because through reading interesting texts, students learn new vocabulary and review old ones. By increasing the amount of reading, especially reading for pleasure, it can increase both vocabulary knowledge and reading rate, both of which are an important part of reading comprehension (Martin- Chang and Gould, 2008).
Outside reading materials could also enhance student motivation especially if they find the reading passages from the course book too easy or uninteresting. After all, the students who are using these ESL course books are young adults and they should be gaining knowledge from their readings, not just coming to class to practice English. With the use of outside reading materials, the teacher can also design many different activities for the classroom. For example, if the class is reading a short story, the teacher can use class discussions as a form of conversation practice. Teachers can also have students do different kinds of presentations based on their readings. These activities would be more challenging for the students than the question and answer activities found in most ESL course books.
Another suggestion is to add grammar studies to the language program. A grammar textbook contains detailed explanation of grammar rules and offers more practice questions than those found in a typical course book. The teacher can plan and devote part of the class time each week to teaching new grammar rules. This would not only help with student’s writing, but also in other areas as well such as speaking. The sooner we can get our students to use more correct English, the more confidence they will have. All of the activities above would make the classroom more interesting in which the students are more involved with the activities rather than just listening to the teacher and doing questions and answers from the course book.
Using course books has its share of benefits and advantages such as having a well organized content with a consistency in the topics and genres for the four skill area (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). Teachers who adopt a course book may also find it easier to teach since most of the preparation, including the types of activities, audios and in some cases, achievement tests, are already done by the publisher. This would be a great help to those inexperienced teachers who are just getting started into teaching. However, nothing in the world is perfect and teachers need to somehow solve the issues and problems that may come with ESL course books. These issues and problems may include finding ways to motivate students and teaching students academic skills not found in the course books. In this sense, the teacher’s job is not as easy as it seems. Many hours of planning and developing other activities are still required, but these planning and development will benefit both the student and the teacher by making the classroom activities more fun, more interesting, and result in more learning.
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The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 11, November 2010