The Internet TESL Journal

A Teacher Friendly Process for Evaluating and Selecting ESL/EFL Coursebooks

Jon Shave
jonathanshave ({-at-})
Alpha Beta Piccadilly (Bolzano, Italy)
This article demonstrates a simple and effective coursebook evaluation process suitable for all teaching professionals regardless of workload or experience. Existing evaluation methods (Cunningsworth, 1995; McGrath 2002 etc) often require considerable time and experience for effective use. An authentic example is used to model this simple and effective analysis process which examines the teaching situation and coursebook characteristics in order to enable appropriate selection and effective use of materials.


This article is intended to help language teachers and departmental heads make suitable decisions when choosing a coursebook. As teachers, we know that selection of a suitable coursebook is vital, as coursebooks can provide a structure from which the process of language learning can begin (O’Neill, 1982: 110-111).  A logical decision-making process rather than purely instinctive selection ensures a reliable decision is made without entering into impractical and lengthy evaluation research which may not be possible for many teachers due to time constraints or lack of experience, as well as the number of variables involved (Cunningsworth, 1995: 5).

In this article, an efficient evaluation process is demonstrated in order to provide an example which may be helpful to other teaching professionals. The process can be used to evaluate several coursebooks comparatively (as in this example) for selection purposes or with individual coursebooks in order to maximize effective teaching and learning.
The first step in the selection process involves analyzing (or reanalyzing) the situation in which the coursebooks will be used, and comparing this information with the intended teaching/learning situation as stated by the publishers. The next stage analyzes the methodology and syllabus of the materials. Next, using selected comparable units, the main teaching points are identified and strengths and weaknesses evaluated. A single selected exercise can then be trialled with the learners to gain further insight.

Step 1: Who Will Use the Coursebook? In What Situation?

As materials can only be meaningfully evaluated in relation to their intended teaching situation (Richards, 2001: 256), the first stage of the evaluation involves assessing (or reassessing) the unique situation in which the materials will be used.  In order to gather information on the specific learning context, a comprehensive, yet lengthy, published questionnaire which required a high level of theoretical knowledge (Cunningsworth, 1995: 6) was adapted and condensed into two equally important and codependent sets of questions.

The Learning/Teaching Situation

What are the overall aims of the English programme?  What are the specific objectives for this course?  Is there a detailed syllabus or will the coursebook provide the syllabus?    How long is the course?  How many learners are there?  What resources are available in the class?  Will progress be measured? How?

The Learners and Teacher

How old are the learners and what is their level of English? Are they all the same age and level? What type of language learning experience, if any, do they have? What do they expect from the classes? How do they like to learn? Are they motivated? What is their motivation? What are their interests and values? What is the role, experience and teaching style of the teacher? Are they free to adapt materials?

All teaching/learning situations are unique (McGrath, 2002: 10) and the above questions provide data relevant to the specific investigation in question (ibid. 25-27). No pre-prepared set of questions will be completely suited to a real classroom (Cunningsworth, 1996: 5). For this reason, questions can and should be revised to meet the needs of the specific evaluation in order to best identify the actual teaching/learning situation.
In the example situation the following characteristics were identified:

Following analysis of the actual learning situation, a comparison can be made with the intended learner/teaching situation as stated by the publishers. This is often found in the introduction of the teacher’s book or in the coursebook. A summary of the intended learner/teaching situations as stated by the publishers in the example materials is show below:

Coursebook Y (the old/existing coursebook)

Coursebook X (the new/replacement coursebook)

In our example we see that the coursebooks are suitable in terms of learner age, level  and desire for a communicative learning situation. Points of divergence include; preparation for FCE which is not the course aim, and an absence of reference to the social aspect of the learning situation. Following the first stage of our evaluation we can see that the intended learning situation in both coursebooks is compatible with the actual situation, and we are already starting to get an idea of what areas of the coursebook might need to be adapted.

Step 2: Analysis of the Methodology and Syllabus

After identifying the learning situation, we can begin to think about what type of methodology might be suitable. Inexperienced teachers may lack extensive knowledge of methodological theory but can still consider what type of teaching is appropriate. Possibilities include a traditional teacher centred methodology, a communicative approach or task based learning.  Whether a structural, functional or other type of syllabus is suitable can also be considered. The most appropriate methodology and syllabus will depend on the group.  

A starting point for identification of methodology might be claims made in the teacher’s book. The teacher can then look in the coursebook in an attempt to verify these claims (Cunningsworth, 1995: 97-108). In the case of the example, the coursebooks both claimed to use a communicative approach, which, although it cannot be clearly defined as a unified methodology, can be characterized by authenticity, real world simulation and meaningful tasks (Brown, 2001: 39).  Analysis showed that not only was language usage taught, but was also combined with varying degrees of opportunity for use, which does imply perspectives based on communicative methodology (Larsen-Freeman, 1986: 123). However, the unit structures observed in both coursebooks implied a more traditional methodology.

In order to analyse the syllabus, a simple list of the sequencing of language items or uses can be made. Both coursebooks devoted each unit to the presentation of one or (a small selection) of grammatical structures, which were sequenced according to complexity, learnability and usefulness, which implies a traditional structural influence to syllabus design (Cunningsworth, 1995: 55).  The sequencing was arranged reflecting a common ‘simple to complex’ pattern (Richards: 2001, 150). The courses covered structures which upper intermediate level students would be familiar with, such as past simple and continuous, and progressed to less frequently occurring, more complex or more difficult to learn structures. This sequencing of units determined by linguistic complexity is a characteristic typically associated with an Audio-Lingual methodology (Richards and Rodgers, 1986: 67).

The second step has revealed through observation that Coursebook X and Coursebook Y tend towards more traditional types of methodology and syllabi. Judgment can now begin to be made as to whether this is appropriate for the group.

Step 3: A Closer Look at Individual Units

Having established the needs of the learners and the methodologies of the coursebooks, open and unbiased closer analysis of the materials is now beneficial. In this stage, single units are evaluated, as how a unit presents language can indicate the strengths and weaknesses of coursebooks. However, remember that one unit may not reflect the whole coursebook (Cunningsworth, 1995: 2). Following analysis the teacher can again reflect upon which coursebook seems most appropriate.  

In the case of this example, comparable units presenting the narrative tenses were selected, as an accurate and increasingly fluent use of the narrative tenses represents the transition from Threshold to Independent user, (Association of Language Teachers in Europe, 2002: 6-10). The selection of unit depends on the unique situation and should be decided by the evaluating teacher.

In the Contents section of the students’ book, Coursebook Y lists the following areas of language covered in five student book pages, plus two extra pages for vocabulary and writing, two additional photocopiable activities and three workbook pages.

Coursebook Y Main Teaching Points
Coursebook X Main Teaching Points
In summary, the main teaching points of the units are grammatically similar although in terms of vocabulary, the units each cover different areas. Coursebook Y appears to be more suitable for the learners in this example.

Step 4: Evaluation Strengths and Weaknesses of each Unit

In this stage, a subjective evaluation of the strengths and weakness of the coursebooks is made. In order to systematically evaluate strengths and weaknesses, a process of selecting and rating criteria can be used (McGrath, 2002: 56). Use of some academic evaluation techniques may require extensive experience or post graduate theoretical knowledge. In order to make the process suitable for all professionals, a more concise list of criteria was developed. Which criteria to assess depends on the individual situation. A rating system using a simple numerical score or judgement of suitable (S) or not suitable (NS) can be used depending on time constraints.  The criteria selected were:

Aims and Approaches

Correspondence between coursebook and course aims, text adaptability, design and organization, the inclusion of structural and functional aspects, attention to language recycling and user-friendliness were all rated.

Language Content

The authenticity of materials, coverage of suitable language, range of vocabulary, attention to pronunciation, attention to language above sentence level (social norms etc), and attention to language styles and moods were rated.


The degree of coverage of all four skills was rated, as was integration of skills work and balance of skills practised. The suitability of reading, listening, writing and speaking activities was assessed.


The suitability of topics in terms of age, culture and social issues was rated, along with the adaptability and sophistication of topic and inclusion of humour.

The appropriateness of approach, degree of student centreedness, suitability for presenting and practising language, the degree of structural aspect to grammar presentation, attention to study skills and learner autonomy were rated.

The example evaluation indicated that no unit is more suitable in all categories, and for some criteria, such as methodology, the units show little variation. The language content is slightly more suitable in Coursebook Y. Skills are a strength of Coursebook X

Step 5: Trialling

If the specific situation allows, in-depth scrutiny of individual exercises can also provide valuable insights (Cunningsworth, 1995: 2). This process involves trialling comparable exercises with the learners. Inclusion of learners in material evaluation can encourage ownership of the resulting decisions (Chambers, 1997: 29). Furthermore, learners may provide insights which teachers have neglected to consider. In this example, feedback after trialling indicated that in contrast to the teachers’ opinion, the replacement text was not viewed negatively by learners.

Step 6: Selection

Having completed the above process, which should be achievable by most professional teachers despite differences in experience or busy schedules, the involved parties can now make a selection of an appropriate coursebook, or, if the evaluation is of only one coursebook, decisions based on the evaluation can be made as to the best way to use the material.

In the case of the example we can conclude that both coursebooks display desirable characteristics and areas of weakness. Following the systematic example the strengths and weaknesses of the replacement coursebook were better understood causing them to reconsider the initial negative opinions of the replacement (which may have been due to reluctance to change), allowing teaching staff to use the new material more effectively to the benefit and increased satisfaction of teachers and learners. Later feedback from the learners expressed satisfaction with new text.


Using an authentic example situation, this article has demonstrated a process which inexperienced and/or busy teachers can use to evaluate coursebooks, individually or comparatively, for the purpose of either selection or maximizing effective use.  
As a teacher, school manager or Director of Studies, it is advantageous to be able to select appropriately from available materials, be creative and modify and supplement coursebooks (Dudley-Evans and St. John (1998) in Richards, 2001: 260). Furthermore, the process of evaluation itself can increase understanding of the factors involved in evaluation and the advantages of systemized analysis and evaluation (Ellis, 1997b: 41).


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 11, November 2010