“Challenging the Coursebook” – Challenge Accepted

“Challenging the Coursebook” – Challenge Accepted



This is a response to Geoff Jordan’s May 10 post Challenging the Coursebook and the related posts which followed it: Dellar Defends the Coursebook (posted May 13); Challenging the Coursebook: Part 2 (posted May 18) and Materials Banks: an Alternative to Coursebooks (posted May 22).


 Meanwhile before we get stuck into that, here’s a brief moment of light relief:

The Treachery of Images (Or ‘The Gigantic Strawman’)
An artist's impression of not-Geoff Jordan who is in absolutely no way just about to immolate a filthy great pile of ELT coursebooks, which definitely does not contain the not-Capitalist running dog lacky otherwise known as not-Hugh Dellar. With apologies to René Magritte (not to mention more accepted uses of negation in English).

An artist’s impression of not-Geoff Jordan who is in absolutely no way just about to immolate a filthy great pile of ELT course books; a pile which definitely does not contain the not-Capitalist running dog otherwise known as not-Hugh Dellar. With sincere apologies to René Magritte (not to mention more accepted uses of negation in English).


For anyone not already aware of this, Challenging the Coursebook is a presentation in which Jordan describes coursebooks for English language learning as being based on premises that are not only “completely faulty” but “totally wrong”:

[T]he description of language is totally wrong err and the assumptions about the way people learn, um, second language, which are completely wrong err and as a result, um, it has very bad results. Most students fail … the results are absolutely appalling.

After briefly pondering aloud as to why there has been no mass popular uprising against coursebooks under the vast weight of evidence pointing to their nugatory value, Jordan continues:

The problem is, students blame themselves … and so … the whole thing is just completely ridiculous [and] doesn’t get the attention that it ought to… in my opinion …

He later concludes that:

the coursebook in my opinion should be thrown away with great force. We’d all be a lot better off if we were.

Zut alors! As should be evident from the clear lack of qualifications or hedging in the foregoing, Jordan is as unequivocal as he is intemperate on the topic of ELT course books. And that is a shame.

It’s a shame because on this occasion at least, the greater part of Jordan’s comments range so widely off the mark that the target of his critique – coursebooks – are barely recognizable from the description he gives.

This I will prove in “Challenging the Coursebook” – Challenge Accepted: Part 1 – “Thinking critically involves never believing what you’re told without question”, which immediately follows this introduction.


But first – two caveats:

The first is that I am not only a regular reader of Geoff Jordan’s blog, but someone who frequently recommends his aplinglink blog to students, colleagues, and friends with an interest in ELT and SLA. It is an excellent resource for anyone wishing to pursue English language teaching more seriously. (That I am recommending this blog so highly may admittedly raise an eyebrow if you continue reading to the end, but I can assure you I am quite serious about this.)*

The second is that for the best part of the last 10 years, I have been heavily involved in the research, development and writing of published coursebook materials. It would therefore be not unreasonable to assume that I am almost duty-bound to criticize Jordan’s challenge to coursebooks. This is not the case, however. For the record, even as someone who has been involved in developing and even writing coursebooks, I am actually quite agnostic about them. There are quite a number of legitimate criticisms that can be levelled at them, some of which are touched upon by Jordan in his presentation, and these are criticisms that I think do need to be addressed by ELT practitioners.

That said, I think the fact that I have actually been engaged as a researcher, developer and writer of materials for English language learning – the kind of materials in other words, which Jordan says are not just “slightly off” but “totally wrong” and “completely wrong” – means that I can at least claim a more intimate understanding of how these books come to be, why they are as they are, and, yes, what their value is.

*While I do absolutely recommend Jordan’s blog to students of TESOL and Applied Linguistics masters programmes, readers are advised not do what I once did and simply punch the address into your browser to show the student the site before checking what Jordan’s most recent entry is. In a classroom in 2014, I did exactly this to a very proper and elegant student from China and a young man from Saudi Arabia only turn round to see the words “BULLSHIT!” splashed across the 95-inch projector screen board. The students were both fine with it, but even so I felt more than just a little tinge of heat on my face.


In addressing some of Geoff’s points, I will also briefly comment on Scott Thornberry’s 2010 blog post G is for Grammar McNuggets as well as his more recent version of that same post, Who ordered the McNuggets? (which appeared on ELTJam in 2014), and also Rose Bard’s two recent commentaries on Jordan’s post, To coursebook or not to coursebook? Is that really the question? and her follow-up Sorry to insist! But is using or not really the question?

“Challenging the Coursebook” – Challenge Accepted

Part 1

“Thinking critically involves never believing what you’re told without question”1


Before issuing a prescription for a problem, it is generally good practice to make sure that the initial diagnosis is actually accurate. Nobody wants to be in a position in which the patient is administered a potentially harmful remedy for a problem they don’t have.

So what is Jordan’s diagnosis?

His May 13 post Dellar Defends the Coursebook provides the following handy summary:

My argument against coursebooks is, first, that they are based on 3 false assumptions:

  1. Declarative knowledge is converted to procedural knowledge by the presentation and practice of discrete items of grammar.
  2. SLA is a process of learning these discrete items one by one in an accumulative way.
  3. Learners learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it.

Jordan (2015)

However, before Jordan discusses each of these main points, his original May 10 presentation also includes a number of preliminary remarks about course book content and these initial remarks are revisited in similar comments scattered throughout the rest of the presentation.

In what follows, I demonstrate – with examples – why these remarks are not just “completely faulty” but, in fact, “totally wrong”.

1“Thinking critically involves never believing what you’re told without question” is a quote from Jordan’s May 26 post Critical Thinking: A Few Thoughts.


At the beginning of the presentation, Jordan says (emphasis added):

Coursebook English is a very weird kind of English … um, it’s not the normal sort of English you find in good texts err, and it’s not representative of the way people communicate in English … In coursebooks, everybody speaks in complete, well-formed sentences … er, nobody swears, nobody shouts, nobody mumbles, stutters and, uh, nobody code switches …

These are really quite specific claims about the content of coursebooks. Therefore turning to the books I have on my shelves at home, and also looking at the free sample pages available online, it stands to reason that I should be able to find plenty of examples of this “very weird kind of English” just by looking through them.

So let’s put these claims to the test against actual coursebook extracts and see how well they measure up.

Example 1: Empower – Upper Intermediate (Doff et al., 2015)*

Here is a selected extract from the audioscript for CD 2 Track 38 (underlining added):

Tessa:              So … um … What is it you’re writing?

Sam:                A science fiction novel.

Tessa:              Oh, I’m quite into science fiction.

Sam:                Oh really?

Tessa:              You must tell me about it – I mean, your storyyour ideas. One day.

Sam:                Oh right. Yeah. Sure. One day. Love to.

It’s quite clear from this extract that the claim “everybody speaks in complete, well-formed sentences” is not even remotely true (e.g. “Oh right. Yeah. Sure. One day. Love to.”).

There is also the use of “So” to indicate a change in topic, there are fillers (“um”, “Oh”), there is repetition and reformulation both within turns (“your story … your ideas”) and across speaker turns (Tessa: “One day.” / Sam: “One day”) and there is also the ‘tail’ in “You must tell me about it – I mean, your story …”. Tails, as Willis and Willis explain, are a feature of spontaneous communication which: “highlight a particular element by putting it at the end of a clause: He’s a good bowler, Swann.” (2015: Loc. 1219 of 1963).

Far from being a “very weird kind of English” as we might expect to find then, the language in this short extract contains many of the features of spoken English.

But couldn’t it be reasonably objected that this is precisely the point? Of course it might be possible to find just one exception, but does that necessarily disprove Jordan’s rule about coursebooks in general? And after all, isn’t Empower – Upper Intermediate an example of a coursebook that has literally only just been published in the last few months – published at roughly the same time that Jordan was likely making the aforementioned claims about all coursebooks?

Surely, therefore, a reasonable objection is that it would be both completely unfair and totally inaccurate to use this single instance to refute Jordan’s claims as there is no way he could have known about this particular coursebook at the time he was preparing his May 10 presentation?

As it would in fact be both unfair and inaccurate to use just that one example, I now beg your indulgence to at least skim over the list of other examples that follow which come from a range of course books aimed at the full range of CEFR defined levels.

*Disclosure: I was a contributing writer to the supporting online practice material for another book in the same series: Empower – Intermediate (Doff et al., 2015). I am also friends with one of the managing editors on the Empower series. (I had no involvement with the Upper Intermediate coursebook from which this extract is taken however).

Example 2: English Unlimited Pre-intermediate (Tilbury et al., 2010)*

Here is a selected extract from the audioscript for CD 1 Track 29 (underlining added):

Interviewer:    Mariama, are you comfortable talking about your achievements and things you’re proud of?

Mariama:       Absolutely not. I don’t, I think … I think it’s because, erm, it’s hard to sound comfortable, erm, because you don’t want to sound as if you’re blowing your own trumpet and so you don’t want to sound pompous. So I’m not at all comfortable.

Interviewer:    Do you think that’s personal or cultural? Do you think it’s …

Mariama:       I think it’s quite cultural. I think, erm, a lot of my American friends are much more confident about saying what they’ve achieved, for example, if they’re writing their CV, erm, they tend to put everything on there, and they’re much more confident about coming forward.

Interviewer:    Right

Mariama:        But I think being, erm, British, it’s a lot harder because you don’t want to seem arrogant and, er, and you don’t  certainly want to seem as if you’ve done everything you could possibly have done in your life.

On reading this extract, is your first reaction that this “is a very weird kind of English”? Or that “it’s not representative of the way people communicate in English”? Or that this is a dialogue in which “everybody speaks in complete, well-formed sentences”?

These questions are of course rhetorical – the answer to all of them should be ‘no’.

Again, we can see here that there are a number of features of the spoken grammar of spontaneous English communication. Note for example the false starts and repairs in “I don’t, I think … I think it’s because, erm, it’s” and “I think, erm, a lot of my American friends …”. There is also the use of generalisations (“achievements and things you’re proud of”) and again repetition and reformulation of a particular structure (“you don’t want to sound as if … and so you don’t want to sound … because you don’t want to seem … and you don’t certainly want to seem as if …”)

Friends of mine who were involved in the production of this particular series (English Unlimited), told me that the process for producing scripts such as the one above first involved recording a spontaneous interview and then, to a certain degree, ‘cleaning up’ what might have been seen as the messier, more confusing and rambling aspects of live communication. I would like to stress that this ‘tidying up’ was intentionally made as light as possible. In fact, it’s entirely possibl that the script above is a verbatim transcript of real conversation with little or even no modification.

*Disclosure: I was a full-time employee of Cambridge University Press throughout the entire period that thee English Unlimited series was researched, developed, written and published – however, I would like to stress that during that period I worked in another department (or ‘list’ as publishers say) and had absolutely no involvement in that project (other than a possible walk-on part in a video that may in any case have been for the Face2Face series and not this one – I honestly don’t remember which only that I’m in a DVD somewhere pretending to be an art enthusiast at the opening night of an exhibition).

Example 3: Global Intermediate (Clanfield and Robbe-Benne with Jeffries, 2011)

As the previous two examples could be accused of bias on the grounds that I was a contributor to the first, and that both of them were published by a former employer of mine, I now provide examples from publications I had absolutely no involvement with whatsoever. Here are the complete scripts for Audio CD 1 Tracks 55 and 57 of Global Intermediate (underlining added):

Audio 1.55 Anna, Russia

A good friend is a person who can help you in an situation you have in your  life, who can understand you. And a good friend for me is my mother because I can tell her everything and she will understand me even if I will not be right.

Audio 1.57 Elodie, Switzerland

So, a good friend for me is somebody that you can trust in – uh, somebody who is nice with you, somebody who makes you laugh. And with um, yeah, and if we can – if you can have fun with this person, so I think it will be a friend.

It may not have been immediately clear that the extract of the interview with ‘Mariama’ in Example 2 above was quite possibly conducted with a non-native speaker of English. I don’t have the Audio CD for that book at home, so can’t confirm that one way or the other, but what I can tell you is that at almost exactly the same time as English Unlimited was being produced by Cambridge University Press, Macmillan were working on Global from where these two monologues come.

As should be clear from the scripts in Example 3 (if not also from Example 2), neither of these two coursebook series, produced at approximately the same time, shied away from including the voices of non-native speakers occasionally making use of non-standard forms of English.

This point is clearly evident in Anna’s sentence “I can tell her everything and she will understand me even if I will not be right” and in Elodie’s “if you can have fun with this person, so I think it will be a friend” possible standard versions of which could have been revised by the authors respectively as: I can tell her anything and she‘d understand me even when I’m not right and if you can have fun with this person, then I think that’s a friend. But they weren’t revised in that way, and that is significant. Please note that this should not be taken as a criticism of the communicative competence of either ‘Anna’ or ‘Elodie’, but rather as a refutation of Jordan’s claims that “everybody speaks in complete, well-formed sentences” in coursebooks and that the language you find there is “not representative of the way people communicate in English” (where the people who actually communicate in English is not restricted to native speakers, but is extended to what, following Kachru (1992), can be called the outer and expanding circle of English speakers).

Indeed, it is worth noting that while it is still possible to find audio content where NNS speaker roles are performed by NS British actors, there has been such demand for more authentic NNS actors for ELT publishing in recent years that there is now a voice over agency in London, Foreign Legion, which has been specifically set up to meet that demand for authentic NNS voice artists.*

*Despite this, I do accept that some coursebook audio recordings even to this day are unnecessarily over-the-top theatrical and for all the world sound as if they were made by whoever’s currently playing Widow Twanky and Buttons in the Panto at Swindon that month. I remember vividly, and with a distinct lack of warmth, some of the audio recordings found in whichever editions of the Headway series were in use in the mid to late 1990s when I was teaching in Russia. These were particularly cringeworthy in this respect, ‘Roger the Gardener’ becoming such an object of intense loathing in my eyes that I produced an entire set of self-made materials to replace the whole of that unit’s content just so I didn’t have to listen to the bastard (Unit 2 or 3 if memory serves). Perhaps this is no longer the case with that level of Headway, but I don’t have access to the latest editions so cannot say.


At this point, we should ask ourselves again whether or not I am being unfair to Jordan – I have as yet still only supplied just three counter-examples and have focused very much on his preliminary remarks only, and not (yet) on his three key points that each of the following are false assumptions:

1 Declarative knowledge is converted to procedural knowledge by the presentation and practice of discrete items of grammar.

2 SLA is a process of learning these discrete items one by one in an accumulative way.

3 Learners learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it.

Jordan (2015)

If you are still reading this, I assure you I will be coming to each of these points. However, for now I think it’s worth giving more evidence of how the preliminary remarks cited above simply do not apply to any actual coursebook in use at the time of writing (May/June 2015).

I hope you will agree that this is not time wasted as if the false assumptions that Jordan asserts coursebooks are based on are themselves false, then his proposed solutions are likewise going to be false and, therefore, completely redundant.


As Examples 1–3 all came from coursebooks aimed at CEFR levels B1, B1+ and B2 it can now be reasonably objected that perhaps the “very weird kind of English” in which “everybody speaks in complete, well-formed sentences” does occur, but that it only occurs in the CEFR levels below B1, that is in coursebooks aimed at Beginner, Elementary and Pre-intermediate level learners (A1 and A2/B1 on CEFR respectively).

I’ll let you be the judge of this with Examples 4 and 5.

Example 4: Face2Face Elementary 2nd edition (Redstone and Cunningham, 2012)

Here is an extract from the beginning of Audio CD 1, Track 39 (underlining added).

Jill:       Luke, come and look at these photos of my family.

Luke:   OK

Jill:       Right … This is my sister, Pam, and her husband, Nick.

Luke:   Pam’s an English teacher, isn’t she?

Jill:       Yes, that’s right.

Luke:   What about Nick?

Jill:       He’s a doctor.

Luke:   Oh, right. How many children have they got?

Jill:       Two. A boy and a girl. Look, here’s a photo of them.

It might be worth noting that as this comes from the second unit of a 12-unit course for A1-A2 learners it therefore appears at a really quite early point in an introductory course and so is from nearer the A1 end of the course.

I trust that it’s also evident from the examples underlined that even within the restrictions placed on it by grading for an A1-A2 level learner, that it is not a particularly “weird kind of English” and neither is it especially clear that it is “not representative of the way people communicate in English”. Certainly, it’s very clear that the speakers here are not speaking”in complete, well-formed sentences” as Jordan has asserted in his presentation that speakers in coursebooks do.

Example 5: New English File: Beginner (Oxenden and Latham-Koenig, 2009)

Here is an extract from the beginning of Audio 6.1 (underlining added):

English friend:  How was your weekend, Kelly? What did you do?

Kelly:                We went to Blackpool.

English friend:  Blackpool? Why Blackpool?

Kelly:                Well, somebody told us that Blackpool was like Benidorm … in Spain. Well, maybe it is in summer, but it certainly isn’t in April. The weather was terrible! And a lot of places were closed, you know the restaurants and cafés. There was nothing to do.

English friend:    Where did you stay? In a hotel?

Now here at last with Example 5, I suppose it might not be entirely unreasonable to claim that this is an English that is “not representative of the way people communicate”. However, I think it would be more than a little unfair if we were to do so. While the language has evidently been more tightly controlled at the scripting stage, we can still see clear evidence of features of the grammar of spontaneous spoken English communication. And what’s more even Jordan himself, at a later point in his Challenging the Coursebook presentation, advocates providing support (emphasis added):

by giving the learner exposure to comprehensible input. [… ] So obviously, if you’re, erm, with beginners it’s absurd to, to ask them to read something on very complicated, er, you know, choices, [inaudible] or ask them to, to, to watch a, you know, a comedy in English where, where all those double meanings and so on are. So obviously comprehensible input means things they can more or less understand – not completely – but, but they get the gist, they get the idea.

Jordan (2015)

The evidence that I have presented is by definition rather selective and so it could easily be argued that I have cherry picked select examples – especially when it is considered that many of the examples I’ve given are extracts only and not the complete dialogues. In response to that, I can only argue that the reason why I have so far only offered a limited range of examples is not that there are too few to choose from but there are far too many.

As I think it would have been laborious and futile to list every single counterexample that disproves Jordan’s preliminary claims, then I can only encourage anyone who still doubts the evidence given to review the originals and decide for themselves.

Before you do that, can I first ask you that you first check section V, which as it happens conveniently, but not altogether unexpectedly, follows sections IV?


Sections I–IV have focused quite closely on just three of Jordan’s preliminary remarks, namely:

  • “Coursebook English is a very weird kind of English”
  • “[Coursebook English] is not representative of the way people communicate in English.”
  • “In coursebooks, everybody speaks in complete, well-formed sentences.”

You may remember that these three complaints – all of which are very largely unfounded as I hope to have demonstrated above – only constitute half of all the complaints made in the initial description of coursebooks. The others (which were shown in section II above) were:

In coursebooks, … er, nobody swears, nobody shouts, nobody mumbles,   stutters and, uh, nobody code switches …

Jordan (2015)

 I will concede that pretty much ‘nobody’ code switches. Knowing of no examples of code switching myself, I asked around the Internet and (at the time of writing at least) this turned up only a single example:

Example 6: Intercultural Business English. Working in Asia (Frendo and Hsu, 2010)

Ach verdammt noch mal, Anrufbeantworter auf Englisch. One moment   please. Schmidt here, from Berlin. I got your email today …

In spite of the fact that an example of code switching can be found (and many thanks again to Evan Frendo for sending me that), Jordan is, I think, clearly right to say that code-switching is not a typical feature of coursebooks as a whole.

However, as I hope to argue in later parts of this refutation of Jordan’s Challenging the Coursebook, there is very practical rationale as to why code-switching is not included.


Of course, that still leaves me with with the burden of proving that Jordan is either wrong or at least overstating the case to say that “nobody swears, nobody shouts, nobody mumbles, [or] stutters”.

If by “stutters” Jordan means a speaker whose speech is impeded with an actual stammer, then no, I think he’s probably correct that this is not found in any coursebook content. However, if by “stuttering” was meant features of spontaneous spoken communication such as fillers, pauses, false starts and repairs and so on, I think I have already shown Examples 1-5 that this is simply not true.

Regarding mumbling, I think it’s fair to say the majority (if not all) coursebooks do not generally feature people who mumble. I think this is largely because a lot of teachers and learners would probably be really rather upset to spend money on an audio CD featuring a barely audible conversation. I also have to wonder quite what the point of having mumbling as a regular course book feature would be, as opposed to including it as a one-off for the practice of phrases such as “I’m sorry, what was that you said?” or “Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”

I also think it’s fair to say that people rarely shout in coursebook audios, though it should be noted that content dealing with the language for making complaints and criticisms has long been a staple of coursebooks. So while they may not shout in the way that gurning actors on the BBC’s soap opera Eastender’s might, (e.g. “Leave it you muppet! It’s not worf it!” etc.), I’m not quite sure what the average language learner is supposed to be missing out on by not having this kind of thing made an integral part of their English course.

What about swearing then? While not exactly wrong – I’m not aware of any coursebook from major international publishers that actively sets out to teach phrases very commonly found on the street or increasingly in Internet communication such as “What the actual fuck?” or “What a fucking mangina that guy is!”* – it’s not entirely correct either.

*It will be interesting to see whether or not this will change in the near future following the recent publication of The English language needs and priorities of young adults in the European Union: student and teacher perceptions (Hall and Cook, 2015).

Hall and Cook report that: “For many young adults, the current value of English is its facilitative role in online communication and their participation in international social networks.” (2015:21). As these young adults are most likely to be communicating on social media there is quite a high chance that they encountering a bewildering array of acronyms (TIL, MFW / MRW, SJW etc.) and a great deal of foul language, much of which is specific to social media channels (e.g. fap (v), gunt (n), feminazi (n), Tumblerina (n) etc.).

Furthermore, any reader familiar with #Gamergate will already be aware of the Romanian Youtube vlogger, Vee Monro, and the fact that one of the most popular vloggers associated with #Gamergate ,’Sargon of Akkad‘ (the pseudonym for Carl Benjamin), has a huge number of NNS subscribers. I plan to return to these issues like these in a post separate from this series at some point in the future.

Example 7: Innovations Advanced (Dellar and Walkley, 2006)

This is not from an audioscript, as all the previous examples have been, but I would like to point out that this is only because I have not had access to those in this case.

Anyway, here is a transcription of the first part of Exercise 6 which falls under the subheading of Euphemisms:

We use euphemisms to avoid what some people see as embarrassing or impolite words. Complete the sentences with the correct euphemism from  the box.

dirt    powder my nose     effing and blinding      privates

eft off    relieving himself    passed away    sugar

1. I kicked the ball right in his ……. The poor guy was in agony.

2. Do you know where the little girl’s room is? I just need to …… .

3. I came out of my house yesterday and there was this guy just …… in the street. It was disgusting. When I said so, he just started …. at me.

4. His wife …… three years ago, but he still hasn’t got over it.

5. Honestly, he was so rude to me I just felt like telling him to …… , but you can’t do that to your boss, can you?

6. Oh ……! I’ve stepped in some dog …… .

To be frank, I have to admit that I’m not entirely convinced by this exercise and would be personally quite unlikely to consider using this material in a lesson. Many years ago, I once stood in for a colleague who had a class of Proficiency students (C2 on CEFR) who were all aged between about 14 and 17. These were young people who had all spent at least one summer camp in the UK and had returned confident in the knowledge that really fluent and authentic English meant being able to swear profusely and at considerable volume (and mainly outside variously named vendors of Southern fried chicken). As a rule I regret nothing, though I still feel a little ashamed at finally agreeing to talk them through the finer points of английский мат (English profanity).

In any case, I don’t have access to the Teacher’s Notes for this particular exercise and so am therefore unclear about how Dellar and Walkely imagine this exercise could be taught without also having to make explicit what these words and phrases are euphemisms for (e.g. how do you teach “powder my nose” without explaining also teaching “go for a (massive) dump” (the massive bit is optional as indicated by the brackets), or “eff off” without saying that that “eff” stands for “Fuck” (a rude word) and “off” for … well, “off”?).


Before moving onto “Challenging the Coursebook” – Challenge Accepted: Part 2, there is one further point concerning coursebook content raised by Jordan. Towards the end of his presentation, he makes a case for preferring locally produced materials over those produced by the major international publishers (i.e. Oxford University Press, Pearson, Macmillan, Cambridge University Press / Cambridge English):

this absurd, um, domination of materials produced in England um, where everybody walks around in silly English clothes and jumps on double-decker buses and, and so on.

This comment is neither “completely faulty” nor “totally wrong”. Yes, it is of course easy to find plenty of texts about and references to places, people and events in what Kachru (1992) calls the “inner circle” – that is to say, of life in, say, Manchester, Detroit or Melbourne. However, you can at the same time find a very significant number of texts about and references to places, people and events in the “expanding circle”*.

Content relating to life in Spain is particularly noticeable – I’ve lost count of the number of coursebooks that include a text on La Tomatina for example – but you can also find copious amounts of material on Dubai (especially the Burj Khalifa), Cairo, Istanbul, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Prague and Tokyo (to name just a few).

Not only that, but I would actually argue that a distinguishing feature of the content of international coursebooks is just how small a role bright red phone boxes, London Routemaster double-deckers and newspaper-wrapped fish and chips actually play in contrast to language courses produced by locally-based publishers for local consumers.

Here for example, are the front covers of English Result: Elementary (Hancock and McDonald, 2010):


Speakout: Upper Intermediate (Eales and Oakes, 2011):


and Inside Out Pre-intermediate (Kay and Jones, 2002):


Here we have, in order, some random rent-a-bloke checking his mobile phone (not quite sure what that’s meant to represent, though he looks like he’s just received a message from the dole office telling him they’ve just cut his benefits off), a graphic of an open quotation mark – the inference is clear, if a little trite in my opinion – and a plain orange cover featuring an inset image of an abstract painting by artist Howard Hodgkin (my favourite of the three if I’m honest).

In stark contrast to these any-time-anywhere covers, we have Perfectionnement Anglais (Bulger, 2009), featuring an oblique reference to General Zod from the 1980 movie Superman II:

51JbHMFym6L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_English da zero (Sloan, 2014), featuring an oblique reference to the oeuvre of the late film director Stanley Kubrick:


And Tunwell & Acunã’s Aprenda Ingles YA! (Yiman, 2012) featuring an oblique reference to the oeuvre of the latte Hollywood actor and National Rifle Association president (1998-2003), Charlton Heston:


An important point needs to be made here – while the covers from local/regional publishers are very keen to push an Anglocentric theme, I acknowledge that this is not to compare like with like. Firstly, many of these ‘local’ examples turn out to be international publications with localized versions. Secondly, local publishers wishing to compete with International publications will naturally want to replicate what those International publishers have to offer.

But the main point is that, in contrast to what Jordan appears to be suggesting in Challenging the Coursebook, it should be understood very clearly that locally produced ELT content should never be assumed to be, merely by default, superior to or more morally palatable than one published internationally simply by dint of being a local product. And in fact, I would go even further than that and say that while locally published course books are oftentimes cheaper, they are also not infrequently of a correspondingly lower quality.

The biggest irony of all for Jordan’s claims about coursebooks is that, because they lack the same kind of budgets that the international publishers typically operate with, the language input on offer can quite often be accurately described as: “a very weird kind of English … not the normal sort of English you find in good texts … not representative of the way people communicate in English” and where “everybody speaks in complete, well-formed sentences”. Even code-switching, the one major advantage that you would expect a local publisher to have over an international one, is almost entirely absent. I would very much like to stress that this is not always the case, but it is certainly not uncommon.

In the next part, “Challenging the Coursebook” – Challenge Accepted: Part 2 I will address Jordan’s first major criticism, which is his claim that coursebooks wrongly assume that: “Declarative knowledge is converted to procedural knowledge by the presentation and practice of discrete items of grammar.”


Bard, R.

– (2015) To coursebook or not to coursebook? is that really the question? [19 May 2015] available from <https://rosebardeltdiary.wordpress.com&gt; [5 June 2015]

– (2015) Sorry to insist! But is using or not really the question? [21 May 2015] available from <https://rosebardeltdiary.wordpress.com&gt; [5 June 2015]

Bulger, A. (2009) Perfectionnement Anglais. Chennevières-sur-Marne: Assimil

Clandfield, L., Robb Benne, R., with Jeffries, A. (2011) Global Intermediate: Student’s Book Oxford: Macmillan Education

Dellar, H. and Walkley, A. (2007) Innovations Advanced. London [u.a.]: Thomson

Doff, A., Thaine, C., Puchta, H., Stranks, J. and Lewis-Jones, P. (2015) Cambridge English Empower Upper Intermediate Student’s Book Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Doff, A., Thaine, C., Puchta, H., Stranks, J., Lewis-Jones, P., Godfrey, R. and Davies, G. (2015) Cambridge English Empower Intermediate Student’s Book Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Eales, F. and Oakes, S. (2011) Speakout: Upper Intermediate Harlow: Longman

Frendo, E. and Hsu, S. (2010) Intercultural Business English: Working In Asia. Berlin: Cornelsen

Hall, G. and Cook, G. (2015) The English language needs and priorities of young adults in the European Union: student and teacher perceptions London: The British Council

Hancock, M. and McDonald, A. (2010) English Result: Elementary. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Jordan, G.

– (2015) Challenging the Coursebook [10 May 2015] available from < https://canlloparot.wordpress.com> [5 June 2015]

– (2015) Dellar Defends the Coursebook [13 May 2015] available from < https://canlloparot.wordpress.com> [5 June 2015]

– (2015) Challenging the Coursebook: Part 2 [18 May 2015] available from < https://canlloparot.wordpress.com> [5 June 2015]

– (2015) Materials Banks: an Alternative to Coursebooks [22 May 2015] available from < https://canlloparot.wordpress.com> [5 June 2015]

– (2015) Critical Thinking: A Few Thoughts [26 May 2015] available from < https://canlloparot.wordpress.com> [5 June 2015]

Kachru, B. (1982) The Other Tongue. Urbana: University of Illinois Press

Kay, S., Jones, V., Maggs, P. and Smith, C. (2008) New Inside Out: Pre-intermediate Oxford: Macmillan Education

Oxenden, C. and Latham-Koenig, C. (2009) New English File: Beginner. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Redston, C. and Cunningham, G. (2012) Face2face. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Sloan, J.P. (2014) English da zero Segrate: Mondadori

Tilbury, A., Clementson, T., Hendra, L.A., Read, D. and Doff, A. (2015) English Unlimited Pre-intermediate Coursebook with e-Portfolio Cambridge University Press

Thornberry, S.

– (2010) G is for Grammar McNuggets [18 September 2010] available from <https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com&gt; [5 June 2015]

– (2014) Who ordered the McNuggets? [13 February 2014] available from < http://eltjam.com&gt; [5 June 2015]

Viman (ed.) (2009) Aprenda Ingles YA! Spain: Tomo

One thought on ““Challenging the Coursebook” – Challenge Accepted

  1. Pingback: On choosing coursebooks (badly) | Sandy Millin

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