Lessons from Scratch


Once again the course book issue has raised its head in the blogosphere.  It probably started with Kalinago’s Dogme Challenge meme and now with one of Jason Renshaw’s latest post.  There is an excellent discussion there and I highly recommend checking it out.  There are a number of really important issues to come out of it that I would like to take a look at.

The first one is this old argument that dogme or any materials light methodology are only for experienced teachers.  I find this idea very questionable.  I think of my own TEFL course, courses I’ve trained on, and courses I’ve seen.  How many TEFL or CELTA courses have large segments on using a course book effectively?  Very few that I’ve seen.  Most courses teach teachers to create lessons from scratch.

If they were able to create lessons with almost no experience and no course book in training, why do we assume they lose this ability when they suddenly enter a real teaching position?  I would argue that most teachers start to learn how to teach on initial certificate courses and forget once they enter the industry with its reliance on course books, disinterest in supporting and developing teachers, and lack of a career-oriented community of teachers and many schools.

I really just don’t buy this idea that new teachers on the block cannot teach without a course book (although I would consider a well-thought out curriculum as a guide to be useful for new teachers).  If initial training courses focus on lessons from scratch and educating teachers on how to find and build materials, I see no reason why this would be a problem.

Of course at first it may take more time to be able to build lessons quickly, but that’s the case with any teacher.  Even in schools where a book is used, I still often see new teachers spending 4 hours planning a 2-hour lesson.  Having the book didn’t seem to diminish planning time unless the teacher did no more than grab the book and run through the exercises in order, which, in that case, you don’t even need the teacher there!

I remember when I first got rid of a book.  I spent hours finding material and creating lessons, but I had no guidance.  Through practice and experience I learned how to do it very quickly.  It takes me very little time to create lessons these day regardless of if I use materials in the class or not.

I am also currently running a  TESOL training course which pushes an anti-course book methodology.  None of the trainees are having undo trouble creating lessons.  Sure it takes a while, but even after their first week of practice teaching they start to get better and quicker at it.

In the end, this idea that new teachers need a course book as a crutch is not supported by the way we train teachers nor by claims that it somehow takes less work to create good lessons with them.

Your thoughts?


  • By supercatmuses, October 11, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

    I totally agree with you about CELTA type certificates not teaching you how to use a book. On my CELTA I never even opened a course book. When I started my first job after CELTA (a smalll and looking back, pretty bad private school in Italy) the director gave me a course book and said “do this – just do the book” and my first week or so was spent lamenting the fact that my CELTA had prepared me to plan my own classes and make my own materials but had not prepared me to use a book intelligently. A course book is a tool, just like a IWB or a pen. I don’t believe it is intrinsically bad or good but depends on what you make of it. I suspect that course books are loved, not so much by enthusiastic newcomers to the profession but, by people who lack interest or motivation and do go into class and “just do the book” without thought either before or after the class.

  • By Karenne Sylvester, October 11, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

    Sometimes I wonder if we have forgotten that books used to cost really, really a lot of money, or they weren’t available and still aren’t in many countries. And people learn the language of that country anyway.

    We have given over too much power to the publishers and my personal feeling is that is the main point and the driving reason behind Thornbury’s initial article.


  • By Cecilia Lemos Coelho, October 12, 2010 @ 5:41 am

    Hi Nick,

    Like you I’ve been following the whole debate from various sources – and it’s made me analyze my practice in a way I had never done before, and try to narrow down what exactly are my thoughts on the matter.

    When thinking about whether new teachers are ready for teaching unplugged (or going dogme – I have to admit I’m still a bit confused by the terminology here) I have mixed feelings. The first thing I want to say is I don’t think we can generalize, because there are many different kinds of new teachers (as there are many kinds of experienced teachers). I’ve seen some fresh-out-of-training teachers who were completely natural at it, with great intuition, picking things up in the air – natural-born teachers. So ‘when I speak of new teachers here I’ll be talking about the average one (and then again, is there such a thing? I wonder…)

    When preparing/teaching lessons from scratch, do the years of being inside the classroom, planning and creating activities/materials give the experienced teachers an advantage? Yes, I think so. As you said, after years of doing this, things just come faster to us, without as much effort and time being needed. On the other hand, we could say that the new teachers bring a fresh new mind, many times filled with creativity and ideas fueled by the enthusiasm that most start with. I consider that an advantage as well. I’m not saying those of us (like me) who have been doing this for many (many) years don’t have that enthusiasm or creativity. But it’s easy to settle into a routine and stick to the same patterns after some time. Let me say that from what I’ve seen this doesn’t apply to most teachers I’ve come across on Twitter and the blogosphere. I think these teachers are the ones who don’t let that happen to their practices, who are always looking for development, improvement, always reassessing their ways of teaching.

    So, can new teachers create lessons from scratch? Can they set themselves free of the coursebook crutch? Absolutely. You mentioned that a well-developed curriculum as a guide would be useful. I say in most new teacher’s cases it is essential. But I’m not sure it’s a matter of being able to create these lessons or not. The ability for it is there.

    Maybe the biggest advantage an experienced teacher has on these situations, is the confidence that years of teaching gives you. That same confidence that makes you plan and prepare quicker (you plan quicker not only because you know more things, but also because you trust what you know, you’ve used it, tested it…). Do we have confident new teachers – I think so. Because there are exceptions to every rule. But they are exceptions. Am I overestimating confidence? Maybe. But you asked for my thoughts – and right now that’s where they are.

    Great outlook on the issue. I really enjoyed thinking about the topic looking at a different angle. :-)

  • By Michelle Worgan, October 12, 2010 @ 8:50 am

    I actually agree with what you say here, Nick (and Cecilia) despite my comment on English Raven about it being more difficult for inexperienced teachers to go umplugged. I wasn’t advocating the course book exactly, but in many situations, as Cecilia said on her blog, the course book IS the syllabus. This gives a new teacher a structure to the course they are teaching that they can bear in mind when planning lessons (or not planning them, if we’re talking dogme) even if it may not be the structure we prefer. If I think about my own experience, if I had tried to go completely unplugged not so long ago, I don’t think I would have been very successful.

    My point is that, to quote Cecilia, “a well-developed curriculum would be useful” for the less experienced teachers. By all means go unplugged, but have something there to guide you and to fall back on.

  • By turklis1, October 12, 2010 @ 10:12 am

    Hi Supercatmuses. I don’t want to go down the road that all teachers who use a book are unmotivated or lazy (although this can be the case in some schools). But it is certainly a very relevant question. Why are our training courses pushing one thing, but we see something so different in the schools. Either the schools need to get with the program or training courses need to give up and prepare teachers for the current state of teaching in language schools.

  • By turklis1, October 12, 2010 @ 10:14 am

    I agree Karenne. Out of all the teachers I know who have learned the language of country they’re living in, none have used a course book as the primary means of learning. In fact, the teachers that do try or that go to courses with this approach still can’t speak the language after 10+ years.

  • By turklis1, October 12, 2010 @ 10:16 am

    Hi Cecilia, fantastic comment! I agree with you. I would just like to stress my original point though that inexperienced teachers can make lessons from scratch and that they will then become better at doing this. I really don’t think following a strict course book approach prepares teachers for none course book use and so the idea that only experienced teachers can do it is false.

  • By turklis1, October 12, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    Hi Michelle, I’ve been thinking a lot about my first days of teaching as well. I remember taking a long time to create activities or make the course book interesting, but I didn’t think it was so bad. I ask myself what I would have done though if I didn’t have that curriculum for a guide. This is where I really agree with you and Cecilia. Curriculum development and emergent curriculums are not something that can simply be taught in passing. CELTA courses would need to incorporate it as a primary component or something more serious than a CELTA will somehow become standardized and recognized instead. I don’t think teaching emergent curriculums is too hard and I personally feel it’d be the best way to go. Hmmm… I see a post coming on that one :)

  • By Diarmuid, October 13, 2010 @ 6:45 am

    I’m bemused by the passion that this seems to evoke – possibly due to so many twitterati being coursebook writers. But even that fails to explain how defensive people become when promoting coursebooks. They either genuinely love them or they feel that we are arrogant despots who are telling our colleagues how to teach.

    Coursebook or no coursebook? The turht is that it doesn’t bother me what other people want to do. I find them immensely difficult to teach from. Skills are usually dealt with woefully and the vocab that they preteach always seems to be the vocab that everybody knows!

    Over the last 14 years of a sixteen year career, I have avoided the coursebook wherever possible. I have occasionally used the texts and on rarer occasions used the odd activity from them. In all of those 14 years, I think I have had less than 10 complaints.

    The http://WWW.conclusion.com seems to be that all teachers will do whatever they feel is best. “For whom?” you might wonder. It’s a rather bland conclusion (but this can be a rather bland profession at times). It also seems to tar all teachers with the same fairy-dust paint brush. I think that a more accurate conclusion will be that teachers will usually do whatever is easiest for them to do. This is not to be critical – after all, it’s a fairly human trait! Those of us who agonise over every activity in a coursebook will go off and prepare our owwn materials that we DO believe in; those of us who see an intrinsic worth in the structure and the security of the coursebook will embrace its pages with love.

  • By DavidD, October 13, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    I agree with your views in the post Nick. All CELTA courses I’ve heard of train teachers in creating their own lessons. My first job in Turkey was at a school using very out-dated course books (Blueprint), which no students ever bought and no teachers ever opened! However, when I reflect on those days, most teachers created grammar focused lessons and there was not enough work done on reading and listening in particular. It could be argued that that was giving the students what they wanted (as you know, most adult learners here want to pass exams and/or improve job prospects, for which they have to pass exams!) but it could also be argued that the lack of a decent course book led to teachers falling back on self-produced worksheets rather than student-driven lessons built around emergent language.

    And one more thing: it should be stressed that in your example about teachers learning ‘the language of the country they are living in’ without books, they are living in the country where the language is spoken. I believe that is the best way to learn a language. But what about all those who never get to travel to, let alone live in, such a country? They need lessons, classrooms, teachers and (dare I say it?), materials…

  • By turklis1, October 13, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

    Hi Diarmuid, long time no see. I’m glad this debate has brought you out from under your shell. You’ve been quite active on your blog recently too!

    I do tend to be actively anti-course book these days. Certainly didn’t start out that way, but I’ll detail in a post soon reasons why I feel this is so. Like you, I often pick up a course book and simply can’t imagine using it in any kind of serious way. Like Cecilia, I may pick out an activity or two now and again, but that’s about it.

    Of course all teachers will do what they feel is best. I think the goals of these debates and the goals of having any kind of training or qualification in general is to advocate effective ways of teaching and convincing teachers that that’s the case.

  • By turklis1, October 13, 2010 @ 8:34 pm

    Hey David, your experience is insightful. I think the fall back on grammar based activities is modeling what we saw in our own language classes we took as children and even comes from CELTA courses. I remember thinking I must have a practice section of my lesson and this should always be some kind of grammar based worksheet. Current courses don’t really implant the idea of conversation driven lessons or show teachers how to do them. The belief among teachers can often be learning grammar is learning language.

    The students needs are also important. If they only need to pass the KPDS or UDS, they have no use for listening or speaking. Grammar exercises would be the correct way to teach in that case in my opinion. Those students gravitate towards Turkish courses though. The students that want to speak come to language courses that emphasize communication. As you say though, they still often want grammar and a course book because it’s what they know. That doesn’t mean it’s going to help them speak. I find that slowly weaning them off this belief works very well and within a couple weeks they can’t imagine going back to learning like they had before!

    You’re right about teachers I know living in the countries where the language they are learning is spoken. However, this simply reemphasizes the need for communication in the language classroom rather than rigidly following a course book. Course books rarely provide real communicative activities in my opinion. They are often too fake to take seriously or too focused on grammar to be seen as more than an excuse for practicing the grammar on the page.

  • By Dave Waters, October 21, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

    I find a technical course book saves photocopying, the photos and diagrams are often of a very high standard. One page can easily stimulate an hour’s lesson. Often the technical course books have lots of useful words and phrases and assume that the reader/learner has ‘done’ the relevant ‘bit’ of grammar. Caveat – I do not teach people to pass exams, I help them have the confidence to describe what they do, quickly, and understandably even if the subject and verb don’t always agree for number.

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