Three current TESOL controversiesOct 22, 2021
By James Jenkin
Course books: Yes or no?
Many teachers and students are fans of course books. Most are professionally written and provide teachers with ready-made material. Their alignment with international proficiency levels, such as CEFR, is useful for schools. And, more importantly, they provide a coherent structure for students.
But it’s not that simple.
While its slick visuals and production values may be superficially engaging, can a course book ever really meet the interests of a particular group of students?
Most major course book series provide print and online material for independent learning. But do they help students direct their own learning? Is choice of practice activities the same as choice of an individual study path?
Richards (2014) argues course book in combination with a teacher’s book can provide guidance and on-the-job training for new teachers. Littlejohn takes a contrary view, suggesting the course book has the capacity to deskill teachers: ‘Materials are thus now taking on an increasingly significant role in the structuring of classroom time, claiming to provide not only the basis for the content for classroom work but also the manner in which teachers and learners are to interact’ (1992:21).
More broadly, do course books help students achieve their goals in the English-speaking world? Many course materials present themselves as aspirational, asking students to imagine themselves in international business and professional contexts. Gray (2016:103) suggests this is imposition of the cultural, commercial and ideological values of a dominant Inner-Circle – denying learners ‘a vocabulary for talking about a [different] reality’.
Reading aloud: Yes or no?
Reading aloud is out of favor in the communicative classroom. Most practitioners would assert reading aloud is not an authentic task. It’s not meaningful communication, and it doesn’t develop the skills (like pronunciation) it supposedly promotes. Not to mention it’s stressful and boring.
Done for the wrong (or for no) purpose – with fifty students reading one line at a time around the class – reading aloud does indeed provoke anxiety. Learners make mistakes they wouldn’t usually make in spontaneous communication (Birch, 2002). But alternative approaches, such as students reading to each other with active listening activities, can make reading aloud an enjoyable experience.
The ‘linear’ aspect of reading aloud is not generally how teachers think students should approach a text. However, it can still develop a range of reading skills. Consciously dealing with relationships between the writing system and phonemes helps students recognize and learn words more quickly (Stanovich, 1991).
Many have argued reading aloud does not develop natural pronunciation (e.g. Celce-Murcia et al, 1996). The writing system rarely reflects word- and sentence-level phonological features, such as stress and rhythm. However, Gibson (2008) suggests the teacher can refer to the written text to help students identify and practice prosodic features. She also argues it provides an opportunity in class to diagnose students’ pronunciation errors.
Eliciting: Yes or no?
Eliciting – basically, asking questions – has been a cornerstone of communicative teaching. It’s a key technique taught on many training courses, and an eye-opener to new teachers who assumed their role would be to lecture. It can be used for many different purposes: to establishing a context (Where’s this? Who’s this?), teaching vocabulary, grammar and functional language (What’s this? What does she say?), and correcting errors (Yesterday I …? Tense?).
Most people would agree it’s a positive step to engage students in the learning process. Constant teacher talk is boring.
However, ‘extreme eliciting’ – where doing anything in class becomes a guessing game – irritates students and serves no purpose. Thornbury (2016) illustrates this as follows:
Does eliciting help students learn? We often hear that eliciting ‘ensures that the learners work towards understanding the meaning as this is more likely to help them remember’ (Choudry, 2010: 312), but as with many classroom techniques this is difficult to falsify, as there are so many factors involved. There’s in fact evidence that direct feedback is more likely to help students use a structure correctly (Carroll & Lyster 2004). It’s also more efficient.
Birch, B. (2002). English L2 Reading: Getting to the Bottom. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Celce-Murcia, M.D. Brinton & J. Goodwin. (1996). Teaching Pronunciation: A Reference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Choudhury, A.S. (2010). Teaching Vocabulary in the ESL/EFL Classroom: Central Pedagogical Issues. The Modern Journal of Applied Linguistics, 2(4).
Gibson, S. (2008). Reading Aloud: A Useful Learning Tool? ELT Journal, 62(1).
Gray, J. (2016). ELT Materials: Claims, Critiques and Controversies. In Hall, Graham (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching. Routledge.
Littlejohn, A. (1992). Why are ELT Materials the Way They are? (Doctoral dissertation, University of Lancaster)
Lyster, R. (2004). Differential Effects of Prompts and Recasts in Form-Focused Instruction. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 26.
Richards, J.C. (2014). The ELT textbook. International Perspectives on Materials in ELT, pp.19-36.
Stanovich, K. (1991). Changing Models of Reading and Reading Acquisition. In L. Rieberi and C. Perfetti (eds.), Learning to Read: Basic Research and its Implications. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Thornbury, S. (2016). E is for Eliciting. https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/?s=eliciting
James Jenkin has worked in the field of TESOL for over twenty years as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum designer and academic manager. He is an IELTS examiner and has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Monash University, Australia.
Image source: shutterstock.com/Zhu difeng