… really rotten materials.
Modern English Teacher, July 2006
This was a reply to an article by Neil McBeath, “How To Write really Rotten Materials” in which Neil complained about the process of developing ELT books. The reply was published in the next issue of Modern English Teacher.
I enjoyed Neil McBeath’s article in the January 2006 issue, and I laughed a lot, and I was aware that some uncomfortable truths lurked in there. But a response from a course book writer (or as some would have it, coarse bookwriter) is necessary. I’ll take Neil’s article point by point.
Arrogance and ignorance
Really rotten materials are the result of a hard-nosed self confidence that comes from a rare combination of arrogance and ignorance.
Absolutely right. So are really good materials. For years teachers have confided to me that they could write a great textbook if they had the time, money and leisure. I’ve seen brilliant teachers who can’t make the transition to textbook writing. The underlying reason is fear. That is, the fear of having something in cold print that your friends and colleagues can then criticize. When I first wrote Streamline with Bernie Hartley, we had a large group of teachers who had to go in and teach it as we wrote it. We had our morning coffee with them, we taught the same classes, we had lunch with them, we socialized with them. Their opinions were vastly more frightening than the opinion of publishers or large audiences at conferences afterwards. So hard-nosed self confidence is essential, just as it is in novel writing, songwriting, painting or any other activity that exposes your creations to the world. You have to live with the fact that some one may come up to you in ten years’ time, brandishing your book and saying, ‘Did you really write this crap?’ If you never put anything in print, you’re free of this worry.
Does confidence come from arrogance? With some of us it may (and I’d probably include myself. I know some of my editors would). With others it comes from the sense that they’ve researched it, tried it out, done their very best. As for ignorance, that’s a more difficult question. I’ve spoken to many fellow authors who refuse to look at other course books at all. Some are frightened of unconcious plagiarism, some are scared that the purity of their vision will be compromised, some are plain not interested. In my case, I buy every coursebook that comes out at the levels I work at. We tend to skim them looking at design, illustration and syllabus. We read some from cover to cover. Every one will have a new exercise technique or approach to a piece of the syllabus, and you can learn from the ones you dislike as much as the ones you like. I angered a group of teachers in Japan by stating that Headway had had far greater influence on what happens in the ELT classroom that the entire collected works of Stephen Krashen. In practical terms, coursebooks are the filter through which theory reaches the classroom. It’s a thick filter with an inbuilt delay system, but the good ideas trickle through eventually. And a lot of crap gets caught in the filter and never passes through.
Forming a team
British situation comedy on TV was almost always written by a team of two. The classics from Dad’s Army through Fawlty Towers to Father Ted all had two authors. The one that’s considered the greatest of all, Fawlty Towers, had a male/female team. I believe that a male / female team is the most effective for ELT too, and I can normally spot ‘two male authors’ or ‘two female authors’ without looking at the names on the cover.
British situation comedy declined, and the TV schedules were taken over by American series written by large and changing teams of up to thirty writers … Cheers, Friends, Frasier. It was only through such a large team that quality could be maintained for twenty-six episodes a season. Teams of this size might exist in ELT, but I don’t know of them, and would suspect that there wouldn’t be decent recompense for any of them.
Neil’s article betrays … well, ignorance … of the process. I know of no team with an author, illustrator and a computer nerd. Illustrators only form part of the basic team at primary level, because textbooks have multiple illustrators. Illustration is an integral part of the process, and for our last project In English, the group at design meetings consisted of: two authors (who would be considered the “writing team”) plus editor, designer, illustration manager, illustration researcher, photography manager, photo researcher. We made our own tea, so that was it. I have to be my own computer nerd.
Writing teams function in different ways. Some courses will have one person doing contexts, another exercises, a third skills work. In the teams I’ve been involved with, we have deliberately never split duties. Everyone participates in everything, because that’s where the need for two people to bounce ideas back and forth comes into play. I’ve written solo too, and this is the easiest way with something like graded readers. I don’t think it’s wise to write a coursebook solo unless you have an excellent editor and one who has the confidence (or courage) to intervene on a regular basis.
Neil points out that the same limited range of 24 topics are used again and again. True. ‘Oh, no! Not pollution again,’ must be a thought that regularly runs through the minds of students all over the world as they open the textbook at unit 13.
Neil is right about plagiarism too. It would take me far too long to point out the examples of Streamline contexts that have found a new life in other textbooks. With both Streamline and Grapevine even (or especially in the latter case) the workbook contexts have been, er, influential on subsequent courses. I’m fed up of spotting the lifts from Handshake, which is our most plagiarised book.
On the triviality accusation – doubly borrowed by Neil in fact, who was quoting Jan Bell who was quoting Alan Maley – I’ve written at length in the past. Mario Rinvolucri’s comment that EFL avoids the shadow side of life is another aspect. This originally comes from an article, A Coursebook Writer / Coarse Book Writer Responds on the now defunct TEFL-Farm website which I replied to at length. As it’s all gone from the ether, though preserved on our website (see the link) it’s worth repeating some of it.
Mario talked about “the soft, fudgey, sub-journalistic woman’s magaziney view of the world,” and there was an earlier remark on the “crooning, slow maternal didactic speech of female colleagues.” Mario was trying to inspire response and got it, both from me and from Michael Swan and Catherine Walter. The word ‘sexist’ was used more than once. Scott Thornbury also had a lot to say on the choice of topics and the resulting ‘triviality’ of materials. I’ll recycle my response.
There are five areas to consider on topics:
The teacher’s role
Your students have 40 hours. No more. What is the most efficient use of your time and their time? In short courses, everything you do should be balanced against their needs. They’re in your class to learn English.
This is from the Heinemann Guide for Authors, 1991:
Due to the sensitivity of some of the markets for which we produce books, we have to be very careful about the topics which we cover. Obviously when producing books for the UK and Northern European markets most subjects are acceptable, but in more conservative and religious markets there are various things we must be careful with. The list below should be used as a guideline but please do discuss any topics you feel strongly about using with your editor.
The list includes abuse, aids, narcotics, terrorism, disputed borders, sex, rape, religion, pornography.
Students should have the chance to discuss what are appropriate questions, and what are appropriate topics for conversation in their cultures. Whether they then go on to discuss the topics themselves is their choice.
What degree of intimacy do you have with your students? What degree of intimacy do they have with one another? Topic is related to degree of intimacy. Crossing a student’s own intimacy barrier is poor communication. Some people have the knack for escalating conversation to a deeper degree of intimacy. Others don’t.
At the lower levels, limited language level can cause serious interpretation problems. In one class of Libyan students, I was doing a text which involved a black bear. One student became increasingly sullen and angry. After the class I spoke to him. He was darker than his classmates, and was also a big lad. After about ten minutes discussion it became apparent that he thought he was being referred to as a black bear.
5) The teacher’s role
Topics are always best when students think they have introduced them, rather than the teacher. We’ve often used the teacher’s book to suggest routes the discussion might follow, rather than banging them overtly in the student book. Sidetracking the teacher onto a risque or controversial topic is something students enjoy. Allowing them to think (a) they introduced the topic (b) no other class had their originality in doing so, is a great teaching skill. A forced discussion on a controversial topic is a bit like sex education discussions when you’re eleven years old. Embarrassing. I’ll never forget my biology teacher, “Stop sniggering! If there’s any more sniggering, you’ll leave the class and then you’ll never learn how to do it.”
I wish I hadn’t sniggered now.
Neil suggests that the excuse for luxury, Western contexts is ‘Be aspirational.’ This might be a quote from my article at TEFL-Farm. I said that there. Extensive trialling should pick up the more obvious “skiing for Thais” (when the textbook asks Do you like skiing? to students in tropical countries) context. But what about the middle class, Western world of air travel for students in rural China? I think that there is an aspirational aspect to role-playing an airport check in, rather than discussing who’s going to mend the puncture with the local bus driver.
I’ve pastiched this myself. We were looking at a recent course book with pictures of twelve famous people, and Karen recognized only three, and I recognized two. We’d only even heard of six of them. They were that famous. In practical terms, publishers have learned to steer clear of famous people though. The trouble is they die (Princess Diana) or get involved in unsavoury news stories (Michael Jackson) or allegedly take drugs publicly (a model who appears in several courses). The book looks dated, or expensive changes have to be made in later editions, or even worse the audio has to be changed too.
On songs, it’s not as easy as you might think. As ELT publishers re-record the songs for copyright reasons, there’s no problem in re-recording any song. You pay pre-set “mechanical royalties” to the songwriters. But you need permission to print the lyrics anywhere, Student Book, Teacher’s Book, Photocopiables. You won’t get permission for Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman or solo Paul McCartney lyrics. I’ve tried them all. Some books will shove in Yesterday in an Elementary Past Simple lesson, ignoring the problems with vocabulary and all the other structures. I like a song to be at least 50% transparent, and like many others have found 60s songs a better source of simpler lyrics. This is not just our age!
I’m guilty of using places I’ve visited, particularly basing Basic Survival around San Diego, Vancouver and Alaska. Um, well, it might make the trip tax deductable. In reality, it does mean that directions work, you have a good collection of realia, and in my case your own posed photos too.
I can’t argue with any of Neil’s points. Teaching colours through flags is a classic. I remember books printing the flags in black and white and asking students to name the colours from general knowledge. As so often, ELT relies on general knowledge which students may not … probably don’t … share.
I don’t think this shows any knowledge at all of the real situation. In my experience, it’s always the publisher who instigates delays in a project. As any author can tell you (ruefully) publishing contracts impose delivery dates on authors, but never impose publication dates on publishers. The Society of Authors has been complaining about this for years.
Trialing & Feedback
There are two ways in which feedback is obtained, one by asking teachers to trial material in class, the other by asking for a reader’s report on the manuscript. As I write this I have readers’ reports from twenty readers from five countries beside me. Trials can be a trial in another sense, but they are part of the job. I’ve done it the other way around too, and did my fair share of trials and readers’ reports. No one asks me any more, possibly because I’d have an axe to grind as a published author, or possibly because of my arrogance and ignorance. It’s a pity as I’m both cheap and quick.
Neil talks about printing the book before the trial, and I can’t imagine any publisher being daft enough to do this. I do believe that some trials are really for publicity purposes, so that the publisher can print a list of twenty or thirty large institutes in a dozen countries on the inside page. Some publishers are keener on this than others, and have lists of over fifty places and people. There are two schools of thought on the practice. The first is that institutes may adopt it because they are mentioned. This is optimistic in the extreme, as you see the same institutes (and people) in list after list. The second is that it proves the course was trialed in a particular country, even if that trial was one teacher with 10% of the book, unillustrated and without final tapes. Quite often, a reader will trial a book, make totally negative comments (which are ignored) then find herself listed on the acknowledgments page. I can’t count how often teachers have told me, ‘I did a reader’s report on Book X, but they totally ignored it.’
The native speaker v non-native speaker points are amusing, where Neil advises the writing team to damn the native speakers in a pilot as difficult and the non-native speakers as lacking in language level. I’ve seen it done. Actually, I find the non-native speaker reports more valuable time after time. They are far more likely to try the whole thing and follow the logic. Native-speakers will try one activity, switch to a Bingo game of their own on a photocopiable, skip two exercises and try the third. As I’ve said for years, too few people give a course a chance to reveal the hours of painstaking work that’s gone into it, by following the progression the authors have written. People are going to mix and match materials, we all know that, but one of the purposes of trialing is to check that everything works.
Some ‘How not to …’ advice
I often feel that only fellow coursebook authors fully appreciate the amount of thought and care and effort that goes into any course book from a major publisher. I can think of some really, thoroughly rotten coursebooks, but not any from one of the main international publishers. There are a few pointers I’d like to add.
• Write the book and series in sequence. As I specialize at the lower levels, ‘subtraction syllabuses’ irritate me. That is, when a series starts in the middle, goes up, then because it’s been successful goes down to pre-intermediate and elementary. When this happens, the easier syllabus has to be created by subtracting from the higher level syllabuses. Going backwards is always less satisfactory. The best ideas for teaching something were in the intermediate book. The second-best are in the most important initial levels.
• The whole book counts. Illustration isn’t decoration, it’s part of the working tool set which the teacher uses in the classroom. A whole page moody picture of Big Ben at night (taken from a picture library) might look great when you leaf through, but it does nothing for the lesson.
• Be wary of throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. When a trial is done, the trial teachers react like a two year old and say ‘Yeth’ to all questions.
Do you want more listening? Ooh, yes. More reading? That’d be nice. Cultural content related to your country? Please. Culture comparison? Fine. Names from your country? Oh, yes. A pronunciation sub-syllabus? Mmm. Lovely. Photocopiables? Yes, please! Progress tests? Wonderful. A video? That’d be great. CD-Rom? Fantastic. Website? Absolutely. Gold-edged binding on the Teacher’s Book? Fabulous. A free bar of chocolate with every copy? Definitely.
The resulting book will either be too thick for students to carry, or much more likely dense and over-crowded. There’ll always be publisher resistance to adding more pages because it costs money, and will continue to cost money in printing and even in freight charges. More importantly, the teacher still has a limited number of contact hours.
• Resist market pressure to use proper names from every conceivable country that might use the book in the happiest dreams of the optimistic marketing director. Ilona and Sinead visiting Guadalajara on vacation will cause justifiable irritation from a teacher in Japan dealing with the pronunciation. After all they’ve just spent ten minutes getting students to say Jean in the French way and Jesus in the Spanish way, and they’re getting tired. Last year, we put ten beginner courses on the desk and counted over fifty non-English given names, at least ten of which we didn’t know how to pronounce.
• At the end of the day, when the reviewer in Modern English Teacher hates the book, when your fellow teachers scoff at your approach to passives, when someone says that the unit on vacations is both hackneyed and deeply insulting to all citizens of Andorra, when respected figures accuse you of being trivial or sexist … when all the brown stuff hits the metal revolving thing, it’s your name on the cover.
Not the managing editor’s.
Not the desk editor’s.
Not the designer’s.
Not the illustrator’s.
So sometimes you have to remember that and stick to your principles.