In this post, Susanna Schwab from the Bern University of Teacher Education, who trains pre-service primary school teachers to teach English as a foreign language, summarises the main points of her talk at the IATEFL (2023) MaWSIG Showcase in Harrogate. Her talk focused on how teachers use prescribed coursebooks in Switzerland.
In this talk, I shared findings from a research project about how teachers use a compulsory ELT coursebook that I conducted between 2018 and 2021 with six primary school teachers in Switzerland. I then focused on two findings that emerged from the study and which had not been anticipated in the research.
Although the teacher’s guide claims to be based on task-based language teaching, the teachers did not use this approach in their lessons. The teacher’s guide claims that the coursebook uses Task-Based Learning (TBL). Having observed teachers for more than 100 lessons (45 minutes each), I found out that the traditional PPP approach was used more or less constantly. Teachers and learners used up so much of the 45-minute-lesson with the presentation and practice phase that time had run out well before reaching the production phase. The two pages of the coursebook New World 1 (Arnet-Clark et al., 2013) shown in Figures 1a and 1b illustrate the approach most teachers used.
Figure 1a shows the warm-up activity (PB, Ex 1.4, Hokey Pokey song and dance) that several teachers used to begin the lesson. The learners were already familiar with the song and dance from a previous lesson. The students were then asked to sit down, open their AB at page 20 and do Exercise 3.1.
Moving on to Exercise 3.2, some learners managed to write a few instructions, but when it came to the only communicative activity (Exercise 3.3), time had run out. In the next lesson, teachers moved on to the following page and started work at the top of the page. Again, they managed to complete two thirds of the lesson at most, missing out on the production phase.
I concluded that when teachers closely follow the coursebook and work their way through the materials step-by-step, little or no TBL can be observed. In addition, there was hardly any communicative interaction, and learners rarely engaged cognitively or affectively with the materials.
In quite a few cases, it would have been possible to tweak activities to allow for greater communicative interaction (see Tomlinson, 2018, for more ideas on how to do this). For the coursebook New World, I suggest that teachers could start ‘upside-down’, meaning that they would start out with a version of the last activity on the page (that is, the communicative one). If doing this, teachers would have to embed more scaffolding (to cater for less able students), and ensure that communicative interaction is necessary to fulfil the task. Thus, a genuine TBL approach would be used, ensuring that learners were engaged both cognitively and affectively.
The second finding focused on the title of my talk – ‘Moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach’. The coursebook seems to offer little help to teachers who wish to cater to a variety of abilities. Schwab (2019) analysed the four most popular mandatory primary school ELT coursebooks used in Switzerland. According to the New World teacher manual, differentiated instruction is offered with the help of worksheets. When I observed six teachers teaching Unit 2 of the coursebook New World 1, I focused on the worksheets contained in Unit 2. There are eleven worksheets: seven are said to be for more advanced or faster learners and four for less able learners. However, ten of the eleven worksheets consist of closed exercises with none of them offering any clear differentiation. This impression was reinforced by the fact that the whole class was working on the same closed exercise at the same time.
On reflection, in my role and context as a teacher educator training pre-service primary school teachers to teach English as a foreign language, I think I could highlight materials evaluation and development even more. Further, greater emphasis should be put on enabling teachers to carry out more formative assessment, give individualised feedback to their learners, and cater for mixed-ability learners. My colleagues in in-service teacher education could emphasise the importance of materials development and evaluation with a focus on reflective practice and a critical analysis of materials, for example, by encouraging teachers to carry out action research.
In general, I would like to see more professional development programmes that focus on teachers engaging critically with their (prescribed) coursebook and that reflect on the value of particular activities for specified learners. Even when working with prescribed materials, teachers do have agency (at least in Switzerland), so we should not have to ask the question: Are you teaching the book or are you teaching the learners?
Arnet-Clark, I., Frank Schmid, S., Grimes, L., Ritter, G., & Rüdiger-Harper, J. (2013). New World – English as a second foreign language. Klett und Balmer AG.
Schwab, S. (2019). Differentiation in English language teaching coursebooks for primary schools in Switzerland. Babylonia – Zeitschrift für Sprachunterricht und Sprachenlernen, (1), 88–94.
Tomlinson, B. (2018). Making typical coursebook activities more beneficial for the learner. In Bao, D. Creativity and innovations in ELT materials development (pp. 21–34). Multilingual Matters.
Susanna Schwab is a teacher educator at the Bern University of Teacher Education, Switzerland. Since 2006 she has been training pre-service primary school teachers to teach English as a (second) foreign language. Her main research areas include coursebook use, coursebook awareness, the transfer of innovative concepts into the classroom, differentiating instruction and vocabulary learning, and teaching using a multilingual approach. Her latest publication, Teachers’ use of an EFL textbook at primary school in Switzerland (Cambridge Scholars, 2022), disseminates findings from her research into how teachers use a prescribed coursebook. Susanna can be contacted at email@example.com.