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Textbooks revisited

The Schools Minsister Liz Truss and Sir Michael Wilshaw have been pushing for schools to make greater use of textbooks, Wilshaw even using the phrase "death by a thousand worksheets". I suppose they feel that textbooks are weightier and somehow more serious than worksheets. They assume textbooks are better.

My first response to this is that a book is just a collection of resources. If you bind together lots of worksheets you get a book. You might also argue that worksheets are more closely tailored to the needs of a particular class - this was certainly one reason I have produced my own resources over the years. I would also imagine that teachers may be more committed to teaching with their own carefully prepared materials than with imperfect ones produced by a publisher.

These days, in the field of modern languages, the quality of textbooks (or more strictly speaking course packages including worksheets, online materials, CDs etc) is variable. At A-level the quality is downright poor, I'm afraid, partly since books are now written with an ever greater focus on exams.

But I am not someone who for any pedagogical/philiosphical reason rejects textbooks outright. The argument should not be about textbooks versus worksheets, it should be about GOOD textbooks versus GOOD worksheets.

Now I understand why some teachers have a downer on textbooks. Books are not always good, some teachers use them too slavishly and with poor methodology, some have been poorly selected for a department. They seem expensive. It is also true that in some schools teachers cannot trust pupils to take them home or look after them properly.

However, to repeat, textbook is a collection of resources, part of a package of language learning materials which include a teacher's book, repromasters, recorded language and frequently online exercises. It has, in the best examples, been painstakingly pieced together, often refined over many years, to be a coherent, carefully graded, methodologically tried and tested learning resource. It is a reference book for pupils, a comfort blanket, a resource for overworked teachers to fall back on. It's a place where wheels need no reinventing. A fellow skilled professional has been paid to produce something of quality for you to use.

A good course book need not lead you into poor pedagogy and should be a launch pad for effective listening, oral practice, grammar and vocabulary building. It will be a good source of "comprehensible input", contain authentic sources and provide the teacher with creative ideas for lessons. It will come with a ready-made scheme of work.

It is true that course books and their peripherals are expensive, but when you begin to calculate the ongoing cost of duplicating worksheets and buying IT packages, and when you bear in mind course books should last at least five years, they may make good financial sense.

So, provided the course is well chosen - it's a real pain having to work with a book you do not like - and not used exclusively, no department should feel any shame in using a good textbook.

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