The Teach-Off – My reaction to coursebooks & Uncount Nouns

The following was originally my response to Varinder’s account of Coursebook Day 4 of the Teach-Off.

I had observed the second half of the class where Varinder was focusing on Countable and Uncountable nouns from the coursebook Global Intermediate, and was very honoured to be privy to the wonderful rapport she had with the students and the enthusiasm with which she taught the class.

After the lesson, Varinder and I had a discussion regarding the relevance of that particular grammar point and the way it was dealt with in the coursebook. Varinder mentions this discussion in her post, and this was my response.

As the response grew longer, and I grew more passionate about what I had to say,

I decided that perhaps this deserves a blogpost of its own after all.

Here is my response:

How on earth can money be uncountable???

First of all, let me first clarify a couple of things.

The issue at hand has nothing to do with being a Dogmetician or any teaching methodology for that matter.
It is about attitudes and views on grammar, on how languages are learnt (SLA), and on what is learnable and what is useful/relevant for the learners.

Taking the Dogmetician hat off and putting on my Grammar-fanatic linguist hat…

Over time, as we move from grammar translation through into the communicative approach, there has been more and more focus on communicative competence and the communication skills that enable such competence.

Meanwhile, on the SLA front, research started to show that presenting lists of discrete items of language in a linear fashion simply does not coincide with how the brain learns languages.

Language learning is emergent, feedback sensitive and non-linear (see e.g. Michael Long, Vygotsky, Krashen, etc.)

Moreover, spending an hour on generalised rules about countable and uncountable nouns when there are just so many exceptions to the rule might not be the best use of classroom time. As you said in class, ‘A lot of it can be used in both.’

In fact, many coursebook writers are now trying to get away from labelling them countable and uncountable nouns as the labels are a misnomer in themselves.
Some writers now use the terms ‘count’ and ‘mass’, while others choose to use ‘count’ and ‘uncount’ nouns, preferring to deal with how the noun in question is referring to an idea of an abstract mass, or an individual single entity.

Moreover, the design of the task in the coursebook had students filling in the gaps as follows:

Fill in the gaps with ‘countable’, ‘uncountable’, or ‘countable and uncountable’.

1. ________ can have the plural form.
2. ________ cannot go with ‘a’ or ‘an’.
3. ________ can go with ‘the’.
4. ________ can go with ‘some’ and ‘any’.

Now, I don’t have that much of an issue with numbers 1 or 2. They are fairly straightforward rules (aside from the fact that we can all think of many exceptions of nouns that are always in the plural but not necessarily countable e.g. ‘news’, ‘studies’).

But my gripe is with questions 3 and 4, to which the answers are ‘countable and uncountable’.

By making students fill in those gaps, the task is misleading the students into thinking that either ‘countable’ or ‘uncountable’ can go into the gap.
Although the answer at the end is ‘both’, by flagging this up, the students is made to sit up and take note of how ‘some’ and ‘any’ is used with countable and uncountable nouns.

Now, memory works in strange ways.
It is known that students will not remember all that is in the grammar exercise.
But what they will remember is that there was some issue with ‘some’ or ‘any’ used with countable or uncountable nouns.
This creates doubt in their minds when they are choosing to use nouns with ‘some’ or ‘any’.
Voila, we’ve created a problem where there wasn’t one before!

Now, we could argue that some students might have a problem with ‘some’ and ‘any’ before the exercise, and therefore the exercise serves to clarify the issue for those students.

Sure, but if these are only a portion of students, why not wait for the problem to arise in conversation, and then through the use of correction and scaffolding, the teacher can bring attention to this, solving it quickly, in context? This makes it more relevant and definitely more memorable to the student.

Taking the grammar-fanatic hat off, and putting my sociolinguist hat on…
ELF (English as a lingua franca) is not a methodology or approach. ELF is a global phenomenon that is happening all around us, a phenomenon that changes the reasons and the purpose for learning English. This is turn affects what and how we teach.

Apart from the very important fact that the misuse of countable and uncountable nouns is not going to alter meaning drastically in most cases, their use have also taken on special meaning with ELF research into NNS-NNS (non-native speaker to non-native speaker) communication.

Here’s an example:
The material in Global today said,
We don’t use ‘the’ with abstract nouns when we’re talking in general.
e.g. Love is important.
NOT The love is important.

But in extensive analysis of ELF use, it has been found that expert speakers of English as a lingua franca are using the articles ‘the’ with abstract nouns in order to give it emphasis.
e.g. The love is important; The life is good in Italy.

Whichever hat I choose to put on, at the end of the day, my point is this:
Using countable and uncountable nouns wrongly is not going to affect the meaning of what the speaker is saying. At an intermediate level of English (which these learners are at), there are lots of other skills and language (lexico-grammar) that would make a huge difference to their communicative abilities and their communicative competence.
This grammar area is certainly not one of them.

And if learners think they want it because that’s what their past learning experiences have taught them, then I think it is time to have an informed discussion with our learners with regards to how language are learnt, and the relevance of what they are learning.

Perhaps therein lies my issue with course books.

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

75 thoughts on “The Teach-Off – My reaction to coursebooks & Uncount Nouns”

  1. This blog is fantastic and as I am now using Global myself, I find it really, really useful and helpful! Thanks very much for sharing!

  2. Hi Chia

    Your thoughts around ELF made me think.. it’s all about the love. In other words, we play with language, advertisers play with language, singers play with language (the language?), the games we play enter the global vernacular, and countable/uncountable rules of this sort lose their saliency.

    The same is true when it comes to conditionals – even in L1 use, the exceptions to the rule are so numerous as to render the 1-2-3 about as easy as c-b-a.

    I can’t help thinking that prescriptive vs descriptive goes a long way towards summarising this debate..

    Thanks to you and Varinder for sharing these great lesson accounts


    1. Funny that you mention ‘conditionals’, Luke.
      I wrote a list today of grammar points that I no longer focus on, or focus on very differently in class from the way I used to post-CELTA…
      And in it were :
      Countable and Uncountable Nouns
      Articles Usage
      Future Forms
      Defining and Non-defining Clauses

      In fact, in the study of Linguistics, there is no such thing as conditionals.
      The formulation of the 3 + mixed conditionals is a pedagogic phenomenon (probably started with Murphy!) to help students of EFL get their heads round it. But in actual fact, the clauses in conditionals are just like the clauses in any multi-clause sentences with subordinate clauses, e.g. time clauses ‘As soon as you get home, you should put the kettle on!’

      I now use ‘conditionals’ as an opportunity to look at the use of the so-called past tense to express psychological and hypothetical distance.

      Love your comment, Luke.
      But what’s descriptive often then becomes prescriptive in some way.
      After all, we do need to tell our students something, right?
      But we have to be sure that what we prescribe is useful and relevant…and not too far from the truth…


      1. I have a feeling similar to yours when looking at conditionals. This week I have a class of Swiss teachers who specifically asked for the rules, so -needs must. But I will try to elicit from them what they know- and get it into as communicative a framework as I can. If I don’t do what they ask for I will be labelled as an uncooperative, or unprofessional teacher- catch 22

        1. I think you can still cover conditionals in a way where it is focused on as it emerges and students are shown how the verbs are moved into the ‘past’ to create a feeling of distance.
          What is it they say about holistic grammar?

  3. Hi Chia

    I would agree that this is a major issue. But when you discuss it with publishers you get a pretty standard reply – this sort of approach to grammar is what the majority of teachers want. I see it as a vicious circle – teachers ask for this stuff because they are familiar with it, so publishers add it to coursebooks, so teachers become familiar with it …

    1. It is a Catch 22 situation, isn’t it? Teachers use coursebooks and start thinking that is the way to teach lexico-grammar. Teachers expect this from future coursebooks, and publishers try to meet the demand.
      Where is the learners’ acquisition process in all this?

      Are we simply replicating traditional ways of doing things because they are what has always been done?
      It’s like the British government all over again! (oops, sorry!)

      Are we simply designing coursebooks in this way because it fulfills the bottom line prerogative? Even if it’s harmful to the learner and the learning process?
      It’s like the pharmaceutical industry all over again!
      (do you know of the big cholesterol conspiracy?)

      Don’t you think a revolution is needed in the publishing world, Evan?


      1. Butting in here…
        Whether or the grammatical type A syllabus often used in coursebooks is ‘harmful’ is still up for debate. There is research that supports both sides. Plus, I would argue that it all depends how the teacher uses the coursebook. It’s the old ‘Coursebooks don’t kill learning, bad teachers kill learning’.

        1. Coming in here in reverse order, yes, absoluely Eric, I would also argue that how teachers actually use the coursebooks is a key factor. and as you’ve commented below – I think that a hybrid approach is definitely possible and possibly/probably the best way to go …and is just good teaching – not rocket science!

          Evan, you’re dead right about writing to teacher expectations, but I’ve found that as learners put more focus on abilities (someone mentioned ‘can dos’ here) that teachers are also starting to look for different approaches and the publishers are listening. I can’t speak for the general English market, but as I’m sure you’ll agree, Business English course content is delivered in context, based on specific communicative tasks, goals and needs of the learner in order to make them more successful communicators in their workplace environments. Grammar therefore, should be taught as necessary and required. There is a vicious circle, but it’s also breaking. And yes, there are coursebooks out there (ahem!) that are not driven by a grammar syllabus, but rather introduce grammar implicitly as a tool for reinforcement after the contextualised input and practise has taken place.

          @Chia – While I know what you mean, I also think that you’re painting an overly negative picture in likening this industry to the pharmaceutical industry (I can image what you’re referring to). Rather than doing away with coursebooks, why not take a needs based view by using materials in a context driven approach rather than teaching discrete grammatical items. Yes, I know you’re saying you do this in reacting to your learners’ emergent needs using a materials light approach (here aka Dogme), but can those materials not also include coursebook materials (as Eric has written)? [Yes, I know you’ve written somewhere that you’re taking a pure dogme approach with this experiment in contrast to your usual approach, and so that comment was addressing you with your purist hat on]. … more to come below…

        2. Totally agree here. Thanks for you comment and butt in whenever you like.

          I think as the old saying goes “A bad workman blames his tools” – this can be applied to bad use of course books. The number of times i hear someone say something hasn’t worked in class only to find out that it was because it didn’t interest them personally – not even thinking about the learners. Your attitude to the subject/topic is really important.

        3. I’m going to try and kill three birds with one stone here and respond to Eric, Mike and Varinder in one go.

          I love the saying you posted, Eric : ‘Coursebooks don’t kill learning, bad teachers kill learning’.

          And Varinder, yours is a nice one too: ‘A bad workman blames his tools’
          And you both are absolutely right.

          Like Mike says, a hybrid approach is definitely possible, and it is more about what is good teaching (although I wouldn’t completely agree that it isn’t rocket science…in fact, I think it’s more difficult than rocket science as there are no absolutes when it comes to research findings in Applied Linguistics, whereas in Rocket Science…well 1+1 always equals 2)

          The thing is some teachers depend too much on course books and materials to carry them through, and the learners’ goals and communicative needs are left to the wayside.
          These are the teachers (or schools) that I hope to speak to when talking about Dogme.

          So if a bad teacher blames his tools, take those tools away, and make him work without those tools.

          Take away his crutch and this would then force him to reflect on his teaching and the way the students are learning.

          Strip it all down to the bare minimum, and he will have no choice but to see what is really needed.


  4. Hi Chia, Just a quick note thought before I run off to work (yes, you’ve got me hooked on this blog): why does it have to be all or nothing with coursebooks? Why not keep the coursebook on hand, if a language element like un/countable nouns emerges and the students want to clarify and want some practice, then break out the coursebook for and exercise or two. You’re still dealing with grammar as it emerges, right? What are your thoughts on this hybrid approach?

    1. Hi Eric,
      Thanks for your comment.
      You are right in saying that a hybrid approach can definitely work.
      In fact, Dogme to me IS a hybrid approach.
      It preaches materials-light, and not materials-less.

      I have gone for a pure deep-end version of Dogme for the sake of this experiment, but in some of my normal classes, I am not entirely adverse to using some materials that coincide with the topics and language issues that emerge in class.

      If you have a look at the ideas I talk about in the webinar I recently gave at the 5th Virtual Round Table (VRT) conference about technology and Dogme, (sorry about the shameless plug…the link is at the top of my blogsite), you might find some materials that I use in class which some more pure Dogmeticians might be surprised about.

      But yes, for the purpose of this experiment, we wanted to see what students respond to and how the lessons would unfold if we went for pure Dogme lessons as opposed to when a coursebook is used and adapted well.


  5. Some interesting points you make here Chia – I obviously am not up on my research though so am not able to comment very much on that account. But you may remember from my first lesson that I did a needs analysis with the learners and allowed them to choose what they wanted to study in class (some called this Dogme!!). This was the Unit they chose because the language point and topic interested them.

    So if the learners want this, do I just ignore it because research tells me that it’s the wrong thing to do or do I actually address my learners’ needs? It’s interesting that we feel that we need to retrain learners to think differently and tell them what they need instead of doing what they want – a bit teacher centred, wouldn’t you say? Or have I over-simplified this whole argument?

    1. Hi Varinder,
      I must say I love the fact that you are always thinking about what the students want and how they feel about their lessons. You are absolutely right in saying that the student/client is king.

      In fact, a lot of countries in Asia (where I am from) tend to focus on the hard work one puts into their studies and there is a ‘no pain no gain’ attitude to learning. So the belief is one of ‘if I’m not suffering, I’m not learning.’

      So a lot of students might still believe they need to be doing intense grammar drills and gap fills because of their previous learning experiences, because of their culture and because their last teacher told them all so casually, ‘You need to improve your grammar!’
      And you are absolutely right in thinking, ‘Who are we to try and change their culture and their attitudes…’

      Of course, with not just second language acquisition theory, but in education theory, we have been seeing a huge turn, and move towards being student-centred and working with the students’ affective states and how they can best develop.
      You are extremely student-centred, Varinder, and I know you would agree with the direction that education and language teaching is moving in.

      The issue is many students are still used to the more traditional approaches to teaching. Seem Korean and Japanese students are more used to having the teacher standing up front and lecturing them. Some Arabic students and Russian learners will profess to seeing the teacher as a transmitter of knowledge, rather than a facilitator or guide.

      As we move towards a more student-centred approach to teaching, it is of course important to consider their expectations (there is after all the Apprenticeship of Observation) and what they think they want or need.
      But if what they think they need isn’t really what they need, is it not our jobs as experts in language acquisition to give them the full picture and inform them of the facts and how we can truly help them achieve what they really need?
      In my replies to Evan and Phil, I made references to the pharmaceutical industry…we must be careful that the tefl industry and the EFL publishing industry does not become too much like that.
      Driven by simply making clients happy and not actually fulfilling what we are meant to do (i.e. enable a progression in language learning) could lead us down a dark road…

      Of course, in reality, it is always about balancing the two…

      And perhaps part of this balance is in the way we conduct the needs analysis.

      Rather than ask students which grammar points they want me to cover, I tend to ask them what they would using English for in the future, and what they liked or disliked about their previous learning experience. This often leads to a discussion about how languages are learnt.

      I then get learners to formulate goals for themselves, e.g. I want to feel more confident when speaking to people at a party.
      These can do statements, not unlike the CEF ones, are focused more on their communicative competence, than on their discrete item knowledge…

      After all, don’t we always say that there is a difference between talking about language, and using the language?

      And isn’t our job to help learners become better communicators?

  6. While I don’t want to enter into a debate about ELF and what is internationally intelligible, I do find the inclusion of rules 3 and 4 bizarre. What’s the point of flagging up something so blatantly obvious?

    I haven’t left many comments but have been following and thoroughly enjoying your Teach-Off series.

    1. Hi Varinder, Hi Chia,

      I think you’re both saying the same thing – from different viewpoints. Of course a new group should be started with defining the learners’ needs and goals – whatever approach is being taken and whether a coursebook has a needs analysis feature within or not. This is not exclusive to any particular method, approach or style – it’s just good teaching! ((and to respond to another commenter from the Day1 post, doing such a needs analysis if it’s not in the coursebook does not mean this is a dogme approach. Again, simply put, it’s just good teaching)) So, I think you’re really both saying the same thing there.

      To comment on one of the other issues here Varinder asked “If the learner is happy and learning is taking place, does it matter?” and Chia’s seems to be arguing for educating the learner about SLA to inform them of what they ‘really’ need in case that’s different from what they ‘think’ they need. I’m sure many readers will agree when I say there is a place for both of these options simultaneously and both should be present. Of course we should address our learners’ needs as they perceive them, but also how we perceive them, in addition (not instead). As Sue (I think it was) commented – yes, our learners are our customers and we have to fulfill their expectations, but if we spot a need of which they are not aware, then we should also address that – especially if it interferes with ‘intelligible’ communication. I’m not say communication has to be perfect and agree that ELF definitely has its place – hence the focus on ‘intelligible’.

      On the Grammar gap-fill/drill issue and throw out another reference to Anthony Gaughan. In his ‘Se7en deadly sins of ELT’ talk he says that drills can be good (in certain situations) and I agree. I also believe that gap fills are a form of drilling in a ‘trial and error’ type way, especially when in an online activity and mirror how many people learn these days anyway: think ‘serious games’ … or even fun games, e.g. jump n’ runs. they’re also a form of drilling and player learn how to complete a level by trial and error until then cam jump and run through a whole level without making a mistake. The process becomes ingrained in the player. Drilling can have the same effect.

      I’m looking forward to next week’s developments.

  7. There is the danger that anything appearing in print tends to be accepted as “the truth” and worse still tends to be recycled in further writings so that nonsense is perpetuated. This happens in general and not just in language course book writing. Going to the source of language, such as the corpora helps to break this cycle (e.g. Dave Willis) but it’s difficult to keep up with the changes in a dynamic language like EFL.
    I am really liking this blog and feeling the love!

    1. That is such a good point, Peter.
      How many pedagogic grammar rules were created from the minds of one called Murphy, and then simply repeated again and again in coursebooks despite the fact that the ‘grammar rule’ in question holds no water in studies into linguistics.

      Thanks for commenting! I am glad you are enjoying it.
      I love a good debate! There is nothing I like more than provoking thought!


  8. Great stuff and I also like the fact that this isn’t just turning into us Dogme folk chatting to ourselves. There are many, if not more, people on the side of coursebooks. It’s nice to see us all playing ‘nice’ but 1 question: What will my life be like when this over???

    1. Phil,I agree. I’ve being spending each day looking forward to the next step of this fantastic teach-off. Great posts followed by great comments. I’m loving it but already dreading the end. One part is simply enjoying the different approaches. The other is more selfish. I’m picking up lots of tips for my own development.

      1. Hi Barry,
        Thanks for those lovely comments. I’m so glad you are enjoying this series…

        And I must thank all the wonderful commenters for providing a balanced viewpoint to the debate and giving us all food for thought in terms of not just Dogme and course books, but also provoking discussions about other aspects of teaching and the TEFL industry – grammar, views towards language and SLA, examination boards, schools and syllabi, how to adapt the coursebook, the different ways to conduct needs analysis, etc.

        I love the fact that with every post, the discussion goes off in a slightly different direction, so much so that there are concurrent discussion of different threads occurring at the same time.

        Your comments are what drives these discussions. So thanks once again!


  9. Would they be written by you by any chance mate??? (insert subtle plug)

    I hear they’re rather good but would you recommend teachers go from U1 to Unit 10 or jump around?

    1. Hi Phil, sure I can sign a copy for you if you like!
      🙂 ..thanks for the subtle plug.
      As for your question about jumping around or going from units 1 to 10 I would say it depends on the immediate (and medium-term) needs of (your) learners. If they’re in a ‘general progression course’ then there are good arguments to go through from 1 to 10, but if they have emergent needs which can be covered/dealt with in unit 6 and they’re only on uinit 2, then why not jump ahead.
      They can’t NOT prepare a work presentation and tell their boss it’ll have wait 2 months until they get to unit 6 in the book.
      Regardless of which way a teacher goes through book, I think that every book should offer enough flexibility that the teacher can jump out of it, go off on tangents, personalise activities and not be restricted to just page turning. Activities should regularly offer impulse to take the discussion off the page and into the real world. And, yes, I believe that can be achieved using a coursebook usage approach and is not limited to evangelistic pure dogme. Some learners like, want and need to perceive the course structure which a coursebook can offer, and also like the ability to reference grammar explanations, vocabulary lists, useful phrases and so on. Therefore, coursebooks are good for some learners and course types and less applicable for others.
      I think the (general) coursebook vs dogme argument is often too polarised and that it just comes down to good teaching to let both co-exist. I often wonder what all the fuss is about … or am I missing the point?

      1. Great points guys.

        I have to say that I used to use book a lot because they were the whole courses I taught on. When I taught the same class for 3 hours a day for 10 weeks we needed a book. Sales offices promised a book and so students expected one. Handouts got lost, as they still do. I tried jumping round but if I started on U12 it was just too hard as it built on a lot of what had been done before.

        I am pretty impressed with a lot of what’s going on in coursebooks nowadays. Yesterday I was flicking through Mark Powell’s new Negotiations book and if you add on all the downloadables only a 1/4 is actually the traditional book. This means there’s lots of ideas, extra stuff and so choice. It’s also a self-study book in that way which is also what a lot of other books say they are. My problem is when they also say they are for class use. It’s hard to have both as the self-study ones are often full of little exercises and focussed on input. Also, how many students do you know who are int+ who would actually sit down with a book IN ENGLISH and do the exercises, listen to the CD then check their answers in the back??? Not many nowadays in my opinion. An online version is what’s needed.

        I also like Mark’s materials and Bog Dignen’s because they teach content. This is what all my students want. They don’t want general English and I don’t want to teach it either. They always want to learn something via English. I want a book that is interesting to me and them. Bob also has a great DVD that is a stand-alone resource which I’d be happy to use in a discussion course.

        This leads to my last question……Shouldn’t this teach-off being using tech? That is the norm nowadays and expected by countless students. Where are the online exercises, Apps, mobiles etc? The traditional book, as many writers have said, is changing and will change to match this movement and Blended Learning, I thought, was already the norm in many schools and has been for quite some time.

        Should we ask for another teach-off based on how you use tech ie The book sites/online/digital content vs Chia’s Dogme version??

        1. Thanks for that very relevant comment, Phil.
          Indeed, as Mike mentioned in a previous comment, course books are gradually changing these days and there is more and more emphasis on content and communicative competence in specific discourse communities.
          But notice that this change is happening a lot more rapidly in the Business English sector.

          What I mean is Mike, you are a writer of more than 4 best-selling Business English course books, and Phil, the books that you mentioned by Mark Powell and Bob Dignen are all targetting the Business English and Corporate Training market.

          In fact, at the English UK Business Trainers’ Conference yesterday, more than one person mentioned that a Dogme approach to Business English teaching has been around long before these discussions emerged (I know, Mike, you have said the same many a time yourself).

          Evan Frendo’s books on ESP (Pearson-Longman) focus on grammar points in a strictly ‘need-to-know’ basis. e.g. His grammar point on the page about pipes and parts of pipes was “We use NEED to give instructions, We need to make this pipe wider. You need to check. etc”
          And that was it.

          He also said that he had done away with differences between ‘will’ and ‘going to’ (I so agree…what a waste of students’ time and brain power) and instead has a list of future forms that he tells the reader you can use interchangeably.
          Go Evan!

          Perhaps the General English sector needs to catch up?
          Or perhaps as I have said before, there is no such thing as ‘General English’ anymore?


        2. Yes, BE is the best and ESP too? I avoid Gen Eng whenever I can unless it’s discussion classes.

          My dream resource would be flexible and up-to-date with modules where I could piece together my own course but I quite like making stuff up myself and in BE I find a serious need for speaking.

        3. But Phil,
          If one conducts a proper needs analysis in a General English class based on their communicative needs and performative needs, that class essentially becomes an ESP class, doesn’t it?
          Isn’t GE a misnomer these days?

          As for the flexible and up-to-date modules that teachers can piece together to tailor make their own course, you might want to speak to Cleve Miller and Valentina Dodge of English 360 about that.
          Or better yet, speak to Mike Hogan, who has actually made it happen and executed the project in Germany.


        4. But, often is the case that certain levels have certain books and there is no choice about that and students are promised that they will use them and your DOS, to have a certain level of control, expects you to use them. Thus, your hands are quite tied. I’ve done 1st class or midcourse NAs and students haven’t liked the book, their level, the topics etc and it’s not always a pretty sight. Some students are sold the wrong course or have done the book or just want something else. In a class of 18+ it’s hard to meet everyone’s needs. Let alone 30+.

          When I was in Asia we had a uni manual and each syllabus was in there and everyone had a core text and most courses, due to the short length of the books and 20 week length of the course, just didn’t have enough material even if you used all the book. BUT each syllabus planned the course as a progression through the book as they had utmost faith in the publishers. I had the same in my high school and even uni, same when learning in evening school.

          As I’ve said before, IH is probably the best school in London but in that way is not representative of the majority. It would be nice, to balance this out, if we heard from other teachers in London or in language schools about how their schools use books. Anyone out there????

      2. Thanks for commenting, Mike.
        I am actually really happy to hear a coursebook writer like yourself say that you write with the intention of offering flexibility to teachers to take the discussion into the tangents it needs to go off into, and do not expect teachers to be using the book page by page.
        I suppose we are back to the topic of the needs analysis and how we conduct it.

        As Cleve Miller (of English 360) said in his talk at the English UK Business Trainers’ Conference, we need to assess the clients’ communication goals (What kind of discourse community do they need to communicate with? What situations would they be communicating in?), business goals (What language skills would they need to achieve their business goals? Would they need to negotiate a particular contract? Present at a conference?) and performance goals (What language abilities are they demonstrating now in class? What emerges?)

        This suggests to me that the way we conduct the needs analysis is crucial, and should involve the learners setting goals relevant to their communicative and business needs, rather than the learners simply stating, ‘We need more grammar,’ or ‘We want to do exercise in book on Uncountable nouns.’

        It’s like going to a cosmetic surgeon and saying, ‘I want to triple the size of my (insert body part here)’.
        Although the customer is king and is paying to enlarge whatever body part they choose to, it is the duty of the surgeon, who is the expert in the subject, to show them what would look good on them and what wouldn’t. After all, the end goal is to come out of the surgery looking attractive/normal (whichever the goal might be).
        To do so, the surgeon might have a discussion with the client about how tripling the size of (insert body part) might not be such a good idea, the reasons behind this, and an alternative to achieve the client’s goals. If needed, the surgeon might even have to show a simulated picture of what the client might look like if said body part was tripled in size.

        Similarly, the English teacher/trainer should be an expert in their area and able to suggest ways of helping the client attain their communicative/business goals.
        I know this is already very common in Business English teaching and Corporate training.
        But it is not as common in General English teaching.

        And as I once said, the term General English to me is becoming more and more of a misnomer, and what we really have these days is ESP (English for Specific Purposes).

        In the Delta (at least the old version of it, before it became modular), candidates are given coursebook materials in the exam and asked to critique it while stating what the writer’s assumptions about and attitudes and beliefs towards language learning and teaching might be by looking at the material.
        This was an extraordinarily useful exercise for teachers, I believe, because it forces teachers to not just implement exercises in course books blindly, but to really think about the justifications behind each activity, what they are trying to achieve, and why we should (or should not) get our learners to do it.

        Armed with this knowledge, and the results of the needs analysis, I hope that teachers are able to be a better judge as to which piece of material in a coursebook could help learners achieve their communicative/business goals, and to adapt accordingly, rather than plough through a coursebook blindly.

        To answer your question, yes, for the purpose of this experiment, the argument does seem a bit polarised. But it is only to provoke discussions of the above (and the other topics that have emerged since).

        There are many teachers/schools out there who still are very bound their course books and syllabus (whether out of necessity, laziness or ignorance).

        There are many teachers out there who feel guilty about going off on a tangent and letting discussions take flight.

        There are many teachers out there who might not realise that language learning is not linear and are frustrated at why their students are not learning what is in the materials (I once heard a teacher say, ‘That student cannot move up until he/she knows every single thing in that coursebook. Until then, he/she is not a true mid-intermediate!’)

        Those are the people that I, as a Dogmetician, would like to appeal to.
        Those are the people who need to think about the communicative goals and the communicative competence of their students more.
        Those are the people that need to drop their books and materials and give Dogme a go, even if it’s just for a day.

        On a different note, I have a couple books here written by you and have been dying to meet the author.
        I have marvelled for a while at how the author could write a coursebook and make it so ‘Dogme-style’.
        You are the future of coursebook writers, Mike.
        Could I have your signature too?

        1. Nice.

          I’ve come to understand my job as ‘providing language learning solutions’. Thie incorporates everything I need to plan. Whet I mean is that I need a NA/DT but also, as you pointed out, need to know what they will do with English and also how they want to be taught and then use my toolbox of approaches, ideas, materials, tech, homework allocation, teaching personality, assessment methods etc etc to create a solution for each student/group. It’s no longer enough just to say ‘let’s use X book’. From a Dogme perspective a book is just another resource but I know that for many students I have taught having one or professional looking copies makes them think it is a good course. They are not always aware of all the other choices and how much personalisation is going into the course. When students don’t understand this they may just judge such a personalised course the same as one with a book and a teacher who just runs through the motions and is friendly. As one speaker at TESOL France said “there’s no pay difference between the best and worst teacher in Pairs”. Then it means that we do all this work for our students or because those are our guidelines but I really don’t know how many students would value such a course as better than an average course based on 70% of a book and going through it, maybe skipping a few things.

        2. Hi Chia,

          Thanks a lot for your great and complimentary comments about my ideas and writing!!
          I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say I’ve written my Business English coursebooks to make them ‘Dogme-style’, though. Following the opinions I’ve voiced above somewhere, I write with the communicative needs of Business English learners in mind in a context-driven approach, with opportunity for personalisation, jumping out of the book, and flexibility for the teacher. Sorry if this sounds like a shameless plug, it’s not meant to be one. But more like a defense of the approach I take in saying that it’s not Dogme-Style per se, but simply writing with learners’ needs in mind and making it as easy as possible for the teacher to react to those needs while working within the structure of a coursebook (structure with many learners ansd teachers want).
          You and Phil have referenced Evan Frendo, Cleve Miller, as well as Mark Powell and Bob Dignen who all advocate similar needs driven, flexible approaches, and I’m delighted to be counted among such great writers/thinking in Business English field. As you quoted me above, this type of approach has been common in the Business English sphere long before the Dogme discussion started.

          I’ve been thoroughly enjoying this ‘Teach-off’ and your other posts. You bring a great deal of thought-provoking opinion, academic theory and cheekiness to the mix. Keep it up!

      3. Hi Mike
        Thanks for coming and being the voice of reason. I totally agree with your final point – it just comes down to good teaching and both can co-exist – in fact, in my opinion both co-existed long before the term “Dogme” came out. Yikes, I hope I haven’t upset anyone by saying that.

        I think that’s why I challenged Chia to this teach off as I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about either. I do have my opinions on teaching Dogme only classes – more on that at the end of this teach off.


  10. Woooah, Vaarinder, Chia – this is fantastic. Can’t wait to see what happens next week. You both must be exhausted ! Brilliant comments from all.

  11. OK, I’d be holding back on this and just watching it as I didn’t want to get involved. I think this is a great experiment, a fantastic experiment, as I’ve told both teachers involved. But I thought I would step in here briefly. Partly because I was a bit surprised at this interjection coming in the middle of the second round (which was supposed to be about the coursebook lessons – I didn’t see a critical interjection during the dogme lessons but okay!;-) ), and partly to address one or two of the points made.

    Countable and uncountable nouns are often a difficult point for grammar rules writing across a syllabus of several levels. Partly because it’s tricky, but also more because of the more visible changes that are occurring in this grammar area. Same thing with conditionals.

    I’m glad you agreed with rules 1 and 2, and to an extent with rules 3 or 4 (which, if I understand correctly, you didn’t like because they cause unnecessary confusion). Thing is, I could have this exact same conversation with another teacher who would berate me for not giving the FULL picture with even more rules.

    The points you made, and my responses, are:

    “By making students fill in those gaps, the task is misleading the students into thinking that either ‘countable’ or ‘uncountable’ can go into the gap.”
    Don’t see how this is misleading, because both can go in the gap.

    “Although the answer at the end is ‘both’, by flagging this up, the students is made to sit up and take note of how ‘some’ and ‘any’ is used with countable and uncountable nouns.”
    This is a bad thing? It would not be the first time they encounter some/any, and I’m not suggesting you spend 50 minutes on this, there is more in the lesson.

    “It is known that students will not remember all that is in the grammar exercise.But what they will remember is that there was some issue with ‘some’ or ‘any’ used with countable or uncountable nouns.”
    Says who? This may have been the case in the class you observed, but I don’t really buy this as a general rule. Using this kind of argument we can knock down ANY grammar clarification, including those focusing on emergent language or anything.

    “This creates doubt in their minds when they are choosing to use nouns with ‘some’ or ‘any’.”
    This to me uses the same logic as “if a student hears another student’s bad English they may have doubt in their mind unless the teacher corrects it right away” which I totally disagree with. At any rate, the “doubt in their minds” would be more a result of overeager correction by the teacher in fluency activities rather than the part of the lesson where there is a focus on rules.

    Finally, you caught my attention when you said the following:

    “Moreover, spending an hour on generalised rules about countable and uncountable nouns when there are just so many exceptions to the rule might not be the best use of classroom time.”
    Feels like a cheap shot here, and moreover not really true. I read the account of that lesson, there were 14 stages. LOTS was going on in that lesson, not least was the discussion about human needs, the text about motivation and talking about a motivational activity they had done at the end. Of all those 14 stages, only 1 was about the grammar and even then part of it was devoted to homework. Admittedly I did not see the lesson (neither did most of us reading) but to say “an hour on generalised rules” makes me think of unfair comments made about dogme classes (e.g. “they spent an hour talking about nothing”)

    I think the reasoning against the grammar point in the lesson above could be used about any grammar point, but it links very much to your sociolinguistics point, which was:

    “But in extensive analysis of ELF use, it has been found that expert speakers of English as a lingua franca are using the articles ‘the’ with abstract nouns in order to give it emphasis.”

    I follow a lot of ELF developments as well, and you’re right. Other things that expert users do are leave out 3rd person singular s, interchange which/who in relative clauses, change in prepositions etc etc. There is a list which we needn’t go into here. But while I firmly believe that students should be exposed to many different accents and varieties for receptive purposes (if you look at Global you will see many examples of this), I don’t think the ELF lexico-grammar differences are well established enough to warrant them being taught as part of productive skills. At least not at an intermediate level.

    I know this is a major bone of contention for proponents of ELF, but the people who would probably most resist me putting that in the book would be the non-native teachers of English themselves. But this is perhaps a completely different argument better suited for another place.

    As for the final comment

    “And if learners think they want it because that’s what their past learning experiences have taught them, then I think it is time to have an informed discussion with our learners with regards to how languages are learnt, and the relevance of what they are learning.”

    So much for the learner having a say then. It sometimes seems to me that a lot of the learner independence, free the learner from the tyranny of the syllabus, let the learner decide type stuff is very good as long as the learner decides what we think is best. So if a learner says “I like rules, I like structure, I like to know why” or, god forbid, “I like following a book” then they need a strict talking to?

    I think we can do better than this.

    Anyway, thanks for the post and don’t take my response the wrong way. I’m glad you are doing this experiment, and wish you both all the best. Now let Varinda finish her lessons and stop interrupting! 🙂

    1. Hi Lindsay, and everyone else reading,
      Thanks for commenting. It’s a real honour to have the writer of Global himself commenting on the discussions arising from the Teach-Off.

      First of all, let me just say that I’ve had a couple of DMs and tweets from several worried PLNers and innocent bystanders, and I thought I really ought to clarify for all.

      Part of the purpose of blogging this Teach-Off openly online, and in fact of blogging in general, has always been to provoke thought and discussion.
      That is why Mike (Hogan) and I started the series Devil’s Advocate…and if you look at the opening paragraph of every instalment, it says the following:

      We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).

      So I am extremely glad that Lindsay has voiced his honest comments here and it is certainly sporting of him to take on the blogpost and engage in healthy debate here. For those of a nervous constitution out there, let me clarify that Lindsay and I have exchanged quite a few messages in private before deciding to go ahead in posting the above comment. So no ill feelings all round.

      Ok, now back to your comment, Lindsay.

      Re: your grammar argument. I totally buy it.
      I might not have written the same materials to practise count and uncount nouns (who does, right? we aren’t robots) but I think your justification is absolutely sound.

      But as I mentioned in my reply to Simon, I would tend to favour a holistic view of that grammar point…something that allows students to feel the difference…therefore illustrating the differences between count and mass and guiding students to feel the differences since many nouns can be used in both ways anyway.
      But as I said, I would not produce the same materials as you or my name would be Lindsay Clandfield, right?

      As for your response to my sociolinguistics argument, you said:
      ‘I don’t think the ELF lexico-grammar differences are well established enough to warrant them being taught as part of productive skills.’

      I think you might have misunderstood me (or the other ELF proponents). We are not purporting that such lexico-grammar differences should be taught as part of productive skills.
      I think what I mean is, since there is such variation in the use of the article ‘the’ with abstract nouns, and either way, it doesn’t make a huge difference to mutual intelligibility, maybe classroom time is better spent on something else.

      Having said that, if the students’ use of articles with count and mass nouns is having a negative impact on their communicative ability and their intelligibility, then I’m all for focusing on it.
      Personally, I just wouldn’t go into class with this grammar point in my list of objectives unless students have clearly been seen (or heard) to have a problem with it…

      And last but not least, with regards to your final comment,

      ‘So if a learner says “I like rules, I like structure, I like to know why” or, god forbid, “I like following a book” then they need a strict talking to?’

      I love rules and structure too, Lindsay. In fact, a colleague of mine once divided learners into two types (He said, ‘forget VAK and multiple intelligences, there are only two!’) – Organic learners and Systematic learners.

      Recently, at the IH DOS conference, Luke Meddings mentioned Synoptic learners (akin to the above Organic learners) and Ectenic learners (akin to the above Systematic learners).

      I am a Systematic Ectenic learner. I like having tables and drills to solidify what I have been thought and to be able to practise this on my own at home. I like having a book which I can refer to when I have problems with the language.

      So I’m not against catering to such learning styles at all.

      Neither am I saying we should give such learners ‘a talking to’…

      Although the visual image of that did make me laugh out loud…Phil, would you like to write a parody based on that on your wonderful comedy blog DogmeInAction?

      Let me bring up two possibilities to exemplify my point.

      1. As a systematic learner, I would like to be given some system to hang on to. It would be great to do this as homework so that my precious classroom time can be used practising and using the rules and the language I had learnt at home.

      2. As a systematic learner, I might not realise that interaction is what promotes language acquisition, and not memorising verb patterns.

      I know to most of us teachers, especially those that blog and read blogs, this is would be exiled to being filed in the Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious.

      But I’m not sure if it’s this obvious for learners.

      All they have is the Apprenticeship of Observation.
      And if their experience of language learning in the past has been all grammar translations and verb drills, and very little interaction and task-based learning, they might not see the benefit of it, and rather than a talking-to, a discussion on how languages are learnt might clarify the reasons for such interactive/communicative activities in the classroom.

      I was one of those learners before I became a language teacher.

      Being a lover of systems and of grammar, I dived headlong into the learning of French by buying countless grammar books and filling in lots of gaps and spent a huge amount of time pouring over rulebooks.
      Being from the Far East, and therefore used to an education system that focused a lot on memorising and pure hard work, I believed that if I spend hours doing these exercises and memorising words, I would be able to speak French.

      I believed that suffering = good results.

      To my surprise, this was not the case with my French.
      As I wasn’t given much opportunities to speak (on top of the fact that my motivation to learn the language was severely impaired when a French friend of a friend remarked, ‘Tell her to stop! Listening to her speak French is like listening to a woman give birth!’), my spoken French never got very far.

      On the contrary, my Italian improved leaps and bounds with a month when I had no choice but to interact constantly in the language, despite the fact that I didn’t have as many Italian grammar books.

      That was when I realised that suffering in language learning does NOT equal results.

      And that is the message I really want to tell students.

      As another example, I had a Japanese student who thought she liked structure and used to ask for clines for every language point she learnt.
      As she was the subject of my Extended Assignment for my DELTA (for those on the new DELTA system, this would be module 3), so I had to do multiple tests on her language ability and learning styles and then write a 4500 word essay about her and recommendations I had for her learning process.

      To summarise my 4500 word assignment, this student was clearly a organic learner and there were many signs to prove that.
      But she believed that she was a systematic learner, perhaps due to the Japanese education system and how languages are taught there, and so she actively sought strategies that totally didn’t suit her learning style.
      As a result, despite spending long hours studying English, her level plateaued at Low Intermediate, and she was unable to progress from there.
      (I hope to think that the long hours I spent with her during my research and my recommendations helped, because she is now a fluent speaker of English and lives and works in London).

      So, as you can see, I’m not recommending giving students a talking-to.
      I’m only saying that perhaps we need to raise awareness all round through discussion and sharing sessions about how languages are learnt…and from there, students can make an informed decision.

      Sorry about the super long reply, Lindsay.
      But I guess you can see that we aren’t singing from too different a hymn sheet after all.


      You will still sign my copy of Global though, won’t you? : P


  12. Thanks for the discussion and the thought that has gone into all this.

    Just to follow Lindsay’s comments, a few of my own…

    Grammar in coursebooks is all about taking something complex and turning it into something as simple, as accessible and as accurate as possible for those learners who like or need rules. Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes it’s not. Despite some thought provoking alternatives, this kind of coursebook grammar is one aspect of ELT which has survived almost intact on a large scale for as long as I’ve been in the business. I wonder why? (Probably because they’re either not what the majority of teachers want, or they’re difficult to put into coursebooks, and therefore don’t get the widespread coverage that innovation requires to establish itself.)

    What’s more, so often it’s the coursebook which gets the blame, but many, many students at some stage or other will have to, or wish to, take an exam, either a ministry prescribed one, or a public/international exam like IELTS or TOEFL. Why shouldn’t those responsible for these exams take some of the blame for being so prescriptive about grammar and accuracy? (Answer: because rightly or wrongly, they need some measure of accuracy to give their exams reliability. Even good exams need both reliability to evaluate rule-based knowledge as well as validity, where more variation may be evaluated according to subjective criteria).

    But thank you for an interesting debate. I’ve been sitting and thinking about all this for a very long time.

    1. It’s really good to see you here, Simon, engaging in the discussion! And thank you for your insightful comments.
      I must say I totally agree that the job of pedagogic grammar is to simplify what could potentially be a linguistic minefield, so that students do not have to go through a million rules in their heads before forming a sentence.
      And I understand that it is a fine balance for the ELT book writer to strike when trying to simplify grammar rules.
      I am definitely one for unfussy grammar teaching because I’m a strong believer in the fact that learners are not going to be able to siphon the multiple rules about the uses of the different future forms when speaking in real time (Is it a prediction with or without evidence? Is it a decision I made now or before? Is it an intention or an arrangement?)

      So yes, Lindsay and Simon, I generalise too.

      But as I said, it’s a fine balance. And I sometimes find it more useful for my students to help them ‘feel’ a language point and its use, in addition to having systematic rules to hold on to. Thus, I often find that the best grammar rules are those that cater for both the learner feeling and understanding the structural rules, through guided fantasy and visualisation for example – Mike Harrison would be the man to enlighten us on this subject. (This is why I am a big fan of Systemic Functional Grammar. I often feel that it helps my learners get a feeling of how language works. Here is an example.)

      Let me exemplify my point.
      The use of ‘some’ and ‘any’ have been taught by many a pedagogic grammar as ‘Some is used with positives, and any with negatives and interrogatives’.
      This is a generalised rule that is simple enough for students.
      But this generalised rule has very significant exceptions
      e.g. ‘Could I have some more grammar?‘ or ‘I can give you any coursebook you choose!

      There is another rule we could give students instead.
      Any‘ is often used with a feeling that something is ‘unlimited‘, while ‘some‘ gives a feeling of ‘limited-ness‘.
      This is a generalised rule too.
      It’s simple too.

      But it enables students to ‘feel’ the word.
      e.g. I can give you any coursebook you choose! (Unlimited! You can pick from all the course books in the world!…best explicated with a large extravagant waving moment of both arms)
      Could I have some more grammar? (Limited amounts, not all the grammar in the world…best explicated with a boxed gesture of the hands)

      I get students to repeat the sentences are clarifying its meaning together with the actions/gestures, getting them to feel the difference.

      And the best thing is…there are no exceptions to this rule…because it isn’t a rule in the strict sense of the word.

      I probably have quite a few ‘rules’ like that…but Simon, you are right…how does one put this on paper in a book?

      I could certainly try, if a publisher would let me do it! ; )

    2. Hi again, Simon,
      I thought I would reply to the point you made about exam boards and prescriptivism in a separate comment so as not to dilute the effect of either very relevant and lucid points that you made.

      I totally agree with you about the fact that those who are responsible for the above mentioned exams should be responsible for being prescriptive about the way they measure grammar and accuracy.
      Indeed, they need some scale of measurement to give their exams validity. But the issue of reliability versus practicality of exams has been a long standing one though.

      In order to keep the costs of marking and evaluating the candidates low, many exams go for the easy route and grade candidates according to right/wrong multiple choice format with discrete item questions. The TOEIC exam is an example of this. As a result, reliability is sacrificed, and students with super high scores in these exams are sometimes unable to communicate in the language at all.
      Of course, I understand that it would be totally impractical to try and design an exam that is verging on 100% reliable…such an exam would probably take 10 of 1-to-1 intensive contact with the candidate to really ‘measure’ what he can do with the language.

      Having said that, I still do think that exams need to move towards trying to measure the candidate’s communicative competence, rather than too much of a focus on grammatical accuracy.

      The CEF’s (Common European Framework) ‘can do’ statements are a great way forward, and are definitely a sign of the times.

      And the IELTS exams for example are trying to focus on what the students can do with the language, and discrete item testing is significantly absent from the exam that is growing dramatically in its popularity.

      However, many English exams meted out by local schools and the governments of different countries are still heavily focused on discrete grammar items (and I recognise that this is often done more because of practicality reasons, and sometimes because of ignorance about language learning and language use).
      As a result, schools that are trying to help their students pass the national exams end up focusing more on how to answer such grammar questions correctly, rather than helping their students become better communicators in the language.
      Parents who want their children to get better grades and pass said exams also pressurise the schools and teachers into following the exam syllabus.

      In that sense, you are absolutely spot on. Until we can tackle the designs of such exams and encourage a move towards measuring what learners can do with the language, many teachers might be stuck…


  13. As you know, I’m a tyro in all this but how far wrong am I to think of grammar as an analytical tool? As you said Chia, grammar rules are far too slow to use real time so surely fluency first accuracy second. I failed O level GCE (shows my age!) 3 times but picked up enough French to be able to hold a reasonable conversation by dating women reading French at university – too much information but it makes some sort of point eh? I still know diddly-squat about French grammar.
    What I find myself doing now is challenging my students (1:1) to use what they have “learned” in accuracy sessions by the use of language that is important to them in their daily/professional lives by conversation with me, stories, presentations, letters/emails and so on. Occasionally they bring in course book material because they have been unclear about something and we can practice the item in their personal context. I don’t know if this is right or wrong but it seems to be an approach that gives the ss a sense of achievement in that they feel they can communicate more effectively.

    1. Hi Peter,
      Thanks for all that information…it was certainly very enlightening! ; )
      On a more serious note, I totally agree with you, in that conversations, presentations and these tasks you use tend to coax out language that is necessary to help students become better communicators.
      I wouldn’t necessarily put a divide between fluency and accuracy activities though.
      To me, a fluency activity is also an accuracy activity. My lessons contain a lot of correction work, whether it be on-the-spot reformulation, delayed feedback, self-correction, peer correction, eliciting and recasting etc…
      I think it’s a skill for the teacher to balance the two. To focus on accuracy while still not letting the fluency practice suffer as a result.

      And to be honest, that’s something I passionately believe needs to feature more in CELTA training.


      1. Hi Chia
        Yes, badly expressed! If the s doesn’t speak the can neither be accurate or inaccurate. (MOTBO again). Some of my students are talkative, fluent, and wildly inaccurate and the best of fun to teach because we can work on incremental improvements towards higher accuracy using all the techniques you mention. The grammar-freak types just need to be shown the error of their ways!
        Which one will it be tomorrow I wonder!

  14. Just a thought – is it occurring to others (like it is occurring to me) that it is a quite extraordinary phenomenon that a handful of lessons taking place in a language school somewhere in the south of England should be generating so much insightful comment and debate? Is there a precedent for this?

    I’m not sure what it all means… I’m struggling to get me head around it, but I just love it!

    1. Thank you Scott for joining the discussion, and for your lovely comments.

      I suppose writing retrospective lesson diaries are not in any way new, but doing them online daily in the context of such an experiment might not be as common…

      The beauty of blogging and commenting, I suppose, is that we can all be bouncing thoughts and ideas off each other, and through interaction, polish and refine our thoughts, our beliefs and our attitudes.

      In fact, I was just saying to Lindsay that it’s amazing how we can now use a book and put out our thoughts on how we use it and how we feel about it, and have the writer of the book himself interact and give feedback as to how he hopes the book is being used.
      It is the best support a teacher can get!

      And the fact that it is on an open platform like a blog means that everyone else can also benefit from that interaction and all that transpires.

      Being a writer of one of the best ELT blogs around, I’m sure you’re no stranger to open discussions like these…

      But I suppose the ‘window into what happens in class’ gives it that extra ‘big brother’ element to it… ; )

      I know these handful of lessons are in no way representative of all the different EFL contexts around the world, but perhaps by sharing, we can truly find out how similar or different our contexts, our learners and our ways of doing things are. But most importantly, our principles and beliefs that lie beneath all that we do as teachers/EFL writers/examiners/DoSes.

      I’m glad you love it, Scott. Coz I’m loving it too.


  15. Scott and Chiasuan,

    I agree, it IS extraordinary, although not without precedent. Blogging allows more immediate impact of new ideas which would otherwise be confined to a conference buzz.

    More important is that it seems to be about change and reform in language teaching, which can only be positive. Because of the range of views covered in the discussion, it reflects my feeling that change cannot be atomistic. We can’t target just the textbook, we can’t snipe at just the way of teaching grammar. No single innovation, such as dogme or ELF, is going to bring about the wholesale reform of aspects of the learning system we’re unhappy about. Change and reform cannot be atomistic, it has to be holistic, from the bottom up and from the top down, and includes not just materials or approaches, a (justifiable) dislike of grammar mcnuggets, but teacher training, curriculum design, exams and anything which belongs to the eco-system of language learning.

    So if I defend myself, as I tend to, against the criticisms of course books, it’s because I don’t believe it’s helpful to target one branch or strand of our work together. Everything is interdependent, and when any part of the whole is challenged, there’s a threat to the whole ecosystem.


    1. Thank you, Simon, for your (as always) exquisitely crafted plea for a more measured, more holistic and less knee-jerk response to the status quo. I guess that the reason that coursebooks are so often in the line of fire is that they DO to a large extent dominate and determine so many aspects of a teacher’s day-to-day professional life. They (more often as not) instantiate the curriculum, provide the texts, and – to a large extent – guide the methodology. But I agree that they are only the material embodiment of a larger set of values and beliefs, and it is these that we should be interrogating – and which, I humbly submit, the dogme philosophy DOES in fact interrogate. Pace its knockers (whole legions of ’em).

      1. I had to read your last sentence a couple times … I sense a trap leading me to replicate the language you use … 🙂

        Yes, dogme certainly serves the function you claim for it, by interrogating perceived heterodoxies. That’s why I learn so much from it. But that’s my point: everything can contribute to a holistic view of our work, and it’s not helpful to target one aspect, such as coursebooks, as the cause of all evils. You’re very generous about this, and you appreciate the role of course books as much as I’m indebted to dogme.

        Anyway, enough already, in case we outstay our welcome. I’ll now wait impatiently for the first print versions of Chia’s alternative, holistic grammar. And I’ll learn from this, too.


        1. Hi Simon,
          I have to agree with Scott there.
          An exquisitely crafted plea for a more measured and more holistic response indeed.

          Indeed reform and change is needed all round, and I agree, coursebooks are only part of it…as I have admitted in my previous response.

          However, although coursebooks are only part of it, they ARE part of it that needs change.

          To start with, the word ‘course’ in ‘coursebook’ makes me shift uncomfortably in my seat, to be honest.
          A course seems to suggest that one can follow it in a linear fashion…and unless all our learners are exactly the same…unless they are all robots…

          Okay, I’ve ranted enough about how language learning isn’t linear, so I won’t start that again…

          Maybe what I am hoping to see is more of a resource book that teachers can dip into when support is needed to clarify language (lexicogrammar or pron), a book of ideas that could spark off conversations, and a guide to the use of a range of tools (be it dictation activities, use of recording devices, cuisinnaire rods) to make teaching eclectic…but always principled…of course.

          So, either I can wait impatiently for those materials to become a mainstay of the typical ELT staffroom, or I can wait impatiently for someone to commission me to write it myself. That, and the alternative, holistic grammar…
          ; )


          PS: Simon, you and Scott will never outstay your welcome. I absolutely love reading your comments!

    2. Great comment Simon and I absolutely agree.

      Rather than laying focus on reform taking place just within a classroom context, be it course book vs dogme, one methodology or another, the change needs to come from everywhere – from within, but also from the top.

      You wrote that “Change and reform cannot be atomistic, it has to be holistic, from the bottom up and from the top down, and includes not just materials or approaches, a (justifiable) dislike of grammar mcnuggets, but teacher training, curriculum design, exams and anything which belongs to the eco-system of language learning.”
      I would also like to expand on the “anything” at the end of that list to include programme directors, DoSs and even go right to the top and include those involve in policy formation, be it ministries (at a governmental level) or Heads of Training (in a corporate training environment), and not forgetting to add publishers to the mix, too.

      [re: Publishers – I am aware of the balance between meeting market expectations and informing the market about what they might benefit more from, but aren’t yet aware of. there’s a fine economical/financial balance. It’s a simple case of economics (supplying current demand & creating new demand) and is not unique to our profession.]

      I feel there will always be a place for course books in language learning/teaching, but that their content, approach and structure will become more flexible as technology (e-books, online supplementary customiseable content, embedded videos/audio, etc.) is constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, and learners and teachers are also looking for more flexible input.
      I really don’t see it as a case of course book or not, purist dogme, or whatever, but rather a call for more flexibility in using structured materials.


      1. Yes, my ‘anything’ included all stakeholders, DoSs, programme directors, ministry officials. Since many of these posts are filled by people who have MAs, maybe we should be looking at the content of MA programmes as much as the content of course books?

  16. If I have a course to teach, I would much rather work with a coursebook, even a poor one. It gives a base, a core, a start point, something to bite against. What I wouldn’t want is someone to tell me how I must use that book.

    Most coursebooks nowadays are pretty good – or, as I have recently been arguing, “too good”.They are not the problem. The problem is with the line managers, schools and institutions that require that they are used in a certain way e.g. “Cover two units each week”. This requires teachers to work in a subservient position to the book and this is what leads to the undervaluing of important live classroom things things such as listening and responding, being flexible, working with what happens, finding out where the real learning is going on.

    It’s not coursebooks that “dominate and determine so many aspects of a teacher’s day-to-day professional life” but the relationships that teacher are pressurised to have with them.

    Jim Scrivener

    1. Yes, great point. This is one of the things I meant when referring to DoSs in my comment above. However, as I often feel at conferences when I think the speakers are preaching to the converted, are the ‘right’ people reading this blog? Are they even aware discussions like these are going on? I fear not, just like I often feel that the people who most need to hear what conference speakers are saying are the ones who aren’t there!

      1. Indeed, Mike.
        We might be preaching to the converted most of the time…
        But if one, just one, teacher who doesn’t usually participate in such discussions, or one student, or DOS, or government official, or publisher, or examination board designer, or parent, stumbles upon this discussion, or others like it…
        That is the start of a reform, no?


        PS: Am I in the right job here? Should I be in politics? Or be working at a church? ; )

    2. Hi Jim,

      I absolutely love what you are saying!
      And thanks for joining in the discussion. It’s a real honour to have you here.

      The truth is many people out there (clients, schools, companies, governments, exam boards, parents, etc) still believe that ploughing through a coursebook, doing all the grammar exercises and memorising all the lexis is what makes one good at English.

      The trust they place in a published piece of material like a coursebook in taking them through to their destination is huge.

      I actually just had an IELTS student say to me today, ‘I study for 8 hours everyday. I’ve done this for 5 months. Why am I still getting the same score on my IELTS exams? I am starting to hate English!’

      When I asked her what she does when she studies, she just replied, ‘I go through the IELTS book page by page and do all the exercises. I do all the listenings. But my listening is still the same.’

      Coursebooks don’t just dominate the teachers’ lives, they dominate the students’ lives too.

      And the relationships that students (and schools, companies, governments, exam boards, parents etc) have with coursebooks have got to change too.

      Shouldn’t the responsibility for such change lie with the teachers and all those in the know?


      1. I have to share this story:

        My friend was teaching some undergraduates and when he pulled out the coursebook (the only material for a full year of English) 2 students said ” we used that in high school”. To which my friend responded with “well,maybe we can find another one then. The response was…….
        “No, we have done the book but we have not yet mastered it”.
        This says a lot I think. In a way they were aware that just completing it doesn’t mean they have improved or should move on to the next. Also that perhaps a good book has all the core elements ie grammar and skills that you need for a solid foundation. Unfortunately, I think they just meant that they hadn’t memorised it.

        By the way, when I was in a place that used coursebooks in every class I recall that we had an unwritten guide as to which books were which level. What I mean is that X book was for weak Advanced but Y was for high Advanced. There were even Upper Int books that were easier than some Int ones. Does everyone have this still or are the books nowadays better levelled?

        1. Great story, Phil!
          And a very familiar one too!
          And I know a few teachers who would say the same to students (They can’t move up! Not till they can show me they have mastered everything in the book!)
          I also know a teacher who used to set Murphy exercises for students, head out to the pub for a pint, and then come back to check their answers after.
          Of course, none of the above mentioned teachers work for IH London. (Thought I’d better clarify that! LOL)

          Your examples with books and levels clearly show that levels are an arbitrary thing placed on the language learning process.
          Who says that ‘Should + Have + past participle’ is more difficult than the present perfect?

          If my student needs to say ‘I should have gone to the toilet before coming to class’ and I feed in that language…surely, he’s going to remember it despite it being classified as ‘more difficult’ according to the levels of the coursebook?

          Actually, no…
          The student would probably be too preoccupied to pay any attention to the language I’m feeding in…

          (Something for Dogme in Action, perhaps, Phil?)


        2. Again have to say something about your comment about “I should have gone to the toilet before coming to class” – As you know I don’t believe in being over technical with students and saying things like “research shows blah blah blah” and that this is a very difficult or more difficult grammar point than that one. I know course books may have grammar points in some sort of order then come in but if you do needs analysis with your learners and use that then you won’t be following the book in a linear fashion. I think as we move forward in this industry (it has been one that has been unrecognised as a real profession for a long time – “real” teachers still think we are phonies by becoming teachers after completing a four week course!), there are more and more schools and academic managers/DOSs who don’t expect their teachers to follow the books unit by unit. They recognise that student needs are important.

          There are bad teachers out there like the one who went to the pub while his/her class did Murphy exercises but again you are focusing on the minority. (No-one on my watch is allowed to use Murphy in class – I have been known to take it away from the staffroom in a previous life!!!).

          Can we stop generalising and start looking at the reality – there are good and bad teachers of course books and Dogme out there. We all know that.

          And research – well you know my feelings on this subject – it’s not the be all and end all of everything. There is so much more to real life than research.

        3. As many people on my blog have pointed our there are far too many ‘backpackers’ abroad working in places that don’t require CELTAs, mainly because they don’t know what it is or just being native is enough. It’s also enough to become a translator it seems.

          Bad teachers? Well, would you hire a manager who didn’t have any qualifications? No; Would you hire one who’s done a 20 day course? Maybe no again but if you did you would make them operate in an ‘idiot proof’ environment ie lots of materials/books and plans.

          Re: Good teachers

          We need to start getting paid appropriately and praised. We also need proper positions but there may be a short life to an ELT career as not every employer is willing to up a teacher’s salary every year and unless you want to be ADOS what else is there. Not every school runs CELTA courses or even has senior teachers.

        4. Why so cynical Phil – is it really that bad out there and remember I have worked at and seen many places in my working career.

          Yes, conditions need to be made better for teachers in this industry and I believe that they are getting better. For an industry that has always seen as a way to travel aorund the world and that wasn’t regulated as mainstream education providers, i think it’s doing pretty well. As for more positions, how many teachers from a primary or secondary school actually make it to Head Teacher? How many teachers in FE colleges have been “just teachers” for 10/20/30 years and are happy to continue doing that. You want to be considered for a post in management – look at and apply – it really is that easy. Opportunities are out there.

          There was a really good panel discussion at the EnglishUK management conference this year about career paths in TEFL. I think they may have posted it on their website – it’s worth a look. No, not every school runs CELTA courses and not every employer is willing to put up salaries – but our industry’s not unique in that. There are plenty of other industries that do the same.

          Idiot proof environment? Course books and materials make for an idiot proof environment? Really?

        5. Sorry, I’m referring to overseas more.

          Diarmund had a great idea for a TEFL PGCE which could be internationally recognised as a real teaching qualification. Now THAT would mean you could get a proper FT/permanent job in Europe. In theory. That’s what we need. Free movement and proper positions. By the time you’ve done a CELT/DELTA or MA you’ve spent years of your life, a PGCE could be quicker and is practical.

          I applied for some jobs in London in the summer but, as in many places, some places want the DELTA, others an MA and some even a PhD. A couple wanted all 3 and examiner status. The dream job for us all is a Uni EFL Tutor or EAP Tutor I think, or at least it used to be. I applied for some but got nowhere.

          What I find interesting is that a lot of these tutors don’t have Phds but they want new applicants to have one.

          I would like to see a clear progression ie PGCE then MA/PhD combo. It would make everything easier but perhaps the CELTA/DELTA people wouldn’t be happy.Unless they just combine them into 1.

          On that note, as a DOS, do you think the CELTA really creates employable teachers?

      2. Hi Chia

        There are so many other reasons that the student may nt be progressing – it’s not just the course book that is holding the student back – for every student who is like this there is one who has been successful.

        Too much empahsis on how bad the course book is and not enough being said about all the other things that could be holding the student back me thinks!

        1. We musn’t forget the obsession that many schools have about improving speaking levels and the, often noted, lack of speaking work in many books.

          My boss had a heart attack when I said a 121 had shot up 2 levels in his speaking ability. How? Lots of speaking work not based on the book because it was the wrong book. I’m still to be convinced that there is a good speaking book out there but Harper Collins’ IELTS Speaking for 6.5+ is pretty good!

        2. I wish.No,I was just very surprised by it.It has samples, language, ideas..everything.

          Sorry, a brown envelope just got pushed under my door.

        3. Again, another over generalisation of course books. I’m not sure I’ve been working from the same coursebooks as you because the ones I use have plenty of speaking work in them.

        4. But in what percentage of the book is real conversation? Not just free practice or warmers. Isn’t speaking tagged on at the end? Now, if we are talking about BE then I think we definitely are better in that regard (big head). That’s what got me into BE in the first place. There are really good resources for speaking and it’s meaningful and interesting. I never had that from doing Pair Work, A to Z, Taboos and Issues etc.

          Come on over to BE Varinder, or even ESP. I’m doing a class on Microsoft’s HomeOS soon, you’d love it. Just 1 small text or a small clip.

  17. Chiasuan, sorry to come so late to this fascinating debate. I wholeheartedly agree with your point about ‘feeling’ general rules which always work. The some/any limited/unlimited example is perfect, and this is exactly the explanation I use.

    However, I did pick up that some/any distinction from … gasp … a book! – it’s just I can’t remember which! Michael Lewis? All I can remember is that the author railed against the typical coursebook explanations of some/any, providing the following example which has stuck in my head: “I like any music”. Ring any bells? It’d be good to revisit that book for other nuggets of wisdom (before yours comes out of course ; )

    Anyway, keep up the great work on the blog.

    1. Hi Neil,
      It’s great to see you here and thanks so much for your comments. Yes, the ‘some’ and ‘any’ example is not mine and was something we discussed quite a bit when I did my DELTA. Unfortunately, I don’t remember which book it came from.

      However, I think it’s a great example of how certain generalised rules which are not helpful (‘some’ is use for positive sentences and ‘any’ is used for negative and interrogatives) can be published by one author, and the moment it’s on a page, it becomes official, and then other writers put it in their books too, and soon enough, it becomes the gospel truth.

      I don’t seek to create my own pedagogic truth, I only seek to help students in any way suitable feel and explore the lexicogrammar of the language so that they are able to produce it successfully themselves.

      Thanks once again!


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