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G is for Grapple

No, I’m not going to be weaving a well-constructed post about an apple posing as a grape (pictured above) as a metaphor for an ELT issue–the operative word being “well”–nor am I beginning a series of posts that will piggyback off Scott Thornbury’s well-known blog format (ok, maybe just this once).  Instead, two of his recent posts on coursebook/syllabi approaches, P is Postmodern method and C is for Critical Pedagogy, have given me that little nudge to write about the grappling with curricula and coursebooks I undergo every summer.  (By the way, they also have inspired a desire to incorporate vivid metaphors into my posts, which will continually manifest itself somewhere, some way.  You wait!)

When reviewing or writing a curriculum, I find the level of suitable flexibility to be problematic.  It seems there are three ways to really go about planning:  prescriptive (you’re told exactly what to teach each lesson), flexible (you create your own lessons based on outcomes to achieve within a certain time frame) and open (you figure it all out as you go). Given that the majority of teachers I’ve asked which they prefer eliminate either end of the spectrum immediately (and that seems a natural choice), it comes down to making a curriculum flexible.  That sounds easy, but flexible does just that: flexes from more detailed to less depending on the needs of the students, the experience of the teacher, the dynamics of the class and events that unfold.

On the more detailed end of flexible, the curriculum incorporates a coursebook for guidance as to the progression expected throughout the program.  Outcomes are often highly compatible with its table-of-contents so as not to mix up the intentionally building content within the units.  Sure, it may not be a day-to-day syllabus, but in many cases, it’s expected that one coursebook will be used for one program’s length.

This amount of freedom (which is truly little freedom at all, let’s face it) comforts teachers who may not be at their prime (professionally, economically and/or autonomously), students who know no different and administrators who rely on what they’re told.  It takes little beyond a placement test into account for what the class of students will truly benefit from by “bulldozing a path through the diversity, spontaneity, unpredictability and general messiness of the classroom jungle.” (just one of a plethora of these inspiring metaphors I mentioned earlier, 2012P)  Though most students will improve different areas of their proficiency during the class, it will have little do to with this curriculum itself.  Of equal concern, it reinforces to publishers that coursebooks are the money-makers over one-off niche titles (but let’s save the economics and the safety of their content for another post).

What suggests flexibility here is the fact that the curriculum does not require teachers to use everything within the coursebook itself, but rather create replacement or supplemental activities for selected items deemed boring or useless or poorly constructed.  In this way, though the coursebook is the driving force behind the outcomes, its content use seems at the teacher’s discretion.  Ooooer, flexible.  Not. Is this type of flexible curriculum inevitable if a coursebook is involved? Is it really useful for teachers or students?

Is it an apple or is a grape?

Based on the above, the seemingly less detailed end of flexible would include a curriculum that does not require a syllabus or the guidance of a coursebook, but descriptors of skill achievements that progressively gain complexity over time (e.g. “Can follow simple short predictable phone messages.” > “Can follow short predictable phone messages on familiar matters.” > “Can follow clear and coherent phone messages on unfamiliar and non-routine matters.” from Canadian Language Benchmarks, 74).   In this scenario, students are given a diagnostic, which helps determine which descriptors to start from.  Teachers create materials however they see fit to facilitate student achievement of the next descriptor in the series. These types of descriptors have much in common with the flaws of coursebook promises introduced early on in Thornbury’s post (2012P).  Admittedly they focus on more manageable teaching chunks, but still suggest a mastery of X skill by the end of a course–a declaration that is challenging to quantify. So I wonder:  is this progression of descriptors really anything different than a coursebook without the materials?  On a practical level, is it really that useful for teachers either?

Where a coursebook should remain in the flexible curriculum is in the background with other available resources (methodology books, photocopiable books, previously used teacher materials, student-generated/sourced material, etc.).  A coursebook is just one resource among many, not necessarily worse or better, but definitely not the focus.  Having students purchase one is also not a bad idea, so long as items practised in the book are relevant enough to be referred to for preparatory reading, self-study or homework.

A perfect example was my EAP reading/writing class last year.  We chose to use Writing Academic English as the primary text and divided chapters into different weeks of the first term.  Quite early on, I felt so restricted.  I felt like I had to use the exercises in class rather than my own.  I hated it.  In second term, we decided to give sections of it for self-study, related to outcomes we’d introduce in our own ways during class.  We left parts for autonomous extra practice, feedback given during office hours if chosen. This worked out so much better for everyone:  instructors decided how to use it, students had automatic resources for self-study and extra practice, publishers and writers continued to make earned money.  Proof it worked best outside the classroom, we exploited this text far less in class than  ideas and samples from other directly relevant texts, videos, blogs, real essays from 1st-year students and students’ own writing.  Further on, students were tasked with sourcing their own texts on topics from readings we’d done and with regard to their chosen research topics and it was these texts that could be manipulated for practice.  Matched with the variety of other sources for practice materials in this way, the coursebook was given the amount power and influence it deserves in our curriculum: minimal.  (This also lessens its ideological influences on the students–2012C–but that’s also a post for another day.)

Still, we could just abandon the whole concept of a curriculum altogether and go with out guts, our initial diagnostics and the emergent needs that spring up in class with materials found out of class.  But then, it wouldn’t be much of a marketable program nor the level of flexibility expected, would it?  And so I continue to grapple, not “grape-L”…

This apparently comes as a t-shirt.





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phil wade

I had exactly the same thing with using a book and allocating units. I’m more used to books than the other people I worked with but I still found it hard. Mainly because it was one of the new ‘self-study/classroom’ use books which is a very difficult combination to pull off and only having 2 pages per unit made it ever more difficult. The other teachers were principally against books. Why? God knows. They found them constricting and even insulting one said.

In the end I did as you ie using it as a supplement. This worked well as the same book was used with every level from pre-int to CPE. Yes, it sounds mad but when everyone has to be tested the same then it is what was decided as fair.

As usual I found the extra resources far more useful which may be why the new CUP Prof Eng books seem to be 1/3 traditional book and the rest is teacher stuff. Then add on all the online stuff and the teacher ends up with an arsenal of resources to play around with and the book can be used or not used as and when. If this continues we may just end up with teacher resource books. I saw one publisher is selling German study courses unit-by-unit. That might be another option. Instead of buying a book you could buy U2,3,4 packs or online components. Hmmmm.


Yes, there can be a lot and things seem to be in a transitional phase of half paper and half online. I still see people downloading materials and whole teacher books but !I also see a lot of students who won’t buy books because they are expensive, schools too. However, I’ve noticed that Global and Harper are selling very affordable books nowadays and you can get apps of books for less than 10 Euros.

What annoys me is the attitude of some teachers/professors/lecturers when they refuse to use books but then copy random bits and pieces and seem to think that their packs are superior. Some do make their own stuff and reuse it and credit to them but I don’t think there’s anything unprofessional about using a book at that level. Now teachers forcing students and departments to use their books is another issue.


Good point but that would rely on 1)having enough good resources 2)knowing how to put them together 3)having enough of a budget copy in huge quantities 4)having the ability to do mass copies 5)not breaking any laws.

I’ve seen and had to use packs of 5 to 25 copies without answers, listening or other sources. Some of them were just readings and others grammar sheets. I think the person who put them together knows how to use them but coming in as a newbie is very difficult as you are teaching materials with no plan or answers. I can also safely say that a lot of them get left behind, lost or just not used because there’s no time.

A solution I used at one place was putting them together into a copied book but students didn’t want to pay for it.

Oh, a solution I’ve seen a bit of for avoiding copyright is retyping. I had a boss who used to retype entire pages from a book. Another just copied entire books. When I used to copy stuff direct with the reprographics man I had to fill in forms which meant the department had to pay for every single copy. The same for Harvard cases. It did get expensive I think.

A couple of years back a dean decided to encourage us to create our own stuff so I spent the summer writing a course. This involved the syllabus, a few copies, all my own PPT and some online stuff I chose. In the end they had a full and cohesive course that only had a few things which needed copying and their solution to that was that the class monitor did it for every student and they paid. As a teacher that was great although they locked the copier away in a vault so I did have to do and pay for the master copies.

In my current job we are not allowed to use any books or copies. There’s no budget or facilities. I get PPT sent and then construct my own variation enhanced with online stuff. For speaking classes I just use my blog. A good book may be possible if they liked it but they’d find it weird and a bit old. Copies definitely wouldn’t work. These kids literally just come with a mac or a big phone.

The same thing for their library-there isn’t one, everything is online, even some teachers. Perhaps using scanned pages instead of handouts would work but I am all for digital books and modern sources. I don’t find copies of old books useful if they are dated and they soon are.I’m sure you have the same thing on the MA. Trying to bridge the knowledge gap between your 2007 book and now can even be tough.Thank god for the net!

[…] JULY 3rd : Our latest destination: ‘G is for Grapple’ […]

Merve Oflaz

Dear Tyson,

I loved the metaphor you used and the way you linked the grapples with the curriculums. Thank you for touching upon this topic.

I’m sure most of the teachers would really like to be more flexible about the curriculum and plans, but I think this demand is changing for each culture or country.

Let’s hope the best for everyone!


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