Guidebook action

Image courtesy of Jaymis Loveday

Yesterday, I stumbled upon this article by Ian McGrath on the use of metaphor to describe how teachers and students view coursebooks in the English language classroom. The article was interesting in itself and I may eventually get around to exploring it in depth in a future post, but the topic did cause me to think about which metaphor I would use to describe coursebooks. My metaphor came quickly enough and started to snowball after that. I will try my best to unravel it a bit for you.

Even though I know what the word metaphor means to me, being a language teacher, I decided to explore the etymological roots of the word to see if it would spark any ideas. As always, I turned to the Online Etymology Dictionary (one of my favourite sites) and this is what it gave me:

metaphor (n.) late 15c., from Middle French metaphore (Old French metafore, 13c.), and directly from Latin metaphora, from Greek metaphora “a transfer,” especially of the sense of one word to a different word, literally “a carrying over,” from metapherein “transfer, carry over; change, alter; to use a word in a strange sense,” from meta– “over, across” + pherein “to carry, bear”.

The things that caught my eye were the phrases “to use a word in a strange sense” and “a transfer”. For me, metaphors should cause someone to think by altering their perspective. The ‘strangeness’ of ‘transferring’ the characteristics of one thing on top of something completely different that changes the way our brain thinks about the receiving object. We start to make connection that normally would have been missed.

Coursebooks are one of those things that can be quite polarizing. Some people love them, others detest them. There are others in the middle, but it is not unusual for someone to take one of the extreme ends. The reasons vary, but the feelings are quite real. How you feel about them will change what object you choose to use as a metaphor. For me, I am one of those in the middle area. I might lean towards one end more than the other, so I can’t call myself ‘balanced’ in my feelings. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which end I tend to favour after reading the remainder of this post. Here we go.

My coursebook metaphor would be a travel guidebook. It fits in nicely with my view of language learning as a journey and as myself as a guide. Here is how it breaks down:

Guidebooks are not meant to be read from front-to-back.

You should be able to pick and choose what sections are good for you and what is not applicable. I am not the type of person to wants to find the best night clubs or the best place to socialize. I would rather find a place that is tucked away somewhere off the beaten path. It should be where the locals go to get away from the tourists and enjoy a lazy afternoon.

This is the same for the coursebook, there are things in there that are not applicable to the situation or even some of the individuals. Pop culture content is the worst for being irrelevant, and I’m not the only one who feels this way. This is the same sentiment I have heard from my students. I usually take the language content from that section and apply it to something else. I tend to find that works better since I know who my students are better than the coursebook writer does.

Guidebooks are often out of date.

It takes a long time to put a book together, but the place you have written about continue to change. Currently in Lithuania, changes happened at breakneck speed. While I was there, one restaurant location changed owners, names, and content four times over four years. I am sure it caused no end of grief to book writers (although, it gave them a reason to write a new one).

Coursebook writers often try to include current topics, but they were only current when it was being written. By the time it gets through the content and copy editors, the designers, and finally the printing process, that topic has faded off into oblivion.

Guidebooks have been designed by professionals who do fact checking.

Instead of just jumping on the internet and relying on someone who may or may not have any idea of what they are talking about, guidebooks have a pretty good  screening system that filters out the questionable submissions or people who have an agenda. I would rather trust a guidebook than a random stranger on the internet.

One of the things that bothers me even more than some coursebook material is the content I find on various websites. I’m not just talking about stuff that isn’t that good, I am talking about the material that is downright wrong. Spelling and grammar errors, poor approaches to learning, and shameless self-promotion. Call me jaded, but I have given up on finding much useful online. I do come across things from time to time that I can use or adapt, but I’d rather stick to things I have created or gotten from someone I know that has a good understanding of what is helpful. Some of that material will come from coursebooks.

Guidebooks have maps with markers to show you where the sights are.

A number of years ago, my wife and I were travelling back to Lithuania from the UK and we decided to make a very quick overnight stop to Paris since neither of us had been there before. We did as much research as we could ahead of time and ended up consulting a detailed map in the guidebook to plan our 36 hour trip to the City of Light. That map turned out to be incredibly valuable since we didn’t have any time to waste. We wanted to see as much as we could without pushing it too hard. In the end, we did deviate a bit from the plan, but we generally followed it with a great deal of success.

Coursebooks have ‘maps’ of sorts as well. These are the scope and sequence charts you find at the front of the book. They map out the ‘journey’ through the coursebook and give enough detail to know what is coming up. I have noticed students poring over these charts to see what is coming up. For me, I write my own S&S for the class based on the route that I believe is best for the class based on needs assessments and student interviews. We often deviate from the plan, but at least the students start out the journey generally knowing where we are going.

Guidebooks are not comprehensive.

This is actually a good thing. There is a bit of filtering going on based on what the writers feel would hit the target market. If they tried to include everything, people wouldn’t buy the book because it would be too big and confusing.

Same thing for a coursebook. Don’t think that what is there is everything you need to teach the course. Instead, use it as a template. Add content. Find things that are relevant to your students and work with that to work out the finer details of the language and its use. The book just gets you started.

Seasoned travellers of an area don’t need the guidebook.

If you have travelled to that place before, you often know better than the guidebook. You know how long it takes to get to one place or another. You know the best restaurants and hotels. You even know the best places to avoid the crowds and places to relax. They often know others who travel there as well and exchange ideas.

Seasoned instructors are the same way. Guidebooks were great tools to get your started, but stop relying on them. Go with your experience and knowledge of the area of language you are working on. Consult with other instructors and share your experience to get an even better idea of how to teach the material.

Take your nose out of the guidebook and look around.

Following a guidebook too closely takes away the experience of travelling. You are there to enjoy the place, not to ‘tick off’ as many boxes as you can so you can tell others what you did. This is about being there and experiencing the place with all of your senses.

Coursebooks can have the same effect. People who ‘follow the book’ too closely, miss the enjoyment of learning. It is about ‘completing the task’ not ‘experiencing the language’. Languages are not a goal. They are an experience. Take the time to use the language, experiment, and have fun.

There is more that can be pulled from this metaphor, but I will end our journey there. Many of you have been down this path before and I would enjoy hearing some of your ‘travelling tips’. Add them to the comment section below for others to learn from.

11 thoughts on “Travelling

  1. Very keen insight. I especially like how you said that seasoned travellers of the area don’t need the guidebook! I think as teachers gain more experience, they trust themselves and their skills to create / modify / and blend materials and resources as needed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Thank you for your comment. I just noticed that you had some similar thoughts regarding coursebooks in your last post.

      I don’t want to say that I am anti-coursebook, because I think there are some real uses for them. My problem is more in HOW they are used. I tend to do my own thing now, but there was a time that they provided me with guidance. There is often so little support for novice English language teachers, they need to have something to hang on to. Until we change the system of introducing new teachers into the classroom, we will continue to stay this course.

  2. Thanks Nathan. I found out about this blogpost from a network ELT coursebook writers (which I am a party of) and I found it really refreshing. Some nice points there. I also think there is another similarity, and that’s the pleasure or fun people get from looking at really old guidebooks, and really old coursebooks. Well, some people at least. 🙂

    1. Thank you very much for your kind comment, Lindsay. It means a great deal coming from you. I have also had some fun looking at really old coursebooks, especially the photos. The hair, the fashion, the horror! 😉

  3. Really enjoyed this exploration of the metaphor – thank you. Wanted to hit the like button, but for some reason the site wasn’t letting me. Think another analogy is guide books organise things – so instead – oh my – there’s so much – what to turn to next – you get stuff delivered in an orderly and manageable fashion.

    1. Excellent addition! I agree that it can help teachers keep things on track. The problem sometimes is that they become too reliant on them. It is a bit of give and take. Thank you for your comment.

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