What do modern EFL/ESL textbooks look like?
Over the past five months, for a number of different reasons, I’ve been analyzing dozens of EFL / ESL textbooks (I’m using the terms interchangeably) put out by the mainstream publishing houses. For better and for worse, all these EFL / ESL textbooks have more similarities than differences, which means that it’s becoming increasingly harder to choose title A over title B. Here’s a summary of what I’ve found so far:
1. The CEF is here to stay. Period. Sooner than we think, the “beginner” or “high intermediate” labels used by modern EFL / ESL textbooks might be replaced by “A1″ or “B2″ or whatever.
2. In modern EFL / ESL textbooks there’s an attempt to phrase the work done in each lesson in CEF-friendly terms such as “Now I can give advice” or “I know how to ask about past events.” Now, whether the CEF specifications will one day become the driving force behind syllabus choices rather than mere end-of-unit add-ons remains to be seen.
3. Modern “adult” EFL / ESL textbooks seem to aim at an audience with ages ranging from 16 to late 20s, so topic choices tend to oscillate between study and work, fun and seriousness, anecdotes and discussions. This is easy to understand, of course, since most language institutes worldwide often put adults and young adults in the same classes.
4. There seems to be a growing trend towards self-contained lessons within a longer unit of work, accompanied by supplementary exercises at the back of the book. Newer editions of now classic EFL / ESL textbooks (English File, Inside Out) follow that pattern.
5. In modern EFL / ESL textbooks, grammar remains the driving force behind the syllabus, a trend that was set by the old, old edition of Headway Intermediate in 1987 or something. If older EFL / ESL textbooks such as Lifestyles, Spectrum and New Wave, for example, built the syllabus around functions, virtually all of their modern counterparts tend to keep formulaic language at the periphery of the syllabus.
6. The choice of what grammar points to teach at a certain level is remarkably similar across different EFL / ESL textbooks and, in many cases, so are the accompanying topics. This means that students are very likely to learn “how long + present perfect” through a job interview, for example. This job interview, incidentally, must sound appealing to both a young adult and a sixteen-year-old. That’s not easy to achieve. My sympathy goes out to textbook writers worldwide – including myself.
7. Headway introduced the “grammar discovery” approach to presenting language in the 80s and, since then, most mainstream EFL / ESL textbooks have tried to follow suit. This means that what you need to present grammar is a text or a listening containing at least three examples of the target structure, plus a grammar box of some sort and a few questions like: “How do we form the comparative of short adjectives?”. A few recent ESL textbooks also try to include a “noticing” phase (where students, for example, listen to a few selected lines from a dialog and fill in the blanks) between the text and the grammar.
8. In modern EFL / ESL textbooks, there seems to be a growing concern with the amount of personalization to be generated by different activities. For example, it’s not rare to find gap-fill tasks made up entirely of “pesonalizable” sentences, which students are asked to discuss in pairs at the end (“Which of these sentences are true for you?). Though I could be mistaken, I think the Inside Out series was the first textbook to ever consistently regard gap-fill exercises as a bona-fide opportunity for transfer.
9. Modern EFL / ESL textbooks seem to be paying more and more attention to vocabulary development, with lexical syllabuses made up of both words and “chunky” language (collocations, lexical phrases etc). I am constantly struck, however, by the sheer amount of lexis that most EFL / ESL textbooks still try to pack within one given lesson.
10. I have seen a few recent titles striving to recycle grammar and vocabulary subliminally through, for example, reading and listening passages that were “doctored” to include previously-seen language items.
11. Pronunciation is back, though the extent to which it is seen as an end-of-lesson nicety or tackled as an integral part of the lesson still varies wildly. Interestingly, the phrase “listen and repeat” is still used sparingly. Modern EFL / ESL textbooks seem to be fonder of “Listen and practice.”
12. Learner training, which was all the rage in the 90s, has all but disappeared from mainstream EFL / ESL textbooks. We might have gone too far back then, and now the ever-swinging ELT pendulum seems to have swung away from strategy training and learning how to learn. Exam titles are a whole different kettle of fish, of course.
13. Most modern EFL / ESL textbooks include some sort of writing syllabus, with tasks thematically/linguistically linked to each core unit. Because all the pre-writing work is usually confined to a single page, there’s relatively little emphasis on the sort of process approach to writing advocated by Ron White in the 80s.
14. I am truly in awe of all the supporting technology modern textbooks can brag about: CD-ROMS, interactive whiteboard material, companion websites, lesson planers, ipod add-ons. Personally, though, when analyzing a new title, I still make final decisions based on the student book.
I’d love to hear your ideas. What do modern EFL / ESL textbooks look like these days?
Thanks for reading.