Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Questioning the coursebook

Hugh Dellar posted a while back about the generalisations regarding specific cultures that pervade a lot of ELT coursebooks. You can read his post here. I was struck by one criticism he made of a particular coursebook - that there was a piece of text that spouted some stereotypes followed by comprehension questions that essentially reinforced the message from the text. Hugh was making the point that this kind of thing is widespread and therefore, there is scope for trainee teachers to be made more aware of cultural sensitivity.

I found myself thinking - given students are likely to spend a lot of time with coursebooks - perhaps we can turn the problems of a coursebook to our advantage. Perhaps we can use the coursebook in ways that go beyond its intended purpose. That we could use the familiarity of the coursebook as the first step in a conversation about critical thinking.

Often, when encouraging students to think critically, I use resources like online articles, newspapers, blogposts. But perhaps the coursebook is the natural starting point for students to start challenging a text in English. Throw in a question or two that have nothing to do with the task being asked of them - the purpose being simply to encourage thinking beyond the coursebook.

  • Who do you think wrote this? 
  • Why do you think he wants you to learn this vocabulary/grammar?
  • Why do you think there is so much colour on this page?
  • Why do you think there is a cartoon here?
  • In this reading about cultures around the world, do you think it's really true what they say about people in......? If its not true, why do you think they're saying it?
At higher levels, a lot of texts for examinations tend to be newspaper style reports on research. As well as getting students to answer multiple choice questions, match headings and fill in gaps, why not throw in a few questions that challenge the content of the text.
  • How do you think they found out that 70% of people think this, or do that?
  • Where do you think this research was carried out? Do you think the results would be true for every country?
  • What do you think is the purpose of this text - to persuade you; to educate you; to frighten you?
  • This article on car usage paints a very negative picture. Do you think there is another side to the story?
  • Why do you think so many of these articles are about stress? What does this say about materials developers?
On a lot of listening CDs you often find actors pretending to be non-native speakers. I always found this a bit odd, and kind of offensive, but perhaps there is scope for introducing a tiny bit of critical thinking here.
  • Do you think that person is really from ........?
  • Why didn't they just find someone from that country?
Or even just trying to infer something about the people speaking on the CD. 
  • Did you think he sounded a bit annoyed? 
  • A lot of these professors seem to be men - why aren't there more female professors on this CD?
  • Where are all the Irish people on this CD?
Or with speaking exercises - encouraging students to consider whether the question might be leading them slightly. I often see these really loaded questions in books - Do you think children today spend too much time playing video games? Wouldn't it be nice to hear a student answer no, not enough actually to this question? 

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