I decided to write this post after reading Sandy Millin’s post and thinking: “wow, that’s exactly what I think!”. I apologise if this is more of a random collection of thoughts, but again, Sandy’s post reminded me of how putting your thoughts in writing sometimes can help to clarify your mind and put things into perspective.

You should know that this year I have become increasingly uncomfortable with textbooks. This is not to say that the ones we use in our school are poor in quality, on the contrary: I have chosen them exactly because I think they are one of the best alternatives found in the market today. Yet, I found myself “covering” less then half of the coursebook by the end of the year, and drifting away very often by choosing topics and lessons not based on the book units.

I’m sure you’re thinking: “there’s nothing wrong with it, it is actually a good sign, you are adapting your lessons and materials to the learners”. This is true, but from a practical point of view I had students complain that they had paid a good amount of money (these textbooks now cost over €35,00 here in Italy) for a book that they hardly used.

Furthermore, at the end of the year, when we were reviewing and summarising all the language that we studied during the course, I found them a bit confused: they would still have a tendency to refer back to the textbook for revising, even though not all the language that emerged in class was actually available in the textbook.

[Keep in mind that I am talking about small groups of adult learners, who are attending English classes in the evenings, typically once a week.]

All of this got me thinking:

If we take away textbooks, this could mean a significant saving for the students, who would not have to spend close to € 40,00 only for one year textbook. Plus the teachers would be able to really adapt their lessons, and the materials, to the class as they go along and get to know their students better.

On the other hand, not having a textbook can be pretty confusing for the adult learner. I have noticed that they struggle to keep all the handouts and photocopies in order, and often end up with a big pile of messy pieces of paper only a few months into the course. Plus the book has well-organised grammar and vocabulary sections, as well as audio files for pronunciation and extra listening exercises, which we wouldn’t be able to provide otherwise (how much the students actually use these features is another question…).

To solve the “messiness” problem, one colleague suggested we give each student a file at the beginning of the course, so that at each lesson the teacher could give the students a separate plastic pocket with all the materials for that lesson. In this way, the learners could also be trained at keeping the lesson materials tidy, in order to be able to refer back to them in the future.

In addition, we have recently built an Online Learning Management System for our school, where students can interact with classmates and with the teacher, where teachers can upload materials and assignments and where both can keep track of their progress. So why not use this tool at its full capacity, and eliminate the textbook by using more online, integrated learning?

All of this sounds great, but it also implies a lot of extra work for the teacher: finding the right materials for every lesson, creating activities and appropriate exercises, managing the online part of the learning are all things that take up a considerable amount of time. Will my colleagues and I be able to cope with the extra load?

I am now thinking about starting one or two experimental courses without textbooks, using the file and LMS techniques to help students make sense of the learning materials, and see how students respond to them. After experiencing first hand the difference, I hope I will be able to make more sense of all this, and make an informed decision.

As usual, I would be really grateful if any of you would want to share your personal experience and opinion on this matter.