Why print coursebooks still matter

Part of my cookbook collection
Part of my cookbook collection

Anyone who friends me on Facebook or follows me on Twitter soon realises that my social media updates are split roughly 50/50 between ELT/publishing related stuff and food/drink related stuff. When I’m not working, I’m generally eating and drinking. And I’m quite lucky that, because cookbook publishing exists, my two interests occasionally intersect. In fact, it was a visit to a cookbook conference in New York in 2012 that led me to set up my ELT author representation agency.

The parallels between what’s going on in cookbook publishing and ELT publishing are greater than you’d expect. But that’s a topic for another post. (If you want a sneak preview, check out my write-up of the aforementioned cookbook conference over at my food blog, The Editor’s Kitchen.) And one of the main parallels is the enduring value and attachment to print books. I consider myself an early adopter when it comes to most tech, yet I own close to 100 cookbooks, all of them print. I’ve never bought an ebook edition of a cookbook or a cookery app. And I never visit recipe websites. So what’s that all about?

Why print cookbooks still matter

Over at CNN’s Eatocracy blog, Kaitlyn Goalen recently wrote an excellent post on why print cookbooks still matter. She offers five reasons:

  1. Print cookbooks tend to be properly tested, meaning that they’re more accurate than a lot of recipe websites. (I kind of agree with this point, but it was actually print cookbook inaccuracies which led me to set up The Editor’s Kitchen.)

  2. People like to gift cookbooks, and receiving the book itself is nicer than getting an email with a redemption code (this is the value of what marketers call ‘physical presence’).

  3. As texts, cookbooks function as a kind of cultural history, offering an insight into a particular time and place. A great example of this is the original, blue, River Cafe cookbook. First published in 1996, it seems to capture a particular moment in Britain’s history — the transition away from years of Conservative rule towards the (then) optimism of the Blair era, an era when food became a major cultural force in Britain.

  4. Design. Put simply, many cookbooks are gorgeous to look at.

  5. And finally, voice — the idea that a cook or author’s voice comes through from the pages of a print cookbook in a way that it doesn’t from a recipe app or website.

Image by Flickr user HerryLawford. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
Image by Flickr user HerryLawford. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Why print coursebooks might still matter

In the world of ELT, the love of print also endures. Some established ELT authors have voiced dissatisfaction with the move away from print towards digital, especially by Pearson. But the real proof is at grassroots level, where the use of print coursebooks in class is still completely dominant. So why do print coursebooks still matter? Here are five possible reasons.

  1. Much like print cookbooks, there’s still a justifiable sense that print materials from major ELT publishers are going to be high-quality and accurate. Working in the industry, I can attest to the fact that the editorial process for major-publisher ELT materials tends to be highly exacting. Publishers may be doing less in-class piloting than they did in the past, but the fact remains that by the time that coursebook ends up in your hands, it’s been fed into by a huge number of very knowledgable people. The simple fact is the same can’t be said for most free ELT content available on the Web.

  2. In Book Finds, author Ian C. Ellis calls ‘the book’ the most perfect piece of technology ever devised. That might be stretching it, but the fact is that print coursebooks fit the mechanics of the classroom very well (or, at least, over the centuries, teachers have learned how to make them fit very well). Open/close, work in pairs or on your own, write your answers and check in the key. You can do all of these things with ebooks and other digital content, too, and often with greater ease, but I wonder if a lot of teachers and students are quite attached to (or at least very familiar and comfortable with) those dynamics around a print book. It’s also worth remembering that most ELT teachers still train how to teach using a print book. There might not be much difference between that and teaching a class where everyone has a tablet or a laptop, but there is some; and it doesn’t take much for that gap in knowledge and experience to multiply preparation time, mess with the classroom dynamic and potentially frighten a teacher off. When you’ve learned to do something well, it can take a lot of convincing to do it differently.

  3. Outside of certain parts of the private university sector, how widespread is tech penetration in schools generally, and especially in places where EFL is taught? How many EFL teachers can absolutely guarantee that every student in their class will have the correct device with the correct content on it, fully charged or plugged in, ready to go at the start of class? One issue here is simply money. If schools can’t provide devices for everybody, can we really ask our students to make a hardware investment in order to attend our course? A print coursebook is expensive, but it’s not computer hardware expensive.

  4. Is author voice important in print coursebooks? Maybe not to the level of some cookbooks, but there’s often a personality in a print coursebook that you don’t find as easily in purely digital materials. Some of this is undoubtedly to do with design and layout. But I expect that it also relates to the author teams behind the big coursebook brands. When an author puts their heart and soul into a coursebook series, when they spend 5 or 6 years working on it, only to be asked to spend another 5 or 6 on the next edition, you do feel it on the page; there’s a commitment and a passion there that I think you just don’t see as much in purely online materials, some of which feel fairly anonymous.

  5. Many teachers simply don’t have a choice. If their school administration decides that they’re going to use a print coursebook, then that’s what they’re going to use. I’m still surprised at how often a teacher tells me they have no control over the material they’re allowed to use in class.

So those are five reasons from me. What about you? If you’re still attached to using print books in class, why?

19 thoughts on “Why print coursebooks still matter”

  1. Not so much books but printed material. The students seem to want something to write on and take notes on. I have a few students using ipads in class but most students download the material from the website and write on the paper copies.
    Where I use a course book at the universities it is the university who picked the book and often they are totally unsuitable and irrelevant to the students lives and experience,

    • Thanks for the comment, Sheila.

      I think there’s a whole other blog post on the way to address this point: “often they are totally unsuitable and irrelevant to the students lives and experience”.

  2. Another reason print cookbooks are better is that you can drop your ingredients on them and it enhances their character. Balsamic vinegar has a lovely ageing effect on paper, less so on ipads. Books are more resilient and you can physically interact with them in ways you can’t with the technology you use to read online, turning corners down, drawing moustaches on the people, writing notes, even – horror of horrors – breaking their spines. If reading materials were pets, online books would be show cats, I reckon: beautiful and elegant but untouchable, and print books would be friendly dogs who like to get muddy. For me there is no contest but it would be really interesting to see what students think, and what effect, if any, age has on people’s preferences. Do you know of any studies that have been done?

    • Awesome comment, Jane.

      I’m a cat person, though, so how would you explain that? 🙂

      I’m not aware of any studies on what you’ve mentioned, but there are bound to be some. I’ll do some digging around.

  3. Nice article, Nick. It reminded me of a couple of observations from studies where students have actually expressed a preference for printed materials:

    • In a study looking at the reasons why students dropped out of blended learning, Stracke (2007) found that “These students obviously very much appreciated the seizable, tangible, physical side of the paper medium for reading and writing, which is obviously lacking when using a computer.”

    • In a study looking at the effectiveness of learning a language using a CD-ROM, Bidlake (2009) found that the students actually wanted printed materials “as a way to bridge the distance between the program’s way of teaching and [their] perceived way of learning.”

    For me, there is still something satisfying about holding a physical book, underlining parts and scribbling in the margin. And a book genuinely can be used “anywhere, anytime” (without the need for power or wifi). But do we just want to keep using books because we’re used to them? Perhaps younger learners won’t feel the need for a bridge to the old ways!

    • Brilliant comment, Graham; thanks for that.

      ” Perhaps younger learners won’t feel the need for a bridge to the old ways!”

      I do worry about the effect age has on my perception of this kind of thing, although I don’t think 34 can be considered *too* over the hill. That said, my wife teaches at a university in the UK, and she has absolutely no trust at all in the idea that the generation she teaches has a different relationship to technology than we do; she just doesn’t see evidence of it in her students. I’m trying to convince her to write a guest post on it, but it’s not been forthcoming yet 🙂

  4. I think size is a very important thing for coursebooks and is often overlooked in these discussions. Coursebooks are (presumably) the size they are for a reason – you need, for example, to be able to look at a largish text and at the same time glance over to a grammar table or a list of comprehension questions. I’m sure most teachers have made the same mistake of absent-mindedly doing double sided photocopies with a text on one side and questions on the other, and then having to deal with sighing and complaining students as they constantly turn the page over between text and questions. If we start doing everything with tablets of ebook readers then you are just recreating this kind of inconvenient situation.

    I should imagine there are parallel arguments in favour of good-sized cookbooks – you need something big and heavy enough to be able to prop up against the wall without it sliding over, and maybe also look at from a couple of metres away while searching the cupboard for an ingredient.

    • Brilliant comment, Graham; I really hadn’t considered the format at all, but you’re absolutely right, I think.

      “Coursebooks are (presumably) the size they are for a reason”

      I do always wonder about stuff like this. How much intentional went into the original format of coursebooks back in the day? Have we ended up with them being the size they are for a good reason or just because that’s how things turned out? No chance we’ll ever really know, I guess.

  5. The printed textbook supports many modes of reading. Displayed text on a screen often supports one mode. The Kindle, for example, is great for linear texts (like fiction) but not good at texts that require different modes of access (like dictionaries, cookbooks, or textbooks). The problem with a lot of early CALL is that it reduced the act of learning to one particular mode of interaction. When programs like this “click” with a particular learner, they can work very well, but you really have to be in the right mood and you have to be the “right” kind of learner.

    When we use textbooks, we are doing “radial reading”. We are constantly leaping to other parts of the page, to other pages, to other texts. We do deep readings of articles, we skim for details, we look up definitions and grammatical rules, and peek at the back pages to find an answer. We may look at other, related texts that we keep near the textbook, like dictionaries and homework. In highlighting, circling, or striking out sections, we are committing an act of “deformance”, deforming the text in the act of reading. To further complicate this situation, we produce text in the course of our interactions, writing on the margins or on different surfaces.

    To make language learning work, we need the browser to be as flexible as the human eye. We need a thoroughly multitextual environment that feels natural. At present, the textbook is the most frictionless user interface we have on offer.

  6. Agree with all you say, Nick – but in the end the problem will be that publishers can no longer afford the huge escalation of components set alongside the inexorable downwards slide of net receipts. There are few truly global courses except at adult level any more, reducing margins even more. And if you aren’t already in a market, setting up the expensive marketing and sales effort required just to participate is too risky. Maybe going forward all print publishing will be local companies catering to their home markets?

    • Thanks for the comment, Sue.

      I think this idea definitely has some potential: “Maybe going forward all print publishing will be local companies catering to their home markets?”

      I think there’s a growing sense of the need for more personalisation and relevance in course materials, and local publishing is certainly one way to help achieve that. The problem is, with such tight margins, I imagine it’s tough for the smaller firms to stay in business.

  7. Really, it’s all the growing pains of a shift in paradigm, as it is with any significant change. All matters you mention will eventually be looked back upon as the challenges the first generation of new tech teachers and students faced before it became normalised.

  8. Totally agree with Tyson: it’ll take a while to get used to.
    I’m starting to get the hang of taking notes on the iPad, for example, using the Bamboo stylus pen. I’ve found you need the right app, though; the lag on some of them makes writing almost impossible. However, the Bamboo app works really well. You do need to adjust your hand position, though: I feel a little bit like a sign-writer, trying not to touch the screen with the heel of my hand. But after a while, it becomes natural.
    For annotations, I’ve bought the Penultimate app. Totally worth the money ($10?). Stick a PDF in Dropbox or Drive and you can mark it up with a variety of tools and save it.


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