Writing by numbers: The myth of coursebook creativity


People can have the Model T in any colour – so long as it’s black.

(Henry Ford)

I, too, have written coursebooks and I well know the constraints under which coursebook writers write. It’s not just the publisher’s ‘big idea’ — shaped primarily by marketing analytics — into which writers have to shoehorn their content; it is the pernickety requirements of whatever education ministry is being targeted, plus the hair-splitting readers’ reports, plus the editors’ (not always) trenchant interventions, plus the feedback from trialling (if you’re lucky), not to mention the increasingly mean-spirited restrictions imposed by copyright holders, and, of course, the hypersensitivity of the targeted culture. The fact that anything finally appears in print is a testimony to the writer’s stamina, flexibility, and ingenuity.

But creativity? The coursebook process is certainly ‘creative’ in the sense that the writer has to constantly adapt to the aforementioned constraints. But if, by creativity we mean not just adaptability, but originality, I have my doubts. (‘Creativity: the ability to create new ideas or things using your imagination’: Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, emphasis added).

Textbooks, generally speaking, don’t score high on the originality stakes. And for good reason. As George Ritzer, in The McDonaldization Thesis (1998: 44) reminds us: ‘Pressures from publishers, reviewers and adopters lead relentlessly to a depressing sameness, a levelling, a high degree of predictability in cookie-cutter textbooks… When reviewers uncover elements that are missing, the authors are pressed by the publisher to include them so that in the end the new text looks depressingly like its successful predecessor’.

Ritzer is writing about general education texts. Is the same true in our field? Put another way, what is original in current adult, EFL coursebook production?

Let’s start with the syllabus. I surveyed five intermediate coursebook syllabuses, ranging from 1996 to 2009, and found the following items were common to all five, more or less in the same order:

present simple and continuous
past simple and continuous
future forms (going to, will)
present perfect vs past simple
present perfect continuous
modal verbs of deduction/probability
first conditional
second conditional
reported speech

Why is this? On what grounds have these items been selected and ordered in this way? Frequency? Complexity? Usefulness? Learnability? Or simply convention?  Either way, this ‘canonical’ syllabus is endlessly reproduced with only minor variations, as are the syllabuses for all other levels in the curriculum. They can hardly be considered original.

Associated with the syllabus is the way a number of grammar myths are propagated from course to course, like mutant genes.  Principal among these is the conflating of tense and aspect, and defining both in terms of time, as in ‘the Present Continuous is used to express an activity happening now’ (coursebook published in 1991) and ‘we use the Present Continuous to talk about things happening now’ (coursebook published in 2010). The article system and the use of passive voice are also prime candidates for this kind of accidental cross-fertilization.  It’s as if the only grammars that these writers consulted are each other’s.

What about topics? Well, you only have to flip through a selection of adult courses and note the way that the same, relatively limited set of topics resurface again and again: friends and family, home and neighbourhood, leisure activities, travel, shopping and clothes, health and nutrition, technology and the future, popular culture and entertainment, the environment…. Arguably, these are chosen because of the coverage they offer with regard to learners’ lexical needs, as well as the kinds of situations which learners might find themselves in. But this is largely guesswork.

Another reason, of course, why the topical content is fairly repetitive (and pervasively upbeat) is that there are many topics (like sex, religion, and politics) which, through fear of causing offence or discomfort, cannot be mentioned. Since sex, religion and politics tend to impact in significant ways on people’s lives – and hence on their use of language – this is a severe limitation.

Self-censorship also applies to the pictorial content — content which is nowadays almost always sourced from photo libraries rather than being especially commissioned, a fact that further contributes to the uniformity, as well as to the artificiality (not to say superficiality) of coursebook design. Increasingly, the typical double-page spread looks like a Tommy Hilfiger advert.

What about the texts? The texts are different, admittedly, but so closely allied to the (unoriginal) topics, so carefully graded, and so clearly adapted from the same kinds of source material (in-flight magazines, Internet trivia, etc) that, like the artwork that accompanies them, they have a generic sameness. How many coursebook series include a text of the type ‘Are you a shopaholic?’ Or ‘Festivals around the world’? Or ‘The holiday that wasn’t’? Or ‘A day in the life of Miley Cyrus/Cristiano Ronaldo’?

What about the tasks? Those that are language-focused consist largely of invented sentences that are manipulated in some way, e.g. completion, transformation or re-ordering (but with translation conspicuously absent), and are indistinguishable across courses (even to the extent of sometimes being reproduced verbatim: ‘Look at the dark clouds. It’s (going to/will) rain!’).  Skills practice tasks also often replicate one another. The following speaking tasks, for example, come from three different adult courses:

  • Imagine you had all the money you wanted. What would you do with it? (1991)
  • What would you do with two million pounds? Work in groups.(1996)
  • Look at the list of things that people have spent their lottery winnings on. Which two would you consider spending your money on if you won the lottery? (2005)

These tasks also happen to highlight a particular ideological bias that many global coursebooks share, one that Tomlinson and Masuhara (2013: 248) characterize as ‘an assumption that all learners are aspirational, urban, middle-class, well-educated, westernized computer users.’ (They might also have included ‘heterosexual’). Add to this the fact that the default pronunciation is a native-speaker one, and you have an extra element of Hilfiger-esque homogeneity.

Of course, the area in which the least innovation has been demonstrated in the last quarter-century is the actual methodology employed, including not only the choice and sequencing of task types, but the intransigent monolingualism of the content. More than any other factor, perhaps, the under-theorized methodological orthodoxy of most published materials accounts for their relative uniformity. But that really deserves a post all of its own.

In sum, as John Gray (2002: 157) observes, what is significant about coursebooks are not their differences (their originality, if you like) but the way they ‘now resemble each other, not only in terms of glossy design but also in terms of content.’ Show a selection of current coursebooks to a non-specialist, or even to someone from another educational field, and they would be hard-pressed to spot the differences.

So what? As I discovered myself, there is not a lot of wiggle room when you’re writing a coursebook. Little room, indeed, for originality. Coursebook writers do the best they can, and it is remarkable that they manage to achieve what they do.

But to claim (as has been claimed on this very site) that the creativity involved in writing a coursebook is commensurate with that of writing a pop song (and should therefore be rewarded as such) seems to me to be a bit exaggerated, to say the least. On the creativity scale, educational materials occupy a space nearer the DIY manual, study guide, or travel guidebook end of things, all of which, while being extremely useful and well-remunerated (if they get it right), are also formulaic, derivative and easily re-versioned.

Note that I am not saying that lack of originality compromises their utility: there will always be contexts in which coursebooks (like guidebooks) will be the best available tool, and where (arguably) the more conventional they are, the better.

Nor am I saying that a team of hacks, or even an algorithm, could do the job just as well. Not at all.  But educational publishing has long since crossed the Rubicon whereby creativity has been subordinated to reproduction and simulation. The current drive towards digitization and commodification is not the beginning of the process so much as its logical conclusion.

To see other posts by Scott Thornbury, try Who ordered the McNuggets?, How could SLA research inform Edtech and Intersubjectivity: Is there an app for that?


Gray, J. (2002) ‘The global coursebook in English language teaching’, in Block, D., & Cameron, D. (eds) Globalization and Language Teaching, London: Routledge.

Ritzer, G. (1998) The McDonalidization Thesis: Explorations and extensions, London: Sage.

Tomlinson, B., & Masuhara, H. (2013) ‘Survey Review: Adult Coursebooks’, ELT Journal, 67/2,

Featured Photo Credit: mliu92 via Compfight cc. Text added by eltjam.


36 thoughts on “Writing by numbers: The myth of coursebook creativity”

  1. Scott,

    Thank you so much for all your excellent, dare I say magnificent summation.

    I guess this culture of relative sameness is under dire threat (with revenues now dropping for books and because anyone can reproduce this slick sameness for much less or even zero). It seems the publishers want to bet their stock price on what only they, in their massiveness, can master (complete standardization over the life of a customer and big data). Standardization and data management is probably where their biggest advantages lie vs. creative outsiders. At the very tops of these companies they can finally give up the lie that they were creatively driven (pedagogically) and move on to focus on their next comparative advantage.

  2. An interesting – and brave post. Brave because I’m sure that more than a few course book writers won’t like what you’re saying. I think I might be one.

    I agree with the facts about the constraints of course book writing. Over the past ten years or so I’ve had my wine changed into water, single parent families becoming happy ‘traditional’ families overnight, sausages removed from shopping lists, tigers put back into cages … and much more. It’s frustrating at the least.

    But not all course book writing is devoid of creativity and it’s definitely different for primary course book writers. In many areas, the constraints are even tighter. These are small children’s minds after all. But in my (not particularly extensive, but definitely varied) experience of writing course books, the projects I’ve worked on for primary education have afforded me lots of opportunities to be creative. My latest effort features an eight-episode detective story that was a particularly rewarding experience to write. We also had a great, creative time writing the lyrics for the songs and then composing the music to go with them. I wish I could be doing that kind of writing all of the time.

    Primary materials writers seem to be less visible than secondary and adult materials writers and (dare I say it) sometimes considered ‘less important’. I suppose I’m in a privileged position to notice this, being both. I’m sure Scott was thinking of secondary or adult course books when he wrote this post. That isn’t a criticism of course. I just think that the picture is a bit wider.

    • Yes, Kath, I deliberately prefaced my comments by asking ‘what is original in current ADULT, EFL coursebook production?’ (emphasis added) because it’s the area I know best (and also, for many publishers, the flagship list). I am well aware that writers of primary HAVE to be creative to a large extent because they are working (a) with young learners (b) with such a limited amount of linguistic material. There is a certain irony in the fact that the more constraints, the more creative you have to be. Or else you just copy.

      By emphasizing EFL I also wanted to distance myself from other fields such as ESL or ESP, where you will probably find more originality, if for no other reason than the audience is more clearly defined.

  3. Agreed with everything except the pop song comment. Look at Stock, Aitken and Waterman in the 80s for an example of formula. In my piece, which I assume Scott was referring to, I was talking about the reward to the creator, not the originality. Perhaps if writers had more creative freedom in course book writing (non primary) a new EFL tune would emerge.

  4. An excellent article which I’m very much in agreement with. It’s nice to see the subject being raised although I doubt the major ELT publishers will care much until it’s too late. My only hope is that in this day of ebooks and suchlike we will get to see smaller publishing houses (or even individuals) putting together more targeted and more innovative coursebooks. Imagine a coursebook which teachers could edit and adjust for their own classes and then download. Now that might just be a good idea!

  5. There are good and bad coursebooks, just as there is good and bad fiction / music / art. I would suggest that the better, more successful books are generally the more creative ones. They work within limitations, ’tis true, but they will push the boundaries in some way, find interesting angles or activities to inspire the teachers and the students working with the material. Sure, they will cover familiar topics. Have you noticed how many artists like to paint flowers, or landscapes? Is it because people like to look at paintings of landscapes and flowers? Personally I prefer flower paintings to the more ‘creative /innovative’ ideas of walking into a room and turning the light on.

    I agree with the idea of looking at language differently, but it’s incredibly hard to write a syllabus for this. Natural Grammar was an interesting attempt, but I found it too bitty for learners. I’ve tried reworking the syllabus, honestly, but most people just aren’t interested. It’s not quite fair to say that if you’re dealing with the same topics, you lack creativity. If learners need/want to be able to talk about these areas, then as a teacher or writer, this is when you need to be at your most creative, in order to find a way into the topic that is fresh. If we always had to come up with an issue that had never been discussed before, wouldn’t we seriously have to ask ourselves why on earth we were teaching it?

    • Thanks, Antonia (for coming over ‘here’!) I knew that my post would ruffle feathers, because no one likes to be told that they are ‘derivative’ or ‘unoriginal’, not least writers! But I took the risk, trying to make it clear that it was not the writers who were to blame but the system that required them to BE derivative and unoriginal. (At the same time, I wanted to suggest to writers that, in a sense, the battle to wrest some recognition for being creative has already been waged and lost). And, yes, there ARE coursebooks where the writers’ creativity manages to break through the shackles imposed by the publisher etc – witness the young learners’ books that Kath mentioned – but I don’t think creativity is necessarily a guarantee of success. In fact, the case of one or two particularly innovative books (like The COBULD course in the 1990s which crashed spectacularly) has served only to put the publishers on their guard.

      At the same time, when I was writing coursebooks I got a lot of secret pleasure at including elements whose creativity went unnoticed by the publishers, like poems I had written but presented as if they had been written by someone else, usually an anagram of my own name. I subsequently found out that Michael Swan did exactly the same. Our secret way of getting our own back on the publishers perhaps? 😉

  6. I think they used to have more creative freedom, Nicola, but it’s become such big business that publishers are no longer prepared to take the kinds of risks that they did in the 70s and 80s, e.g. with the Strategies series – and the other significant mould-breakers that Steve Elsworth mentioned in his blog post here.

    I should add that I’m not blaming the authors for this – they have had to bite the bullet, tow the line, whatever, and all credit to them for managing to be as creative as they have been, given the increasingly tighter constraints imposed on their originality. Nevertheless, as I say, I think the Rubicon has been crossed, at least insofar as the big players are concerned, and there will be no relinquishing of the processes of commodification and uniformity. As Steve suggested, the real breakthroughs may come from some totally different and unexpected quarter.

  7. Scott’s rant has two targets. The first is what he identifies as a lack of originality in coursebooks. The second is the coursebook writers who lay claim to a certain creativity in their work.
    His list of the lack of originality includes syllabus, topic, text-type, task-type and methodology. Fair enough. There is little in most coursebooks that one could describe as original in these areas. The simple reason why there can be little or no innovation in these areas (and they are not open to negotiation) is that the majority of educational authorities around the world have syllabuses and testing systems which require coursebooks to follow certain rules. We’re not talking here about the BANA world of private language schools (where most coursebook-bashers come from), and where innovations in Scott’s list are often welcomed. We’re talking about the TESEP world of ministries, centrally-controlled curricula, mass education, and electoral politics.

    In this sense, coursebooks are not really THE problem. They are a manifestation of, and a response to, a much broader politico-educational problem. It is a problem which Scott refers to often, but not in this post: the problem of educational syllabuses (including English language syllabuses) being used as a form of socio-political control.

    So, here’s the rub. Scott’s criticism of the lack of originality / creativity in coursebooks is irrelevant to the broader issues. For all of its ostensible radical gloss, it is a distracting sideshow. It is an articulation of BANA discourse that, typically, ignores the contexts in which languages are usually taught, fails to take into account the broader socio-politico-economic issues, and, ultimately, is addressed to the BANA community (who are of relatively little importance to the writers and publishers who produce coursebooks).
    As for Scott’s second target, the coursebook writers who claim a certain creativity … especially given the constraints that they work under, it is perhaps worth asking who contributes more to change. Those who nibble away at the edges of coursebook publishing, or those who, Canute-like, refuse to understand how tides work?

  8. Philip, thanks for your comment, but you miss the point of my ‘rant’ (or my two rants) entirely. Knowing what an astute reader you are, I can only assume that it is my inability to make my point explicit that is to blame.

    In fact my so-called rant is really a corollary to your own on adaptive learning (for those who haven’t been following Philip’s blog, you can catch it here: http://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com), and the threat to educational publishing, and, by extension, education, that the commodification of materials by the big players represents. By commodification I mean, specifically, the drive towards converting print materials into ‘adaptive learning’ programs, which will involve reducing learning to discrete-units of testable ‘knowledge’ and delivering these without any mediation by teachers – resulting in the ‘disintermediation’ and de-skilling of teachers, and the reconfiguring of learners as simply consumers.

    My immediate target was the current hand-wringing and breast-beating of those involved in educational publishing, as if this was a development that had only just been revealed. In fact, educational publishing has been going down that route for years, in our field no less than in others. That was the point of my first post, on mcnuggetization, which concluded, if you remember with these lines:

    “To protest that publishers, in cahoots with software designers, are only now taking commodification to its logical extreme is to ignore a long history of curriculum and materials design predicated on a production-line view of education.”

    My more recent post simply extended the same argument, by pointing out that it is not just the language syllabus that has been mcnuggetized, but that the coursebooks in which these mcnuggets are embedded have also been subject to processes of standardization, commodification and mass production (the quotes from Henry Ford were of course deliberately chosen). Hence, I concluded the second post in much the same way as the first:

    “The current drive towards digitization and commodification is not the beginning of the process so much as its logical conclusion.”

    I am not blaming coursebook writers for these processes, although I think it is a little disingenuous of them to feign shock and horror. Nor do I question the role of coursebooks (or, more broadly, educational materials) per se – but I accept that my long association with Dogme ELT might have led you to inference such a view. In fact, I took pains to say, in the last post, that ‘there will always be contexts in which coursebooks (like guidebooks) will be the best available tool’. My beef, this time round, is not with coursebooks, I repeat, but the way they have been mcdonaldized, and it’s time their writers woke up to the fact. The genie is out of the lamp.

  9. Returning to Philip’s post again:

    “Scott’s criticism of the lack of originality / creativity in coursebooks is irrelevant to the broader issues”.

    Ignoring the fact that I wasn’t criticizing coursebooks for their lack of creativity, but criticizing coursebook writers for claiming to be creative in order to shore up their increasingly precarious position, I do think that the way educational materials instantiate top-down decisions (from ministries, etc) impacts on all educational contexts, whether BANA or not – as Canagarajah argued in ‘Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching’ (1999). It is the coursebooks, after all, that are the physical manifestation of these top-down decisions: they are what the students, hold, read, write in, and deface. We may not be able to change the system that produces them, but we can at least understand how they embody the system, and – like Canagarajah’s students, subvert them.

  10. Ah, the perils of intertextuality!
    I’d agree that there has been a degree of almost wilful naivety on the part of some ELT/EFL writers. A naivety that is shared by, among others, many ed tech enthusiasts in ELT/EFL. And by many of the Dogmetists. What they all share is membership of the ELT / EFL discourse community. Perhaps it is that discourse that is part of the broader problem?

    • “Perhaps it is that discourse that is part of the broader problem?”

      Agreed, Philip. You mentioned earlier that there are at least two positions available, with regard to effecting change: ‘ Those who nibble away at the edges … , or those who, Canute-like, refuse to understand how tides work’. There is a third, I would venture, which is the caged canary in the coalmine, warbling warningly at the smell of encroaching gas. Gas- (or crap-) detectors don’t often have a direct effect on change, but for them it’s enough if the stakeholders start asking questions: Is that really gas? Are coursebooks really original?

      For all its excesses, I think that the Dogme group has done a good job at alerting the profession to the rising levels of crap, not least about the slavish devotion to materials and technology (although it may have generated some crap of its own).

  11. I don’t know about the process of producing it, but I find primary courses to be the most similar of all, hence my own rant on the topic:
    (The ranty bit in there was edited out when the review appeared in Modern English Teacher magazine).

    I find ESP and Biz texbooks to be more innovative, if also only within certain limits. However, they are also a good example of one reason why “innovative” courses are not as popular as perhaps once they were – a lot of them turned out to be pants, probably because the concept became all. See for some of the many examples of this English Panorama, Innovations, Working Week, Natural English, Cutting Edge first edition, ….

    • Thanks, Alex, for the comment and link. It’s interesting that you should think that primary courses are the most clone-like, in light of previous comments on this thread. I guess it has a lot to do with the perspective you’re coming from: in a ‘closed’ discussion on Facebook a number of ELT writers are predictably indignant at the idea that their work lacks creativity. For many users, on the other hand the books ‘blur together’ as you put it. This seems to me to be a good instance of ‘etic’ vs ’emic’ perspectives (as in ‘phonetic’, ‘phonemic’). The view from inside the tent (i.e. the writers’ view) is that the books are significantly different in meaningful ways. The view from outside (the ’emic’ perspective) is that they have more similarities than differences, and that the differences are not significant. No doubt the ‘truth’, if it exists, lies somewhere in between.

  12. The conversation has moved on to bigger things so the two (very small) points I wanted to make feel pretty unimportant but I think I’m going to add them just the same.
    1 a slight correction on the issue of PARSNIPS, you say “there are many topics (like sex, religion, and politics) which, through fear of causing offence or discomfort, cannot be mentioned”, I’d say the truth is more for fear of losing sales. On one occasion we were told we couldn’t mention lies, or telling lies (not even white lies) as this would mean the book couldn’t be sold in hardline Catholic schools – not that it would cause offence. I’m afraid the money people (and they are ultimately in charge, whatever the industry) are not interested in whether or not they cause offence (or inspire for that matter) but on how many units they can sell (be that books or digital courses).

    2 I have always thought of materials writing as a craft, not an art. I’m not a creative writer (I admire people who are – my father was a poet, playwright and novelist – and many coursebook writers are both creative writers and master craftsmen) and I don’t feel that I’m involved in an original creation but rather in crafting an object to the specifications required. There are, of course, good and bad “craftsmen” (is there a good gender neutral equivalent?) and attention to detail, a thorough knowledge of the material you’re working with, meticulousness, all add to the final quality of the product and the artisan’s pride in their skill and ability. I guess what is changing for me (and has changed enormously already in the 15 years I’ve been involved in coursebook writing) is the investment I feel in that final product. As the standardisation intensifies (and I think it has intensified, and the current rush by the money people to digitalise is not helping) I feel more and more alienated from the final product and more and more like an assembly worker on a factory production line.

    • Thanks, Ceri, for your useful comments – from the perspective of a writer (who, as I hope I’ve made clear, I have cast, not as the villain, but as the victim of processes that are perhaps bigger than all of us!)

      Yes, you are right – that the publishers (and who can blame them?) are less concerned with causing offense to individuals than offending whole markets – hence their somewhat hypocritical attitude to inclusivity – we’ll include more women mechanics and Asian students, because it’s PC to do so, but inclusivity stops at gays & lesbians!

      And yes – the craftsperson (?) metaphor I think is a good one: the craftsmanship involved in writing yet another will vs going to exercise is something that I actually took pride in, at one point in my life! I wouldn’t have called it creativity, but it was certainly challenging.

  13. I think this is dead on in terms of the limitations of writing coursebooks. These are the same limitations I face writing lesson plans and activities for my students as well as a teacher. But they are generalizations. I have come across novel and original stuff in coursebooks and I have managed to get original and novel stuff in materials that have been published.
    And in fact, the pop music industry is a lot more constrained and dominated by record labels that try to suck every inch of control and every cent of money from the artists. The labels hire the musicians, producers, studios and songwriters. Beyonce’s job is to sing the song they give her the way they tell her. And they make Beyonce PAY for the process. No one makes writers PAY all the publishing costs! And is there anything less original and more formulaic than a pop song? They even sample from each other these days so that they are literally remixing older songs.
    Pop stars certainly do not make the money they do because they are creative. They make the money they do because the industry makes money. (And because they are forced to pay expenses that writers usually are not–c.f. Lyle Lovett who said he has never seen a cent from any of his record sales. His money comes from concerts). This is the argument that writers can make, as ESL teachers often do–the industry is making money so where is our fair share? And this is the same argument any worker makes–if my company is making so much money, why doesn’t more of it trickle down to the worker? Of course management will always argue that they are the ones who turn the talent into a profitable enterprise and thus they get the lion’s share. Short of a Marxist revolution, this issue will never be resolved, I suspect. What is happening though, that might change publisher’s minds is that writers are publishing on their own or with the help of smaller collectives such as eltjam or the Round. I just did an online session with over one hundred teachers who all were designing their own eBooks. We’ll see what happens when the writers try to make it alone. Will the publishing industry feel they are losing talent? Will the writers fail to make profits?

    • Thanks, Walton, for the comment. I agree that self-publishing, blogging and other digital media offer a way out or way forward, and, certainly many enterprising teachers are taking advantage of these new media at a very local level, e.g. to supply their learners with ancillary materials, keep in touch between classes etc.

      In fact, it makes me think that the truly creative players are the ‘jobbing’ teachers themselves – those that have to mediate the published materials for their specific classes, and who adapt, supplement and often create from scratch. It’s a pity, therefore, that their creativity is seldom if ever acknowledged, let alone remunerated – certainly never at the scale of a royalty-earning coursebook writer.

    • Walton, I’d like to think that smaller writing collectives will impact on the way that the bigger publishers go about their business, but I think it’s unlikely for the time being. There will always be a market for books produced by smaller outfits (including some of the smaller publishers), but this is a market with high overheads and low margins … compared with the big fish that are out there. The familiar big publishers are no longer competing just with each other. They have to compete with duolingo, rosetta stone, busuu, etc now. In this context, a book which sells a million or two copies is no big deal.
      But perhaps we can be optimistic. If the big publishers turn their attention away from fragmented markets like small language schools (the language schools they haven’t already bought up!), there may be scope for smaller outfits to try something different and original.

  14. Walton, I’d like to think that smaller writing collectives will impact on the way that the bigger publishers go about their business, but I think it’s unlikely for the time being. There will always be a market for books produced by smaller outfits (including some of the smaller publishers), but this is a market with high overheads and low margins … compared with the big fish that are out there. The familiar big publishers are no longer competing just with each other. They have to compete with duolingo, rosetta stone, busuu, etc now. In this context, a book which sells a million or two copies is no big deal.
    But perhaps we can be optimistic. If the big publishers turn their attention away from fragmented markets like small language schools (the language schools they haven’t already bought up!), there may be scope for smaller outfits to try something different and original.

  15. Regarding PARSNIPS, I have taught many very religious and conservative Muslim students in different contexts at different ages from different countries and cultures. And I am always amazed how willing they are to talk about controversial topics–or openly tell me why they refuse to do so, without offense. Even when I offended my students deeply, showing a film about Islam that had some critiques in it, they told me how they understood why I showed it to them and that they weren’t offended by me and it turned into a great discussion. It’s the administrators of the school and, to some extent, teachers who seem to be far more afraid of PARSNIPS than the students themselves.

  16. “There’s nothing new under the sun/in ELT” is the phrase that comes round again and again and if I had a pound for every time the words “thought provoking”, “fresh”, “original”, “challenging” appeared on the blurb of a text book, I’d be rich enough to retire from teaching, examining and selling books (I’m currently engaged in all three; it’s only the writing of books that has so far eluded me!)
    What alternatives do publishers and writers really have? It’s a choice of be creative, take risks and crash – or go mainstream and stay in the comfort zone and sell more. “If they want beans on toast, give them beans on toast” as an ELT rep friend of mine is wont to say.
    Often there is simply no choice as ever more rigid and stringent ministerial diktat (the hastily rushed-out and still-not-settled LOMCE in Spain is a good example) inevitably leads to a cloning of books across all primary and secondary sectors.
    The increasing use of corpora is an interesting aspect, since publishers and writers use real data in an honest attempt to make their works reflect rather than impose learners’ reality – presentation of lexis, structures and even grammar frequently known by learners at various CEF levels by learners themselves, rather than the teacher/writer/publisher dictating to the learner “thou art B1, thou shalt spend two more weeks on the second conditional…”
    HOWEVER, I suspect that the cloning process has already got a grip and that, whatever we do and however we try to flinch from this reality, the vast majority of 14 year old A2-B1 learners in country “x” like football, hate broccoli, go to the beach in the summer, would rescue their smartphones first from a house fire, want to visit Australia and recite second conditional sentences at the drop of a hat when faced with that archetypal lottery win.

    • I think we agree, Andrew, that the profit motive always triumphs over innovation and choice (hence my use of the Henry Ford quote to preface this post). The publishers don’t have much choice, if they want to retain or wrest some market share, and the writers have even less. Hence, apart from some superficial and fairly innocuous ornamentation, all coursebooks tend to look the same. That was the gist of my argument: not a criticism of coursebook writers (although some have taken it that way), nor even a criticism of coursebooks. Simply a gentle rebuke to writers who protest that their creativity is at risk of being under-appreciated (and, by extension, underpaid). My question: what creativity?

  17. Good post Scott!

    I have been toying with a career in writing for years. When I started, I thought I would work with very creative people open to ideas and who would be pushing the boundaries. Well, the first project was writing an e-book in 2007 that was combined with Skype lessons. Not bad for the time. The book was by a big publisher put the project had been outsourced to a ‘younger’ company. The budget was cut and the project was cancelled. Thus, all my work was shelved.

    Along the years, I’ve worked for several publishers on small projects. I have worked with some great people but creativity has rarely been a priority and any that managed to creep in was quickly stamped out by the apparent common agreement to “do what we have always done”. But why? How can you alleged to be “innovative” and have books that provide “a new way of learning…” when they still look like stuff from 1990.

    Perhaps a Noah’s Ark solution is the only one. By making a new start with digital learning (apps, books etc) and a new paradigm, I think we will be able to finally leave 1990 or 1980 books behind.

    What I also find silly is that few people will admit that schools just don’t buy class sets anymore. in 15 years of teaching in 6 countries, I’ve only ever seen about 5 sets and 4 of those were in one school.

    Budgets have gone and so have CD players. I don’t understand why I still see books that integrate listening and reading activities with countless extra resources.

    Last week, I had a look at some catalogues. One publisher, no name, is selling b/w books, ESP dictionaries and lots of books with CDs. Didn’t CDs die out?

    After years of teaching in minimal resource environments with students who don’t want 5 pages that stretch out exercises that could fit on one, I think the best materials are 1 pagers that have a bit of everything on. As a senior teacher, I would also feel safe asking teachers to use them and they wouldn’t need hours of prep too. I also really need lots of functional stuff. I’ve lost track of how many clients just want holiday English.

    Publishers seem to currently be going through an EAP phase again. I don’t know where they heard about the potential for that market from.

    I submitted a few proposals a while back just to test my theory that innovation is not only uninteresting but should be avoided. I submitted proposals to 5 publishers. Most said eventually. Some asked how many pages I could write and all asked what the potential market was. Thus, it seems they would publish any long book if I could convince them that it would sell.

    I think I probably shot myself in the foot though as I was pushing a shortish e-book. This actually scared some.

    I wonder what publishers would do though if some independent research proved that students don’t want coursebooks, as they are, anymore.

    Rant over.

  18. “The profit motive always triumphs over innovation and choice”. Sadly, you’re so right. My most recent course books have been shortlisted for various awards (including ELTon and the ESU) and in each case they were praised for their original content. But have my “original” books sold many copies? No is the short answer!
    Of course, it’s not alone – I can think of plenty of original books that have sold appallingly. Why?
    It’s a vicious circle to some extent, but I would suggest three reasons. Firstly, I’ve noticed that teachers are afraid to tackle innovative content, especially “CLIL” and the PARSNIP areas. This is fair enough, given that some teachers work in cultures where the “teacher is the fount of all knowledge” and fear that students will ask tricky questions. Others fear the class getting out of control if they discuss a “taboo” topic (although as someone pointed out above, students take to them more readily, including in Islamic countries). New teaching styles and task types also freak some teachers out. But I wonder… As teacher trainers and public speakers, can we can not help teachers more to embrace them with more confidence?
    Another reason that innovative courses sell poorly comes down to the decision-makers, as I discovered when I worked for a publisher. When Mike McCarthy et al slightly altered the syllabus of Touchstone (basing it on frequency, not on the outdated Latin syllabus), the reluctance of customers to adopt it was striking. “This syllabus is wrong” came the reply of many coordinators. They were not interested in the innovative content. I witnessed this again and again. Sadly, I also noticed that these decision-makers rarely attended seminars or conferences that may have broadened their horizons. Sigh.
    Finally, I suspect that it is not only about teachers and coordinators. Another reason for the poor sales of innovative courses is, ironically, due to the publishers’ own marketing and sales teams. The obsession with which publishers are all busy out in the field promoting the CEFR / TOEFL / Cambridge exams and then proudly stressing how their particular course ties in with them, is shocking. As we all know, the CEFR, TOEFL, and Cambridge exams require knowledge of inane topics, “standard” syllabus order, and fixed task types. I would argue that, by actively promoting these exams and standards, publishers are actually helping to reduce the creativity in their future books.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking article. Let’s hope we can make some changes before every new course looks the same as the last.

    • Sorry but the coursebooks I have used to teach English for 17 years don’t seem to work in terms of engaging the students. They all look the same. The topics are usually uninteresting and out-of-date.The grammar is usually presented in the same way and fails to produce the desired outcome. A typical coursebook published by big companies follows the same design and same activities throughout the units lacking originality and creativity. It is hard to imagine how those publishers can be so blindfolded about language teaching in countries like Greece, Spain, Italy, Turkey and other countries. When they scatter some cultural information blonging to these cultures into the units, they look really funny. I think this digital age will change a lot of things soon in coursebook writing. I think teachers should start writing and publishing their own material online to show what works and what doesn’t work in coursebooks. This may sound funny to most professional coursebook writers but this is the reality in the current EFL context.


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