Thursday, March 13, 2014

If it's not rough, it isn't fun

Many teachers, particularly in the first years of our career, rely heavily on coursebooks in the belief that these provide a useful and accurate guide to the language that our learners need. Coursebooks bring many undisputed benefits to the language classroom, and most of their drawbacks can be overcome by judicious adaptation and supplementation, as we have discussed in these previous articles.

However, one of the more intractable problems is that the language in coursebooks is often inauthentic. In order to avoid commercial risks, publishers tend to present the same language areas in the same ways, so that different coursebooks often have an astonishing degree of similarly in their content.  This also means that we tend to be presented with an overly simplified view of language, focusing purely on form while ignoring the ways that language is actually used in context.

One example is the way short answers such as “No, it isn’t” are presented with no reference to their function or pragmatic effect, which “could often, in conversational settings, result in learners coming across as brusque, if not downright rude” (Stranks 2003: 332). Stranks provides some interesting ideas for activities to teach these structures in more appropriate ways in this article.

Instead of teaching what’s useful, we teach what’s easy, in the same way that the drunk looking for his lost keys searches where there’s plenty of light while knowing that’s not where he dropped them.  

A striking example of this selectivity is that coursebooks always present the contracted form “it isn’t” rather than “it’s not”, even though both alternatives are commonly used, often by the same speaker and even in the same sentence: 

Just because it isn't happening here, doesn't mean it's not happening 1

Yaeger-Dror (2002), in an article available here, provides an interesting corpus-based survey of the factors that seem to influence the frequency of use of each form in various contexts. While this detailed sociolinguistic analysis may be of little direct relevance to our classroom practice, it clearly establishes the point that both forms are used with great frequency. 

Our aim as language teachers is to enable our learners to communicate effectively. The authors and publishers of coursebooks, and the teachers who use them, have a responsibility to look at how language is actually used in the real world and bring that language into the classroom.

Everything will be OK in the end. If it's not OK, it isn't the end.


Stranks, J. Materials for the Teaching of Grammar in Tomlinson, B. (Ed.). 2003. Developing Materials for Language Teaching. London: Continuum

Yaeger-Dror, M. It’s not or isn’t it? Using large corpora to determine the influences on contraction strategies. Language Variation and Change, 14 (2002), 79–118.

 Peter Beech -

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