Course book choices; a response to Paul Hullah (TLT 27/9)

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Simon Cole

I was very interested to read Hullah's research into L2 learner attitudes to EFL textbooks (Hullah, 2003). The questionnaire used is a valuable tool to gauge student reaction to course books. I was interested in the results and curious how my students would react to the same questions about our ('conversation-oriented') book, so I ran it on two Oral Communication freshmen classes (N = 37).

I must admit my initial reaction to the line of argument was "this is all very well, but my students simply don't have the language skills to discuss intellectually challenging issues." I still hold to that, but I can see that for the sake of motivating students, it is sometimes worthwhile challenging them intellectually, even if they don't do it all in English. Hullah raises many good points that materials writers and publishers need to address, although I place responsibility on teachers as well for the choices they make. My main objection, however, is the line of questioning in the survey.

I was happy to see the results my students gave were quite positive. I believe these results reflect characteristics of the book (American Headway Bk 1A, elementary level), which is aimed at adult learners; there are many photographs laid out in a sophisticated, mature way and there are few cartoon pictures. The content is culturally stimulating, international, and encyclopedic. It is also comprehensive in its training of linguistic skills (vocabulary, phonetics, and grammar). Although it generally avoids controversial issues, I found opportunities to add culturally and intellectually challenging activities. By contrast, the conversation-oriented books in Hullah's survey lack many of these characteristics; hence, the poor results. There are not enough good conversation books out there, but there are some and clearly not enough teachers are choosing them. This in turn sends the wrong message to publishers.

I agree that too many popular course books are like this, but I do not agree that content books are the answer, as Hullah implies. The problem with content books is they do not provide the language support students need, so they end up speaking Japanese. Content books may be interesting to students, but to what extent do they increase their ability and confidence to speak? I believe this is the main shortcoming of Hullah's questionnaire; it fails to test for the intention of conversation-oriented course books.

The questions in the survey that elicit self-evaluations of acquisition (2, 5, 7 & 8) do not specify any skill. Question 2 means "too difficult" for what? My students disagreed strongly with this, but they did not find the speaking exercises easy. They are probably saying, "To look at, the English is easy." Question 5; "I have learnt" to do what with English? And question 7; "My English has improved." Ability to do what? Is this really a fair way to assess conversation texts?

Another problem I had with the study is it does not tell us what sort of classes the students were in, so we do not know what their expectations were.

In summary, I agree with Hullah's criticism that publishers need to keep up with changes in the student population to maintain motivation, but the test is an unfair assessment of the intention of conversation books. We also need to remember the important role the teacher has in choosing a book and how it is used.


Hullah, P. (2003). L2 Learner Attitudes to EFL Textbooks. The Language Teacher, 27 (9), 13-17.

Course book choices; a rebuttal to Simon Cole

Paul Hullah

I appreciate Simon Cole's reasonable critique of my article "L2 Learner Attitudes to EFL Textbooks" (Hullah, 2003), and applaud his initiative in applying the survey questionnaire I designed to his own students to discover that their 'conversation-oriented' course book performed well when results were analyzed, though my research demonstrated that many tertiary-level students found such texts inappropriate. I agree with many of his comments, with reservations.

Firstly, Cole detects vagueness in questionnaire item wording: as my feature stated, embryonic versions of the instrument were progressively piloted before a final draft was achieved. That is not to suggest that the final version is perfect, but it was clear from pilot-trial feedback that my directive to design an unambiguous and quickly answerable questionnaire would necessitate usage of simplest vocabulary and succinct phrasing. Longer phrases in more refined, technical, or "difficult," language might have removed the imprecision of items to which Cole refers, but at the risk of confusing respondents by introducing verbal complexity.

I would argue with only one of Mr. Cole's particular criticisms. He asks "And question (sic) 7; 'My English has improved.' Ability to do what? Is this really a fair way to assess conversation texts?" My simple answer to him here would be Yes! What other criterion could be more appropriate to apply to a text supposedly designed to teach English to L2 learners? (He also queries what "sort of" classes participated: all were first year General English or English Communication programs: further details were provided in Appendix B.)

On Cole's comments regarding the prescriptive conclusion I reached (that publishers ought to be providing more intellectually stimulating, content-based materials), I agree that better course books have appeared recently and that if a teacher is allowed freely to choose materials, then there is hope for us all. However, as we all know, many (now the majority?) of tertiary EFL teachers in Japan possess neither the experience nor the freedom to select the most appropriate text(s) for their students. Cole declares that, "students simply don't have the language skills to discuss intellectually challenging issues": that depends what you mean by "challenging." There are degrees to which a learner can be challenged. I do not crave textbooks inviting students to dissect Heidegger's theory of being, but ordering a pizza is less intellectually challenging than, say, discussing a simple pop lyric, though I would hope that my students (and Mr. Cole's) could manage the latter, personalize their responses and benefit from the liberating sense of creativity in language that such a "challenging" task can offer.

Cole concludes that we "need to remember the important role the teacher has in choosing a book and how it is used." Again, I fully concur. That was the starting point of my study, and until better textbooks, conversation-oriented or content-based (or preferably a balance of the two within the same text) are widely available, that teacher's role will continue to be beset with frustration as we scramble to supplement inappropriate texts with activities and materials better contained in the course books themselves.


Hullah, P. (2003). L2 Learner Attitudes to EFL Textbooks. The Language Teacher, 27 (9), 13-17.