No coursebooks, no texts, no “tasks”

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no coursebooks

I must be the slowest blogger in the world. Is there somewhere I can get a badge for it?

Anyway, after several months I’ve just finished this post about what is maybe no longer a hot topic.

A lot has been written recently on ELT / EFL blogs mainly attacking, but also defending, general English coursebooks. However, both attackers and defenders seem to share the same underlying conception of how languages are learnt: input in the form of texts, written or aural, leads to spoken output. This transmissive view of learning is not the only one and is not the one I adhere to.

I’d like to make clear that the learning situation I’m considering is where the objective for the students is to speak the language fluently in the way five-year-olds speak their native languages. That is, they can spontaneously express their feelings and thoughts in a way that other speakers of the given language find unexceptional as regards phonology and structure. Of course, five-year-olds do not master all the lexis of the language and all the structures of the different registers and styles but they’ve done the bit that adults and teens find so hard in a foreign language: they can produce all the phonemes of the language with rhythm and intonation required by the language and they can can also express themselves through utterances that adhere to the basic structures of the language. Once this core is learnt, the rest comes easily. Not only that, but the core is learnt for life and can never be forgotten because it was never memorised.

It doesn’t actually take teens and adults very long to master this core – if the teacher presents them with adequate challenges. I’d say between 100 and 200 hours depending how different their first language is from their second language and a number of other factors which determine how efficiently students spend their time.

Courses also exist where the objective is for students to be able to read  and understand specialized texts and others where they are prepared to pass standardised tests. Though texts and coursebooks can be useful in such classes, it does not follow that that texts and coursebooks  are efficient ways of achieving oral competence. This however is what frequently happens in beginner and low level language classes. The texts proposed are short and simple but the learning paradigm is the same: language input results in language output.

I’m not saying that learning to use specialised styles and registers are not useful skills, just that they’re not what I mean by “learning to speak” a language. Cramming for tests such as the TOEIC or the TOEFL isn’t either. Nor is using English to play games and/or discuss current affairs and the “big” questions of our times however enjoyable and valuable students and teachers may find such activities. I’m not saying that all these are not worth while activities – just that they don’t have much to do with learning to speak a language.

They do however imply that language learning in itself is boring and needs to to be spiced up with extra-linguistic attractions. For me, that’s like trying to attract people to play football by painting them bright colours and putting bells inside. Such balls may attract one-year-olds but they don’t teach them to play football. As soon as they’re old enough understand the real fun of the game, they’ll be happy to have a dull, black-and-white ball like all other footballers (I mean, soccer players, of course).

Language learning can just as much fun as playing football… and just as exciting. I mean working out how to produce all those funny, foreign sounds, how to arrange the words, where, for example, to put (and not put) the final -s in English. (I just had to solve an English problem: I know how to say the plural of -s but I don’t know how to write it. I found a solution and I feel clever that I did it on my own. It’s no big deal – but because it’s mine, it makes me feel good.)

What does this mean practically in the classroom? The teacher doesn’t go into the room to teach the language – however it may be defined: grammar, functions, texts, tasks… – but to help the other people in the room to say what they want to say in the language. Sometimes, especially with teens, they may need a “trigger” to get started but the trigger is more usefully a picture, an object or an open-ended question than any kind of text. My objective as a teacher is not to teach any particular aspect of the language, but to give students opportunities to feel “smart” in the way they do on the football field by discovering for themselves how the language functions.

Negatives don’t need to, and often can’t, be proved. I taught people to speak English with no coursebooks, no texts and no “activities” and no “tasks” for nearly 40 years. I know other teachers who still do so. If it can be done, why spend money and time on what’s not necessary? What’s the bang for the buck?

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6 thoughts on “No coursebooks, no texts, no “tasks”

  • Marc

    Nice reminder, Glenys. The main ‘materials’ are the people in the room.

    I do like an interesting task, mind, but frequently this is ‘find out what other people think about x’: the real reasons we converse.

    • Glenys Hanson

      Thanks, Marc, for dropping by and leaving a comment. That’s the sort of open-ended question I used as a trigger. The “x” was just… “x”. The students filled it in as they wished.

      Teens often weren’t good at keeping the conversational ball rolling in class. So I’d write on the board:
      Who …?
      What …?

      and brainstorm for more “question words”. When we had a fair list, I’d indicate they should use them to ask each other questions about “x”.

      After doing that with 2/3 situations, I’d just write a large “?” on the board and they’d understand what I was suggesting. Even the question mark quickly became unnecessary – as soon as they realised English could be used for just chatting – that saying something significant about a “topic” wasn’t required.

      • Rose Bard

        Hi, Glenys! I’m glad you are adding your voice to the conversation. But…

        It’s dauting for teachers to keep up with all the magical methods out there + students expectations and their own ideas (especially nowadays) of what is needed to learn a language most of the time based on their experiences. Whatever that means, I mean learn a language.

        I learned to speak English and Arabic by speaking when I lived in London and then, in Alexandria.

        The equation is need + motivation + be self-directd + environment = success in learning to communicate well in my case.

        I was living in the country I wanted to learn the language. In London, I was surrounded by English and I wanted to communicate. In Egypt, although some spoke in English, there were situations I needed to speak in Arabic to get by (shopping, taking a taxi, traveling around the country, etc.)

        I was surely motivated but I’ve met people who lack some confidence in taking the first steps even if they were living in London. And if tried, still struggled and gave up.

        I’ve always been very self-directed. I want to learn something, I don’t stop until I do. Most people are not like that. I learned English and Arabic by trying to talk to people around me, learning from a dictionary and a grammar book on my own. Oh, and I travel book too. I’d carry them around with me.

        The environment was perfect! I made friends easily and they were always happy to help me. In London I had zero English when I left Brazil. And I didn’t have anyone who spoke Portuguese to help me. In Egypt, I had family and friends who spoke English but they couldn’t baby me all the time. I had to learn so I could become independent. English was used to support my learning in Arabic.

        That said, I can relate to what you are saying here. And I didn’t even need an English or an Arabic teacher to teach me at all. It was people around me who taught me their language. However, teaching English in a world where English became so popular and available everywhere, plus courses are offered in a slow motion ( If I recall correct, where you worked it was an intensive course? correct me if I’m wrong) and there is not a bilingual culture to make this learning something needed.

        Now, is it possible to teach without coursebooks? Absolutely. The lady who worked in my house in Egypt taught me everything I knew about food, going shopping, taking a taxi and so on. A maid who hardly knew how to write her own name in Arabic, what can teachers do if they only have a chance to become autonomous themselves.

        I still have to learn about silent way, you make it sound like fun. It’s on my learning list for next summer to put into practice/experiment next year. I can’t wait to see what my learners say about that.

        I’d like to read a more detailed description of the context you taught, the type of students you used to get and the course description itself. For me every person and context is different but as Freire would say, not better or worse than one another, just different. 🙂

        • Glenys Hanson

          Hi Rose,

          Thanks so much for dropping by and writing such interesting comments. I hadn’t realised that you’d learnt both English and Arabic “in the street”. This is still the way most teens and adults learn their second and other languages. It’s very effective as far as fluency goes but less so for accuracy. Nearly everyone is motivated to learn the language of the country they find themself in, but most are satisfied to “get by” and don’t do what you did – supplement “talking to the people around you” with grammar books and dictionaries.

          As I wrote to Howat, I do have some experience of as a non-native teacher of French. It never occurred to me to use a coursebook but that was because I’d been a Silent Way teacher for many years. As far as I could judge, the results were the equivalent as for an English course. I see my job as teaching people, not as teaching English, French or Portuguese. Yes, I have taught Portuguese … and Spanish and Italian too. I don’t speak any of those languages and I didn’t attempt to teach the students to speak, but I got French students to read newspapers in all three languages in about 30 hours with roughly 80% comprehension. I didn’t use the Silent Way but EuRom 4:

          You’re right – most of the courses I taught at the Centre de linguistique appliquée ( were intensive courses (50h over two weeks) for adults learning the language for professional reasons. About 25% were extensive courses, typically 2h/week over the university year. Most students were adults, but maybe 25% were high school and university students. Almost none of the courses were part of degree or diploma courses. The students wanted to speak and understand oral English. Some of my colleagues did use coursebooks – we were free to teach as we wished. I’ve been horrified to realise how many teachers today are *obliged” to use a particular coursebook. What do you need CELTAs, DELTAs and MA’s for to get students to follow a coursebook?

          “What can teachers do if only they have a chance to become autonomous themselves?” Help their students to find in themselves the ways to learn autonomously, independently and responsibly.

          Here are 33 short videos of Fanny Passeport teaching French the Silent Way (mainly) to Junior High School students:


          PS: Did you realise you’re subscribed to get email notifications from my other site,, but not from this blog?

  • Howat Labrum

    Dear Glynes,
    Hello. Thank you for sending me your blog about No coursebooks, no texts, no “tasks”. Your idea is challenging to non-native English teachers who need something to hold on to, but I agree that some native English speakers can take their acquired language fundamentals and through their creative talent they can teach without the crutches you talked about in your blog. You have been creative with your use of the Cuisenaire rods and the Silent Way approach. You have stimulated the students to figure out the structure of the English grammar using the rods and your tense map. In addition, you have many grammar exercises on YouTube for your students. Like you, I have a tensemap which I have presented in many contexts on YouTube. When I was teaching in South Korea at a university, I was there in person to present and practice my tensemap. I taught my tensemap for many years, so I kept adding ideas to it and these carried over to my Power Point slide shows in which I could go in more detail and give more examples. Some of my slide shows I presented in class, but most were made for use by the students in their free time outside of class. For many of the slide shows I used the hyperlinking function provided by the Power Point program. The purpose was to give students a chance to explore the many possible relationships of the tense forms. If students can see the information from different perspectives, various connections and pathways can be made in the brain. That means if one connection breaks, then students can still retrieve the information from the other pathways. That seems to be more effective than if students just memorize the tense forms giving them only one pathway which we know can easily break over time.
    The argument you were talking about in your blog was the one about nature vs nurture. Through nature people acquire language, especially native speakers who live in that environment. EFL learners do not usually have easy access to that environment, so by default they have to be nurtured through a structured body of knowledge. Of course, nature and nature both play a part no matter the environment, although in different proportions. I would argue that it is not useful to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so it does not really matter which is of nature and nurture are defined as the bathwater or the baby. To both native and non-native English speakers I would recommend that they teach English in a natural way while at the same time giving a well-organized, concise grounding in the structure of the language. The structure should not be memorized bit by bit, but learned and remembered as a whole that can be used as a guide to accurate production while maintaining and even assisting in fluency.
    If I had not seen your article about teaching the English tense system with your Cuisenaire rods, I might have understood from your blog that it would be better to give up teaching English with my tensemaps. Indeed, I taught them without a coursebook or a text. (There are no official textbooks with my tensemaps in them, except for a variation of my active voice tensemap windows in a textbook for a language school in Seoul in 1995, and that was based on my contribution to that pilot book.) I am not sure, though, if students playing with my Power Point slide shows is a task. I used my tensemaps in class presentations, identification games, and homework (diagramming verbs with the +++ symbol using the passages found in their prescribed texts). Because you wrote the article about teaching with a tense map, at least partially the same as mine, I feel justified in continuing my work with my tensemaps, even though I am retired. The only way I can reach students and teachers is through the internet. Thanks to you, to help me reach that goal, I have been using YouTube as my delivery vehicle. However, YouTube, as I mentioned above, does not allow for the use of hyperlinks. As the use of those hyperlinks will make my slide shows more powerful, on YouTube I have invited people to send an email to me at and I will send them the ppt versions of the slide shows they would like to interact with. Please note that I am not charging for the slide shows. And there is no advertising, except about the book of poetry written by my father and illustrated by me which is integrated with lessons about my active voice tensemap. The title is Three By Four Reflections: The synergy of father and son in poetry and grammar. It was published by Trafford Self-Publishing in early 2013. If one has seen my slide shows there is no need to buy the book to learn about my ideas about grammar, but my late father would be pleased to have his poems spread throughout the world. Indeed, it could be used as a textbook as it is an attempt to bridge the gap between grammar and content. Also, there are several layers of synergy that make the 51 pages, a valuable learning tool, even down to the typing mistake I made in the favorite poem of my father. It is amazing how one misspelled word changed the whole meaning of the poems in the book. And therein lies a challenge for students to analyze the grammar structure to find the resulting change in meaning. By the way, I do not recommend the soft cover version because the publisher is charging a ridiculous amount of money for it. However, the digital version is about the cost of a cup of coffee. I set the price at $3.49 to reflect the title of the book.
    I am writing you, though, not to make money on a self-published book or even to make money on my tensemap slide shows. Like you, I have been teaching for more than 40 years, and although I am retired from teaching at a university in South Korea for 19 years, I am not about to use the past tense about my teaching. I do not want to say I had been teaching for 40 years or even I was teaching for 40 years. Just as my learning did not end with my M.A. in TESOL, it is still going on, and my efforts to share what I have learned will continue until I can no longer use my computer. I believe that is true of my mentor, Betty Azar, and for you, a fellow retired EFL teacher. We all still have a lot to share and now we have the time to do so. All I am asking is for the opportunity to add something to the science and art of teaching English as a Foreign Language for the benefit of those who wish to learn and teach English as another language.
    Thank you for your efforts at helping others learn and teach English. And thank you for reading this and my other letters to you. I also appreciate your time spent looking at my slide shows on YouTube. Good luck with your retirement.
    Yours truly,
    Howat Labrum
    P.S. Two of my latest uploads to letlearn2008 onYouTube have a copy of the poem written by my father. It is called Interpretations. It is his favorite poem and one he really wanted to share with the world.

    • Glenys Hanson

      Hi Howat,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      1) I’ve actually taught French – I’m not a native speaker – without a coursebook in just the same way I taught English. You’re right – it wasn’t as comfortable for me as teaching English but those were just my feelings. As far as the students were concerned, the results were just as good. I even got some of them to pronounce French better than I do myself. Of course, I leant heavily on the Silent Way colour charts to help them develop criteria for the sounds. Sometimes I led them to make erroneous hypotheses about French structure, but as they were always hypotheses, they could revise them later if they had further contact with the language. I didn’t have anything equivalent to my tense system for French (one exists now created by Maurice Laurent) or any on-line exercises.

      2) My English on-line exercises are actually not on YouTube but on this site: What’s on YouTube are just “Help” videos, “tutorials” to help students understand what they have to do on a technical level. Example:

      3) Of course, nothing can be as effective as a sensitive teacher in a live class dealing with problems as they come up. I’ve never used PowerPoint much and certainly not in the sophisticated way you have: using hyperlinks. I believe that programs exist which will transform interactive PowerPoints into webpages where the interactive hyperlinks are preserved. Maybe someone else reading this could help? 😉 I agree that it’s useful for students to be able to explore different possibilities on their own out of class.

      4) I don’t feel that the difference between learning a first language and learning second and further languages is a difference between “nature and nurture”. We are not born knowing our first language – we have to learn it. Of course their are differences between the way we learn languages as children and the way we learn as teens and adults. “Tensemaps”, for example, are not necessary for children but they can be for older learners who’ve been confused by traditional teaching.

      5) My anti-coursebook rant above is not a diatribe against encouraging students to see “patterns” in the language. On the contrary, seeing such patterns can save them a huge amount of time and effort. I couldn’t agree more with what Geoffrey Pullum, professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, has just published in a blog post “Lay people so often think of languages not the way linguists see them (as structured systems into which words can be slotted to make expressions of propositional thoughts) but as big bags of words. Learning speed is gauged by rate of lexical acquisition, level of attainment is judged by vocabulary size, languages are essentially equated with the contents of their dictionaries. Grammar, by contrast, is seen as a small set of fiddly pedantic details.”

      6) I’ve just bought the Kindle version of your book *Three by Four Reflections: Synergy: Father and Son in Poetry and Grammar* on Amazon.

      7) YouTube is useful for showing your work but I think you need a blog as place to describe what you do. And a Twitter account to incite people to read your blog. I’ve only been tweeting and blogging since February of this year and I don’t pretend I’m very good at it – I do get to meet a lot EFL/ESL teachers who are not only more or less on my wavelength but delightful people too.