Vivian Cook  On-line Writings  SLA Topics

Language Teaching Materials for Adult Beginners

in B. Tomlinson (ed.) (2003)

Developing Materials for Language Teaching

Vivian Cook

This chapter questions some of the underlying ideas represented in a selection of contemporary adult beginners' course-books in different languages and suggests some alternatives, building partly on the proposals for linking course materials to SLA research in Cook (1998). Much of the thinking here was shaped in the discussions of the Essex Beginners' Materials Group1.

The starting-point is three apparently innocuous assumptions about language teaching materials for adults:

1) adult students have adult minds and interests

The adult course-book is catering for people who do not think, speak, learn or behave in the same ways as children. Sometimes it may be possible for them to pretend to be children for the purposes of a particular exercise or activity. But this suspension of belief can never be more than temporary; the adult sooner or later reverts to being an adult and will be inevitably be treated as an adult second language (L2) user as soon as they use the second language outside the classroom.

2) second language users are people in their own right

L2 users are not just monolingual native speakers with an additional language but people with new strengths and abilities. They not only speak their second language differently from monolinguals but also their first language; they think in different ways from monolinguals; they use the second language for their own purposes – for business, for travelling, for reading poetry, for negotiation, for studying or for many other reasons – negotiating through a second language, translating from one language to another, code-switching from one language to another. The growing evidence for these statements is presented in Cook (ed., to appear). Few students need to pass for natives, apart from professional spies; they are instead mediators between two cultures and two languages.

3) language teaching has been held back by unquestioning acceptance of traditional nineteenth century principles

Twentieth century language teaching was largely heir to the New Reform method of the 1880s (Howatt, 1984). The principles of the priority of speech and the avoidance of the first language have been handed down virtually unquestioned through the mainstream teaching tradition from situational to audiolingual to communicative to task-based methods. These principles are not particularly justified by current idea about how people learn second languages. Course-writers should consciously evaluate these principles rather than incorporate them unquestioningly in their course-books.

To make the discussions more concrete, we will rely on six representative adult beginner coursebooks of the 1990s, produced by publishers in four different countries: for Italian Ci Siamo (Guarnaccio & Guarnaccio, 1997) and Teach Yourself Italian (Vellaccio & Elston, 1998), for French Libre Echange (Courtillon & de Salins, 1995) and Panorama (Girardet & Cridlig, 1996), and for English Atlas 1 (Nunan, 1995) and Changes (Richards, 1998). These are taken as sound examples of modern coursebooks; the criticisms apply just as much to the beginners course-book People and Places I wrote myself (Cook, 1980), as well as to most modern coursebooks.

At first sight these books look rather similar – bright covers, glossy pages full of colour photos or cartoons, forms and sentences with blanks to fill in, all attractively laid out in the manner of a magazine or a colour supplement. Do these apparent similarities extend to their assumptions about the ways in which language should be taught and about the students themselves and their goals in learning a language? If so, are these assumptions in fact appropriate for the adult language students of the 21st century?

1) adult students have adult minds and interests

The adultness of the students has consequences for the course-book which has to maintain the interest of people who, unlike children, often have particular reasons for studying a new language and who have adult interests, social relationships and level of intelligence.

- the types of students aimed at. To visualise the types of students the course-books are intended for, one needs to look at the characters they feature and the topics they are about. Ci Siamo 'is based on the adventures and travels of a small group of young adults living in a small Italian town', as is Teach Yourself Italian. Atlas and Changes feature classes of students of English from different countries, Libre Echange and Panorama young professionals. The Italian and English courses concentrate on the world of the prospective multilingual student; the message is that, to appeal to students of languages, you write about students of language, not about either native speakers or L2 users. The French coursebooks rely more on young adults in their own social world, most of them native speakers. Out of the 180 odd characters in these books, those with identifiable jobs are students (20), teachers (4), waiters, sailors, doctors, receptionists, civil servants (all with 3), and a cast of one-off lacemakers, entertainers, accountants, ticket-sellers, tramps and others.

The overall impression is lively young people without cares in the world or plans for the future, except tomorrow's party. They are not people with any particular purpose either in life or in their relationships but out to have a respectable good time - the population of summer schools in Cambridge or Perugia. Testing the Smile Factor (i.e. the number of smiling faces; Cook, 2001a, p.218) the highest concentration is in the first twenty pages of Atlas with 54, the minimum in the first twenty of Libre Echange with a mere 14, a concentration otherwise only found in mail-order catalogues and travel brochures. Learning another language is apparently a way of joining this happy group, not of taking an adult L2 user role in the world.

The adoption of student or young people's life as the model affects the language the students learn. Take for example the question of introductions. The first time that characters introduce themselves in the coursebooks they say:

Changes Hello. My name is Maria.

Atlas Hi. I'm Bob.

Ci Siamo Mi chiamo Lucy, cioè Lucia … Lucia Burns.

Teach Yourself Mi chiamo Marco Russo.

Libre Echange Je suis François Roux.

Panorama Je m'appelle Renaud.

The English coursebooks are perfectly appropriate to the language classroom where teachers and young students are on informal terms, removed from the pecking order in the world outside the classroom. Hence first names are the most important terms for immediate use.

But, as we can appreciate from the course-books in other languages, introductions are a form of social ceremony, not just a teaching act of identifying people by name. As such, they involve complex assessment of the relationships between the people involved – age, gender, social status, etc – and a particular formal exchange, with the introducer inter alia deciding who to introduce first and whether to provide an appropriate piece of background information about them.

Michel: Entrez Jacky! Je vous presente Pierre

Jacky: Bonsoir Pierre.

Pierre: Bonsoir Jacky.

Michel: Jacky est une amie de Cecile … (Libre Echange p.26).

In particular English first names are still perceived in many places as something to be used only when you know the person well. British hospitals for example have discovered that many older people feel humiliated by the use of their first names by younger medical staff.

This raises the issue of appropriate titles for people - a big concern outside the classroom wherever different age-groups and status relationships are involved. The choice of title is skimped in the English course-books. Changes demonstrates the use of titles Mr., Mrs., Miss (and the rather dated Ms.). Atlas avoids the issue, apart from one-off incidental examples of Dr. Nancy Walters (p.18), Ms. Jenny Jordan (p.69), and Mr. Michalik (p.71); even its enrolment forms do not require 'title' (though the teacher's book compensates by introducing Mr. and Ms., p.19). The student-in-class centred approach does not prepare the students for the variety of roles they may have to undertake in the world outside the classroom. Outside the classroom there is a need to be aware of the social roles that people have and to use the correct name and form of address.

- the topics discussed. The topics that students have to talk about during the course are presumably aimed both at interesting students during the lesson and at enabling them to use the second language for their ultimate goals. A sample of the first ten and last ten pages in each course-book should represent the range of topics reasonably fairly, in total 156. The most popular are basic functional topics, such as making arrangements or introducing people (48), after which come tourism (20), general information (17) (including statistics and information about the country), identifying and describing yourself and other people (16), making plans and arrangements for activities such as parties (12), discussion (9), tourist attractions (8) and dealing with hotels (4). Culture contributes 6 topics, the Italian and French courses dealing with real films, poems and plays. Finally a category with 16 examples is topics with no rationale other than teaching, such as identifying countries and nationalities, describing occupations, naming body parts, and so on. During these coursebooks the students mostly learn to talk about functional tourist/visitor topics such as buying things and tourist attractions or discuss each other in general terms ('Are you good at sports?') or to arrange details of their everyday student/ tourist lives such as parties and holidays.

The subject matter is seldom adult, with the exception perhaps of Libre Echange or of Carlo admiring Lucia in Ci Siamo 'Ha un sorroso carino' – by the last page of the book they have twins. It's a sanitised world of clean-living teenagers untouched by 'sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll'. There is little overlap between what students talk about in language teaching and what adults choose to encounter in magazines, television programmes, newspapers, pop songs, computer games, movies or indeed conversations that go past the preliminary personal information. One simple omission is money; most adults worry about their lack of income and their high level of expenditure, about the price of CDs or the exchange rate against the euro. Other than the prices in shops, money is never a topic in course-books, presumably because students and tourists are not part of the labour force. On a Dublin bus I overheard a group of multilingual EFL students talking. Their topics were either pop or sexual innuendoes, culminating in the memorable remark 'I don't kill women; I only kill mens' (to which the perfectly sensible reply was 'What is mens?').

The blandness of these course-books is partly dictated by fears of giving offence for religious or political grounds and of going out of date. But a world in which nobody talks about television, sport, pop music, food, films, gardening, work, current news, and so on, is a strange place. At the end of these courses the students will be able to discuss a limited range of topics at a general level – 'I think Keiko is interesting. She likes music and art' (Atlas, p.89) – unable to deal with most political, cultural or sporting topics (though the French coursebooks at least mention the Tour de France and dangerous sports and Changes has short biographies of Gloria Estafan and Ronaldo). The students are left unprepared for almost any adult topic of conversation in their L2 use. All they can say is 'I can play the piano' (Changes, p.78), 'Do you like swimming? Yes I do' (Atlas, p.44), 'Giochi a tennis? No, mai. Non mi piace' (Ci Siamo, p.80), 'Les jeunes aiment danser sur la musique «techno»' (Panorama, p.27).

Suggestion I: materials aimed at adults should be adult in theme, teaching method and language

Adultness has then a number of consequences for course-books, such as:

- talking about adult topics, not just functional exchanges ('Ha un camera singola?') or introductory remarks ('Moi, j'aime le sport'). At least the teacher could be given guidance how this could be developed into more adult-like conversation. Previous discussion of topics in language teaching suggested a range including personal information, books, and information about language itself (Cook, 1983). Lists of frequent topics for teenagers were complied in the 1970s (Rutherford et al, 1970) and indeed I based a course English Topics on them (Cook, 1975); equivalent lists for adults could be devised by checking the topics that adults actually watch on television say - soap operas (gossip was top of the teenager's list), sport (commentaries and gossip), quiz shows, detective 'dramas', news programmes, pop music, films, niche programmes on cookery, gardening and house design, etc. The danger would be choosing the 'high culture' of opera etc rather than people's everyday interests. But the topics would have to be explorable to an adult's level of English, not just 'What is your favourite Olympic sport?'

- using adult role. At one level students aiming to talk like students is a snake swallowing its own tail; the L2 target needs to escape this vicious circle. At another level the target is bound to the functional exchanges of short-term visitors to a country, such as tourists or indeed students; the target needs to incorporate at least people who are living and working in the L2 culture. There needs to be an extension of roles away from the vague world of the current coursebooks, which may perhaps reflect the equally vague aspirations of some teenagers, towards roles in the workplace and social life of adults, as doctors, as travel agents, as social workers etc or tennis-players, theatre-goers, animal rights protesters or whatever. This effect operates on the two levels of the roles intended to attract the students within the actual course-book and the ways in which the second language will be useful to them in their future lives.

- engaging in adult activities. Perhaps in a second language adults can only handle tasks used by seven-year-olds. Perhaps, however, the main virtue of explicit grammar is that it provides a task where the students have to engage their adult level of formal operational thinking in Piagetan terms. Course-writers need to think of activities that function at an adult level. The fact that the language and the content have to be readily usable by the beginner does not mean that the tasks have to be puerile.

The communicative teaching method grew in part from the approaches used in English primary schools in the 1970s to rectify language deficiencies in English children; Talk Reform (Gahagan and Gahagan, 1970) and Concept 7-9 (Wight et al, 1972) introduced the role-plays and information gap exercises that have become a staple of modern teaching. Task-based learning has in a sense continued this primary-school tradition. Willis (1996) describes six main types of task: listing, ordering and sorting, comparing, problem solving, sharing personal experience and creative. Atlas (teacher's book) lists ten types of task including classifying ('putting things that are similar in groups'), conversational patterns ('using expressions to start conversations and keep them going') and co-operating ('sharing ideas and learning with other students'). None of these would be out of place in the primary school, comparing and classifying being classic primary school activities. The popular matching/mapping exercise 'Listen again and draw lines to match the words' (Atlas, p.13), the typical tick-the-boxes questionnaire on personal habits (Ci Siamo, p.80), the archetypal giving-directions-from-a-map exercise (Changes, pp. 32-33), the universal naming of body parts exercise (Panorama, p.66), comparing individual's answers in a small group 'Vérifiez en petit groupes si vous avez trouvé les mêmes résultats' (Libre Echange, p.126), none of these activities involve adult-level intelligence and skills.

A justification for the use of child-like activities, strongly advocated for example by several members of the Essex Beginner's Materials group, is that second language learning infantilises people; they need to be reduced to the dependent state of little children if they are to succeed, thus justifying, say, extreme forms of audiovisualism. While this may indeed be a approach on which to base course-books, there is no reason why it should be the only one. To justify infantilisation would require a new approach to second language acquisition, say building on Vygotskyan theories (Anton & DiCamilla, 1998). To implement infantilisation properly in teaching might require it to incorporate other aspects of infantilisation (Students asking permission to go to the toilet? A letter from their parents when they're late? Confiscation of objects such as mobile phones the teacher disapproves of?). In particular it would go against the communicative tradition of the teacher as primus inter pares and re-establish the teacher as all-powerful controller.

2) second language users are people in their own right

- adoption of the native speaker goal. In language teaching both language teachers and students have often had a native speaker goal in mind; success is measured by how close the students get to a native speaker norm. Though it is seldom stated explicitly, this probably reflects the everyday feelings of most students and teachers; student progress means getting closer to the native speaker standard. Yet the only language that one speaks as a native is the one you learnt first in early childhood – by definition. The belief in this unattainable goal frustrates teachers and students alike. The alternative is to emulate successful L2 users, not native speakers. With an achievable goal in mind, the atmosphere in teaching can be more positive, always looking to how successful the students are in building up their second language rather than how unsuccessful they are in closing the unbridgeable gap.

The native speaker target implicit in much language teaching reflects on the one hand a goal students can never meet, on the other limits their achievements to what native speakers can do. An L2 user lacks all sorts of abilities and knowledge possessed by a native speaker. But an L2 user can do many things that a monolingual cannot. Oranges are not imitation apples but fruit in their own right.

The native speaker orientation is clearly reflected in the people who are portrayed in the coursebooks. Only 14 out of the 180 characters are marked as L2 users, that is say 8%; of these 4 are students, 1 a teacher, 1 an entertainer, the rest a chorus of unspecified friends, shoppers, and tourists. Clearly L2 users do not concern the coursewriters. It is not of course safe to assume from names like Carlos, Maria, Halil or Tomoko scattered through the English coursebooks that the speakers are non-native speakers, as anti-discrimination decisions in the Scottish educational system have recently shown.

The only proper users of the target language are then overwhelmingly seen as its native speakers; L2 users are shown either as involved in language teaching as students or teachers or as unskilled tourists or visitors. Rarely do the course-books present people using the second language as part of their normal social or professional lives; it is a surprise when Libre Echange introduces Pierre, the interpreter for the Council of Europe. This cast of characters does not begin to represent the many people successfully using second languages in the world today, probably outnumbering those who use only one language. The celebrities who are introduced in the coursebooks are either native speakers, such as Jacques Cousteau or Whitney Houston, or their bilingualism is not mentioned, such as Martina Hingis and Ronaldo.

- native speaker language. The forms and pronunciation that the students are aiming at in these course-books are therefore those of native speakers. But native speakers speak differently when a non-native is around, sometimes descending into foreigner talk; for example thanking a perceived L2 user is more likely to consist of 'Thank you very much indeed' than the informal 'Thanks'. The language of native-to-native situations portrayed in course-books is unlikely to be encountered by the students simply because it changes as soon as they become part of the situation. The language of students-to-students might be a different matter since so much of the coursebooks is about students; however the L2 user students in the books speak the same native speaker speech as everyone else. Jenkins (2000) has argued in favour of teaching a form of English as an International Language based on the speech of L2 students. This does not encompass the full complexity of L2 use in the world outside the classroom, particularly in the case of international languages such as French and English where the reality is indeed often L2 user speaking to L2 user. The frequency of forms, the grammatical rules and the types of interaction in native speech are at best a rough guide to what L2 users need..

Suggestion 2. materials based on the L2 user perspective aimed at adults should reflect the situations, roles, and language of L2 users, not just native speakers

If we accept that the students' manifest destiny is to be L2 users, this needs to be built in to courses both as the realistic target to aim at and as a motivation for students. The potential for L2 users is to become successful people with two languages, both in the ability to use another language for their own L2 purposes and in the cognitive, cultural and social advantages that knowing another language confers upon them. Cook (to appear, a) looks at these in more detail.

- L2 user roles

Existing course-books almost fail to mention L2 users, as we have seen. Those that are encountered are students or tourists, who are effectively powerless in the L2 situation. Coursebooks need to present favourable images of L2 users, both the invented characters in their dialogues and the famous characters that are paraded from time to time. Invented characters should be people who are clearly employing second languages in their everyday lives, whether doctors, diplomats, businesses people, housewives, or minority ethnic children, rather than casual users. Famous bilinguals range from Gandhi to Sopha Loren, Einstein to Nabokov, Chopin to Greta Garbo, as seen in the list in Grosjean (1982). Today's sports-people for example are as multilingual as they come, whether Kournikova or Dettori, Schumacher or Arsene Wenger. Again the use of famous personalities who have got something out of L2 learning might be a good motivational factor.

- L2 user situations

Similarly the situations to be presented need to cover the range of L2 uses, not just those of native speakers. What matters is what happens in the doctor's surgery when a native speaker doctor encounters an L2 user patient or an L2 user doctor treats a monolingual native speaker or an L2 doctor sees an L2 patient, not what happens when native doctor meets native patient. While some simple service encounters between tourists and customers and various organisations are found in the coursebooks, few of them depart from the protocols of native speaking to native. The tourist/visitor situations that are taught need then to incorporate the vital L2 use element; changing foreign money or cashing traveller's cheques, going through U.S. immigration as an alien, getting medical help through your insurance cover or reciprocal health arrangements, buying goods for unfamiliar money in unfamiliar quantities with curious taxes added to the price or redeemable on exit from the country. Beyond this we need to see everyday situations in which L2 users are successfully dealing with each other or with native speakers, say two businessmen with different first languages talking on the phone in English, an Italian estate agent selling a house in Tuscany to a French buyer in French, or simply members of multiethnic communities in Tower Hamlets talking to each other. An example of this in practice can be seen in the Institute of Linguists examinations for International Communication, which also involve the use of both languages in real-world related tasks.

- L2 user target language

The consequence of rejecting the native speaker standard is that the appropriate language to model to the students is that of successful L2 users not native speakers. International Students English (Jenkins, 2000) is one step in the right direction but is limited by being only about pronunciation and only about students. But certainly such a student variety is what the student-oriented English and Italian course-books require. On the one hand we need to know the characteristics of L2 users; Klein and Perdue (1997) have indeed established a basic variety of grammar that learners of several L2s go through which shows what the grammatical target of an L2-user based beginners' course might look like. But virtually all vocabulary research has looked at frequencies etc in native speaker speech, and has seen L2 learners as acquiring these native speaker elements. Perhaps indeed the vocabulary of successful L2 users mirrors native speakers; perhaps it does not. Corpora and descriptions of native speech are secondary information for a L2 user-based approach. The primary information for the course-book is the language of L2 users, even if for the moment impressionistically.

- the types of situation portrayed. Coursebooks inevitably have to present situations in which the second language is used. In the English and Italian student-based courses the situations are primarily the language school, the students' digs and the tourist situations of travelling and shopping: people find their way around town, go to parties, shop in supermarkets, and meet each other around college. In the French courses the situations are more street-life, entertainment and sport: people drink in cafés, go to cinemas and discos and date each other. Overall the situations are student life, visitor/tourist encounters in a country or polite public encounters between people with no specific social roles other than as fellow-students, friends or service roles such as waiter. These are situations where low-level L2 users encounter native speaker shop assistants etc, low-level L2 users speak to their fellows, or native speakers speak to each other. What is missing are the situations in which high level L2 users are functioning fully as equals, whether to fellow L2 users or to native speakers.

3) language teaching has been held back by not questioning traditional nineteenth century principles

Some of the actual teaching methods follow from the decisions made in the last section. Others rely on deeper, if unacknowledged, principles of language teaching. ‘… language teaching taboos, such as the mother tongue, grammar, the printed and written word, which have affected our teachers with over-sized guilt complexes, are nothing but superstitions handed down from one innocent victim to the next’ (Dodson, 1967, p.65).

- reliance on the first language. The teaching in these course-books is almost exclusively through the second language (the exception is Teach Yourself Italian). Ci Siamo uses English for grammatical explanation and for some instructions for teaching exercises; the other books never mention the first language. As they are produced for use in a variety of countries, this might be seen as a necessity; yet no hints are provided how the teacher can make use of the students' first language productively in the classroom. The writers have adopted the nineteenth century injunction to avoid the first language as possible in the classroom rather than seeing it as a resource for teaching (Cook, 2001b). As Howatt (1984, p.289) put it, ‘the monolingual principle, the unique contribution of the twentieth century to classroom language teaching, remains the bedrock notion from which the others ultimately derive’.

Cook (2001b) found the classic arguments for avoiding the second language based on L1 acquisition and mental compartmentalisation of languages were groundless and counter-productive, the argument for maximising communicative L2 in the classroom was sensible but not the same as L1 avoidance. The point about L2 users is that the two languages are always present in the same mind; one language cannot be totally switched off when the other is being used, whether in terms of vocabulary (Beauvillain & Grainger, 1987), syntax (Cook, 1994), phonology (Obler, 1982) or pragmatics (Locastro, 1987). The absence of a systematic role for the first language from most of these text-books is throwing away one of the most valuable assets that the L2 learner has.

- emphasis on the spoken language. Changes and Atlas emphasise 'the four language skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing', with the order showing the usual precedence of spoken before written; Ci Siamo presents dialogues with speech balloons in photo-story style; Panorama uses scripts alongside cartoon strips; Teach Yourself Italian and Libre Echange start each unit with a taped dialogue. Since these courses are primarily books, the spoken basis is less evident than in the audiovisual courses such as All's Well that Starts Well (Dickinson, Leveque & Sagot, 1975). The spoken language is often portrayed through written language. In Atlas written language is mostly used to represent spoken dialogues or to provide cues, lists etc for spoken exercises, with rare use of texts longer than a single sentence; in Libre Echange it is used to show film scripts. Libre Echange and Ci Siamo provide more use of informative texts, poems etc. Many of the exercises involve reading aloud, whether of sentences into which the student has inserted words, 'Elise is Martha's ……', or of substitution tables 'Sono Carlo/Lucia. Cia, come va/stai?', or turning written into spoken language 'Domande perché i ragazzi sono andati a Roma di domenica?', or using written information in conjunction with spoken materials 'Lisez les informations ci-contre et écoutez'.

Again the overall emphasis on speech follows the nineteenth century insistence on the priority of the spoken language (Cook, to appear, b). Language syllabuses around the world have unquestioningly taken this as axiomatic; the English curriculum in Cuba insists on 'The principle of the primacy of spoken language' (Cuban Ministry of Education, 1999). Howatt claims ‘The spoken language for example is promoted with more determination now than at any time since the Reform Movement’ (Howatt, 1984, p.289). The arguments for the primacy of speech have not been rehearsed for many years; they include the development of the L1 child, which is beside the point for language teaching that takes on no other feature of first language acquisition, and the historical development of language, which has nothing to do with L2 teaching. Speech and writing have not been looked at in their own right and a rational decision made which aspects of each are relevant for the students. The adult literate student thinks and learns in different ways from a non-literate, indeed stores language differently in the brain (Petersson et al, 2000). For the adult literate student, speech is not automatically the primary form of language. 'One could nearly say that in a "literate culture" speech is the spelling of writing' (Kress, 2000, p.18).

The written language is systematically distorted in these books in the service of the spoken language. Where but in a language teaching book would you find Michelangelo's David with its body parts labelled (Ci Siamo, p.136), a chart to fill in with what you are doing today (Changes, p.72), sentences with fill-in blanks (Atlas and Libre Echange, almost every page), photos with jumbled poetic captions (Panorama, 76-77), lists of words in two columns to be matched (Atlas, p.13)? Spoken language is presented reasonably faithfully through conversations and dialogues; written language is treated as a tool for teaching in any way that suits the course-writer: the message is that only spoken language is real, even if conveyed through writing.

Though one should not understate the value of the spoken language, this attitude does lead to a remarkable neglect of the written language in beginners' language courses. A hurdle for many learners of English is transferring from a writing system that uses meaning-based characters to one that uses sound-based characters; this extends down to the different ways in which the pen is held and to the ways in which letters are formed in writing - English 'o's are made anticlockwise, Japanese clockwise. Within European languages there are different uses of capital letters; many find the English egocentric for capitalising the first person pronoun 'I' rather than the second person 'you', as in German 'Sie' and Italian 'Lei'.

This is before one starts looking at the detailed correspondences between sounds and letters, for example the different spoken correspondences of 'c' and 'g' are briefly mentioned in Teach Yourself Italian and Ci Siamo, perhaps all that is needed for a language with a comparatively 'shallow' orthography (Katz & Frost, 1992). Learning the letter-names is the extent of the coverage in Atlas (p.25), which calls it 'pronunciation'. Changes introduces letter-names in order to spell words aloud (p.10) and at least explains the different sound correspondences for 's'. Otherwise there is barely a mention of spelling or any other properties of the writing system in the English courses, a strange gap given the well-known problems created by its 'deeper' orthography, which has many aspects other than sound/letter correspondences. Some of the words that L2 students get wrong most often are 'because', 'accommodate', 'beginning', 'their/there/they're', 'different' and 'business' (Cook, 2001a). But these course-books provide no help with this whatsoever. Nor do the French courses provide much help, say with the features of the French writing system that differ from other European languages, such as the accents and cedilla, unless concealed in pronunciation practice such as 'Le «e» tombe parfois' (Libre Echange, p.85). Many L2 users vitally need to learn about the properties of the L2 writing system and the idiosyncratic properties of particular words, just as much as they need an adequate pronunciation.

Suggestion III teaching methods can go beyond the principles of language teaching familiar since the nineteenth century

- use of the first language in the classroom

Some systematic uses for the first language in language teaching have been described in Cook (2001b); once the use of the first language is countenanced in the classroom, it can be used to give instructions and explanations to increase L2 practice, to firmly link L1 and L2 knowledge together in the students’ minds, to help collaborative dialogue with fellow-students, and to encourage L2 activities such as code-switching for later real-life use. This could necessarily only be provided in course-books for speakers of a particular first language, say French coursebooks for English speakers or English coursebooks for Italian learners.

Applied to coursebooks the first language can be used for:

a) conveying meaning

A key issue in language teaching, relatively undiscussed since the days of audiolingualism and audiovisualism, is how the teacher presents the meanings of the language to the students, whether of words, functions, grammatical structures or whatever. Most coursebooks provide little help or advice with presentation and acquisition of meaning, which is acquired as if by osmosis from the language input; at most, pictures of concrete objects are provided and some explanation of grammatical meaning. Yet 39% of teachers use the first language for explaining meanings (Franklin, 1990). Conveying meaning through the first language may be as effective as any other means, provided it does not imply that the meanings of the second language are translation equivalents of the first language.

(b) explaining grammar

Again 88% of teachers use the first language for explaining grammar (Franklin, 1990). Curiously discussion of FonF (Doughty & Williams 1998) does not seem to mention the language of explanation. If one believes that a crucial element in learning is the students' conscious understanding of grammatical rules, one needs to ask which language acts best as a vehicle for conveying the actual rules. There is no virtue in making the grammatical explanation deliberately difficult by using the students' weakest language. Indeed explanations may be unwittingly based on the concepts of the second language; it is an interesting question whether, say, a Japanese coursebook for English should use the English categories, say syllables, or the Japanese categories, moras, in its explanations.

(c) giving instructions and tests

Rather than having cumbersome simplified instructions for what the students have to do in the second language, these could sometimes be written in the first language. The loss would be a certain amount of genuine communication with the student through the second language; the gain would be not only the students being able follow the instructions more swiftly but also a greater complexity of activities and tests since the language for setting activities up would no longer get in the way.

(d) using within teaching activities

Without going back to undesirable forms of translation activities, the coursebooks could include activities where the students deliberately have to use both languages, say through code-switching as in the New Concurrent Method (Jacobson & Faltis, 1990). The activity may get students to explain the task to each other, to negotiate their roles in it, and to check their understanding or production of language, all in the first language.

- use of the written language in the coursebook

The general suggestions in Cook (to appear, b) can be applied to the design of coursebooks. In addition to the existing provision of written language in the coursebooks for supporting spoken exercises, as scripts of spoken dialogues, as fill-in sentences and forms or as short informative texts, coursebooks need to teach the distinctive features of the written language. The basic elements of the English writing system in terms of spelling, orthography, direction of writing, etc need to be built-in to the beginners' course in one way or another. On the one hand this may prevent the types of persistent problems one still sees in advanced learners; after many years of French I still did not have any systematic reason for using an acute or grave accent, because no-one taught it to me to the best of my recollection. Written language can be authentic notices, signs, real advertisements etc; it can demonstrate proper discourse roles and functions. It can take its place alongside spoken language as a crucial aspect of L2 use, particularly in these days of e-mails, text messages and the web.

Obviously this analysis has taken an unconventional perspective. There is no intention to imply that these are the only ways of approaching these issues or that they necessarily come as a package. A beginners' course that incorporated any of these ideas would radically differ from materials currently available across languages and across countries. According to the three initial assumptions, the apparent variety of course-books on sale is an illusion: none of them bases itself on L2 users, incorporates the first language systematically, uses a range of adult topics and situations, or adequately covers writing. The much-discussed choices between tasks, functions, lexical syllabuses etc are superficial compared to these underlying assumptions, which affect every page of the course-book. These assumptions may be wrong; the traditional principles may be unchallengable. But, if they are never brought out into the open, lauded changes in language teaching such as communicative tasks, FonF, lexical syllabuses or whatever, are nothing but the tip of the iceberg, liable to melt in the first rays of the sun, rather than the solid mass hidden beneath the waves.


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1. I am very grateful to the members of the Essex Beginners' Materials Group for their stimulating discussions; the membership includes Suzuku Anai, Liz Austin, Gladis Garcia, Shigeo Kato, Lou Lessios, Ignazia Posadinu, Peter Treacher and Emi Uchida, all associated with the University of Essex. They may however be startled by the direction in which some of their comments have led me.