Reasons I don't like most textbooks (4)

one size fits all

One size fits all?

  • The reason you can not make the perfect textbook is because our students aren't perfect: they do not fit into boxes or packages.
  • Our students differ in their ages, occupations, wants and needs and we pay attention to that.

If you are a publisher or textbook author stumbling across this blog... I have more to say:

If you please, why do you write:

This course is the ideal choice for anyone who needs to make
presentations in English.

When, actually, what you mean is:

This course has been designed for young adults, probably between the ages of 18 and 23, studying Business. It will help them learn, in our seven-step approach, to develop an authentic style and apply these skills later on in their future working lives.

You make me look like a fool when I walk in to my managers and CEOs with your amateurish guide... you make me waste my and their hard-earned cash when you tell me that it's for anyone who needs to make presentations and you send me combing the internet for real advice.

Please... in future, please make sure the back of your books carry an appropriate and adequate description of its intended audience.

Also, while you're here - what are you doing to the CEFR: you know, that standardized guide which was supposed to erase all the confusion you created in what is a false beginner, what is elementary vs. what is pre-intermediate and intermediate knowledge of English?

Any chance you could all have a little sit down together and hash out an agreement so that the one size fits all could actually apply here?



Useful links related to this posting:
Reasons (1)
Reasons (2)
Reasons (3)

19 Responses to “Reasons I don't like most textbooks (4)”

  • Jeremy Day says:
    October 20, 2009

    I think publishers are well aware of the fact that students don't fit into boxes. They listen to focus groups and run surveys and read blogs and talk to students and teachers.

    It'd be nice (for publishers and writers) if students did fit into boxes, but they don't. But what's the solution? Ever tinier niche markets? Or should publishers just give up?

    A colleague told me today that there's a desperate need for an advanced level book aimed at 10 to 12 year olds. Maybe there is, but are there enough teeny anglophiles to justify the investment? If there are enough, are they concentrated in one geographical area so that schools actually run classes for them. If not, no coursebook.

    As for the claim "This course is the ideal choice for anyone who needs to make presentations in English", did that come from a real book, or is it just an example of "the sort of thing publishers do"? I'm not aware of any such claims, so if it's a real one, you're right to disapprove.

    There have been a couple of great EFL books on presentations. I remember Mark Powell's great LTP book 'Presenting in English' and the old OUP video course 'English for Presentations'.

    Both were really good guides to getting started with presentations, and contained loads of useful language and advice, but neither of them could claim to say everything that needs to be said about top-level presentations (like the advice in the cool blog you linked to).

    Isn't that a job for highly-paid soft skills consultants, not lowly EFL teachers and one-size-fits-all coursebooks?

    We do our best ... and we can do no more!

    October 20, 2009

    It's a real book (I decided not to link to it as it might be unfair to the Publisher of said book, given that this sort of thing happens across the board (and the Publisher will recognize the blurb themselves)...

    and it's a real scenario of searching high and low for a book on Presentations, reading the passionate blurb, having it recommended to me by a sales rep of said Publishing company, buying the book and my students and I being utterly and completely disappointed.

    Not because it's a bad book: it's not, comes with realistic DVD and everything BUT it is not a book for anyone - it's a book for students studying business.

    Generally, in this series, I've been trying to lay off telling my own personal tragic stories connected to each posting about textbooks... however all of them are real issues.

    To be honest, I know you, Jeremy in your awesomeness (I love you to bits, you know that) do listen to focus groups etc but maybe not hard enough - oh, um what do I mean by that?

    Namely, that textbook blurbs should perhaps be written by said focus groups and not the marketing teams attempting to sell as many copies as possible.

    Transparency will always go further.

    And the rest of the business world has already figured out that actually there's a lot of mooola in the long tail.

    October 20, 2009

    Oh sorry, wait not done...

    Actually NO - these books you listed are not great books on presentations.

    Here's the thing, just in case you're interested...

    Managerial business students are already giving presentations: they need language practice and phrase development in the various stages, not talked down to on "how" to make a presentation - blogs like Zen do that much better.

  • Unknown says:
    October 21, 2009

    Hi Karenne,

    Ouch! I love the fact that at the bottom of the post it says it's filed under "rants". :-)

    I won't go into too much detail here, as Business textbooks are really not my area and I'm pretty ignorant with all that.

    Only to say that a textbook written by a focus group would not necessarily be better. I've seen examples of those books. They tend to be rather "empty" and "dull", partly because lots of compromises have been made to satisfy the whole committee or focus group. Much better, I'm sure you agree, are books with a strong authorial voice. Same goes for blogs. I'd prefer to read you blog, written by you, with your ideas rather than have you hand it over to a "focus group" to create all the content.

    Back cover blurbs are more often than not to be taken with a pinch of salt I think. You're quite right about that. There's often a space issue too. But I won't make excuses. Best advice for teachers is to read through and evaluate a whole unit of the book (like, er, when a unit is given free over the internet even before you SEE the back cover of the book! :-)

  • Anne Hodgson says:
    October 21, 2009

    I agree, Karenne. I used to use books to teach presentation skills. But then I watched spellbound as Steve Jobs presented the iPhone, and he broke every rule in the book. That was the time I was taking TED intravenously, and passing on that spark to my students. TED taught me that the best presentations are all about loving the thing you're talking about, and explaining intelligently what exactly it is that is so amazing about it. Garr Reynolds has been my style guru ever since. I blogged about the guiding principles I learned from him: restraint, simplicity, naturalness - here:, and then built a language exercise on Obama's rhetoric based on it here: (sorry, don't mean to plug, just talking about my tack.)

    I think you can still teach conventional wisdom (e.g. the rule of threes), as well as those chunks that come in handy, using Mark Powell's book (which I do think is good at what it does, and my students borrow it and won't give it back). But as part of a course syllabus, I no longer introduce any "listening to some other person's business presentations, and now do one of your own", as that ruins the spirit and content of a talk. You do feel as if you are putting a bridle on a young filly when you do things like "you've done your ad hoc talk, and now add signposting," but it does need to be done. So I wind up having students play card games with signposting phrases and the like, for a lighter touch.

    October 21, 2009

    (like, er, when a unit is given free over the internet even before you SEE the back cover of the book! :-)

    L, only because you're a very special person with a rather special approach do I let you plug your book on here!


    Anne, you too - for the rest of you, here's the link to her great post:



  • Lindsay Clandfield says:
    October 21, 2009

    Thanks Karenne, although it was a very "light" plug and I promise not to do it ever again! :-0 Incidentally, I mentioned it because you had something to do with it...

    Thanks Anne for your blog recommendations too, and I am also a great convert to TED now - have been since Karenne told me to watch Seth Godin. That was my first one.

  • nicky says:
    October 21, 2009

    OK, here comes one of those annoying, a few-days-late, address-people-one-by-one-via-"@"-signs comments:

    @Jeremy - as far as the geographical concentration of teeny anglophiles aged 10-12, i think maybe the richer neighborhoods of Barcelona may be your place (or at least one of them)...although now that i think about it the age range would be a bit higher, 13-14. So scratch that.

    @Ann - I agree wholeheartedly that a great presenter and speaker should be in love with his subject, but you will admit that sometimes it's hard for students to get all worked up about, sampling distributions for double-blinded study of X or the sales projections and objectives for Y.

    Which is why the Mark Powell book comes in handy, at least for me, to get in the intonation and sound "chunking" when the emotion and enthusiasm can't.

    Consider my two cents given...

    October 21, 2009

    L, forgot to say that I didn't mean textbooks should be written by focus groups but that someone - other than a PR department - should decide on the back cover blurb.

    Or the PR department should be sent on "authenticity" workshop by..... Seth Godin... LOL. Kidding.


  • rliberni says:
    October 22, 2009

    I agree most books on business English skills are written for Business English students rather than practitioners - I suppose that is where the mass market is. Thank you for all the suggested links and other solutions to this important area of our teaching.
    * Nobody seems to have objected to the phrase 'lowly EFL teachers' I will and strongly, as I think it sums up a lot of what the problem is!! - If we are lowly then does that mean we are not capable of dealing with anything more than an 'introduction to' ? I do take objection but I think the comment tells us quite a lot!

  • Glennie says:
    October 22, 2009

    Textbooks get published because their (anticipated) popularity will to lead to an increase in shareholder income. Let's be clear about that.

    So, with a few exceptions, publishers are not likely to blaze new trails if a lot of teachers and institutions aren't likely to venture down them. They're likely to go for what the punters en masse will go for.

    Here in Spain, for example, you'll find it quite hard to find a textbook that isn't still following, albeit in disguise, what many now regard as the discredited grammar-led P-P-P approach. Why? I've been told by publishers that it's because teachers find that the easiest kind of textbook to use. It's what they are used to. A task-based approach, for example, is going to involve them in a lot more work (or at least that is what they imagine) and so they won't recommend it to their Heads of Studies, who might not accept the recommendation in any case as task-based work reveals student needs that might not necessarily have been predicted by the national curriculum.

    We obviously need a wider range of textbooks which cater for significant minorities. The problem is a publisher's definition of 'significant'.

    Business provides, but it follows the dollar and provides on its terms. And those terms aren't always in harmony with the interest of the learner.

    So what do we need. Dogme? State-funded, non-profit-making educational publishers? Philanthropists who will be publish irrespective of financial consequences? Main stream publishers prepared to selflessly hive off some of their massive profits to cater to the needs of minorities?

    October 23, 2009

    Hi Glennie,

    What you say about PPP is awfully true - but I disagree with you that it's what the "punters" want, otherwise so many teachers wouldn't be going to workshops and training sessions. And, more importantly, we can clearly see across many staff-rooms (or in tiny offices and bedrooms around the world), teachers frantically preparing lessons in order to step out of the format of the textbook.

    My thoughts are that the publishers are listening to the wrong focus groups! And yes, more specialized textbooks.


  • Jeremy Day says:
    October 23, 2009

    Ooops - I've just realised that my reference to 'lowly EFL teachers' could be a bit offensive. Thanks, rliberni (?) for pointing that out.

    As an EFL teacher myself, I was simply trying to suggest that we long-suffering EFL teachers have a hard job and don't often get the respect we should. So I was writing as very much a lowly EFL teacher myself.

    But of course if an outsider referred to me in those terms, I too would take offence. And more importantly, I guess it's all in the mind. If we choose to turn ourselves into highly-paid consultants on things like presentation skills (as I guess Karenne is already well on the way to doing, or perhaps has already achieved), the only thing stopping us is our negativity. So I'll avoid that term in future. We're not lowly - we're important and we make a difference. Head held high.

    That said, I think the distinction between what we as EFL teachers can/should teach and what soft skills the consultants teach is valid up to a point. Shouldn't we focus more on linguistic aspects of presentations (for example), rather than visual aspects? Should an EFL coursebook on presentation skills also train people to create visually attractive slides - something which has nothing to do with language. I'm not so sure.

    And if you can get that sort of non-linguistic expertise from a blog and other online sources, doesn't that mean EFL coursebooks should concentrate on the sort of things that aren't freely available online? Stuff that native-to-native writers consider to be too basic to include in their high-flying courses. Like the stuff in Powell's book.

    It's a tough question and I don't know the answers. I think Karenne's approach of teaching a mixture of EFL and soft skills is very impressive. But I'll repeat the message I've said elsewhere: the course book is a good starting point, but is not the be-all-end-all. Publishers shouldn't pretend that their course teaches you everything you ever need to know about presentation skills because (a) it's not true and (b) the course book isn't the right medium for such a complete approach.

    As for Karenne's idea of getting members of focus groups to write the blurbs on the back of books, it's a nice idea, but don't expect to see comments like "Fairly good, but needs more on X, Y and Z" appearing on the backs of books in the near future.


  • Glennie says:
    October 24, 2009

    It's true that I shouldn't generalise as much. Though that comment about what Spanish school teachers were prepared to use came straight from the horse's mouth.

    In academies, the punters are perhaps more likely to be the Heads of Studies who want to be sure they have something that looks structured and reassuringly safe in place. As you say, many teachers then spend time trying to make something stimulating out of some pretty insipid content.

  • Sue says:
    October 25, 2009

    I've been following this series of posts with interest Karenne, as I'm not exactly a fan of textbooks either.

    I'm pretty much in agreement with your reasons for not liking them, and as the classes I usually teach tend to be a pretty diverse bunch anyway, adopting a 'one size fits all' approach and teaching from a traditional style textbook simply wouldn't work for me.

    Having said that, pretty much all the teachers in my offline PLN do use them, and they work around the 'one size fits all' issue by scrabbling around for other materials to plug the gaps that the book they are working from doesn't cover.

    The market for traditional-style textbooks exists because the majority of TEFL teachers don't develop their own materials; though I suspect that in the longer term, the growing popularity of online teaching & Dogme may lead to a drop in sales and force a re-think.

  • Unknown says:
    November 01, 2009

    Hi Karenne,
    Oh dear, I had so much hoped that when you joined us on the Young Learners’ SIG online discussion, we could have passed on to you some insights into the ELT publishing world, which may have answered some of your concerns (Lindsay, you should have been with us). So much for my dumb attempt at communication.
    Let me get the first thing straight. One of your problems with the one-size-fits-all book is that the back cover copy is misleading – and you’re quoting from one book? Well, here’s an idea: don’t read back cover! It’s written by a generous, clever and articulate editor who has a job to do, but who has not lived the whole experience of writing the book through every fibre of their body, as Lindsay or I have.
    And you say that your students already have the presentation skills practised in the book? Well, here’s another idea: I don’t think it’s the right book, so my advice would be don’t buy it! As riberni says, it’s usually written for students, not practitioners
    (By the way, many aeons ago I did a Business English book. I faced defeat and humiliation so often while I was writing it, if only because I wasn’t sure it was right for the people I was meant to be writing it for. But actually, it did quite well, and still lives on in a multi-media version sold quietly throughout Europe.)
    Lindsay, I take your point about books with a strong authorial voice. In fact, this was an idea was common in the past, but which died around 1986 or 87 when the whole ELT publishing began to question whether a ‘name’ author knew as much about the emerging markets as they did. They were right, and author-led materials became gradually less prominent than market-led ones. Some of us stayed on the circuit, but most of us kept our heads down, and read market feedback and focus group reports ha!
    Actually, I honestly think Lindsay may be the only writer today who has a chance of re-establishing the author’s voice on material in the future. But I think even he would agree that you don’t know everything about countries which you may never have visited.
    The confidence of glenniehubb’s comment ‘Textbooks get published because their (anticipated) popularity will to lead to an increase in shareholder income. Let's be clear about that. ‘ is challenged by its limited accuracy. For the UK publishers, the university presses don’t have shareholders, they’re charities and their surpluses (not profits ) go back into their universities. Of the other two large UK publishers, one is a FTSE listed company, and the other is owned by a German conglomerate, both of which have shareholders to please. Other large publishers in Spain, Germany and elsewhere are the same. But those shareholders are not thinking, ‘How can we screw English teachers and make money out them?’ My hunch is that they don’t even know we exist.
    Well, as I’ve said before, I’m not a publisher, I’m only a writer, but since I’ve done for nearly my whole career, anything that reflects badly on publishers, reflects badly on me. I don’t write with the cynicism which glenniehubb’s comment implies, and I’ve never met anyone who works in publishing who has done so either. But I suppose that’s just my rather old-fashioned take. Maybe I’m too nice.
    How long is your series going to run, Karenne? How can I convince that I haven’t spent my career as a complete and utter cowboy? Or shall I just give up?


    PS Jeremy makes sense. He's my new friend.

    November 01, 2009

    Simon, do let me introduce you to Jeremy (one of my fave people in the industry - he writes a blog too and edits ESP books for CUP: Specific English.

    He would have been a good one to join in your discussion - and yes, I did learn much from your group - ta for the invite.

    And sorry, Simon there are a few more postings coming yet on why I don't like text books but no, you're not a cowboy, you do really great work and have rescued many a teacher with your Reward... think of this series as a working brief from the teachers rather than the boss. LOL.

    Good that you don't mind my cheek. I promise they'll be a nice posting at the end of the series on the reasons we teachers do all love and use coursebooks, sometimes... you should see my book shelves.

    Now, on the Mark Powell book, drat - I don't have a personal copy so I can't comment properly. I don't have a personal copy because I wasn't impressed.

    If anyone is searching, Paul Emmerson's business builder has some worth it, i.e. applicable exercises, on Presentations for business managers as opposed to young adults in uni.

    Which brings me to what both Simon and Jeremy are missing in the points of this posting:

    Target Audience
    Target Audience's needs

    Simon, we have no choice but to go with the back cover, really - or the Amazon descriptions and this should be gotten right.

    It is so hard as a consumer, with everyone calling themselves the best yet no one saying "the best for xyz age/type of ss". If I could beg for anything to be changed asap it would be transparency and this targeted audience to be a part of ELTsales people's spiel.

    Jeremy asked:
    Shouldn't we focus more on linguistic aspects of presentations (for example), rather than visual aspects?

    Absolutely. But we have to think about what linguistic aspects are actually required by our students - therefore books and blogs about presentations written for top level management are in fact a better source for this information than course books written for young adults who aren't yet in business situations where they are actually making real presentations (and written by people who've never given a business presentation themselves).


  • Anonymous says:
    November 03, 2009

    Hello all,

    First of all, I hope I'm not just barging into the discussion and adding something useless to it. I feel that people got quite hung-up about business books, but that's not exactly what I have to say. I do believe that the one-size-fits-all textbook has been around for a long while now, and, unfortunately, this might be the case for a while in some teaching contexts.

    Even though it's easy to see that more and more teachers have been studying, attending seminars and so on, it's still a very small number in my humble opinion. Depending on where you work, you will see that most language institute owners aren't teachers and, consequently, don't know squat about teaching. They'd rather hire someone to work for one year or so paying very little and trying to find a fool-proof textbook or method. I guess this is one of the reasons why audiolingual books with a teachers' manual that tells teachers exactly what to say and when to say it are still very popular here. If you talk to some of the "teachers" (or even real teachers) working with these books, they'll say that it's all about making money and working very little.

    There's no perfect course book for any teaching situation for one simple reason: we teach people. People are unique, different, and they come in many different sizes. I can't say I'm the biggest fan of textbooks, but they might come in handy if teachers have had proper training and learn how to listen to and, most importantly, respond to their learners' needs. I believe this is what you meant when you said that you have lots of textbooks and there's something nice about them coming out of this thread. :)

    Textbooks aren't perfect, they don't fit all, but they may be useful if the teacher knows how to work with it. Textbooks should fit the teacher's style as well as students' needs. What good is it for a teacher who's never heard of the Lexical Approach to be forced to work with a book whose syllabus is based on it?

    The main problem, as I see it, is not exactly with the textbooks, but it lies within teacher training and other factors. But, hey, isn't this the beauty of the Internet? We can discuss local problems globally. What is true to my situation might not be true to yours.

    Again, I hope I haven't said something which doesn't belong here.



  • rliberni says:
    November 04, 2009

    some great insights here about teachers and school owners which,I think, should have given all of us food for thought!! We (I suspect most of the commentators here) do sometimes forget how lucky we are having quite a lot of autonomy and being in control. Many (maybe most)teachers are not. I love your comment at the end about being able to debate in a forum like this and yes, long live the internet for this power!!
    At the end of the day publishing is business and publishers are in constant competition with each other (a fact pointed out to me at the Language Show at the weekend by - a publisher!!). In my experience writers are not truly free and the bottom line is king. Cynical perhaps but I think true. The beauty of being a teacher is that you can pick and choose.
    BTW, apology for 'lowly EFL teachers' accepted JD. Teachers can be influencial in course book choices so best to butter them up!!


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