A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Designing a Language Textbook: The Theory and Practice

Partha Sarathi Misra

Introduction

Designing a language textbook is a multi-dimensional task that requires a nuanced understanding of the objectives of the language curriculum, a sound knowledge of the theories of language learning and their pedagogical implications, an understanding of the requirement of the examination boards and the language policies of the Government. In order to make a language textbook result-oriented, the author has to understand and appreciate the correlation between the theory and practice of curricular material development in language. A language textbook is not merely a collection of texts drawn from different genres; it reflects a particular pedagogic point of view arrived at by the textbook designers after taking into account the broad educational objectives that inform the curriculum followed in a particular context. In this paper, therefore, I will discuss the theory and practice of designing a language textbook in English in general and critically analyse the process of designing an English textbook for class IX in particular. I will record the theoretical considerations that prompt textbook designers to form a specific perspective of English language teaching.  I will also highlight the pedagogical principles that inform the choice of the material in consonance with the theories and practice of teaching English as a second language in a multilingual non-native context in which the learners have little exposure to real English outside the English classroom.

Discourses on Textbooks

The notion of a textbook evokes mixed reactions among its stakeholders. The role of a textbook and the politics of textbooks are debatable topics across the globe. Koutselini (2012) observes that textbooks play a protagonist’s role in the classroom, downgrade students’ autonomous learning and annihilate teachers’ political sensitivities. The Position Paper on Curriculum, Syllabus and Textbooks prepared and published by the National Council of Educational Research and Training points out how “teaching the textbook” becomes the whole of education in India. Lamenting the misuse of textbooks in the Indian classrooms, the said position paper observes,

The present day classroom practices are, in almost all schools of the country, totally dominated by textbooks. All premises of flexibility of the curriculum and syllabus and freedom of the teacher are completely forgotten by the time an educational plan reaches the classroom. The teacher is seen as either incompetent or unwilling or both, the school is seen as devoid of all learning material, and the environment is seen as of no use in the child’s learning. (NCERT, 2006, p. 37)

Is the textbook therefore the best medium for delivering language learning materials? How much language learning materials does a textbook need? Who are the most suitable persons for writing a language textbook? Does a hidden agenda vitiate the content of a language textbook?  The hostile discourse on language textbooks which started in the eighties of the last century   prompts us to believe that textbooks for language teaching are more sinned against than sinning.  Despite the views of experts who criticize the use of textbooks for teaching language, language teachers across the globe continue to use them (Tomlinson, 2012, p. 158) and private publishers as well as the ministries of education of various countries continue to propagate the use of learner-centred and teacher-friendly language textbooks. According to Tomlinson (2003), “Textbooks for teaching languages are nothing but language teaching materials which can be instructional, experiential, elicitative or exploratory” (p. 2).

The Background

The involvement of Indian States in the production of school textbooks goes back to 1969. In its first meeting held on 5 April 1969, the National Board of School Textbooks established under the Chairmanship of the Union Minister of Education recommended that school textbooks up to class X should be produced under the control and supervision of the State Governments. Consequently, State Textbook Corporations were set up in almost all the States of the country and they started publishing textbooks prepared by their respective State Councils of Educational Research and Training (SCERTs). In order to improve the quality of textbooks and to make them responsive to the changed educational perspectives and pedagogic practices, the SCERTs of the country undertake periodic exercises to revise their textbooks and it is against the backdrop of this ongoing academic practice, that SCERT, Chhattisgarh initiated the process of preparing new textbooks for class IX in 2014. The decision to design a new textbook in English for class IX was based on the feedback received from the students and the teachers of Chhattisgarh, who expected a comprehensive change in the approach of the English textbooks used at the high school level. Consequently, a team was constituted by SCERT, Chhattisgarh either to revise the existing textbook or to design a new one.

In order to revise the English textbook for class IX, SCERT, Chhattisgarh formed a group of textbook writers who had a rich experience of writing English textbooks for the State of Chhattisgarh. Besides these  distinguished members drawn from the field of ELT and teacher education of the State,  special assistance groups from Azim Premji Foundation, Bangalore and  Vidya Bhawan Society, Udaipur were also involved in conceptualizing, designing and creating materials for the textbook. On a request from the SCERT, Chhattisgarh, two Delhi based  linguists and ELT specialists  extended their guidance and academic support to the writers’ group, right from the initiation of the project till its successful completion.

The Preparatory Stage

The exercise started with a brainstorming workshop in the month of September 2014. It was decided in the workshop that the proposed English textbook would encompass a range of genres and themes suitable for the target group and the activities presented in the textbook would be designed in such a way that they triggered the learners’ interest in using English for communicative   purposes. It was also decided that the textbook would be context specific in terms of language and culture and the materials used in the textbook would be drawn from authentic sources. The question of the criteria to be used for the selection of authentic materials was debated upon by the members from the diverse perspectives of language, language pedagogy and the objectives of education in the Indian context. It is pertinent to mention that the National Council of Educational Research and Training has specific recommendations regarding the content to be used in language textbooks and one of the recommendations states that the “selection of content in language books must be such as to inculcate desirable attitudes and values and a general appreciation of the life and culture of the people concerned” (NCERT, 1975, p. 24). The task of designing activities suitable for the learners of the regional medium schools of Chhattisgarh was therefore a bone of contention. How could the activities be designed to be suitable linguistically, cognitively and pedagogically? How could the learners be involved with different types of activities, experiential as well as developmental? After a detailed discussion, it was decided that the activities “should match with learner needs and wants and with principles of language learning, and that they should  be developed in ways  which provide flexibility of use to learners and teachers  as well as coherence of connection (Tomlinson, 2003, p. 126).

An Analysis of the old Textbook

 Prior to the actual production of the textbook, an analysis of the existing English textbook for class IX was undertaken by the members of the group. It became evident that the themes covered in the existing textbook fell under six groups: (1) family, (2) lives of great men, (3) life and society, (4) inspiration, (5) love and (6) patriotism. These were restricted to four genres: (1) biography, (2) descriptive, (3) narrative and (4) poetry. The language of the materials presented in the textbook was not too difficult and was appropriate for the target group. But, the activities presented in the textbook were not at all activity-based; they followed a structural approach and were not suitable for integrating all the skills of language learning. The tasks given at the end of each lesson were not application-oriented; they were mechanical without any objective. It was surprising to note that though all the textual materials were child centric, the activities did not give the child any scope to use a language creatively. It was clear from the analysis that the existing textbook was a mixture of disparate materials collected and compiled without adhering to the principles of material production. Moreover, the activities presented in the book followed a structural approach which encouraged rote learning. The pedagogic orientation of the textbook was elusive and it was rather an apology for a language textbook! 

Salient Features of the New English Textbook

The new English textbook follows a communicative functional approach which aims at enabling a learner to acquire a communicative as well as a functional competence in the target language. The selection of the materials and the presentation of the activities in the new textbook were based on the principles of  the functional communicative approach which regards language as a tool, a means for communication and language functions in particular social contexts.

The book consists of eight themes: environment, sports, health, adolescence, travel and tourism, culture, inspiration and science and technology. Each theme, in turn comprises three sections—a literary text as Reading A, a poem as Reading B and  a non-literary text as Reading C. The selected materials are exploited by exploring meaning in context, comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, listening, speaking, writings,  study skills and projects.  Listening and writing activities are not presented as discrete activities, but are presented to reinforce comprehension. The integration of skills is a distinctive feature of all the units and the learners get adequate exposure to the creative use of the target language. The eight themes cover the following genres: story, poem, biography, article, reminiscence, brochure, conversation, telephonic interview, science fiction and speech.

An analysis of the materials presented in the new textbook indicates that the principles of material design identified by David Nunan (1988, pp. 1-14) were very meticulously followed by the authors of the textbook. These criteria are: (a)  the materials should  promote the objectives of the curriculum prescribed by the authority, (b) authenticity of the materials should be ensured, (c) the materials should stimulate interaction, (d) the materials should prompt the learners to pay attention to the formal aspects of language, (e) the materials should encourage learners to develop learning skills, and (f) the materials  should encourage learners to apply their developing skills to the world  beyond the classroom.  Thus, the new English textbook is undoubtedly “a set of materials for the efficient and effective teaching and learning of a known student body by a known teaching body at a given level to a prescribed standard” (Lyons, 2003, p. 500).

Conclusion

The designing of an English language textbook for Chhattisgarh was a laudable attempt to provide the learners with an opportunity to understand and use English with ease by exposing them to interesting and challenging authentic materials drawn from different genres. Now the responsibility of exploring the textbook for pedagogic purposes rests with the English teachers of Chhattisgarh. Are the English teachers ready for this challenging task?

References

Koutselini, M. (2012).  Textbook as mechanisms for teachers’ sociopolitical and pedagogical alienation. In Hickman, Heather Hickman and Brad J. Porfilio (Eds.), The new politics of the textbook: Critical analysis in the core content areas (pp. 3-16). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Lyons, P. (2003).  A practical experience of institutional textbook writing: Product/process implications for materials development. In B. Tomlinson (Ed.), Developing materials for language teaching (pp. 490-504). London: Continuum.

National Council of Educational Research and Training. (1975). The curriculum for the ten-year school.New Delhi: NCERT.

National Council of Educational Research and Training. (2006). The position paper on curriculum, syllabus and textbooks. New Delhi: NCERT.

Nunan, D. (1988). Principles for designing language teaching materials. Guidelines, 10, 1-24.

Tomlinson, B. (2003). Developing materials for language teaching. London: Continuum.

Tomlinson, B. (2012). Materials development for language learning and teaching, Language Teaching, 45 (2), 143-179.

partha.misra@azimpremjifoundation.org

Partha Sarathi Misra teaches Curricular Material Development in Language at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India. Earlier, he was Director of English Language Teaching Institute, Assam.