Why Are So Many EFL Textbooks So Bland, Boring, and Culturally Tone Deaf?

Why are so many EFL Textbooks so bland, boring, and culturally tone-deaf?  Allow me to ask a more polite question.

How can English teachers working abroad and international English textbook publishers both respect local cultures and create more engaging English classroom lessons? The challenge may be more complicated than you might suspect.

A long, informative, and detailed exchange on a TESOL list serve recently focused on  the peculiar sensitivities of Saudi Arabian students. An experienced American English teacher reported that his Saudi students expressed anger over a paragraph in their writing book. The imported American English language textbook, which has collected considerable critical praise, contained a paragraph celebrating friendships across many countries and religions – including an unpopular democratic rival nation of the Saudi kingdom. Working in a closed, theocratic society where women are banned from driving evidently raises many delicate problems for English teachers, and many EFL and ESL materials must be carefully edited.  Obviously, discussing politics, religion, sexuality, and gender issues is clearly culturally inappropriate and often legally forbidden in this rigid Islamic kingdom.

Without passing judgment for the moment on the Saudi students’ perceptions and religious passions, let’s zoom out a bit. This awkward incident illuminates the need to explicitly tailoring English as Foreign Language (EFL) content to reflect different national cultures. It also identifies a core defect in the many EFL publishers and why so many EFL and ESL textbooks are bland, boring, and heavily censored. Who wants to offend many potential customers and clients by just mentioning a small country’s name?

As I heard explained at two fascinating TESOL workshops for EFL material writers at the 2011 conference in New Orleans, the current practice for EFL publishers is to simply collect all the possible objections, adopt the “red lines” of all countries, and uniformly impose these taboos around the world. The default advice for EFL material writers includes prohibiting not only politics, alcohol religion, sex, and nudity (predictable), but also mention of luck, negative emotions, Israel, gender roles, and pork.

Here are some memorable examples. One EFL materials writer detailed how he had to drop a chapter on bad luck because it implied that God wasn’t in control of events and might encourage superstitious thinking. Another writer told TESOL participants about having to drop a health chapter which included a “no smoking sign” because it implied that smoking was a choice. Another presenter felt proud that he was able to list “negative emotions” such as “bored”, “tired”, “unhappy” when outnumbered by positive adjectives by a 3-1 margin in a chapter on feelings.

Evidently, many educational bureaucrats evidently place creating a “harmonious society” and teaching conformity above actual language acquisition or student expression. Shock, shock. The ban on mentioning Israel comes from – as demonstrated in the Saudi Arabia classroom that sparked this informative discussion among TESOL professionals – the fashionable desire to see a democratic, successful nation abolished among many Arabs. Many British publishers have also found many Arab countries, including several former colonies and a few royal kingdoms the British Empire helped create after WWI,  to be  important, lucrative EFL markets. The predictable result: pandering to local prejudice and the systematic omission of positive references to Israel.

Naturally, printing world maps that ignore the existence of a small country is also an explicitly political decision so the “avoid politics” advice is a tad dishonest here. Further, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, I find the strange belief that every group deserves a nation except Jews pure bigotry and fashionable group hatred. Yet, for worse or for better, this quasi-official ban seems to be widely adopted by many British EFL publishers. (American textbook  publishers, perhaps inspired by a federal law that prohibits honoring the Arab boycott of Israel, don’t appear to follow this particular practice.)

Yet rather than focusing on the passionate politics of the Mideast, let’s remember that the largest clients often dictate content in many fields. And governments and their education ministries remain, by far, the largest clients for international educational publishers. In fact, educational ministries– especially in closed, dictatorial societies where teaching critical thinking is more than discouraged, censorship taken for granted, and English often viewed with some lingering suspicion as an old imperial tongue – hold exceptional power to approve or veto EFL textbooks. Focusing on pleasing these clients, many American and British publishers have chosen to adopt all the “red lines” of various cultures. Unfortunately, this current practice ends up imposing the safest, narrowest paradigm on all their international clients – across the globe. The Saudi standard becomes the standard for French, Brazilian, Japanese, and Korean English language learners too.

After all, efficiency matters in publishing too. From a publisher’s perspective, creating one core EFL textbook and making very minor tweaks (usually illustrations) for each region works just fine. The downside, as many of us know from personal experience, is the resulting product often becomes bland, often fails to engage students, and effectively allows the most closed societies to dictate content across the globe. Both English teachers and their students lose access to more meaningful, reflective, and accurate information and wider, more modern and tolerant perspectives.

Yet satisfying student interest is far less important from a global sales perspective than meeting a ruling regime’s dictates to re-enforce local beliefs and uphold the political status quo. These larger concerns translate into many boring EFL textbooks that both pander and overlook local cultures by promoting a one-size fits all English language learners textbook. As of now, many of these well-known EFL titles still manage to sell huge numbers – and avoid dozens of engaging topics that directly relate to students’ actual lives, experiences, and hopes.  For instance, English students in poor Asian, African, and Central American countries currently have to learn about housing vocabulary written from an abstract, universal perspective with examples from London, New York, and Tokyo.  How relevant, appropriate, or accurate will the housing vocabulary be?

Yet there is a better, smarter, and more culturally sophisticated way to both acknowledge the political realities of working in closed societies and create more engaging EFL textbooks that express and reflect national cultures. We could develop more appropriate EFL materials that authentically reflect the actual life experiences and aspirations of English language learners in their current context.  More on that topic in the next Compelling Conversations blog post.

Ask more. Know more. Share more. Speak more.

Create Compelling Conversations.

Visit www.Compelling Conversations.

18 comments

  1. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to lead and choose a book which inspires and helps students achieve their goals.

    I’m sure a good teacher can still lead motivating lessons in countries such as Saudi Arabia, and it’s common sense to show consideration to the culture you’re teaching in.

    I’m happy with the books I’ve chosen with my students, and they seem fine with them too.

    So which books are you referring to? Which books are “bland and boring”?

    It is a bit of a non-issue. If you don’t like the book you have, then students in many countries of the world will be happy if you find compelling materials elsewhere.

  2. Of course theirs always the option to use real factual internationally published news material.
    For example LingleOnline has are over 60,000 recent news articles and hundreds more added weekly from many renowned news sources that cover a multitude of topics. It can automatically create learning material and lesson plans from any article. It identifies grammar, vocabulary and level automatically. Be interested to hear what you think. Obviously no more than the current requirement with more closed societies teachers need to exercise judgement in choosing any article that they think might be controversial, but even if it controversial it is real news and what is happening in the word.

  3. David – You make an important point that teachers must take responsibility for their choice of textbooks, chapters within books, and authentic materials from websites, magazines, and newspapers. Knowing student needs and desires – and remaining cognizant of cultural norms and national laws – remains both sensible and essential.

    Having said that, international textbook publishers have choices to make and markets to feed. The current practice of accepting red lines from governments and censors across the globe, and publishing bland, boring, and culturally tone deaf works remains a choice. Pearson Longman doesn’t have to accept the Saudi censorship rules for their textbooks being sold to Western Europe, Latin America, or Asia. Further, both advances in publishing technology and the abundance of English language teachers working in closed societies make the option of creating specialized versions quite feasible. Many small publishing companies regularly create educational materials for specific companies and countries.

    Given that the vast majority of English teachers continue to rely on standardized textbooks, this distortion of global education can’t be simply dismissed as “not an issue” when it effects the quality of millions of English language learners. We shouldn’t confuse best practices with common practices in EFL classrooms. Further, the vast majority of standardized exams continue to emphasize passive skills (grammar, listening, reading) over active skills (speaking, writing). There’s really no excuse for French, Brazilian, and Korean students in open, democratic societies being forced to use materials designed for closed societies often ruled by dictatorships and local prejudices. Moreover, the current practice doesn’t even benefit the elites of these closed societies or serve their enlightened interest since they could demand educational materials that accent their national achievements, deepen local identities, and provide better, more relevant materials for their citizens.
    Bottomline: the current system only works for the huge international publishing companies, and no-one else.

  4. Ian – Focusing on our students and adding current events to the course materials often enlivens EFL classes and reduces dependency on bland textbooks. I share your enthuasism, and often deploy short articles in my courses. With more advanced English language learners, you can also ask them to hunt , gather, and review newspaper articles. The challenge, as you note, remains modifying the material so it’s accessible to many EFL students.

    Thank you for sharing that informative, valuable site that provides English teachers and tutors with some practical tools to create meaningful, individualized lesson plans from newspaper and magazine articles. I look forward to experimenting with it.

    Shalom,

    Eric

  5. Dear Tarun – Thank you for your kind words and generous offer. Your website has quickly collected a number of fine articles, and I anticipate joining your growing website.

    Shalom

    Eric

  6. The lack of creativity when creaing a book is the main problem, we all know that; however besides that it is important to remember what our needs are and espeacially what we are really looking for when chosing a book.

  7. Good article, thanks. I, too, am amazed at how bland coursebooks are and you hit the nail on the head: it’s about money, big publishing houses afraid of upsetting sales so everything is utterly sanitized for fear of offending someone, somewhere. Take LGBT for example: the word “gay” is in the top 1,000 words used and yet you’ll be hard pressed to find it mentioned in a coursebook.

    The answer? Well of course teachers can bring in their own materials to suit the class and lesson (don’t we all?) but also in this age of modern printing the publishers should be able to tweak material and print for a specific region quite easily.

  8. Absolutely! Not only can you not use the word “gay”, you can’t even acknowledge that gays exist. Nor, according to the vast majority of EFL textbooks, does poverty, crime, corruption, divorce, or tragedy. It’s this artificial, bizarre, and completely false world of happy, content people who almost always feel good and have few real world problems. English teachers, therefore, who do acknowledge both the real world and teach with authentic materials that can be used in daily life find students eager to learn and share.
    Given the changes in technology, there is no reason for teachers, or students, to remain married to these bland, boring, and manipulative textbooks. Both teachers and students can create their own materials to reflect the contexts where the classes take place. Naturally, I share your enthusiasm for tweaking material for specific regions too.
    By the way, here’s a link to some flexible “search and share” worksheets that ICAL TEFL teachers can use in Thailand, Costa Rica, or anywhere else they are teaching! Enjoy!
    http://www.compellingconversations.com/pdf-downloads/CAC%20Search%20and%20Share%20Exercises%201-5.pdf
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  9. Thanks Eric! On the subject of what’s missing from coursebooks, it reminds me of those 1950/1960s American sitcoms where the world is white and middle class and the biggest issues facing families is which make of new car to buy. 🙁

  10. Hi Eric I left a comment on here a while back but still get comments from others.

    Just regarding today’s comment by ICAL TEFL – again, it’s the school or teacher’s fault, full-stop for choosing books “where the world is white and middle class and the biggest issues facing families is which make of new car to buy”.

    Just recently I’ve bought two textbooks which are full of articles and video reports including content on life in African and Asian countries, and my students have reacted very positively as they’re interested in travel and other cultures.

    So I say to teachers, especially if you’re not bound by a school’s choice of book, stop whining and take action – just like on Amazon, there are ‘good books’ and ‘bad books’ and it’s your job to do your best to find those which best suit your students’ needs.

  11. Dear David – You nailed it. Beyond the natural desire of many English language learners, reading about other countries and cultures allows EFL students to reflect upon their own lives. Looking at international issues also provides a larger, global perspective which can help students transcend their immediate stress. Finally, your call to action encourages us to take more responsibility for our classrooms and creating a positive learning environment.

    BTW, your site looks quite attractive. “Get Into English” is a wonderful name.

    Thanks for visiting!

  12. David, what happens if those books aren’t available because they’ve never been written or published? Where are the coursebooks which reflect real life and deal with LGBT issues, corruption in high places, the gap between the rich and the poor, the use of bribery in business, child poverty vs armament sales, racism, women’s rights, sex and so on and so on. My point is that these books aren’t there, even *slightly* contentious subjects are avoided at all costs so no matter how hard you look on Amazon you’ll never find these kinds of TEFL coursebooks.

    (NB my comment about white middle-class families was in relation to the bland sitcoms of the past, not coursebooks – although they do have the same kind of content.)

  13. Why does every textbook have to be about profound topics: “child poverty vs armament sales, racism, women’s rights,” blah! blah! blah? Students get pretty tired of this stuff. Here’s a new twist though: a book built around students’ own experiences; things they know and care about: Catalyst: A Conversation Taskbook for English Language Learners.

  14. Hi Eric

    Thanks for taking a look at my blog and for generating all this discussion 🙂

    Just responding to ICAL TEFL and Grover, my main point is that we should choose books which are interesting and engaging for students. Whether it be in a fun way, or a deeper, fascinating way, may depend on the preference of each teacher and class.

    For example, I’ve started using ‘Life’ (upper intermediate), which is published by Heinle Cengage with extensive co-operation with the ‘National Geographic.’ I chose this book for a student who travels a lot, who likes reading about global issues and cultures, and she was very happy with my choice. Not only that, but she told me afterwards that she reads the ‘National Geographic’ in Czech regularly, so this is an example of a ‘good match’.

    Apart from covering all the typical content you see in a coursebook (the tenses, verb patterns, and functional language, etc), I like it because it has real articles about real people the world over:

    eg the DVD component includes short reports on a Paraguay Shaman, Japan, East Timor, Urban Art/graffiti, immigration, Galapagos energy, and the history of film

    The coursebook itself includes articles revolving around these themes and others too.

    Re: controversial topics, there is scope in this book to extend the discussion within each theme.

    I am also using ‘Speak Out’ Advanced with a few students, this time with content from the BBC, including short reports on DVD, and the reaction has again been very positive.

    (On a side note, I think this is the future of coursebooks: they’ll link up with an iconic broadcaster or media outlet and form a ‘joint partnership’ whereby the course writers can use authentic content from a popular media company).

    However if we were as teachers to explicitly introduce some of the themes you mentioned, such as LGBT and racism, the first question is to ask why we want to talk about these.

    What would be the point/goal?

    If you want to promote diversity, I do like the fact that the books I’ve chosen have articles about different peoples and cultures, with wonderful images from across the globe; however, to walk into a classroom in a different culture from a liberal English-speaking country and say “today we’re going to talk about racism”, I think, might wind people up.

    Especially if they feel you’re foisting propaganda on them, propaganda which they feel the USA/Aust/UK themselves don’t really follow. For example, I remember some American teachers criticising their Czech students over their attitudes towards the local Romany or Gypsy population, at the same time their country was bombing thousands of people in Iraq.

    So I think it would be hard to do unless you were ok with leaving judgement at the door, and allowing them to express themselves.

    So far, I’m happy with both ‘Speak Out’ and ‘Life’ and the feedback has been great. You could extend the main themes into more contentious areas, but if those controversial themes are not relevant to your own students, then I’d be interested to know why you would proceed here anyhow.

    Finally, where you are based and what kind of course you’re teaching is important in deciding what material to include. I’m in Prague, and so my comments are based on my experience in this part of the world. Someone in another country may well have a totally different approach, and that’s fine.

  15. Grover – Excellent points! Clearly our English students come to English classes or join conversation clubs to improve their speaking skills, and not hear PC lectures or be submitted to fashionable guilt trips. Perhaps my comments about allowing authentic experiences using materials about the real world were misunderstood. If we’re discussing ways to manage stress, I ask open questions.
    What are some stressful situations?
    When do you feel feel stressed?
    What are some ways to manage stress?
    Can you share your top five tips for reducing or handling stress?

    Sometimes community college, adult, and university students – the three populations where I have the most experience teaching in Santa Monica and Los Angeles – will share experiences and answers that amuse, surprise, and sometimes seem misguided. A Russian immigrant, for instance, might recommend smoking to calm nerves. That’s not the health department’s choice or mine, but students should feel free to be themselves and share their life experiences. That’s their philosophy and their choice, and discuss the benefits and risks of their choices. Let the nursing student deal with an actual smoker, and take the abstract health policy debate down to the human level.

    While I’m not familiar with the book you mentioned, I’ll check it out. It’s absolutely vital for students to learn the vocabulary and have a safe place to share their perceptions and insights in English – especially for immigrants. The conversation classes that I led at Santa Monica Community College – where students came from across the globe and often a dozen different countries – remained grounded in student experiences (positive and negative) and daily delights and challenges. Sharing movie recommendations and product reviews – as well as tips for better jobs and staying safe – keep students engaged. Exposing students to smart, savvy quotations and memorable proverbs from multiple perspectives is an effective approach.

    Here are some sample chapters from the Compelling Conversations books that you might interesting with many open questions and often dueling perspectives.
    http://compellingconversations.com/sample-chapters-combined.php

    Teaching students from Iran, Russia, Brazil, China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and sometimes other countries provides a broader context and creates some lively discussions. It’s a big world where perspectives differ.

  16. David – Thank you for sharing your teaching experiences in Prague and some savvy observations on English language textbooks. I like your approach and suspect your students enjoy your classes quite a bit as they learn English while exploring our changing world. The combination of authentic media sources and English textbooks – as some outstanding textbooks do – can be quite powerful. National Geographic has developed some wonderful resources – and you’ve found an engaging way to deploy them so your students have a far more accurate mental map of our fascinating world. Giving students a more global perspective can only be healthy.

    And I also share your discomfit with sociological agenda and would never ask students to discuss “racism” in the abstract. Education is not indoctrination, and too many good-intentioned English teachers forget that fact. Many students – immigrants, refugees, or international students – have traveled thousands of miles to get away from that sort of one-dimensional education system too. Lectures from foreign teachers about the mistreatment of minorities in the local society or against a misguided invasion can seem out of place in an English classroom.

    Yet students – at least older students in college and university – can also appreciate honest discussions about hard topics. As you probably know, Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States so students have no class that Monday. Within this context, I often assign advanced oral skills students – all undergraduate or graduate students – to listen to Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in January, and analyze the speech for style and substance. I also have the advanced writing students to read Dr. King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” and write a reaction essay. Students – who come from across the globe – make predictable, personal, and sometimes utterly unexpected connections. Last semester, an Iranian student wrote of the green movement, a Chinese student reflected on the generational conflicts, a Brazilian student described the rampant violence in urban slums, and an Indian student warned against creating envy among the poor. All student papers were read by at least one peer (and me), and the discussions were engaging – and respectful – even as perspectives differed. The open atmosphere impressed enough students that they mentioned it on the anonymous course evaluation form – another new democratic experience for some international students.
    The key, of course, remains to ask questions and remain open to wide range of responses. As Dr. King wrote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
    Giving students the room to share experiences, reflect on their lives, and exchange differing perspectives in English class can also spark greater curiosity about the world – and speaking English. Or so it seems to me.

  17. HI Eric and Grover

    Good points. Maybe the degree to which we cover these kinds of issues depends on the context in which we teach.

    As I think I said, I teach adults in Prague. So this is, in a sense, a typical ‘TEFL’ context. They are adults paying me money (my own clients) or the school (I have a few group classes elsewhere) for me to help develop their English communication skills.

    We all agree that lessons should be interesting and engaging, but you can see I might have a different scope within which I can do things.

    On the other hand, a university student should be expected to develop arguments over a wider range of themes. If it’s within the curriculum, then discussing racism or other ‘hard topics’ could be totally valid.

    Regarding racism, I can see how it might be relevant for students learning English, say, in the USA, UK or Australia at a private language school. If they encounter any problems, they may well ask their school or teacher “what can I do?”

    In Prague, although I wouldn’t walk in with a lesson on racism, many books deal with ‘doing business in other cultures’. This can be totally valid to cover, for example, when a Czech student goes to Turkey to do business there (which actually happened recently).

    Finally, regarding teenagers, the TEFL context I’m in would probably be different to working at a high school, where classes are taught in English over a range of subjects. While a typical TEFL teenager won’t study English literature, they may well do so at school, and usually the choice of novels involves discussing complex or deeper issues.

    Thanks for opening this all up, and I’ll have a look at your other posts now 🙂

  18. Mike Jones

    The best way for someone to learn English is to learn Esperanto first. To read up on this concept, google for “springboard to languages”. In support of this concept, I have started creating a dictionary of (Mercan) English, using Esperanto as the interface language. You can find it by googling for “Deep Dictionary of Mercan English”, or by using this link:
    http://prof-vortaro-de-la-merk-angla.weebly.com/

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