Those damn textbooks

Why those textbooks were not designed for South east Asia


The vast majority of textbooks, regardless of whether they have local language teacher editions, were not designed for Southeast Asia.

I know one recent exception, "First Choice", which provides additional online content for local markets. This is definitely a move in the right direction, but there's a ‘but' I have about it.

While, for example, printable pictures of sticky rice and papaya salad are provided for the Thai edition, where did the publishers get that milk brand from? It certainly doesn't come from Thailand and that means yet another alien object for your average student to puzzle over.

Consider the publishers of these textbooks. Their big markets are people that have migrated to English speaking countries and/or Europeans that are planning to visit one.

How to smell a rat? Look for content like baseball, NFL, ice-hockey, a quarter past, a quarter after, foreign currencies and irrelevant music and movie icons. Far too many of the topics are meaningless to your average Southeast Asian student and have no retainable value.

Conversation classes are popular in Southeast Asia but the staple for this course is "Let's Talk". Why? Because it is one of the few conversational books available. By the time you have stripped it down and localised the content, you may just as well have done it all by yourself, which of course you have.

Textbooks give students something to hold onto and look at. They're already familiar with this technique because it is the same in every other subject that they study. Only with English, it isn't in their first language.
Observe some of the quieter and less confident students; children, teens and adults. They hide behind and depend upon their textbooks as if the things can actually talk. The textbook rather than the teacher becomes the focus and interaction with other students is monotone and unrealistic.

Schools and universities have to provide textbooks as part of their courses. Fair enough, but don't forget the markets that these textbooks were really designed for.

Private language centres have a product to sell and it isn't a course, it's the ownership of a textbook.

In both cases, the length of the term or course dictates the speed at which teachers must progress their students through a textbook. I use the word ‘progress' very loosely here.

So, what can teachers do to change this scenario?

First of all, if you work for a school or a university, check previous test and exam papers so that you understand the bare minimum of what you need to cover to help your students get their grades. Meet and exceed these requirements.

If you're working for a private language centre, ask the owners what they expect the end results to be, i.e. the completion of a specific number of units.

Secondly, add your own meaningful, useable, relevant and retainable content all along the way.

Strip out anything that students aren't interested in like baseball, and replace it with something that they do know and like. English Premiership football and the European Champions league being two good examples. If you're not very artistic, get some students to do the artwork for you or just use newspaper and/or Internet pictures.

If you come from North America, Australasia or South Africa and don't really understand the ins and outs of football [soccer] then make a post on Ajarn Forum. I'm sure that someone from the UK or Ireland will be happy to help you.

Further, ask and observe what students are interested in and tailor your lessons to suit. There is so much free material on the Internet that you can use. Google Images is packed full of pictures just waiting to have speech bubbles added to them.

If students have a British or American textbook, then tell them what the equivalent words are, i.e. ‘tie' is the same as ‘necktie', ‘bath' is the same as ‘bathtub', etc. Many students also study English outside of school and if they're switching between the two languages, small differences like ‘tap' and ‘faucet' can be very confusing.

If you're in any doubt about doing this then sound it out with the appropriate senior member[s] of staff. Here's an approach that has worked for me;

Keep it simple, polite and positive.

Highlight the benefits without being patronising.

Stress that you will do all of the leg work.

Don't pose anything as a question.

And finally, if you haven't met with any disagreement, conclude the meeting by saying that you'll be starting the new method on such and such a date.


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