Selecting a new textbook is a task no teacher undertakes lightly. The right one will support teaching over many years; get it wrong and it works against you, forcing you to compensate with home-made materials and increasing your workload.
DESIGN AND LAYOUT
There should be plenty of positive images of the people whose language is being studied. Check that photographs will not date too quickly.
Pages should look interesting, but not cluttered. Are tasks easy to find? Are they clearly labelled, or will you need to direct your students to "the oblong box just below the second part of the cartoon on the left-hand side near the bottom"?
Are you looking for something written exclusively in the target language, or will you be happier if, say, the grammatical explanations are in English? Surveys suggest that students at all levels appreciate the latter. Furthermore, with grammar explanations in English, anyone who has been away can catch up independently.
independent learning Do the exercises require a teacher, or can students work through them on their own? Is there material for a cover teacher or for homework?
How extensive is it? Is it assumed that students will use a dictionary as well? Perhaps your students already have dictionaries, in which case you may be unwilling to pay for lengthy glossaries. Word lists throughout the book itself provide on-the-spot help, but some teachers feel students are better served without such spoon-feeding.
Is grammar presented in context, or is it tucked away guiltily at the back? If the latter, how do you know that students will make use of it? Are there plenty of examples, or will you have to provide these yourself?
BALANCE OF SKILLS
Is there enough reading material? Is it authentic, or at least credible? Is it interesting? As you browse, ask yourself whether you are looking at bland, predictable passages, or texts which capture your attention and make you want to read more.
Are there opportunities for oral and creative work, and for genuine, rather than artificial communication?
Do information technology opportunities arise naturally out of the material, or are they an afterthought?
Think of the range of students who will use the book. Will your special needs students be able to cope with it? Is there extension material for the more able students and support material for the slower learners, or will you have to produce this yourself? Often book one of a course starts well, but by book three ideas are wearing thin. Have a good look at the later parts of the course.
Will the book you have in mind stand alone, or will you have to buy other components? Some teachers have been tempted to save money on a course by buying just the pupil's book, only to discover that it's useless without overhead projector transparencies, expendable workbooks, mini-flashcards and the like.
Check the quality of tapes carefully. There can be huge differences in the standard of taped material, particularly where unscripted recordings are concerned. How is the material organised? Is there a clear index of taped material, and are passages easy to find? Do they follow the sequence of the book? Are there separate tapes for assessment material, for songs, for "self study", or is everything lumped together so that finding the passage you need is a journey through a labyrinth?
Every coursebook worth its salt has some sort of cross-referencing with the national curriculum or examination syllabuses. Are there charts and grids, and will you understand them when planning work in a hurry? Indeed, are they comprehensible?
Ask yourself what you're looking for. Almost certainly, you will find transcripts of taped materials; usually answers to the exercises, too. Are these easy to locate? And are they cross-referenced with page numbers in the pupil's book.
Are further ideas for exploiting the material in the pupil's book provided? What about general comments on teaching methodology? Overhead projector transparencies? Assessment material? Background and cultural information? Hints for non-specialist teachers? Useful addresses?
These may be welcome, but a teacher's book is often an expensive item, and it is annoying to have to pay for material which you may already have, or which can easily be found elsewhere. And heavy, bulky teacher's books will not be popular with the briefcase-carrying fraternity.
Publishers are often more than willing to put you in touch with someone who is already using the course you have in mind. Nothing beats a chat with someone else at the chalkface.
Richard Marsden is head of modern languages at Minster School,Nottinghamshire