The workbook ethic

27th January 2006 at 00:00
If you think you can't afford to invest in coursebooks, think again... It may be that you can't afford not to

Any school publisher's representative will confirm that most modern foreign languages teachers do not buy sets of coursebooks. Teachers' PGCE courses persuaded them of the wisdom of this approach, the day they were asked to criticise a coursebook. They found fault on every page, forgetting that good criticism also involves identifying the good in a resource.

Many steer clear of languages courses because, for many learners, only part one is manageable: we have all made the mistake of spending a high proportion of our precious annual capitation on a set of books which looked impressive but are impossible to use. And, of course, a department's annual capitation does not buy many books, especially when "the kids lose them".

Yet the quality of language courses has improved considerably in recent years. As for those where subsequent parts are too challenging, why not switch to part two of a more suitable course?

Workbooks now accompany many courses. Since pupils write in these, they cannot be reused and, at more than pound;2 each, can seem prohibitively expensive. Yet workbooks can be an excellent compromise when pupils cannot take a textbook home, providing both essential reinforcement and vital homework tasks.

Asking parents who can afford it to pay for workbooks does go against the spirit of free education; but is an exercise book bursting with tatty worksheets produced by a stressed teacher more likely to raise pupil attainment?

I recently supported a newly qualified teacher who was struggling to prepare each lesson using a bland topic outline from her department's scheme of work, and drawers full of unsuitable worksheets.

I wanted to show her some of the new workbooks which accompany language courses so she would know what was available, and sought her head of department's permission as a courtesy. To my horror, her head asked me not to show the newly qualified teacher the workbooks.

Is it any wonder that many pupils drop their languages after Year 9 when they have spent three years believing themselves unworthy of a textbook or workbook? Yet an increasing number of headteachers will willingly find the extra money to provide workbooks for pupils who cannot afford them. Being a head of department means leading as well as managing.

"Leading" should include leading the way as far as adopting a suitable coursebook is concerned; and "managing" should include managing to ensure that each copy lasts as long as possible, from buying a plastic cover for each book, to ensuring they are counted out and back each lesson.

Clearly, caution must be exercised before investing in a particular course.

A good piece of advice is often given to people about to buy an exercise bike: do it once you've met two people who are still using theirs.

I am ashamed to say that, for years, I was in the "Don't needcan't afford a coursebook" camp. Then I joined a school where one coursebook per subject per child was the norm. Once you have experienced this, there is no going back.

But if I am ever in doubt, I only need remember a girl I taught some years ago. She worked very hard and would have followed any advice. Her determination would have helped her, with guidance, make sense of the grammatical explanations in a coursebook, but we did not use one.

She easily had the ability to achieve a GCSE grade C; but she received a D.

This proved beyond doubt that "We cannot afford NOT to have a coursebook."

l The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a head of department and has taught in schools with results across the GCSE attainment range

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