20 things wrong with most self-study books

Summary: The biggest problems with self-study EFL materials.

This year was the first in ages when I didn’t have “writing a TEFL book” on my list of New Year’s resolutions. Much to my surprise, at the end of my Xmas break I had already written one https://www.usingenglish.com/e-books/telephoning/! I’m not sure that I’ll ever make much cash out of it, but I’m still glad that I finally put the effort in. Now during discussions with students about how to improve their English outside class there is finally a book I know well enough to talk about with complete confidence. However, the main reason why I’m glad I got round to it is that during the process I suddenly understood what was wrong with all those other books which I had been half-heartedly recommending in previous conversations about self-study. This article is about what two weeks of writing taught me (and years of reviewing TEFL materials had not) about what stops most self-study materials actually being useful for our students.

The twenty things that I have now realised are wrong with most self-study EFL materials are:

  1. It’s too easy to check your answers (in all the wrong ways)
  2. Far more language than students can possibly learn (in a lifetime)
  3. Little or no guidance on what to do with the language (apart from using the book)
  4. No teaching of transferable self-study skills
  5. Little guidance on how to choose activities and work your way through the book
  6. No difference between the most and least important language / sections
  7. Little or no checking of (real) progress
  8. Unstimulating activities
  9. No effort needed at the presentation stage
  10. Little or bad freer practice/ speaking practice
  11. No (useful) use of writing
  12. Pretending to be suitable for both self-study and class use (and so not really suitable for either)
  13. The same format for no reason
  14. Not thinking about what learners really do (with language and in their brains)
  15. Problems that learners never have
  16. Useful information only at the front of the book
  17. Just (single, short) answers
  18. Only the right answers
  19. Not enough emphasis
  20. Not designed for multiple use

More details on all of these below.

  1. It’s too easy to check your answers (in all the wrong ways)

This may seem like a strange thing to say and an even stranger thing to start the whole article with, but I think this little point clearly shows the biggest problem with most self-study materials. If I was asked to describe the worst possible way of studying on your own, it would be:

-       Do the exercise as quickly as possible

-       Check your answer as quickly as possible

-       Quickly move onto the next page (and so the next point)

-       Quickly forget what you just studied

Funnily enough, this is exactly what most self-study books seem to be designed for. In class I can honestly say that I never do this. Instead, I do things like:

-       Eliciting

-       Giving students hints to help them come up with, start to check and expand on their answers

-       Asking students to find their own answers (in a reading text, on the internet, in a detailed grammar explanation, etc)

I don’t see why versions of all those more stimulating and effective ways of checking answers can’t be used in self-study materials too. 

There is also one way in which answer keys are more difficult to use than they should be, and this again shows a lack of emphasis on real student learning. That difficulty is needing to flick between pages to see what “23. B” in the answer key actually means in terms of language. Putting “23. There are several kinds _of_ cheese available” would be both easier to check and more likely to help learners remember what they are studying (rather than forever remembering that “23 = B” with no memory of what that actually means in terms of language!)


  1. Far more language than students can possibly learn (in a lifetime)

A fairly typical self-study book has ten to twenty new words or phrases per double-page spread and 50 to 100 sections. There is little or no chance that students can really learn thousands of new words or phrases in the amount of time they will spend on such a book. The language might just about be learnable with careful guidance on how to study, regular review, help with other ways of learning the language, realistic personalised practice, ways of checking progress and maintaining motivation, etc. However, see the rest of this article for the chances of all that being the case in the average EFL self-study title…


  1. Little or no guidance on what to do with the language (apart from using the book)

I don’t think any author could claim that a single book could teach language and communication thoroughly enough that students will retain the language and the ability to use it for as long as they might need it. For that reason, perhaps the most important role of a self-study book is to tell students what else they need to do to really truly learn the language. Even something simple like a photocopiable page for learners to copy the most useful and difficult language onto could at least double how much language students really learn. Ditto for some tips on how to really memorise the most useful language that they find in the book. It seems to me that the lack of such materials and tips in most self-study books shows that the emphasis of most publishers is on “we want students to use this book” rather than “we want students to learn”.


  1. No teaching of transferable self-study skills

If there is anything more important than getting learners to use a book in the right way to make them really learn the language, it is the book teaching students more generally how to study well on their own. They certainly aren’t going to learn anything that will help them become more effective learners by reading an explanation, doing a brief exercise, checking their answers and quickly moving on!  


  1. Little guidance on how to choose activities and work your way through the book

The first time I saw books with decent attempts at guiding learners to the right parts of the book for their particular needs was about 15 years ago. Unfortunately, the last time I saw that was also about 15 years ago… I can’t imagine how publishers decided that a better model was “Start the book from page one and give up when you realise it’s too easy, too difficult or not useful for you” was a better model. A really cynical buyer might say what my Grandad used to say about Coleman’s mustard, that they know that they make their money out of what is not used.


  1. No difference between the most and least important language / sections

Could it really be that Past Perfect and Past Simple both deserve exactly two pages? And could it be that Zero Conditional really deserves to come before First Conditional? Or could it be that it was just (superficially) easier to plan, write and edit that way? I can’t really see that it would be too difficult to put the most important language first and/ or give it more space, especially as more common and more useful language is easier to make realistic examples and practice for. If writers and editors really need to follow an overly simplistic system, may I suggest at least a list of the most useful language to help learners focus a little? As well as being useful for learners, such as list could also help the people producing the book suddenly realise how useless some of the language not on the list is.


  1. Little or no checking of (real) progress

Perhaps the main thing that has improved in textbooks since I first started teaching is how much recycling there is. Unfortunately most of it is rather boring written practice, but these kinds of progress tests and brief recaps at the beginning of the next unit would be perfect for a self-study book, where strangely they are much less likely to be found. 

However, there is a bigger problem with these kinds of exercises, which is that so-called “progress checks” do not actually check progress. Instead, they just test memory of the arbitrarily chosen language which the students were just forced to learn. Real progress checks would get learners to think about a real-life goal for their language learning and help them check their progress towards that goal. This is, after all, what “progress” really means. In class, students can feel their improved fluency, know there is the next level class coming up if they can get to the end of the course, have encouragement from the teacher, etc. At home on your own none of these things exist. Therefore, learners really need help coming up with realistic goals and checking their progress towards them, to both retain their motivation and to help them focus their efforts on the most important things. It is perfectly possible for a self-study book to guide learners through such a process.


  1. Unstimulating activities

It’s strange that we put so much effort into planning stimulating classes and so little into putting together stimulating self-study, especially when students already have all the advantages of a group of their peers and a teacher pushing them in class and all the disadvantages of trying to study on their own in the latter case. For example, more effort generally goes into stimulating student interest in a text before listening in class than in goes into stimulating student interest before listening at home, when you could easily argue that it should be the other way round.


  1. No effort needed at the presentation stage

Only the worst teacher would start a class by asking their students to read some information about a grammar point (with no particular task while doing so), and then get them to do an exercise on that point on the opposite page. However, this is the standard format for most self-study learning. There is no reason why self-study materials shouldn’t also have the discovery tasks, brainstorming, Test Teach Test approach, etc that we can easily see are much more stimulating and effective in the classroom.


  1. Little or bad freer/ speaking practice

Self-study books have recently been adding some attempts at freer practice such as discussion questions. However, these are frankly just a waste of space if you don’t guide learners very carefully on what to do before, during and after such an activity. I’m also not sure why discussion questions of all things would be the most useful freer practice for students working on their own. For example, running through (both sides of) a dialogue seems much more manageable and realistic than the slightly crazy activity of discussing something with yourself or answering a question to an audience of zero. Rehearsing a dialogue is also much more similar to what we do in real life, as many people naturally go through conversations in their heads before and/ or after they have to have a conversation in English.

The other problem with most self-study speaking practice is the sudden jump from controlled writing practice to totally free speaking practice. Controlled and semi-controlled speaking that I use in class like covering a dialogue and trying to continue the conversation after the bit that you can see (in any way you like) are perfectly easy to do for self-study too.


  1. No (useful) use of writing

If it is not surprising that self-study materials have struggled to come up with many good ways of getting learners to practise speaking on their own, it is more disappointing that the few uses of writing that they have come up with are at least as unhelpful as the speaking activities. Particularly terrible examples in books I’ve reviewed have included “Write your answers to these questions” and “Write your email in the space below”. Both have no useful information on what to do before, during and after such a writing task to make them really helpful for learning, and the latter makes that worse by showing that the authors had plenty of space on the page to give such advice but instead decided to waste it on something that would be much more usefully done in a notebook or on scrap paper!


  1. Pretending to be suitable for both self-study and class use (and so not really suitable for either)

You wouldn’t get students doing a workbook exercise and checking their own answers in class and you wouldn’t give them a pairwork speaking activity to do at home, so why would you even attempt the impossible task of writing a book for both uses? The marketing department will probably always try to describe books that way, but even that is no excuse for actually writing a book that has discussion questions when you have no one to discuss with or explanations to read while you are paying a teacher to sit there and watch you do so.


  1. The same format for no reason

If there is any one TEFL technique that I would almost always use in class, it is some kind of prediction task before reading or listening in order to make the text more interesting and manageable. However, I would never write and have never seen a textbook with a prediction task in each and every unit, and an editor would quickly question why you had tried such a thing. In contrast, the same format all the way through is completely standard in self-study materials and an editor would probably ask you why on earth you suddenly switched to a discovery approach in chapter three. I can’t see any reason why this should be the case.


  1. Not thinking about what learners really do (with language and in their brains)

This was the biggest ah-ha moment while writing my book. I’ve always hated exercises where students have to join mixed halves of split phrases or sentences. I became more and more aware of that seemingly irrational feeling as part of my brain repeatedly refused to put a split sentences exercise into my book, however convenient it would have been. As I replaced that split sentences task with a mixture of some more original exercises and some other common TEFL tasks, I slowly noticed what criteria I was subconsciously using.

Some exercises such as replacing one wrong word or choosing between two confusing options in a gap are exactly like what goes through students’ heads when they are thinking of what to say or checking what they have just said or written. In contrast, some self-study exercises are so unlike what we really do when we use foreign languages as to be almost comic when you think about them. For example, the equivalent mental process to my most hated self-study task would be “I wonder which of these five unrelated endings could finish this sentence that I’ve just started”, which I think has probably never ever gone through the head of a single language learner. Ditto for “I can remember the ten words of the sentence that I want to say but they are all completely mixed up in my head” for the other common but pointless self-study task of example sentences with the words (totally) mixed up. This case is particularly inexcusable because students do get pairs of words mixed up, so phrases with just two words mixed up in them for learners to correct would be both more suitable for self-study and easier for the author to write.


  1. Problems that learners never have

This is similar to the one above, but in addition to exercises unrelated to what goes on in students’ heads, EFL books all too often include corrections to errors learners would never have actually made, exercises on language points which fit into the scheme of the book but students rarely or never actually have problems with in English, etc.


  1. Useful information only at the front of the book

You might be unsurprised to learn that learners, like teachers, rarely read the introduction before they start using a book. That isn’t a huge problem if the only thing they need to know about the book is that they should start at the front and work through as many pages as they can bear to before they give up or that they should quickly check all their answers at the back of the book. However, if the book includes more useful guidance on how to select what language to study, how to really learn the language, how to choose useful goals and check your progress towards them, etc, all that guidance is a waste of time and space if it is only ever flicked past at the front of the book. Instead, it makes sense to repeat that kind of useful guidance on the first pages of self-study practice, and then to periodically repeat the same tips throughout the book. For example, you could explain at the front of the book how to select the next exercise depending on the learner’s weak points etc, have a shorter guide to the same thing at the end of the first few pages when such advice would be most useful, and then repeat it later on, say halfway through the book.


  1. Just (single, short) answers

The most common question that I get from my students about self-study materials such as the workbook is “Is this answer also okay?” Maybe 50% of the time, the answer is “Yes, that’s also possible”. If learners are truly supposed to be able to use a book on their own, they will have no one to ask such questions to. A good general guide for writers of self-study materials would therefore seem to be “Never or rarely write single answers”. However, the publishing industry seem to have decided that “Always or usually have single answers” is the way to go. It is pretty easy to put two or three answers instead of one and writing such an answer key is a very useful way of checking the suitability of the questions that you have written – if there are too many possible answers to put in the answer key, you should almost certainly change the question.    

In addition to writing as many different answers as there (really) are, writers should also include some more detailed answers that explain why particular answers are right, and why other answers that learners might think of would be wrong. For example, you could get learners to check their multiple choice answers with a basic answer key and then ask them to check that they know why all the other options are wrong before they check that with a detailed answer key. As well as answering the kinds of questions that students really have about such questions (in a way that is otherwise difficult to do without a teacher), these kinds of detailed explanations really help make the language memorable, which is the main aim of most self-study materials. I’ve literally never seen a book with a separate detailed answer key.


  1. Only the right answers

Learners studying on their own need not only to be told that “I look forward to hearing from you” is correct, but also that “I look forward to hear from you” is incorrect, for example by having “(NOT I look forward to hear from you X)” written after the correct answers. This helps make up for there being no one there to tell them what they can’t write. In addition, it makes learners spend more time thinking about their answers (which they might have got right through sheer luck), and is a much appreciated extra thing to learn for keener learners.


  1. Not enough emphasis

One solution to learners skipping useful advice etc in a book is simply to use underlining, bold etc to highlight the key words in such instructions. Words in all capitals, exclamation marks or even emoji can also help make sure that learners don’t miss the most important bits and add a nice friendly tone (as long as it isn’t a book on academic language, in which case there might be a danger that learners try to copy that way of writing in their own essays!) Emphasising in this kind of way also helps with the obvious fact that advice in English for English language learners can be difficult to fully understand, especially when students are reading it on their own with no help from a teacher.


  1. Not designed for multiple use

If you have carefully chosen the most useful language and designed the best kinds of exercises, those exercises should all be good enough to use more than once. However, I’ve never seen a book suggest that learners write in pencil or write only in their notebooks so they can try again later. Printable e-books have an advantage in this respect, but it is still worth pushing students towards using pages more than once. For example, you can have some pages which are really designed for multiple use such as a self-analysis sheet for learners to judge their own speaking or writing with “Photocopiable sheet” written on them.  

I’m planning a more positive second article with more solutions, but in the meantime you can see some of my first attempts to come up with something better in Really Learn the Most Useful Telephoning Phrases.

Copyright © 2016

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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