Brian Tomlinson on Coursebooks

Brian Tomlinson 

Prof. Tomlinson features in a podcast this week by TEFL Training called “Stop complaining and start adapting – how to make best use of your coursebook.” The title’s rebuke is silly, and certainly doesn’t reflect the prof’s own views; as the interviewer points out.  Years ago, an exasperated Tomlinson got his students to all stand up, and, on the count of three, throw their coursebooks out the window. Anyway, there’s some great advice in the interview (e.g.: start at the end of the unit), and listening to Tomlinson’s cheery voice is always a real pleasure. Highly recommended.

Tomlinson has long specialised in materials design and development, and he has consistently fought for materials to be “written in such a way that the teacher can make use of them as a resource and not have to follow them as a script.” He’s been engaged in a good-natured but doggedly-determined argument with publishers for more than 30 years, fighting against the increasingly-bloated form of coursebooks, their increasing reliance on explicit grammar teaching, and

the scarcity of narrative, of extensive reading and listening, of intelligent adult content, of achievable cognitive challenges, of real tasks which have an intended outcome other than the practice of forms, and of activities which make full use of the resources of the learners’ minds. In other words, … the apparent disregard of the findings of second language acquisition research.

Reviewing Coursebooks 

Over the years, Tomlinson has done a series of reviews of popular ELT coursebooks, the most recent being in 2013, when he wrote an article with Hitomi Masuhara, published in ELTJ and downloadable for free (see below). Six popular ELT coursebooks are reviewed:

  • New Headway,
  • The Big Picture,
  • Speakout,
  • Outcomes,
  • Global,
  • English Unlimited.

The evaluation focuses on the extent to which the six coursebooks help students to achieve long-term acquisition of English by facilitating “deep processing”. Tomlinson sees deep processing as the result of students taking part in challenging cognitive tasks and meaningful interaction with others. This deep engagement with the language contrasts with activities which concentrate on linguistic decoding  and encoding (e.g., the presentation of grammar points and vocabulary, and controlled and guided practice activities) and which lead only to shallow processing and short-term learning.

The Criteria

Units 5 and 10 of each book is examined in the light of 15 criteria, as follows:

To what extent is the course likely to

  • provide extensive exposure to English in use
  • engage learners effectively
  • engage learners cognitively
  • provide an achievable challenge
  • help learners to personalise their learning
  • help learners to make discoveries how the language is typically used
  • provide opportunities to use the language for communication
  • help to develop cultural awareness
  • help learners to make use of the English environment outside the classroom
  • cater for the needs of all the learners
  • provide flexibility needed for localisation
  • help learners to continue learning after the course
  • help learners use EFL
  • help learners to become meaningful communicators in English
  • achieve its stated objectives.

Each criterion is scored on a scale of 1 to 3

  1. = unlikely to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition
  2. = likely to be partially effective in facilitating long-term acquisition
  3. = likely to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.

The Scores 

And the scores (got by averaging the scores for all 15 criteria) were:

  • New Headway: 1.1 = very unlikely to be effective in facilitating long- term acquisition.
  • The Big Picture: 1.2 = unlikely to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.
  • Speakout: 1.3 = unlikely to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.
  • Outcomes: 1.4 = unlikely to be very effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.
  • Global: 1.9 = likely to be partially effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.
  • English Unlimited: 2.1 = likely to be partially effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.

In other words, none of the coursebooks was judged likely to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition, and all but two were judged to be relatively useless (my words).

Some adjectives used to describe the texts: short, contrived, inauthentic, mundane, decontextualised, unappealing, uninteresting, dull.

Some adjectives used to describe the activities: unchallenging, unimiginative, unstimulating, mechanical, superficial.

Reading Tomlinson and Masuhara’s comments, I feel that they came to the same conclusion as I did when I read the New Headway and Outcomes Intermediate Students books. As they say, ” the focus is on explicit learning of language rather than engagement”. Students are led through a course which consists largely of teachers presenting and practicing bits of the language in such a way that only shallow processing is required, and, as a result, only short term memory is engaged. There are very few opportunities for cognitive engagement; most of the time, teachers talk about the language, and students are asked to read or listen to short, artificial, unchallenging texts devised to illustrate language points. When they are not being told about this or that aspect of the language,students are being led through a succession of frequently mechanical linguistic decoding and encoding activities which are unlikely to have any permanent effects on interlanguage development.

Commenting on New Headway Intermediate, the authors say:

So much help is given to the learners that all the tasks seem to become both linguistically and cognitively easy. The questions tend to be superficial in a sense that answers can be found in the texts without really having to think. It feels like many of the activities are like easy quizzes.  …. 

Nearly all the ‘production’ activities are actually practice activities, as the learners are told what to say and how to say it.

With reference to Outcomes Intermediate, they say:

The learners do not really have to think about any of the texts or the language used in them. Some of the texts could have been used to stimulate thought and discussion about issues, but they are only used as a basis for comprehension questions and language work. Some of the activities have potential for cognitive engagement, but the emphasis is on practising language rather than on expression of ideas.  …. 

The production activities focus on practising language just presented (for example ‘Role-play a conversation. Use at least two “be/get used to” comments’) rather than on communication.


In their concluding remarks, the authors say that the explanation for these unsatisfactory results is simple: publishers‘ interests prevailed. Publishers like profit; they’re  risk averse and have no interest in any radical reform of a model that has endured for over thirty years. They choose to give priority to face validity and the achievement of “instant progress”, rather than to helping learners towards the eventual achievement of communicative competence.


We should thank TEFL Training for giving us a chance to listen to Prof. Tomlinson’s wise words, but we shouldn’t take any notice of their call to “Stop Complaining”. We should complain with all our mights; we should call out the teacher trainers who condone, and even encourage, the use of coursebooks, and we should make our voices heard. At the start of a new term, wouldn’t it be great to follow the young Tomlinson’s example.

OK, everybody. Go to the nearest window with your coursebook.

Open the window.

Take the coursebook in your hand.

Raise your hand above your head.

Now, on the count of three, I want you to throw your coursebook out of the window.

OK? Ready? One, Two, Three, .. Go!



Tomlinson, B. and Masuhara, H. (2013)  Adult Coursebooks. ELTJ. Click here to Download


7 thoughts on “Brian Tomlinson on Coursebooks

  1. I’d be interested to know more about what he means by ‘cognitive processing’.

    Thanks for an interesting and informative post.

  2. Hi Derek,

    He explains here: Tomlinson B . (ed.). 2013. Applied Linguistics and Materials Development . London: Bloomsbury.

    It’s difficult to give a quick summary, but, as I mention, he distinguishes between shallow and deep processing, terms from cognitive psychology. referring to processing for perceptual versus meaningful properties of the stimulus. Only deep processing leads to storage in long term memory.

  3. Here’s an extract from a Q & A session Tomlinson did recently

    What is cognitive engagement, and can you give an example of what it might look like?

    To me, cognitive engagement has been achieved when learners are fully and willingly focused on responding to an issue, solving a problem, coming up with an idea, etc. They are thinking only about the issue, the problem or the idea.

    I designed a unit of materials recently in which the core text is about a doctor who was so worried by research showing that doctors typically interrupt patients before they have fully articulated their problem that he decided to let his patients talk for as long as they wanted, without interruption. His next patient was an old lady who rambled on about her sister and the weather, not wanting to bother the doctor. The nurse came in to inform the doctor about the queue growing in the waiting room, but the doctor let the old lady continue. After 22 minutes the old lady stopped talking and the doctor was able to diagnose a lung problem from the persistent mention of coughing in the lady’s rambling. He referred her to a specialist, who discovered she had lung cancer. When the old lady returned to the doctor for antibiotics, he apologized to her for the terrible day she had had. She told him not to worry; she’d had a good life, but there was something she wanted him to know. ‘This is the best doctor visit I’ve ever had. You’re the first doctor who ever listened to me.’

    The students were affectively engaged when they listened to me telling the story and then cognitively engaged when they worked together in groups of ‘medical students’ to write to their hospital’s administration with a suggestion for how doctors could give patients more time to talk about their problem without long queues developing in the waiting room.

  4. Nice post! I’ve really enjoyed reading Tomlinson’s work. I’d say that of all the theory I’ve read post-diploma, his work has had the most influence on my practice. His text-driven approach is great and something I revisit often. From a materials writing perspective I’ve found some organizations warm to this approach too. Overall, I think I’m pretty much aligned with his views on coursebooks but I do think you could pick some holes in his work. In his 2013 views there are some generalizations (I mentioned some here
    Did you see his recent mawsig webinar, which extends on his comments in the podcast? Well worth viewing. Anyhow, cheers for summary- loving the new blog btw

  5. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for your comments. I quite agree with you about Tomlinson. Thanks for the links – the MAWSIG webinar is very good.

  6. thanks for this reference- i’ll have a look.

    i guess the concept of cognitively engaging seems rather subjective. how do we know that learners participating in a grammar task are not engaged in ‘meaningful processing’. if by meaningful he means that the primary focus is on creating meaning in context, then, i can see what he means, but just wondering how one would justify and provide evidence for a claim that only this type of processing leads to acquisition. what goes on inside the head of individual learners seems a nebulous area to speculate on.

    i suppose the key is that the form focus is done reactively, teaching at the point of need, rather than using a ppp type approach with pre-selected grammar items. this i am on board with, and i agree that conversation should be foregrounded and implicit learning is the default mode for developing communicative competence

  7. Hi Derek,

    I quite agree with your questions – I don’t think Tomlinson himself has ever completely answered them. Perhaps we should ask him.

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