People, Research

New book helps English language teachers navigate learning materials

July 13, 2022

Professor Christopher Smith.

As a 25-year-old teacher in 1997, Christopher Smith had a shocking experience that affected his research and how he would teach English as a Second Language.

While teaching in a Korean high school, a 17-year-old student took his own life because he failed an English test.

“It was unfathomable that somebody would take their English tests so seriously,” Smith said. “I never let that go and I started looking at my job and my materials with much more seriousness after that.”

From this dreadful experience Smith concluded it was essential for teachers to understand – and implement – students’ culture when teaching them English.

An important way to be culturally relevant is through the course textbook. Smith stresses it’s important that textbooks serve their students’ needs. To assist teachers in this important task, Smith published a new book, Understanding Multimodal Discourses in English Language Teaching Textbooks, which provides a framework for teachers to evaluate English language learning textbooks and provides practical guidance for teachers on how to successfully use them.

“I was sick of reading books that said, ‘Just take my word for it, this is what we came up with,’” Smith said. “A teacher will read my book and say, ‘Yes, I can see the methodology, and these are his results, and that makes sense to me.’”

Learning from English language textbooks can be challenging for students. Smith noticed during his teaching career that many publishers use Western social references, which caused students difficulty in learning the language. For example, one textbook used a food pyramid to teach about food. However, the textbook highlighted food that would never appear in a Korean family’s kitchen or refrigerator, Smith said.

He also found textbooks focused on the Western concept of individualism rather than the Korean concept of family.

“It was counterproductive because students were trying to wrap their head around a North American context while trying to learn English,” Smith said. “The priorities were all wrong from a Korean perspective.”

Smith’s book allows teachers to select and adapt materials that best suit the needs of students. Whether teaching English as a Foreign Language classes abroad or English for Academic Purposes/English as a Second Language classes in Canada, it tells teachers what to look for in a textbook and how to adapt and negotiate the various discourses in the lessons to students’ everyday life. Smith also provides a framework for teachers to get feedback from students on whether the textbook was successful, what changes could be made to lesson planning or whether a new textbook should be used.

What’s more, students can also use Smith’s book to navigate their textbook. While relying too much on the textbook can be counterproductive to their language learning, Smith wants students to be their own teacher when reading their textbook because it will allow them to understand the content easier.

“I want students to feel they could approach this book and analyze their own textbooks and use it in a way that helps their own language.”

Smith’s book will be available Sept. 8.