The Authenticity of Textbook Topics

This article explores discrepancies between the topics included in ELT textbooks and the actual topics of conversation in English learners’ encounters with peers. Based on the research findings, it suggests topics for inclusion in textbooks or supplementary materials that would perhaps better prepare English learners for interactions with international peers.

Siegel, A., (2014) ‘What should we talk about? The authenticity of textbook topics’, ELT Journal, 68/4, pp. 363-75. Available here.


Much research has been concerned with the authenticity of language presented in ELT textbooks, but not so much with the topics. Nonetheless, the choice of topic has shown to be important for empowering learners, facilitating learning (Cummins 1994) and promoting willingness to learn (Kang 2005). Still, different research has emphasised different types of topics as important; those focussing on local culture (McKay 2003), or those selected by the learners themselves (Wolf 2013), for example. Siegel notes the lack of research concerned with the ‘authenticity’ of textbook topics measured by their relevance to learners’ interactions outside the language classroom. This study therefore aimed to counteract this research gap by investigating topics that arise in non-classroom conversations in English between Japanese and non-Japanese students at an international university.

Research & Results

The study involved three phases of research:

  1. surveying topics presented in textbooks available on the Japanese EFL market,
  2. collecting and analysing conversations between Japanese and non-Japanese speakers of English,
  3. categorising and comparing the topics collected in phases 1 & 2.

Regarding phase 1, the graph above shows the frequency of thematic topics found in the 11 surveyed textbooks, categorised by Siegel. Most frequently found was the topic of ‘Self’, which included specifics such as Likes, Dislikes, Family, Past and future plans . The second most frequently found topic category was ‘Places/Travel’, which included specifics such as Hometown, City life, Vacation, Travelling.  The topics ‘Money’ (Jobs, Business, Money, Shopping) and ‘Entertainment’ (Music, Movies, TV, Sports, Video games) were found similarly frequently in third and fourth place.

For phase 2, students were asked to video conversations in their dorms. The participant students were international students with B2 English and limited Japanese skills, and four domestic Japanese with B1-2 English. The Japanese students recorded their spontaneous and unscripted conversations with various international students, creating a total of 37 hours of video material, which was analysed using Conversation Analysis conventions (Jefferson 2004). The topics found through the analysis were categorised into the same 13 thematic categories as the topics from the textbooks. The graph below shows the frequencies of each thematic topic.

In contrast to the topics found most frequently in the surveyed textbooks, the analyses of these conversations show ‘Academic Life’ as the most frequently discussed topic, including such specifics as University courses, Teachers, Homework, Tests, and Study abroad. The categories of ‘Culture’ (Holidays, Ceremony, Climate, Religion, Behaviours of people of a certain ethnicity) and ‘Language’ (Japanese, Chinese, Language classes) were also very common. Although ‘Places/Travel’ was still in second place, ‘Self’ was far less frequently a topic of actual conversation than in textbooks.

To enable easier comparison of the topics found in textbooks and in actual conversations, phase 3 of the research involved grouping some of the categories together. ‘Self’ and ‘relationship’ were grouped together. General topics such as ‘food and health’, ‘animals’, ‘money’, and ‘entertainment’ were grouped as ‘everyday topics’. All topics related to university life, such as ‘living situation’, ‘academic life’, ‘extra-curricular activities’, and ‘language’ were grouped as ‘school life’. The category ‘social topics’ included topics related to life outside of university, and more global topics such as ‘places and travel’, ‘culture’, and ‘social issues’.

Some clear contrasts became apparent through this comparative analysis: Everyday topics comprised 35% of all textbook topics, but 18% of conversation topics. The Self comprised 28% of all textbook topics, but 10% of conversation topics. School life comprised 8% of all textbook topics, but 42% of conversation topics. The graphs below visualise these comparisons in more detail, using the original 13 categories.

Discussion & Suggestions

Topics related to the immediate social situation of the learners, e.g. classes attended, extra-curricular activities, living situations, and students’ L1s, were largely absent from textbooks although these were popular conversation topics among the learners in their free time; teachers and future materials writers may therefore be advised to include more of these topics to give learners the vocabulary and pragmatic conventions needed to discuss their lives as students. This may also include academic terminology for subjects and specialisms, which would also be useful for students beyond their time at university.

The findings also support claims that local cultural elements (e.g. holidays, traditions, social values) could be useful for learners to encounter in their langauge textbooks or classrooms. Including these kinds of topics would prepare learners for interactions with people from other cultures and may also heighten their motivation.

Siegel notes that, although social issues topics did not feature very frequently in either textbooks or conversations, classes that aim to promote critical thinking and social awareness may require supplementary materials on controversial and thought-provoking topics to ensure exposure and provide learners with the langauge to tackle potentially sensitive topics.

From these analyses, Siegel concludes that it important “to find out the students’ experiences, interests, and needs when selecting conversation or discussion topics for class, not only to facilitate interest, but also to prepare the students better for real-life interactions.”


Cummins, J. 1994. ‘Knowledge, power, and identity in teaching English as a second language’ in Genesee, F. (ed.). Educating Second Language Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jefferson, G.  2004. ‘Glossary of transcript symbols with an introduction’ in Lerner G. H. (ed.). Conversation Analysis: Studies from the First Generation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Kang, S. 2005. ‘Dynamic emergence of situational willingness to communicate in a second language’. System, 33/2: 277–92.
McKay, S. 2003. ‘Teaching English as an international language: the Chilean context’.
ELT Journal ,57/2: 139–48.
Siegel, A., (2014) ‘What should we talk about? The authenticity of textbook topics’, ELT Journal, 68/4, pp. 363-75.
Wolf, J. P. 2013. ‘Exploring and contrasting EFL learners’ perceptions of textbook-assigned and self-selected discussion topics’. Language Teaching Research, 17/1: 49–66.
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Clare Maas
Lecturer in EFL and EAP at Trier University (Germany)
Clare holds post-graduate qualifications from the University of Wales and Trinity College London. Before moving into tertiary education, she taught English at German grammar schools, and English for Specific Purposes at several language academies in the UK and Germany. Her professional interests include EAP materials development and CPD for teachers. She also blogs at

3 thoughts on “The Authenticity of Textbook Topics”

  1. I’d like to second Julie’s comments. I have recently been looking at the results of a very, very large survey (the details of which I’m afraid I can’t share) which asked university students around the world what speaking topics they would like to see included in their course material. The survey turned out, in my view, to be singularly unhelpful. First, many of the expressed preferences were extremely personal (e.g. to talk about particular medical issues) which are unlikely to be of interest to larger groups as a whole. Secondly, the huge variety of suggestions suggests that there will always be huge differences in students’ preferences / interests (there was a very striking gap between those who wanted to talk about aspects of the English-speaking world and others who wanted to restrict topics to their own cultural sphere). Thirdly, some suggested topics were simply not discuss-able at the students’ current level of proficiency. Fourth, it was clear that many interests were very specific and not generalisable to a broad topic (e.g. a student who wants to talk about one particular travel destination, but not about others, or a student who wants to talk about one particular pop star but not others). Fifth, it seemed that some topics had been suggested on the basis of previous lessons which students had enjoyed, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that the enjoyment derived at least as much from the way that the topic was handled as from the choice of topic itself. I could add to this list, but you get the idea.
    So, while it’s obviously important ‘to find out the students’ experiences, interests, and needs when selecting conversation or discussion topics for class’, course designers and teachers will also need to use previous experience to inform their decisions. As all teachers know, it’s often the off-beat topics that work well in terms of providing learning affordances. I (and all the students I ever used it with) used to love a lesson in an Oxford Supplementary Skills (Listening) book about the mating calls of toads, the fact that cold water (in the middle of a pond) deepens a male toad’s croak (making it more attractive to female toads) and the way that male toads jockey for prime position in a pond. The topic generated a lot of discussion precisely because it was so off-beat … and, arguably, the language produced (barring one or two lexical items) was just as useful for ‘real-life interaction’ (whatever that may be) as anything that would emerge in a topic that was seemingly more ‘authentic’.

  2. Thanks for this summary, Clare. This is actually a paper I’d read before and had struck me as interesting, but a bit narrow. Like a lot of research, all it seems to tell us is about the topics of conversation between this particular group of students in one context. It doesn’t tell us about topics these students might need to discuss with other people in different contexts and it certainly doesn’t tell us about the needs of very different types of students studying in different contexts. As a materials writer, often writing for a potentially international audience, it’s very difficult to predict the needs and interests of all the students who might use the materials. The materials examined here were very much General English and many were published for a global audience, but they just happened to be being used by young people in a university context. What if they were being used by working adults in a private language school, then the specifics of academic life wouldn’t have been relevant at all. Once again, published materials, by their nature, have to be generalist (unless they’re specifically for a very local, niche market), so it has to be down to the teacher or institution to adapt the coursebook and fill any gaps that are specific to their context. Maybe there’s a gap in the market for a speaking book aimed at Japanese university students who want to chat to international students visiting Japan …

    1. Thanks for your comment Julie. You’re absolutely right about the narrow scope of this particular study. For me, the main ‘take away’ is, as you say, “it has to be down to the teacher or institution to adapt the coursebook and fill any gaps that are specific to their context”. So maybe the study can serve as a useful reminder, for anyone who needs it, not to ignore the interests and needs of the students in favour of a textbook.

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