Coursebooks, textbooks or resource books?

I didn’t really plan to elaborate on the coursebook issue anymore. I have already done that in one of my tongue-in-the-cheek posts, but most importantly, other people in the blogosphere have done that sufficiently and well. But then I came across this quote that captured my attention:


… if coursebooks aren’t supposed to be used as a book that is the course, why are they called coursebooks? They are kind of presented as a course-in-a-book. Maybe if they were called textbooks, or resource books, or something, people might treat them differently.

Concerning Coursebooks by Steve Brown (see comment section of the post)

The three words I highlighted in the quote really got me thinking. First, I did a bit of researching to find out how the concepts are generally defined.


  • a book used in schools or colleges for the formal study of a subject.
  • a book used as a standard source of information on a particular subject
  • a book designed to accompany a specific academic course, or one specified by the writers of the course to be read by its students 

While textbook can be written as one word or two words connected with a hyphen, plus it can also be an adjective (= being a characteristic example of its kind; classic: a textbook case of schizophrenia), coursebook as one word is considered incorrect by most spell checkers.

However, Wiktionary, for example, has a definition of coursebook written as one word:

  • (Noun) UK synonym for textbook, a book to be used for studying a particular subject

My favorite paper dictionaries – Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary – do have an entry of coursebook as one word as well.

  • a book that students use regularly during a set of lessons on a particular subject
  • a book for studying from, used regularly in class

I wonder who first started to use the word coursebook in the sense it is used nowadays. It must have been quite recently because, in my 1992 edition of Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary, the word coursebook is not listed while textbook is. I remember that I personally started using the word coursebook a short time ago; I swear that a few years back, the books I used in class were always textbooks for me. Neither the Online Etymology Dictionary bothers about the existence of coursebook, but it explains the origins of textbook in detail:

textbook (n.) Look up textbook at Dictionary.comalso text-book, “book used by students,” 1779, from text (n.) + book (n.). Earlier (1730) it meant “book printed with wide spaces between the lines” for notes or translation (such a book would have been used by students), from the notion of the text of a book being more open than the close notes. As an adjective from 1916.

Anyway, like Steve Brown, I would definitely prefer calling coursebooks textbooks, but I would be happiest if I could call them resource books. More precisely, I would love them to be resource books rather than coursebooks. However, after checking out the blurbs of some of the publications in question I have collected over time, I realized what they really are:

  • …. is a lively language course for children learning English for the first time 
  • …. is a ground-breaking 6-level adult course for today’s learners of English 
  • …. a revised edition of a successful and established course 
  • …. a new, refreshed edition of the five-level English course for teenagers
  • … the highly successful course for teenagers
  • … a multi-level course for adults and young adults who want to use English both accurately and fluently

Apparently, none of the books above aims at being a resource book. The authors/publishers introduce them as courses and they are not ashamed of it. Also, given that a course is defined as ‘a complete body of prescribed studies constituting a curriculum’, it’s clear that they are meant to be followed regularly and exploited to the fullest, not only occasionally or for inspiration. 

I think it’s high time for the main ELT publishers to change their strategy. Either they can change the wording on the blurbs, which may silence some of the anti-coursebook people for a while, or they can start investing into good resource books instead of churning out coursebooks, and thus please everybody – the teachers and their students.

About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Coursebooks, textbooks or resource books?

  1. I never heard or used the word coursebook until a few years ago, just like you. My British colleague corrected me when I kept referring to the “textbook” and for some reason, probably because of his RP-accent, he convinced me that they are different. I looked over a few emails that were sent to me recently by the person in charge of ~books here at my institute and she refers to them as “texts”, so I’m thinking it has something to do with the Brits.

    Following my suspicions, I checked COCA (for American English) and saw “textbooks” with a frequency of 3202 and “coursebooks” with a frequency of 1. In the BNC (British English), textbook had a frequency of ~300 and coursebooks have a frequency of 24. Google’s N-Gram view didn’t help because “coursebook” has extremely low usage (apart from ELT, apparently.)

    Enough nerding out. I like your main point about resource books, which would be much more helpful than externally planned “courses”.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for your comment, Anthony. As *coursebook* is referred to as a UK synonym for *textbook*, I’d infer that the origin is indeed British (I’m not sure how reliable a source Wiktionary is, though). The fact that the word has caught on so quickly may relate to the fact that most ELT publishers present their publications as *courses*. But as you say, that was not the main point of the post, even though I find etymologies, frequencies and all the nerdy stuff plain fascinating. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s