Doug's recent comment reminded me of one reason I enjoy keeping this blog: getting comments from people who work in EFL as well as from those who work in other fields.
Yes, meta-language in textbooks is one of the (many) banes of a teacher's working life, but I'm not sure this is the whole problem in my case. I keep coming back to what Steve wrote about using English to process meaning. The students in the class I wrote about are ranked as "high level"; they regularly get 80% or more on the weekly vocab quizzes I give (correctly spelling items like "relaxation technique", "coping with stress" - do you think they'll pick up the hints I'm dropping for them?!?). Yesterday's class (Touchstone 2, Unit 3) had short written interviews with 6 people on what they are doing to stay healthy. The activity was to circle the ones that had a healthy lifestyle and note why. We read the interviews together, then I explained the activity (it's written in the textbook as well) and let them get to work. Except they didn't. Blank looks. Much fidgeting with pens, sighing, the laying down of the head on the hands, unblemished sheets of looseleaf paper. Perhaps it's "end of term blues"? I go around the class, asking individual students "Which ones have a healthy lifestyle?". After a while I come to a student who tells me he doesn't understand what "which ones" means.
Afterwards, a colleague suggested the students can't process language, they can't decode. They can understand and recognize discrete items, but not figure out what those items mean when strung together in a written (or spoken) sentence; in short, he said, they can't read.