Archive | June, 2014

Coursebook Review: Complete First

26 Jun

Complete First

Guy Brook-Hart

Cambridge University Press,  2014.

As the Cambridge English: First exam is changing from January 2015, this review is one of a series of coursebooks designed to prepare learners for the exam.  Reviews are also available for:

The version of the book I looked at was the 2nd Edition, with 2015 exam specifications.

Practicalities:

Unsurprisingly for a Cambridge English: First exam preparation book, this is a B2 level coursebook, though it seems aimed at a university age market, somewhere between 18-24.  I say that because some of the recurring characters in the book are student age and while some of the content is aimed at older adult students, the feel of the book is definitely young adult.  I’m honestly not sure how much material there is in there.  The structure is quite bitty – lots of smaller self-contained sections – and obviously it depends how you teach the material as to how long it takes you to cover it.  If you just pushed on through, with a bit of bookending to give the lessons a beginning and ending, then I expect it would be about 5 lessons a unit.  If you extended out and made some of the smaller sections a lesson focus and supplemented to that effect, then maybe 8 lessons a unit?  So somewhere between about 80 hours and 140 hours of material, but then that upper figure does require additional material from elsewhere.

Components:

I only had access to the student’s book and the workbook.  There is also a teacher’s book and resource CDROM available.  And the “Presentation Plus” pack, which seems to be the digital version of the book and teacher’s book, adaptable to projector or IWB.  Which I haven’t seen.

Skills Work:

The criticism here is one that can be leveled at many exam books:  much of the skills work is skills practice, not skills development.  Receptive tasks are dealt with in the standard “pre-task prediction / task / one question discussion” model.  Productive tasks are dealt with from a model / language input perspective.  Which is, again, quite common and not necessarily a bad thing – learners do need the relevant language to perform the relevant tasks after all!  The writing sections are quite detailed and mostly seem to use a model for learners to analyse and do lead learners through all the different things they need to consider for exam success, though I’m not sure about the integration of language input work into these sections, it seems a bit split focus to me.

Language Work:

Language input is mostly text based in what I think of as attempted noticing – the examples are often drawn from the text and then analysed, or at least the learners are given the chance to think about which rules apply to what.  Followed of course by lots of practice activities.  One nice feature is that the language practice is often contextualised into an exam type task, giving practice of the task types without an overt focus, though these do also appear elsewhere in the units.

Engagement:

Not too bad – there’s enough white space on the page so that it doesn’t come across as too crowded or overbearing, though it does get a little bit dense in places.  Lots of sunny blue sky pictures with carefully multi-cultural smiling faces….

Overall Comment:

6.5/10.  I think the book has everything it needs, and which learners need, for some fairly thorough preparation.  Despite the young adult focus, it feels like quite an old book and just looks a bit dry in places.  I think for an adult group it would be fine.  My main concern is how easy it would be to work with – I suspect it would need quite a lot of adaptation.  Obviously all books need a certain amount of adaptation to fit the needs of their classes, but I feel that Complete needs a bit more work than most – not because the materials are poor quality, they are not – but because this is a book where you need to make constant decisions about what to leave in, what to leave out and what to focus on in class and I think that makes it harder work to use effectively than some of it’s competitors.

 

Complete First

 

Disclosure:  The image and title links above and at the top of the page are affiliate links.  Purchases made through these links provide a small referral fee. 

 

 

Coursebook review: Objective First

26 Jun

Objective First

Annette Capel & Wendy Sharp

Cambridge University Press 2012 (3rd Ed.) / 2014 (4th Ed.)

 

As the Cambridge English: First exam is changing from January 2015, this review is one of a series of coursebooks designed to prepare learners for the exam.  Reviews are also available for:

The book I looked at was the 3rd Edition, which is based around the 2008 exam specifications and NOT the revised 2015 specifications, however the links on the page are to the 4th edition, which does contain the revised specifications.  I’m assuming that there aren’t significant changes to content or approach – but will revise and update this review when I finally get to see the new edition!

Practicalities:

This title seems aimed at the adult / young adult section of the B2 market, the themes and questions aimed at the students look like they require a bit more life experience than the average teenager possesses.  It looks eminently teachable though – three very neatly self contained double page spreads per unit that I think parcel up into lessons quite effectively.  With 24 units, this makes about 72 lessons in the book or about 90 hours of material (obviously depending on your lesson length, you may need to drop some bits or add a few more bits in!)

Components:

I only had access to the student’s book and the workbook, though there is also a teacher’s book with a teacher resources CD ROM available (not sure what those resources are…); and something called a Presentation Plus DVDROM, which appears to contain a digital version of the book that allows you to manipulate the content in  a variety of interesting ways.  Sounds expensive though…

Skills Work:

Skills are predictably exam focused and within the units the receptive skills are largely practice based.  Some of the task set up may help build skills but the impression is that rote practice is enough for the exam.  Each unit invariably contains a small speaking section, which may or may not be exam focused and a receptive skills task.  Writing is only dealt with in the “writing folders”, which alternate with the “exam folders” to provide specific exam segment development and strategy guides.

Language Work:

There is quite extensive language input – at least one double page spread per unit is dedicated to grammatical input and practice and I think the fact that they are laid out across two pages (mostly) helps make the input sizeable enough to form the key component of a lesson and consequently a lot more teachable than in some books.  There is a nod to guided discovery approaches in that learners are often asked to consider the evidence and figure out the rule (or choose from some rule possibilities), but for the most part the language input is rule based instruction, application and practice.

Engagement:

The double page spread system makes the book very easy on the eye and very accessible – despite the fact that there’s often quite a lot of content on the page, it doesn’t feel overwhelming and from a teacher’s perspective it looks easy to figure out where to start and stop.  The graphics are fairly standard – the typically bright, colourful and inoffensive coursebook fare.  The smaller unit size means there are more of them in the book, 24 in total, which I think would probably add to a learner’s sense of perceived progress as they motor through, and which also allows for a bit more variety in the range of topics.  It is an adult focused book though, so teenagers may have some issues in responding to discussion questions that assume more experience than they have.

Overall Comment:

9/10.  I really like the way this book is organised and I think it gives exam learners exactly what they need to prepare effectively for the exam – with the caveat that this preparation takes place over an extensive 100 hour course!  I think the structure makes it relatively easy to teach with and the clear focus that each section of each unit has makes it easy to decide where the focus of each lesson lies.  The exam folders and writing folders, when used effectively (and I think some adaptation is needed here), should give the learners a very thorough overview of what is required of them and what they need to do to be successful.

 

Objective First

 

Disclosure:  The image and title links above and at the top of the page are affiliate links.  Purchases made through these links provide a small referral fee. 

 

Coursebook Review: Ready for First

25 Jun

Ready for FCE

Roy Norris

Macmillan Education 2013

As the Cambridge English: First exam is changing from January 2015, this review is one of a series of coursebooks designed to prepare learners for the exam.  Reviews are also available for:

The book I looked at was the version containing the 2015 exam specifications.

Practicalities:

Aimed at B2 level students, it comes across as quite an adult orientated book, though young adults would also no doubt be able to access the content.  There is also quite a lot in there – depending on how you teach the book I would say there are about 5-8 lessons per unit, or somewhere between 80 and 120 hours of material, not including any supplementary resources.

Components:

I only had access to the coursebook and the workbook.  There is also a teacher’s book with a DVDROM and each coursebook comes with an access code to the Macmillan online practice site.

Skills Work:

All of the skills work is, as you might expect, contextualised towards exam structure and content.  Reading tasks have a very clear “pre-task / task / post task” structure and one of the little touches I particularly liked was that the post reading task requires a personal reaction from the student towards the text or the content of the text.  They also do this with some of the listenings.  Writing seems to be dealt with mostly through a process of model analysis.

Language Work:

There are some nice review activities in the post-unit revision sections and I quite liked the organisation of the language input which seems to be more categorised by use than by specific language point (e.g. “talking about habits” rather than “the present simple”).  That said, the language input is mostly rule based derivation and application.  PPP without the final P – I fail to see why it is not possible to include open  productive tasks in these sections.  As it is they contain quite a lot of input & practice and I don’t know how “teachable” they would be.

Engagement:

Generally quite good – it looks nice and engaging, there’s not too much on the page.  At least as far as the skills and exam focus sections are concerned.  As soon as you hit a language input section however, the text tightens up, becomes denser and more impenetrable.  The topics are, as you might expect, the same old faces, but are dealt with as well as can be expected.  More adult than teen.

Overall Comment:

6/10.  This was the first book I looked at and originally I was quite impressed – I still think it is a good book, but I would not like to teach from it in my context.  There is too much in there to deal with effectively within the time frame (100 hours) I have available and unless the book expects me to simply motor through the language sections without worrying about learner take up of the target language, I really wouldn’t like to have to teach them.  The rest of it’s good though.

Ready for FCE

 

Disclosure:  The image and title links above and at the top of the page are affiliate links.  Purchases made through these links provide a small referral fee. 

Coursebook Review: Gold First

25 Jun

Gold First

Jan Bell and Amanda Thomas

Pearson Education 2014

As the Cambridge English: First exam is changing from January 2015, this review is one of a series of coursebooks designed to prepare learners for the exam.

Reviews are also available for:

The book I looked at was the version containing the 2015 exam specifications.

Practicalities:

Aimed at B2 level students, the book looks as though it would be best suited to teenage / young adult classes.  Depending on how you teach the book, there’s probably five or six lessons per unit, or about 70 lessons in the book, so somewhere between 80 -100 hours of material.  Not including the progress tests and review sections.  It is a graded book, starting off a bit easier and building up in difficulty as the book goes on.

Components:

I only had access to the coursebook and the exam maximiser, which is precisely what you would expect – lots of practice activities.  Though the blurb promises there is interactive whiteboard software and online material for the teacher, as well as the standard teacher’s book.  Plus additional online resources for the student.

Skills Work:

One of the things I like about the book is the way in which all the skills work seems to be based on the principle of development, rather than simply practice.  The focus is on training for the exam rather than just exam skills.  While I completely agree with the ethos behind this choice, I also feel that Gold First lacks the bite that it needs for learners to be aware of the reality of the exam.

Language Work:

Lexis is mostly dealt with in chunks, collocations and phrasal verbs, though with some topic based match and gap sections as well.  Structures are pulled out of key texts and analysed – a sort of GDPP (guided discovery, practice and production) – and I like that there are productive activities linked to the language input

Engagement:

It seems very approachable, not at all daunting or scary.  There’s enough space around the text and exercises to give learners space to jot down notes and answers.  The images are all very standard – soft focus, bright and colourful – but there aren’t many on the page, so they don’t distract.  The topics are all the usual suspects – no doubt chosen according to some exam past paper meta-analysis.

Overall Comment:

7/10.  I think the course has enough to work with for an extensive year round course and I think it is appropriate for my local context, where most of the students are in their mid-teens.  I am wary about two things though:  the graded nature of the book and the lack of explicit modelling of exam tasks and strategies.

Gold First

Disclosure:  The image and title links above and at the top of the page are affiliate links.  Purchases made through these links provide a small referral fee.  

One Picture – Six activities!

19 Jun

My latest blog post for the British Council Teaching English website is now live – click the link to find out more about “A house of mystery and secrets

It was a really fun challenge to try – all the bloggers were asked to choose one of four pictures from the #ELTpics Flickr stream and to base their post around the image.

The image I chose was this one by @adhockley:

5491043565_46a3d57bb8_z

Image supplied by ELTPics. (Some rights reserved)

And to try and exploit this image to it’s maximum potential, I’ve come up with six different activities – each one aimed at a different level of ability, though I think with a little bit of adaptation most of them could be done at other levels.

As I said at the start, this was the challenge for all the bloggers on the BC Teaching English site this month – there’s loads of great ideas from (at the time of writing): Larry Ferlazzo, Steve Muir, Rachel Boyce, Raquel Gonzaga and Katherine Bilsborough.

Check them – and all the other great posts – out here:

 http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blog.

Video Lesson Framework – short animations

12 Jun

It’s getting close to the end of the year, when it starts getting difficult for our students to maintain their motivation for English and when teachers are busier with testing and reports and the like.  My students have been clamouring for a video lesson for weeks now, but I always feel as though I would be short changing them with a feature length film – so my concession to their desperate desire is the cartoon.

I have in the past used this lesson framework with Tom & Jerry  cartoons – they tend to be around the ten minute mark and as there’s no dialogue they work well for lower level classes and especially well with young learner classes.  That said, some of the content is quite dated and is what you might call “a product of it’s time” – in short you might want to review them to make sure they fit your context before using them in class.

shaun-charactersMore recently I prefer using Shaun the Sheep episodes – it helps that I have a wide range of these DVDs at home!  But you can also find them on You Tube (as below).

The framework is quite simple and doesn’t involve much in the way of language input, the focus here is more on giving learners a springboard for language production instead – and engagement and fun!

(1) Show learners pictures of the principal characters and ask if they recognise them.  Give learners a copy of the images (or given them one character image per pair).  Learners write a brief biography of each character – either based on knowledge or imagination.  This could include where they live, what they like eating, what they like to do etc.  (@10 minutes)

(2) Play the first two (or three) minutes of the episode, but with SOUND ONLY.  Learners then write down what they think happened.  You can feed in additional language as required, and reformulate their ideas into a mind map / spidergram on the board. (@5 minutes)

(3)  Play the first two (or three) minutes again, this time with video and audio.  Ask for content feedback on what they saw, whose ideas (from stage 2) was it closest to?  Have they seen the episode before?  What do they think happens next?

Now clean the board and divide it into three sections – divide the class into three groups and allocate each group a section.  This can be done as two groups if you have a small class or four groups if you have a large one!  Each group has to come up with a list of actions they think will occur in the second half of the video.  With stronger groups, you can make the list longer (e.g. 10 items), with weaker groups it can be shorter.  (@10 minutes)

(4)  Watch the remainder of the video as a board race – whenever a group sees something they wrote on the board, they shout “STOP” and run up to the board to tick it off, sit down again and shout “PLAY!”  This does make this section very stop-start, so I’d recommend watching it again afterwards without interruption, which can also let the groups check for anything they missed.

Feedback on the ideas. (@15 minutes)

(5) Scripting.  Split the class into group A and group B.  Allocate group A to the first half of the episode and group B to the second half.  Tell the groups they’re going to write dialogue for the characters and they’ll act it out (i.e. do a voiceover).  Let them watch the episode again to take notes (these can be in their own language for lower levels).

The groups then script some dialogue for their half of the video.  Supply necessary language as appropriate.  (@20 minutes)

Play the animation again, but with the sound off – the groups perform their dialogues.  Feedback on performances.  (@10 minutes)

The timings are approximate, but I think this is probably between 60 and 75 minutes, depending on the level and size of the class.

Have fun!

Dear Student, You’re going to fail.

2 Jun

Dear Student,

You probably know why I’m writing this letter.  You probably know, deep down, what I’m about to tell you.  But I’m going to tell you anyway and that’s why I’m writing.

You are going to fail your exam.  Sorry.

I mean I hope I’m wrong.  I hope that on the day, the gods of language learning smile upon you and every word you need arrives at the front of your brain with the minimum of effort.  Or that the invigilator accidentally gives you a PET paper instead of and FCE paper and nobody notices.  Or that you have a great day and all that preparation and training pays off.  Or that a falling star dips past your window the night before the exam and that you make the right wish.

But in all honesty?  I can’t see any other way that you are going to pass.

And this is a huge shame.  I’ve taught a lot of people preparing for language exams over the years and most of them have been fairly average at best, with a few super talented individuals who just annoyingly learn languages just by being in the same room as a teacher.  If any of these had put half the time and effort into learning English that you have, they would have all got A grades.  In Proficiency.

I really can’t fault you for effort.  You have been sending me extra homework for the last four months and doing all the extra exercises in the book that we don’t have time for in class.  You have been writing down everything that goes on the board, everything that I say, that your classmates say.  You have not only taken in all of the strategies, structures, hints, tips and frameworks that we’ve looked at – you’ve taken them away, processed them and you are using them where you can.  The report you wrote for homework the other week was a masterpiece of organisation and genre features.  In our speaking exam practice, you extend appropriately and invite discussion with the best of them.

But you are still going to fail.

And the reason is simple.  Your English just isn’t good enough.  There’s no other way to put it.

But let’s think about what that means.  As I said, from an exam perspective, you’re doing all the right things.  Your micro-skills and strategies are well developed.  The problem, as far as I can tell, is wholly situated in your knowledge of the language system.

Now, I’m not sure why this might be.  I estimate that you’ve probably had about 450 hours of tuition in the last 4 years, which should have been more than enough (according to Common European Framework guidelines) to help you across the intermediate plateau and to start you up the climb into the foothills of the advanced range.  I don’t expect that all of those 450 hours were completely focused on language input, and nor should they have been, but I wonder how many words, phrases and chunks did you write down over the years?  How many language input stages did you sit through?  I really, really want to know what it is you did – or didn’t do – to cause so little impact for so much effort.

Here are my theories, or rather my questions:

  • Do you view the language atomistically, rather than holistically?  Do you look at it as though it’s isolated grammar points to be learnt, rather than components of a whole?
  • Do you think of language knowledge in the same way as language ability?  Are you now finding that bringing it all together to do something with the language is more difficult than basic manipulation exercises?
  • Is it all too much?  Are you trying desperately to remember too many different things, like when to use the present perfect and not the past simple, whether “addiction” is the same thing as “addition”, or which of the possibilities is the correct dependent preposition to use?  Is all this cluttering your mind when you try to produce language that you just give up on it all and go with the simplest thing you can remember, in the hope that you’ve got a better chance of getting it right?

 

Look, I predicted at the start of this letter that you were going to fail your exam.  To be fair, we did tell you that you weren’t ready for it yet and three months ago I said I thought you probably needed another year’s worth of learning (not lessons necessarily, just learning), though I’m not sure if anyone actually said that to you in those words.  I stand by my prediction, though I really, really, really hope I’m wrong.  I’m just not sure what we can do to help anymore.  I want there to be a simple switch we can flick, a quick fix to solve the problem, I want you to be in class this week and have one of those light-bulb moments where everything comes together for you.  And we’ll keep working in the hope that it happens.

All the best,

Your teacher.