ELT handbooks reviewed

A dilettantish critique for romantic and practical teachers alike Reminisce about past moments and discover the areas you left unexplored (I bet some of you did so!)This article is an attempt to describe briefly the EFL coursebooks used in Greece in the previous decades (between 1980 and 1995, to be more specific) as well as the series I have been using of late. To begin with the older titles, below, please see a list of what books I managed to recall. I’ve found the data concerning their authors and publishing houses by searching on the Net. Before I start recording my views on them, let me apologise for my poor account, especially in terms of the parlance involved in the literature. Needless to say, I do not aspire to an academic presentation.

1) On Course for First Certificate (Students’ Book) by Judy Garton-Sprenger and Simon Greenal, 1983, published by HeinemannThis was an attractive book covering a variety of topics, the accent being on tourism, travelling, transactions and journalism. It aimed at developing all four skills, if my memory doesn’t fail me. It was not accompanied by a video, let alone a CD/DVD rom component, yet it featured audiocassettes (many of them were informal interviews with both native and non-native speakers or pieces of authentic speaking, e.g. an extract from a film awards ceremony) to be listened by pupils, who had to fill in missing information or identify the tone (e.g. serious, light-hearted, sarcastic, angry, etc.) of individual speakers. I remember that there were also a number of occasions whereby intonation was the linguistic factor to be analysed, e.g. tag questions meaning either genuine wish to know something or merely asked for reassurance, the reply being certain. (In this case, students were required to listen to several utterances and mark the printed sentences with arrows showing a rising or a falling tone.)

2) Follow Me series by Ken Wilson, published by BBC EnglishThis was an excellent video-assisted series, comprising at least two books. If featured both real-life dialogues with sundry people in England and a serial of mock-heroic or detective-like stories. I think this was the only book to offer “prefabricated” phrases as a strategy to get the conversation going. However, the so-called pre-watching activities often led to chaos and confusion; perhaps, this was the case because pupils’ expectations could hardly be the same as those anticipated by the English authors owing to either cultural differences or the fact that most learners were too young to make the necessary assumptions. By this I should note my feeling that FOLLOW ME was perhaps intended for adults rather than minors. Of course, when brilliant teachers succeeded in extracting the right responses the whole video watching experience was really rewarding!

3) This is a most useful site including information on older EFL handbooks: http://www.btinternet.com/~ted.power/booklistoe.html

4) Starting Out, Getting On and Turning Point (Access to English), 1976, published by OxfordI recall this series with nostalgia. It featured the same characters from beginning to end, allegedly recounting a few people’s lives. [I wish more modern EFL authors adopted this pattern; currently, The Fantastic Five series by Burlington Books is a remarkable endeavour.] There was a happy ending with a wedding in D class (Turning Point), Arthur and Mary being the couple and the protagonists. Meanwhile, the syllabus was structure-based with activity books containing rigorous grammar exercises. As the characters came from England, there was an abundance of cultural background from that country (it definitely falls in the category of purely Anglo-centric books, I suppose) plus plenty of leaflet, press clip, application form and custom samples. As far as methodology is concerned, authors probably relied on the audio method, too, as every now and then, all three books had phonetic drills, ideal for choral repetition but barely appropriate for stimulating normal speech production or conversation between pairs or groups of pupils, I have to admit. Questions addressed by teachers to pupils were often inferential but they aimed at checking understanding of a written or spoken excerpt, not having a real communicative goal to serve.

5) More Tales from Shakespeare, adapted works, probably published by PenguinAt the phrontisterion we used to go through Hamlet. At the back there were questions checking understanding. None of them encouraged personalisation. I wish there had been prompts, like “What would you do if you found yourselves in X’s position?” or “Can you identify yourselves with a character in the play?” and the like. Obviously, Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences was not as widely known back then.

6) The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, adapted version 1975, published by HeinemannSimilar to the above, a novel set in the early decades of the 20th century. Both these literature works and the Access to English series had the advantage of motivating pupils to read on because they wanted to know how the stories unfolded and ended, though.

7) CLICK ON 1-3 by Express Publishing (See: http://www.expresspublishing.co.uk/)This is the series I have recently used with my EFL classes in the Lower Secondary School where I worked. Pupils are aged betwixt 13 and 15. In the first class, they have 3 periods of English per week whereas the other two forms have only 2 periods a week. Based on their performance on a placement test upon coming to Secondary School, pupils are divided into two streams: beginners and advanced ones. Beginners are expected to have mastered A2 level before going to Upper Secondary School or a trade school while advanced learners are to have mastered B1 level before their leaving Lower Secondary School.I chose this series from a selection of 30-something titles approved by the Greek Ministry of Education. No such restriction applies in private language schools (phrontisteria), of course. What I like about it is its approach to English as an international language (EIL) rather than as purely British or American English. All books come with a free audio CD containing all texts and dialogues. In my humble opinion, this is useful only for motivated pupils who really care to perfect their pronunciation, not all of them. Personally, I feel that intelligibility combined with a somewhat clear understanding of English phonemes is enough for my students. Other listening excerpts, to be found in the teacher’s CDs only, include gap-filling tasks, matching exercises and even some nursery rhymes or modern-like songs to be heard or sung in class. Also, every unit has a pronunciation chapter familiarising pupils with certain sounds and their phonetic symbols, mainly by means of presenting minimal pairs, e.g.: /ı/ v /i:/ or /æ/ v /e/, etc. Pupils listen and chorally repeat. What’s special about CLICK ON though, is that every book is accompanied by a video cassette, featuring real people in the streets in the UK, focusing on the main vocabulary and speaking parts of each chapter. CLICK ON TV is a channel-like programme with interviews and short documentaries or reports by English correspondents who appear on the spot. Unfortunately, not all Greek school classes are equipped with a video, therefore, showing a clip entails some extra arrangements with the school premises. As a result, I didn’t show a video as often as I would like to. Besides, the video activities are not embedded in the students’ book as is the case with listening tasks but are printed on a separate Video Activity Book that the Ministry will not offer for free, so I resorted to photocopying the necessary material as I felt I was not entitled to have my pupils charged with purchasing an expensive book to boot. Thankfully, after-watching activities include simulation and role-playing, which is often to be dramatised and involves either pairs or groups of pupils. Helpful phrases to express topic-specific ideas or to initiate discussion, take turns and show (dis)agreement are invariably provided. Needless to remark, how my pupils took off, as it were, when they practised those phrases.Incidentally, I should not fail to mention that CLICK ON also feature some strip cartoons with novels in episodes at the end of each chapter (Robin Hood, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in CLICK ON 1, 2 and 3, respectively).The same cartoons, with the dialogues in bubbles spoken, are shown in the abovementioned video. Perhaps, they’re rather poorly animated, yet the use of special effects is quite successful in riveting young pupils and activating their imagination thus creating a lasting impact as to their grasp of English, I hope. The stories, which are highly reminiscent of the FOLLOW ME comedy or social drama episodes, are quite appealing. (There’s no accounting for tastes, you see! To be honest, I strongly disliked Robin Hood, the supporter of Richard the “lion-heart”, who seized Cyprus from us and I have an aversion towards the diabolical preternatural stuff enjoyed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Thus, I only showed Mark Twain’s boy in class!). Once again, video activities include personalisation, asking what course of action should be followed or what pupils believe will ensue and so on.Finally, CLICK ON books also give out a free study aid companion, which is virtually a leaflet, containing new lexical items per unit, task and page, including an English translation of each word or phrase, a Greek equivalent, plus phonetic symbols, presumably the perfect tool for developing self-study and learner autonomy. Added to that, at the back of each book there is a Grammar Appendix corresponding to each grammar component in each unit and a list of common irregular verbs. Unfortunately, the grammar section is in English and this proves extremely obstructive, especially for beginners, who are filled with jargon and an overload of complicated lexis while they simultaneously have to acquire unfamiliar stuff anyway.
At this point, my comments and criticism ought to be completed, I suppose. Do you relate to these criteria for assessing an ELT handbook? Drop me a line at hadji@uom.gr .