Children or teenagers? Both, and hence neither. Terms like pre-teenagers, pre-adolescents and even "tweens" have emerged - but like the people in these age groups themselves, nothing quite seems to fit the attempts at neat categorisation attempted so far. Image credits: Franklin Park Library
This blog post is the first is a special series I am dedicating to my coursebook series Boost! during the month of June. Boost! is a six-strand, four-level skills and integrated skills series made for learners aged 10-15.
Have you ever taught learners in grades 5, 6, 7 or 8 and found it hard to locate age and context appropriate materials for your classes?
It was a regular dilemma for me while I was teaching in Asia, and it was one of the things that motivated me to write a lot of my own materials for these age groups. It was also the reason - when Pearson Longman came knocking at my door - that I jumped at the chance to write the Boost! series.
It is (too) often the case that teachers of learners aged 10-15 (and 10-12 in particular) find themselves having to make a choice between what are essentially coursebook series made for young learners or for teenagers. Even within these two sectors, many publishers aim more towards a particular end of a sort of continuum. YL series tend to cater mostly to grades 1-3 (where there is a huge uptake of learners and hence a lucrative publishing market), while series for teens often are essentially coursebooks for young adults with the assumption that younger teens will like them - or at least be able to cope with them. This in turn allows publishers to make a series that can hopefully sell in both secondary school and university settings.
What this leaves is a gap - a gaping chasm, where learners that fall between the two lucrative sectors are often asked to use coursebooks that are too "kiddy" (and hence potentially insulting, not to mention lacking in cognitive challenges), or else coursebooks for teenagers/young adults - which can be baffling to them.
Even if teachers can adapt the YL or teenager/young adult books to their classes, the great tragedy (in my opinion) is that one of the most amazing and language learning-friendly periods of young people's lives is overlooked in terms of its own unique characteristics and strengths. For a coursebook writer, I cannot think of a more fertile ground for interesting and complex approaches to material selection, writing and presentation.
Here are some of the things about learners aged 10-15 that I noticed (as a teacher) tend to make them unique and really tried to work with (as a writer) when developing Boost!
- They tend to be towards the business end of the psychosocial stage Erikson identified as "Competence". Their social crisis is "industry versus inferiority" - can they successfully do (worthwhile) things on their own or are they failures? They are developing more independence and self-awareness, and what happens in their education and family settings at this time can play a massive role in their future confidence and sense of worth.
- They tend to retain their drive for imagination and risk-taking, and (hopefully) learn to invest it in activities that involve more abstract thinking, awareness of logic and cause and effect, and sense of morality and of self.
- They begin to become more amenable to initiatives that involve sharing, collaboration, and cooperation.
- Cultural and individual differences become more apparent to them, and classroom activities can really help to shape their attitudes to these differences in positive ways.
- They start to develop more realistic ideas about their futures, and their own role in a very big (but very connected) world.
- They start to develop the capacity to work harder and see tasks through towards pre-set goals, rather than just activity for the sake of "play" (don't get me wrong - play is still good, but more complex tasks require more than just a playful appetite).
Note the regular use of words like "start to", "tend to" and "often" in the above points. For these age groups, changes can be swift and sweeping. It's why I don't like to apply thinking to them that seems set on "childish" or "teenagerish" characteristics. They deserve to be considered as a sector unto themselves, one in which extraordinary and exiting development takes place.
It is such a time of discovery!
And it is that thirst for discovery that makes materials and activity design for these age groups such a fun and motivating activity for a coursebook writer.
But beyond the cognitive and social aspects of developing materials for these age groups, there are the other - often equally challenging and mostly uncatered to - issues of level-appropriate materials and the need to "balance the ledger" with particular types of skills.
On the level issue, one concern I had for several years as a teacher in Asia was that all of the major players in ELT (with the exception of the actual teachers) seemed to be stuck in this attitude that all young learners of English are automatically beginner-level students.
This flew in the face of what was happening in so many EFL contexts. With so many learners starting English at earlier ages, industry experts appeared to forget that there was a chance they would actually develop some proficiency in the language, and by grades 5 and 6, be at something more like late elementary or even the early stages of intermediate in terms of their level in certain skill areas.
Of course, there are still mainly beginner-level learners at these grades in many parts of the world, but for those who were somewhat successful early starters, it was almost as if the industry forgot these children would grow up and need something more to go on with.
I often saw the sad situation where learners with developing proficiency in grades 5 and 6 would be given beginner-level coursebooks for teenagers/young adults. There is nothing more highly guaranteed to kill motivation and interest in learning than materials that are either too easy or too hard, and in either case pitched at the wrong age group.
Then there is the skills issue.
For better or worse, a lot of approaches to teaching English in various contexts end up with more overt focus on certain skills over others. It's not uncommon to find learners aged 12-13 who can read English quite well, and have become reasonably good at listening to it, but can't do much in terms of speaking or writing. And there are other combinations of skill strengths and deficiencies as well, of course - all depending on context and background learning.
Based on that, Pearson had a very attractive hook for me as well. They were going to publish separate skill strands (reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar - with vocabulary added a little later to create a sixth skill strand) with some specific focus on particular skills, with each unit then integrating that "specialised" skill back into a combination of other skills.
I loved this, because it meant teachers and their learners would have options. If they were already good readers but not good writers, they could focus more on the writing strand. If they could listen and speak well, but lacked formal understanding of grammar (often important for not only their writing but their ability to pass local tests), there was a specialised strand for them as well.
And based on careful theme selection, for schools that wanted to progress through all the skill strands in sequence or in various combinations at the same time, there was an excellent chance to facilitate what I call topic streaming through integrated skills (I describe this as an expansion of the idea of narrow reading in a blog post here).
So based on the level and skill balancing issues - both of which I see as being really important considerations for learners aged 10-15 - Boost! was an exciting proposition.
Little surprise, perhaps, that the question then turned very quickly from "do you want to write this series?" to "when can I start?" :-)
I'll admit it is quite a buzz when you get your first ELT material into print for an international market. When your first major project involves 20 coursebooks... it was tough, but a great challenge to eventually complete!
A lot of the theories and concerns for developing EFL learners in these age brackets have been borne out in the (to me) incredible success of the Boost! series. Two years on from the conclusion of the rollout of the series, it is selling in more countries and in greater numbers than I think any of us (writer and publishers) ever realistically hoped for.
But this post is not meant to come across as smug or self-congratulatory. I have a strong belief that Boost! - while playing its role to the best of its ability - owes most of its sales success to date on the fact that there is so very little out there in the way of materials and series that are age and level appropriate, and so little that is separated into effective strands that give teachers realistic options to cater to the genuine needs of their learners.
Learners aged 10-15 need more materials and more options. Stuff like Boost! and not patch-ins from the the YL or teenager/young adult sectors.
I don't particularly care whether it comes from publishers or local schools or classroom teachers, but there needs to be a real priority on giving these age groups the content, materials and activity types they need and deserve.
And Boost! itself needs to avoid the temptation of resting on its laurels. It was a good first shot into the heart of this learning sector, but like any approach or set of materials it can and should be improved (upon).
Teachers and learners are constantly changing and developing, and the materials they look to use in their classes don't just need to look nice and be nicely written.
They need to keep up!