One of the interesting things that happens when you write a post lambasting a major publisher for not presenting anything new or exciting for a new year is that you stand a high chance of being contacted with evidence (apparently) to the contrary. The first to come along was information about Pearson's interesting new offering Speak Out, and straight on the heels of that came an offer for me to take a look at a new series for teenagers from Cambridge University Press.
[Aside: In both cases, it was actual writers who were quick onto the blog here. Interesting to see how much work authors are now doing on this front, and/or how in tune with what is happening about the ELT blogosphere they appear to be.]
In any case, having written a bit of a series of coursebooks for teens (and having spent so much of my classroom experience around teenagers), I was really interested in seeing this new series from Cambridge. I personally think it is the teens sector that is the real engine room of ELT globally, even if the publications written for it are never promoted as "flagship" courses. I also get the impression that coursebook series for this age sector are amazing in terms of how hit or miss they can be. They can be brilliant or almost painfully disappointing, with not a lot that end up falling in between.
So I indicated I'd be happy to take a look and give this new series the Raven treatment...
The people at Cambridge were quick, and within a week I had two sample coursebooks (along with class CDs) from their new series Interactive arrive on my doorstep. (Please note that the Cambridge website tries to do all sorts of tricky things with visitors -- the link I've just posted there goes to the localised landing page I get here in Australia. Let me -- or rather, CUP -- know if that link doesn't work for you for whatever reason).
Interactive appears to be in the process of "roll out", with two levels (A1/A2 and A2/B1) available so far and a website that was still in "demo" mode at the time of writing this post. Still, from what I can see of the first two levels, this is a pretty impressive piece of work.
As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I'm not in the habit of writing a rhetorical list of features that a teacher could find for him/herself in the publisher's own blurbs. So here are some of the general things I really liked about this series:
1. Topic selections
These are great, and from my own experience I think they have a high likelihood of appealing to a majority of teenage learners -- with some exceptions (see "iffy" factors below). It can be hard to get teenagers engaged, and topics can make all the difference. As I read through the student books, I got the impression that the writers had spent a lot of time in real classrooms with teenagers (and a follow up check on the profiles of the main writers confirmed that guess). This factor alone (time by writers in actual teenage classrooms) really does show and also sets the series apart from many of the other series out there claiming to cater to teenage learners.
2. Use of comic storyboards
There are comic-based stories in each book broken into three parts distributed evenly throughout each book. These are really well done and I honestly think they will seriously appeal to a lot of teenagers, as they feature issues, emotions and quandaries common to the "soap" dramas we often see teenagers following along to. Even for those teens who prefer to sneer at or mock these sorts of dramas, I think there is plenty to discuss, and the art of storytelling (in whatever form/guise) is a welcome part of any approach to language teaching.
The first book has an ongoing drama about a boy from a single-parent home who accidentally lands his brother in hospital and then seeks to organise a concert for him (oriented around his passion for guitar and band), despite the conflict this causes with his mother.
The second book in the series features a storyline about a sinister online-based organisation that manages to brainwash people and take over their thinking (and that's just the start of some serious weirdness!).
In both cases, I found myself instantly drawn into the story and flipping ahead through the coursebook to find the next part in the story. Seriously good sign! Teens will love it, and most teachers I know will love working activities through and around it, including what looks like being a pretty awesome online comic-builder available to learners using this series.
Many of the units finish with well-designed project work that will be great for teachers willing to engage in a bit more task-based learning and collaborative groupwork.
4. Huge variety of genuine-appearing texts (and text types)
Everything from notices to menus, classifieds, articles -- you name it, they are really packed in to the books, but usually in dedicated places (rather than scattered all over the place). It's a bit like a reading and discussion smorgasbord when you get to these places, and as a teacher I always like being able to present students with an extensive range of texts (as well as potential choice of texts).
5. Non-native accents used in the listening tracks
Admittedly I only noticed this in checking the first couple of tracks on one of the CDs, but if they are indicative of the attitude to and use of non-native speakers for audio in this series, then the series gets a serious stamp of approval from me!
6. Writing portfolio work
As with the range of reading texts I mentioned above, the same good approach to variety is featured with the regular writing portfolio tasks. Samples of writing are well presented and clear to follow, and there is an obvious attempt to offer writing to which students ought to be able to respond.
7. Focus on songs/music
Given this can be a notoriously hard area to handle well (especially for teenage audiences), I thought this was a brave and bold move that in the end appears to work quite well. Rather than trying to act all contemporary and "in the groove" with current teenage tastes in music, the books generally focus on some of the timeless classics and contextualise them in ways that make for (what I think will be) interesting lessons in pop culture. Despite what some people (and publishers) appear to assume about teenagers' reactions to this, I've always found a good reception for it in teenage classes, and there is good room to connect to what the students in the room currently like and how/why.
8. Teacher's guide
I only got to see some of the samples of this from what is available online, but I'll admit it, I was seriously impressed. Rather than (what appear to be) the common approaches of either "do it this way" or "here are 35 million different options and extensions for you to choose from", the activities here blend logical-feeling lesson sequencing suggestions with (well signposted via shading) a practical and feasible range of genuinely creative alternatives and additions. I've been teaching for a fair amount of time and written a lot of suggestions for teachers, but within four pages of that TG I had three great new ideas I'd really like to try out in a class with teenagers. I might even go so far as to claim these are the best-written TGs I've seen ever for this age sector, and I think you'd be missing out on some great new methods and activities if you decided to forego a TG for this series.
9. Lack of "let's try to have our cake and eat it" approach
There is no doubt this series is specifically for teenagers and just for teenagers. It very capably avoids the category of coursebook series that try to claim that they work for both teenagers and adults, or teenagers and children.
Right, so that's the good news as far as I was concerned, but there were a couple of "iffy" factors that I guess I better pass on:
There is a huge focus on UK people, places and culture, supplemented in an add-on way with some features about other English-speaking countries ("inner circle", mind). I guess this is fine in some ways if the UK and EU is the specific target market for this series, but it may be a bit of an Achilles' Heel if Cambridge is hoping to make this a global offering of any magnitude. In some ways, it also shows that the series writers are all based in one EU country (Spain).
"Star Power" in topic selections
Yes, it is true that teens like to talk about movies and stars of screen, sport and music, but in my opinion these topics are somewhat overdone in this series.
Between the UK/EU centricity and the overemphasis on celebrity, I think the series missed out on some opportunities to address more in the way of people and places beyond the "inner circle", global issues, and especially something more in the way of cross-curricular (CLIL) appeal, especially in terms of science-oriented topics and activities (something I've always found works well in classes with teenagers). Those sorts of areas and activities can be found in the series, but in some ways, I think the series does have a "culture!" overload, which can wear a bit thin with teens if we aren't careful.
What's not to like?
Well, I have to be forthright here and say that the grammar is a bit of a sticking point for me.
It's not necessarily so much a matter of the learners having too much grammar to deal with in the book, it's just that they're basically slugged with it (usually an entire page) right at (or just after) the start of almost all of the units I looked at. I've usually found this much grammar at the start of a unit a genuine turnoff for a lot of teenage learners, something they get bogged down with and perhaps even stressed about. In a lot of ways that is potentially tragic, considering the seriously good stuff that happens elsewhere in the units.
Perhaps the writers and publisher felt it would be a nice thing for the learners to "get the grammar out of the way first before getting into the good stuff!", and/or it would be a helpful selling point in terms of teachers and schools seeing the grammar syllabus so prominently displayed early in each unit. And perhaps they're right about that, let's face it...
But with the upfront grammar syllabus right hook comes the left uppercut at the end of every two units in the form of a review section that focuses pretty much exclusively on grammar and vocabulary. The reviews don't really feature anything in the way of checking or promoting ability to "do" things with the language (though I applaud the obvious efforts to promote self-assessment, tracking and reflection on the part of the learners). The effect, in the end, is a bit like a culture sandwich with two pieces of grammar/vocab bread squeezing it together.
Still, I don't think those grammar issues can't be worked around or adapted, and they hopefully won't detract from what are very well-written units with good (appropriate) topics for teens and a great range of activities.
And the series claim to be "interactive"?
Fairly warranted, I feel. There are constant prompts calling on collaboration and interaction, blended well across a variety of integrated skills, and the add ons in terms of website options look to be genuinely exciting and oriented around student creativity and collaboration (once they actually arrive, that is).
Should you use this series with your teenage learners?
If you don't mind a good slug of grammar, the UK and celebrity-oriented topics (and/or can easily glide around or through those issues), I think this is about as good as it gets in terms of a seriously good offering for teenage classrooms. The great range of texts, emphasis on interaction and creativity, good approach to writing portfolio work, collaborative project offerings, truly excellent comic storylines and superbly written TG all make this a genuinely innovative, progressive and appropriate series to put in front of teenagers.