In my previous post, in a quick online review of what Pearson appears to be offering here at the start of 2011, I gave the publisher a pretty ordinary score. I stand by the method/medium employed in that review, as I don't think it is an unreasonable assumption that many teachers and schools will look at what the big publishers are doing by plugging their name into a search engine and then quickly skimming about based on what they can access within the first layer or two of the main site.
I also stand by my negative review of UpBeat (remembering of course that this is based on a quick look, and despite Jeremy Harmer's quick tweet accusing me of being judgmental): we can't be expected to come across as genuine when we plug what appear to be great new series if we aren't willing to be openly critical of the series offerings we find not up to scratch, or just simply "off". And this "old boys" attitude of nobody associated with writing or publishing ever openly criticising other writers' works (other than that far too easy target Headway) -- sorry, I'm sick to death of it and I think it has to go. To be fair, perhaps I'm influenced by the fact that I'm still actively engaged in classroom teaching, and interested in evaluating course materials as a teacher for the benefit of other teachers. If you're no longer teaching but worried about upsetting a circle of ELT writing buddies, then I can understand why you might want to avoid ever publicly reviewing other ELT works.
In any case, one very postitive thing about that post was that a Pearson Longman author jumped on board and let me know about something else Pearson is offering up in 2011. And I'm very happy she did, too, because Speak Out from Pearson looks to be a top quality and exciting new development in coursebook design.
It's a six level course for adults, with -- to a great extent -- (what is becoming) your usual fare of grammar and vocabulary McNuggets providing the foundations for most of the skills-based activities that follow, but here's what I really like about Speak Out:
1. The "magazine" style unit introductions
Ken Wilson and I blogged about this concept in late 2010, and while Speak Out doesn't go to the lengths Ken and I were advocating, it's at least a positive development which means learners will have some very nice images to both discuss and help with predicting the unit content to come. I also quite like the very simple list of learning goals divided clearly into the four main skills -- very handy for both students and teachers.
Finally, finally, a publisher of materials for adults has decided to avoid the miniscule text and imbroglio-style cluttering of content approach (though to be fair, I saw and liked this about one of Macmillan's forthcoming publications as well: OpenMind). Things are nice and clear on these unit pages. There's room to breathe and a logical flow of content and activities that don't feel overwhelming.
3. An eight-page unit structure
I honestly feel that eight pages of print (inclusive of intro page and review page at the end) should be more than enough for a single unit, and once you go beyond that you are risking both boredom and what I call "death by overtheme"... Speak Out has it right, I think.
4. Authentic video materials from the BBC!
Nice move. Of course, bit of a pity if you're not teaching British English, but still a great development all the same, and I think it will be something that students will really like using. (On an aside, I would love to see a publisher team up with Reuters for video content, as the reporters usually represent a beautiful spread of accents -- something that would be great for a "global" coursework offering).
5. The Active Book
Unless I'm mistaken, this appears to be the first ELT coursework offering that involves a specialised tablet device!
With this, not only can you get your entire coursebook (and worksheets) in digital format, you can access all the associated audio and video, embedded right there with the content.
I'm not sure about the costs associated with this device, and whether or not it will be flexible enough to use with other course work series from the same publisher, but it is definitely a huge step forward in materials design and delivery... Is the future of ELT publishing here?
Other than all that, taking a close look at a variety of the sample units, I have to say they're remarkably well-written and there is constant emphasis on developing skills and actually using the language. It all happens pretty much in the usual PPP progression (and I understand that this is taken as a given requirement in ELT publishing, even if I don't agree with it personally), but at least it is done extremely well and supported with excellent visuals.
One thing I didn't like was having to sign in as a Pearson Longman member in order to access any of the sample materials. I find that sort of thing seriously uncool these days, and unless a product is incredibly attractive and intriguing, nine times out of ten I will usually walk away from online products presented that way. Pearson got lucky in this instance because I happen to already be a member and I happened to remember my password without being forced to go hunting. But it was a close thing, I can tell you...
So the key question for me personally is: would I be willing to use this with my adult learners in classroom settings?
Despite being a bit of an unplugged guy, and desperately wanting fiercer innovation with course work design (particularly at the methodological end of things), I have to admit I would be open and positive about using this with my learners. I think they would really like the material, and I think it's flexible enough to work around to my own teaching agenda(s) as well.
So, nice work Pearson: you've "spoken out" for 2011 and I'm reasonably impressed!