English Teacher Article Testing and reviewing new EFL materials

Summary: This article is based on a workshop entitled “Testing and Reviewing New Materials” given by Alex Case at the Tokyo Expo/ Tokyo ELT Book Fair

By: |Audience: Teachers|Category: Teaching English


Introduction- Can talking about TEFL books really be any use?


When I think back on the many conversations I have had in the teachers’ room about English language textbooks, photocopiable resource books etc. over the years, I can remember quite a few amusing ones (e.g. the American teacher stunned at having to teach the “stupid American tourists” listening and the “Why British food is so great” reading in Headway all in the same month), many impassioned speeches, a bit of polite disagreement and a lot of commiserating. I can hardly remember a single example of learning something new about the textbook we were talking about or having my opinion changed, however. In a similar way, the CTEFLA session I gave where we taught the trainees how to analyse a textbook in detail and then they all chose their favourite just from appearances was without a doubt the least productive input session of I have ever given. So, is it possible for a conversation or written review to be any more helpful in deciding which TEFL books are better for your classes or school than a “my favourite model is better looking than yours” blog entry or a “my team is better than yours” chat down the pub?

How to approach a new book


There are four easy approaches you can take to a new book, all of which work whether you are going to write about it, speak about it, make a decision on it or just evaluate it for yourself. They can also serve as topics of the opening sentences of written reviews and/ or structures for the whole review, two things that reviewers often tell me are the most difficult parts to decide on. The possible approaches are:
1.    Choose words that are better than better
2.    Read and check your answers
3.    Take it to bits and put it back together
4.    Take it personally and then take a step back

1. Choose words that are better than better


The first thing we need to do when analysing and describing the merits and weak points of some ELT materials is to do away with or expand on the words “better” or “good”. The word “better” can be replaced with adjectives like “more detailed”, “more flexible”, “more logical”, more up-to-date looking”, “more systematic”, “more interesting to teach”, “more useful for a teacher who is taking the Diploma”, “more suitable for a … teaching style”, “more suitable for a … learning style”, “more easily adaptable”, “easier to use with a syllabus based on …”, “more compatible with a culture that values..”, “more likely to be used and/ or talked about in the future”, “more likely to be influential”, “more compact”, “cheaper”, “easier to photocopy”, “more original”, “more topical”, “more specifically targeted at …”, “more comprehensive”, “easier to understand”, “more suitable for beginning teachers”, “more suitable for non-native teachers”, “more suitable for teachers who have never taught kids/ small kids/ with technology/ exam classes before”, “more colourful”, “more fun”, “quicker and easier to use”, “easier to navigate” or “more motivating”, “more tried and tested” “published by publisher that is better known for this type of book”, “written by an author who has more experience of writing this type of book”, or even “unique”.

Or on the other side of the coin, we can try and describe why we dislike or even hate a TEFL book with adjectives like “more easily dated”, “more difficult to teach”, “more predictable”, “more repetitive”, “more similar to the other books on the market”, “more Anglo centric” or “or more Eurocentric”. And mixed adjectives that can tell the teacher that “I don’t like it but you might” include “controversial”, “risky” and “funny”.

2.    Read and check your answers


By now you are probably aware (especially those of you who skipped to the end of the list above) that there are as many different “good” books as there are different teachers, classes and students, and while brainstorming a list like the one above for each book can certainly get the juices flowing it can also result in a certain amount of confusion. Luckily, a whole list of positive adjectives has already been made up for the book you are thinking of introducing in your class or teacher training course, and it is easily available on the back of the student’s book, in the introduction at the front of the teacher’s book and in the publisher’s catalogue or webpage. Testing whether the book really is “suitable for both adults and young adults” (unlikely!) or “can be used to supplement classes at all levels from Pre-Intermediate to Advanced” (almost impossible!) can be a very easy way to start to thinking about what it really can do and who it really is suitable for.

3.    Take it to bits and put it back together


Using the introduction and cover of the book again, another easy way to get started thinking about or writing about TEFL books is just to find out how many different parts the book has and then look at all the various elements in detail, exploring what parts there are, what they seem designed to do and how well they achieve it. Does the book include: an index, cross referencing, summaries, a glossary, further reading lists, tapescripts, answer key with explanations of correct answers, progress and final tests, extra tasks for faster or higher level students, a Student CD, a brief and a more detailed introduction, a clear description of who the book is written for, an explanation of the background and expertise of the writers, an accompanying website for teachers and students, a CD ROM, editable tests, illustrations, colour, realistic and common example sentences, personalised grammar practice, interesting content etc. And more importantly, does each of those parts do what it should?

4.    Take it personally and then take a step back


All the techniques above are just a way of people finding out the answer to the question “Well, it’s good/ bad for you- is it also good/ bad for me?” The reason why some spoken and written comments about TEFL books are more amusing or infuriating than useful is that most people’s first reaction to a book is entirely personal. In fact, though, not only is there nothing wrong with that fact, you can also use it as a good way to start a discussion or written review. Personal information that it is well worth people knowing from the start and adds a bit of much needed human interest includes:
a)    Why did you choose this book in the first place?
b)    What kind of classes do you teach?
c)    What is your background and teaching experience?
d)    What other similar books have you read or used?
e)    What did you know about the book, publisher and author and so what were your impressions before you started using it, and how did they change?
f)    What have you read, heard or thought about the topic covered in the book recently?
The rest of what you say or write can then be just an examination of how much the book matched your personal expectations and how much it is likely to match those of other people in the same and different situations.

Conclusion


Hopefully I have convinced you that not only can talking and writing about TEFL books be useful if done in the right way, it is also pretty easy! If you don’t believe me, have a look at some of the reviews in the places listed below and you will see almost all of them follow the simple recipes that I have given you above. The sources are given by approximate length of the reviews in it, which can also approximately be taken as an indication of the difficulty of writing and reviewing for it. The ones with an asterisk are those actively seeking reviewers if you fancy giving it a try.
a)    www.amazon.com*
b)    EL Gazette
c)    English Teaching Professional Magazine
d)    www.tefl.net/reviews*
e)    Modern English Teacher magazine
f)    TESL-EJ (TESL Electronic Journal)*

This article is based on a workshop entitled “Testing and Reviewing New Materials” given by Alex Case at the Tokyo Expo/ Tokyo ELT Book Fair on 4 November 2007. Many thanks to the participants who helped me polish up and extend my ideas with their comments and questions.

Copyright © 2007

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com