The following essay will evaluate the usefulness of the New Headway - Intermediate course with regards to its suitability in terms of the students’ needs and the teaching environment. In order to assess these criteria, we will firstly consider the course’s general usefulness as a teaching tool, before considering how it relates to a particular pedagogic context.
The usefulness of New Headway - Intermediate as a teaching tool
Suitability of the syllabus
New Headway - Intermediate initially appears to have a functional, as opposed to structural, syllabus. It is comprised of 12 units, each introducing a new theme from which certain functions can extracted, e.g. permission and obligation (Unit 4), making suggestions (Unit8), apologising (Unit12).
Upon closer inspection, however, it is evident that New Headway is a structurally based course, unfolding from less complex grammatical structures, such as the present simple (Unit2), before moving onto more difficult concepts, such as modals of possibility and probability (Unit9).
A structural syllabus is a more traditional approach to language teaching, using the “internal structure of language as its starting point.” Many teaching books based on this method tend to follow a similar sequence to New Headway, reserving more convoluted structures until the end of course when students will have a more substantial knowledge base. Thus, “The strength of the structural syllabus is that it can account for all the forms of language and relate them to each other in a coherent and finite system.”
Despite the logic of this system, it is essential that the true meaning and usefulness of the grammar is explained, not merely presented, and its communicative potential is fully exploited. Whereas a functional syllabus allows students to “use what they have learned outside the classroom at a relatively early stage…one limitation of the structural syllabus is the scant regard paid to meaning and especially to the communicative potential of what is being taught.”
New Headway embraces both ideas, ostensibly following the traditional structural course, but actually including functional syllabus items within each unit. It is a comprehensive curriculum that aims to teach a range of self-expression for use in common or likely linguistic situations, e.g. arranging to meet friends (Unit 5).
Treatment and place of grammar
“Ability to communicate effectively is probably not attained most quickly or efficiently through pure communication practice in the classroom - not, at least, within the framework of a formal course of study.”
At the beginning of each unit, grammar is introduced via a “Test your grammar” section - this, along with the corresponding “Language aims” in the Teacher’s Book, clearly establishes the new unitary objectives. New Headway, therefore, follows a linear progression, exploring each grammar structure and combining it with other related topics that arise as a result of the function presented.
Confusion may arise, however - students are on a steep learning curve and are quickly requested to manipulate complex language frameworks, e.g. in Unit 8 the zero, first, second and third conditionals are all introduced simultaneously in the testing stage!
Alan Cunningsworth explains this problem in reference to functional-based study programmes that “often appear to be very steeply graded so far as grammatical items are concerned”, adding that “students meeting the structures for the first time would probably have difficulty in coping with the variety with such a limited time-scale.” Despite its essentially structural approach, New Headway has also fallen into this trap.
To compensate for the limitations inherent in its linear presentation of grammar and the difficulties involved in its functional method, language structures are revisited and knowledge is consolidated via the Workbook and through the “Stop and Check Tests” that appear every three units. Additionally, the authentic materials used give students the opportunity of viewing the grammar again within new and natural contexts, broadening their understanding. This cyclical approach is more conducive to teaching communication skills - much information is taught, but is also reconsidered in various contexts, which keeps it fresh in the students’ minds and provides a more global comprehension. So, although Unit1 presents the students/teacher with a rather daunting task of using the present simple and continuous, present perfect simple and continuous and past simple, “All of them are revisited in later units and examined in greater depth… to provide extensive discriminatory practice.”
Treatment of the skill
“When we teach any… (grammar) structure… we are… getting students to learn quite a large number of different, though related, bits of knowledge and skills: how to recognize the examples of the structure when spoken, how to identify its written form, how to produce both its spoken and written form, how to understand its meaning in context, and produce meaningful sentences using it themselves.” A course book should not only represent the flexibility of the English language by presenting it in different situations, it must also show how language can be used in both productive (speaking and writing) and receptive (listening and reading) skills.
New Headway is unequivocal in its desire to encourage the development of strong oral/aural communication skills within an active classroom, including up to nine different listening examples per unit, reading comprehensions, grammar writing exercises and discussion opportunities. With communication in mind, the revised edition of the intermediate course has reduced the length of the listening and reading sections, while still incorporating a “great variety of preparation and comprehension tasks, all of which integrate much speaking practise.” An analysis of the unit layout reveals that speaking practice is stressed through pair work and discussions at every possible opportunity, as well as class feedback, brainstorming, eliciting, role plays etc…
Interestingly, the writing skill has been separated and allocated its own section at the back of the course book to “be used at the teacher’s discretion.” Perhaps this segregation is due to the amount of class time that writing activities (e.g. letters and emails [Unit2], descriptive pieces [Unit6], biographies [Unit10]) can consume, often involving activities that are more appropriate for homework.
All four skills, however, must be practiced and assessed in class and, although writing is often perceived as the most difficult of the four, its development is essential in everyday life. By separating writing, its removal from the classroom is almost being endorsed, a move that would disadvantage visual learners, discourage students with learning difficulties (e.g. dyslexia) and fail to thoroughly train students.
In general, however, the skills are adequately represented (short sentence writing is a regular feature), but, as pointed out by Cunningsworth, “in actual language we rarely use one skill in isolation… numerous other communicative situations in real life involve integrating two or more of the four skills.” Integrating skills is promoted throughout the course, e.g. pair work discussion of grammar activities includes listening, speaking, reading and writing, e.g. asking students to write questions in pairs from a text uses all four skills. Communicative interaction between students will strengthen their “cognitive strategies, e.g. how to deal with the problem of real-time responses and unpredictability in normal conversation.”
The suitability of the methodology
“With the development of communicative language teaching… the distinction between syllabus design and methodology becomes difficult to sustain… This suggests a broad perspective on curriculum in which concurrent consideration is given to content, methodology and evaluation.”
Each unit of the New Headway course follows the same pattern, commencing with a “Test Your Grammar” section before giving detailed explanations. This lends itself to the Test Teach Test (TTT) methodology, but could easily be tailored for Presentation Practice Production (PPP) lessons.
The sequencing is inductive (and, to some extent, behaviourist) - in Unit 9, for example, students are asked to analyse pairs of sentences and differentiate between those that are facts and those that are possibilities; they are then presented with a context/theme based on a reading comprehension of problem pages; after gist and specific information reading and a discussion, students finally focus on the target language in the “Grammar Spot”.
Although reading passages are alternated with listening comprehensions, this model is representative of the course book as a whole - a student-centred approach that requires them to identify the grammatical patterns, makes their hypotheses and experiment with it prior to being presented with the rules and producing the language. Adaptation to a PPP lesson would naturally favour a more deductive and cognitive style.
A major disadvantage of this consistent staging and methodology is its predictability and ensuing boredom. Also, some of the grammar is highly complex and teaching could arguably be hindered, e.g. in Unit 11, the inductive approach to indirect questions is unobvious and could easily be misinterpreted as meaningless. Moreover, the “Test your grammar” sections rarely have a thematic connection with what follows - a fact that threatens to disrupt the lesson’s fluidity.
However, as pointed out by Penny Ur, “The task of the objective may be language-based, in which case it may be generally defined as ‘getting the language right’… (and) often leads to the composition of rather boring, meaningless language-manipulation tasks… If the main objective, however, is to get some non-linguistic result the task is usually much more interesting and has more learning value - providing, of course, that achieving the objective involves using the grammar.”
Suitability of ancillary materials
The New Headway course is comprised of the Teacher’s Book, Workbook, Teacher’s Resource Book, video, listening cassettes, website, “Stop and Check” tests, progress tests, vocabulary lists and grammar references. Expanding on the course book-based lessons, these are good self-study items for consolidation and revision, and go some way towards compensating for deficiencies in the course book itself.
The Teacher’s Book is detailed providing clear aims, lesson plans and contexts, e.g. “The theme of this unit is people who have obsessions - about texting on a mobile phone …”), as well as gist and specific information exercises, controlled (e.g. making sentences from prompts), semi-controlled (e.g. fill-the-gap with different responses possible), freer (e.g. discussions using the target language), and anticipated problems. Although the detail is useful for inexperienced teachers, “A slight danger is that the experienced teacher might find it difficult to disregard the detailed instructions and… might feel that he is being forced into a mould… Certainly one would not wish to encourage a teacher in the belief that teaching consists largely… of closely following minutely detailed instructions.”
Social and cultural values
The course endeavours to incorporate both British and American English, e.g. the “Everyday English” sections provide examples of informal language from both regions (‘quid’, ‘Hey, give me a break’ [Unit11]). Its success is questionable - even the Teacher’s Book gives discouraging advice, saying that although they are good to know, “There are too many potential problems. Non-native speakers can often sound funny or inappropriate when trying to use such phrases.” Neither is it clearly stated which phrases belong to the American culture and which to the British.
This accent on “Everyday English” is indicative of the course’s youthful outlook, which is also evident in the selected topics, e.g. adventure sports, first job interviews, email exchanges, etc...
“Throughout New Headway… students are required to draw from their own culture and experience to put topics and language into a personal context.” Unfortunately, this aim is not always complemented in the task with authentic materials that are predominantly Western, e.g. Harry Potter, Madonna, magazine problem pages, European weather pages, relationships, etc… Although Unit4 (world manners) has an international setting, the rest relies on the teacher’s creative interpretation.
In countries/classes where the students are young, familiar with and approving of Western cultures (e.g. Japan), the social and cultural emphasis is a useful tool for enthusing students to learn English. However, for students outside this sphere, it may be an off-putting (even offensive) obstacle to language learning requiring much editorial work on the teacher’s part.
Meeting the students’ needs
The school at which the selected course will be aimed is a private language school in Israel. The student profiles show that they are well-educated young adults aged between 18 and 25, from a lower-middle class background. Their motivations to learn English are positive, practical and intrinsic, including travelling, socialising, education and professional advancement.
Topics and subject content
The topics/themes covered in the course are practical and are well suited to the students’ learning aims, focussing predominantly on communication in context to which learners can relate, e.g. making travel arrangements (Unit5).
The taught grammar focuses on and revises useful and common verb structures and question formations. Students are continually encouraged to produce the language orally in controlled and freer practice, enabling them to build their confidence and express themselves coherently in the social situations in which they hope to find themselves.
Additionally, the ancillary materials (e.g. interactive website, video, etc…) can be fully exploited thanks to the school ample equipment provisions.
Social and cultural values
“A coursebook that is going to interest a learner should contain something that he wants to learn about or involve himself in, quite apart from the language itself. English should come over as a means of conveying messages of consequence and relevance and as a means through which one’s experience is enriched and widened. It could well be presented as a ‘window on the world’.”
Since Israelis are relatively familiar with Western culture, the course’s cultural basis will not hinder education and should, if anything, encourage learning with relatable contexts geared towards young adults.
The provision of different learning styles
The course book and the ancillary materials together cover all types of learner: visual - reading, pictures, watching films; auditory - tapes, oral instructions, discussions; kinaesthetic - physical activity, active participation. A good balance has been struck between receptive and productive skills, although at times listening tasks seem rather onerous, e.g. in Unit12 there are three consecutive listening comprehensions.
Although the book is aesthetically pleasing, the staging is problematic since it constantly promotes the inductive TTT method. To prevent lassitude, the teacher will need to vary the lesson and be creative in his/her adaptation to ensure that stronger students are challenged and weaker students are not discouraged. Moreover, the inductive approach to grammar, which is often presented en masse, and steep grading (new topics every unit) may be daunting, e.g. Unit1 - students are expected to know how to use present simple and continuous, present perfect simple and continuous, and past simple in one exercise alone. The Workbook, grammar reference sections and tri-unit tests assist in consolidating student knowledge.
In conclusion, I would recommend the New Headway - Intermediate course in the context of a private language school in Israel, but with provisions. The course goes a long way towards meeting student needs in terms of context, themes, practical grammar and its emphasis on communication. However, the course requires revision to prevent repetitive and exclusionary classes - this can be achieved through different teaching styles (PPP and TTT) and maintaining interest through continuous personalisation.
As summarised by Cunningsworth, “The teacher should use the course book actively, by which I mean that the teacher should formulate objectives with the needs of the learners in mind and then seek out published material which will achieve those objectives. No teacher should permit the coursebook to set the objectives, let alone allow ‘teaching the coursebook’ to be the objective.”
Aim: To provide students with practice of target language through a semi-controlled exercise to supplement Unit8 - teaching of the (unreal) 2nd conditional.
Instructions: Ask students to turn over 2 cards to make a positive, negative or question sentence. For example, if a student overturns “love” and “go”, they could make the sentence, ”I were in love, I’d go to Venice”. If they can’t make a sentence or their partner thinks the sentence is no good, they must turn the cards back around again. If the sentence is good, they can keep the cards. After one round, students move to the next table.
love hospital college
play famous house
bank therapy car
plastic surgery £1 million run
live teacher be
eat have English
drink go football
doctor lottery burger