Coursebook And Materials Evaluation English Language Essay

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Introduction

English language holds a great significance in Pakistan. It is the second language of our country yet enjoys the status of first language. It is the medium of instruction in the institutions of higher education and is widely used on radio and television in the country. Several newspapers, periodicals and books on different subjects are published in English. It is the official language of all the government departments and private organizations in Pakistan. Most importantly, our body of law is codified in English and the knowledge of English is considered to be essential for getting good jobs as exams and interviews for civil services, armed forces and other attractive posts are conducted in this language. The inevitability of English, not only in Pakistan but in the whole world, lies in its dominance in the three major areas of development: science, humanities and trade.

Keeping in view the importance and the need to learn this language, Cunningsworth (1984:5) highlights three main perspectives on English Language Teaching as follows:

The students need to learn the language to use it for communicative purposes

It needs to be taught as a system of grammar and vocabulary in structural perspective

The learners need to develop their four basic skills-reading, writing, listening and speaking in this language

ELT materials play a very important role in many language classrooms but in recent years there has been a lot of debate on the actual role of materials in teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language. A successful course book requires a working balance between the three perspectives mentioned above. Arguments about the textbooks include both the advantages and the limitations of materials for students as well as the needs and preferences of teachers who are using them. Other modern issues regarding material evaluation include textbook design and practicality, methodological validity, the role of textbooks in innovation, the authenticity and the appropriateness of subject matter, and cultural components. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that we establish and apply a wide variety of relevant and contextually appropriate criteria for the evaluation of the textbooks that we use in our language classrooms.

This paper aims at an analytical study of a published ELT course book (Stepping Forward) with regards to its underpinning approach and methodological principles to be drawn through an external as well internal evaluation of the book.

LITERATURE REVIEW

1- Importance of Textbooks in ELT context:

English language instruction has many important components but the essential constituents of many ESL/EFL classrooms and programs are the textbooks and instructional materials that are often used by language instructors. As in their argument to prove textbooks affective agents of change, Hutchinson and Torres (1994) suggest:

"The textbook is an almost universal element of teaching…No teaching-learning situation, it seems, is complete until it has its relevant textbook." (p. 315).

Many other theorists agree with this observation as Sheldon (1988) states that textbooks not only "represent the visible heart of any ELT program" (p.237) but also offer considerable advantages - for both the student and the teacher - when they are being used in the ESL/EFL classroom. Moreover, he believes that published materials are more reliable for the students because they have more credibility than teacher-generated or "in-house" materials.

Textbooks yield a respectable practicality as they are relatively inexpensive and involve low lesson preparation time, whereas teacher-generated materials can be ineffective in terms of time, cost and quality. In this way, textbooks can reduce professional workload and allow teachers the opportunity to spend more time in concentrating on the material available instead of arranging for a new one every time. As Hutchinson and Torres (1994) point out that textbooks play a pivotal role in innovation and support teachers in potentially disturbing and threatening change processes, for they demonstrate new methodologies, introduce change gradually, and create a framework upon which teachers can build a more creative methodology of their own.

2- Reasons for Textbook Evaluation:

Since the 1970's there has been a movement to make learners the center of language instruction and it is probably best to view textbooks as resources in achieving aims and objectives that have already been set in terms of learner needs. Therefore, we must make every effort to establish and apply a wide variety of relevant and contextually appropriate criteria for the evaluation of the textbooks that we use in our language classrooms. We should also ensure "that careful selection is made, and that the materials selected closely reflect the aims, methods, and values of the teaching program." (Cunningsworth, 1995:7).

Another reason for textbook evaluation is the fact that it can be very useful in teacher development and professional growth. Cunningsworth (1995) states that textbook evaluation helps teachers to acquire useful, accurate, systematic, and contextual insights into the overall nature of textbook material.

Sheldon (1988) offers justification through several other reasons for textbook evaluation. He suggests that the selection of an ELT textbook often signals an important administrative and educational decision with considerable financial investment. A thorough evaluation, therefore, would enable the management and teaching staff of a specific institution to choose amongst all of the available textbooks in the market. Moreover, it would provide a sense of familiarity with a book's content assisting the educators to compare it with the strengths and weaknesses in textbooks already in use.

Textbook evaluation, therefore, can potentially be a means of conducting research as well as a form of professional empowerment and improvement.

3- Methods of Evaluating Textbooks:

On the subject of textbook evaluation various researchers have suggested ways of helping teachers to be more systematic in their evaluative approach, by presenting evaluation "checklists" based on general criteria that can be used by both teachers and students in many different situations. Although Sheldon (1988) suggests that no general list of criteria can ever really be applied to all teaching and learning contexts without considerable modification. That's why, almost all the educational theorists agree that evaluation checklists should be having some criteria pertaining to the physical characteristics of textbooks such as layout, organizational, usable and logistical characteristics. Thus, in this regard, the evaluative criteria presented by McDonough and Shaw (1997), is most suitable and applicable in any ELT context.

The model of evaluation offered by McDonough and Shaw (1997) consists of two stages: (A) External evaluation and (B) Internal evaluation. They believe that the teachers should perform an external evaluation first of all in order to gain "an overview of the organizational principles involved." After this they should move onto a "detailed internal evaluation of the materials to see how far the materials in question match up to what the author claims as well as to the aims and objectives of a given teaching program".

Thus, the next section of this paper will present an external as well as internal analysis of an ELT course book (Stepping Forward) based on McDonough and Shaw's (1997) model of evaluation.

TEXTBOOK ANALYSIS: AN EVALUATIVE STUDY

1- Key Facts about the Book-Authors and Publishers:

One of the most useful starting points in any textbook evaluation is an analysis of the authors and publisher's details. The authors of Stepping Forward are Heather Jones and Robyn Mann and the publisher is a well-established company based in Singapore, EPB Pan Pacific publishers, a trademark of Times Publishing Limited. Ample information about the publishing company such as the contact address, telephone and fax numbers can be found on the inside front cover. Moreover, information about the authors' formal education, amounts and types of teaching, administration, and curriculum/syllabus and materials development experience is also given which presents a clear picture of the authors having a recognized standing in the field of education and a strong reputation for producing innovative materials.

2- Target Audience and Proficiency Level:

Stepping Forward by Heather Jones and Robyn Mann comprises a series of textbooks. The book under analysis has been designed for the students of grade six belonging to an age group of around eleven years. The book includes challenging topics, chosen especially for the interest level of the target students. The topics like "My Family", "Growing Up", "Dinosaurs", "Tourism", and "Science Fiction" etc are highly attractive and motivating for the learners.

3- Cost Effectiveness:

Another important factor that relates to the choice of a textbook is cost. Some might feel that price is not necessarily an important factor in textbook evaluation, but the fact that most ESL/EFL textbooks are published and manufactured in wealthy English-speaking nations such as England and the United States but used in many less-developed nations like Pakistan suggests that price should play a pertinent role in textbook selection. This is particularly the case in countries in which the economic conditions are somewhat less than desirable and many students with limited incomes are required to purchase the books for language courses. In this case, Stepping Forward is also a little expensive as it costs Rs.365/-, however, the printing standard and paper quality worth the price.

4- Accessibility and Availability:

Some additional concerns regarding external evaluation are accessibility and availability. In order to be purchasable for a textbook, it must be currently in print and readily available. Moreover, the publisher should be accessible for additional information, teaching demonstrations, and order requests. At first glance it would seem that Stepping Forward meets many of these requirements for it is a relatively new book that was most recently published in 1995 and then reprinted every year till 2007. Moreover, representatives from the publisher (EPB Pan Pacific) can be easily contacted for ordering information and assistance.

5- Audio-Visual Aids and Supplementary Materials:

The book contains several charts, models, and photographs that help clarify and contextualize information. The presence of real life pictures portrays a friendly and motivating atmosphere. The pictures are not merely added for a cosmetic effect, they are rather of an integrative value that they help explaining the theme to the learners. In addition, Stepping Forward contains an excellent package of supplementary materials including items such as classroom tape cassettes or CD's, a student workbook, and a teacher's guide. More specifically, the teacher's guide includes useful page-by-page instructions, teaching suggestions and instructional input, lesson notes, optional tasks and alternatives, classroom management advice, language notes, general notes about the task and cultural data, expansion activities and game ideas, tests, answer keys, transcripts for listening activities, and opportunities for teacher reflection. The student workbook, on the other hand, provides review exercises and a variety of practice exercises that help the development of students' proficiency in grammar, reading, writing, spelling, vocabulary, and speaking and has enormous potential for classroom use or for home assignments.

6- Overall Organization of Textbook:

The layout and design of a textbook refers to its organization and presentation of language items and activities. In Stepping Forward, for instance, the learning objectives are clear and concise and a detailed overview of the topics, functions, structures/grammar, and skills within each unit can be found in the introductory table of contents. The book follows a thematic/modular format as the course components are effectively and clearly organized in six thematic sections: Personal relations, Nature, Community and Nation, Imagination, Science and Technology and Other people. Four sections contain three units each and two include two units each, which makes it a sum total of sixteen units.

7- Author's Claims- the Methodological Principles underpinning the

Book:

One of the most important and essential criterion that pertains to the overall textbook evaluation is the author's approach to teaching methodology. Brown (1995) and Cunningsworth (1995) suggest that it is absolutely essential in evaluating any textbook to determine whether or not its inherent methodology matches the aims and objectives and conforms to the classroom context. The simplest and quickest way for initially discovering a textbook's theoretical premises and methodological underpinnings is to examine its back cover (the blurb). So, a closer examination of Stepping Forward's back cover reveals that the authors (Heather Jones and Robyn Mann) claim to adhere to the "Communicative Approach" and the textbook contains a multi-skills curriculum and follows a topical/functional format. The book also tends to focus on both accurate and fluent communication emphasizing linguistic as well as communicative value of the topics. The promotion of integrated language-skills practice and the inclusion of topical themes, grammatical structures and functions, as well as lexical development are focused. Particular emphasis is placed on meaningful and authentic communication with the goal of establishing communicative competence in production and comprehension as the authors' state in the blurb, "students as well as teachers will find Stepping Forward an exciting and stimulating language learning experience, one that will result in the learners being competent and confident users of the English language". Moreover, many of the pair and group activities such as role-playing and information-gap tasks are claimed to facilitate learning through genuine interaction and the language skills and sub-skills are presented and practiced through the use of both inductive and deductive approaches.

8- Cultural Biases:

The book under analysis, Stepping Forward, can be termed as culturally biased or specific in some regards, for the names of people and places as well as pictures are mostly taken from the Singaporean culture. For example, the travel brochure given on page 131-133 in the textbook, particularly informs about places in Singapore and Malaysia. Similarly, on page 130 the listening activity talks about Hotel Mirimar in Singapore. Moreover, the writing task on page 135 requires drawing the map of Singapore and the pictures shown on page 129 and 149 have also been taken from real life situations in Singapore.

9- Universal Context:

Nevertheless, in spite of certain cultural specific data, Stepping Forward, has a universal appeal and generates in a world-wide context. Because the activities and tasks designed around this culturally bound material are not confined to any geographical boundary. Thus, they can be carried out in any context throughout the world.

(B) INTERNAL EVALUATION-Units 8 and 9:

Since the external evaluation displays a positive image of the book, therefore, an internal evaluation needs to be executed further. The following discussion is going to evaluate the book internally with particular reference to the units 8 and 9.

1- Grading and Sequencing of Materials:

The materials in Stepping Forward are organized in a linear sequence within the units of the book. Every unit begins with a Preview of the topic for eliciting the learners' background knowledge and activating their schemata. Then, the four language skills are presented and practised in a systematic manner moving from listening to speaking and then reading to writing with grammar and vocabulary coming between the reading and writing activities.

The authors truly claimed in the blurb that the book follows a "communicative approach" which is achieved through "task-based learning" (TBL). Such an approach creates a need for learners to acquire new language through the setting of tasks that require them to carry out and struggle through a communicative task, before going on to focus on specific language items that the students find difficult or problematic. The communicative tasks such as (in units 8 and 9) working on persuasive travel brochures, completing the crosswords, playing grammar-games, filling in the tables, making cards or using thesaurus and library tend to stimulate interaction as well as require the use of language items. These tasks not only intended to introduce language forms through authentic material but also engage the learners in truly meaningful and effective communication such as negotiation of meaning and ideas.

2- Presentation of the Language Skills:

Stepping Forward is a multi-skills syllabus and therefore covers and integrates both productive (speaking and writing) and receptive skills (listening and reading). The authors advocate an integrated, multi-skills syllabus because it considers and incorporates several categories of both meaning and form. A more positive characteristic of the integrated syllabus within Stepping Forward is the fact that the linguistic elements of the textbook such as grammar and vocabulary items are closely connected to the skills-base. So, as the grammar element and the vocabulary base become more demanding, the skills work also gets more challenging. An internal evaluation of the book reveals that material used for each skill becomes more complex as the units progress. An in-depth analysis of the treatment of language skills in units 8 and 9 is presented below.

(i) Listening:

Listening activities are designed in Stepping Forward for practicing such sub-skills as making predictions, extracting specific items (scanning/listening for detail), acquiring general information (skimming/listening for gist), extracting detailed information, recognizing function and discourse patterns/markers, and for inferring meaning from context. Every unit in the book deals with a different sub-skill in listening. For instance, in unit 8 the learners are supposed to listen for making inferences about the speakers statements as being persuasive or not. However, in unit 9 the students are made to listen for specific information in order to clarify meaning and make corrections.

(ii) Speaking:

Speaking practice, in this book, is integrated with other language skills. Every time after presenting a Preview of the topic the learners are given discussion questions for the activation of schemata. Then they are required to talk about the information they gather while listening activities. For example, on page 130, the description of the listening task ends on the note: "Be prepared to argue your opinion later!". Moreover, after or while doing most of the reading and writing tasks, the learners are required to discuss the information in pairs or groups. For instance, in unit 8 (page 140) after reading a poem the learners are moved on to a speaking task of "verse speaking in groups". Similarly, in unit 9 (page 160), the students are required to perform a role-play after reading a dialogue and on page 166 questions for class discussion are given within a writing activity of creating cards. Such tasks match the authors' claim in the blurb: "Stepping Forward provides numerous activities to enable students to work individually, in pairs, groups as well as class discussion. This provides scope for creative thinking and critical discussion". Speaking tasks and discussions are intended to involve the students in active information sharing, freer cooperative group tasks, and other types of exercises designed to encourage communication skills as they allow the students to extend, refine, and personalize the material they have practised in each unit.

(iii) Reading:

Reading activities in Stepping Forward are designed to practise sub-skills such as reading for detail or for skimming, scanning, inferring etc. In every unit, reading tasks are divided into two sections: Fiction and Non-fiction. In unit 8, the section of non-fiction contains activities around a travel brochure and the fiction section deals with reading a poem. While in unit 9, non-fiction reading is designed around a feature article and fiction reading presents a dramatic play script. Moreover, in order to expose the learners to the reading material beyond the course book, they are also asked to use thesaurus and library (pg 143, 164, 165). These tasks provide a practice of reading for detail, for meaning and for ideas. Reading activities in every unit follow the practice on grammar and vocabulary further leading to the writing tasks.

(iv) Writing:

Writing activities in Stepping Forward typically ask students to perform tasks of various kinds such as descriptions, narratives, postcards, reviews, letters etc. It can be suggested,

therefore, that the writing skills in Stepping Forward are based on both "product" and "process" approaches. Essentially, a product-oriented approach centers on the end-result of writing, whereas a process-oriented approach centers on the process of writing itself. In addition, product-oriented approaches typically engage learners in imitating, copying and transforming models of correct language texts while process-oriented approaches emphasize brainstorming, planning, drafting, revision, and editing.

The writing task given in unit 8 (pg 145-146) is based on "process approach" in which the learners have to write a travel brochure by gathering and organizing information and then revising and editing the first draft. However, in unit 9, the writing activity is designed around the "product approach" in which the students will be working towards an end-product-the greeting card that they have to create.

Despite their differences, both approaches to the teaching of writing skills have their advantages. Product writing, for example, emphasizes sentence structure and grammar and is often utilized as an excellent means of preparing students for written examinations. The process approach, on the other hand, prepares them for the complex procedure involved in writing compositions. For these reasons, the authors of Stepping Forward have included activities that incorporate both product and process approaches of writing in this particular textbook.

3- Different Learning Styles-Self-study:

Another interesting feature of this book is the website (www.panpaceducation.com) that has been designed to accompany the textbook. The integration of the personal computer and information technology to language learning is becoming increasingly commonplace in many institutions and it seems as though the authors and publishers of Stepping Forward are well aware of this growing phenomenon. In this particular case the publishers have developed an accompanying web-site that teachers can use to find Internet links to professional articles and that students can use to gain additional practice with the material covered in the textbook. This web-site can be used as a useful teaching and learning tool as it provides teachers with assistance in professional development and also provides students with an opportunity to become increasingly self-reliant and less teacher-dependent. Moreover, the promotion of student self-directed study is integral in allowing students to become increasingly aware of their own abilities to remember, learn, and solve problems and more strategic and reflective in their learning, thinking, and problem solving.

4- Language Type and Content:

Language type and content refers to whether the language included in the materials is realistic and authentic and what type of linguistic items are evident in the book. In terms of grammatical structures and functions, Stepping Forward places much emphasis on grammatical accuracy and repetition of structures and functions. Grammar and vocabulary are organized into separate sections in each unit. In unit 8, grammar section deals with pronouns and in unit 9 it provides a practice of simple present and present perfect tense. The section of vocabulary also includes thesaurus use in every unit, so that the students can build on new vocabulary on their own. A fair weightage given to grammar and vocabulary in the book justifies the authors' claims as it is stated on the back cover of the book: "a wide range of grammar and vocabulary exercises are especially designed to help students acquire the necessary language skills and vocabulary to discuss and write on the topic in each unit". The authors believe that correct knowledge of grammar and functions are an essential aspect of communicative competence and they have adopted the task-based learning technique as a means of accomplishing their objectives.

Since the introduction of the "Communicative Approach" to language teaching in the 1970's and 80's, there has been a growing school of thought that says that authentic reading, speaking, listening, writing, and grammatical language models should be used to teach English language skills as long as the activities or tasks associated with them are also authentic and suitably graded to the level of the students with whom they are being used. Whereas, many researchers belonging to another school of thought believe that authentic content can often create a number of difficulties and problems for students who are lacking in the proper cultural background knowledge or schemata to properly comprehend a message's meaning and content. Moreover, the selection of authentic texts is frequently quite difficult and challenging and a student's inability to understand a text can be extremely demoralizing and de-motivating in some instances. That's why, Stepping Forward presents a combination of both authentic and inauthentic/scripted materials to ensure the success of the book.

CONCLUSION

The preceding analysis shows that Stepping Forward is a relatively modern addition to ELT supermarket. The external and internal evaluation traces out a number of notable and worthwhile characteristics of the book. For example, the entire textbook package is well conceived and it contains a wide variety of useful supplementary materials. The book is also very attractive and organized in a clear, logical, and coherent manner. This organization reflects a topic-based (thematic) structural-functional syllabus that is designed with the goal of facilitating communicative competence which is the underpinning objective of the book. In addition, Stepping Forward reflects a multi-skills syllabus, and manages to integrate the four language skills without neglecting other important aspects of ELT such as grammar and vocabulary development which is aimed at integrating the "communicative" and "structural" approaches of language teaching. In addition, receptive and productive skills are covered through a wide variety of teaching and learning strategies such as "top-down" and "bottom-up" listening and reading exercises and both "product" and "process" oriented approaches to writing skills.

According to the evaluative model presented by McDonough and Shaw (1997), a successful external evaluation moves onto the internal study and satisfactory results of the internal evaluation further lead towards the adoption/selection of the book. Thus, the positive outcomes of both types of evaluation, validity of the authors' claims and its suitability to the learners' needs make Stepping Forward a fairly recommendable product for an effective instruction in the dynamic field of English Language Teaching.

"…far from being a problem, the textbook is an important means of satisfying the range of needs that emerge from the classroom and its wider context. Education is a complex and messy matter, what a textbook does is to create a degree of order within potential chaos…around which many forces and demands of teaching-learning process can cohere…for purposeful action in the classroom."

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