English Unlimited, Pre-intermediate (CEF level B1)
This is the third set of materials in a new six-level course that reaches from level A1 (Starter) to C1 (Advanced) according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEF); the other levels are: Elementary (A2), Pre-intermediate (B1), Intermediate (B1+) and Upper-intermediate (B2). Unfortunately I had already started another set of materials with my pre-intermediate class of adults when I got my hands on English Unlimited, for if I hadn’t, I might very well have chosen this for those eight highly-motivated employees of a local high-tech firm, of rather varying background and ability, with whom I spend an hour each week on their journey into Englishland. However, I consider the material equally suitable for high school classes or other teaching contexts, such as a one-to-one tutorial, for example. This review is an attempt to explain why.
The topics of the 14 units (of eight pages each) and their sub-themes are well chosen for a course that aims at “enabling adult learners to communicate effectively in English in real-life situations”. There is a lot of stuff relating to such situations: work and play, things and feelings, people and places, food and money, habits and experiences, present and past, facts and opinion — all of these topics of current relevance but wisely devoid of such ephemeral superficialities as Paris Hilton or Vladimir Putin’s support for tigers in the wild. While definitely less in the public eye, the men and women we meet on the pages of the books (Coursebook and Workbook) and in the accompanying videos (Workbook and Teacher’s Book) are undoubtedly no less real and definitely much closer to our students’ lives (as well as our own). The same is true for the situations in which we meet them, which contributes to a constant basic feeling that ‘this is for real’ as you and your class journey through the course.
I particularly like the way in which the units are structured. They open with two double-page sections that approach the main topic from a variety of angles, by means of different but related sub-themes. Sub-sections are always arranged in such a way that their content and the language it encapsulates/generates are presented and then worked through in several interlocking phases, which makes for a lively and dynamic treatment and at the same time helps new things to really gel. Some pictures of people doing chores must be matched with the words for these activities, for example (Unit 6). This is followed by a short listening check for what has just been done, then by students suggesting further chores, which leads into a (pair) discussion about chore-doing in their own experience and about preferences. Speculation about the energy spent in such activities follows, which leads rather naturally into reading a clipping from a magazine that compares the calories burnt (charge-free!) in such chores with those spent in a (fee-charging!) fitness center, after which there is a longer reading passage (meeting interesting real-life people and linked to partner work). And so on, with further sub-topics and the apposite vocab work (chores, habits; but also weather, etc.) and grammar structures (preferences, comparatives). All of it laid out on intelligently illustrated and rather densely filled pages — but never overcrowded.
A target activity follows on the fifth page of the unit — in Unit 6 it is a survey about fitness centers — which pulls the previous lesson material together and requires students to use it productively. Three more pages round off the unit by focusing on various further aspects of its content and language, and close with a review. What impresses me particularly is the smooth and natural way in which content and language work interlock, and how all the skills are practiced in a constant back-and-forth, with a clear concept of what students at this level can already do and what they now should acquire in order to progress. The orientation is definitely towards mastering the oral channel (listening and speaking), with an equal weight on reading but a somewhat lower emphasis on writing. This is, in my experience, exactly what most adult learners are looking for these days; however, the material offers plenty of opportunities for further writing practice if this is desirable.
Further opportunities in a general sense are another strong point of this course, as evidenced by the various supplementary materials. The DVD-ROM (included in the coursebook) contains wordlists (alphabetical, comprehensive as well as by unit, with definitions and sample sentences) with a feature that allows you to enter personal additions, a program for vocab revision by means of word cards and a section for self-assessment (with can-do lists in the manner of the CEF and coordinated with similar learning goals listed on the pages of the coursebook). The Workbook provides 5 further pages of practice for each unit and includes a complete key (which is very easy to remove in case you’d rather not have your students be in control). It also comes with another great DVD-ROM all geared up for work on the computer and right on target for our increasingly digitally-native students. Besides a few other goodies, it contains the same wordlists as the Coursebook DVD-ROM (automatically interlinked with it if both are downloaded!), over 300 further interactive exercises of all sorts (including self-recording possibilities), an online link to the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary (with an option to choose others), and a series of superb videos where native and non-native speakers tell us their unscripted views or experiences connected to some of the unit topics. An extra feature of these is the transcript of what is said: it can be hidden or foregrounded with a click of the mouse.
And then there is, of course, the Teacher’s Book. Besides a general intro to the entire course and notes on individual units (including keys to the Coursebook), it comes with its own DVD-ROM. This contains the entire Teacher’s Book in electronic form as well as the following additional material: 3 printable/photocopiable activity sheets for each unit, a progress test (2 pages A4) for each unit, 3 achievement tests, test marking sheets and keys, CEF goal/achievement tables related to the content of the Coursebook, and two versions of each of the videos described above for the Workbook. The disc and its two companions (for Coursebook and Workbook) are easily downloadable and function smoothly and fast — at any rate, this is what I experienced on my Windows XP computer and on my laptop. And, as a final note: there is also some additional material available from the CUP website; the inventory is small at the moment but will probably increase, to judge by what has been happening with other recent sets of coursebooks.
All in all, I have come to the conclusion that the course as whole is certainly highly recommendable. I hope my comments have made it clear why I agree with CUP’s claim that this material is “practical, authentic, international and flexible” as well as simply useful and certainly enjoyable.