Mar 15, 2011

what is a book?

This was actually written as a reply to an enquiry we received from a teacher in Turkey who has become interested in SpeakYourMind and has been in contact with us for a while now. Having seen sample copies of Student Books he wrote back to ask us about the book itself, in terms of its design, layout and - ultimately its role.

"By the way, the books have no colour or pictures ........... Don't mis understand I think the lexical-interactive approach is great. But I would need some supporting arguments ............. explaining the system to potential buyers and their teaching staff."


Why do we need books? Does the book teach us, or does it simply record what the ‘teacher’ teaches us? Is a book the content or the container?

With the main aim of SpeakYourMind being to teach English as spoken language, the Student Book is, in reality, an option – students could learn (and I know those who have) only with their lessons at school and without ever opening their book. SpeakYourMind is designed to be effective in this way, but – naturally enough – most students want to learn to read and write as part of the course, so the book becomes a requirement rather than an option. The book is also a valuable support for those students who want to help themselves by revising in their own time – this may apply to a majority of students but evidence shows that there are learners who have neither the time nor the inclination.
Homework and / or self-study is a bit of a grey area when it comes to TEFL for adults. There are many teachers who feel that homework and self-study are a necessary part of a course and that students are reasonably expected to do their fair share of study in their own time. Those that don’t (such goes the argument) are not serious about learning and will, naturally and deservedly, not achieve satisfactory results. Worse still, they will jeopardise the success of the course, make life difficult for the teacher and make lessons wasteful for their more conscientious classmates. Our stance on this is that self-study is a recommended option – students can learn without, but they will make things easier for themselves by finding ten or fifteen minutes as regularly as they can to look through their lessons in the student book. And with this type of use in mind, the SpeakYourMind Student books are very much designed for simplicity. They follow the teaching programme step-by-step, which means students know exactly where they are, and they can quickly find today’s or yesterday’s lesson content.

Speaking-centred learning
During lessons students speak, and when they are not speaking they are listening and following the teacher-student conversation, ready to take part at any moment. The lesson ‘follows the book’ (the content the teacher works with and moves within) but it is ‘book-free’ in that books are closed and the conversation and the language it evokes is very much the centre of attention. The ‘book’ does not need to create interest – the energy and the interest is in the air, and students’ eyes (and ears) are focussed on the speakers and not resting on a page of an open book. Likewise, the CDs that accompany the Student Books are designed for self-study and not for classroom use (although there may be cases, such as in full-time language courses, where this could be integrated into lesson-plans). The CDs, like the books, are best used when students do not have access to a teacher.
Conventional book-based lessons are suited to teaching situations where there are large mixed-level classes – a situation that is widely accepted as being ‘a fact of life’ but which we identify as being the biggest single obstacle to successful learning and teaching. Working with level-matched classes with level-specific material greatly benefits students and teachers alike, but it shifts a lot of the hard work onto the course administrators rather than the teachers in the classroom – probably the main reason most conventional language schools continue to apply a very loose interpretation of ‘graded’ classes.

Content: plain and simple
As mentioned in reference to home-study, the book is designed for simplicity – it provides students with quick and easy access to relevant content. I can see why teachers who are used to working with orthodox materials published by the multi-nationals will find the SpeakYourMind student books very plain by comparison.
The student books do, nonetheless, contain all that students need in order to follow the course: explanations and examples of new vocabulary, along with dialogues which place new language in a range of recognisable situations (social, family, travel, professional). These dialogues are ‘multi-functional’ – they can be used for the oral introduction of new words in class by the teacher, they can be used for self-study reading, they can be used for pronunciation and intonation activities in class, as well as for the basis of short ‘role-play’ activities in lessons. The student books also contain clear and comprehensive grammar sections as they appear, step-by-step – students do not need a separate grammar book. Likewise, exercises and other activities are all part of the same volume – students don’t need to have separate ‘course-books’ and ‘work-books’.
All student books contain an index of all new words, as well as lists of irregular verbs, British and American English charts, and in the first three course books, a basic grammar guide. In other words, the whole SpeakYourMind course is designed to be compact and self-contained – both in terms of the lessons themselves and the material that accompanies them.

Returning to the visual aspect of the Student Books, they are black-and-white, text-only. This is in clear contrast to the array of colours, photos, and fonts that fill the pages of the standard course-books, but I don’t think that this in itself need be seen as a weakness. Firstly, I don’t think that learners need all the, what is by now, predictable visual ‘stimulus’ that can end up cluttering pages and seems, very often, designed for teenagers by people who are not teenagers. This is bound to be largely a question of personal taste and preference, but some of the EFL books that I like most are free of decorative visuals – they give the impression they are matter-of-fact about the job in hand, and the simple layout means that all relevant information is easily identifiable (I’m talking about the LTP professional English series and exam preparation series – now published by Heinle). It was in the mid-eighties that the current ‘magazine’ style of TEFL publications took off, largely to satisfy the needs of learners to see ‘realistic’ material that they would otherwise not have easy access to. The internet has made this need largely redundant (as it has brought the relevance and usefulness of many other aspects of conventional TEFL into question – but this is another topic).

I’m not going to defend our own published material at all costs, and I really don’t want to make ‘simplicity’ too much of a virtue. Now that the new-generation SpeakYourMind series is finally complete and the content is all in place, looking at improvements in layout and design is already a project for future editions.

On the whole, students seem to approve of the size of the SpeakYourMind student books – they fit easily into most bags. The main font is Times Roman – hardly trendy but nonetheless a font still widely used in newspapers, news magazines and books. As such, it is probably the most useful font for learners, specifically for those whose alphabets are different, to become accustomed to.

In the end, as schools and teachers we set out to be providers of learning, and with SpeakYourMind ‘the lessons’, not ‘the book’ as a product, is central to this.

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