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Review: In English Starter


Modern English Teacher, July 2004


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A Book I've Used


Audrey Aitken,



The Viney name on this course is an obvious attraction, bringing with it the promise of the humour of the Grapevine series, and the user-friendliness of the Streamline books. The fact that it's at starter level is also an attraction, as we've been looking for an alternative to our current starter level books for some time.


Here in Bangkok we have what can be called “false beginners” with real conviction. They are not beginners at all. In fact many of them have been studying English at school and / or university for a number of years. Unfortunately for them, the Thai school system is terribly underfunded and they have been struggling in a class with about sixty other kids and a teacher with no real ELT training.


Thailand is making a real effort to remedy this, and education is high on the list of government priorities, as is improving the quality of English language teaching in the country. However, there are still a lot of young adults who have a real desire to communicate in English, but who have failed to make much progress under the school system.


One of the main problems that we have come across is that students have been exposed to quite a bit of English on the page, but have almost no idea how it sounds in real life, which means that not only do they find it difficult to understand spoken English but they are often unable to pronounce English intelligibly.


Obviously, therefore, in choosing a new starter coursebook, thorough listening and pronunciation work was an essential component. We had other criteria, too. Some derived from teachers, some from students, such as colourful pictures, fun activities, modern interesting topics, realistic contexts, and a lack of Eurocentrism.


The starter level has a pocket-sized Student's Book, and a pack containing the Vocabulary Practice Book, Grammar Practice Book and Student's CD, and a red plastic ‘test yourself tool' for use with the Vocabulary Practice Book. This is a transparent plastic square, which makes words disappear when you put it over them.


The Teacher's Book has 30 photocopiable practice activities at the back, and photocopiable teacher's notes. Many of these are unusual and fun. For example, number and letter practice consists of a mobile phone, a computer keyboard and a calculator with blank keys so that students can work together labelling with letters and numbers. Quite tricky, actually. It really got my classes going, and rivalry was intense.


The authors say they have taken into account three important issues in the book: the students' need for progress, their desire for completion and the need to avoid overload. This really ties in with our priorities. It is very discouraging for someone who has been studying English for at least five years to take a placement test and be told that they need to start at the lowest level offered. We need to show them that this time it is different.


To ensure rapid progress, this course leaves some deliberate holes in the syllabus which will be picked up at later levels. The assumption is that students want to get far enough into the syllabus to reach the past tense. However, these areas have been deliberately avoided: a full account of countable and uncountable nouns, frequency adverbs, adverbs of manner and possessive pronouns. Personally speaking, I approve of this.


Interestingly, with regard to some and any, In English makes it clear that Would you like some wine? is an offer not a question. The book is also good about teaching I'd like … before I like … to stop students saying Do you like a coffee?


Another feature of the course design is the desire to avoid splitting language items into unnatural chunks, e.g. I, you, we, they in one unit, and he, she, it in the next. As they point out, this leads to silly situations in the classroom with the teacher unnaturally avoiding the 3rd person. They think that students can't wait to get the whole picture, so, for the same reason, they introduce affirmative, negative and question forms together. I've used the book with two classes during the trial, and colleagues have used it with other classes. None of them seemed overloaded or confused because of these full presentations.


Since listening and pronunciation were so high on our list of priorities, we liked the audio exercises in the Grammar Practice Book. The student is given the cue on tape, e.g. some water , and prompted to say I'd like some water. This is then modelled on the tape. One student enthusiastically put the CD in his Walkman and carried it about.


Our students have very little opportunity to interact with native speakers outside the classroom and they found the CD a very manageable aid to pronunciation work in their free time.


The recordings have a reasonable range of accents, and are spoken at the lower end of natural speed. They are quite short, as you would expect, and are often quite funny, which students appreciated.


I particularly liked the picture dictionary in the Vocabulary Practice Book. The pictures are bright colour photographs, not the dodgy drawings you sometimes get, where even the teacher can't tell if it's meant to be a potato or an egg. Some of our students, who are usually reluctant to study at home, liked the look of the book and said it encouraged them to study more often. A big plus. The context of all the photographs is modern and recognisable to Thai students, or at least our city dwellers. There are also photos of Asians looking cool and fashionable, just like the self image of our students in trend-conscious Bangkok.


At the time of the trial in Bangkok, only the Starter Level of the series was available, but the Elementary has now come out, although I have not yet seen a copy of the Student's Book. I cannot report that we have chosen to adopt the course, as we are still trialling. However, I am very impressed with it, and strongly supportive of the aims of the authors. In my view, it is the best of the Starter Level books we have trialled so far.


•   Audrey Aitken is the Head of Adult English Programmes at The British Council, Bangkok. She has wide-ranging experience in teaching and teacher-training in Asia and the Middle East.

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