March 2003 -- Volume 6, Number 4

Project Plus

Project Plus Student's Book
Tom Hutchinson (2002)
Oxford: Oxford University Press
Pp. 88
ISBN 0-19-436550-6 (paper)
£9.60

Project Plus Teacher's Book
Tom Hutchinson (2002)
Pp. 126
ISBN 0-19-436552-2 (paper)
£9.90

Project Plus Workbook
Tom Hutchinson (2002)
Pp. 88
ISBN 0-19-436551-4 (paper)
£5.80

Project Plus Cassettes (2)
ISBN 0-19-436553-0
£21.00

According to the teacher's book, "Project Plus is a pre-intermediate course for learners in their mid-teens, who need to consolidate their knowledge of English before going on to study at a higher level." (p. 4) The objective is to review and consolidate material introduced in the previous Project series texts. The Project series is a five-level beginner's course for young learners (ages 10+). The author's teaching approach includes both communicative and traditional methods. He incorporates aspects of structural, topic-based, and functional syllabi, but emphasizes integrated skill development and group work throughout the text.

The student's book is colorful and visually appealing. The pages include stylized headings and ample pictures that deal with the topics in the text. A handy color-coded table of contents describes what is covered in each unit. For example, the first unit includes topics such as relative clauses and asking for clarification. The units are organized by topic: People in Our Lives, Lifestyles, Strange but True, Entertainment, Risk, Changes, Ideal Places, and Getting There. Within each unit are five sections: Grammar, Skills, Everyday English, Extensive Reading, and Working with Words. Each section is bordered by a different color, making it easy to locate.

Most Grammar sections begin with a short, topic-based text piece on which the exercises are based. The exercises contain explicit practice in an area of structural grammar and include questions about the reading, cloze passages, matching, and devising rules about the grammar topic using the text. For example, the students are asked questions such as, "When do we use the tense?"; "Is it the same for all subjects?"; "Are there irregular forms?" (p. 27) [-1-]

The Skills sections include reading, listening and speaking, and writing exercises. The reading activities include comprehension and opinion questions as well as fill-in-the-blanks and putting items in order of occurrence. Most of the reading sections are preceded by questions; examples include "Would you like to do this?"(p. 36); "Look at the title of the text. Who do you think this text is for?"(p. 56) The listening and speaking exercises include a listening passage on the cassette and group speaking activities such as role-plays and discussion. The writing exercises include activities such as analysis of text organization or topics, and finding linking words in a text. Each writing section also requires the students to produce a piece of writing.

The Everyday English section begins with a listening piece, for example, a conversation or a portion of a debate, and is followed by a section on identifying and using common English expressions. The expressions are organized such that each section focuses on a situation (making an appointment) or a function (expressing like or dislike). The students practice the expressions in group activities such as writing plays or having debates.

The Extensive Reading section includes a full page of text. There are workbook activities that go along with the reading passages such as fill-in-the-blanks, matching, questions about the text, and putting events in the order of occurrence. The teacher's book has suggestions for pre- and post-reading activities such as having the students make predictions about the text, reviews of important vocabulary terms, and content schema activating questions.

Each unit concludes with Working with Words, a section focused on developing vocabulary. Some examples of exercises include labeling pictures, giving examples (such as an example of a cartoon program), matching, and converting nouns to adjectives. Each vocabulary section also includes some exercises using phrasal verbs.

After every two main units, there are extension and review sections. The extension section includes a reading piece about a cultural aspect of an English-speaking country. It also presents three project ideas from which the students can choose. The section concludes with the students listening to and answering questions about a pop rock song produced for English speakers. The review sections contain exercises using the grammar, vocabulary, and topics introduced in the previous two units.

There are a number of special sections at the end of the book. The main one is a pronunciation section. Some examples of the activities in this section are matching phonetic transcriptions with words, determining which word has the main stress in a sentence, and differentiating between word pairs that have long or short vowel sounds. The book concludes with an acknowledgements section and a list of irregular verbs with past tense and past participle forms.

Throughout, the book includes both authentic and nonauthentic materials. It acknowledges a variety of sources that contributed to the reading pieces, including Daily Mail (Atlantic Syndication); Focus (National Magazine Company); and Strange Stories, Amazing Facts (Reader's Digest Association). The extensive reading sections appear to be nonauthentic. With the exception of the songs, the listening pieces appear to have been produced for use with the text. Native speakers read them clearly and at a relatively slow pace. The authentic songs are pop songs such as We Are The Champions by Queen.

Although Hutchinson asserts that the textbook follows a task-based syllabus, there is actually a lot of grammar. One could argue that there are pedagogic tasks included, but any classroom activity, and thus almost any text, could fit this general definition. More formally, task-based language teaching involves a needs analysis of the students to determine their real-world language tasks and a focus on meaning, addressing form when the need arises in the context of communicative activities (Long, 2000). The contents of the Project Plus series are rather general and there is no needs assessment of the learners.

Although this is the case, the text still seems appropriate for teenage FL learners. The population with the highest demand for grammar-focused instruction is typically highly educated, advanced adults with a formal need for English, whereas young, beginning, uneducated students without a formal need for the language are the least suited. FL secondary students fall in the middle. An approach with some grammar is probably appropriate. The text provides grammar instruction and drills with each unit but also a great deal of group work and interaction. Thus, it is a compromise between a focus on form and a focus on meaning. This is likely to be the most useful approach for a target audience with the general needs of FL secondary school students.

The activities in the text, particularly in the Skills speaking and listening sections, include many opportunities for interaction between the students. This seems to be a strong point of the series. Interaction not only aids comprehension, but acquisition as well. The learner is able to produce comprehensible output, develop and utilize speaking and listening skills, and attend to form. Consequently, the extensive use of role-plays, acting, information gaps, and other interactive activities in Project Plus allows the students to benefit from improvements in acquisition and comprehension.[-2-]

One possible area of concern regarding the interactive activities is the lack of accountability placed on the students for accomplishing the tasks. Some of the activities give an assignment, but there is no apparent check to ensure that the students accomplish their task. For example, one task assigns each of three students a role and instructs them to practice using the expressions from the section. Then they change roles and make new conversations. Teachers planning to use these activities may have to incorporate a method to ensure that the students stay on-task; both primary and secondary students tend to be easily distracted.

The author's rationale for including project work is as a source of positive motivation, relevance, and educational development of the learner (Teacher's Book, p. 8). It allows the students to pick a project to complete after every two units. Examples include interviewing for and writing up case studies about a social problem faced by young people, conducting a survey about what types of media people use and their opinions of them, or making a leaflet/guide for young people about how to survive their teenage years. The projects allow the students to work at their own pace, use a wide range of skills, and focus on communicating what is most important to them. Since no needs assessment is included, allowing the students to have some control over what they produce in the course will likely contribute to the student's motivation because it adds relevance and transferability to what is learned.

One potential problem with the project work, however, is the apparent lack of preparation of the students for the tasks. Since the projects are only one component of a regular class rather than being a long-term focus of the course, there does not appear to be sufficient preparation for the tasks. For example, some projects require students to interview people or research various topics, but there are not practice activities aside from minimal discussion or brainstorming. Since the students are at the late-beginning level, it is unlikely that they will be prepared to accomplish tasks like interviewing without a lot of apprehension and frustration, particularly in an ESL setting. Due to this relative lack of preparation and the actual projects playing a comparatively minor role in the text, it seems relatively inappropriate and potentially misleading to have a title such as Project Plus.

The author still does accomplish his objective of presenting motivating topics for the students, though. Topics such as pop music, tattoos, and dealing with nagging parents are likely to have validity in the opinions of the students, and thus include an element of relevance. If used in an FL setting, the needs of the audience are broad and the students will likely not have a specific immediate need for English. Consequently, having interesting topics that young people care about is a good strategy for making the course seem applicable to the students' lives.

The biggest area of concern is the listening items. They tend to be simplified, and spoken clearly and slowly. Although a novice listener can benefit from hearing a simplified code, the target audience is preparing to transition to the intermediate level and should be exposed to more authentic material. Intermediate learners need to move beyond the safety of nonauthentic discourse and encounter language at a faster pace with reduced forms. Consequently, supplemental materials, such as authentic videos, may benefit a course using this text but designed to prepare students for intermediate study.

Overall, Project Plus is a course that allows for ample interaction among students and use of the target language. It is congruent with the stated objectives and approach of the author, incorporating grammar but including active use of the language through speaking and listening activities on topics that will likely be interesting to adolescent students. Although I feel that the amount of explicit grammar instruction may be more than is necessary, I would still recommend the text for a FL class that wishes to incorporate a structural focus as well as a focus on interaction and communication. Instructors must be cautioned, however, to not be misled by the title of the text into expecting extended project work as part of the course; integrating a focus on extended project work would require extensive supplementing.

Reference

Long, M. H. (2000). Focus on Form in Task-Based Language Teaching. In R. D. Lambert & E. Shohamy (Eds.). Language Policy and Pedagogy. Philadephia: John Benjamins. pp. 179-192.

Editor's note: For more information, see http://www.oup.com/elt/global/isbn/2720/?view=get

Laura Carrion
Michigan State University
<carrionL@msu.edu >

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