Level: B1 +, Intermediate
Authors: Helen Stephenson, Paul Dummett and John Hughes
Published by: National Geographic Learning and Cengage Learning
What they say on the website:
“Life is driven by rich National Geographic content and the fundamental values of inspiring people to care about the planet, celebrating human achievement and exploring diversity. This material is brought together in a design that is unique in an ELT context while the language syllabus surpasses expectations.”
Some of this sounded a little “worthy” but I was keen to see whether the claim about the language syllabus delivered. So, did Life live up to the hype?
Life at a glance:
Stunning photographs, sumptuous colour spreads and attractive lay out make this course book a visual treat. One whole page in each unit is taken up by an image (no text except for a heading) which seems like a bit of a luxury. Although many of the pictures could inspire discussion, the same can’t be said for all of them (some are simply gorgeous photos of land and cityscapes). I love using pictures in class, but to be useful they really need to inspire interesting questions, rather than: Wow – amazing view, don’t you think?
The contents page reveals that critical thinking is listed beside the four usual ELT skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking. Never having consciously taught critical thinking before, I was intrigued by this.
Functional language and pronunciation are listed beside grammar and vocabulary. At a glance, I felt the vocabulary looked rather more high level than the vocabulary presented in Navigate (my learners agreed with me).
Appeal to (this) teacher:
At first glance, the content seems fresh, interesting and truly international. It couldn’t be further removed from the Anglo-centric Headway course I started out teaching from in 1998. I like the idea of learning about the world as I teach, and this book, with its video on Confucius and Chinese culture and its focus on the natural world seemed to promise just that possibility.
The video content for this course looks particularly interesting, and having worked through one video lesson with my learners I can testify that the accompanying tasks are well thought out.
Appeal to (my) learners:
I thought my international group of learners would appreciate the photos and the global focus. However, I was surprised to find that when I gave them copies of Life and Navigate they said that they perceived very little difference between the two. “The same, just the same” was the shrugged verdict of one, although a few learners noticed that the reading texts were longer and there were more “unknown words” in Life.
Interestingly, my learners seemed a lot more bothered about the skills, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation objectives listed in the contents page than they were in the books’ themes and subject matter (I had expected the opposite).
Focus on skills:
The reading texts seem a little long side in many cases. In a few cases they also seem a little dull (I am thinking in particular about a text on dancing which takes three lengthy paragraphs to conclude that dancing is a good thing).
Reading comprehension questions also (once per unit) lead into critical thinking activities. Critical thinking, is off course, an ELT buzz word at the moment. It’s not exactly what I had expected (no mention anywhere of red herrings, bandwagons or cleans and dirties). To me, the activities in Life seemed to practise traditionally taught academic skills, such as close reading, summarising and relevance. As such, I think they would be pretty useful in an EAP context, but I’m really not sure how much my learners would benefit from/appreciate these tasks.
Writing tasks generally reflect real life writing situations, e.g.: website profiles, formal letters, covering letters and reports although I would question the inclusion of postcards at this level. The support given is adequate and good model texts are supplied in each case. I like the way that suggestions for peer feedback are built into the activities.
Listening texts are varied and interesting in content and the length is generally appropriate. It would have been good if learners’ bottom up processing skills had been addressed a little more consistently.
Speaking topics and activities are also nicely varied, with simple conversational activities, group discussions and task based learning style puzzles. The role-plays following on from the video lessons are a really nice touch.
Focus on grammar and lexis:
Vocabulary is introduced thematically. There are Word focus and Word building sections which give learners further opportunity to work with the new lexis. I have already mentioned that I felt the vocabulary level to be pitched slightly higher than Navigate. For my learners, this is a really good thing as lexically they are quite strong (probably due to living in the UK). However, I did at times, question the relevance of the words taught: for example “water and recreation” words are introduced at the beginning of Unit 3. Are words for twelve different water sport words really the most useful lexical items to teach students? Even in Shetland, surrounded by water on all sides I would have to say “no”.
As with Navigate, there is a strong focus on verb and tense grammar wise. The grammar summary at the back of the book also contains practice exercises.
Opportunities for localisation and personalisation:
There are plenty of opportunities to personalise and localise this content. The fact that there is such a strong focus on place throughout means that there are numerous possibilities to involve your learners in talking about their countries of origin or indeed the place they are now living. For example, the unit on Living Space (which features Mongolian gers and Cambodian houses on stilts could easily be expanded to include discussion of a traditional Shetland croft house.
The Unit on Wellbeing provides scope for learners to describe dishes from their own country and is a perfect prompt for a “pot luck supper” in class (where learners and teachers all bring in national food).
As the stories in the reading and listening texts are true, a little internet research could yield related articles or short videos which, depending on learners’ interests, could spark off interesting follow up projects.
Role plays in the video section could also be expanded upon and perhaps even filmed (not just as a drama activity, but also as a useful means of self-assessment and feedback). At the end of the book, learners could film their own video about the place they are based. There are lots of possibilities here!
Well, what of the claims made by Life’s publishers? Well, the material wasn’t too preachy or worthy (as I had feared it might be): it was fresh and (I felt) interesting. In terms of language and skills, there are some pretty nice touches but, as you might expect, nothing revolutionary.
Life is an attractive and pretty unusual course book. If I were teaching a in a more academic context I’m sure I would be tempted to give it a go. There are sample resources here, so don’t take my word for it – see for yourself.