My first blog entry starts with a review of an old coursebook which I used as a student in elementary school.
ENGLISH IS FUN
Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne
The other day I spotted this tattered, dog-eared, English book bound in a sheet of a magazine for gardeners (“Działkowiec” in Polish). It has lingered on my shelves for over twenty years, unmoved and not tickled by my curiosity until recently when it somehow drew my attention and I hit on an idea to use it as a background for (hopefully) a series of reviews of old books for learning and teaching English. That’s getting a little bit too sentimental, but I think it’s worth seeing how these old texts contributed to my language education back then.
The book is the first of a three-part series of coursebooks for teaching English that were widely used in Polish schools in the 80s and early 90s. It is made up of 26 lessons, each lesson introduces new language through language skills. There are, however, no tasks for building up and consolidating writing skills.
What I like this book for:
A personal touch or feel of Polish coursebook writers from the 80s or 90s. Initially I was going to assign most of the writing exclusively to this aspect as what drove me to write this review was the charm and appeal that old coursebooks had in my opinion, but later I got a little disappointed and I dropped this intention when it turned out that English is Fun hasn’t got much more to offer than ordinary coursebooks written in the same fashion or for the same mould as most of the coursebooks in the Polish EFL market in that period. Most likely I have also mistaken this book for the self-study texts such as English at Home by Andrzej Kopczyński and Zofia Jancewicz or Meet this Challenge by Janusz Vobożil, which are more individualistic in character and which are still awaiting reviews.
Nevertheless, what singles this book out is
- The phonetic transcription of full proper names provided at the end of the book in an add-on dictionary of proper names, the thing which you cannot normally find in coursebooks available on the market now. For example I couldn’t find the transcription of some of the compound place-names like the Statue of Liberty or St. James Park as whole phrases in the pronunciation dictionaries such as Longman Pronunciation Dictionary or English Pronouncing Dictionary
- Provision of new vocabulary from reading texts in the form of full sentences with their complete translation into Polish, a feature which the publishers of most of the coursebooks today abstain from. This particular feature is all the more helpful with the authors’ focus on idiomatic or semi-idiomatic expressions such as
He is with a ……….. firm – pracuje w firmie …
Phillip is still at school – Philp jeszcze chodzi do szkoły
I hear they do a lot of maths here – Podobno jest tu (robią tu) bardzo dużo matematyki
That put us on the right track – to naprowadziło nas na właściwy trop
- The no-glare, no-glossy clear to read layout of the pages. Only black, white and sepia colours for the print have been used
- The reproductions, albeit not so successful of authentic materials or realia, that is theatre posters, shop ads, company posters. The art of these features leaves much to be desired but with the publishing industry back then in Poland at the beginning of the 90s the job done seems quite a feat. Personally I like them very much as they contain a lot of useful cultural information and idiomatic expressions presented in context that are ready for the students to pick up if the teacher dutifully draws students’ attention to them. Moreover, they are especially useful bearing in mind the fact that it is a coursebook for beginners. Some of the reproductions have been adapted from English coursebooks of Mary Glasgow Publications Ltd. And they include the following examples:
“admission” on a poster to the youth club
“proceeds and jumble sale” on a jumble sale poster
“require furnished flat” on a flat ad
“Fish and Chips to take away. Fried while you wait”.
- The layout is linear, each lesson is spread across many pages. This leaves the teacher a choice to decide how to divide the material into lessons
- Grammar is explained in clear, legible Polish, which is advisable at the beginning level. This feature is usually missing in the English coursebooks used now which resort to grammar expounded in English metalangue, difficult to understand for the begining students
- Special features: magic squares that I found when leafing through the book. These are squares or grids that look like those for playing Noughts & Crosses game, or resembling small crosswords with 3-letter words to be filled in, which when read horizontally or vertically give the same words as solutions to the clues
- Many of the questions to exercises are in the open-ended format. This encourages the learners to write full, well-thought-out and carefully constructed sentences instead of filling in the blanks, the tasks that are so pervasive in the modern coursebooks
- Questions in Polish checking understanding of some of the items dealing with the pragmatics of language
- A seven-part kidnap story that students might enjoy
- Crossword puzzles or odd-man out exercises strewn here or there that make learning more enjoyable
What I don’t like this book for
I would do a disservice comparing this book to the modern coursebooks used in the classes now but there are some elements that are missing in English is Fun. Moreover, the ELT publishing industry has made a major step since the nineties so for the benefit of comparison and contrast I thought I might point out a few deficiencies of the book in this review.
- The learning objectives of the units are not laid out at the beginning of the lessons
- Scarcity of the listening material
- Artificial, non-authentic dialogues
- In view of the fact that the lessons are longer, the number of grammar exercises, vocabulary tasks and reading texts allotted for one lesson unit are usually fewer than in the usual, contemporary coursebooks
- I haven’t got to see the teacher’s guide to this book but although I know that one exists, I cannot say how this supporting side of the coursebook fares.
- The reading texts and the dialogues seem a little old-fashioned, with some simplifications and stereotyping about the British culture
- The book may not live up to the learning objectives that some teachers and their students may have: it is far from the communicative approach that is the mainstay of most of the language programmes nowadays
- It doesn’t contain periodic language roundups, summaries, consolidations or revisions
- Although the approach to the use of the book is fairly straightforward, it doesn’t contain any walkthroughs at the beginning guiding students and teachers to the content and structure of the course
- For the generation of students accustomed to the attractiveness of the coursebooks provided for them now, I suppose this particular coursebook would not look interesting and fun
- As an advocate of self-study books containing supporting materials for independent study, I don’t think this book would be suitable for students with the inclination for autonomous learning
Would it be a good idea to adopt such a book today for the classes you teach now?
With the inventiveness and resourcefulness of English teachers, I am sure that anyone would cope with the coursebook of that sort no matter what. However it’s apparent that with the requirements of curricula and examination boards in Poland nowadays, the teachers would be obliged to supplement their work with a lot of additional materials taken from other coursebooks, websites or would have to design materials of their own.
All in all
This was one of the first coursebooks which I used in the elementary school at the time when learning English was a drudgery for me, a scourge. I didn’t like learning English then, because it was difficult and painful. That’s why I am now paying tribute to this book by writing a review, I’m giving it its due to show that nevertheless English language learning efforts paid off. Coming back to those days in the elementary school I remember my classmates who somehow learned English at a much more faster rate than me, they simply enjoyed it – I didn’t. Now I can openly say that I caught up with the average at least.