[Carolyn Westbrook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. 208. ¥3,000. ISBN: 9781107615267.]
Unlock comprises two academic English textbook series, one focusing on reading and writing skills and the other on listening and speaking. This review focuses on the former. Each series is divided into four levels corresponding to CEFR levels A1 to B2 and is supplemented by an online workbook at no additional cost. The texts also feature one approximately 3- to 4-minute video per unit from Discovery Education. Teacher’s books with DVDs are available separately.
In addition to the basic skills focus, each unit of an Unlock: Reading & Writing Skills text includes objectives for: academically-oriented grammar skills; vocabulary, based on the Cambridge English Corpus; and critical thinking skills, based on Bloom’s taxonomy. Each text is composed of ten units that explore a variety of theme-based topics. For example, Unlock Reading & Writing 3, which I used as the core text for a 1st-year university EAP course, has units on animals, customs and traditions, history, transport, and the environment, among others. The units are tightly structured with each step building on the previous one, culminating in a writing task.
Prior to teaching with Unlock, I surveyed several of my students who had already used the series at a lower level. The students shared their impressions of Unlock: Reading & Writing 2 in writing and their comments were generally favorable. They typically said that they found the topics interesting and that they had helped them to expand their knowledge of the world. Many commented that they particularly enjoyed the videos. They also said that they found the exercises challenging but appreciated that they helped them to improve their English skills.
In terms of criticism, some found the units overly long and one student commented that completing the unit-ending skills review checklists was monotonous. While most said that they liked the layout, including the pictures, one mentioned that the fonts of some of the readings were denser and more difficult to read than some other English textbooks.
I surveyed the students about Unlock: Reading and Writing 3 at the end of my course. Again, the response was very favorable with all saying they would like to use the series again. They agreed unanimously that the structure was clear, the contents were up to date, and the exercises prepared them well for the unit-ending tasks. While most felt the exercises were at appropriate level, one expressed a desire for more challenging vocabulary.
From the standpoint of a teacher, I found Unlock useful as a core text as it engaged the students and was designed so that it was unnecessary to create many supplementary materials. Unlock’s content has an authentic feel, to which the Discovery Education videos contribute. The series broaches serious issues related to society, culture, health, technology, and the environment, making it a good stepping stone to authentic materials. Furthermore, the texts frequently provide opportunities for the students to relate the topics to their own lives and national context, which helps them to personalize the learning process (Tomlinson & Masuhara, 2013, p. 233).
The organization of the text was clearly explained and was easy to follow. The registration process for the online workbook was initially tricky, but the contents themselves were fairly intuitive and contained a good range of activities related to major steps of the unit. On the other hand, the teacher’s book was slightly difficult to follow, as it lacked corresponding page numbers to enable the teacher to flip back and forth between it and the student’s book.
Unlock’s clear structure and linkage between sections works well if it is used as a core text but not as a supplementary text as this tight structure does not provide much flexibility. Furthermore, the final tasks are often dependent upon the students having completed the previous exercise, which implies a high degree of commitment to the text. The text’s strict adherence to the formal structure of academic writing also places a limitation on how creatively students can approach these writing tasks.
In conclusion, textbooks can provide the basic framework for a course (Hutchinson & Torres, 1994), and Unlock does this well if your goal is to provide students with an introduction to the basics of academic reading and writing. Naturally, a teacher needs to be careful about not becoming overly reliant on the text, which is a risk in this case. Finally, the most important thing a text needs to do in order to be an effective teaching tool is to grab and hold the students’ attention (Cunningsworth, 1995), which Unlock also does well.
Cunningsworth, A. (1995). Choosing your coursebook. Oxford, UK: Heinemann.
Hutchinson, T., & Torres, E. (1994). The textbook as agent of change. ELT Journal, 48(4), 315-328.
Tomlinson, B., & Masuhara, H. (2013). Adult coursebooks. ELT Journal, 67(2), 233-249.