[Helen Stephenson. Heinle Cengage Learning, 2011. p. 128. ¥2,415. ISBN: 978-0-495-90861-6.]
English Explorer 1 provides a complete 4-skills lesson package with a focus on global understanding. The first book in the series is geared towards lower level high school and university aged students. The complete series runs up to level 4. Each book in the series comes with a workbook, CD-ROM, and teacher’s book, each of which is illustrated with bold travel pictures and cultural stories, the hallmarks of National Geographic.
The English Explorer 1 student book is divided into eight units, and each of these units is further divided into two-page lessons. A lesson will start off with a dialog listening section followed by simple vocabulary, grammar, and speaking exercises. The workbook in this series is a homework-centered collection of vocabulary and grammar exercises and reading tasks based on a cultural topic. The teacher’s book includes: a cheat sheet, a collection of transcripts, lesson plans, and pre-made unit tests. Included in the package is Interactive Whiteboard Software, a software program that allows for clear presentation of the material for classrooms set up with the proper CALL equipment. The last item in the series is what sets this series apart from other 4-skills textbooks. The DVD has authentic National Geographic stories that have been rewritten for the second language learner with subtitles to maximize comprehension.
English Explorer 1 is a complete 4-skills textbook. Listening, speaking, and writing are all covered. Pre-made tests and quizzes are found in the teacher’s book. The interactive software will replace the chalkboard. With English Explorer under your arm, you can walk out of the classroom at the end of the semester and know that you have covered all the bases including: reading, writing, listening, speaking, homework, tests, and content that focuses on global understanding.
The other advantage to the book is its cooperation with National Geographic in creating learning materials. This lends the distinct advantage of opening students’ eyes to the wider role of communication in understanding the world. Skopinskaja (2009) argues that “the process of teaching and learning a foreign language embodies the presence of another culture as well as contact with Otherness” (pp. 135-136). Learning English is not just about features of the language but about an understanding of other cultures. English Explorer makes this a key aspect of students’ education by making every lesson a global trip.
A subtler problem with English Explorer is the same qualities that make it a success. English Explorer is designed for a wide audience and, as such, it is tightly designed down to the last detail, which may compromise learner autonomy. Learner autonomy is an idea that does not feature easily in a textbook that is designed for a large audience. According to Dörnyei (2001), learner autonomy allows the student to be “free to choose and to have choices, rather than being forced or coerced to behave according to someone else’s desire” and that this learning autonomy is a “prerequisite to motivation” (p. 103). This is where English Explorer 1 falls short. The textbook fills the class time, but it leaves little room for teachers to develop a conversation-based lesson that goes outside the parameters of the textbook. For those who are hoping for a conversation-based lesson, this is a point worth making. An example of where this becomes an issue with is the DVD. The DVD includes eight 5-minute videos that students will listen to three times. There is an accompanying 1-page worksheet that focuses on comprehension and uses fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice questions. The comprehension questions do not elicit a conversation since they are based on bottom-up comprehension questions that quiz details of the video passage as opposed to essay style questions that solicit opinions and a broader understanding. As soon as the students have finished with the listening, there is not much more the class can do. The bottom-up processing nature of the material left my students ambivalent about the textbook and the material. Although the class did flow well, I did not sense any of my students were particularly inspired.
In summary, English Explorer 1 can provide a complete package in just about any setting but may not be workable for a teacher who wants to use the textbook for broader conversational lessons.
Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Motivational strategies in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Skopinskaja, L. (2009). Assessing intercultural communicative competence. Synergies, 6, 135-144.