[Marc Helgesen, Steve Brown, & John Wiltshier. Hong Kong: Pearson Longman Asia ELT, 2010. pp. 144. ¥2,867 (including two CDs containing all course listening materials). ISBN: 9789880030604.]
Reviewed by Julian Pigott, Kansai University
English Firsthand (4th edition) is the latest incarnation of Longman’s long-running skills-based series for young adult learners. Book 2 (intermediate) is the highest level of four books (Access, Success, Firsthand 1, and Firsthand 2). It contains more than enough material to keep university students engaged for 30 weeks of 90-minute classes. A workbook provides review activities, and the teacher’s manual comes with a CD-ROM which contains test materials and activity sheets. In addition, Longman Japan maintains a website (www.efcafe.com) where students and teachers can find supplementary review activities and a selection of useful links to other learning resources.
English Firsthand 2 is a four-skills course that emphasizes oral communication. Like the other books in the series, it consists of 12 units plus an introductory unit and two review units. The language focus, topics, and activities of each unit are centered on a particular skill (for example, Talking about the past). In each unit, a seven-step procedure introduces relevant vocabulary and structures through listening exercises, and provides structured and freer conversation practice through personalized tasks. Reading and writing exercises towards the end of each unit offer further opportunities for language recycling and consolidation.
One particularly positive feature of English Firsthand 2 is the care taken to scaffold activities. In Unit 3—Where Should I Go?—for example, the main aim of the preview section is to introduce six adjectives related to travel. Rather than being presented with a word list, students are first expected to guess as much of the vocabulary as they can by reference to antonyms and visual clues. The accompanying recording provides not only the answers, but also contextualizing sentences. Finally, a follow-up activity encourages students to brainstorm nouns with which these adjectives could reasonably collocate. This scaffolding provides a supportive learning framework, which is especially welcome for students who lack confidence using English. Such careful attention to detail characterizes the English Firsthand series as a whole.
In general, there is a focus on pair work rather than group work in English Firsthand 2. This emphasis, along with clearly stated goals and scaffolding, motivates students—especially those who generally lack enthusiasm for English classes—to be active task participants (Dörnyei, 2001). During the activities themselves, some interesting exercises are utilized to facilitate meaningful interaction. For example, in Unit 2—You Must be Excited—the questioner checks a box every time she comments or asks follow-up questions, and the answerer checks a box every time she gives an extended answer. Methods such as these are a handy way to help students keep more interesting conversations going for longer.
In terms of level, topics, and relevance to the EFL context, English Firsthand 2 scores highly. It is less challenging in terms of the presentation of new material than comparable textbooks. In my opinion this is a positive feature, because it allows more time for fluency practice, in line with recent arguments that up to 75% of class time should be spent on meaning-focused input and output (Nation & Newton, 2009). The topics in English Firsthand 2, while generic, are personalized, encouraging students to share their own experiences and ideas. This fits with an EFL context-relevant view of authenticity, in which authenticity is viewed as meaningful interaction that works in the classroom—which is, after all, EFL students’ main English world—rather than using a more abstract concept of authenticity based on a native speaker ideal or corpus data to judge the potential worth of student interaction.
My reservations about English Firsthand 2 are minor. The Model Conversation section may perhaps be more suited to students using the lower level books, who are more likely to appreciate controlled practice. This is one respect in which the standardized format may have some disadvantages as well as advantages in terms of ease-of-use. Although English Firsthand is visually appealing, I feel that the distinctive hand-drawn artwork of the New Gold Edition gave more of a personal feel to the series than the computer generated manga-style characters of the current edition. The teacher’s book is now printed in black-and-white, making it less user-friendly than its predecessor. Progress tests have been relegated to the CD-ROM, which is regrettably accessible only to Windows users.
These reservations notwithstanding, I have no hesitation in recommending English Firsthand 2 to teachers looking for a general communication-based textbook. The clear layout, well-defined aims, varied and interesting pair work activities, and opportunities for fluency practice distinguish it from many of its competitors.
Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Motivational strategies in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nation, I. S. P., & Newton, N. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL listening and speaking. New York: Routledge.