[Miles Craven, London: MacMillan Education, 2016. pp. iii + 119. ¥2,700. ISBN: 9781786329363.]
Breakthrough Plus is a five-level, communication-focused classroom textbook series that covers all four skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The Introduction textbook is geared towards CEFR A1 learners, and students’ progress to CEFR B2 by the end of the series. Each level includes a student book, teacher’s resource pack with a test generator, digital book (digibook 2.0) for interactive whiteboards, audio CDs, and websites for both students and teachers.
Each book in the series contains 12 thematic units with grammar focus, pronunciation practise, vocabulary development, and a quiz. Every third unit includes a review and accompanying test. At the back of the book, there are word lists, grammar references, and pronunciation sections.
Units start with a warm-up that familiarises students with the theme. This is accompanied by the Language Box, which outlines the grammar targets for the unit. After completing these introductory activities, students proceed to vocabulary development, which usually consists of matching and/or fill in the blank activities. The textbook then moves on to short cloze listening activities that focus on vocabulary and/or phrases heard in conversations. In the Language in Action section, students are given visual prompts, such as a picture or manga-styled scenario about the theme of the unit, and are first asked to talk about the visual prompt and then their personal experiences. This is followed by a listening section—usually a monologue on the theme. Students complete activities such as true-false or cloze exercises. After each listening activity, students progress to a personalized speaking activity that asks them questions about their experiences and beliefs, most often based on the listening topic. There are expansion activities on the final two pages: vocabulary and listening sections are usually matching and true or false activities, reading is often a short paragraph with follow-up questions, and the writing activity asks students to write a short paragraph based on the unit theme.
There are many positive attributes to this series. Teachers can download the digibook 2.0 and utilize interactive whiteboards. Scaffolding of the activities offers support throughout each unit, and students review target structures or vocabulary. Students know what to do because activities are repeated throughout the book. Most interactions in English are between non-native speakers, so it is notable that listening activities take a World Englishes approach by relying on outer circle and expanding circle (Kachru, 1997) speakers rather than the standard American accent many textbooks seem to favor.
Students commented that they liked the themes, word lists, and grammar activities. They appreciated the interactive whiteboard because they could see answers clearly. I have used books three and four, and not much preparation is necessary. Review tests help identify areas that students could improve upon, and most teachers I surveyed agree that a test generator is useful when it comes time to create final exams.
However, there are shortcomings. Students commented that the website is difficult to navigate and lacks Japanese support, so no one used it. From a teacher’s perspective, new vocabulary often lacks context and does not appear to be based on any corpus or word list. To develop vocabulary, students need a critical mass of new words (Thornbury, 2002) which need to be recycled (Waring & Takaki, 2003). Unfortunately, there appears to be very little recycling or new vocabulary introduced. In addition, supplementary activities seem short and lack examples. The textbook also attempts to address many topics, which leads to superficial coverage of content and a lack of opportunity to expand skills.
Despite the supplementary materials, the user-friendly outline, and interesting themes, accessibility to the teacher resources with this edition is disappointing. The previous edition had supplementary materials in the digibook 2.0 software that were much easier to access and use. This edition has removed this ease and accessibility. The previous edition also offered downloadable tests, quizzes, and supplementary materials. This edition has taken that all away, and teachers must log in to the website or download everything at once. The teachers’ website is not user-friendly because teachers must wade through numerous links to find what they need. Users of the current edition report software issues, and many of my colleagues have either reverted to the old digibook or downloaded materials from the website but rarely use them because locating them is time consuming.
Overall, the textbooks and CDs are user-friendly and well-designed if teachers just want to cover the basics and do not need extra resources. Digibook 2.0 software issues and the website interface require improved accessibility. If the publisher addresses these concerns, this series would improve greatly.
Kachru, B. B. (1997). World Englishes in 2000: Resources for research and teaching. In L. Smith & M. L. Forman (Eds.), World Englishes 2000 (pp. 209–251). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i & East-West Center.
Thornbury, S. (2002). How to teach vocabulary. Harlow: Pearson Education.
Waring, R. & Takaki, M. (2003). At what rate do learners learn and retain vocabulary from reading a graded reader? Reading in a Foreign Language, 15(2).