Frances Eales & Steve Oakes. Essex: Pearson, 2015. pp. v + 176. ¥3,570. ISBN: 978-1-2921-1592-4.
Speakout Elementary is a textbook written for A1 to A2 students (Elementary to Pre-Intermediate) on the CEFR scale (CEFR; Council of Europe, 2001), and is the second in a series of six books. It is being used for a one hour and forty-five-minute, 13-week, General English communication course at a Japanese university.
The textbook comprises 12 themed units which cover the core skills of speaking, listening, reading, writing, vocabulary, and grammar. Each unit is broken down into four, self-contained subunits which focus on different skills. For example, subunit 0.1 typically has a strong vocabulary, grammar and reading focus, while subunit 0.3 predominantly concentrates on speaking, listening and functional English. Subunit 0.4 contains a BBC clip with comprehension questions and speaking and writing exercises. The plethora of activities available offer the teacher lots of flexibility as they can choose which skills to focus on within each subunit.
The speaking and listening sections in the book use real world situations including ordering food in a restaurant and arranging a night out. They usually start with personalized discussion questions on the topic. These generate interest and allow students to think about how the language studied relates to their own life experiences, a feature not typically found in elementary textbooks. The target language reflects what students are likely to use and encounter in real life. Through controlled and fluency activities, students can use the English learned in a meaningful way.
The grammar point of each subunit is introduced inductively through a reading or listening exercise. By presenting the target language this way, students are given the opportunity to make discoveries about how English is used (Masuhara & Tomlinson, 2008). This improves motivation and language retention. Extra grammar, vocabulary and controlled conversation practice is offered in the back of the book and online, providing more scaffolding and language input before the final controlled and fluency tasks.
A key strength of the textbook is its audio and video content. There are two types of videos provided in each unit: interviews with people on the streets on the unit topic and clips taken from famous BBC TV shows. Students surveyed like the authentic nature of the audio and videos and the introduction to other cultures. They also often prove challenging for students as they use native speeds, weak forms, and connected speech. The audio uses language beyond the subunit’s target structures, thus emulating what students may encounter outside of the classroom. Students are therefore given the opportunity to practice listening for keywords. The videos and audio not only give students a better chance of being able to understand English outside of the classroom, but also cover interesting topics, thus improving student motivation.
The textbook also pays attention to cultural aspects of language acquisition. In addition to practicing weak forms, the pronunciation exercises focus on polite intonation. This is important for making learners aware of culturally appropriate ways of addressing people that may be different from their own native language (Peterson & Coltrane, 2003). Although the book focuses on British English, the audio and video also include people whose first language is not English, exposing students to additional multiple accents.
A major criticism of the book from students is its formatting and page design. The target language is not presented as clearly as it could be, and a lot of activities are condensed onto one page in a very small sized font. Also, each subunit contains many activities and teaching points, so teachers need to be selective about what they use. Due to the amount of language covered in each subunit, I would only recommend this book for high-level elementary learners who have encountered the target language before. Occasionally, some writing and speaking activities do not relate to previous controlled activities, so language must be scaffolded more, which can make planning challenging. For these reasons, this textbook may not be suitable for all classroom contexts, for example junior high schools or low-level elementary classes.
Speakout Elementary is an excellent book for university students or adult learners who would like to encounter English as it is spoken and written outside of the controlled classroom environment. The unit topics are interesting and have a wide variety of activities, providing a good foundation for university students who are planning to study abroad. Using Speakout Elementary, my students have developed better English communication skills using real world English.
Council of Europe. (2001). Common European framework of reference for languages: Learning, teaching, assessment. Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.
Masuhara, H., & Tomlinson, B. (2008). Materials for general English. In B. Tomlinson (Ed.), English language learning materials: A critical review (pp. 27-48). Continuum.