Auto-review of Life: A Six-level Course Series For Adult Learners
(Published by National Geographic Learning and Cengage Learning)
John Hughes, UK
John Hughes has worked in ELT since 1992. He’s a teacher trainer and author with over 20 titles and numerous articles in journals. His blog is www.elteachertrainer.com
The origin of ‘Life’
The initial question for the authors
Texts and critical thinking
A personal benchmark
I was first approached to work on developing materials for English language learners with National Geographic content about five years ago. At that time I was only aware of the National Geographic brand as a producer of magazines with astounding photographs and properly researched journalism. In fact many of my students and fellow teachers seemed more aware than me of National Geographic’s magazine, website and TV channel which cover everything from gritty human interest stories to major scientific breakthroughs.National Geographic also has a long tradition of producing learning materials for schools based on its content. After all, it is one of the largest non-profit scientific and educational institutions in the world.
The initial question in the project was whether the available material leant itself to ELT materials and – potentially – a six level course from beginner to advanced for young adult and adult learners of English. Very quickly the answer was ‘yes’ and a different problem emerged. With such a vast archive of content (in print, video and online) going back over 125 years where does the author begin?
The important issue for the author team (myself, Helen Stephenson and Paul Dummett) was that the materials should teach English (obviously) but also to reflect the ethos of National Geographic (‘to inspire people to care about the planet’) andso we aimed to accentuate the key strengths of National Geographic.
Usually when you write for ELT publications (and I’m basing this on my experience of working on about 30 different titles) the actual photographs are often chosen last. They are added to the materials to help teach some new language point or sometimes even as window dressing to reflect a mood. But with photography from National Geographic you can’t treat the images this way. Each one is a piece of art on its own merits. So for us, a photograph had to be the starting point for every new unit in a book. It’s used to introduce a topic, teach vocabulary, learn something new about the world and to provoke discussion.
National Geographic texts are long and detailed. You learn something new about the world when you read one. So this meant the texts in our course are longer than in other course books but we see that as a strength. It means students learn about a new topic, they develop reading skills and they learn new vocabulary. Longer texts also allow you to exploit areas such as text structure and the author’s opinion. For this reason, we developed a critical thinking syllabusthat draws on each major text in every unit.
I also found myself writing about regions and people in the world which probably have never made the pages of any ELT books before. With over 60 countries represented in the books in detail, it allowed us to explore the issue of culture both in terms of the products of a country or region (by products here to the tangible aspects of culture such as architecture, dress and music) and in terms of the less tangible aspects such as behaviour, attitudes and values. For me, this integration of culture is a real plus point for any language course as we prepare students to operate across cultures by developing intercultural awareness.
Beyond the traditional book format of the course, it was also important to integrate video. With access to the National Geographic video archive, we were able to source an accompanying video which is linked the main topic of each unit and recycles and extends the language syllabus. Once again, the role of the video, as with the photographs, topics and texts was to make the course content-rich.
Over time as a writer on this course I set myself the personal benchmark that every part of the material must achieve the following goal: If I were to ask a student leaving a classroom after using this material ‘What did you learn today?’ they would NOT answer like this:‘Today I learnt the present perfect.’ (or any other language point) but rather they would answer more like this: “Today I learnt about rites of passage in the Masai community…about a North American Indian tribe preserving their traditional language…about the ancient ‘Nok’ civilisation…and [as an afterthought] Oh yes, and I learnt it all in English.”
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