Building a Better Widget (Coursebook Review of “Widgets”)
[Below is a review of Widgets, which I think is a very different type of coursebook. I think this is a draft of something I wrote for an MA assignment from back in 2009, which means that hopefully I caught the typos and such before submitting it. It also means that I specifically focused on how grammar/lexis are treated in the book.]
For this assignment I decided to evaluate a book that I taught with in 2008. I personally think it is a great book and I really enjoyed teaching with it. Of course, it is not without problems. Through this evaluation I hope to highlight its strengths and weaknesses, especially as related to grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.
Widgets is unlike any other textbook that I have ever used. First, and most importantly, it is a task-based book. While tasks are important in many books they are not usually the primary focus. Each unit in Widgets centers around a main task and the units are designed to help students do these main tasks through a succession of mini-tasks.
The book follows the principles of task-based learning and this which is shown in the activities and structure of the book. The course starts with an orientation to a fictional company named Widgets and students are to imagine that they are new employees at this company for the duration of the course. Widgets is in the invention business but is experiencing difficulties and the students are new recruits that might able to pull the company out of economic trouble.
The book seems to be designed for the Asian market, specifically Japan, Korea and China. I get the feeling that the book is intended to be a bit of a remedy for the passive but not yet active knowledge of English that learners in these countries are often known for. In the book, students are expected to continually do things in and with English, which can be challenging. The tasks are well-scaffolded in that there are opportunities for a great deal of practice with similar tasks before moving on to the main task for the unit.
The cover says that the book is a course in “Practical English” which I generally find to be a nebulous term. I feel that the book could be used for a variety of speaking courses. One key consideration is that the textbook relies very heavily on group work so it is a necessity that the same students come each class so that the groups and individual members do not fall behind on the tasks. It might also involve an element of learner training because some students might not feel comfortable or agree with the methodologies used.
The cover also says that the book is for pre-intermediate to intermediate students. The focus on doing things with English means that the book could be used for a wide-variety of levels. I used it with a mix of intermediate and upper-intermediate students and the upper-intermediate students certainly got something out of it. There is a basic level of knowledge presupposed but I have used some of the activities in the book successfully with false beginners. In my opinion, the task-based nature of this book allows for use with a wide variety of levels because students are required to do rather than simply know.
Thus far, I have only detailed points that I generally see as positives. Negatives are present if not as clear. As I see it, one of the major problems with this coursebook is that it does not look or feel like most textbooks. This can be a bit intimidating for both teachers and students. As a teacher, I felt that I had to continually “sell” the activities and show students that they were actually learning by doing, rather than by receiving knowledge. Some of them might have actually preferred the latter. Along the same lines, I feel that this course is better taught by experienced teachers committed to the idea of task-based learning. I see potential problems for teachers who are not committed, passionate and experienced. For those of us that are, I think the course has great potential.
It is very important to note that there are no specific or explicit focuses on grammar in this book. Grammar is seen as simply a tool to communicate meanings that might come up in performing the tasks. While I see this as a good thing, this is another area where students might feel disappointed without a specific grammar focus. This is where the teacher can play an important role in making the course and coursebook successful. I personally chose to focus on grammatical structures that were causing problems in sessions specifically devoted to these points.
Like grammar, vocabulary does not receive a major focus in the book. The videos featuring updates from the company managers tend to have some difficult vocabulary. The book does not offer practice activities with these words. I get the impression that this is thought of as something for teachers to work on if problems come up. As a teacher, it was refreshing to focus first on understanding and to let the vocabulary “come to me” in a sense. I never felt that my lessons began with presenting lexical items that the students didn’t know. An interesting note related to vocabulary is that the more difficult words tend to be recycled in different units. I also enjoyed this as a teacher and felt that it supported the notion that we don’t simply go from not knowing a word to completely knowing it. While the vocabulary was recycled, it was not heavily focused upon. Like grammar, vocabulary is not a primary focus in Widgets.
Above, I wrote that grammar and vocabulary are not really focused on in the units. They are actually focused on much more heavily than pronunciation which is not focused on at all. The only way that pronunciation is important is when students are asked to interview strangers. Of course, pronunciation will be an important issue in these and other situations where students are asked to communicate. Pronunciation is another area that is largely left to teachers and students themselves.
Although grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are not really focused on they are actually well-integrated in the coursebook. Widgets provides a range of vocabulary related to the working world. A wide variety of tenses, which is what most people think of when they hear the word grammar, are also provided. A great deal of speaking practice is built-in to the course so that students will practice their speaking, and by extension, their pronunciation. The videos also provide models of native and near-native speakers with which students can practice. While these examples of pronunciation practice are admittedly flimsy, the point is that students are given a great deal of opportunities to practice English in natural situations.
It seems to me in some ways that the main focus of Widgets is providing a great deal of practice opportunities for students to use English. The authors seem to buying into the idea that students should use English to learn English. I personally feel that it is important that the teacher uses the tasks as a springboard for language work in order to help students improve their English speaking ability. The lack of a focus on grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation might be seen as a major disadvantage by some, but I see it something that can be turned into an advantage by the teacher.
Jason Renshaw’s blog post on Widgets
The official Widgets website/Teacher Resource Center
Hi there. I am having a nice time reading your review about this Widget book. For your information i am also an English teacher with just 5 years experience lecturing to college students and I got a new task which is designing TBL module for foreign students. More like CLL + TBL for communicative goals. I am very interested to use this Widget as one of my main resource to create the framework of the course. Can you help me? Since that most of the materials and lesson plans can be downloaded thru its website, I am longing to find the students / teacher book as references in class. Can you help me where can i get one of those? Your reply to my email (firstname.lastname@example.org) means a lot! Many thanks.
A blast from the past! I recall reading this back when you first posted it, Michael, but it’s nice to be reminded of it. Indeed, I agree wholeheartedly with all of your points, positive and negative. Cheers!
And Zahrul, your best bet is to contact your nearest Pearson representative and ask them to find you a copy. In theory, Widgets is available internationally, but in practice it’s only really being marketed in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.