Look Ahead Upper Intermediate Video Evaluation
From email to satellite TV language students have far more access to their target language than ever before. In conjunction with modern communicative approaches to the teaching of languages, technology appears a natural teaching aid as it widens the range and scope of material available; both students and teachers gain from these developments as Wright and Haleem point out "Appreciating the character of the media we use or which surround us helps us to be more inventive, dynamic and efficient" (1991: 1).
One of the earliest examples of recent technological advances was that of video. Lonergan (1991) gives an summary of how video in language teaching developed from the seventies to the point where it has lost the novelty factor and become a standard tool for language teachers. Today it is is increasingly common to find course books including video material along with the teacher’s book, workbooks and cassettes in the overall package. Look Ahead Upper Intermediate falls into this category.
The use of video in language teaching is not surprising as the visual element is extremely important for effective communication. Ur for example says "I would go so far as to say that some kind of visual clue is essential in any language-learning activity based on face-to-face communication" (1984: 29). Apart from this visual clue video can also be motivating, it can illustrate the non-verbal aspects of communication, encourage cross-cultural comparison and stimulate further discussion and practice (Stempleski and Tomalin, 1990:3-4). Allan (1985. 19) makes similar claims while Sheerin (1982: 122-124) also notes the opportunities video offers of seeing authentic language in context and of providing listening practice.
Video then has a lot to offer although how it is used will often vary from level to level as discussed by Allan (1985: 73-74) moving from highly controlled exposure to language at basic level to video as "the provider of real world experience" at advanced. Typically, the higher the level the more opportunities for authentic material, more exposure to the wider aspects of language and culture. Look Ahead Upper Intermediate aims at more than simple language; it also intents to information of British and United States cluture and therefore placing language within a cultural context,a step in other words towards this ‘real world experience’ particularly relevant for upper intermediate level.
Evaluating the material
The Look Ahead series has four levels, the highest being Upper Intermediate. The authors claim for the series a combination of "clear, practical communicative methodology" combining skills practice, grammar, vocabulary and functional language with "regular opportunities for cross-cultural comparison" (Marsden, Hopkins, Potter 1995: back cover). There is a coursebook, workbook, teachers book and cassettes and "an optional video, containing a rich resource of documentary material and insights into the lives of people from the UK and the USA" (ibid).
The importance of a video in conveying language through cross-cultural concerns and real life people is clearly of primary concern to the authors. In the teachers guide for the video the authors explain: "The video units at upper intermediate level consist solely of documentary material. This decision was taken in response to the demand by many teachers for more’authentic’ material at this level" (Naunton et al 1995b: 3)
There is a video segment of six to eight minutes for each unit in the course book with this documentary material dealing with the same topics and providing additional information or expanding points already discussed in the book or on the course cassette. Typical structure provides a person speaking to the camera followed by illustrative shots of what is being discussed occasionally with the speaker’s information continuing as a voiceover. Unit 2, for example, (discussed in detail later) has three people speaking to the camera about their school. This information is supplemented by shots of the school and activities within the centre which illustrate the speakers information, such as students in different situation when uniforms and rules are being explained.
While, as the authors say, the material is of a documentary nature it is however not ‘off-air’ or completely authentic but devised for this particular course. This scripting means that language items from the coursebook are included and while the interviewees are genuine people (not actors) their language or at least their presentation does appear to have been simplified somewhat for this level. The fact most of the language used is spoken directly to the camera or as voiceover and not taken from more genuine interactions also reduces the authenticity.Each unit or topic is presented by three presenters (two British and one American) who introduce the topic and give an outline of what to expect. There is an on screen counter at all points.
A general evaluation of the video material would have to be positive in that the course clearly attempts to take on board the advantages of video as more than simple language or listening practice but also as an opportunity for cross-cultural exploration and some authentic language experience appropriate for upper intermediate students. The range of the authentic material is, however, rather limited.
The Print Material:
One problem with using video material in a classroom situation is that students’ previous experience of video and television is typically one of relaxation and of minimum effort at home. It is very important as Lonergan stresses (1995: 7) that in a learning context the student does not fall into this automated response but is instead active: "In short the role of the learner is to be a creative memeber of a joint partnership – the video equipment, the teacher and the learner." (ibid). Another false perception may be that video is primarily useful for practising listening skills. It certainly can be useful for this, indeed the combination of visuals and sound make the experience listening tasks more motivating (Harmer: 1993: 213-214) far more realistic and usually easier (Gower et al. 1995: 91). Nevertheless, video can offer opportunities to explore all skills and as Allan (1985: 65) concludes "If you want your students to listen intensively to a dialogue, don’t do it on video." Keeping students motivated and active, practicing a range of skills, requires careful selection of tasks. The accompanying print material can be vital for effective use of the video itself.
Each video unit has an accompanying set of tasks and exercises typically twenty in total over four pages of the video workbook. The first task for all units involves watching the complete video for a holistic grasp of content. Further viewing is then broken down into much smaller segments aided by an accompanying timer on screen. These segments usually have Before You Watch, While You Watch and After You Watch tasks combining prediction, listening or watching for detail and afterwards extension and cross-cultural exploration. The final task at the end of each unit is a further opportunity for students to compare the target lagngauge culture with their own and easily leads to further extension and additional speaking and writing activities.
The While You Watch tasks focus more specifically on vocabulary, language functions or grammar and on listening practice. Some of them require intensive reading and lead to "heads-down" listening. Others, however, encourage more visual awareness including watching without sound.
Overall, while a little dense in their presentation on paper, there is a wide range of tasks which attempt to move the viewer from a holistic to a more detailed analysis covering in the process awareness of language, vocabulary, listening skills and opportunities for extension. In short, students are guided into an active viewing scenario, (Lonergan 1995: 11) and encouraged to practise a range of skills, to use the video as a springboard to more general discussion / practice.
There is an accompanying teachers guide to the video workbooks. While the introduction does give a brief idea as to the purpose of certain tasks and how they could be used, the remainder consists basically of the tape scripts and correct answers for each unit. Overall, the book appears to rely heavily on the students’ workbook being self evident in its purpose and procedure; there is little help for a teacher who may not have used video in classrooms before.
Evaluation based on use in class:
What follows is a general evaluation from my experience using the videos in conjunction with the complete Look Ahead course followed by a closer analysis of one particular video unit used as a complement to a different text book.
The Video as supplement to Look Ahead coursebook.
Initially, as video frequently does, the material proved stimulating and a welcome addition to the coursebook. Thematically, it is closely linked and provides good extension and consolidation opportunities with the added motivation video brings. The material is also strong on cross-cultural input which occasionally lead to discussion and mini-project work when it related to something the students were interested in.
Long term, however, initial enthusiasm wore off. Routine can make any course dull but other reasons were without doubt a combination of the inappropriateness of topics for this group and the repetitiveness of video presentation and material. There were many topics in the which failed to capture the imagination of my group and interestingly, use of the video didn’t help make a topic more interesting for these students. More importantly, the repetitive structuring of the videos with excessive reliance on people speaking directly to camera meant that the video became a chore if used too often and more so if the full range of tasks in the workbook were completed; the result was often a complete heads down approach with the aim of getting it finished as quick as possible.
In short, the course itself was mis-matched to the students so this influenced perceptions of the video material. Nevertheless, it did become clear that more variety in terms of the video material would have been welcome. Over emphasis on the interview appeared to have a negative effect; interest strayed when listening to one person against a coloured background while the opposite was true when the "real world" was shown. Within this context, it became impossible to go through the range of tasks in the workbook and the teacher was forced to improvise quite a lot, something the Teacher’s guide doesn’t provide much support for.
One Unit analysed in dept:
Unit Two, Schools and Rules, was used with two different groups of Spanish teenagers as a complement to a different text book which was dealing with the same topic. The first group did the tasks exactly as in the workbook while using feedback from this session the second group did an adapted version of these tasks. The overall aim of the classes was to have an opportunity for skills development using the video as stimulus.
The groups were intermediate but had no serious problems with the level of the material; indeed any difficulties appeared to motivate and challenge. The first task The Quick View of the complete video captured their attention and prepared and motivated them for more in dept tasks later.
The first group went through each task in the workbook with interesting results. The Listen for Detail tasks clearly involve too much reading primarily and are virtually impossible to complete while watching the video: you must keep your head down and thus lose a large element of what video offers, the visual clues. Some of the watching without sound tasks appear to have little relevance to overall comprehension with the result that occasionally it appears that too much effort has been placed in generating a range of tasks without considering whether or not they are necessary or useful. The number of segments (18) the video is then broken into in order to complete all tasks led to a more disjointed view of the overall subject.
Taking this into account the number of tasks for the second class was reduced substantially. Students were allowed more freedom with notetaking encouraged of both visual and audio input. Reducing the number of tasks and postponing After You Watch discussions until the very end helped maintain a more holistic view of the video, kept students both watching and listening throughout the video and seemed to improve overall comprehension.
Both groups enjoyed the lesson finding the video stimulating primarily because it was of genuine interest and gave them the opportunity to explore education in another culture and compare to their own. Indeed the final section Last Words led to some interesting speaking and writing practice as they did this. When it came to discussion at the end the second group appeared to have retained more detail than the first class of different parts of the video as they had been freer to make their own decisions regarding what to watch and when. What activities are edited from the video workbook would depend largely on the teacher’s aims, skills development, revision of language etc. It is ambitious, and perhaps not terribly efficient, to attempt everything.
Returning to the points outlined in the introduction, through a range of topics and tasks the Look Ahead video material fulfills its claims, and indeed those of video usage at this level, to provide material which along with authentic listening and language skills development provides cross cultural information and stimulates further extension. There are some areas, however, which could be improved.
The range of tasks in the workbook could be re-examined to reduce the overall number and avoid heads-down approach on some. This could be done by the teacher themselves although for teachers with less experience in using video a more detailed video guide would be useful.
Teachers cannot unfortunately alter the video contents which is why so much care needs to be taken over this element. Possible improvements could be more variety in terms of presentation from unit to unit and less reliance on the interview technique with one person speaking to camera as this in many ways reduces drastically the wealth of information video can convey, indeed it fails to reflect the powerful role of the visual element in normal spoken discourse as outlined by Willis (1983: 29-38). Even within the documentary format a wider variety of situations and language in context could have been provided.
The fact that the material appears semi-scripted and that it was, if anything, a little easy for the groups I tried it with indicates that some ‘off-air’ or more authentic material could have been included. Allan (1985: 30) says that one of the advantages of students viewing authentic material is that "It puts the learner in the same position as that audience and demands the same exercise of language skills" and this in itself tends to be motivating, challenging and therefore productive. If Look Ahead fails it is on this point: it is not quite daring enough, playing safe rather then risking plunging students into something more difficult, more authentic, but possibly more rewarding: some of my students would have appreciated that challenge.
Allan M (1985) Teaching English with Video Harlow: Longman 1985
Gower R, Phillips D & Walters S (1995) Teaching Practice Handbook Heinemann
Harmer J (1993) The Practice of English Language Teaching Longman 1993
Lonergan J (1991) ‘A decade of development: educational technology and language learning’ in Motteram G & Slaouti D (1996-97) University of Manchester School of Education Distance Learning Educational Technology for ELT: MD355 Unit 0
Lonergan J (1995) Video in Language Teaching Cambridge University Press
Marsden B, Hopkins A & Potter J(1995)a Look Ahead Upper Intermediate: Video Workbook Longman
Marsden B, Hopkins A & Potter J (1995)b Look Ahead Upper Intermediate: Teacher’s Guide Video Workbooks Longman
Sempleski S & Tomalin B (1990) Video in Action Prentice Hall International 1990
Sheerin (1982) in in Motteram G & Slaouti D (1996-97) University of Manchester School of Education Distance Learning Educational Technology for ELT: MD355 Unit 3 p.12
Ur P (1984) Teaching Listening Comprehension Cambridge University Press
Willis J (1983) 'The Role of the Visual Element in Spoken Discourse: Implications for the Exploitation of Video in the Language Classroom' in McGovern J (ed) ELT Documents 114: Pergamon Press
Wright A & Haleem S (1991) Visuals for the language classroom Longman