Origins of the course
'I believe that any successful course, and any progressive course, builds on the best of what is already done in class, but it adds some things which teachers might not have thought of doing before.'
We spoke to Peter Donovan, ELT Publishing Director, responsible for commissioning the course, about how Cambridge English for Schools developed from the earliest stages into the innovative course it is today.
How and when was the original idea for the course conceived?
At the end of the 1980s we recognised a gap in our ELT list. Up until then we had published very successfully for adults and the fourteen-plus age group, but could offer no material for younger learners. In 1990, discussions opened with Andrew Littlejohn and Diana Hicks, and this ultimately led to the publication of Cambridge English for Schools.
What form did the market research take?
Andrew, Diana and I visited classrooms and talked to teachers in a wide number of countries. We were surprised to find a great deal of similarity between the teachers, their classes, and their needs in countries as apparently diverse as Italy and Brazil. We also looked very closely at the syllabuses, requirements of ministries and formal requirements for teaching and learning in different countries, and found that, for example, the Spanish Reforma, then at a late stage of development, tied in very well with the authors' thinking on the directions they wanted the new material to take.
The course is often described as content-based and task-based. Could you tell us a little more about this, please?
By content-based we mean using content which relates to students' own knowledge and experience, and to other subjects in the curriculum, including Science, Social Studies, History, Geography: the basic core elements of any school curriculum, no matter where you are.
By task-based we mean that students are given tasks and activities which involve the use of English for real communication. Instructions for the tasks are always absolutely clear and explicit, with plenty of examples, so that students and teachers know exactly what is expected of them.
Teachers who are used to teaching in a more traditional way may want to know what guidance they are given for using the course.
The Teacher's Book contains an introduction to the material, a rationale explaining the background to the course, and an A to Z of Methodology, which gives teachers explanations of key terms and help with potential problem areas such as teaching mixed-ability classes. Also, the clarity of instructions throughout the course makes it easy for teachers to use.
The innovative and the familiar appear to be successfully blended in the course. How was this achieved?
We didn't want teachers to look at the material and think that everything is new and that they would have difficulties doing it. Therefore a lot of the individual exercises and tasks look familiar, particularly in the Language Focus units. 'Innovative' work often does not take a form which is totally unfamiliar to teachers and students – for example, they may be asked to study a table showing how many hours a day different animals sleep – a format they are already familiar with from information books and encyclopedias. It is really just a question of breaking down barriers between the different disciplines.
Student choice is another important feature of the course. What is the justification for this, and how does it work in practice?
There are two main reasons for introducing the level of student choice that we have. One is purely to give learners experience in making choices, and the other is to cater for the mixed abilities of students within the class. The course recognises that all classes are mixed ability, particularly at this level. The choice of activities gives students the opportunity to select the activity which is appropriate to their interests, and the 'Time to spare?' sections provide more able students with extension material to work on if they finish before the rest of the class.
When dealing with the age range in a five-level course, there is obviously a significant difference in development between learners at the beginning and end of the five levels. How does the course take account of this?
By the time many students reach Level 3 of the course, they not only have all the language from the early levels of the course, but are also able to think on a somewhat different level – they are more able to link ideas, analyse, contrast, express cause and effect. The level of the material in the course develops to provide more challenging material in terms of both language and concepts.
Can Cambridge English for Schools be regarded as a trend-setting course, and if so why?
I believe that it can, although I would emphasise that a successful, progressive course is not completely revolutionary. It enables teachers to incorporate into their teaching approaches which might not otherwise have been available to them. The main areas which Cambridge English for Schools opens up to teachers are effective use of content- and task-based approaches, the opportunity to offer choices and deal more effectively with mixed-ability classes, all of which provide opportunities for students to achieve real communication in English.
And what is the way forward for Cambridge University Press in publishing for young students?
Without a doubt Cambridge is here to stay in this sector of education. We shall continue to produce material which supports the course and develops it in different ways. It will continue to have vitality for those who are using it now, and those who will be using it in the future.