Course Companion, reviewed

At last !

Oxford English B Course Companion

Kawther Saa'd Aldin, Tiia Tempakka, Jeehan Abu Awad, and Kevin Morley

424 pages | 276x219mm

ISBN: 978-0-19-912968-3 | Paperback

See the OUP website page

This is a brilliant book. It supplies a need that English B teachers have had ... well, forever!

At workshops over the last twenty years, I have listened to teachers swapping suggestions about coursebooks, suggesting borrowing this or that useful section from this or that EFL-type coursebook, and at last here is a book that provides everything you need under one cover.

'Everything' includes stimulus materials for all of the Topics, both Core and Options plus comprehension exercises and extension activities leading out from each text plus direct practical advice on all the required elements of the English B assessment process plus linkages to very IB-specific elements such as TOK and CAS. There are even sample exam papers so that students can be familiarised with what they will face at the end of the course. Not bad for a total of 424 pages! The layout of the book is attractive (elegant use of colour, for instance) and lucid (as a quick glance at the contents page will show). In short, it must be near the top of the range of books to be used in classrooms.

I avoid the use of the word 'textbook' because this is very much a 'course companion' for students. It is significant that the student reader is addressed as 'you' throughout - there is a sense of the authors talking directly to their audience as if to a class. This direct address will certainly help to maintain students' interest - it is not just that the chosen texts are interesting in themselves, but also that the questions asked about the texts are inherently lively and stimulating. It is worth noting, though, that the general level of difficulty seems to be pitched at the middling-to-advanced level - weaker students may struggle with some of the texts and tasks. However, it must be better to be too challenging than too trivial.

Overall, the Companion is comprehensive, well-informed and inspirational.

The fundamental structure is based on a comprehensive coverage of the Topics. Of course, not every conceivable aspect of those very wide subject areas can be covered, but the aspects selected must be among the most useful for teaching purposes. For instance, under 'Communication & media' in Chapter 6, I like the clever way that Media & violence segues into Censorship and then into Media versus violence. But don't be trapped by the headings in the Contents - I am sure that many texts supplied under one heading can easily be recycled to support study under another heading. Don't think that parts of the Companion may not be useful just because you're only doing two Options!

The comprehensive quality of the book also applies to its well-informed explanations about how to apply the Language B Guide. These range from using the question types typical of Paper 1 to elicit ideas from the stimulus texts ... through discussion of how to handle the various text types ... to the broad-context IB elements such as the Intercultural Dimension (many of the texts draw attention to this latter). While all of this information is directly useful to the students, every teacher can benefit from the clear explanations.

Finally, I find the Companion inspirational not just because it suggests very practical and effective techniques for exploiting each of the basic texts, but also because such techniques can easily be transferred to other materials for other purposes - any thoughtful teacher can treat this book as a kind of mini training course in good teaching practice. In addition, it is worth looking at the 'Before you read' boxes that start each section: the thought-provoking questions here can easily be the starting point for developing new directions for study of the overall topic.

And no, it's not perfect! Very minor details grated on me occasionally. The Introduction, while overtly addressed to 'you-the-student', is really an introduction for the teacher (how many Year 1, Day 1 students will cope with "...analyse surface features such as vocabulary and referencing within the texts..." ?). And the suggestion to keep the Learner Profile in mind when studying literary texts (p.99) - is it really helpful to consider Macbeth as an IB student ? More significantly than those minor quibbles, should the answers to the (very useful) sample exam papers have been included in the book? Given that students are going to look at those answers, does this not mean that those papers cannot really be used as reliable tests? But then again ... maybe a significant purpose of this Companion is for students to read it, reflect, and learn on their own? If so, if that really works, losing the 'exam secrecy' element is a small price to pay.

And on the subject of price ... at £27.00, the English B Course Companion could be seen as quite expensive. However, it must surely be judged as good value - it's big, it's interesting, and it provides a student with a manual or guide to everything really important about the English B course. And if the school calculates how much photocopying it saves ... ?

This Course Companion will become absolutely standard for English B teachers everywhere, whether it is used as the basis for an entire course, or simply as add-on material for a course that a teacher has created personally. Now, could you run a course using only the material in the Companion? A friend I asked was perfectly clear: "Oh, yes, certainly!" - but I have my doubts, and believe that it should be be seen as a really solid foundation for a course, which a skilful teacher would build on with additional material. Apart from anything else, shouldn't we be responding to students' idiosyncratic interests, and avoid being blinkered by the selection of material in this book, excellent as it is?

Have a look at the Oxford English B Course Companion online at :-


And check out my review of the companion volume  English B Skills ...

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