Reviewer: Jock McPherson
29 June 2011
When the first Innovations title appeared in 2000, it arguably represented the first serious stab at a lexically-driven syllabus since the COBUILD English Course. As such, I found it fresh and exciting, but also rather difficult to use. The book delighted in throwing around huge quantities of lexis, which sometimes threatened to engulf the learners as they ploughed through exercises which didn’t quite seem to gel into a coherent whole. This was compounded by an absence of clear signposting. Most coursebooks open each unit with a list of language and skills points which are to be covered; Innovations opted for a seemingly random montage of fixed and semi-fixed expressions above an enigmatic title, such as ‘Is there one near here?’. As one colleague put it, ‘It’s sometimes difficult to see where a unit is going.’
It is telling, therefore, that the authors’ new series is called Outcomes. The back cover talks of ‘CEF goals’ and each unit is now headed by a statement of the language and skills covered. This focus on outcomes extends to the teacher’s book, each section preceded by aims phrased in teacherese, such as ‘to hear the target language in context’.
If the presentation has become more conservative, the authors’ commitment to pushing lexical input to the forefront of the syllabus remains unchanged, and as such this book is likely to offer a high level of challenge to the average upper-intermediate learner. It places a high value on collocations, fixed and semi-fixed expressions, and idiomatic language, an approach exemplified by the ‘native speaker English’ sections. These offer bite-sized chunks of the type of language which is sadly lacking in many coursebooks, such as might as well, dead easy, what are the odds of that happening and even a brief introduction to the art of sarcasm, essential for the aspiring anglophile. The authors have taken care to recycle language, not only in the extensive review sections that punctuate the book, but also in later units and in the accompanying vocabulary builder booklet. It’s worth highlighting that Outcomes doesn’t eschew grammar. However, even here the lexical influence is felt; conditionals are taught with the likes of ‘If all else fails, you can always come and work for me’.
One common criticism of Innovations is its neglect of writing. Again, this has been addressed, with eight sections at the back of the book each tackling a different genre. The usual suspects are present, if not always entirely welcome (yes, letter of complaint, we’re looking at you), but the section on personal statements is both novel and useful. Listening and reading texts are engaging, although the brevity of the latter betrays them as being a vehicle for language input rather than for skills development.
This all adds up to a much more coherent experience than Innovations offered, and while the danger remains of students being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new language, in competent hands this book will help provide the lexical range needed to successfully escape the intermediate plateau.