Say WHAT? Run that by me again…

We Can! Goal-Oriented English for Children (textbook review)

The We Can! children’s EFL textbook series published by McGraw-Hill (2009) is available on the We Can! website , on the englishbooks.jp discount site, or at the Kinuokuniya main bookstore in Shinjuku, as well as other websites and bookstores throughout Asia. The series is designed especially for EFL students in Asia, from pre-schoolers to junior high level. It can be used either for home study, for use in private language schools, or for use in public elementary schools. I have chosen to review We Can! Level One, which is recommended for beginning learners age six to eight.

We Can!Children’s EFL textbooks come with an almost bewildering array of supplementary materials, and the We Can! series is no exception. Pictured on the left is the “Student Book”, which provides visual support for class time CD listening exercises and songs as well as the teacher-led games and activities. A workbook (designed to be used as homework) and a phonics workbook are also promoted, to be used in conjunction with the Student Book. A teacher’s guide is, of course, available and, I would say, indispensable for this particular series. Additionally, there are posters to reinforce classroom language and flash cards (which look pricey, but appealing, featuring photos of children rather than cartoon characters) for classroom use. “Play cards” may also be purchased for children to review at home. And there are CDs: one each included in the workbook and student book, and a song and chant CD available separately.

I chose the “Student Book” (as opposed to the phonics book or workbook) to review because I have never actually found a student book that suited my teaching style. They are designed to be used by students sitting at tables or desks for visual reference during teacher presentations, and while my smallest students do use textbooks for the phonics portion of their lessons, they also spend a good thirty minutes of the lesson sitting on the carpet or up and moving. As a new teacher, I often experimented with more “table time” using various popular student books, but never felt comfortable with the materials or with the balance of active versus seated time. Because of this, I’ve come to rely on my own resources and plan my own syllabus for years. This assignment, however, prompted me to return to Kinokuniya to check out the rows of colorful, enticing students books to see whether that perfect student book might now exist. Out of a plethora of Oxford and Cambridge options, I chose a Matsuka Phonics Institute publication because 1) I have used their phonics materials successfully for over a decade and 2) because I feel that Matsuka materials are often underestimated and underutilized by native English speaking teachers. The Matsuka phonics books I have long relied on are bilingual, with clear and interesting instructions in Japanese that provide young children with metalanguage; they are reasonably priced, and easily understood and appreciated by parents. “So I’ll try the Matsuka student book,” I thought. “Maybe this one will be a perfect fit, and my life will be changed forever!” Student books cannot be fully utilized without an instructional guide, so my review will include information from the teacher’s guide as well.

I spent the better part of my day perusing the We Can teacher’s guide, the class book, and the workbook, and came away with some interesting observations. In particular, I was reassured and impressed to discover that the We Can series stands on solid theoretical ground. Although the syllabus is adapted to suit the cognitive abilities and learning style of children, the basic principles of this particular textbook series are the same as those espoused by many materials designed for adult learners. Both the We Can! website and the teacher’s guide are in line with SLA research findings on the importance of comprehensible input and output, of interaction and meaningful communication, of student motivation, of ease of evaluation, and of constant review of language at spaced intervals. Let me touch on each of those features briefly before I continue, beginning with input and output.

In her website’s personal statement, Yoko Matsuka proposes that the aim of English for elementary school children is “To let kids experience the richness and depth of English” rather than having language passed on “in meagre fashion”. Her textbooks are chock-full of words and phrases that are presented and re-presented in conversations, in rhyme and chant, and in songs. It’s all input, and it’s all designed to be recycled as output. For instance, I was surprised to see that each and every unit has a component called “talk time”, requiring students to first practice the day’s target language alone, then with a partner, and lastly in front of the class.  The We Can series’ communicative goal is made clear in the teacher’s guide book which states, “…it is very important to create situations in the classroom where students can use English in a practical way,” and promises that students will “…have fun, complete challenging tasks, or exchange thoughts with their classmates in English” (Matsuka & Ito, pp. v-vi).  There is no mention of grammar. Matsuka’s class book features weekly goal-setting, for the dual purpose of student motivation and ease of evaluation. At the end of each lesson, teachers check that students actually can produce the target language, then literally check the colorful boxes at the bottom of the page in the class book. Each lesson features two goals, one based on repeating the phrase as learned in the day’s lesson, and the second goal designed as a “real-world expansion” of the same target language. The weekly mini-report, then, is designed to keep students motivated and to satisfy parents’ worries about their children’s progress. Lastly, spaced repetition of language is assured through a “spiral curriculum”, ensuring that language is constantly recycled in different ways. 

I especiallly liked the teacher’s guide introductory statement, which encapsulates the spirit of the book nicely: “…what makes good material greatly depends on what the goal or philosophy is. This course is based on the belief that good material for children is child-centered. Children have a totally different energy from that of adults and when children’s imagination is captured, they can use this energy to enjoy and learn, unconstrained by limits” (Matsuka & Ito, p. iv).

A brief examination of the content of the We Can! student book reveals standard themes found in most kindergarten-level textbooks. Topics covered are (in order): friends, body, family, birthdays, toys, “yummy things”, animals, and days of the week. There are two bonus lessons, one for Halloween and one for Christmas. The syllabus was a bit mysterious, even after some serious pondering; it appears to be designed to be used for 8 months, with no regard to seasons, except for a single snowman song, which would be sung in July (if the course began in April) or December (if the course began in September). The book is designed to be used either in a private language school or an elementary school, and the lesson planner features 3 lessons per week,  four lessons per unit, and 39 lessons in all. Since Japanese public elementary school students still receive very few hours of English education and most private language students take only 1 lesson a week, the syllabus would have to be adapted, perhaps with the content stretched out over a full year rather than 8 months. I also found it interesting that although the units were designed around themes, the individual lessons are designed to focus on different components of language. The first lesson of the month focuses on speaking, the second on rhythm and sounds, the third on vocabulary, and the final lesson on phonics. Of course, all of these elements appear to be blended into each lesson to some extent, but clearly the purpose of each lesson is to focus on one discrete component. The speaking lessons are characterized by games involving movement and repetition, and–as discussed previously–by practice of the target language with the ultimate goal of presentation to the class. The rhythm and sounds lessons are all about singing, moving, chanting, rhythm games and listening activities, while the vocabulary lessons involve listening and repetition of target language, pointing to objects, and matching and coloring activities. Lastly, the phonics lessons involve letter recognition, pronunciation practice, and basic tracing and writing and coloring activites. Each unit is followed by “extension activities” designed to give teachers ideas on how to use learned language in different contexts. The CD found in the back of the class book provides a mini-review of the day’s language points; students listen to the CD in class, and  presumably listen again and practice at home. A vocabulary list can be found in the back of the book, containing a 113 word corpus. 

As a veteran teacher of small children, I found many things appealing about the We Can class book. In particular, I appreciate the philosophy behind its creation and the care and thoroughness put into the teacher’s guide. The introduction to the guide states, “Good teachers can be teachers in English-language schools, private schools, public schools, or at home. Being a good teacher has nothing to do with age or nationality. We believe that if you can speak English and teach and guide children, you can be a good teacher.” ( Matsuka & Ito, 2009, p. iv) I believe so, too, and this book provides a solid support for EFL teachers both old and young, in a variety of teaching contexts.

I also found the layout and design of the class book very appealing. The illustrations are bright and child-friendly without being babyish or overly cute, and the layout is cheerful but not busy. Best of all are the illustrations of target vocabulary words; they are, as they should be, bright, bold, realistic, and unambiguous. I further appreciate that there are blank spaces for children to draw and color, and that letters are not only to be traced, but to be “decorated” or given faces, arms, and legs. The teacher’s guide promotes the student books as child-friendly, and makes good on that promise.

The focus on output and communication is also a strong point of the We Can! series. Although shy children might take a while to warm up to the “presentations” in front of peers, this is no different from what they are used to doing in their regular elementary school lessons, and it’s a form of pushed output that forces children to think carefully and to develop confidence and poise.

In the end, however, I feel that the class book would be quite restrictive for veteran teachers of small children, precisely because it is so all-encompassing. In an effort to provide scaffolding for less-experienced teachers, the syllabus ends up being too detailed and inflexible for those teachers who have ideas of their own and a good supply of basic games and flash card sets and CDs. To give an example, there are three CDs included in the We Can level 1 package: one for the student book, one for the workbook, and an accompanying song and chant CD. As a native speaker of English, there is no reason (short of laryngitis ) to not use my own voice in class, so I would not use a CD for pronunciation purposes during class time. As for the song and chant CD, I have listened to it in its entirety and am not overly impressed. Although my students might find several of the songs catchy, I prefer straight piano, guitar, and voice over electronic accompaniment and syrupy sweet vocals. Personal preference counts, since EFL teachers must listen to their class music each and every day while maintaining a cheerful smile and singing along with gusto. As for parents and CDs, I’m afraid that most would not be bothered to keep track of three different CD discs (for level one only) and play them regularly at home.

In general, for my own purposes, I find the student book superfluous. Many of the activities described involve movement, and are, after all, best introduced by a teacher sitting on a carpet, rather than by a book, with students sitting at their desks. If English is to be introduced to pre-readers in a communicative setting, there is no reason to use a textbook for the spoken aspect of language learning. Why look at a picture of a teacher leading a game when the real teacher is standing right there, ready to teach? Private language schools that teach phonics already incorporate sitting and writing for a good portion of the lesson, and I see no reason to use a “student book” that ties small children to their seats for the remainder of the time. Although I find the book visually appealing and the activities appropriate and child-centered, the same activities can be done without a textbook, and large flashcards and posters can be enjoyed while sitting informally in a circle rather than at desks. Elementary school teachers with 30 to 40 students would, on the other hand, would find this book easy to use, though lack of classroom space might make the active games quite tricky. I do find the “point and find” exercises in the student book to be a valuable use of time and absolutely engaging for children; in the best of all possible worlds, these exercises could be included as an extra in the phonics book, so parents would only need to invest in a single text.

As far as the syllabus and the lesson plans (or objectives), I personally find the sequencing and topic choices rather disappointing. Only one snowman song? What about the rest of winter? And no spring or summer? No flowers or ocean fish? First graders are still attuned to the seasons. They spend a good part of their day out-of-doors, and it seems only natural to at least include seasonal references in the objectives if not the syllabus itself. Also, I find teaching speaking, rhythm, vocabulary, and phonics as separate lessons to be a bit odd; ideally, all of these elements should be included in each and every lesson for small children rather than taught as discrete components.

My final criticism pertains to the emphasis on goal setting and evaluation. This is one of the selling points of the series, and in theory, I think it’s an excellent idea. In reality, however, the goals are all pre-decided and teacher-set, and may have no substantive meaning for students. Other goals are absolutely subjective, and depend on the teacher’s interpretation (“I can sing the Bingo song with good rhythm”). Most importantly, the concept of achieving a “goal” in a single lesson is in itself unrealistic. I can already imagine myself dutifully checking “yes” in the book of the sweet little boy who sang Bingo with great enthusiasm but less-than-perfect rhythm, and I’m sure other teachers would be reluctant to tell highly-motivated first graders that in fact they had NOT achieved their goal that day. I know from experience that some children will not be able to remember and produce a target phrase in a single lesson, and this kind of goal-setting strategy might very well prove de-motivating and discouraging—to parents as well as children. Unfortunately, the evaluative component of the goal setting and marking is also of dubious value. Teachers will always be tempted to check the “yes” box for first graders (otherwise, prepare for tears!), and even if a child has truly “achieved a goal” on a set day, parents might be discouraged and upset to find that the child has forgotten the target language by the next morning. Of course, the purpose of the multiple CDs and the workbook is to ensure that children do review what they’re “achieved” at home, and perhaps that is an aspect of learning that should be emphasized, rather than achieving goals during class time.

In spite of these personal criticisms, I would recommend the We Can! Student Book Level 1 to elementary school teachers of English who are lucky enough to meet their students two or three times a week. Either native or non-native English speaking teachers could easily adopt or adapt the syllabus, and would find the games and songs level-appropriate and easily implemented in a crowded classroom. While I feel that a 113 word corpus is not challenging enough for first graders in private language schools featuring small classes, that same number seems appropriate in a packed classroom of 35-40 students. Good luck to the teacher in checking off all the goals individually, though!

As for my own personal quest to find the perfect “student book” for young learners, it may either be a continuing saga or I may gracefully admit defeat. Most likely, I will channel my energy into adapting previously used materials and creating new and different prints to supplement carpet time. In the meanwhile, I’m pleased with my purchase of the We Can! textbooks, and will be dipping into the teacher’s guide for new ideas. A few of the songs are also quite good, and will make their way into my eclectic repertoire. All in all, I appreciate Yoko Matsuka’s efforts to bring the spirit of communicative language learning and teaching to Asia. Her materials are teacher-friendly, child-friendly, and worthy of their display shelf in Kinokuniya, next to the glossy Oxford, Cambridge, and National Geographic titles. A day spent reviewing the We Can! student book was an excellent time investment.

********************************************************************************************************

Appendix:

Matsuka, Y. & Ito, L. (2009) We Can! Goal-oriented English for Children (Teacher’s Guide). Singapore: McGraw Hill ELT.

Matsuka, Y. & McDougall, G. (2009) We Can! Goal-oriented English for Children (Student Book). Singapore: McGraw Hill ELT.

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