Widgets

Writer(s): 
Malcolm Swanson, Seinan Jo Gakuin University

 

[Marcos Benevides and Chris Valvona. Hong Kong: Pearson Longman, 2008. pp. 106. ¥2,520. ISBN: 978-962-01-8953-1.]

Like many course books, Widgets offers a progressive set of engaging activities, all displayed in an attractive, colourful package. However, the dialogues, activities, and drills that form the staple diet of many textbooks are gone, as Widgets is a task-based programme that combines a role play, a story, and a workbook.

The course is based around the story of a group of interns (played by your students) who enter a fictitious company, Widgets Inc. This company specializes in producing off-the-wall solutions to many daily problems, such as a multipurpose razor-cum-cell phone, or an Internet-enabled surfboard. However, the company is not doing well, and it soon falls on the new recruits to develop products that will save the company. The students are then guided through a series of scenarios that have them identifying possible products, developing and evaluating them, doing market research, and creating a marketing strategy, all the while under the guidance of the rather eccentric president and division heads. This guidance comes in the form of teleconferences, all available on the DVD that is included in the book.

Working in groups, the students have ample opportunity for both self- and peer-review. This is an important part of the programme, for the responsibility for succeeding in this course is constantly placed on the students. They must produce to succeed. They are also evaluated at every phase by their group’s project manager—a position that rotates so that every student has a chance to lead. These groups are determined in the first class, and continue without change for the entire course. After successfully selecting, developing, and demonstrating the products that eventually save the company, the trainees begin their future careers by creating a résumé and taking part in a job interview.

Teacher preparation is intense and essential. This is not a textbook you thumb through on the way to class. I found myself having to mentally rehearse each lesson beforehand so that I could fully understand the flow of the class and prepare the appropriate materials. There is no teachers’ manual as such. Instead, comprehensive workplans and copiable materials are available from the Widgets website <www.widgets-inc.com>.

So, does the course work? The answer really depends upon any teacher’s situation and expectations.Ellis (2003, pp. 333-334), in discussing the evaluation of task-based pedagogy, states, “tasks do not aim to teach communication, but to engage learners in communication, the assumption being that by so doing they will help learners achieve communicative competence.” Certainly my students were engaged and on-task for the length of the course, and what they produced in that time was original, fun, and creative. Post-course student feedback, even allowing for the usual buttering up, was definitely positive, with most students reporting they enjoyed the course and had got a lot out of it. However, potential users might consider a few issues before deciding to adopt Widgets. Firstly, the text works best with a very stable class of around 16-20 students. If the class suffers from attendance problems, or has students who are not familiar with each other, groups will find it difficult to complete tasks. I used it with larger classes of 30-40 students, which, while doable, became difficult to manage.

That seemingly unattainable quest of all language teachers—students working on-task in English—proved elusive, even when using the recommended approach of applying pressure through the group leaders. To be fair though, this might have been easier had I had smaller classes. Some of the pair work activities involved products the students could not identify with (such as a trash-talking baseball helmet), and as these are hard-wired into the lessons, those parts flopped. A selection of resources might serve this role better, as these were regular activities. The rigidity of the grouping was also an issue. This was fine with groups that clicked, but some rotation would have given other groups a better chance to succeed. In my case, I used the book for a 15-class semester, though the writers recommend a twice-weekly programme. That, I would have found difficult to sustain, and if I were in that situation I would have preferred a course that allowed for more student-planned material, using the textbook’s content as a model to build on.

Those reservations aside, I will probably use Widgets again this year, partly because it certainly was fun, quirky, and well-received by the students, but also because I want to put into practice everything I learned through using it for the first time last year. However, for teachers considering using Widgets, I would recommend first checking the composition of your classes carefully, studying Widgets’ online resources, then taking the time to review task-based language learning. As Nunan (2004, p. 19) states, “the point of departure for task-based language teaching is real-world or target tasks,” and Widgets certainly offers ample opportunity for both.

References

Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nunan, D. (2004). Task-based language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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