Focus on IELTS Foundation
There must be some famous bit of market research that I don’t know about going around ELT editors’ offices at the moment, because two different publishing companies have used the word “Foundation” to describe IELTS books that came out at almost exactly the same time. This is a review of one of the two, and also the story of my quest to find out what “Foundation” was supposed to mean to us all!
Starting with the back cover of the students’ book, Focus on IELTS Foundation gives me no more information on its purpose than to say it is “ideal preparation for the Focus on IELTS course but can also be used independently”. There could be more information in the teachers’ book, but I did not have access to it. The first thing I should say about Focus on IELTS Foundation, then, is that it does, indeed, achieve that first, limited aim of being an introductionary course for Focus on IELTS. The author has obviously been very careful not to double up on the language covered in Focus on IELTS and although the level is still fairly high it has been made easier by the use of simplified and shorter reading and listening texts. The problem with a textbook that is designed primarily not to clash with another in the series can often be that it is left with all the least suitable and/or interesting language points and topics to cover - in the way that you can sometimes spot which textbook in a series was written last just from the uninspiring and/or obscure unit titles, so I did have that question at the back of my mind when I started looking at it. The other question to judge this book’s success on is whether the choice of points and how they are covered does provide ‘a solid grounding in the key language and skills’ (quote from back cover) needed to move on to the next level and/or to take the exam or simply fill in some gaps that are not covered elsewhere.
Focus on IELTS Foundation is divided into 12 units, with some typically academic sounding IELTS topics (Earth Matters, Animal Rights and Wrongs, Appropriate Technology). This might be a good time to point out that the book does not cover the General Training modules (although again that information is hidden away inside the book) so academic topics are vital for students to cover. There are also some more general sounding topics (Read All About It, Communications) and one very obscure sounding one (Buildings and Structures). Each unit covers Speaking, Grammar and Vocabulary, and alternate units cover Reading, with the others covering Listening and Writing.
Taking one example of a typically academic sounding chapter, Unit 9 (Earth Matters) starts with pictures to prompt discussion of environmental matters, with fairly straightforward but limited discussion questions. That is followed by a “How green are you?” questionnaire. Students are then given some “Essential Language” they could possibly use in the speaking exam (“I’m afraid…”/ “To be honest…” etc.) although it seems less than ‘essential’, seeing how you could quite easily answer all the questions in the speaking and even get a score of IELTS 6 or above without using it. This language is also more difficult than I would expect for a “Foundation” level. I have tried introducing similar language using a different lower-level IELTS textbook set by our school, and not surprisingly students are unable to move from hearing this kind of language for the first time to using it naturally under the stressed conditions of the exam by the time the course finishes - especially as this kind of idiomatic spoken language does not come up in the Listening or Reading papers and so there is no natural recycling.
Unit 9 then moves on to a reading about smog, which is a fairly typical IELTS academic topic. The questions are also taken straight from the exam format. Although some effort seems to have been made to simplify the texts and questions, I would not say they were a whole level lower than the exam - which is what I would expect in a “foundation” book. After some work on language of cause and effect (again, possibly useful but quite difficult and not one of my top priorities with lower level IELTS classes) and some speaking work on agreeing and disagreeing (ditto, as you can quite easily get through the exam without having to agree or disagree with the examiner - giving opinions would be more useful), there is a second reading on the environment. Both readings make fairly good attempts at walking the middle line of IELTS textbook texts - you want to be like the exam but not as boring as the exam, and stimulating to conversation even though students don’t get that preparation time in the exam. This text livens itself up by being topical (about pollution in China- also a big market for the IELTS exam, of course!) and using colour pictures. The unit ends with a short section on –ing and infinitive.
The problems I had with this unit are fairly typical of my experiences with the whole book - all the language could be used by students in the exam, but almost none of the points covered are my priorities with my lower level IELTS classes. It doesn’t help for this that the speaking sections are not divided into preparation for Part One, Part Two etc, making the potential uses of the language presented even less clear. This lack of clear ‘signposting’ for when the language covered could be used is true even when a topic seems to have been chosen solely for a single part of the exam, e.g. sport (Unit 5), which is only likely to come up in Speaking Part One (or possibly Part Two). The lack of time and attention paid to making the book useful for specifics of the exam is also clear in that most of the example sentences in the grammar sections etc. and most of the discussion questions are not similar to the things that are going to be heard, read or said by the candidate.
After every two units there is also one page of Academic Word Study and one page of Review. The Academic Word Study pages are based on the Academic Word List of most common academic words, which is near the back of the book, and can also be used in other EAP (Academic English) courses you may have as they pretty much stand alone. In fact, I would be more likely to use these sections in higher level IELTS courses or pre-sessional university courses rather than with lower level IELTS students.
The back of the book also has a Key Language Bank, covering grammar including forms typically needed for the writing paper such as adverbs, comparison, conditionals, passives, relative clauses and a range of tenses. That is followed by a Writing Practice Bank tied in with the units, which gives guided practice and model answers for typical tasks such as describing graphs. The book finishes with an Answer Key and the Audio Scripts.
As I am complaining about the publishers being unclear about the purpose and market for this book, I will make myself very clear. This book was totally unsuitable for my students, despite the fact that I chose it because the title seemed to be offering just what I needed. I also can’t tell you if the language would be more suitable for the target market then it was for my students as I have no idea what the target market could be apart from those who have decided to go onto to do Focus On IELTS before they take the exam. I have, however, used the reading texts and Academic English sections successfully with non-IELTS ESP classes and I will be keeping a copy around to use some of the readings again.
Alex Case: 12 years and 6 countries into his TEFL career, Alex Case is presently in Japan and writes about all his experiences on the TEFLtastic blog. He is also Reviews Editor of TEFL.net.