How To Review TEFL Materials

By Alex Case
A short but comprehensive guide to the process of choosing TEFL materials to review then writing and publishing your opinions on them.

This article looks at the process you need to go through to write a review on TEFL publications such as books, games, websites etc. After perhaps preparing yourself by reading lots of TEFL reviews and the publication(s) that they are included in, the possible stages are:

  • Contact the place that you want to publish your review
  • Be commissioned to review something
  • Choose something to review
  • Get hold of it
  • Read it, and preferably use its materials or ideas
  • Make notes/Plan what you are going to write
  • Write it
  • Edit it
  • Get some help
  • Publish

There are many possible variations to the steps above, of which the most common is probably just eliminating the place where you will publish the review. I’m not aware of any online or paper-based publications that publish non-commissioned reviews, so if you do it in the order above you will be limited to publishing it on a book sales site (e.g. Amazon) or publishing it yourself (e.g. on your blog). Publishers will occasionally provide review copies for the purpose of writing your own review, but getting hold of a free copy is much easier for a commissioned review. The other advantages of writing a review after arranging it with a reviews editor are:

  • the help you get with editing
  • the nagging to keep you motivated to finish the review
  • it looking better on your CV
  • and probably more people (including the publishers) reading it

The main disadvantages of not publishing yourself are the time the process takes, possible disagreements at the editing stage, and most publications not publishing very negative reviews – but in that case they will usually let you publish that review yourself and try again with another title anyway. Another advantage of publishing your own review is that you can add to or change it if you change your mind about the materials later, something that is fairly common in my experience. It is also possible to combine the two, because some publications also let you republish your review, e.g. put it on your own blog, after it comes out on paper.

Getting commissioned usually means contacting the reviews editor of the publication with the details they ask for and waiting for them to offer a title for review (or a list that you can choose from). Although there can be the problems I mentioned above later on, I’ve found that getting through the commissioning stage is remarkably easy, including times when I was sure there was no chance! Things that may help with that stage include higher teaching qualifications, experience of reviewing (including different kinds such as helping your school choose a textbook and pre-publication reviewing), and having a very clear idea of what kinds of book you are looking for (and being specialised in your teaching more generally).

When it comes to choosing a book, the classic beginner’s mistake is seeing a title and thinking “That looks interesting” and snapping it up as if such a chance might never come along again. Criteria to think about more carefully include:

  • Can you test the materials or ideas in class?
  • Do you know other materials you can contrast it with?
  • Is it (at least partly) aimed at you and/or your students?
  • Will it be fairly easy to review?

To give examples, graded readers and dictionaries are notoriously difficult to review, as are books that are very similar to others such as most primary-age titles. There are also obvious problems with books that offer too little to write about (such as most pre-writing kindergarten textbooks) or too much (such as some very long teacher development and applied linguistics books).

Once you have the materials in your hands, the best thing to do is usually to start to read through the core of the book without finding out what the publisher, author(s) etc want you to think about it. This means looking at the student’s book before the teacher’s book. As you are reading through, underline, mark things that you will want to come back to with a scrap of paper or paperclip on each page, make notes in the back cover of the book, etc.

Especially with textbooks, self-study books and reference books, it is almost inevitable that you will reach the point where you can’t bear ploughing through it anymore. Tips include, in approximate order of when to try them:

  • Start from the back and work your way from there towards the middle
  • Choose chapter/sections/pages that sound particularly interesting and uninteresting from the contents page and look at them in more detail
  • Try out materials or ideas in class (initially your own way, then later following the instructions given if possible)
  • Look at the instructions for teachers and the relevant pages of the materials for students and try to judge how following those instructions would go
  • Read the marketing guff from the publishers/authors, e.g. on the back cover of the book, and try to judge how well the materials match their claims and how worthwhile those aims are anyway
  • Start writing the review, hoping that makes you look at the rest of the book to be able to fill in missing details
  • Only read other people’s reviews of the same materials as a last resort.

If you have continued making notes while doing the things above, it is possible to go from those notes to a structure for the whole review by linking together related ideas and making those the paragraphs, missing out anything that doesn’t fit in that plan or putting it in an “everything else” paragraph if it is really too important to miss out.

Other ways of structuring the whole review include:

  • Good things/Bad things
  • Examination of the various parts, e.g. teacher’s book, student’s book and then workbook
  • Overview then detailed examination of one part, e.g. one unit
  • Initial impressions, then how those impressions were and weren’t met
  • What the book claimed, how useful those things would be, and how well it fulfilled those claims

The conclusion should then sum up how much you would recommend the materials, and especially for whom and what you would most recommend them for.

Editing tips are the same for any kind of writing – leave it for at least a couple of days and go back for another edit, get help with editing if you can, etc. One particular tip is to insist on a recommended number of words from the editor of the review (or copy the number of words in a review from the place), as this helps force you to look at it again and again as you attempt to get it to the right number.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet May 2013
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Teflnet

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