Ways to write a TEFL review

I have written literally hundreds of published reviews of TEFL materials, and the part that never gets easier is knowing where to start. Over the years I have used all of the 15 ideas below when writing reviews, and have given many of these tips to other reviewers. This included many people who were publishing something for the first time, and all of these tips should be especially useful for new reviewers, either used as the structure for a whole review or combined.

1. Is it suitable for my class?
This is perhaps the easiest way to get started. Try out some ideas and/ or materials in class and then decide if it was suitable for the classes you tried it on. Try and analyse why, and then write what other classes it could be suitable for, and that is a review!

2. Is it suitable for me?
With a textbook or book with practical ideas this is similar to Is It Suitable For My Class? above, but based on whether it suits your teaching style and/ or teaching philosophy or could be adapted to it. For more theoretical books, a similar way of looking at a book is writing about whether it told you what you wanted to know right now in a way you could understand and found interesting. If any of these are not so, you can again simply finish of the review by saying who it might suit more.

3. Test its claims
This is just as simple as the two ideas above, but a bit more systematic. Perhaps after reading and/ or using the book for a while (to stop yourself being influenced before you decide your initial impression), read the claims about the book on the back cover, in the introduction or in any other information given by the publisher. Examine how true each claim is and why (maybe one paragraph per paragraph), and if you add an introduction (maybe just some basic details and a description of how you went about reviewing it) and a conclusion there is your review.

4. Your motivations
Start the review with a description of why you decided to read and/ or try out this book, e.g. what you expected to learn from it or why you were unhappy with other similar books. Examine how it compared to your expectations and why, and if the surprises were good or bad things.

5. Section by section
After a brief introduction, in 2 or 3 lines list the component parts, e.g. introduction, chapter titles, appendices, or students’ book, teacher’s book, workbook, CD ROM. Then write one paragraph on each part. If you still don’t know what to say about your opinion of each part, you will find that analysing it in smaller and smaller parts (e.g. saying what points the introduction deals with) will get the ideas and words flowing. The concluding paragraph can then just be picking out the important points from that analysis, e.g. what the very best and worst parts were or if the most important things were good and bad, and then what that means for your evaluation of the whole book.

6. What does it say?
Another good way to get the ideas and words flowing even if you aren’t sure what you think about the book yet is to tell the readers some of the ideas of the book, e.g. what the conclusions of the research were or some examples of game ideas. You can then move onto giving your own reaction to those ideas, comparing them to ones you have read elsewhere etc.

6. What’s new?
How is this book the same as and different from other books you have seen or heard about before? Listing these things in one or two paragraphs and then analysing each one in a separate paragraph (Was it a good idea that didn’t quite make it in practice? etc) can then be the whole structure of the review. You can usually easily find what is supposed to be new about the book from the publicity from the publishers. This works well with new editions of a classic book, as long as you don’t make the false assumption that everyone knows the old edition.

7. How does it compare?
This is similar to What’s New? above, but perhaps taking one or two other popular books as the basis against which to judge this one. This works as a method of analysing the book even if you decide not to mention the other book(s) in the review.

8. My experience
This is similar to the two ideas above, but means starting the review with a little history of your experience with these kinds of books (which is a nice personal touch and sometimes amusing), and then the rest of the review is an examination of how this book fits in with that story, e.g. more of the same, a refreshing change or even worse than the other books you mentioned.

9. Close examination
Flick to a random chapter or unit in the middle of the book and describe in precise detail what you find there. You can then explain the other parts of the book by what is the same (format of the page, ways of presenting the language, types of exercise etc) and different (gets more difficult as you go on, more fluency work introduced etc).

10. First impressions
Many people react very strongly to a book’s appearance or other first impressions. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as you can start the review with your first impressions (“800 pages on testing young learners?!”) and then write the rest of the review on why you had that impression, how fair it turned out to be when you had got to know the book a bit better, and if other people are likely to have the same first and more reasoned impressions.

11. Stream of consciousness
As you are reading the book or after you finish, write down every thought that pops into your head about it. Then try to organise those thoughts into paragraphs with clear topics and those paragraphs into a text that clearly progresses from one idea to the next. Any ideas that didn’t fit into that structure can either be left out or put in a “few other thoughts” paragraph just before or after the conclusion.

12. Good points/ bad points
List all of the good things about the book, then all the bad things. Arrange them into topics. If the topics of the good points and bad points are similar you can combine them in paragraphs. If not, just do several paragraphs (with clear topics for each one) on the good points and then several paragraphs on the bad points before a concluding paragraph or two.

13. My dream book
Describe what kind of textbook etc you would love to see and then examine how the book you are reviewing lives up to your fantasies, before switching back to reality and examining how well it matches other real books.

14. Examine another review
Read another review of the same or a similar book and see how much you agree with the review or how many of the things the reviewer said about that book are also true about your book.

Quote the best, worst, most controversial or most typical things the book says (e.g. advice from the teacher’s book or some facts and grammar explanations from the students’ book). Write about how typical they are of the book as a whole, how they compare to similar quotes you could make from other books, how much you agree or disagree with them etc, and there you have a review that anyone would be happy to read, including some people who aren’t interested in the book but enjoy the quotes.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net July 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

One Comment

  • Eric Roth says:

    Solid tips!

    Thanks for sharing.

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