Review ~ Objective FirstA really useful course to help B1+ students progress to level B2 and pass the Cambridge First Certificate in English, with many helpful hints.
This third edition of Objective First consists of a Student’s Book with CD-ROM (with or without answers), a Workbook with audio CD (with or without answers), and a Teacher’s Book with CD-ROM. This review focuses mainly on the Student’s Book with answers. All are for preparation for the high-Intermediate exam Cambridge: First (also known as FCE and Cambridge First Certificate).
Any book which aims to help students prepare for a standard test faces a major problem, since standard tests are designed to assess, with a fair amount of accuracy, the level of English that the candidate has reached. Any book helping students to pass a standard test without actually reaching the level of English certified by that test would undermine the credibility of the test itself. Teachers and editors alike therefore face a quandary, and CEFR level B2 is often a major hurdle. Level B1 is the first stage as “independent user”, and it is within the reach of most candidates. Level B2 demands greater depth of knowledge and much greater mastery of language. The Association of Language Testers of Europe (ALTE) recommends a certain number of guided teaching hours for each CEF level, indicating that it takes at least 100 guided teaching hours for a student to progress from level B1 to B2.
Objective First contains 24 two-part units, each followed by an exam folder or a writing folder. Every six units there is a revision unit. Each unit is in two parts, and each of these sections covers two pages. The body of the book is therefore 150 pages long, and each two-page spread contains enough material for at least an hour’s work. One nice point about the teacher’s book is that it actually gives you information on the amount of time a lesson should take, with a short version (SV) in 60-70 minutes, and a long version (LV) of around 90 minutes. For those doing intensive courses in three-hour blocks, each unit would provide adequate material to cover that amount of time.
The themes range from aliens (Space, p 70) to zoos (Endangered Animals, p 29). The layout is quite dense, with very little wasted space, but it is true that the task of getting students from level B1 to B2 does not leave much time for pretty pictures. Although there is only one Speaking folder, right at the end of the book (pp.162-3), most units do start with a speaking task similar to those in the test, with (small) pictures to compare.
All through the book are highlighted “Exam Spot” inserts, with useful reminders about the structure of the FCE. Many of the “Exam Folders” also contain “Exam Advice” with helpful hints on strategy and time management (keep calm, don’t panic, etc.). But the best bit, as far as I am concerned, is the corpus focus. There are regular “Corpus Spots”, based on data from the Cambridge Learner corpus, highlighting common mistakes and even letting students attempt to correct such frequent errors.
At the end of the Student’s Book, there is a fairly extensive yet compact (two-page) “Phrasal Verb List”, with synonyms and definitions. This is followed by a grammar folder, covering the main points for each unit, including a list of the most common irregular verbs, for Unit 5. Then there is the Answers section, which includes the transcripts, sample answers, and explanations of the answers provided. Somewhat surprisingly, the Student’s Book does not contain a vocabulary list at the end. However, such lists are provided in downloadable format on the CD-ROM, and they are also available on the companion website in several formats and languages.
My students are mostly B1 level or lower, and so they found the work quite difficult, but felt a great sense of achievement when they got the right answers. I should probably have given them the wordlist in French, which might have made things easier for them at the beginning. Although I found the level quite challenging, I did not really notice a sense of progression in the book. The earlier units are perhaps slightly easier, but they could easily be used in a stand-alone fashion, or taken out of order.
The most innovative aspects of the book are its use of the Cambridge Learner Corpus and the English Vocabulary Profile; the CD-ROM is very satisfactory extension to the book, and the companion website also provides a free photocopiable Practice Test with audio. I would definitely recommend this book for use by students of B1+ level who want to progress rapidly and who are willing to put in the time and effort necessary, but I think it will be much more effective used in class rather than for self-study. The test format itself means that it is much more efficient to work with a partner than to prepare the test alone, and many of the activities in the book have separate Student A and Student B instructions.
Although adapted to the test format, Objective First is far more than simply a “prepare-for-the-test” book. Used well, it should help those students who have already reached level B1+ to progress with confidence to level B2. The Cambridge First Certificate will then allow those students to confirm their level as confident, independent users of English.