The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

An award for Global

As a freelancer sitting in your little freelance bubble at home, you don't often get much feedback on things you've worked on, except at the occasional conference. So it was quite exciting to find out that the Global eWorkbook that I worked on last year has won an award. It's won the English Speaking Union President's Award for "innovation and good design in the use of technology for the teaching, learning and advancement of English".

When I was plodding away helping to develop and write the language practice materials for the pre-intermediate eWorkbook last spring, it was certainly a lot of hard work and much of that effort went into trying to make it more than just a 'traditional' workbook. The e-format gives lots of room for innovation in terms of presentation - attractive graphics, lots of extra audio and video - plenty of interactive features when it comes to navigation and connections between features (linking language practice to a dictionary and grammar help) and of course, instant feedback on activities. There's even the facility to download audio and video material to listen to on the bus.

But for me, perhaps the most significant area of 'innovation' was in the actual content itself rather than just its presentation and funky format. The whole ethos behind the Global project, as plugged evangelically by its originator Lindsey Clandfield, was to be a 'grown-up' course, with information-rich, genuinely interesting and stimulating content. And this idea extended to the workbook too. Having written workbooks and CD-ROM practice materials before, I was well used to fitting in with a format and trying to find creative ways to practise a list of 8 pre-intermediate vocab items yet again, after they'd already been done to death in the coursebook! You try to make it interesting and come up with a vaguely feasible context where you can, but it's usually under pressure of tight deadlines (workbooks get squeezed in at the end of the writing process, yet need to be ready for the same publication dates), so it's generally off the top of your head.

The approach to the Global eWorkbook was quite different though. I found myself researching content for even very simple vocab and grammar activities - finding out about different types of calenders for an exercise on prepositions, or checking statistics for library lending for a vocab activity (on lend and borrow). I wrote reading texts about a Venezeulan music project and a UN population report and created listening activities about zero-carbon houses and Russian 'dachas'. Anything that interested me in the paper or on the radio or TV became a possible target topic.

We tried very hard to avoid the rather bland, contextless and frankly, distinctly unmemorable activities that all-too-often turn up in workbooks, which learners skim their way through rather automatically, taking in little more than the basic lists of items being "practised/tested". The idea of putting so much effort into making the workbook materials interesting and stimulating was not just to make them more attractive and motivating, but for learners to get more from the process in terms of language learning. The hope is that learners will actually take in more of the context rather than just skimming for the right answers, thereby absorbing more about the way the target items are used (collocations, grammatical patterns, register, etc.) and also something of the surrounding language too.

It's always difficult to know whether all the hopes, intentions and aspirations that go into developing and writing materials will manage to make their way out at the other end as you intend them to. I'm certainly aware that all the effort I've put into grammar codes and labels in dictionaries over the years are either ignored or viewed as meaningless by most of my students! But if this award and some of the other bits of feedback I've come across about Global are anything to go by, it seems that at least some of the effort that went into the writing (by the whole team who worked on it) is paying off.

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