A Course in English Language Teaching by Penny Ur, CUP

by Penny Ur, CUP - Reviewed by Shawn Severson, IH Porto

Those who have already worked with the predecessor to Penny Ur’s A Course in English Language Teaching will be pleased to enjoy easier access to theory and practice in this revamped version, presented in a less compartmentalized and more digestible way.   The course has undergone an overhaul in content and stance on “teachership” rather than undergoing a mere procedure in cosmetic surgery. Looking at the two versions side by side, it is apparent that this useful guide has benefited from deep organizational adjustments, resulting in a more intuitive setup.  Additionally, the update on teaching practices and SLA theory provides a 21st century tool apt for those setting roots in the ELT profession,  seeking exercises in professional development or simply looking for a professional reference manual.  The book is divided into 20 units, each comprised of four to five sections, making the units easy to use and their aims quite clear.  As a practical suggestion for using the book, the author states that the first 11 chapters are mainly targeted at fledgling teachers, while the remaining chapters focus on practical hands-on teaching skills and opportunities to heighten professional awareness of the teaching process.

As regards professional development, each unit is wrapped up with a dozen review questions to check comprehension of concepts addressed. Meanwhile, tasks are set throughout each unit allowing for reflection on personal practice and experience, so as to provide opportunities to apply theory to teaching context.  These tasks are versatile enough for the book to serve as a training manual for groups of teachers or as a self-help guide to teaching.  For more experienced teachers, a variety of contexts are given to analyze methods and explore theoretical underpinnings.  For both sets of teachers, this update provides links to many useful electronic resources and encourages tools such as Moodle and IWBS, which are relatively new in the language school setting.  Last but not least, the book provides substantial updates on what learners studying at an organization like ours need English for in this increasingly global context.  The end goal of language teaching and learning is for language learners to be able to use one of the world Englishes pragmatically and competently.

Being an English teacher has also adapted a wider meaning, as the book shifts away from a prescriptive, static account of what a teacher ought to be.  Instead, a course in English language teaching presents the teacher as having functions of instructor and activator, as well as a mixture of several others during any particular lesson.  As English teaching permeates many new realms, the discussion of these roles raises the new teacher’s awareness of being more than a “curriculum applicator” and extends to less straightforward roles of motivator and manager.

The age-old adage of practicing what you preach has been adhered to throughout the book, as teaching is about providing positive models, giving encouragement and presenting information in a coherent and welcoming way.  Indeed, Ur has conveyed theory in a “collegial” way, much as a generous senior teacher sharing the insight of years of experience would.  Where the book’s spirit of practical and contextualized training noticeably digresses is in the glossary, appearing as a shopping list of definitions, many of which are either quite basic and easily glossed in the text (e.g. L1 and l2) or others which would be better left to the index for viewing in the context of a more detailed discussion (e.g. Critical period hypothesis).  That being said, the index that follows is complete and useful for looking up facts and discussion quickly.

Where the book excels as a reference and training manual is in the presentation of key terms facilitated by sub-headings, which in many manuals would be embedded in the paragraph.  Thus key points can be absorbed and rediscovered more easily.

With new research findings that have arisen in the last decade, the book has evolved to keep abreast of current scholarship.  In the introduction, Ur explains that this course is a furthering and shift in some of her ideas on teaching practices.  One such example is apparent in her viewpoint on L1 use in the classroom, promoting it from an undesirable activity to one to be used in certain contexts, especially as a clarifier and timesaver.  The L1 now occupies a small, but useful, place in the classroom, unlike strict standpoints on English-only directed by past training manuals.  This best exemplifies the overhaul of the book and a shift in viewpoint to realign with current stances on teaching and learning.  Regardless of one’s perspective, discussion surrounding central aspects of teaching still makes the book a wonderful springboard for new teachers.  For the experienced teacher who lacks the time to keep up on the latest literature, new kernels of theory are brought into this updated version.  For the teacher trainer, a thorough and accessible training program is lined up and ready.  For language school coordinators, emphasis and discussion on improving tech skills provide parameters for improving teaching practice.  Whatever your position in the language teaching profession, this book provides opportunities for overhaul or, if only slight tweaks are needed, then a bit of cosmetic surgery on pedagogic theory and practices.