Empower (B2 Upper Intermediate)

Adrian Doff, Craig Thaine, Herbert Puchta, Jeff Stranks, Peter Lewis-Jones
Cambridge University Press 2015

EmpowerAfter struggling to navigate my way through a number of coursebooks, Empower comes as a relief. With its clearly laid-out Contents page (no peculiar wheel or cog symbols here!), you quickly see what each of its ten units comprises. Apart from core B2 grammar, vocabulary and skills there is pronunciation and functional language and review and extension, which can be used for self-study or as a short, weekly progress check.

I am always a fan of a useful (exploitable) back-of-book section: Empower has a grammar reference with exercises, vocabulary focus for extension of the unit vocabulary, audioscripts (all clearly numbered in line with the units), a small section on phonemic symbols, extra pronunciation exercises and a list of irregular verbs. There is also the Communication Plus section, where the pairwork activities for the units are to be found.

Empower looks and feels adult. The overall cultural tone is appropriate for the age and maturity of the young adult / adult target user, with the perennial coursebook topics given a more worldly slant: survival, life lessons, attitudes to risk, natural disasters, finances, the impact of new inventions, moral dilemmas. There are few celebrity faces (Ben Stiller, Steve Jobs, Rafael Nadal); rather, we meet real people of varying ages, races and backgrounds: in Unit 4, Sheela the pilot, Amelia the forest ranger and Lars the Lego model developer.

Reading texts cover New Zealand, Kenya, Antarctica. Want to know where Uruapan, Ha Long Bay and Kizhi Island are?. The book has an international, rather than Eurocentric, flavour, ensuring its appeal to learners from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

In Everyday English (the Part C of each unit), we meet a cast of young professionals and follow their trials and successes through the book. Their journey takes us from Unit 1’s intriguing ‘Don’t touch the sandwiches!’ to a finale of ‘Two things to celebrate today’ in Unit 10. This continuity can be a good way of maintaining interest – unless your class take against these individuals, in which case meeting them in every unit will be annoying. However, I sometimes found the section bewilderingly jarring – for example, in Unit 8C, students learn how to cheer someone up by sounding encouraging (about flat-hunting) after Unit 8B’s lexical input of robber, burglar, bribery, kidnapping, etc.

I know the upper-intermediate level well, having used it with a good B2 class of 18–25-year-olds. Indeed, Unit 9 and I are intimately acquainted, for this was the unit that coincided with a two-day school inspection and the meticulous planning and paperwork overload of lesson observations. For this, I was glad to have the support provided by a comprehensive Teacher’s Book and Workbook. There is plenty in a unit for a week of lessons. Lesson flow is straightforward with each language item or skill clearly labelled, so you can easily work out the balance per lesson. In terms of sufficiency, Empower is complete enough to stand on its own – the teacher does not have to produce masses of extra material to make a lesson work.

Each unit begins with a list of Can-do statements, very useful for clarifying the learning objectives to your students at the start of the week. A crisp, clear visual invites comment via the Getting Started questions. The photos are eye-catching – for example, Unit 2’s photo of a man in chest-waders in a flooded kitchen with all his furniture piled high. It is a strength of the course that the visuals and the reading and listening texts are thought-provoking and stimulating. I remember teaching Unit 9 where my class animatedly discussed alternative medicine (some personal experience) and synthetic burgers (yes, there is a YouTube video about ‘schmeat’).

From the Learn to … objectives at the start of each unit to the output writing task at the end, each lesson moves forward with careful staging and manageable sections that focus on language systems and/or skills. A and B lessons provide input and practice of core grammar and vocabulary with a mix of skills; Lesson C deals with functional language (there is video material with an authentic, real-world flavour); and Lesson D is an integrated skills lesson with a writing focus which recycles the core language from A, B and C.

Each unit contains a Pronunciation section billed, along with language input, as part of the comprehensive approach to speaking skills. There is a focus on tone groups, sounds and spelling, contrastive stress, consonant clusters, compound noun stress and (to raise awareness of the phonological features of rapid speech), linking and intrusive sounds /j/, /w/ and /r/, plus pausing and chunking with word groups. I would have liked to see a focus on elision and assimilation, too.

Throughout the book, students are given controlled practice of target language, and the chance to personalise. The personal response activities foster successful learning, making it more memorable. These are laudable inclusions.

Listenings are scripted to be as ‘authentic’-sounding as possible and are taken from monologues, interviews, radio programmes, news reports and general chat-like dialogue. There is exposure to a variety of accents and a balance of male and female speakers. The writers have made a point of including some natural-sounding discourse: What a load of rubbish!, Sounds a bit boring, I know, I sort of thought we had. The texts themselves range from the very short to longer, more challenging texts.

For all that I like the course, there are a few let-downs. The book review in Unit 8 (of a 1935 Ngaio Marsh detective novel) was dull – surely more contemporary fiction would have fared better. Similarly, Unit 9B’s reading on the (largely unknown even then) 60s rock musician Sixto Rodriguez felt dated and inaccessible and learner engagement was low.

The vocabulary task on p106 (‘Match verbs 1–5 with the pictures’) was laughably simple. I also found the exercise on relative clauses (p106) much too easy for my B2 learners. The real challenge was to get them joining sentences to add information via non-defining relative clauses, omitting the personal pronouns and putting in commas where necessary, so I adapted the more taxing practice exercises on p151 to raise the level of grammar challenge. And while the Wordpower sections highlight the importance of collocation, some of the lexis (e.g. make up my mind, make friends with) is a bit unchallenging for this level. In the staffroom, we were also disappointed that the book does not come with accompanying progress tests – at least, none that are readily accessible for free.

However, the Teacher’s Book must be singled out for praise. A sturdy, ring-bound book, it has 70 pages of photocopiable exercises, clearly labelled by target language item, activity type and class dynamic. There are board games, word searches, dictations, picture comparison, sentence completion, crosswords, matching and ranking activities, word snakes and quizzes. The vocabulary and grammar activities correspond to the language point and topic of the unit, giving scope for extension and consolidation in an engaging and dynamic way.

The Culture Notes, Extra Activities suggestions, Optional Lead-Ins, tips and ideas to deal with Fast Finishers are all absolute bonuses. Thank you, authors! For less experienced teachers, the Vocabulary Support (short definition and CEF level of key lexis, all nicely boxed) and Careful! sections (anticipated problems with form and meaning) will give welcome support.

Clare Henderson

Clare Henderson has been a teacher at Bell Cambridge since 1994 and her interests are Contemporary English and Testing.