Review of new course Super Minds – the unedited ranty version

If you want to more carefully thought through and edited version, you’ll have to read the July edition of Modern English Teacher magazine. I think this more direct response to the materials also has its merits though… 

This is mainly a review of Super Minds 1 (which I had all components for) with some mention of how the series varies going down and up the levels (from Super Minds Starter, Super Minds 2, and Super Minds 3, which I only had the Student’s Books for).

Having reviewed quite a few recent primary and pre-primary courses for MET and taught with many more, I must admit that they are all starting to blur together a bit and there are many aspects of Super Minds that might merge into that amorphous mess in my brain in a year or so. Each book in the series follows a group of characters through nine units, with a chant, song and picture story per unit. Instructions that have little connection to motivating students to actually learn like “Listen and look” and “Listen and point” proliferate in both the Student’s Book and Teacher’s Book, and many of the “games” are nothing of the kind.

In common with most recent books, it also has stickers and a DVD ROM at the back of the book, a rather moralistic tone (with “Value” written under each story), projects/ crafts that don’t necessarily produce a lot of English, and a CLIL component (“English for School”). The most notable thing in the “Map” of each book is a column marked “Thinking skills”, and it is this focus on expanding young minds which explains the name of the series. Examples of activities to also develop thinking skills include mixing primary colours and matching animals to their skeletons, and the thinking skills listed on the “Maps” range from “Paying attention to visual details” in Super Minds Starter to “Decoding and sequencing” in Super Minds 3. I’m not sure why activities like “Read and write the names” have “Think” next to them, and unfortunately these are much more common than activities which really stretch their brains in imaginative ways.

Other things that distinguish this series from the crowd include:

- The characters are only followed for one or two books, making sure they and their accompanying stories are age appropriate in a way that is not always true of such series

- 3D computer animated stories and related pictures, but nicely mixed with photos and other styles of picture

- British English

- Lots of use of miming, such as “Do that” stages where they give instructions for their partners to perform

- Guided visualisation activities

- The quality of and some of the activities on the DVD ROM which is included with the Student’s Book

Going back to the elements that most books of this kind have, there seems to be an idea that anything connected to the topic of the unit that has rhythm is a useful chant that is going to help students learn, whereas in fact it is just as difficult to write a chant that is catchy and motivating as it is to write a good song. The chants in this series are similarly uninspired. Luckily, the actual songs are much better, with about 50% of them being ones I’d keep to use in other classes too. As well as the humour that the chants lack, the songs have a good range of voices and tunes. They also cover some language points that I’ve never come across good songs for, such as Simple Past and names of countries. More songs with actions would have been nice, though, especially in the lower level books.

Despite the rather heavy-handed “Value” in each, the stories are quite good, especially the ones in books 1 and 2 with four characters with special powers, including talking to animals and becoming invisible. The stories are interesting for the kids, have a good mix of the target language and other structures, and have just the right amount of humour.

The topics of the units (clothes, toys, etc) and grammar (can/ can’t, there is/ there are, etc) are also fairly typical for this age range, though it did surprise me how quickly Super Minds 1 went from numbers 1 to 10, basic colours and the alphabet to “You find tigers in the jungle” in Unit 6. Super Minds 1 also includes no work at all on letter formation or phonics bar a tongue twister, including in the Workbook. Super Minds Starter doesn’t fill the gap either, as it is designed as a purely oral/ aural approach with no phonics at all.

Super Minds 2 takes students from “What time is it?” to “Can we go horse riding tomorrow morning?” via “Has your town got a swimming pool?” and “I’d like to go to Africa by plane”. As suggested by the older characters and longer texts, Book 3 is a bit of a jump up from 1 and 2, and goes from “You have to wear school uniform” to “It’s not going to be rainy on Tuesday” via “The plate landed on the floor” and “Great auks were sea birds”.

The Workbook has no colour outside a nine-page Picture Dictionary at the back. The activities are also rather colourless, with “read and draw”, “write the words”, “listen and tick” etc quite typical. There are usually more stimulating activities once or twice per unit, including a code for weather words and writing your own words to extend the song. I’m not sure why there are extra classroom craft activities in the Workbook, but I’ve had problems with other workbooks where very little is actually possible to do as unsupported homework due to use of the CD etc and that isn’t the case with these books. However, “Draw and write examples of what you know” at the end of each unit could do with some explanation. The Workbook also sticks strictly to revising language in the Student’s Book rather than expanding on that or doing other useful language points as many recent books do.

The Teacher’s Book has full colour pages from the Student’s Book with detailed but rather uninspiring notes on what to do in that lesson in class such “students look at the chant” and “make sure the students know what to do”. All the relevant answer keys and tapescripts are on the one teacher’s page, and there is good use of colour, boxes etc to make it easy to navigate. Each sub-stage has its own clearly stated and achievable aim, and each page says what language is recycled as well as what is new. Although this book doesn’t assume use of L1 as some do, there is no attempt to show how things like “pre-teach skeleton and human” can be done in just English with low level young learners. The book starts with a ten-page Introduction, including About Super Minds and Teaching with Super Minds. About Super Minds explains that the books are designed to “cater for a variety of teaching situations, including those with a higher than usual number of hours per week” and for preparation for the YLE exams.

The lack of stimulating games becomes even more of a surprise in the extra Teacher’s Resource Book, which I expected to be full of pairwork communication gap activities and cut up games like dominoes but instead has gapfills, progress tests, and yet more crafts.

The DVD ROM somewhat makes up for all that with games such as Spinning (the things which you must match the words to are spinning around the page), and the rather similar Clouds (in which they drift across the screen instead), and Popping Balloons. It might well be my rather ancient laptop, but I found the games somewhat slow to respond and move onto the next thing, which did rather cool the enthusiasm of my overexcited seven year olds. There are also animated versions of the stories in the Student’s Book (perhaps explaining the use of 3D computer generated characters in the book), karaoke versions of the songs in which students can record their own voices and play their recordings back, and “Videoke” in which they do something similar with dialogues. I especially liked the Videoke function (and would have liked it in every unit), and generally although the activities are repeated in each unit these DVD ROMs are the best free ones accompanying textbooks that I have seen.

In general, there is little in the books bar the songs and the DVD ROM that I’d use to supplement classes using other textbooks, but also little that I’d feel the need to skip completely when using this as the main textbook. It would need a lot of work to add games, more real communication, language to the craft activities, ways of doing most things without L1 etc, but that is almost universal in such books.

This is a perfectly good series if you want to study British English and have students who are likely to progress quickly or who can spend a substantial number of hours on each unit. Although the brain-training concept that you would imagine would form the core of the books from the title doesn’t add much, the songs and stories that actually make up the substance of the book are good, and it includes fairly good to good examples of supplementary things such as DVD ROMs. Perhaps the best way of choosing between this and alternative series is looking at the level of difficulty – if it is suitable for your classes and they don’t need American English this would be as good a choice as any other. Although not the most challenging series I have come across, Super Minds does move on quite quickly and so is unlikely to be suitable for students who will progress quite slowly due to factors such as lack of classroom hours or lack of Roman script. It is also not quite stimulating or high level enough for the top end (very higher achievers, returnee children, international school children etc), but rather sits somewhere quite a bit above the typical mid-level for these age groups.

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5 Responses to Review of new course Super Minds – the unedited ranty version

  1. Emily says:

    Just wanted to follow up on your point about American English – the course is actually available in either British or American English: http://www.cambridge.org/gb/elt/catalogue/subject/project/item6873274/?site_locale=en_GB&currentSubjectID=2562984

  2. alexcase says:

    Sorry about that, had no idea. Was the American edition out at the same time as the British one? In fact, we tried to order it for the school here in Japan and assumed that it being British was why we couldn’t find or order it locally. (For us, being one of the rare primary courses in British English would have been a plus).

  3. Emily says:

    Hi Alex. The American English version of the course has been available since 2012. I’m not sure at what point it was launched in Japan – it may have been later than the British English version – but it will certainly be available now, should you need it.

  4. Noemí Torrelles says:

    Hi Alex,
    We are considering this series but we have doubts regarding the appropriate ages for each of them. What book did you use for 6-7 year olds (considering these can hardly read or write)? and which one for 7-8 year olds?
    Thanks,

  5. alexcase says:

    It was a while ago, but the way I remember it we decided to leap straight into Book 1 and teach them phonics with other materials as we went along so they could do homework etc, as Starter was a bit babyish and it also doesn’t develop phonics (completely ignoring it instead). Took some adapting to take some reading out of the classwork though.

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