Getting Ahead with Headway




When I created the slide above I almost believed it.  But on reflection one can see pretty clearly that Headway doesn’t teach anything at all.  It is the teacher who teaches, or doesn’t. Like it or not, the course book dictates the syllabus, the lesson plan, and to a large degree the method of teaching.  Students have paid for the course book and they expect to use it.  They become anxious if you miss activities, and they rely on them as a record of work done, and to some extent, they place a great deal of faith in them.  They may travel with one course book through 4 different levels, with perhaps 4 different teachers.  The teacher also relies on the book as he doesn’t have time to create a syllabus from scratch.

In order to teach effectively from a course book, the teacher may feel it necessary to understand something of the underlying theory and methodology behind the scenes.  This is something Headway is somewhat coy about (in fact, the question is ignored completely).  Lightbrown and Spada (2016) sum up the teacher’s conundrum very nicely in this extract:


On the face of it Headway is just a collection of pictures, texts and activities that are arranged in such a way as to suggest a method and a lesson plan – but is it really?  After reviewing a list of modern teaching methods Scrivener (2011) writes:


So what is the ‘Headway’ method?  Broadly speaking, every course book used in an EFL school since the 1980s has been based on the ‘Natural Method’ postulated by Krashen in the early 1980s.   This, based on Chomsky’s idea of the ‘Universal Grammar’ – that human beings have an innate capacity to ‘pick up’ linguistic forms.  Hence far more language is ‘acquired‘ rather than ‘learned‘ explicitly.  Acquisition happens when learners are presented with language at a level slightly above their present ability ( i+1 ).  So, although there is scope for the monitoring and checking of acquired language (learning systems, for example), the method is essentially one of exposure at the right input level.  The reason that all learners don’t progress in predictable sequences and at the expected rate is because of the negative effects of boredom, anxiety or stress – the affective filter.

This theory has been supported and perhaps given rise to the communicative approach and to task based learning methodologies.  Or it’s perhaps better to say that these methodologies arose concurrently and are not antithetical to each other.  That is, language needs to be presented within meaningful communicative contexts whereby learners are given numerous opportunities to engage with and practice the new language.  This is often seen as ‘speaking and listening’, but for Krashen, it is really ‘graded reading’ that is the key to second language acquisition (a point often over-looked).  The lecture below relates to all reading, not just reading done by EFL learners, but it’s nevertheless telling.

He recommends ‘ten minutes a day of sustained silent reading’, in class (something that could be an interesting active research project).

All this gave rise to the PPP method (present-practice-produce), particularly in the area of grammar.  Teachers interpreted these methods and methodologies in simple ways.  They simply felt that all they need to is present the language, provide a happy atmosphere, and the acquisition process would take care of itself.  Students are exposed to language and given sufficient opportunity to practice.  Those of higher ability will  do well, and those of lesser ability won’t do so well.  The PPP method seems to fall flat on its face when we come to the ‘produce’ part of it.  After the best presentation, and the most engaging practice sessions, the production part seemed to whimper out – even amongst the most determined students. PPP is often in all reality implemented as PT – present and test.  The teacher presents the language using text or board, and the exercises in Headway are really presented as a series of mini-tests.  If the student does well she’s smart and/or the teacher gave a successful presentation, if she does badly, she may blame the presentation, but more likely, she will blame herself.  If the teacher presents these exercises as tests, or allows the students to interpret them as tests, it could lead to a lack of confidence in language learning.  But these activities are not necessarily tests, they are simply puzzles, word games, or academic exercises.  They can be presented as tests, or they can be presented as a means by which the teacher can work closely with the students to help them to develop analytical, and other linguistic problem solving skills as he ‘guides’ them into discovering the underlying forms, functions and meanings of the language.  What has come to rival and over shadow PPP is the Guided Discovery method.


With guided discovery, the teacher doesn’t simply present, set-up an activity and go and make a cup of tea, only to come back, error check and move on.  He or she is actively engaged in the discovery process.  A context is usually set up, usually with a mix of text and pictures, and then the students are presented with tasks.  These tasks are designed to facilitate the recognition (discovery) of form, function and meaning.  The teacher is not sitting back waiting for the task to be completed, but is actively engaged in (guiding) the learning process.  He’s questioning, challenging, supporting, encouraging, correcting and monitoring the whole process.  He’s working with the students, not just watching them.

The clarification stage gives the teacher and students the opportunity to examine what has been ‘acquired’ through the discovery process according to rules that are made explicit.  Exercises are then set (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) to consolidate this acquired and regulated new language.  And of course, further consolidation exercises may well be necessary before a sufficient level of fluency or literacy has been met.  The grammar sections of American Headway 2nd edition conform to the guided discovery method, and if we teach it like a PPP lesson, we, as teachers, will suffer, and our students will suffer even more.

There does seem to be sufficient scope within the Headway course book to deliver strong classes if the teacher knows what he’s trying to achieve and utilises the supplementary activities and resources provided by Headway on-line and in the teacher’s book.   To illustrate this I’ve included a video of a grammar class (present perfect (ever/never) I gave to a Sunday elementary level class.  The cards are provided by Headway – I just needed to print them and chop them up.  The cards do not provide the whole question, it is up to the student to select the correct past-participle verb form and to use it coherently in a question form.  This helps develop ‘recall’, and to activate the ‘acquired’ grammar from an earlier part of the lesson.  In the example the teacher is working with the weakest student in the group, partly to make up the numbers.  Earlier in the activity the teacher was moving around the class (usually at the student’s beckoning) to clarify, correct or question assumptions – which would be his usual role.

I sometimes wonder if it weren’t a number of people who wrote Headway.  The other activities in the book don’t necessarily conform to this methodology.  Some of the activities, particularly the vocabulary exercises, are clearly TTT, and others seem to be there simply as space fillers!  The teachers’ books sometimes remark that such and such an activity is a recycling of a language element from a previous unit, but over all, one could argue, and not to strenuously, that Headway is an eclectic, populist method without any coherent theoretical underpinnings.

And that is absolutely true, Headway is not trying to impose any theoretical or methodological ideal.  The activities lend themselves to certain discernible methods, as I’ve previously mentioned, but they don’t have to be implemented in that way.  There is actually a lot of freedom there for the teacher to re-work an activity to suit the particular learning needs and styles of his students.

What is driving Headway is not methodology but a set of standards around tiered communicative tasks and goals set out in the CEF/CEFR.

“The CEF doesn’t promote a particular language
teaching methodology. It suggests that the methods
teachers use should be appropriate to the teaching
context and the social context. It recognizes that
effective teaching depends on lots of variables, and that
there’s a huge range of possible teaching methods and

(American Headway and the Common European Framework of Reference)

I’m not going to re-literate everything Headway says about CEF, but I’ve included some of the most relevant documents here.  The key to getting ahead with Headway isn’t in looking for some overarching methodology, because there isn’t one.  The key is in understanding CEF, and Headway’s efforts to provide us with some the resources necessary to meet those standards laid out in the Framework.

A useful reading list



American Headway 1 2ed Teachers Book Intro




Other writings of interest

A Critical Comparative Evaluation of English Course Books in EFL Context

EVALUATION” in the following journal:vol3_issue2_june2013