ESL Textbook Review

ESL Textbook Review


Headway Academic Skills 3: Reading, Writing, and Study Skills Student’s Book

Sarah Pilpot and Lesley Curnick

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

headway

Headway Academic Skills 3 aims to equip students in higher education with a comprehensive range of academic skills ranging from vocabulary strategies to essay planning in ten tightly packed units. It is an impressive and ambitious plan but will likely cause the student to be overwhelmed.

Description
The ten units in Headway Academic Skills 3 cover the following topics: education and learning, health and medicine, urban planning, natural resources, international trade, history conservation, modern engineering, the Olympics, describing statistics and trends, and communication and technology. Each unit covers academic skills in four main sections in the following sequence: reading, language for writing, writing and vocabulary development. In three of the units, the topic of research skills is covered as well. At the end of each unit is a review section which brings together the reading and writing skills learned in the unit. The main sections generally follow the presentation, practice and production (PPP) approach (Shehadeh, 2005, p. 14), that is, the presentation of specific language items and/or reading or writing strategies (termed “study skills” in the book) is followed by practice through exercises such as gap fill, spotting language features and completing graphic organizers, and finally the production stage where students use the target language and skills with less guidance. The review section itself serves as an overall production stage where students are expected to reproduce the language items and study skills covered in the unit more independently. The appendix contains a word list of the main vocabulary used, complete with word class and pronunciation. There is a separate Teacher’s Guide which contains tests and additional activities but is not part of this review.

Intended Audience 
According to the book summary, Headway Academic Skills 3 functions as a bridge between general and academic English, and can be used either independently or alongside a general English course. While it does not specify the proficiency level of students, the book will be helpful to both native speakers, as well as advanced ESL students who have just begun university.

Strengths and Weaknesses 
The overall goal of Headway Academic Skills 3 is to equip students in higher education with academic skills such as note-taking and essay-writing, as stated in the book summary. However, since the units are content driven rather than skills driven, there is more breadth than depth in the treatment of academic skills. One exemption is reading skills which are adequately explored in each unit, as well as reinforced across units, highlighting strategies related to external text features (e.g. skimming and scanning for information), as well as internal text features (e.g. text structure and signal words). Other skills like writing and vocabulary development, however, are not as well integrated; the language features and strategies are introduced once in the unit but are hardly mentioned again in other units, thus limiting students’ opportunities for developing those skills. Furthermore, the PPP approach, as stated by Shehadeh (2005), does not allow students to develop both accuracy and fluency in using language items as students tend to either end up focusing primarily on form and not fluency or focus primarily on meaning without incorporating the target language at all (pp. 14-15). Thus the lack of integration of academic skills across units and the weakness of the PPP approach undermine the very purpose of the book.

Apart from its main weakness of not providing integrated and appropriate opportunities for students to fully develop academic skills, the book also features topics which may be too impersonal for young adults to identify with. While the topics represent diverse cultures and are appropriate for a higher education audience, the approach taken does not lead students to be personally interested in the material. Activities revolve around the given reading passages or writing tasks with few opportunities for students to provide their viewpoints or creatively interact with the material provided. This lack of personal interaction is reinforced by the largely similar nature of the tasks such as underlining words and phrases, filling in gaps and matching items with corresponding answers.

Despite its instructional flaws, Headway Academic Skills 3 has several strengths. One of them is the use of near authentic materials such as journal articles, news reports and letter to capture the range of expository writing material a university student would likely to be exposed to. Even though some of the materials were probably re-written with a more appropriate level of grammar and vocabulary, it is more important for the materials to be more easily understood while simulating authenticity than for materials to be presented in its original but less comprehensible form, especially for students who struggle with such texts (Flowerdew & Peacock, 2001, p. 185).

Another strength is that the book can be adapted for use with either native English speakers or ESL students. While ESL students would probably appreciate the straightforward and simplified language used, all students will find it beneficial to learn specific reading and writing strategies. For first language students, teachers can consider using more challenging supplementary reading material for students to practice their academic skills.

Finally, Headway Academic Skills 3 does well in having visually appealing graphics and layout. For example, most of the photos used are clear, colorful and informative. In terms of the layout, the different sections are color-coded for easy reference. In addition, important information like study skills and language rules are highlighted in boxes and placed at the side so as not to interrupt the flow of the text. However, one minor complaint I have about the layout is that there is hardly any white space on each page and the limited spacing between tasks and sections. Thus the reader will find it difficult to focus on the text at first glance.

Conclusion 
Headway Academic Skills 3 succeeds in introducing a comprehensive range of reading and writing skills and strategies but falls short in providing integrated and meaningful practice across the units for students to master the skills. While the brightly colored photos and pages stand out, those elements will not be sufficient to engage students. Teachers who choose to use the book may make up for the lack of depth in the coverage of academic skills by being selective about which language items and strategies to focus on. Alternatively, teachers may design their own lessons and use the book’s activities as supplementary material. Either way, teachers should not overlook what is useful in the book for their purposes in teaching academic skills.

References 

Flowerdew, J., Peacock, M. (2001). The EAP curriculum: Issues, methods, and challenges. In J. Flowerdew M. Peacock (Eds.), Research perspectives on English for academic purposes (pp. 177-194). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Philpot, S. & Curnick, L. (2011). Headway academic skills 3: Reading, writing, and study skills student’s book. In L. Soars & J. Soars (Series Eds.), Headway academic skills. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Shehadeh, A. (2005). Task-based language learning and teaching: Theories and applications. In C. Edwards J. Willis (Eds.), Teachers exploring tasks in English language teaching (pp. 13-30). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

The truths about teaching English

The truths about teaching English

In preparation for a new course with the MAT TESOL program, I read the first three chapters of James Crawford’s “Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom“. I was at first overwhelmed with the various programs and acronyms for teaching English to immigrants in America, but soon I grew curious about the assumptions and implications of these programs. By the end of Chapter 3 on Language Policies in the USA,  I viewed the act of educating an English learner with greater appreciation for the non-pedagogical (i.e. social and political) reasons. In fact, I started to think about my personal journey as an English learner, a timely response as Singapore’s annual Speak Good English Movement trots out slogans and ministerial soundbites in a bid to rescue the language from falling standards, whether real or perceived.

Response to Crawford

First, let me sum up my thoughts on Crawford’s overview of the diversity of English language programs in America. On the surface, it seems that the US government makes the effort to help immigrants and their children to assimilate into American society. But assimilation itself is not necessarily an ideal outcome. The whole idea of a Melting Pot sounds innocuous enough, where many cultures combine to form one homogenous culture (therefore avoiding ethnic, religious and political divisions). However, what goes unquestioned is that homogenous culture – whose culture is it exactly?

Crawford seems to champion acculturation instead, which he defines as “adding the new without discarding the old” (Crawford, p. 63). He highlights a competing metaphor, the Salad Bowl, which suggests that cultures should blend without losing their distinct flavors.

According to Crawford, the debate over teaching English in an English-only environment versus a bilingual (and bicultural) program has a lot to do with whether political camps take the Melting Pot or Salad Bowl view.

The America context, historical, social and political is a minefield that I am beginning to understand and discover. (See The Official English Movement: Reimagining America for an overview of the debate over language policies in America.) The Singapore context of language policies, on the other hand, is something that I’ve wondered about, sometimes becoming critical but mostly brushing it aside to deal with its realities. Crawford’s book has ignited my interest once again but this time, I hope to sustain my critical understanding of how English is taught, and “deal with its realities” in less reactive and more proactive ways.

How English is taught

The first thing I’m concerned with is how English is taught in this country. And the way it is and has been taught cannot be divorced from the history of the use of the language.

The history of English language teaching in Singapore goes back to the early 19th century when the British Empire conquered this sleepy Malay fishing village. This village was soon a major trading port and attracted immigrants from a mix of countries including India and China. In the land of immigrants speaking a plethora of languages, or more accurately, dialects, English was the language of the ruling power, administration, law, commerce and over and above all, privilege. English in as ‘pure’ as form as possible as long as the British were in charge, or had a heavy influence, entrenched itself in English medium (as opposed to Chinese medium) schools right up to the 60s. By the late 70s and early 80s, Chinese medium schools were no longer around, and English was firmly taught as a first language in all schools. (Note: These are broad historical strokes from my under-researched understanding. I welcome clarifications, corrections and recommended readings.)

Even as a first language, the way English has been taught (particularly in primary schools) from the 80s right up till today has undergone several changes. The most obvious one to me, since I was a primary school student during the 80s and now I teach students who went through primary school in the 90s, is a shift from a focus on grammar to a focus on communicative competence. I have yet to come across solid researched evidence but my sense (as well as the sense of my peers and elders) is that the standard of English has dropped, with a typical teenager who has undergone the 10 years of schooling, speaking and writing less grammatically. Of course we can all understand each other, and even foreigners will figure us out, but the fact that it is our first language (or is it?) should demand that we know and perform it well.

English language and the immigrant

The second thing that I’m concerned with is how the English language interfaces with the 2nd wave of immigrants coming to Singapore. Now, more than ever before, Singapore is experiencing an influx of foreign workers, blue-collar, white-collar, with a range of qualifications and motives. Many Singaporeans, especially those who speak and understand primarily English, are frustrated at the number of foreign service staff who seem inept at providing customer service since thy struggle with the language. There are others who feel that the immigrants (or perhaps more rightly called migrants) are not even interested in assimilating into Singapore culture, and by that, I think they mean speaking the lingua franca of English.

Apart from the workplace, there are also potential issues in English language learning among immigrant children or foreign students in Singapore who struggle not only with the language, but also understanding other subjects that are taught in English, and mixing with their local peers.

This issue of how English interfaces with the foreign community is complex and I will have to deal with it separately at a later date. But for now, my view is that we cannot assume that the foreigner themselves should bear the burden when it is clear that their language competence affects how we perceive them and how well we all get together.

E pluribus unum (Out of many, one). But there is no one truth about learning or teaching a language. There are many because we as language learners are complex creatures because of our histories, social interactions, personal motivations and aspirations.

Reference

Crawford, J. (2004).  Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom (5th edition).  Los Angeles:  Bilingual Educational Services (BES).