[Charles LeBeau. Tokyo: Macmillan Languagehouse, 2014. pp. 114. ¥2,300. ISBN: 978-4-7773-6476-3.]
Interactive Writing: Practical Writing Skills for the Digital Age is recommended for beginner to low-intermediate students. The textbook has 12 units that are thematically organized as a study-abroad experience in the United States, with units based on visiting a campus, finding a roommate, and writing a summary for a friend who has missed a class.
Each unit is focused on an end goal of students being able to write about that unit’s target theme, such as an advertisement for a roommate. Activities in each unit build gradually from more structured activities to free writing at the end of each unit. The consistent use of examples gives students a foundation on which to build, and provides enough support to confidently move on to more challenging activities. The first-year engineering students with whom I used this textbook appreciated the gradual buildup in each unit, which helped them to succeed even though they had limited ability and confidence. They also liked the opportunities for pair-work, indicating that it was more enjoyable than solitary writing and grammar textbook activities.
For teachers, this textbook is easy to use because every unit is organized in the same way. As teachers become familiar with the textbook, the consistency of every unit’s organization will allow for minimal preparation time. Also, although the purpose of this textbook is to improve students’ writing skills, it also contains activities that require other skills, particularly communicative pair work. The author suggests pair work for cloze and survey activities in each unit. Writing textbooks can sometimes emphasize solitary writing activities, but this textbook has endeavored to take a more socio-constructivist approach, with learning constructed through interaction between peers rather than passively acquired, in order to keep learners motivated and to deepen learning (Swain, 2000). Socio-constructivists believe that interaction challenges learners to generate high-quality output as well as pressing them to repair communication breakdowns.
Additionally, the textbook balances these pair activities with some solitary correction activities that focus on errors. Students can develop awareness of their mistakes and are likely to improve their form when prompted with correction exercises (Lyster & Mori, 2006). For example, the first sentence of the mistake correction activity in Unit 4 reads “Three student are renting a large house near campus and are looking for one another roommate” (p. 35). There are two mistakes in the example: the lack of plural form for student and the superfluous use of one in one another. Both of these basic mistakes, which can be distinguished from errors in that mistakes are the result of a lack of focus by the learner that results in faulty language rather than the result of incomplete knowledge, should be familiar to students, and as such, are easily identifiable and treatable.
As evident in the title, this textbook focuses on writing with a digital theme, which primarily takes the form of emails. As the author notes in the prologue, it is more likely that one of his students will need English to write an email rather than have a conversation, so the focus of this textbook seems especially relevant for a Japanese context.
In addition to improving their writing skills, students may also learn about American culture, which may be especially motivating for students who are interested in other cultures (Aubrey & Nowlan, 2013). In their research, Aubrey and Nowlan compared two groups of Japanese university students, one that interacted with a foreign university student and one that had no interaction with foreign students. Their research indicated that the group which interacted with the foreign student experienced significant gains in motivation, while the other group did not, suggesting that materials that attempt to replicate this foreign interaction or experience may generate increased motivation amongst students.
If there is one suggestion for this textbook, it is that perhaps there is too much focus on writing emails and not enough of a focus on other aspects of digital writing, such as social media posts, writing reviews for Amazon or Yelp, or making travel suggestions on Tripadvisor.
To sum up, teachers should find this to be a useful writing textbook for beginners. The gradual progression of difficulty within each unit, the consistency of each unit’s organization, and the interactive nature of some of these activities are all appealing aspects of this textbook.
Aubrey, S. & Nowlan, A. (2013). Effect of intercultural contact on L2 motivation: A comparative study. In M. T. Apple, D. Da Silva & T. Fellner (Eds.), Language learning motivation in Japan (pp. 129–151). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Lyster, R. & Mori, H. (2006). Interactional feedback and instructional counterbalance. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 28(2), 269–300.
Swain, M. (2000). The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue. In J. P. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural theory and second language learning (pp. 97–114). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.