[Ruth Gairns & Stuart Redman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. pp. 254. ¥2,881. ISBN: 9780-1946-2-0-07-9.]
The Oxford Word Skills series is a collection of three books that take the learner fromstarter level high frequency words to the more technical vocabulary found in the last book in the series. As you would expect from a standard bearer in the English press and education world, the set comes smartly packaged with an accompanying CD and even a little blinder that is used to cover up definitions when studying. Oxford Word Skills sets out with the auspicious goal of creating a series that will teach 2,000 words per level. Each book is broken up into 80 units, each 2-3 pages in length. Within each unit there are colorful pictures that introduce the vocabulary along with a series of exercises. The vocabulary is related thematically and the exercises which follow expand on and review the vocabulary. A good example of how this plays out within the pages of the book can be found in the second volume (Intermediate), in the section about cars. The opening graphic along with the accompanying vocabulary lists 20 different car parts including speedometer, accelerator, and clutch. The next section has a series of exercises that quiz the student’s knowledge of the vocabulary presented and another section which introduces car-related terms such as skid, overtake, and brake.
The highlights of these books were the colorful and well-presented illustrations, the comprehensive nature of the vocabulary, and the use of the CD which gives students easy access to review and study materials. Notable is the listening section in the CDs that take the flash cards up to a higher level so that listening is also part of learning the word. Games and graphics also help make the presentation clear as well as challenging.
The drawback of this series, which is an especially pertinent criticism for many native speaking ESL teachers, is that the book lacks a communicative aspect. Learning 20 new vocabulary words for different car parts could in some abstract way prove valuable to a Japanese high school student. More important when considering the ESL context is how this lesson can segueway into an hour-long English communication lesson. It does not, and therein lays the fundamental challenge to any instructor who picks up this book with the intent of using it as a spring board to teach a communicative English class. Case in point is the private high school that was used as a proving ground for this series. The book proved too dense and text based to be used in a substantive way. The text seems to acknowledge this drawback. In the section entitled How can teachers use the material in the classroom? the book lists seven bullet points to suggest ways the teacher can use the text in the classroom with all but the last suggestion being various wordings and rewordings of “study” and “quiz.” The last step has a recommendation for speaking but it seems more of an afterthought rather than effort at creating a conversation-based lesson. Particularly frustrating is the books adherence to a traditional method in the face of much current research. Notable among this research is an idea put forth by Nation called the four strands, which is a balance of meaning-focused input, meaning focused-output, language-focused learning, and fluency. In a round table discussion on vocabulary acquisition, Nation sums up the importance of the four strands and the importance of communicative exercises by stating that “about three-quarters of the course time could be spent on communicative, message-focused activities, and about one quarter on the deliberate learning of language” (Laufer, Meara, & Nation, 2005, p. 6).
An activity that worked particularly with my class of students was a family tree information gap activity (Folse, 2006). Meaning-focused input was first provided through introducing the vocabulary explicitly (flashcards) as well as through a short listening activity. Meaning-focused output and language-focused learning were used in the information gap activity. The activity established acquisition through speaking (meaning-focused output) and encouraged a deliberate use of the vocabulary (language-focused learning). During the last part of the class the students talked about their family, which was a focus on the last strand (fluency). The beauty of the activity is that it was able to engage a group of 40+ high school students and allowed for a communicative approach to the teaching of vocabulary.
After 3 months of in-class use how did I feel about the Oxford series? The series could have been painted with a broader brush and culled ideas from ESL scholarship, ideas which as the publishing flagship of one of the English language’s most reputable universities they are no doubt familiar with. Instead the Oxford series hunkers down into a traditional bottom-up processing that proved too heady and stubbornly non-communicative to be an effective text for my students.
Folse, K. S. (2006). The art of public speaking. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
Laufer, B., Meara, P., & Nation, P. (2005). Ten best ideas for teaching vocabulary. The Language Teacher, 29(7), 3-6.