[Greg Goodmacher. Fukuoka: Intercom Press, 2008. pp. 104. ¥2,100. ISBN: 978-4-900689-62-6.]
Stimulating Conversationsis a topic-based textbook with a primary focus of developing reasoning skills and discussing contemporary social issues. It consists of 14 self-contained units and covers a variety of issues, ranging from globalization and economic immigration, to animal rights, domestic conflict, STDs, and sex education. The author’s stated aims are to stimulate students to identify their own values, to think critically and to consider potential solutions to issues that are affecting Japan and the world (www.intercompress.com/sc.html, para 1). I used it in a class of first-year university students with TOEIC scores averaging 450 with generally good success. The materials and activities were appropriate for the age, maturity, and language ability of most, although not all, of the students. An older age group with higher skill level would also find the materials interesting and challenging.
Each topic is free standing, so units do not need be presented in sequential order. Units follow a general organizational format for the first three or four activities. Common to all of them are the start-up activities, which present essential vocabulary for students to match to corresponding pictures or illustrations. This is followed by a discussion of questions that relate to the pictures and to the wider topic. The warm-up discussion questions in most cases pertain to students’ personal experiences and their general knowledge about the topic. These initial activities worked successfully and students were animated when speaking about their experiences or ideas.
The warm-up is followed by a second set of vocabulary and an accompanying reading passage, which presents additional facts and information, usually representing more than one viewpoint. The reading passage introduces the new vocabulary in context and is followed by a matching exercise. Based on the reading, the meaning of a word is ascertained and matched to its definition or explanation.
Discussion questions follow the reading passage. Rather than testing comprehension, the questions refer back to information in the reading and ask students to give their opinions or consider outcomes or consequences. Some questions target students’ knowledge about the specifics of the topic. For example, in the unit on employment, students are asked which Japanese companies treat their workers well, or what the minimum wage is in Japan. But more often, discussion questions seek to elicit students’ attitudes and points of view, such as asking students to weigh the positive and negative aspects of being a non-regular worker.
In general, my students found the topics interesting and could identify with them. They participated in group discussions without prompting. When there was insufficient time to consider certain questions in class I would assign them for written homework, directing students to choose one or two questions and then write an opinion paper. In most cases the written work was thoughtfully considered.
While the initial activities for every unit follow the format outlined above, further activities vary from unit to unit. Each unit has a listening activity presenting global English accents including non-native speakers of English. The variety of accents is realistic but the overall quality would have been better if done by professional actors. In some units the recorded voice is stilted and unnatural, either delivered too slowly or with an overemphasis of stress words. The listening comprehension activities vary from unit to unit, requiring students to focus on specific information by way of gap-fill, noting down specific information or confirming answers that were previously guessed at.
The balance of each unit is devoted to a variety of other activities such as role-plays, rating and ranking activities, surveys, information gaps, and discussions using pictures. There is a potpourri of activities which teachers can choose from and the author’s stated purpose is to “stimulate a variety of language learning styles,” allowing teachers the benefit of being able to choose appropriate exercises for their particular class (back cover).
The weak point of this textbook is the Useful Language boxes. These consist of sample sentences or model conversations, usually introduced alongside activities that learners do independently, such as generating their own questions or creating role-plays. Without explanation or practice exercises to highlight what might not be obvious to students as far as correct grammatical construction, these do little to support learners’ use or acquisition of the form (Willis, 2003). The teacher needs to be alert and may want to employ the examples as models for writing practice sentences to make up for the lack of explanations as to usage or the reasons for choosing the forms presented.
Willis, D. (2003). Rules, patterns and words: Grammar and lexis in English language teaching. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.