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Contemporary Topics 3: Academic Listening and Note-Taking Skills

Floyd H. Graham III, Kansai Gaidai University
Pearson Education

[David Beglar & Neil Murray. New York: Pearson Education, 2009. pp. iv +133. ¥3,056. ISBN: 9780132345231.]

Contemporary Topics 3 is the most advanced level of a three book series that is devoted to academic listening, note-taking, and content-based learning. Each chapter is dedicated to an academic course of study and presents an eight-step learning approach. The initial step is an activity to connect learners’ experiences and knowledge to the topic. The following step is a vocabulary section with words derived from the Academic Work List (Coxhead, 2000) and related to the main lecture of the chapter. Next is an introduction to a listening strategy, such as linking examples to main ideas, identifying causes and effects, and recognizing organization cues. This is followed by an initial short audio excerpt highlighting the listening strategy and linking it to the main topic in the unit. The fourth step is the primary listening exercise, an academic lecture of approximately 6-8 minutes in length. The two activities here, listening for main ideas and details, lend students an opportunity for both top-down and bottom-up listening practice. Step 5 is a brief video-clip of students discussing the lecture, the focus being on pragmatic skills like agreeing and disagreeing, asking clarification questions, and offering facts and examples. Step 6 has students use their notes in a review of the lecture contents and in preparation for the quiz. A unit test precedes the concluding step, a section that extends the topic to different scenarios. 

Supplements to the textbook are in the teacher’s pack, which contains transcripts, answer keys, useful tips for teachers, chapter quizzes, a CD of each listening exercise, and a DVD showing the main lectures and student discussions that follow it. The DVD is an invaluable resource, as it shows the lecture in a natural classroom setting, and provides scaffolding in the form of subtitle and lecture note options—which I showed to students on the final listening so they could compare their notes to the ones suggested by the authors—and coaching tips offering practical suggestions to assist students in understanding the lecture. 

Educators searching for a text that helps support an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) curriculum with content-based instruction (CBI) will find this textbook beneficial in a number of ways. Stoller and Grabe (1997) note that all CBI is theme-based and should be related to the needs of the students. The themes in Contemporary Topics 3 are all drawn from the humanities and social sciences and include biology, astronomy, anthropology, and linguistics, among others. My students particularly enjoyed Unit 1: Communication Studies-Slang and Language Change and Unit 12: Sociology-Marriage, which also seamlessly combine EAP and CBI. 

In addition, vocabulary is presented in the context of the chapter’s main lecture and is followed up with an activity to aid in preparing for the lecture itself. Nagy points out, “Knowing a word involves much more than knowing a definition” (1997, p. 11), and notes the importance of syntactic frames, collocational potential, register, and possible morphological and semantic relationships as well. As Schmitt (2010) recommends, students are given an opportunity to further revisit and recycle this vocabulary throughout each chapter, some of which occurs in the context of the chapter quiz. The chapter tests ask students to be able to repeat key lesson concepts, understand the speaker’s attitudes towards the topic, and apply the material to outside examples, supplying a holistic evaluation of a student’s understanding of the chapter. 

Stoller and Grabe also recommend that CBI materials and teachers incorporate a degree of tension in their themes to “promote student involvement and engagement with the content” (1997, p. 90). This tension should require students to think critically about topics while also considering alternative perspectives on them. This type of critical thinking is promoted within the coaching tips on the DVD and littered throughout the text in the form of discussion questions, thus rendering students better prepared for the types of analysis and reflection that will be expected from them in classrooms overseas.

After moving abroad and on to classrooms mixed with international students, my former university students have often recounted how difficult it was for them to keep up with their professors’ lectures, and how uncertain they were about how to take proper notes on them. While the authors and editors have limited their appeal and audience with such a finely focused textbook, they have assured those educators seeking to acclimate students to academic lectures and note-taking that they need look no further. 


  • Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 213-238.
  • Nagy, W. E. (1997). On the role of context in first-and second language vocabulary learning. In N. Schmitt & M. McCarthy (Eds.), Vocabulary: Description, acquisition, and pedagogy (pp. 64-83). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Schmitt, N. (2010). Key Issues in teaching and learning vocabulary. In R. Chacón-Beltrán, C. Abello-Contesse, & M. Del Mar Torreblanca-Lopéz (Eds.), Insights into non-native vocabulary teaching and learning (pp. 28-40). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
  • Stoller, F. L. & Grabe, W. (1997). A six-t’s approach to content-based instruction. In M. A. Snow, & D. A. Brinton. (Eds.), The content-based classroom: Perspectives on integrating language and content (pp. 78-94). New York: Longman.
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