[Alastair Graham-Marr. Tokyo: Abax, 2013. pp.145. ¥2,550. ISBN: 978-1-896942-65-0.]
The Communication Spotlight: Speaking Strategies and Listening Skills series is a set of course books divided into four levels: starter, high-beginner, pre-intermediate, and intermediate. As the title suggests, the focus of the series is on the skills of speaking and listening, and in particular, the sound patterns that contribute to meaning and intelligibility. The series’ stated objective is to “be your bridge to natural real-
world English” (p. 3). The books are benchmarked against CEFR-J levels, with Starter suggested for A1-A2, and Intermediate suggested for B1-B2, and are targeted to learners of American English. Each book’s stated aim is to provide 30 to 40 hours of classroom material, divided into 15 units on topics of everyday interest. In addition, there is an accompanying teacher’s guide for each level that contains instructions and suggestions for teachers in both English and Japanese. The teacher’s guide also contains review worksheets and quizzes for each unit, as well as answers and listening scripts. The listening exercises for each course book and teacher’s guide are provided on an accompanying CD.
The units of each book are of a general nature often found in English language course books. Each unit has a unit name, theme and topic area, and a focus on certain listening features and speaking strategies. For example, Unit 4 of the starter book is entitled What’s the date today? The theme is talking about dates, days, and events, and the listening features and speaking strategies focus on sentence stress and asking questions for confirmation. In this way, each unit has the same pattern of skill development. The content of each unit is clearly organized in the contents table at the beginning of each book.
A good communicative English-focused textbook should offer learners plenty of opportunities for the negotiation of meaning and to engage in conversational interactions in paired and group activities. Ideally, such a textbook should also provide listening and speaking activities that reflect the true nature of spoken English, and also provide opportunities for true, negotiated interaction (Ableeva & Stranks, 2013; Burns & Hill, 2013). Commendably, the Communication Spotlight series attempts to address these considerations in order to provide learners with a principled approach to improving their listening and speaking skills.
As with any language learning materials, an underlying language learning theory and the beliefs of the author(s) always determine the selection of linguistic items and how these are transposed into pedagogical practice. The Communication Spotlight series can be said to be an extension of the audio-
lingual approach as realized in the presentation, practice, production (PPP) sequence. The layout of each unit follows the same basic pattern: warming-up, getting the basic idea (presentation), getting details, practicing, spotlight on listening, spotlight on memory, spotlight on speaking (practice), trying what we’ve learned, using what you’ve learned (production), spotlight on vocabulary, and finally at home. Having said this, with the two final sections in the post-production stage, the series does attempt to move learners towards a degree of autonomy and independence; the spotlight on vocabulary and at home sections promote reflection on and consolidation of knowledge from each unit.
While behaviourist language learning theories advocate the necessity of forming good language habits by practicing the same structures repeatedly (Burns & Hill, 2013), the units can become somewhat mundane if you were to use the course book in its entirety from start to finish. I found the best approach in classes in which I trialed the Communication Spotlight series was to pick and choose activities and to supplement with other activity types. Due to its clearly delineated layout, and its provision of split task resources at the back of each book, I felt the series allowed for flexibility in this regard. This is not to say that the series is not sufficient on its own; if the teacher wishes, there is enough material in the students’ books and accompanying teacher’s guide for it to function without supplementary or ancillary activities.
Furthermore, I believe the Spotlight on Listening and Spotlight on Speaking sections of each unit are a commendable movement towards bringing about awareness of the nature of spoken English. In the Spotlight on Listening section, deliberate attention is brought to bottom-up processes involved in listening, such as recognizing redundancy and elision, as well as weak vowels and sentence stress. And, in the Spotlight on Speaking section, conversational strategies such as asking for meaning, repetition, and getting someone’s attention are highlighted, and then learners are given the opportunity to practice these with a partner.
With regards to overall layout and design, the series has a good mix of text and graphic material on each page. The pages are not overly cluttered, and the typeface and coloured artwork and photos are functional and appealing. Instructions for each activity are also short and unambiguous. Despite the clear layout, at times there is a lack of space for learners to write answers and make notes. Some learners commented that they would have liked more space to write answers with larger pictures and text boxes, particularly for the split task activities in the “trying what we’ve learned” and “using what you’ve learned” sections.
As with the majority of other course books, while the Communication Spotlight series does provide opportunities to practice listening and producing more natural spoken English, it is very narrow in its focus on American English norms. The listening exercises are between native American English speakers and non-native Japanese speakers of English. There is no attempt to introduce other native and non-native speaker norms. Surely, even in Japanese contexts, there needs to be a concerted move towards more modern treatments of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) in pedagogical materials that reflect its actual use as a global language (Seidlhofer, 2005).
The dialogues used for the listening exercises also typically do not present English in its spoken form. Rather, they rely on written models simply recorded by native speakers. As such, while there is some attempt at incorporating hesitation and pauses, other features such as realistic turn-taking, false starts, overriding and interruption are not present.
Overall, the Communication Spotlight series is a user-friendly course book that provides plenty of opportunities for learners to engage in conversational interactions, as well as practicing listening and speaking using more realistic forms of spoken English. While it has a narrow American English focus, the listening and speaking activities do allow students to become more aware of the features of spoken English, as well as to make use of some conversational strategies. It is designed with a focus on the local Japanese context, and as such learners will find it relevant and engaging.
- Ableeva, R., & Stranks, J. (2013). Listening in another language – research and materials. In B. Tomlinson (Ed.), Applied linguistics and materials development (pp. 199-211). London, UK: Bloomsbury.
- Burns, A., & Hill, D. A. (2013). Teaching speaking in a second language. In B. Tomlinson (Ed.), Applied linguistics and materials development. (pp. 231-248). London, UK: Bloomsbury.
- Seidlhofer, B. (2005). English as a lingua franca. ELT Journal, 59(4), 339-341.