[Numerous authors, prices, and ISBNs. New York: McGraw-Hill ESL/ELT, 2008.]
A new series offered by McGraw-Hill, Hemispheres reflects current trends in EFL: topic-based, communicative instruction; the importance of critical thinking skills; and the need for activities that integrate language skills. As the publisher suggests, the complete series (comprised of four levels of students’ books, teachers’ manuals, audio CDs, DVDs with workbooks, and computerized test bank), provides a comprehensive four-skills curriculum for students studying general English, while at the same time systematically developing more academic skills. Teachers will recognize traditional tasks including warm-up activities, multiple-choice and sentence-completion vocabulary exercises, and grammar-focus activities. Academically oriented activities are also evident through the use of Venn diagrams, note-taking through other graphic organizers, writing which encourages self-editing, and distinguishing fact from opinion. Novice and experienced teachers alike will welcome the well-organized, interleaved teachers’ manuals that provide clear answers and support for each page of the students’text,along with scripts, language notes,and expansion opportunities. Students will find the colorful books attractive, clear, and supportive (particularly through well-placed Skills Focus support notes). The texts include contemporary topics of interest to young adult learners, including computers and the Internet, Richard Branson and space tourism, the popularity of tattoos, and hip-hop music, to name a few. The DVD series that can accompany the text is up-to-date and engaging.
Possibly the two most notable strengths of the text series may also be areas for improvement. The development of critical thinking skills is highlighted in the text introduction as well as the teaching materials. Indeed, the development of critical thinking skills (as an academic skill in a systematic way,similar to the development of writing or speaking skills) has received attention and support within EFL, particularly with reference to English for Academic Purposes (EAP) (Stroupe, 2006). While the text series does include activities that encourage the development of critical thinking skills, many opportunities to expand their use are missed. In many cases, an additional expansion question could be added to activities, encouraging students to extend their abilities with the support of the provided information. Such activities would be in line with Vygotsky’s proposed Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978), in which students make the greatest cognitive strides when they are challenged appropriately.
A second strength of the series,that sets it apart from many other texts,is the incorporation of activities that integrate communicative skills. In large part as a response to the new Internet-Based TOEFL Test (iBT), teachers are beginning to reconsider how effectively the four skills are presented in our classes. Many texts today are four-skills texts, meaning that activities that address speaking, listening, reading, and writing are all included in a comprehensive curriculum. However, in many cases, these activities are based on the discrete use of each skill, such that the text offers a listening passage, followed by comprehension questions and the like. After this is complete, the text may move on to a thematically connected reading passage, followed by other engaging activities. While very useful in developing language skills, these activities are really skill discrete: The information necessary to complete each task is accessed through only one language skill, and then the process is repeated with a different skill. What is needed, and what the Hemispheres series provides in the Putting it together (Levels 1 and 2) and Put it to the test (Levels 3 and 4) sections, is skill integration (MacDonald, Daugherty & Stroupe, 2008). In such activities, students must gain different sets of information through separate language skills in order to accomplish a culminating task that cannot be completed with information obtained by only one skill. Such activities are similar to the iBT Integrated Speaking and Writing Tests, and better approximate the skills necessary to excel in an academic environment. The Hemispheres series focuses effectively on developing integrated skills, yet their development is relegated to the final sections of each chapter.Opportunities to further incorporate integrated skills activities throughout each entire chapter are missed. As a result, the development of integrated skills becomes a focus only of the last section of each chapter rather than a focus of each text as a whole.
The Hemispheres series offers a general communication curriculum laced with academic skills development that is useful not only for students who wish to use their language skills in more academic settings, but also for institutions that wish to encourage the development of critical thinking skills in addition to language skills. In this regard, the Hemispheres series is a refreshing alternative to general communication texts.
MacDonald, L., Daugherty, D. M., & Stroupe, R. R. (2008). Integrating the ESL curriculum: Towards a cognitive learning approach. In I. Koch (Ed.), CamTESOL Conference on English Language Teaching: Selected Papers, Vol 4, (pp. 73-86). Phnom Penh, Cambodia: IDP Education. Available from <www.camtesol.org/selected_papers.html>.
Stroupe, R. R. (2006). Integrating critical thinking throughout ESL curricula. TEFL Reporter, 39(2), 42-61.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.