[Nancy Douglas. Boston: Heinle, 2009. pp. 160. ¥3,842. ISBN: 978-1-4240-4362-0; Paul MacIntyre. Boston: Heinle, 2009. pp. 160. ¥3,492. ISBN: 978-1-4240-4364-4; Nancy Douglas. Boston: Heinle, 2010. pp. 160. ¥3,492. ISBN: 978-1-4240-4370-5; Paul MacIntyre. Boston: Heinle, 2010. pp. 224. ¥3,492. ISBN: 978-1-4240-4373-6.]
Reviewed by John Bankier, Soka University
Reading Explorer is a series of intensive reading texts based on articles from National Geographic magazine. The readings highlight popular science topics, with accompanying questions. These books are aimed at young adult learners and above, particularly students in an academic context. The series comprises four levels, with each book containing 12 units of two readings, along with four texts without questions. There is also a multimedia portion on CD-ROM.
Each unit includes some warm-up questions to build interest and activate students’ prior knowledge (Nation, 2009). This makes reading easier, as drawing attention to what students already know helps them to focus on understanding the language, rather than the content. This is followed by pre-reading activities to introduce key terminology the students will need in order to read the text. The pre-reading section also includes previewing skills, such as skimming and making predictions.
The readings in Reading Explorer are noticeably longer than many similar texts, with many readings in Book 4 around three pages in length. Personally, I find longer and more in depth readings give students more chance to flex their reading muscles than short texts, and more closely resemble the kind of texts learners might read outside the class. Another striking thing about the series is the large, full-color photos that accompany the stories, taken from National Geographic. This was a standout feature according to the feedback from my students. The texts themselves are graded; lower levels use simpler sentence structures, and use more redundancies, such as using proper nouns as opposed to pronouns, or repeating key information more often. One of the best features of the books was the non-patronizing nature of the lower-level topics. In my view, many texts aimed at lower-proficiency learners tend to assume they lack general knowledge; in contrast, the Reading Explorer series uses mature and interesting topics for all levels.
The texts are followed by questions designed to focus on skills such as guessing meaning from context, making inferences, and distinguishing fact from opinion. According to the authors, these are similar to those found in TOEFL and TOEIC (Teacher’s Guide, p. 7). Generally, I found the questions were appropriate for reading comprehension as well as text preparation, but some students did mention that questions were too academically focused.
After the questions, there are gap-fills or similar exercises using vocabulary from the lesson. Vocabulary is a large focus in the series. Some topic-specific words are used in the articles, but these words are not the focus. Rather, the author focuses on more frequent words which are not topic specific. I found them generally to be within the Academic Word List (AWL) or General Service List (GSL) where appropriate. For example, a sample of Book 1 had 70% of highlighted words within the GSL and 20% within the AWL. The words are not arranged as lexical sets of related words, making them easier to learn (Nation, 2000). For example, the Book 2 lesson on King Tutankhamun included words such as murder, luxurious, and teenager, which are connected in the narrative but otherwise not to each other. Lower-frequency words, such as X-ray technology, are glossed in footnotes in the same article.
The feedback I received from students was almost entirely positive. Students liked the topics, which they found intrinsically interesting and different from the typical topics found in other ESL/EFL textbooks. A minority of students did find some questions quite hard; for example, questions focusing on distinguishing fact from opinion were new to many. Lack of previous knowledge did become an issue with certain texts; for instance, a student with a background in biology was able to comprehend a text on the human genome much more easily than a student of similar level but without the biology background. However, this did create opportunities for discussion and information sharing in the pre-reading phase.
The main drawback I found to the series was the cost. When compared to other reading textbooks, Reading Explorer is not cheap. Certainly the books are large, however, with potentially up to 28 readings per book, as well as the additional short texts and CD-ROM.
To conclude, for those who have the budget, the Reading Explorer series would make an excellent main textbook for an intensive reading course, particularly one focused on vocabulary and academic reading skills.
Nation, I. S. P. (2000). Learning vocabulary in lexical sets: Dangers and guidelines. TESOL Journal, 9(2), 6-10.
Nation, I. S. P. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL reading and writing. New York: Routledge.