[Robert Diem & Roberto Rabbini. Fukuoka: English Education Press, 2007. pp. 120. ¥2,200. ISBN: N/A.]
Out Front is a basic level conversation textbook specifically designed for Japanese students who are required to study English communication at university. The authors of Out Front explicitly acknowledge that these students may be low in ability and motivation, and so the activities and language points are organized with this in mind, focusing on structured student interaction and simple exchanges of information.
The students’ book consists of 12 units, with each unit being a collection of 12 or 13 activities centered on a simple theme that necessitate simple interaction in English. Each activity is structured to enable students to easily share information about hobbies, weekend plans, routines, etc. The activities in each unit follow a similar pattern: an activity to review relevant vocabulary, an activity to review relevant structures, and then a number of practice activities usually culminating in some kind of game or challenge. Supplementary activities include interactive crosswords that students work together to complete, extra listening activities, three conversation skills sections, and a Japanese-English glossary. At the back of the book is a Question Bank which reviews the themes and patterns of the 12 units. The teacher’s manual includes mid-term and final tests, some supplementary activities, and ideas on how to organize the class and get the most from the book.
Out Front is not geared towards students who are motivated by sharing opinions or discussing their ideas. Instead, it focuses on providing a safe environment for low-level Japanese university students to learn and speak English. As the authors themselves explain, “Out Front constantly involves the students in the learning process by using carefully scaffolded, non-threatening task-based activities that can appeal to even the most jaded learners” (Diem & Rabbini, 2006, p. 3). Certainly, the vast majority of the activities in the book are simple to follow and provide easily achievable goals. The topics are also carefully chosen in order to be within a Japanese university student’s sphere of understanding, and will often not ask anything more challenging of the students than to talk about their own lives and experiences. A typical unit would have the students drill simple grammatical patterns before practicing them with simple question-response activities. These patterns are then practiced in a sample conversation, and then again in a challenge that requires the students to recall the practiced language. This is accomplished by filling out an information sheet, scoring points in a game, or simulating an experience such as asking for directions or leaving a telephone message.
One feature of Out Front that especially encourages the students to talk more is that each activity is simple and intuitive enough for the students to be able to adapt it to themselves and their classmates. As each activity builds on the previous one, providing further points to share on the theme of the unit, the students become adept at making longer conversations. I have often found that after practicing with the two or three options provided in the book, students are able to perform the conversational patterns quite well with their books closed in a relaxed manner without prompts and without the need for too much more pressure from the teacher.
Some of my more able students did note they could not really see the point in practicing some of the language in the textbook, as its simplicity was not challenging enough. Furthermore, considering the differences between mechanical, meaningful, and communicative activities, Richards (2006) proposes that meaningful activities refer to those “where real information is exchanged, and where the language used is not totally predictable” (p. 16). Out Front activities tend towards the mechanical and communicative rather than meaningful, in that they foster predictable interaction rather than developing communicative skills that go beyond following the flow of the book. This led some of my students to get the impression that they were just speaking English for the sake of it.
Out Front is supportive of various students’ needs, and can be expanded upon to make more meaningful communication and student interaction. There is a question mark over whether the English they are speaking is motivating enough for more able students, but students of lower level and motivation certainly seem to appreciate the achievability of the tasks. For those students, Out Front is definitely successful in enabling them to enjoy speaking English without the pressure of having to go too far out of their own comfort zone.
Diem, R., & Rabbini, R. (2006). Out front: Teacher’s guide. Fukuoka, Japan: English Education Press.
Richards, J. (2006). Communicative language teaching today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.