[Miyako Nakaya, Manabu Yoshihara, & Ruth Fallon. Tokyo: Seibido, 2016. pp. x + 91. ¥2,000. [Includes Teacher’s Manual and audio CD.] ISBN: 978-4-7919-6032-3.]
Smart Writing: Active Approach to Paragraph Writing is an academic skills textbook for beginner-level EFL students. This is a bilingual Japanese-English text that is designed to aid students in developing basic English paragraph writing skills. Smart Writing explains the key parts of a paragraph for the purpose of communicating with unity, coherence, and cohesion. The textbook helps students write a variety of academic paragraphs, with opportunities for both classwork and homework activities. It includes units on how to write Narrative, Process, Description, Compare-and-contrast, Cause-and-effect, Problem-and-solution, and Opinion paragraphs. There are also additional sections on Data Analysis and Email Writing.
Each chapter begins with pre-writing that covers key concepts. For example, Chapter 3: Process has a set of instructions for how to use a train ticket machine which students must put in the correct order. Students then read sample paragraphs to use as models for a writing section that comes later in the unit. There is also audio of the example paragraphs. Each unit has two of these model paragraphs, with the second generally being more advanced than the first. Both paragraphs have vocabulary fill-in-the blank exercises.
The paragraph samples are followed by a section with grammar and vocabulary practice activities. This section reviews target grammar, which has been seen in the pre-writing, usually through multiple choice activities with Japanese instructions. This section also includes focused translation, in which students are to put sentences together using grammar learned in the lesson. Finally, there is a writing section with an outline and a selection of topics for students to write about. There are several sections on useful tips for better writing, on topics such as gender-neutral nouns and vocabulary building.
As a sample chapter, I used Chapter 10: Problems and Solutions for one class of first year mixed-level students. The first challenge was to encourage students to write as most of them had little experience writing in English. Several students reported that they had done various online writing projects including Facebook-based and university website activities, yet the results of social media on improving students’ writing is mixed (Dizon, 2017). In previous lessons, we had done free writing journal topics (e.g., What kind of vacation do you wish you could take?) which focused on grammar points but did not provide paragraph structure models. As a result, some students struggled with putting ideas into cohesive paragraphs; wrote lists; or wrote very little. Further, most free writing topics focused on student’s subjective personal experiences and used different linguistic features (such as the use of “I”) than objective academic topics (Natsukari, 2012). The hope in incorporating a text like Smart Writing was to guide students in writing on more academic topics.
The students responded well to the paragraph model provided through CD reading-listening exercises. After listening and reading two or three times, most students were able to find the topic sentence and supporting information. We then wrote a paragraph together. They were then assigned a paragraph to write for their independent journal homework. All this took one 90-minute class, including the pre-writing discussion and editing and corrections. On the whole, students enjoyed Smart Writing, were grateful for Japanese explanations, and felt these reading exercises were easy to follow and helped their learning.
One drawback is that the text does not provide an editing or correction rubric. I would have preferred more grammar practice for fundamental linguistic features (e.g., punctuation, capitalization, tense agreement, etc.) rather than the translation approach. In addition, the data analysis and email writing sections offer fairly brief explanations of rather extensive topics. They do, however, provide a few useful tips for summarizing survey information or formatting an email.
It must be emphasized that this text focuses on paragraph writing, not full academic reports or essays. As such the input and practice is on micro-level writing skills such as basic sentence structure, increased vocabulary, and thematic cohesion. This is a good foundation for making the transition from writing in informal settings (Internet, free-writing, journals) to the more formal genres that will be needed in developing higher-level academic writing skills.
Particularly for first year students, or lower level EFL students, writing paragraphs rather than essays is a far more reasonable expectation than jumping directly to longer writing projects. The textbook complements student journal writing as it covers Narrative and Descriptive, as well as the more academic Opinion and Cause-and-effect genres. There are many other textbooks which integrate writing sections with speaking, listening, or reading activities. Smart Writing, in focusing on the craft of paragraph writing, gives the students an opportunity to develop skills necessary for producing cohesive written work. On the whole, I felt this was a well-designed textbook for beginner level EFL students.
Dizon, G. (2017). Facebook vs. paper-and-pencil writing: Comparing Japanese EFL students’ opinions of the writing mediums. The Language Teacher, 41(6), 3-8.
Natsukari, S. (2012). Use of I in essays by Japanese EFL learners. JALT Journal, 34(1), 61-76.