[Jonathan Berman & Takashi Shimaoka. Tokyo: NAN’UN-DO, 2019, pp. 94. ¥2,300. ISBN 978-4-523-17880-4.]
Reviewed by Christopher Davanzo & Richard Miles, Nanzan University
In keeping with recent trends in textbook publishing, Life Topics: Reflections adheres to a multi-skill based approach (as described by Hinkel, 2006) for English language learning. Life Topics: Reflections is a follow-up to the author’s Life Topics and according to the authors, Reflections is about “careful reading and thoughtful reflection” (back cover). The textbook is designed for use by Japanese university students, and integrates reading, writing, conversation, small group presentations, and debate activities, based on different themes or issues. This textbook emphasizes creative and critical thinking skills and is intended for use with a wide range of students (pre-intermediate to advanced).
The book is comprised of 21 chapters each four pages in length, based on a different social or personal topic intended to appeal to Japanese university-aged students. Examples of these are Cat Café, Social Media and the Fear of Missing Out and Teenagers and Stress. Each chapter stands alone, and while some teachers may not like the lack of continuity, we found it useful because we could jump back and forth between the chapters. Therefore, we could pick the easier topics to start with and had the flexibility to align these topics with themes the students were discussing in other English classes. Included with the textbook is an audio CD with recordings of the reading passages, and a teacher’s guidebook. Each chapter begins with a simple pre-reading question to activate the learner’s schema, followed by a short vocabulary building exercise related to the reading (with support in Japanese). The core of each chapter is a 500-600 word reading passage, followed by several comprehension activities. Finally, there are various activities thematically connected to each passage, such as discussion questions, debate prompts, creative writing exercises and language building activities such as reverse questions and sentence unscrambles.
What initially attracted us to this book were the unique and up-to-date topics and themes presented. We wanted something different from the generic English conversation textbook topics, and that is one of the book’s greatest strengths. The topics for the most part challenged students’ preconceived notions of issues and introduced them to topics they had never before been exposed to or discussed in class. Furthermore, these topics encouraged critical reflection. Each chapter has a range of activities to use based on the reading passage, and we were free to pick and choose the ones we felt were most beneficial for our students. Generally, we used about five chapters per 15-class quarter and spent the other classes working on various other tasks such as presentations, so the textbook could be used for the full academic year.
As with using any textbook, there are a few issues that need addressing. Firstly, we found it difficult to utilize all the activities in our oral communication course, especially the creative writing and creative storytelling tasks. One of the problems with these activities is that they felt too pre-scripted for authentic individual expression. However, the straight writing exercises spurred more natural interaction between students. Another potential weakness is that there is no clear progression from one chapter to another. While this disjointedness means more flexibility for teachers to change the order of chapters, it did leave some of our first-year students a little confused as to the ultimate purpose of using the book. In addition, the vocabulary for each chapter is rarely recycled in this book; the recycling of vocabulary is deemed essential for vocabulary learning (O’Loughlin, 2012). This lack of thematic cohesion gives the book the feel of a series of one-off lessons. Finally, the book lacks visual aids that might stimulate the learners’ interest in the topic and provide them with an additional mode for learning the material.
In the end, Life Topics: Reflections is an interesting book with lots of stimulating issues and topics to discuss, supported by a range of language and critical thinking-based activities. Although it lacks a progressive and structured approach that is perhaps necessary for first-year courses such as ours, it might be a useful book to use in more general English classes, in the later years of university.
Hinkel, E. (2006). Current perspectives on teaching the four skills. TESOL Quarterly, 40(1), 109-131.
O’Loughlin, R. (2012). Tuning in to vocabulary frequency in coursebooks. RELC Journal, 43(2), 255-269.