[Neil J. Anderson. Boston: National Geographic Learning, a part of Cengage Learning, 2014. (E-book, Audio CD, Assessment CD-ROM with ExamView® Pro, and Teacher’s Manual available) p. 240. ¥2,750. ISBN: 978-1-133-30806-5.]
The Active Skills for Reading series are composed of 5 levels, from Active Intro for low-level readers to the Active 4 textbook for advanced readers. For a class of intermediate level readers in a university reading and writing course, Active Skills for Reading 3 was chosen.
Active Skills for Reading 3 is marketed as a textbook that reaches up to the TOEIC 730-score range, with a Common European Framework Reference (CEFR) Level 3: B2/C1 designation, meaning it is suitable for upper intermediate/advanced English level learners. I found the textbook suitable for my reading and writing course with intermediate level learners.
The contents of Active Skills for Reading 3 include 12 extensive units and 4 review units covering a wide range of relatable topics such as travel and technology, money, fashion, health, culture, customs, and comics. Other units tackle more challenging topics such as endangered species, space and flight, and mysteries. This wide range of themes provides the teacher with many options with regards to activity extension and scaffolding. Each unit is quite comprehensive, dedicating about 14 pages per unit with at least 2 essay-type readings, each consisting of approximately 300–350 words. While the syntax presented is not overly challenging, the potential new vocabulary exposure with anywhere from 7-15 possibly unknown vocabulary, some of them highlighted within the textbook, were found in each of the units’ major reading passages. This would fall close to the 98% of known vocabulary required by readers for adequate comprehension that were recommended by Hu and Nation (2000). As most second language instructors know, too much unknown vocabulary can hinder motivation, vocabulary retention, and comprehension.
Reading comprehension, vocabulary, pre-reading, scanning, and predicting tasks abound in this student book. There is also a vocabulary glossary for each unit at the back of the book. There is abundant enough material in each unit, that to tackle it all in a single, 90-minute lesson would be quite arduous. For my remote learning lessons, I assigned students to complete about 60% of the unit tasks in addition to extension and scaffolding exercises. With this in mind, our class completed 7 units over 15 weeks.
As the reading units introduce such a wide range of themes and topics, they offer great scaffolding options for writing tasks. These tasks can help learners build stronger language ties to the vocabulary and themes presented in the reading exercises, especially if they resonate with the learners. One unit that resonated greatly with students was the Comic unit. For instance, when presented with a choice of a mid-term writing essay, the Comic unit was chosen by 95% of the students.
The Active Skills series touts itself in its promotional literature as incorporating authentic content from National Geographic media sources. However, I found this to be an inaccurate depiction. According to Nunan (1989, p. 54), authentic material is any which has not been specifically produced for the purpose of language teaching. In this regard, I found the Active Skills for Reading 3 to be somewhat orchestrated or unauthentic in its reading content delivery.
The text and units are well designed, with vivid colors and images to reinforce the topics and to stimulate the imaginations of the readers. Most reading articles include multiple images, possibly to aid students to store information better by visualizing a connection to the content (Sinatra, 1981, p. 539).
As this course was administered remotely due to Covid-19 restrictions, the students studied independently and answered weekly Moodle quizzes regarding comprehension and vocabulary. Students received instructions from me at least once a week via email, and they were able to contact me anytime, in Japanese or English, with questions or problems regarding the course. During our 15 weeks, not a single issue or problem was raised by the students regarding the textbook. This may have been in part due to the stress of Covid-19 and the students’ reluctance to find fault or create more problems. However, it may have also been due to the fact that the text units and tasks presented were straightforward and well-defined.
The Active Skills for Reading 3 is designed and written without any Japanese content, but for intermediate-level students and higher, this should not be too much of a concern. The most important traits of the student book are its robust amount of reading tasks, vocabulary, and its wide range of relatable and interesting themes that can be used for extension and scaffolding.
Hu, M., & Nation, P. (2000). Unknown vocabulary density and reading comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language, 13(1), 403–430. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234651421
Nunan, D. (1989). Designing tasks for the communicative classroom. Cambridge University Press.
Sinatra, R. (1981). Using visuals to help the second language learner. The Reading Teacher, 34(5), 539–546. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20195283