Unlock Listening & Speaking Skills 2

Book Writer & Publisher: 
Cambridge University Press
Reviewed by Daniel Newbury, Fuji University

[Stephanie Dimond-Bayir. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. 223. ¥3,240. ISBN: 978-1-107-68232-0.]

Unlock Speaking and Listening is a four-level English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) series providing a robust solution for teachers aiming to develop their students’ critical literacy, the combination of language and cognitive skills necessary for academic success (Hyland, 2009; Scarcella, 2003). The text methodically addresses receptive and productive skills, providing activities designed to develop learners’ command of phonetic, lexical, and syntactic forms as well as skills needed for academic environments, such as giving presentations and participating in lectures and debates. Throughout the book, the units generally move progressively from receptive to productive activities. Setting the stage for the final speaking task, the Critical Thinking section’s activities are mapped to Bloom’s Taxonomy, a widely-used framework that describes activities in terms of the skills they are meant to develop (Loose, 2011). I felt this section helped link the final Speaking section to real-world speaking goals. The series adheres closely to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) standards, as documented on the publisher’s website.

 The choice of targeted language structures and vocabulary is supported by the proprietary Cambridge Learner Corpus and English Vocabulary Profile. Each of the book’s 10 units explore language through broad topics, for example, places, education, and business. This generality ensures students can readily associate with each of the themes and thus focus on language learning (Nunan, 2005). Each unit is headed by a documentary-style video with an average length of 3.5 minutes. These videos have a practical, educational quality and seem to keep the students’ attention well in class. Subtitling was unnecessary for my classes, but is available on the DVD version for classes needing extra support (King, 2002).

 The units’ two main listening texts are adapted from situations found in Western university environments, and are well-sculpted to suit the targeted skill level. Listening 1 includes activities that focus on features of naturally spoken English, such as intonation and connected speech. Listening 2 employs the same themes as Listening 1, but focuses on language that learners will use in the units’ main speaking activities. The texts are in British English, providing a possible additional benefit of exposing students to multiple dialects for classes taught by an American-English speaking instructor. Although the texts are scripted, I felt that they represented the target language well, and the accompanying activities for developing specific listening skills and sub-skills are well-conceived. However, they are generally long, which may be challenging for students at the end of a 90-minute lesson. To address this, I sometimes had students do the listening exercises for homework so that they could work at their own speed and listen multiple times when needed.

A major component of the series is the learning management system (LMS). This provides learners with online access to the book’s audio and video components outside of class. The exercises provided in the LMS segue well with those in the books, and are automatically graded by the online system. Feedback from colleagues using books from the Unlock series suggests the LMS facilities have been employed to varying degrees and purposes. One teacher used these exercises as a way for learners to self-assess before starting the book content. Another teacher found that the LMS did not fit with their classroom and so did not use it. Teachers with even a little technical savvy should find the LMS useful and relatively easy to set up, and the publisher provides good email support for those who encounter problems.

 The Language Development section provides instruction focused on grammar and vocabulary building. Of these, the vocabulary activities targeting collocations were the most useful. Overall, this section could be better integrated with the rest of the book, as it was sometimes difficult to link the content here with the listening activities it was meant to support. In the student questionnaire, one student commented about wanting more detailed explanations of the content. I usually had the students complete the Language Development section for homework. 

 The Critical Thinking section draws on the units’ target language and provides activities in which learners categorize, evaluate, and create information in preparation for the final speaking activity. It often includes a model exercise based on the speaking activity but using different input. This supports the students and gives them confidence when approaching the final task. A visualization tool was provided and seemed to be very helpful for learners to organize their ideas and information. Although the final speaking tasks often resembled presentation or collaboration activities found in other textbooks, I was impressed by how the Critical Thinking section fostered language production in a catalytic way. Other students that responded to my questionnaire also rated this section very favorably. 

Overall, this series is a practical and highly effective option for teachers who want an easy-to-use book focused on the development of academic English.