[Joan Saslow and Allen Ascher. New York: Pearson Education, 2015. pp. xiii + 155. ¥2,981. ISBN: 978-0-13-392821-1.]
Top Notch is a series that focuses on communication skills for young-adult or older learners. It aims to develop speaking and listening skills for various contexts useful for travelling, working, or living abroad. There are four levels to this series: Fundamentals (A1), Level 1 (A1-A2), Level 2 (A2+-B1), and Level 3 (B1+).
This series is supplemented with many components: workbook, teacher’s book, ActiveTeach, MyEnglishLab, and class CD. The Teacher’s Edition includes lesson plans, answers, transcripts, and extra notes interleaved with the Student’s Book content. ActiveTeach is a DVD-ROM that has extra printable resources such as speaking activities and editable unit tests. Audio tracks from the lessons and tests are also provided. The Student’s Book is available with or without an online component called MyEnglishLab. Inside the front cover of the Student’s Book is a link that leads to interactive practices for each lesson, as well as all of the audio tracks in mp3 format.
I chose Top Notch Level 3 for English majors in a third-year university speaking and listening class. Most of these students were keen on studying abroad, so I felt the themes in this book were relevant and useful. For example, Unit 2 covers health matters and introduces language for describing symptoms. The book further builds students’ cultural literacy via topics such as customs (Unit 1), and holidays and traditions (Unit 7).
Top Notch Level 3 is designed to be completed within 60 to 90 hours. Each unit begins with a preview lesson, followed by four main lessons and ends with a review lesson. Although each lesson is two pages long and aimed at 45 to 60-minute classes, most lessons provide enough content for 90-minute classes. My class met three hours a week for 15 weeks, so I selected eight units that met my students’ needs.
Every lesson has a clear goal presented at the beginning. By drawing attention to these goals, students become aware of the learning objectives and can prepare themselves for the lesson. The lessons usually start by introducing the target vocabulary or grammar, followed by listening or written practice. According to the Involvement Load Hypothesis (Hulstijn & Laufer, 2001), activities that require more involvement or manipulation are effective for vocabulary retention, and this textbook provides excellent listening activities that cater for this. In Unit 3 Lesson 2, for instance, verbs are presented in phrases in the active form. Students then need to complete sentences that summarise different conversations by rewriting the target vocabulary in the passive voice. In another unit, students need to answer questions that include the target vocabulary while listening to a radio broadcast. In addition, students also have to recycle target grammar from a previous lesson and write their answers in that form. In both activities, students are not simply listening for the target words in the exact form and dictating them, they need to manipulate the target words in order to produce grammatically correct answers. Hence, both activities induce a good level of involvement.
Almost all lessons include a short conversation model for students to listen to and repeat. Some may not find reading aloud and memorising dialogues the most stimulating activity; however, it is a quick method for learning and retaining target vocabulary, expressions, and grammar (Nation, 2007). The model is then followed by a Conversation Activator, which is similar to the model conversation but with missing parts that students have to substitute. These conversations are open-ended, and therefore allow room to be extended into role-plays.
This book is written in American English, but the audio tracks feature native and non-native English speakers of various accents talking at natural speed. When students study at language centres abroad, they have more interaction with English-learners from other language backgrounds than with native-English speakers. Therefore, it is important that they are accustomed to listening to different accents beforehand as English is now often used as a lingua franca (Seidlhofer, 2005).
I have one minor reservation regarding this textbook. Students nowadays enjoy, and seem to expect, fun communicative activities. However, the majority of the pair or group activities in the book are discussions, so it does not lend itself to a great deal of variety. This puts responsibility on the teacher to search for and prepare extra activities in order to keep students engaged.
In summary, Top Notch Level 3 is a content-rich book for students who want to become competent English speakers. It makes references to different cultures throughout, making it relatable for students who are interested in going abroad.
Hulstijn, J. H. & Laufer, B. (2001). Some empirical evidence for the involvement load hypothesis in vocabulary acquisition. Language Learning, 51, 539-558.
Nation, P. (2007). The four strands. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1(1), 2-13.
Seidlhofer, B. (2005). English as a lingua franca. ELT Journal, 59(4), 339-341.