True to Life

Book Writer & Publisher: 
Tokyo: MacMillan Languagehouse
John Nevara, Kobe Gakuin University

[Lauren Merenda, Dale Fuller, & Corey Fuller. Tokyo: Macmillan LanguageHouse, 2011. pp. 55. ¥2,625. ISBN: 978-4-7773-6343-8.]
Fifteen or twenty years ago, when the use of video in the classroom was a hot, new topic in EFL circles, True to Life might very well have caused a stir. Now it has entered the textbook market with just a murmur of interest. However, this DVD-based text deserves a qualified recommendation as both user-friendly and unique, worthy of consideration especially for content-based classes in which the teacher feels video is the appropriate choice.
This book will most likely be selected for semester-long courses with a focus on North American studies, although it can also be used in more generic listening-centered classes. It is appropriate for students at the pre-intermediate level, but can easily be used with students at a somewhat lower or higher level. There are 12 units in total, with each unit solidly structured to provide a variety of activities lasting approximately 90 minutes. No sample quizzes or tests are included in the teacher’s manual, but test material can easily be adapted from the text.
As a DVD-based text, each unit has at its core three scenes, two of which are interviews with young North Americans about their careers and lifestyles. The diversity of the interviewees—from a professional forager to a wedding designer—provides Japanese students with important insights into North American culture and often leads to interesting classroom, pair work, and group work discussions.
The interviews, having been produced for the EFL setting, do not count as truly authentic materials, but they do a good job of mimicking authenticity through natural language usage. As stated in Richards (2001), authentic materials have a positive effect on learner motivation, provide cultural information about the target culture and exposure to real language, relate more closely to learners’ actual needs, and support a more creative approach to teaching. Limitations to authentic materials, on the other hand, include the possibility of difficult language and the amount of time teachers need to prepare materials. True to Life supplies most of the advantages of authentic materials while at the same time removing most of the limitations. In my opinion, these interviews are unique in their high quality, near-authenticity, and accessibility to students. Moreover, my students, with English ability at the high-beginner and pre-intermediate levels, indicated that the interviews provide interesting and useful information at a suitable language level for most Japanese university students.
In fact, all my 20 students rated True to Life as either excellent or very good, a recommendation suggesting that I should use it again next year. The sole complaint from the students was that it is difficult to understand 100 percent of the content of each interview. One student wished for English subtitles on the DVD, although this potential problem can be alleviated if the teacher copies and distributes the audio-script (available as part of the teacher’s manual) during or after class. Also, the entire DVD accompanies the students’ text, so more motivated students can watch the scenes at their leisure.
Likewise, from the teacher’s perspective, few criticisms can be found with the interviews and connected comprehension and discussion-related exercises. It is possible that each interview, lasting around two minutes, might seem short to the teacher. Turning off the lights and closing the curtains for such a short scene sometimes seems a bother. However, none of my students have voiced any complaints, and more importantly, the brevity seems to keep students from feeling overwhelmed by the content.
Besides the two interviews, each unit also has a practical dialogue on DVD. Unfortunately, the dialogues themselves—with topics such as ordering at restaurants and checking into hotels—are not unique and lose the sense of authenticity that is found in the interviews. Oftentimes, the dialogues are only loosely connected to the interviews (e.g., a dialogue on weekend plans tacked on to an interview with a homeschooling homemaker), making a less-than-seamless flow. However, the dialogues can serve as a refreshing break between interviews, and they allow students some structured practice along with the two or three opportunities for less-controlled conversation (mainly pair work and group work) that are interspersed through each unit.
Overall, True to Life has its faults and limitations, but it can be recommended as a teacher- and student-friendly book for a semester’s worth of material in a content-based or listening-centered class. I will use it again next year in my Western Culture and Society class, and my students will no doubt be happy with the choice.
Richards, J. (2001). Curriculum development in language teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.