Our Unique Planet

Book Writer & Publisher: 
Seibido, 2008
Kurtis McDonald, Kwansei Gakuin University


[Ian Bowring & Ruth Urbom. Tokyo: Seibido, 2008. pp. 117. ¥1,800. (incl. teacher’s guide; CD set ¥5,000). ISBN: 978-4-7919-4623-5.]

Our Unique Planetis an upper-intermediate reading comprehension book focused specifically on subject matter related to science and technology. It is primarily intended for use with university-level Japanese science students in their EFL classes,centered on reading and vocabulary. As a textbook targeted at such a specific audience, Our Unique Planet is able to cater directly to Japanese students with the inclusion of brief unit introductions and glossaries in Japanese. The textbook’s accompanying teacher’s guide apparently seeks to narrow the potential market for this textbook even more because it is written entirely in Japanese.

The overall structure of Our Unique Planet consists of 22 topic-based units ostensibly divided into four parts: Life on Earth, Research and Technology, Our Home, and Exploration. Beyond the superficial connection between the topics included in each part, there is no real cohesiveness between units,and the vocabulary presented is not cumulative. Each of the 22 units revolves around a central reading passage concerned with a contemporary scientific or technological topic. The topics selected do well to represent a broad cross-section of the many different areas of science and technology of interest to many university-level Japanese science students. In my experience using portions of this textbook in EFL Reading classes for second-year Chemistry and Physics majors, most students found the occasional introduction of selectedunits from this textbook to be a welcome addition to our course. In addition to the great diversity of scientific topics touched on throughout the textbook, the written content also seems both up-to-date and appropriately sophisticated, both scientifically and linguistically, for the intended audience.

Unfortunately, the same degree of sophistication is not present in the visual content,as the entire textbook is completely black-and-white,with the exception of the cover. Beyond the lack of color, the few, often nondescript pictures that are included are almost always recycled within each short unit. The charts, graphs, maps, and diagrams that are included do serve to enhance the scientific feel of the textbook but, unfortunately, appear far too sporadically to do much in terms of helping students to “develop skills in interpreting visuals” (p. 3) as is proposed in the preface.

For better or for worse, Our Unique Planet follows the exact same pattern in each of its 22 units. First, a set of six cloze sentences attempts to introduce background information and key vocabulary. The central component of each unit, the reading passage, is next and typically consists of six paragraphs within which selected vocabulary and phrases are marked in bold and included with a Japanese translation in the glossary that follows. After each passage there is a simple vocabulary matching exercise, followed by multiple-choice comprehension questions. Students are then asked to fill in blanks to complete a summary paragraph of the unit’s main reading passage before checking their answers by listening to a native speaker reading of the text on the accompanying CDs. Each unit ends with another set of six cloze sentences related to the reading passage.

While perhaps comforting to some students and instructors who value a consistent approach in reading texts, most students and instructors will likely find the monotony of the unit presentation exhibited throughout this textbook to be extremely uninspiring.Likewise, Our Unique Planet brings nothing new to the exercises that accompany the potentially engaging scientific reading passages. As a result, although my students did report that they enjoyed the scientific subject matter and challenging level of English used in the reading passages of the units that we looked at, they also noted that the repetitive style of the exercises soon became boring. Indeed, the complete lack of any built-in expansion activities, such as opportunities for discussion or debate, or resources for further information, such as relevant website links or an interactive CD-Rom, leaves the challenge of making this textbook meaningful to the students very much up to the instructor’s additional planning and preparation. Though the teacher’s guide apparently includes a minimal amount of additional information about the main topics of each unit in Japanese, there are no supplemental materials for reviews, quizzes, tests, or other peripherals of any kind included at all.

All in all, Our Unique Planet does provide EFL reading materialfor Japanese science students,providinga resource of scientific reading passages that are current, interesting, and appropriately challenging linguistically. Unfortunately, as the main textbook for a course, the repetitive style of unit presentation, lackluster visual appeal, and complete absence of supplemental materials make it unlikely to meet the needs of most students or instructors.