Vol. 1. No. 3 R-7 March 1995
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From The Beginning: A First Reader in American History, 4th ed.

Bailey, Judith (1994)
Studio City, CA: Jag Publications
Pp. xiv + 194. ISBN 0-943327-07-5 (paper)
US $14.95

A content reader must above all be interesting and enriching. From the Beginning fulfills both these criteria, for it presents the exciting story of American history and expands the cultural horizons of the reader. It is made even more attractive and helpful by the inclusion of specially drawn maps and more than fifty contemporary illustrations--an 1886 photograph of the inauguration of the Statute of Liberty taken from a steamer appears on its cover.

This reader is intended for foreign students and native English speakers who need to know or are interested in American history for junior high through adult classes. The book's level is low intermediate and its suggested use is as a supplement to a core text in an American history class or as a major reading project in any class at this level.

This review is divided into three parts: 1) the historical content, 2) the linguistic form of its presentation, and 3) the exercises which follow each reading section.

1) Historical content

The story opens with an introductory chapter, "Before the Beginning," (pp. xiii-xiv) on the "first Americans" who arrive via the land bridge from Siberia, and closes with chapter 15, in which recent events such as the Watergate affair and Jesse Jackson's candidacy for president, and problems such as the greenhouse effect, Aids and the homeless are discussed. The sweep of history is broad, but because each chapter is divided into an overview and two or three separate stories, it also spotlights individual historical actors, and captures the drama and excitement of the events in more depth. It also does not avoid controversial subjects--both the dark and bright aspects of American history are included. While "politically correct" in devoting much attention to minorities and women--the first story in the Slavery chapter, for example, is "Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad," and the chapter on Immigration has a story on "The Chinese in California"--it is far from overboard revisionist. On the dropping of the bomb on Japan, for example, along with the graphic description of the horrors-- "thousands walk around with their ears and noses melting, their skin burned black" (p.156)--there is also a December 7, 1941 photograph of Pearl Harbor, and the city of Hiroshima is described as "an important military center" (p.156). The author also points out that the Japanese still had five thousand planes and a million-man army, and that they did not surrender even after the first bomb was dropped. [-1-]

I found the Reader historically accurate and up-to-date. The new countries formed from the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, appear on the world map. My only quibble is the premature designation of Soviet Russia in 1917 as the Soviet Union-- the Union was formed seven years later in 1924 after the Bolsheviks succeeded in restoring most of the tsarist empire under their control. I would probably also not gloss Great Britain at the time of the American Revolution as just "England, Scotland and Wales" (p.25), since at that time it also included Ireland.

Personally, I would have liked to see more on cultural history. American literature or music, for example, are not mentioned at all. But even without that there is plenty of interesting material for reading and discussion.

2) Language

The vocabulary is quite simple, based as much as possible on Dixson's The 2,000 Most Frequently Used Words in English. Words not on the list are defined within the text--"orient or eastern part of the world" (p. 2), "abolitionists want to abolish or put an end to slavery" (p. 69)--or glossed. Students are also expected when necessary to use the dictionary. (Advice on using the dictionary, mainly tips on alphabetizing, is provided on pp. xi-xii.) While contextual definition and occasional use of the dictionary are valid, I would question the glossing. In general it tends to focus too much attention on the individual word, interrupts thought, discourages guessing and worst of all, is not always needed or even helpful. Does one really need a gloss on "crops" in "crops like tobacco, rice and cotton" (p.69), or for "population" in "London has a population of only 75,000 people" (p. 13)? Is a gloss for "unknown," defined as "something unknown" (p.2) really needed? How helpful is the gloss for "political" as "of the government" in a discussion of Sam Adams as a "political leader," especially since he was fighting against the government at the time (pp.28-29)?

The grammar of the reader is also very simple, since it uses only the historical present. This works very well in most of the chapters--Paul Revere's ride for example, and Woodrow Wilson's death, have an air of immediacy and drama. But in some passages it works less well-- "Harriet is born in 1820" (p.74), "today we know that not everybody is spending, not everybody is buying stocks," (p.133) or "In Pennsylvania and Texas wells dig deep into the earth" (p.96) all struck me as awkward.

On the whole however, the historical present works and in spite of the relatively simple vocabulary, the prose is clear and often quite eloquent. Numerous quotations from various sources, including songs and slogans, are skillfully interwoven into the text. "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" (p.61), and "Hell no, we won't go" (p.173) graphically reflect, for example, the prejudices and the [-2-] spirit of the time. Most of the quotations, such as those from Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln or Neil Armstrong, are common knowledge which ESL students in the U.S. need in order to share in the cultural background.

3) Exercises

Each reading selection, except for the introduction and the last chapter, is followed by exercises with a similar format: three to five open-ended comprehension questions, asking the student to choose two or three for discussion with a partner and to answer the rest in writing, followed by two closed exercises consisting of fill-ins, matching, true/false, or multiple-choice, for which a key is provided at the end of the book. I found most of the vocabulary fill-ins especially useful, for they are based on the text and are thus also summary completion exercises.

The exercises are competent, useful, but call for very little inferencing--questions such as "What do Lincoln's words mean?" or "Why does the Yankee officer say to the people of France, 'Lafayette we are here'"? are unfortunately rare. (The instructions for the open-ended questions call for copying from the text or answering in one's own words.) Here too, only the historical present is used, and obviously expected in the answers. I would have preferred using the past when it fits better-- "why were the sailors afraid to sail in the Atlantic Ocean?" (p. 3) instead of "are," for example.

The answer key, with one exception (question 2 on p. 126) is admirably accurate.

On the whole, this is a lovely reader, offering both students and teachers a rich resource.

Isabelle T. Kreindler
University of Haifa


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