Vol. 3. No. 2 R-2 March 1998
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Talk about It! An Integrated Approach to Bold, Dynamic Topics

Joyce Bryan, Leslie Bishop, and Melinda Roth Sayavedra (1997)
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. x + 98
ISBN 0-472-08395-3
US $15.95; UK £12.95

The description looked promising, in spite of the fact that the public for whom this book was written is limited to students learning English in the United States with no attempt to target a wider audience worldwide. But a "theme-based, interactive text" (p. ix) designed for post-adolescents and young adults at the low-intermediate level is hard to come by and therefore was meant to fill a need. The book aims at engaging students in "meaningful interaction with their peers on topics relevant to their lives" (p. ix). One would expect a book with such a title to be primarily concerned with speaking activities. In fact, as announced in the introduction, the four macroskills of reading, writing, listening and speaking are addressed. The first three do not (necessarily) involve speaking and a lot of space is devoted to them in the book.

If we take unit 2 as an example we find: (a) one page of written dialogue to read in order to find the meaning of "lay it on"; (b) two stories in pictures for oral pair work, where students write one or two sentences per picture and then tell their stories to each other (which, it seems to me, will almost inevitably lead to reading their texts to each other); (c) a cloze dialogue to read in pairs and thus find the missing words; (d) one page of reading followed by questions on the text, some of them to be answered in writing; (e) one vocabulary exercise of the multiple choice variety, ending with finding out the common link between the expressions (if done orally, it should not take more than a minute); (f) one exercise on slang consisting of writing definitions with the help of native speakers; (g) another dialogue to read and complete in pairs, with whole lines missing this time; and finally, (h) telling a personal story to the class. So, out of the ten pages of this unit, only the last exercise is really a speaking exercise (reading aloud is not). But it can hardly be considered "meaningful interaction" as students, in turn, tell a story they have prepared (probably in writing and more or less memorized) and their partners have to ask three questions or make three comments. And how natural is it to tell a story to one person in front of a whole class, especially when the class is later quizzed about the stories they have heard?

Of the eight chapters, the first two are devoted to personal interaction: meeting people (a classic in textbooks if there is one), small talk, telling stories. Two units deal with music, two with social problems (drinking and AIDS), one with advertising and [-1-] one with climbing the corporate ladder. How the latter can be relevant to young adults still in school baffles me. Instead of dealing with sexism in the workplace, about which they are bound to know very little first hand, they could have discussed sexism at school and university, or within the family. That would have been relevant to the lives of students. I am not sure either that the last chapter on music as a tool for political change, ending with "We Shall Overcome," is not outdated and fairly irrelevant to young foreigners in the United States. Are those eight chapters (and fewer themes) the sum total of young people's interests? What about love, sex, sport, money, entertainment, religion, race, clothes, to name but a few?

The true originality of the book is to deal with slang, with contemporary language. I especially like the titles of some chapters, "Getting popped for being bombed behind the wheel," or "There's a sucker born every minute," a nice change from the aseptic language prevalent in EFL and ESL textbooks. What it does not deal with is the acceptability or non-acceptability of such language in different contexts. For example, "awesome" may be all right in conversation but using it in the instructions of an exercise puts it on the same level as non-fashionable jargon. Nor does the book deal with "blue" vocabulary, but only with "proper" slang, leaving it up to teachers to deal with profanity in any way they see fit. Finally, I wonder if it would not have been a good idea to enrich students' vocabulary by getting them to find replacement words for the latest fads (we should not forget the short lives of some expressions), which tend to be overwhelming in conversation and impoverish it no end. Understanding them is one thing, using them ad nauseam is another. When everything is "awesome" or "cool," what do we really learn about the subject being discussed?

There is a fairly great variety of exercises. But again, in a book aiming at interaction there is a striking lack of activities such as role-playing, debates, or even improvised discussions on a theme. Most of the activities are extremely controlled and too often fall back on writing as the end-product, making conversation difficult. In the chapter on drinking, which is one of the best, good ideas fall short of their promises. Brainstorming ideas to answer questions in writing is not conducive to real dialogue. Surveying other students about their attitude to drinking could have been a great activity if it were not limited to one exchange with one partner. Writing a dialogue in pairs is not conversation either. Even the case studies, which would make great role plays, turn into writing tasks (writing a letter to a friend instead of dealing with the problem orally, for example).

Another major weakness is that the teacher has to provide all the oral input, as no cassette of recordings is provided. The teacher is supposed to read aloud the dialogues for comprehension exercises, one person reading two characters, which, necessarily, will sound [-2-] unnatural. The teacher even has to supply the song input in unit 8. A few hints are given but it is up to her/him to find recordings. I suppose the authors have run into copyright problems and have found this easy but inadequate way out.

The layout is very pleasant, black and blue, but the graphics are of unequal quality, from very good (explaining visually expressions such as "the glass ceiling" or "climbing the corporate ladder") to useless (mother and baby) or very plain. The pages are detachable for no obvious reason, since this is not photocopiable material.

It could have been a great book; it still could be with modifications to put more emphasis on genuine oral activities. The book appears to have been hastily put together and seems essentially geared towards quenching students' (legitimate) desire to learn slang. Still, the book must be commended for tackling the sensitive issues of drinking and driving and AIDS. More of this would have been . . . cool.

Nicole Décuré
Université Paul Sabatier, Toulouse, France

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