Vol. 4. No. 3 R-1 May 2000
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Under the Lens: A Look at the American Media
Carol Keiser Bishop (1997)
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xx + 165
ISBN 0-472-08403-8 (paper)
US $16.95

Teacher's Manual
Pp. 125
ISBN 0-472-08429-1 (paper)
US $15.95


Under the Lens: A Look at the American Media is part of The University of Michigan Press Alliance series of textbooks for theme-based content instruction [1]. There are three levels in this series; Under the Lens is directed at advanced-level ESL/EFL students. Like all content-based instruction (CBI) materials, this textbook aims to help students improve their language competency while learning a particular subject matter. Under the Lens helps students to "discover how the American media really works and understand its influence on American society" (back cover). Growing interest in so-called "media literacy" makes this book a timely addition to the language teacher's bookshelf, in that aspects of the American mass media (newspapers, newsmagazines, radio and television) are explored. An ESL/EFL teacher in Canada and the United States has ready access to all these forms of media; indeed, those of us living north of the 49th parallel receive much of our information from the major American news broadcasters. ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN, among others, are easily available through cable television providers. The advent of the satellite dish admits even more channels into our home. [-1-] Here in Montreal, I can readily buy any of the major American newspapers the day they are published in the United States. American newsmagazines (not to mention entertainment magazines) dominate the shelves of my local gas station-grocery store. Teachers in other parts of the world can also have access to these media; on a recent trip to the Middle East, I was able to watch the Today Show on NBC's Star Channel, broadcast around the world. And needless to say, with the ubiquity of the Internet, anyone with a service provider anywhere in the world can access forms of American media online.

Students at the advanced levels are more than willing to explore topics that may generate controversy and difference of opinion. They demonstrate competency in basic and intermediate grammar structures, and are prepared to tackle more complex reading and writing assignments. Under the Lens provides such students with content that challenges them not only linguistically, but also intellectually.


Under the Lens is primarily a reading comprehension and writing activity textbook, although there are many activities that are designed for conversation. The overall language objectives, however, are aimed at critical thinking, reading, and writing skills. An example of language objectives from one of the later chapters emphasises this focus: "Comprehending academic text; applying textual information to a task; reading and interpreting graphs; scanning for specific information; reading critically," and so on (TM, p. 82). The six chapters of Under the Lens examine communication and media, societal expectations of the media, what news is, and three forms of media (newspapers, radio, and television). The opening chapters introduce the students to some of the basic concepts in communication theory through activities which include discussions, filling in charts, reading newspaper and magazine articles, as well as academic selections adapted from textbooks in the field, grammar practice, and listening to lectures on the topic. The chapters which examine specific media include readings on the history of newspaper, radio, and television, as well as copious and varied exercises for the students: reading and outlining, listening, group discussion, examining various types of charts, vocabulary practice, and so on.


Different types of activities open the chapters, in order to draw the students into the topic. For example, students are asked to choose their favorite form of media (from among newspaper, radio, and television), to do a listening comprehension exercise, or to listen to a recording of various radio programming. Unfortunately, since I didn't have access to the cassette tapes, I cannot comment on the quality or pertinence of their selections. With the exception of the first chapter, all chapters include a section titled "A Look Behind/A Look Ahead," which reviews what the students have already learned and outlines the goals of the chapter. Students are also invited to assess their achievement in reaching a number of listed objectives. Content objectives are listed in the student books, "while teachers are provided with both content and language objectives in the teacher's manual" (p. vi). As described above, many activities follow, more it seems than can be covered in one three-hour class; the teacher may have to pick and choose, or assign the reading exercises for homework. The chapters end with a journal entry assignment.[-2-]

Teacher's Manual

Using a content-based approach in teaching language can be a challenge for teachers, because they may not have the necessary background in the subject matter. The teacher's manual explains that the teacher "need not have knowledge of the discipline," and that "this book should give you all the information that you need" (TM, p. 1). As all of us have had close contact with radio, television, and newspapers, the recommended background reading in communications ("a basic freshman-level communications text is a good place to start" [TM, p. 2]) should not be too arduous. And primary material is readily available, although the author reminds us that these materials are protected by copyright. The teacher's manual mirrors the student book and gives the background and techniques necessary to carry out the activities successfully in class, the answers to exercises (where applicable), and the tapescripts.


I assume that most teachers use newspaper and magazine clippings regularly in class; many anthologies of radio and television segments exist with permission for broadcast in class (I think of the Prentice-Hall Focus On series of videos, or the excellent collection of Garrison Keillor's radio broadcasts). PBS also serves as an excellent source of material, and many of its programs permit off-air taping (see http://www.pbs.org). With the vast array of material available, Under the Lens helps both the teacher and the student make sense of the organizational, intellectual and linguistic challenges of the subject. While the text would be useful for any advanced-level course, it would be particularly relevant for an English for Special Purposes (ESP) classroom, such as the teaching of reading to students in communications and other social sciences. [-3-]

Having reviewed two of the books in this series, I feel confident that the others as well live up to the high quality shown here.

End Note

[1] Reviews of three other books in this series were published in TESL-EJ 2(4) and 3(3):

Varieties of English (Gass & Lefkowitz, 1995): http://www-writing.berkeley.edu/TESL-EJ/ej08/r2.html

Ecology and the Environment (Tickle, 1996): http://www-writing.berkeley.edu/TESL-EJ/ej08/r5.html

Discovering American Culture (Delk, 1997): http://www-writing.berkeley.edu/TESL-EJ/ej11/r2.html

Sorel Friedman
Université de Montréal

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