Vol. 4. No. 4 R-1 December 2000
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Contemporary English Series
Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary Books
Student Books: US $12.95
Teacher's Manuals: US $14.95

Contemporary English: Literacy
Janet Podnecky (1999)
Pp. vi + 88
ISBN 0-8092-0695-1 (paper)
Teacher's Edition ISBN 0-8092-0697-8 (paper)

Contemporary English: Book One
Ardith Loustalet Simons and Kathleen Santopietro Weddel (1999)
Pp. vi + 100
ISBN 0-8092-0703-6 (paper)
Teacher's Edition ISBN 0-8092-0707-9 (paper)

Contemporary English: Book Two
Jeanne Becijos, Mechelle Perrott, and Cecelia Ryan (1999)
Pp. vi + 122
ISBN 0-8092-0704-4 (paper)
Teacher's Edition ISBN 0-8092-0708-7 (paper)

Contemporary English: Book Three
Claudia Rucinski-Hatch and Cheryl Kirchner (1999)
Pp. vi + 122
ISBN 0-8092-0705-2 (paper)
Teacher's Edition ISBN 0-8092-0709-5 (paper)

Contemporary English: Book Four
Elizabeth Minicz and Kathryn Powell (1999)
Pp. vi + 122
ISBN 0-8092-0706-0 (paper)
Teacher's Edition ISBN 0-8092-0710-9 (paper)

Contemporary English is one of the best multi-purpose ESL series for adult learners that I have seen in recent years. Its plain look belies its high interest topics, thought-provoking exercises, and student-centered focus. Series authors have succeeded in crafting student books that are clear, well organized, and easy to use, yet challenging, provocative, and fun. Each volume is organized by topic and offers interactive lessons that integrate work on language structures and the development of listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. Cross-cultural communication and the development of critical thinking skills are also covered in this useful and interesting series. [-1-]

Contemporary English consists of five levels ranging from beginning literacy to high intermediate. Each level includes a student book, workbook, audiocassette, and teacher's manual. The workbooks and audiocassettes were not available for review. Teacher's manuals include a placement test, progress checks, and reproducible activity masters. According to the series introduction, the materials covered at each level are correlated to the California Model Standards for Adult ESL, the Mainstream English Language Training Project (MELT) Student Performance Levels, and the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) Competencies. Although competency- and function-oriented, the series also provides a solid structural foundation. The structures covered in each volume are level appropriate, and topics are of interest to adult learners. Student books 3 and 4 could, with some teacher supplementation, be expanded to include academic preparation in reading and writing. Student books are adaptable for use in a multi-level classroom.

At first glance, the Contemporary English student books appear over-simplified and even dull. There are no colorful pictures or eye-catching graphics to encourage a teacher to keep on looking. Units are done in black and white with a pale color wash that matches the darker color of the book's cover (book 1 is orange, book 2 is purple, etc.). Unit topics are introduced by cartoon scenes with dialogue balloons, and an occasional cartoon figure reappears throughout the unit. From my point of view, this is a welcome departure from the trend in ESL texts to overly busy pages. Too many colors, shapes, figures, and formats on a page can be distracting for learner and teacher alike. It is easier to supplement a clearly written but plain text with colorful pictures and realia than it is to simplify a text complicated by too many graphics. Contemporary English is more like a New England boiled dinner than an artful meal of nouvelle cuisine. It is solid and satisfying but has few frills or decorations. The condiments are left for the teacher and learners to provide.

Books 1 through 4 each have ten units; the literacy level has 9. Each unit draws its theme from one of the following topics: Transportation and Travel, Home and Neighborhood, Healthy Living, Arts and Entertainment, History and Geography, Human Relations, Employment and Opportunity, Community Services, and Consumer Economics. Individual units are thematically unified with vocabulary study, structure practice, conversation, listening, reading, writing, cross-cultural sharing, and problem solving, all presented in the context of the unit theme. Themes are relevant to students' lives and directly related to the development of critical life and work skills.

Topics are recycled through each level of the series and include practical information of immediate use to the adult learner. The breadth, depth, and sophistication of topic coverage increase substantially at each level. Five units on Consumer Economics provide an interesting example. Literacy learners focus on money terms and amounts, prices, making change, and recognizing payment options. In book 1, the theme becomes "Asking For a Raise." Book 2 offers "Finding A Bargain," while book 3 discusses "Foods From Around the United States." In book 4, the topic treatment now is "Saving Money For the Future." Topics encourage both learner and instructor to add collateral material (realia, life stories, authentic texts) from their own experience, and offer ample opportunity for teacher- and student-generated expansion exercises. [-2-]

An interesting component of the Contemporary English series is its focus on critical thinking and problem solving skills. The series aims to develop graphic literacy and the ability to organize, analyze, and evaluate information through a variety of interesting and thought-provoking techniques. Learners at the literacy level use simplified forms, maps, signs, and other authentic materials to practice writing and reading skills. Whenever possible, information is presented in a simplified graphic format that is as close as possible to that used in the real world. In the subsequent four levels, learners encounter many different graphic representations of increasing complexity (e.g., pie charts, Venn diagrams, bar graphs, tables, T-charts, Johari windows, and maps, in addition to the picture graphs, recipes, schedules, advertisements, and directories more commonly used in other texts). Through analyzing the data presented, learners practice forming and testing hypotheses and drawing conclusions of their own.

Contemporary English purports to be "learner centered" and "to empower learners to take charge of their learning." To a large extent, this statement proves true. Each unit includes activities that encourage students to think and act independently, whether alone, in pairs, or in groups. This is as true for the literacy level as it is for book 4. Sections entitled "In Your Experience" and "Your Turn" appear in every volume, and ask students to draw on their own experiences in order to complete the lesson. These sections provide numerous (and interesting) opportunities for learners to generate questions, provide examples, and express their ideas and feelings. In short, students at every level are encouraged to bring their lives into the classroom.

In books 1 through 4, units end with a self-assessment exercise entitled "Thinking About Learning." This exercise is presented in a chart format that is identical from unit to unit and level to level. It provides a good example of the carefully designed structure of these texts. The chart itself reinforces the series goal of increasing the graphic literacy of students at all levels. It requires learners to seek, analyze, and organize information about their own progress and record their observations in an organized fashion. By evaluating how difficult or easy different sections of the unit were for them, individuals identify problem areas they might want to review. This process will ideally lead teachers to incorporate individual needs into future lessons and students to take charge of their own learning. "Thinking About Learning" accomplishes all this in addition to facilitating a mini-review of the vocabulary, structures, skills, and competencies presented in a given unit.

Contemporary English works hard to facilitate the development of cross-cultural communication and understanding. Two sections in each unit ("Culture Corner" and "Issues and Answers") serve as good springboards for cross-cultural discussions. "Culture Corner" is included at every level. It introduces learners to different aspects of American life (e.g., driving rules, women's roles, job titles, freedom of speech, pets, cable TV). Information is presented in short readings or graphic formats (charts, graphs, maps, forms, schedules), and is followed by discussion questions and problem solving exercises that encourage cross-cultural comparisons. "Issues and Answers" appears in books 1 through 4, and focuses more on social and personal issues that learners may encounter in their new lives (e.g., asking for a raise, use of credit cards or suggestion boxes, dinner customs and etiquette, parental roles). Readings are often in the form of advice column letters, opinion pieces, or mini-debates. The topics presented in both sections are sufficiently varied to allow for differences in learner background, interest, and taste. [-3-]

Upon reviewing the student books and teacher's manuals in this series, one immediately notices the careful organization of each volume and of the series as a whole. Student books follow the same format both unit by unit and book by book. Each unit follows a similar sequence, and the same titles introduce each unit section. "Scene One" always starts and introduces the topic of the unit. It is followed by "Sound Bites" (a listening exercise) and "Spotlight On . . ." (the structure to be studied). "Reading for Real" presents an authentic-type text with exercises and discussion. It is followed by "Culture Corner," which completes this section of the unit. The second section of the unit is signaled by "Scene Two," which expands on the topic introduced by the first scene. It is once again followed by "Sound Bites" and "Spotlight On . . ." but the rhythm then changes. "Get Graphic" and "Issues and Answers" continue the unit, which is finished by "Wrap Up" and "Thinking About Learning." Some units do not have every section, but the order followed is nonetheless similar.

Such a strict organizational framework has distinct advantages. First, teacher and learners quickly become familiar with the process followed in each unit and in each type of exercise. Once this occurs, time spent explaining how to do a particular exercise is reduced. In addition, by consistently repeating the same cycle of material, learners grow to know what is expected of them both within individual exercises and throughout a given unit. Clear expectations can, in turn, reduce confusion and enhance the learning process. Finally, the organization and format of the units facilitate the development of a class "rhythm," a certain order in which things are expected and done. Ideally, teacher and learners work together to establish a rhythm that best suits the class.

However, these advantages can become disadvantages if certain pitfalls are ignored. Although establishing a class rhythm is important and reassuring, a rhythm can easily become a routine engraved in stone. With any text that recycles format and material as carefully as Contemporary English does, teachers must guard against this happening. Too much routine can become boring and can discourage creativity, spontaneity, and fresh ideas from teacher and learner alike. When using a series such as this one, teachers must remember to mix and match exercises according to the needs of their individual students, to introduce new approaches, materials, and methods of their own, and to "surprise learners" (or encourage learners to "surprise" them) with variations in the daily activities. This having been said, it must be noted that each level of this series is carefully written to maximize the use and mastery of the material and minimize confusion.

The teacher's manuals are informative, clearly written, and well organized. Each volume presents a wealth of useful information clearly and in an easy-to-follow format. The manuals thus avoid the pitfall of losing the teacher in a plethora of detail that is difficult to unravel. Each manual is self-contained and refers to the appropriate sections and pages in the corresponding student book. Both books are so well organized that coordinating teacher instructions with learner exercises is easily done.

All five manuals start with charts outlining the topics, culture focus, functions, grammar, and SCANS competencies for each of the five levels. These charts provide teachers with a unit-by-unit overview of each volume within the context of the entire series. The introduction is the same for all manuals and includes two essays of particular interest: "Maximizing Results in the Multilevel Classroom" and "Suggestions for Creating a Work-Oriented ESL Classroom." [-4-] The first offers practical strategies for adapting Contemporary English to a multi-level classroom situation. It will be of most use to less experienced teachers, but there are tips that even experienced teachers will benefit from reviewing. The second essay addresses the SCANS competencies and presents helpful tips and techniques to facilitate the mastery of these competencies within the context of the ESL classroom. The introduction also includes a brief discussion of commonly used teaching methods as well as a general overview of how to present and use the different sections found in each unit. The body of the manuals provides step-by-step instructions for presenting the material in each unit. These instructions include many useful and specific suggestions for the facilitation of interactive learning.

With its interesting topics and thought-provoking exercises, Contemporary English will be of interest to teachers and learners alike. The series offers teachers a solid base from which to facilitate language learning. It offers learners the opportunity to develop new language skills and to use those skills to think critically about the problems and issues that affect their lives. If you are a teacher in search of new material, I strongly recommend that you check out Contemporary English. Even if you are satisfied with your current texts, I still recommend that you look this new series over. Although some of its content will necessarily be familiar, you will find fresh, interesting approaches to language learning in every volume.

Joanne Wilkins
Second Start, Concord, NH
<joannewilkins@yahoo.com >

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