Vol. 5. No. 1 R-4 April 2001
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Choice Readings: International Edition, Book 1
Mark A. Clarke, Barbara K. Dobson, and Sandra Silberstein (1999)
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xxii + 132
ISBN 0-472-08457-7 (paper)
US $10.95

Choice Readings: International Edition, Book 2
Mark A. Clarke, Barbara K. Dobson, and Sandra Silberstein (1999)
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xxi + 160
ISBN 0-472-08458-5 (paper)
US $10.95

Book 1: ISBN 0-472-00289-9
Book 2: ISBN 0-472-00290-2
US $10.00 each

Of the four language skills traditionally taught in ESL classes (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), students' progress in the two productive skills (speaking and writing) seems to be the easiest to monitor and measure. A student's written composition is a fixed object: it can be scrutinized for errors or inaccuracies in spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and structure, and a teacher can easily make comments and suggestions on the student's work. Even in evaluating progress in students' speaking skills, a teacher can resort to recording a student's spoken language for more careful evaluation and analysis. But with regard to the receptive skills, listening and reading, a teacher cannot get inside a student's head to monitor comprehension; thus, evaluating a student's comprehension must always be done in a more indirect fashion. Indeed, even if students understand a text, they may be unable to express (either in speaking or in writing) their comprehension. They may not have the vocabulary necessary to restate an idea or to summarize a paragraph. A teacher often resorts to inaccurate multiple choice testing to determine a student's level of comprehension.

This problem is only one faced by the teacher of reading. Other problems can include multiple language levels and students with various interests in a class; differences in academic experience and cultural knowledge; the question of choice of reading materials for academic study; and so forth. In short, a good reading textbook should address a number of these concerns, all the while providing a variety of materials and methods of monitoring and evaluating a student's comprehension and progress. Choice Readings: International Edition provides the student with a solid foundation in the skills necessary for reading improvement. However, the actual choices of readings, as suggested by the title, are in my opinion somewhat less than inspired. [-1-]

Both books in the series use the same format, which I found somewhat difficult to follow. Each book has four chapters: two which focus on skills, and two providing reading selections. While the skills chapters are full of different types of exercises, the links between these skills and the readings presented in the alternate chapters is somewhat unclear. The teacher may see the rationale behind the format, but I fear that the student might not make the connection that easily.

While the format is one of the books' weaknesses, the chapters on skills are their strengths. Book 1, chapter 1, clearly lays out the discourse focus, "Reading for Different Goals." The students are introduced to the "four basic types of reading behaviors or skills: skimming, scanning, reading for thorough comprehension, and critical reading" (bk. 1, p. 1). Using the example of an entertainment page from an American newspaper, the students practice these four skills through various types of exercises. The chapter continues with a nonprose reading (in this case, a map), which, as the authors explain, allows the students to practice the "same problem-solving skills [which] can be used for both prose and nonprose material" (bk. 1, p. xiv). Personally, I feel that students should be exposed to as much textual (i.e., prose) material as possible, given the amount of non-linear material they absorb through multimedia (television, video games, or the Internet).

Word study is another skill practiced in depth. Students develop awareness of context clues and of stems and affixes. This latter skill is, of course, most useful for students whose first language is a non-western or non-Romance language. Once again, the skills are reinforced with copious exercises. The sections on sentence study are especially effective. Students often cannot negotiate their way through lengthy, complex sentences. They may experience difficulty negotiating the meanings of words or phrases such as as a result of or because of, which act as markers to indicate various relationships between ideas in a sentence. The exercises in this section are very helpful in aiding the student towards increased comprehension of sentence structure.

Paragraph reading is treated in a number of ways throughout the series. Book 1, chapter 1 deals with identifying the main idea, chapter 3 with restatement and inference, and book 2, chapter 3 with reading for full understanding. In this final case, students are asked to read a number of paragraphs and practice the following skills: "determining the main idea, understanding supporting details, drawing inferences, guessing vocabulary items from context, and using grammatical and stylistic clues to understand selected parts of the passages" (bk. 2, p. 77). In short, these exercises allow the students to review and concentrate on all of the skills learned up to now.

An answer key is provided in both volumes. However, the authors stress that the "processes involved in arriving at an answer are often more important than the answer itself. It is expected that students will not use the Answer Key until they have completed the exercises and are prepared to defend their answers" (bk. 1, p. xvii). The methods suggested for using Choice Readings, such as independent study or group work in class, are enhanced by the inclusion of such an answer key. [-2-]

The reading selections included in the two volumes are varied, but I find it difficult to see any logical progression in degree of difficulty from one type of reading to another. Book 1 provides maps, newspaper and magazine articles, technical prose and fiction, and mysteries. Book 2 includes applications and questionnaires, charts and graphs, fables, advice columns, children's literature, and poetry. As I stated earlier, when I choose a reading text for my university-level students, I try as much as possible to provide them with the opportunity to read academic prose, and whenever appropriate, selections from literature written in English. Many of the other types of selections in this series, such as the non-prose readings (maps, graphs, etc.) and application forms, seem better destined for training students for other purposes (e.g., integration into a new society, etc.).

The subject matter and level of difficulty varies. Readings in book 1 discuss immigration, the changing shape of the American family, gender roles, and environmental issues. Popular science articles ("Tornado in the Drain," "Making Water Wetter") adapted children's literature, various magazine articles (including "Japanese Marriage" from Cosmopolitan) can be found in book 2. Most strangely, I find, are the reading selections lumped together in unit 4 of book 2. A questionnaire, newspaper articles, prose, and poetry are provided to ask the students to think about "choices people make in life" (p. 115). I was not surprised to find Robert Frost's ubiquitously anthologized poem, "The Road Not Taken" included among the selections.

Cassette tapes include spoken versions of selected passages. The authors suggest several ways in which the tapes can be used, either in class, in a language lab, or at home: "Teachers can play introductory paragraphs to help students enter a reading selection, or the entire passage can be played. Playing the tape through as students read a text for the first time can demonstrate the value of skimming. As a culminating activity, listening to a passage can allow students to appreciate the cadence of language they have studied" (bk. 1, p. xvii). It is always valuable, I feel, for students to hear a variety of English speakers, and not exclusively the voice of their teacher, so in this respect, the tapes provide a valuable addition to the books.

My overall evaluation of these books is that the skills chapters provide a very solid base in introducing the students to the strategies needed to negotiate many types of writing in English. The answer key and cassettes are helpful adjuncts to the texts. The books' one weakness, in my opinion, is in the choice of reading materials. I would have preferred to see a greater emphasis on academic rather than popular writing. This said, however, Choice Readings is still a very good choice for teachers of ESL reading.

Sorel Friedman
Université de Montréal

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