Taboos and Issues
Richard MacAndrew and Ron Martinez (2001)
Hove, UK: LTP
Pp. x + 80
ISBN 1 899396 41 1
I'm always interested to see what comes out of the publishers LTP, as they have a reputation for being 'the thinking man's publisher' (to paraphrase my tutor on a teaching course I took). To receive a bright orange book subtitled 'Photocopiable lessons on controversial topics' certainly increased the level of interest in the teachers' room and virtually everyone took a look at it within the first half an hour of it arriving.
The book claims to cover 'stimulating and relevant topics' like 'those we find in the newspapers everyday' but are not covered in the usual 'bland' teaching materials ' devoid of the topics we discuss in our daily lives', and with certain exceptions such as animal rights and 'How honest are you?' the topics are most certainly the most unusual and interesting part of the book. They range through wacky (Nudity), profane (Swearing), topical (Designer Babies), downbeat (Do you get depressed?), personal (Cheating on your partner), slightly cheesy (Gays and jobs) and extremely touchy (and possibly dangerous) (Does torture happen in your country?). The book makes the distinction between Taboos, Serious Issues and Personal Matters.
Before I used the book I already had some idea of the dangers of using these kinds of controversial topics. There is the obvious danger of offending your students, but an experienced teacher who knows the class well should easily gauge what might seriously offend. I would definitely agree with the book that if these two conditions are not met the material should not even be tried. I was more worried about the other possible reactions--deep philosophical silence while students ponder the imponderable, impassioned but language--weak arguments ('Yes', 'No', 'Yes'), complete lack of interest from students to whom 'things in the newspaper' and 'daily topics of conversation' are mutually exclusive. Also, material like this often loses sight of the language and tries to give the students a 'liberal education'. Similarly, the teacher may well find biting his/ her tongue very difficult , given the students' sometimes outrageous views. On the positive side, the materials certainly held out the possibility of motivating the students, as the book claims, while giving them the language to discuss such topics outside the classroom. To be honest, though, what most interested me about these topics is that they were something different from the usual 'Superstitions' and 'Crime and Punishment'. The fact that I have small multicultural classes also made me interested in what different students would say and what their reaction would be to the topics and each other's views.
Using the book, every one of the units I used in fact prompted a lot of discussion (and I chose them more or less at random). Some of them did move into a philosophical dead end, but this felt like a natural place to move onto a different exercise or even a different topic. The book deals with the 'having nothing to say' problem by having a good mixture of 'Serious' and 'Personal' topics, catering for differences in student interests. I also liked its politically neutral, non-preachy tone.
The book suggests starting as pairwork in order to let students marshal their ideas and this works well. Often the students become so interested in what another group is saying, however, that it quickly drifts into larger groups or whole class discussion. This is actually a good thing, as it is precisely the kind of interaction that naturally happens with a group of people sitting down in a restaurant, bar or dinner table. In fact, it has made me consider how I could bring this more natural interaction more often into the classroom. [-1-]
What I also liked about the topics was that despite seeming to be quite unusual, in fact they tie in quite well with the topics of a normal coursebook, and extremely well with newspaper articles. For example, unfortunately hardly a month goes by without a big story on child crime, and the book gives the teacher a way of tackling what could be a difficult subject to approach. I easily found articles on the internet for the 'Serious Issues' topics simply by using an internet search. Stretching a point a bit, I managed to tie four different units in with the textbook's topic of 'Families'. The book could perhaps have included some suggestions on where to find suitable news stories.
Each unit contains discussion, reading, language and further discussion sections, often in that order, in a two-page spread. The discussion task types are generally just straightforward discussion questions, with slight variations such as multiple choice. Each reading section contains two or more short texts on the subject with opinion and comprehension questions. The teachers' notes suggest you use them as jigsaw texts, with each students reading different texts and then discussing them together. This works well, but the teacher will need to think of some 'Compare and decide if. . . .' tasks to make sure this interaction remains communicative and doesn't become repetitive. It is also worth doing some language work with the texts before the students discuss them, to encourage the students to use the language in them.
Unsurprisingly for an LTP book, the language exercises have a strong focus on lexis and collocation. I think the best thing about the exercises is simply the fact that they are there. Most importantly, they provide a quick and easy change of interaction should the discussion become in any way difficult. They also make sure students don't finish the lesson thinking 'We didn't learn anything'. I didn't find the students particularly used the language in the later speaking tasks, unfortunately. The focus on collocation does mean that the book can certainly be used with any class of Intermediate and above level, as suggested on the cover, and makes it particularly suitable for mixed level classes. What it really lacks is any functional language, which could perhaps have been put in a preparatory chapter, but it ties in well with other LTP texts such as 'Conversation Gambits' or 'Conversation Lessons'. The publishers seem to be missing a trick by not suggesting this.
If there are any surprises about the rest of the book, it is its sparse simplicity. The presentation is clear and professional if slightly old fashioned looking, and with only a few cartoons to liven it up. The teachers' notes are limited to the answers and a one-line warning on the dangers of each topic, with a few alternative teaching suggestions scattered through the book. Again, it is, as it says, aimed very much at the experienced teacher. However, the thought of it falling into the wrong hands does scare me somewhat.
In conclusion, I'll certainly be using this book again, with present and future groups. It will never be a 'guaranteed to work with every class favourite' because of the care needed with the topics, but it will certainly be the first place I look when I feel the students (and myself) need to 'get our teeth into something'. I would particularly recommend its use to liven up classes where students need to read and speak about the news. Now I'm just waiting for the Pre-Intermediate version--now that would be a challenge!
Central School of English, London
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.
Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..