Vol. 5. No. 4 R-1 March 2002
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Composition Practice, Books 1-4 (Third Edition)

Linda Lonon Blanton (2001)
New Orleans: Heinle and Heinle
$27.95 each
PagesISBN (All paperbound)
Book 1xv + 960-8384-1993-3
Book 2xvii + 1420-8384-1998-4
Book 3xx + 1560-8384-1999-2
Book 4xviii + 1900-8384-2000-1

What feelings does a book title like "Composition Practice" awaken in you as an English language teacher? Do your eyes light up: "My, that's just what my students need more of--they'll love this"? Or do your spirits droop: "That sounds like drudgery, boredom, examinations"? Or perhaps your stance is correctly neutral: "Hmm. Not the snappiest title, perhaps, but the book might still be very useful--let's see what's inside before judging."

Composition Practice 1-4 is a series of books on different levels (from post beginner to upper intermediate) intended for use by students who need to develop their writing skills. Teachers with such students will probably either love or hate the series, embrace it or forcefully reject it. Neutrality is not likely to last much beyond a fairly rapid examination of a typical unit. Teachers' final opinions, I imagine, will frequently be similar to their initial reactions to the title. In part, those opinions will depend on their students' goals: the first two books both state that they "should prove helpful for students who need practice in the kinds of writing found on state standardized tests", and while Books 3 and 4 are said to be "prepared ... for students of English who plan to use the language for academic and professional purposes", the focus is still heavily on "compositions" rather than a wider range of genres (quotations from the respective Prefaces). If the primary goal of the students is to pass fairly traditional examinations, then these books may indeed look useful. And I imagine that opinions will also depend on teachers' general philosophy and feelings about teaching writing. Is teaching writing about giving systematic and careful guidance on the use of appropriate rhetorical forms and grammar, or is it about helping students to take into account audience and purpose, and to achieve skill in self-expression and in developing ideas? Most teachers would probably answer "both", of course, but according to what one puts first, so I think one will judge this material one way or the other.

Each book in the series contains ten units, and each of these is planned to cover approximately five hours of classroom time on five separate days--ideally over a one-week period, but possibly over two weeks. The word "practice" in the title is somewhat misleading; this is not simply practice material, but rather teaching material. Each unit is based around a reading text, and there is a controlled series of exercise steps leading from this to the writing task. The steps largely focus on rhetorical organisation and grammatical patterns, though there is a certain amount of vocabulary work. In books 1 and 2 there is heavy use of modelling, using both the reading text and model composition exercises for this purpose. There is a noticeable switch in books 3 and 4 away from the modelling approach for compositions and towards somewhat freer writing tasks, though these are still very directed.

The material is not intended to be a complete language course, obviously; it would form part of a larger teaching programme. And although there is intended to be a progression from one book in the series to the next, it's unlikely that any student would go "straight through" the series without time for linguistic development in between the books. [-1-]

There are notes for the teacher at the beginning of each book giving general guidance in using the materials, though there is no specific guidance on the individual units. There are also brief notes for the student. Then come the work units, moving from reading to writing, with focus on language which is assumed to be useful for the writing exercise coming in between. There are also awareness-building exercises intended to help students see how the example texts are structured. At the end of each unit is a section called "Connecting" which gives instructions for an Internet search on something related to the unit--these exercises being a new feature of this third edition. At the back of each book are three appendices--a list of irregular verb forms, lists of vocabulary in the book with reference numbers to units, and a "skills index"--grammar, usage, mechanics--for the book. None of the reading texts are authentic, at any level; they are carefully constructed to exemplify specific language or rhetorical forms. It's intended that students should write in their books in doing the exercises, and this is presumably why the books are produced relatively cheaply, with no colour printing; nevertheless, the paper is robust and of fairly good quality, so the books shouldn't deteriorate too much even with quite substantial amounts of use in filling in answers, note-making, erasing and crossing out. The compositions themselves are to be written on "8_ x 11 inch loose-leaf notebook paper" with left and right margins (computers, it seems, are OK for Internet searches, but not yet for word processing).

The themes at the lower levels are related to learners of English living in the US, while at upper levels subjects are in areas such as people, the physical world, social issues, the environment, etc. Exercises are generally rather mechanical, with a lot of pattern practice. The actual writing tasks allow for certain pre-writing activities, and the teacher is instructed to use a pattern of idea generation, writing, feedback and (possibly) re-writing. The amount of choice and control which students have in their writing increases at the higher levels. It's suggested that students should mostly do their writing in the classroom, with the teacher on hand to assist as necessary.

Teachers who have used the earlier editions of this series with success will be interested to note that this third edition has a number of new features: new pre-reading and post-reading caption writing exercises, new illustrations, revised and new exercises of various types, and the suggestions mentioned previously for using the Internet as a research tool in writing.

Anne Raimes suggested that ESL students learning to write need "more of everything"--whether in the field of language knowledge or in the field of knowledge of and practice in writing processes. Some students will undoubtedly benefit from the work in this series, especially the security of the systematic pattern practice and of modelling that should help to ensure that they produce compositions of the types requested. Other students may chafe at the restrictions which the materials seem to impose, but in fact there's no way that students can be prevented from being adventurous in their writing if they want to be. Teachers, too, may find this type of material restrictive, but it's always possible to break out of the patterns laid down, and to use or not use all the exercises set. In short, it's always possible to find uses for material of this type. These particular books seem to be carefully constructed, logically designed examples of their genre. [-2-]

That said, I find that I have a number of objections to the series. One set of objections is concerned with what is not covered. The material lacks work on the various genres which students may need if they really want to communicate in writing. At lower levels, it might have been good to include work on genres such as form completion--describing oneself on an application form, or filling in the details of an accident on an insurance report form. There are a couple of exercises in simple letter-writing, but no systematic approach at the higher levels to the various different types of letters that students may need to write, or to writing reports or instructions or any of the other things people might have to produce in a work context. There's little that's explicit on different levels of formality, on adapting writing to writer/reader relationships. There could be a lot more work on vocabulary, though of course it could legitimately be argued that such teaching could be done in the other elements of the students' language course. There could be something about the use of computers in writing; the Internet search exercises are very much an add-on element, and it seems very odd that computer skills that are obviously useful in writing, such as using a computer spell-check or moving elements of text around in revision, are ignored. But perhaps all these objections can be answered by pointing out that the material is geared to passing examinations, not to other sorts of writing, and that the types of text covered--as well as the writing medium and language focus--are selected accordingly.

My other objections, though, are really more personal than anything. I agree that students should take a pride in their work, and not to scribble texts on the backs of envelopes, but presentation is given a level of priority here which does not accord with my own feelings about what is important. I do think that it's important to teach students appropriate rhetorical structure, good use of cohesive devices, and the use of appropriate grammatical structures; but this material places a weight on these things which I find just a little oppressive. I know that students need clear guidance in preparing for examinations, but I believe that even then, teaching can usefully go outside and beyond the patterns of work required in the examination itself. I believe that carefully written models can exemplify certain things very clearly, but I also think authentic examples of text types can make reading more interesting and stimulating, and ultimately more useful, and I feel it would have improved the books to include some genuine texts. In short, I recognise that there's plenty of valuable material in this series, but the whole, as we British really do sometimes say, is not exactly my cup of tea.

There's a lot of personal preference, and even perhaps personal prejudice, in my response to Composition Practice. Do your students need to be able to write traditional compositions? Do you lack material that systematically shows students how to write acceptable texts of this type, and guides them through the production of examples of such texts? Do your students urgently need controlled, repetitive grammar practice to get them using appropriate forms? Then ignore my prejudices. Look at this material. Try it with your students. It may provide just the type of structured work that they need.

Tim Caudery
University of Aarhus

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