Vol. 8. No. 4 R-4 March 2005
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What Makes America Tick? A Multiskill Approach to English through U.S. Culture and History

Wendy Ashby (2003)
Ann Arbor, MI. The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xiii + 169
ISBN 0-472-08883-1 (paper)

One of the most endearing aspects of teaching English to non-native speakers of English language is materials and curriculum development. The materials used in second language acquisition classrooms are very significant because they often serve as a mechanism to enhance critical think skills and galvanize students' interests in the learning process (Freire, 1970). As a result, many English as a second language (ESL) professionals have developed a series of materials that could be used to teach English to non-native speakers of English language.

Wendy Ashby's book, What Makes America Tick? A Multiskill Approach to English through U.S. Culture and History was designed primarily for intermediate and advanced ESL students. The title of the book is very intriguing. The elusive question, What Makes America Tick? is an idiomatic expression which "refers to old-fashioned watches that made a ticking sound" (p. xi). Based on this notion, it is believed that there are certain cultural and historical events that make "the average U.S. American citizen think, feel, and operate" in a specific manner (p. xi). As a result, non-native speakers of English language who are not familiar with the history and culture of the United States might begin to think that the author has substantial information to reveal about the United States. This curiosity and excitement is an intrinsic part of epistemological discovery which often motivates students to read and actively participate in the learning process.

The first chapter of the book describes the transformation of the U.S. American society. These changes include the influx of immigrants in the 20th century, urbanization, the emergence of large industries, the concomitant poor working conditions, the status of women and the cry for social reforms. In the second chapter, the author uses readings to explore World War I, the reasons the United States was involved in the war, the booming economy and the policy of isolationism. Equally discussed are the rebirth of theater, literature, art and the emergence of Jazz which eventually "swept through the country" (p. 30). Then, when the stock market crashed, many Americans were unemployed. As the book indicates, this period became known as the Great Depression. When Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was elected President in 1932, he worked with Congress to approve many projects which eventually helped Americans cope with the adverse economic problems. Other selections in this chapter include the creation of The National Park Service and The Social Security Debate. In Chapter 3, the author discusses the aftermath of World War II, which was characterized by an extended consumer culture and the emergence of the United States as a superpower. Then, in Chapter 4, the book focuses on discrimination, desegregation and the demand for equality and civil rights. This was immediately followed by Rock 'n' Roll, Sex and Drugs in Chapter 5. Also, in Chapter 6, the author describes the United States in the Cold War era, McCarthy, and the Vietnam War. This chapter also features captivating Vietnam War-related poems. Chapter 7 essentially focuses on women and the feminist movement in the 1970s. Finally, in Chapter 8, the book outlines the issues of unity and diversity in the 21st century.

Beside these selections, the book is well illustrated with captivating pictures and thoughtful activities. For example, in the last activity in Chapter 1, the author provides ample opportunity for students to reflect and write on important issues that have struck them in their readings. Then, the students are required to discuss these issues in a small group format. This approach provides opportunities for students to think critically, practice writing, and engage in communicative activities with their classmates and their instructor. [-1-]

I agree with the perception that language and culture are intrinsically interwoven because it is very difficult to learn a new language without learning the culture of the target language (Brown, 2000; Gardner, 1979; Schumann, 1986). Based on the topics discussed in the text, it is difficult for students to read this book without learning a lot about the culture and history of the United States. As a result, I think this book is a huge success. I strongly recommend it for language teachers who want their students to learn more about the culture and history of the United States.

In addition, I was very intrigued by the way the author strived to provide opportunities for students to learn new words. In every chapter, the author reviewed important words relevant to the readings. In second language classrooms, vocabulary acquisition is very significant (Krashen, 1982). As students learn new words, they add new vocabulary to their repertoire.

However, given the nature of the topic, instructors need to be sure that it fits the needs and interests of the students. Because the book deals exclusively with American issues, teachers might feel the need to supplement this text with other materials with which students could more easily identify, outside of the American context.

By and large, this book is a very interesting ESL book. It not only provides ample opportunities for ESL students to study the culture and history of the United States, it creates opportunities to learn new words and ideas relevant to the culture it explores. In this regard, I highly recommend it for ESL instructors and students who are interested in learning more about the culture and history of the United States. However, based on the idea that ESL instruction must be informed by the interests and needs of the learners, I suggest that this text should not be used as the "only book" in ESL classrooms.


Brown, H.D. (2000). Principles of language learning and teaching (4th edition.). White Plains, NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Press.

Gardner, R.C. (1979). Social psychological aspects of second language acquisition. In H. Giles & R.N. St. Clair (Eds.), Language and social psychology (pp. 193 220). Baltimore: University Park Press.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. New York: Pergamon Press.

Schumann, J.H. (1986). Research on the acculturation model for second language acquisition. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 7(5), pp. 379-392.

Victor I. Ikpia
Department of Teacher Education
Cleveland State University,

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