Vol. 1. No. 3 — March 1995
J & J Language Readers, Levels I, II, III
Jane Fell Greene and Judy Fell Woods. (1992)
Longmont, CO: Sopris West, Inc.
US $49.00 per set of 36 books
Note from the Book Review Editor: The following is one of four reviews written by students in a Practicum in ESL course at the University of Idaho. An endnote, written by the instructor, explains the goals of the course and the procedures for writing the reviews.
Yes, you can judge these books by their covers. The covers, with drawings of two people, Sam and Tam at bat, show about all there is to these books. The language is not only dated, but senseless, accompanied by simplistic illustrations.
These paperbacks are organized in three levels; blue for beginners, green for intermediate, and purple for more advanced readers. The units also correspond to age levels, with the stories in the lower level units being more interesting to a six-year old, while those in the higher level units might be of interest to a thirteen-year old. There are three stories in the blue level books, two stories in the green texts, and one in the purple. Stories gain in length as readers gain ability. Each story begins with a summary. This is beneficial because it is otherwise difficult to make sense out of some of the stories. After each story there are three activity sections: Vocabulary Expansion, Language Expansion Activities, and Language Expansion Questions.
These texts, although well intended, have many weaknesses. The vocabulary is not current; in fact, children today probably would not recognize the words “rap” (in the sense of talking), “hip” (being cool), and “rig” (a vehicle). Even an educated native speaker might not be able to explain “gumshoes.” At times the vocabulary is socially incorrect and insulting, as when a young boy calls a nurse a “gal” and when someone jokingly asks another person “What, are you deaf?”
The content matter of these stories is also questionable. Some of the topics are inappropriate, and others are presented in such a way that the reader would have a hard time identifying with them in real life. Here is an example of three pages from the story “Nick is Back” in the blue level:
“The fat cat had a Big Mac” said Sam.
“Sis bit the fat cat,” said Tam.
“Sis is bad.” “Sis can run. Sis can tag Kim,” Pat said.
“Nick I am Pat.”
Nick said, “Pat, I am Nick. I am back. I can run. I can rap.
I am a fan of The Rat Pack.” [-1-]
This is confusing. Cats do not eat Big Macs and people do not usually bite cats. Aside from more complex language, the stories in the higher levels do not improve; in fact they have the power to be psychologically damaging. One story (“The Weight of the World”), about death, divorce, fighting and bad grades, is as depressing as the title suggests. Another story is about a group of girls who want more than anything else to be cheerleaders. Tam says how she dreads performing with her “flabby legs.” The girls set up a health club so they can be in shape by the next week. A children’s reader should not be instilling the ideas that cheerleaders are the most popular and desirable group to be a part of or that only thin women are acceptable. These ideas are not only unrealistic but also dangerous to developing self-images.
Sometimes illustrations can make up for what is lacking in text, but not in these books. With the technology available today to color and illustrate children’s books, it surprises me to see the use of black and white sketches throughout all of the books. The illustrations are very basic, generally only of the characters. Besides being simplistic, some are quite depressing. In “The Weight of the World” 11 out of 12 character drawings are of angry people, frustrated and frowning. In this case the illustrations do mirror the sad text. Illustrations should serve in a more positive way by enhancing the text and making the reader interested in reading the story.
Aside from depending on the text and illustrations for learning a concept, activities can be lessons in themselves. The Language Expansion activities have some good ideas, such as role playing and community involvement, but fail when they ask the lowest level reader, presumably a six- or seven-year old, to “sculpt a bicycle” and “write a letter,” activities that they probably would not succeed at.
The Language Expansion Questions at the end of each story are the one positive aspect of these books. They review chains of events as well as relate general topics in the stories to the students’ real lives and knowledge. They could be useful for spurring conversation. The questions alone cannot redeem these books, however. The questions lose their value without interesting stories, pictures, and vocabulary as support.
All of these weaknesses add up to severely affect the authenticity of these books. The authors’ attempts at trying to use authentic language, such as calling talk “rap,” fall short by being a few generations behind the times. The stories also need to be more interesting and have more relevance to the lives of children today rather than trying to use cute rhymes that do not make sense. Nobody I know “bats mats!” Overall these books are boring, offensive and contain confusing vocabulary. These texts are not appropriate for any ESL classroom. [-2-]
University of Idaho
Hands-on teacher education: Book reviews in the ESL practicum
The goal of the Practicum in English as a Second Language at the University of Idaho is to prepare participants to assume responsibilities in a variety of areas of TESOL. These responsibilities include administration, curriculum and syllabus design, materials and resource development, classroom practice (methods and techniques), and assessment and evaluation. One concrete objective for the course is for participants to be able to make educated recommendations for and actual choices of classroom materials. To this end, during the practicum participants are [-2-] exposed to a variety of textbooks and other ESL resources. Building on discussions of optimal classroom language learning environments, and with a list of possible issues to address, participants are assigned to choose any three texts/resources to evaluate; they then prepare written reviews of these materials. Following examples/ guidelines published by journals in the field, graduate students in the class must then prepare one of the three reviews for publication. The reviews are revised as many times as necessary for clarity, content, and structure. The review intended for publication is then submitted to the appropriate journal; however, the course grade does not depend on whether or not the review is actually accepted for publication.
This activity reinforces for participants in the practicum the value of a broad overview of available resources and the importance of sharing ideas with colleagues. As a result of the assignment’s unfamiliarity, participants learn the necessity for organization and planning that is crucial to ESL professionals. The result of this assignment, as seen below, is a diverse set of informative text reviews; they are written in different styles and concern a variety of content. Most importantly, this assignment has given the course participants encouragement to become involved in professional activities and has initiated the growth of their professional identities.
University of Idaho
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