November 1997 — Volume 3, Number 1
Traveling Through Idioms: An Exercise Guide to the World of American Idioms
Judi Kadden (1996)
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xviii + 166
ISBN 0-472-08354-6 (paper)
US $17.95; UK £14.95
One problem that faces ESL teachers is how to help students practice their speaking skills. Meaningful discussion topics are hard to find. Some books use controversial topics to initiate discussions, but with a mixed international student body, this can be uncomfortable and even unpleasant. Kadden’s book is a non-controversial solution to the problem.
Traveling Through Idioms: An Exercise Guide to the World of American Idioms, begins with an introduction to the teacher and then one to the students. The chapters begin with a postcard from an ESL teacher about each of the ten cities she visits, including Boston, Chicago, Miami, Seattle, and San Francisco. Each postcard contains some common idioms, such as hang out, grab a bite, and to put it mildly. There are about a dozen different exercises for the students, repeated in each chapter, with many additional ideas for teachers for enrichment activities.
A list of the titles of some of the exercises will give an idea of the types of activities suggested. Some of these are familiar, some quite clever and innovative. They include: Passing Through Customs, Unpacking Your Luggage, Meeting New People, Changing the Itinerary, Going for a Job Interview, and Waiting for a Bus. The first is a paired exercise introducing the new idioms and generating questions; the last gives students practical suggestions on how to initiate conversations with Americans while waiting in lines, in doctors’ offices, or in elevators. Other exercises focus on definitions, matching idiom fragments, substitutions, scrambled sentences, schema activation, and comprehension tests. Kadden has used these exercises in her ESL classes over the years, and they are obviously well-tested and refined from feedback by her students and colleagues.
There is an extensive glossary, as well as an answer key and two review chapters. All the chapters reflect a great deal of cultural diversity. One goal of the book, says Kadden, is to develop a continuing respect for diversity through variation. Food is used in every chapter to help accomplish this, although I suspect many natives of the United States haven’t heard of a few of the dishes mentioned, such as uni (San Francisco), beignets (New Orleans), and tiramisu (New York City). A plus for the book are the excellent color pictures in each chapter. In addition, simple cartoon drawings add to the variety of the lessons. [-1-]
Each chapter addresses aspects of interpersonal relationships, such as spending time with friends, trying new foods, and overcoming fears. Kadden counsels teachers to emphasize oral and aural work since idioms are most frequently used in speech rather than in writing. Even in exercises where writing space is offered, says Kadden, instructors should give the students a chance to present their work orally.
While the primary goal of the book is to assist students in becoming fluent in the idiom-packed language Americans use every day, there are many writing exercises as well. Don’t be put off by those; as Kadden says, they can be adapted to oral exercises. The book can be used equally well for written exercises or for practicing speaking skills. In a discussion class, I would much prefer to use this book rather than a text with the controversial-topic approach (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, discrimination). Travel to new places is a generally safe topic, and one with which international students are familiar and comfortable.
One question I have about this book concerns the choice of idioms. I would have liked the idioms to have been taken from common idioms used in TOEFL exams, since most of my students are very worried about getting scores on the TOEFL high enough to move on in life, whether it be entering university work or going on to graduate school. Those common idioms, such as jump to conclusions, play it safe, and out of the question, seem to me more appropriate then the ones included, and could be adapted easily to the pattern of postcards from American cities in Kadden’s book.
The text seems to be designed for intermediate and advanced-intermediate students of English as a second language. It is suitable for students enrolled in pre-university or university programs and adults in professional or adult education courses. The book’s completeness makes it readily adaptable for use in classrooms overseas.
It is this completeness that is the book’s strength as well as its weakness. If I were to take only a few books with me to teach English overseas, this would be one I would choose. There are enough exercises and lessons for a good year of activities that would be profitable in learning American English idioms. The weakness is that the teacher must adapt the lessons and ideas. This book is a starting point for classroom activities, mostly teacher-directed. In spite of the word exercise in its name, it is not a workbook. It is, as a close reading of the title will reveal, a guide to exercises. The teacher will find that this book is excellent; it is a wonderful resource, and little extra material is needed. But–and it is a large caution–the teacher will need to spend some serious preparation time to make this book work in the classroom. It lends itself to adaptation, but it must be adapted. With proper advance planning, this book can be a joy to use. Students will be happy, [-2-] discussions of safe topics will be generated, and affective barriers can be lowered. With the one caution understood, I highly recommend this book.
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
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Editor’s Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work. [-3-]