July 1999 — Volume 4, Number 1
Writing Together: A Project for Team Research
Anthology for Writing Together
Andrea G. Osborne and Sylvia S. Mulling (1998)
Michigan: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xiii + 196 (course book); pp. 69 (anthology)
ISBN 0-472-08526-3 (paper); 0-472-08527-1 (paper)
US $19.95; UK £15.50 (course book only)
US $24.95; UK £18.95 (two-book set; ISBN 0-472-08461-5)
This two-book set is, to quote from the brief “To the Teacher” section, “intended to teach high-intermediate to advanced ESL/EFL students to do research and write research papers by having them actually do research and writing in the area of second language acquisition” (p. xi; all page references are to the course book). And, indeed, for ESL students who need to learn about research methods, this could be an excellent course. Focusing on second language acquisition as a research topic, on the grounds that this is an area likely to be of interest to all ESL/EFL students, and one to which the students will bring some relevant background knowledge through their own experience of language learning, the materials provide a detailed, step-by-step plan for preparing, conducting and writing up an empirical research project. Students are given help in areas such as forming research hypotheses, reading academic texts, conducting empirical research, and reporting research results. The separate anthology contains one simplified text and three full-length research articles to read and to draw on for the literature survey part of the report.
Practical areas covered in the material include note taking, the concept of plagiarism, problems of group collaboration, computer searches, writing processes, basic statistical analysis, . . . the list is long and impressive. The actual research area for the project is strategies used by foreign learners for guessing unknown words in texts. This area is well chosen as it is one where comprehending the basic issues is relatively straightforward, and where students are likely to have access to suitable volunteers to act as research subjects. Students are given sufficient background information about languages and language learning in general, and about meaning guessing strategies in particular, to be able to tackle a project within this research field. In this, as in other elements of the course, students learn through carefully structured exercises. [-1-]
It is not obvious why the materials in the Anthology volume have been published separately, giving the rather misleading impression that they are an optional supplement. It is true that two of the articles in the anthology are available elsewhere, but the research report written by the two book authors (in both “simplified” and “authentic” forms) is not, and one of the two published articles is interspersed in the anthology with various reading aids. The main course book indicates at which point students should read these articles, and provides some exercises linked to them. Teachers using the course would therefore be well advised to ask their students to buy the complete set of materials. Note, however, that it is made clear that students can also find and refer to other relevant articles, using the techniques for materials search described in the book.
This is a very thorough course. It is well thought through, both in terms of the individual activities and the general course plan. The authors seem to have done all they can to ensure that as many details as possible are covered. They even provide carefully tailored, photocopiable forms to enable the teacher to provide feedback to the students on various exercises simply by ticking relevant items. Here, the writers are perhaps being too thorough. On the one hand, by providing a selection of quite detailed comments (with no space on the forms for elaboration), it seems almost as if they regard the teacher as something of a ventriloquist’s dummy, not to be allowed too much independent thought or action in writing feedback; and on the other hand, since they cannot possibly work out in full all potentially relevant comments for the exercises, some of those provided are too general to be of much help to students.
It is important to note that, as is made clear in the quotation at the beginning of this review, this is not an English language course; it is a course in academic research skills designed for speakers of English as a second language, and it should be used with students who need just such a course. The most immediately obvious result of ESL/EFL students being the target audience is in the choice of the research field selected for investigation. The learning gradient of the course is, perhaps, adjusted somewhat to take account of the learners having English as their second language, but much of the language of the book itself is not noticeably much simpler than that which might be found in courses on academic study skills for students with English as their first language. Some terminology is presented and explicitly practised in exercises, but the terms selected for such detailed presentation are those that would be new to anyone unfamiliar with academic research. There are no “language practice exercises” or the like. This does not mean that ESL/EFL students will not benefit in terms of language improvement through doing the course, but it does mean that it is most suitable for students who are not familiar with research methods, or even to a large extent with general methods of academic study. Students who need to improve their academic English language skills, but for whom academic research methods and techniques are familiar territory from university study in their home country, might consequently find parts of this course frustrating. [-2-]
As a teacher, I was irritated by certain aspects of the teaching style of the book. The two writers place themselves very much to the fore; they address the reader directly throughout, engaging in a one-sided dialogue with students that often seems to leave the teacher in the background, even in areas such as class management. Of course, there is a balance to be struck here, and I would not claim for a moment that direct address to the reader is inappropriate in a course book–but I do find it irksome to discover an exercise followed by “Check your answers to the exercise with another student. How did the two of you do? Did you get most of the terms correct?” (p. 13). A feature that will make students and teachers even more overtly aware of the authors is the frequent inclusion of “e-mail dialogues” between the two of them, these being supposedly (and perhaps genuinely, at least in part) conducted during the writing of the book. In these chatty exchanges, Osburne and Mulling compare views on topics such as using computers for library searches, as well as debating what to put in each chapter of the book. These dialogues are intended “to give students a peek behind the scenes into the process of writing an EFL/ESL textbook, . . . make the tasks they are asked to complete more comprehensible, . . . [and provide them] with a model of the pair/group writing process” (p. xi). The approach is certainly unusual; whether teachers and students consider it refreshing and helpful, or as placing unwelcome and intrusive emphasis on the personalities of the writers, will be a matter of individual taste.
However, there’s an easy riposte to such criticisms: if I don’t like the style of the book, I can always go out and write my own course on research methods. I have to admit that it would be a long job, and the final result would almost certainly be less good than this one. The quality and quantity of the materials certainly outweigh any reservations I might have about the presentation. And as for those ventriloquised feedback forms–well, no one is forced to use them.
University of Aarhus, Denmark
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