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Viewpoints, Black Cat Publishing. Reviewed by Diana England, IH Torres Vedras

Overview

“A radically new approach to studying the culture of English-speaking countries around the world.” This is how Blackcat  publishers (www.backcat-cideb.com) are promoting their new coursebook.  The course materials consist of student’s book, with audio and DVD materials, with downloadable activities to accompany the DVD lessons (which I did not sample), plus a teacher’s book.  It’s aimed at ‘high-school’ students, perhaps especially those learning in international schools or bilingual settings.

The Student’s Book

The book is divided into ten units, plus a section of Fact Files designed to give students detailed information on English-speaking countries.  Each unit starts with an extract taken from a well-known nineteenth or twentieth century literary classic.  Some words from the extract are highlighted and these serve to introduce topics related to the themes of: science and technology, media and society, environment, language and education, homes, leisure and travel (although not all are covered in each unit).  For example, Unit 5 starts with a short passage from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and from the highlighted words: ‘soup’, ‘kings and queens’, ‘game’, educations’ the following themes are explored: Special Days with Special Foods, the structure of British Society, Very British Sports, Language and Education.

The issues that are covered within the units are varied, but focus mainly on Britain, Ireland and the United States (for reasons which are not made clear).  The Fact Files at the end of the student’s book look at other English-speaking parts of the world, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.  These short sections contain an extract of a novel by a famous author from one of these nations, a ‘fast facts’ box, a listening or reading text that talks about things a visitor can see and do there, a ‘Did you know?’ section, and a history time line.   It is perhaps a shame that so much space was given over to Britain, Ireland and the United States in the main part of the student’s book, at the expense of these other English-speaking countries, given their equally rich cultural heritage.

The reading texts that tease out the cultural themes are specially written, as are the listening texts, and there is a variety of while and post-reading/listening tasks.  The reading texts would be suitable for intermediate to upper intermediate students, but the delivery of the listening texts can be quite laboured, which could be a source of irritation for some students of this level. The speaking and writing activities are often quite thought-provoking and challenging , but there is  very little help (either in the student’s book or in the teachers’ book) as to how these could be exploited, not to mention linguistic  or  stylistic features that would need to be worked on, so much of the type of  planning required is left to the teacher knowing his or her own students’ strengths and needs.

The Teachers’ Book

As well as containing the keys to the coursebook tasks, the back of the book contains biographical information on the authors of the extracts selected in the student’s book.  There is scant guidance for teachers in terms of exploiting and managing the materials, unfortunately.  There is a double-page of advice on ‘the use of new technologies in foreign language teaching’, but seems rather obvious and not at all tied in to the materials used in the student’s book.  The authors suggest generic tools, such as podcasts, which are easily downloadable from the net, but they could have provided a list of sites that teachers and students could go to in order to find out more about specific English-speaking countries or aspects of culture.  Given the central issue is looking at different cultures and the age group at which the book is aimed, I would have expected to see more input from the authors within the teachers’ book on managing potential issues, such as what ‘culture’ is, how helpful or dangerous stereotyping can be, and how ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ are not fixed, but ever-changing and developing.

Overall Conclusion

I don’t see this as a course that a class would work through from beginning to end; more a set of materials that could be dipped into to be used as a springboard for other work, such as setting up project work, class discussions, providing factual information.  The way the student’s book has exploited the initial extracts, with photos and accompanying questions to develop comprehension, does help students to enjoy these classic texts.  It is rather a shame that they have not included any more recent classics, or those by authors who are not necessarily “WASPs” (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants), but whose heritage is a mix of two cultural backgrounds, such as Amy Tan (an American whose family originally came from China).  So ‘radically new approach’? I’m not so sure.

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