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‘What’s It Like?’ by Joanne Collie and Alex Martin, published 2000 by Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-58662-3 (student’s book - 96 pp), 0-521-58661-5 (teacher’s book - 96 pp), 0-521-58660-7 (cassette).

‘Lifestyles: a British studies textbook for the Maturita’ by Joanne Collie, published 2001 by Macmillan Heinemann, ISBN 0-333-93410-5, 70 pp

 "Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the eyes of reasoning animals on Facts: nothing else will be of any service to them. Stick to Facts, Sir!" Thus Charles Dickens’ classic character Thomas Gradgrind in ‘Hard Times’, published in 1854. He (Gradgrind, not Dickens) would doubtless be delighted to know that his spirit lingers on in all too many areas of various Central European education systems. We will return to him a little later.

 It’s not often a reviewer gets the chance to look at and compare two books by the same writer, published within a year of one another, on more or less identical topics, but this is precisely what we have here. Both ‘What’s It Like’ (from now on ‘WIL’) and ‘Lifestyles’ are written by Joanne Collie and stalk the increasingly well-traversed terrain where ELT meets British Cultural Studies. There are, inevitably, similarities, but there are also differences, certainly enough of each to justify a comparative review such as this.

 There appear to be a number of essential notions common to both, either implicitly or (more in the case of WIL - see the introduction to the teacher’s book) explicitly: there is a link between language and culture; this link is well worth exploring in the ELT classroom; there is real pedagogic value in exploring not only the culture of Britain but also the learners’ own culture; there is more to this than the mere absorption of a body of facts; skills such as the ability to analyse data and look at one’s own culture from an outside point of view should be fostered, and the best way of doing this lies through a process of explicit comparison and contrasting. It is how the two books go about this and the target group they are aimed at that makes the comparison between them so interesting.

 WIL (subtitled ‘Life and Culture in Britain Today’) consists of a package of student’s book, teacher’s book, and cassette. It is, we are told, for students from intermediate level upwards. There is no language syllabus as such. Rather, its ten units present a range of aspects of contemporary British life (eg ‘Cultural Diversity’, ‘Education’, ‘Holidays’ and ‘Being Young Today’), and, as the teacher’s book puts it, invite its users to ‘interact with each other in activities designed to make them aware of the context of current British usage and at the same time extend their own language skills’. The term skills should be emphasised here. Both the receptive skills of listening and reading and the productive ones of speaking and writing are practised in every unit.

There is much to admire in this book. It creates a good first impression - the layout, illustrations, colour, and an atmosphere of variety all leap out from the page. Closer acquaintance cements this positive feeling. Two words that consistently come to mind are range - ways of working, voices and views from both ‘inside’ (eg The Times, George Orwell, Roger McGough, Roald Dahl, Scottish teenagers) and ‘outside’ (eg West Indian poet Grace Nichols, fictional Punjabi nine-year-old Meena, Semira from Morocco and Tunji from Nigeria talking about the weather), types of text (poetry, charts and graphs, quotations, extracts from both fiction and non-fiction, even an excerpt from a stage play), and visuals (book and magazine covers, photographs, cartoons, paintings…) and balance - of skills, of facts and impressions, of tradition and modernity, of the expected and less predictable, of youthfulness - many of the topics and voices in the book are of the sort which would appeal to teenagers and young adults - and maturity - there is no sign here of the anodyne MTV/McDonald’s attitudes and language one might fear in a book that deals with contemporary life.

Besides the student’s book, the package also involves a teacher’s book and a cassette. The former includes pretty much what one would expect - a general introduction, methodological advice, tape transcripts, background information about both the linguistic and cultural content of the book (including some useful pointers to what’s in the illustrations), and answer keys, and offers good solid support in all of these areas to the teacher, a vital consideration particularly for those whose first-hand experience of the contemporary UK is limited or, as is often the case, non-existent. Personally, I prefer my teacher’s book interleaved with the student’s book - I hate having to juggle books in class - but that’s just my idiosyncrasy.

The cassette is, I have to say, a bit of a disappointment. This is a field which is ripe for good audio materials. ‘Branching Out’, an otherwise wonderful set of teaching material produced by a group of Bulgarian teachers, was accompanied by a cassette which seemed to have been tacked on as an afterthought and was unaccompanied by any classroom activities; the one which came with ‘Viewpoints’, a Romanian book for final year secondary school students, was directly linked to the book but unfortunately featured such poor sound quality that it was virtually useless, and ‘Lifestyles’, at least at present, lacks this element altogether. The WIL cassette is nicely tied in to the text and there are some good activities to accompany it, but at times it sounds as if it was recorded on the cheap - the section in Unit 6 where young Scots talk about what they do on Saturday nights is a case in point - and the balance between comprehensibility and  authenticity is all too often tilted excessively towards the latter. Better than the competition, I admit, but that’s not much of a compliment; plenty of room for improvement here.

Lifestyles (subtitled ‘A British studies texstbook for the Maturita’) consists, for the moment at least, of just a student’s book and a teacher’s manual, the latter, in my case at least, appearing in the form of a printable file on diskette. It comprises mostly procedural guidelines and answer keys. We are told that further elements should be added later, although it is unclear what and when. Like WIL, it comprises ten units on quite wide topics (eg ‘Family Patterns’, ‘Life in the Classroom’, ‘Food and Eating Patterns’), and is at a broadly intermediate level, though in some ways perhaps rather simpler than WIL. Unlike WIL, though, it does incorporate a very specific syllabus, as both in its approach to language and skills development it aims to train Czech final-year secondary school students in the specific skills required for the Maturita examination, notably the elements of a good oral presentation. In other words, quite a highly specialised book.

Something which often comes up when dealing with Britain (or America, New Zealand or any other English-speaking country) is facts. While there is no shortage of these in either WIL or Lifestyles, if you are looking for the height of Nelson’s Column, the number of female MPs in the Scottish, UK and European Parliaments aged over fifty, or the aggregate weight of the Manchester United first team squad in kilograms, you should probably look elsewhere. The Internet, for instance. Or, better still, you should read ‘Hard Times’ thoroughly and reflect long and hard on its message, perhaps even more relevant now than it was 147 years ago.

Mr Gradgrind would doubtless disapprove of both WIL and Lifestyles. Rather than his beloved facts, they attribute rather greater importance to personal experience and feelings, thought, analysis, and creative responses. A key element of this is that ‘the approach adopted in [these books] is …to take the familiar as a departure point and consistently adopt a comparative, cross-cultural view as students move into less familiar terrain’ (WIL teacher’s book p 4).

While WIL is aimed at a global audience, which means that the familiar, ie the student’s own culture, is never explicitly dealt with, in Lifestyles the Czech element is never far away. It was produced in conjunction with the Centre for Comparative Studies at Palacký University and there was Czech input throughout the writing process; this specific focus means it is well-tailored to the needs of the Czech teachers it is aimed at. Another plus is the fact that many of the positive features noted above with regard to WIL (appearance, variety, a pleasing sense of balance, being up-to-date without being insufferably trendy…) are to be found here as well. Each unit involves reading (newspaper articles and extracts, graphs and statistical tables etc), oral work, research, project work, and an exam skills focus. There’s also an alphabetical vocabulary list at the back. However, while it can function as an effective preparatory course for the maturita in terms of practising the skills it involves, it does not represent a soup-to-nuts manual in terms of content, at least in what is commonly its present form of 25 separate topics; there are, as already stated, only ten units in the book and the topics they deal with overlap to some extent, so that, for instance, there are two in the broad topic area of ‘food and eating’.

So who might these books be useful for? If you don’t teach students preparing for the Czech maturita, the interest of Lifestyles, at least for the time being, would be somewhat limited (although editions aimed at other contexts than the Czech one are said to be in the offing). If you do, on the other hand, then  you would do well to have a good look at it. WIL, on the other hand, is perhaps better for teachers whose students have already achieved a reasonable level of linguistic competence and who are looking for meaningful content to stimulate them with; obvious contexts of use that come to mind would include conversation classes, language schools, and general language development classes (as well as perhaps ‘cultural background studies’ classes) at universities, not just in the Czech Republic but elsewhere too.

Both books are attractive, varied, informative, and potentially stimulating, both in their content and in the methodological approaches they espouse. A real improvement on so many of the dull but worthy fact-driven dry horrors that have preceded them. I’m still waiting for a good audio tape, though…

This review first appeared on CETEFL-L on April 17 2001

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