What follows is some book reviews of popular/common titles easily found in Korea that are focused on discussion. I originally wrote them as a sort of market research on the kinds of books that exist so the tone might be a bit different than usual on this blog.
1) Small Group Discussion Topics for University Students
Jack Martine, Pusan National University Press
This book is admirable in some regards. It seems to be an attempt to bring global issues to Korean university students. Issues like poverty, euthanasia, human cloning, human rights, and global warming are examples of this global perspective. There are also less serious topics like choosing a mate, superstitions, the Internet, and fast food. Each chapter features a written text that describes and explains the issues related to a certain topic. The topics are generally interesting, motivating, and aligned with what Korean university students would like to and feel they need to talk about in English. A related positive point is that even when focused on global issues the book the focus is brought back to Korea and gives students a chance to think and talk about their own country and culture. However, the author occasionally paints a somewhat negative and condescending picture of Korea that might have the unanticipated effect of causing students to shut down. This is one of the main drawbacks of this popular book. In my view the main drawback is not the potentially inflammatory viewpoints expressed but the fact that there are no activities for students to do other than ask and answer questions. Each unit has a reading and is followed by, “Discussion Questions” that are vaguely and just tangentially related to the topic. While the questions might be interesting and might promote discussion they do little else. An experienced and skillful teacher could certainly exploit the text and questions in interesting and motivating ways but the text as written provides a very limited opportunity for practicing fluency. The language focus of the book appears in the margins where words and phrases used in the texts are highlighted. There are also “usage clinic” sections where the usage of certain phrases are shown. The main thrust of the book is fluency practice of the “discuss these questions with your partner” type. Small Group Discussion Topics for University Studentsis described on the front cover as, “A modern approach to fluency in English” I am left wondering how really modern it is.
2) Conversation Strategies
David Kehe, Peggy Dustin Kehe, Prolingua Associates
Conversation Strategies, is a popular book that aims to help teachers create student-centered lessons in which students develop their conversation skills. A wide variety of skills are covered, including beginning and ending a conversation, clarifying, interrupting and getting attention, rephrasing, correcting, escaping from a conversation, eliciting information, summarizing, and repairing a conversation. These are all very useful skills to have and the book deftly incorporates them into a smorgasbord of communicative activities. The activities are generally easy for teachers to implement and are clearly targeted at a specific skill. The activities make great use of pair and group work by creating information and opinion gaps that need to be addressed through communication. The book has obvious strengths, but a possible weakness is that the activities and units do not really blend together to look and feel like a cohesive book. Perhaps the book is best used as a supplement when students demonstrate the need for or request practice with specific speaking skills. Some tasks are much more applicable to the needs of Korean students than others, which might again be reason to use this book as a supplement rather than as the main textbook in a conversation course. It might just be a personal preference but I can imagine students and teachers becoming bored with always seeing the target language presented at the start of each activity. Similarly, it might be very easy for both teachers and students to forget that communication is of the utmost importance because of the prominence given to the specific phrases in each section. The tasks are generally well-designed but do not offer much in the way of support for teachers using the book. Because of its strengths Conversation Strategies is a book that belongs on the shelf of any conversation teacher.
3) Active Skills for Communication
Chuck Sandy and Curtis Kelly, Cengage Learning
Active Skills for Communication takes a unique approach to language practice in that each unit builds towards a final speaking activity, or challenge. Examples of these final speaking activities include interviews, presentations, games, discussions and role-plays. The active, learner-centered, goal and strategy oriented approach offers a great deal to both teachers and students. The scaffolding provided by the models and activities building up to the final tasks are quite impressive and helpful. The units are well-organized in that they begin with a schemata activating warm-up, follow with a preview of the final speaking task, move into focus on the language that might be helpful for the speaking task, review what has been learned thus far, then focus specifically on specific strategies to aid fluency with an eye toward the upcoming challenge, and finally end with the challenge. As a result of working through the unit in sequence students should be much more prepared for the final speaking challenge by the end of the unit. The book employs a sensible and logical approach that should be very useful to help students work their way towards the challenge. A potential problem is that the activities might lead students to believe that the final speaking task is nothing more than the sum of the parts that are explored in the units. Also, the “language focus” sections could distract from the overall goal of improving fluency. Another concern is that challenges, while related to fluency, are not exactly conversations in that they can take the form of more transactional interactions like simply inviting someone to a party. Tasks like this don’t really provide students with chances to improve their fluency in the sense that fluency means speaking freely because the tasks are occasionally limited in terms of the language that can come out of them. These quibbles do not mean that this book is anything less than a very useful and helpful book for improving students’ communication skills.
4) Discussion Tactics
Phillip Suthons, Macmillan
This book attempts to bring the skills and procedures of discussions to low-intermediate students. This attempt is done in a unique way. Many books focus on language first and then give chance for students to express themselves. In Discussion Tactics there is a heavy emphasis on the structure of conversations. In fact, the first three units are dedicated to the parts of a discussion and a review of how to have a conversation. This emphasis might not be justified because students clearly already know how to have conversation in their own language and too much emphasis on how to have an American or British style conversation might not be culturally appropriate. With that said, it is interesting to note that this book focuses on South Korea in many of the examples. This could prove to be motivating for students because it feels much closer to home. One obvious drawback of the book is that the time spent on tasks like deciding whether certain assumptions are logical, general, or controversial might be better spent actually talking about the issues. Throughout the book, students are expected to first think about what they mean and then consider how to put into words. This again, differs from the approach followed in many books where language is supplied prior to communication. The stated goal of the book is to “give students the ability to stay what they want to say.” (iv) Great emphasis is placed on personal meaning rather than just language proficiency, which is refreshing step. Additionally, the author expresses the laudable goal of helping students become comfortable with ambiguity and become confident considering and experimenting with new ideas. The author expresses in the introduction and shows through the flow of activities that he doesn’t believe in interaction for interaction’s sake but instead interaction for the purpose of generating ideas that can motivate and help students achieve their goals in English. From my view, more interaction would be a step in the right direction for a book that is bold enough not to focus on the minutia of language but simply seems to exchange that focus to a focus on the minutia of the structure of conversations. Discussion Tactics gives the impression that it could be useful book with the right class and teacher but the emphasis on the structure of conversations might leave many wanting actual conversations at a much earlier stage than planned for in this book. While a generally a useful book, it might require quite a bit of ingenuity from the teacher.
5) Conversation Inspirations
Nancy Ellen Zelman, Prolingua Associates
Designed to give students something to talk about in English, Conversation Inspirations provides a great deal of questions, situations, and statements to converse about and practice English with. The author claims that the book contains more than 2,000 conversation topics, but it is a bit difficult to verify that claim because some things that are considered topics might appear to other to be nothing more than a mini-role play. Role plays can be very helpful tools for practicing English, but they are simply different from topics. Actually, just under half of the book is role-play situations, in alphabetical order. The other sections of the book are interviews, talks, group creativity, and discussions. Talks are a collection of options for impromptu or planned speeches for students to give in small groups or in front of the entire class. The group creativity section is intended to have students use English to work and think creatively. This book delivers on its promise to provide students and teachers with chances for lively interactions in English. The situations and topics introduced are certainly fun, interesting and motivating. This book seems like a wonderful supplementary resource for teachers that are stuck trying to think about situations to give their students to ensure interactions in English. Conversation Inspirations gives a variety of great ideas to exploit the situations given. Additionally, it offers suggestions and ideas to the teacher related to error correction and classroom organization. It is easy to imagine a teacher using this book to liven up a speaking class. It is much more difficult to imagine this book being the main book for a conversation or discussion class.