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Today, more than ever before, the art of evaluating materials, extracts or textbooks is increasingly gaining currency as an important strategy in the teaching and learning process. Teachers are often required to evaluate, select, and adapt teaching materials to not only meet their teaching and students’ learning requirements, but also to optimise learning potentials (Allwright1981; Sheldon 1988).
In this light, the present paper evaluates several English extracts with the view to synthesising the positives and negatives. The main components to be evaluated include vocabulary, reading, speaking and writing, listening, as well as pronunciation.
The activity on vocabulary discusses options by attempting to find and pair two sentences containing similar meanings with a sentence in the boxed section. The utilisation of boxed sentences attracts the students’ attention to the vocabulary exercise and directs their input to the activity under study.
The requirement to identify two sentences containing similar meanings with one of the boxed sentences can be termed as a form of deliberate learning which can readily transfer to communicative erudition (Nation 2003). The pairing of the sentences is quite involving to learners as they must understand the meanings of the two sentences to be able to pair them with a sentence in the boxed section.
As such, the activity is effective in assisting students to learn and internalise vocabularies owing to the fact that learners remain active participants in the learning process. Additionally, the exercise is effective as it assumes a planned approach to vocabulary development in terms of understanding which words and vocabularies can be used to replace others in a sentence and still get the same meaning.
The activity is likely to make a strong contribution to the learning of various vocabularies as students rely on matching and generative use of sentences to pair them in order to achieve similar meaning. Although no incidental learning is likely to occur, the students will nevertheless benefit from information transfer through answering questions that extend the meaning or use of words in the text and also through deliberate attention to vocabulary (Nation 2003).
The form of matching words with definitions is also likely to be of immense benefit to students undertaking this activity. Furthermore, this exercise is bound to assist students in finding common meanings of sentences, choosing the right meaning, as well as undertaking semantic feature analysis.
However, although the exercise exemplifies a student-centred approach to learning vocabulary, it nevertheless encourages the propensity to concentrate on individual words rather than on overall meanings of the sentences in question.
The process of pairing students and requiring them to remember two expressions with similar meanings reinforces the belief that social interaction is the basis of learning and development as demonstrated in the sociocultural theory. It also underscores the importance of internalisation as a vehicle for transforming learning from the social to the cognitive plane (Lavadenzi 2010).
The exercise provides students with an enabling environment to transit from word-level learning to phrase-level learning. A good understanding of phrase-level learning will assist learners to graduate to intermediate-level learning by exposing them to new vocabulary definitions and uses. However care needs to be taken to ensure that learners using this approach develop the capacity to use the context of the sentences to decode meaning (Larsen-Freeman 2000).
The reading extract titled “Hello, Class, I am the 16-Year-Old Head” and the ensuing questions are instrumental in developing students’ creative and critical thinking skills. For example, the question requiring students to use the title of the extract and the picture to tell a partner what they would like to find out in the rest of the extract is instrumental in assisting students to develop innovative and critical thinking capabilities.
In the words of Masuhara (2003), such a question is important as it facilitates the development of high-level cognitive skills during reading activities. The use of visualisations during the reading activity activates the students’ schema and encourages them to form mental representations of the text for ease of understanding (Bress 2008).
However, although the title of the extract demonstrates simplification and contrivance, the pictures are not labelled and hence students may end up having a different interpretation than what is intended. The question requiring students to provide a guess about the contents of the extract is useful in assisting them to develop reading skills such as skimming and scanning.
Such a question, according to Masuhara (2003), can be used to develop the students’ capacity to discover the main ideas and concepts of a reading/text by looking at the title and reading the first paragraph. This is what experts refer to as skimming. Additionally, such a question can be used to develop the students’ capacity to scan in terms of looking down and around a page quickly and efficiently with the view to searching for significant words, facts or phrases.
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These words or phrases can then be utilised to find context-specific information (Bress 2008). However, the first question of the extract may ignite problems of grammar, syntax, as well as discourse structures. The questions immediately after the extract are designed to assist students to develop a deeper understanding about the contents of the reading.
The extract is instrumental in assisting students to yield to important teaching points, including vocabulary and syntax development, structure memorisation, and identification of signposts to demonstrate the structural arrangement of the text (Masuhara 2003). Overall, it is evident that reading the extract can assist students to develop critical awareness (looking at the text objectively to find out what the author is actually trying to say) and comprehension (understanding the purpose and function of the text, and also the core topic and how this is developed from one paragraph to another).
It can also help students to develop flexibility (reading the text in different ways and at different speeds with the view to fulfilling a number of purposes) and context (selecting relevant information and weighing up evidence and arguments with the view to picking out the major points from the mass of detail and evaluating their importance).
Speaking and Writing
The extract on speaking (Don and Carrie, and also Alex and Liz) shows that the participants are able to achieve a communicative objective through speaking. This is because they are able to demonstrate a fair knowledge of the English language as well as the skill needed to use this knowledge (Carter & McCarthy 1997; Dat 2003).
Indeed, both speaking activities that form the extract are designed to be communicative as they are conducted in pairs and are deeply personalised. However, there is an overuse of the filler sounds “Erm” and “Er”. Although these filler sounds demonstrate that speaking activities are highly personalised, they may be misconstrued to mean or symbolise other things when exposed to non-native speakers.
On a lighter note, however, these filler sounds and hesitation devices have been credited for facilitating oral production and also for enabling speakers to take time to reflect on the words they employ in a conversational setup (Vilimec 2006). It is worth mentioning that the speaking activity between Don and Carrie is initiated upon reading a brochure on Portuguese culture.
Research is consistent that students can develop their speaking skills through reading (Mart 2012), and that nurturing improvements in word knowledge and vocabulary development through broad reading has the potential for nurturing improvement in speaking skills (Carter & McCarthy 1997; Dat 2003).
However, although the fluency of the speaking activities can be termed as standard, there appears to be a lack of clarity of thought and inaccuracy of structural discourse. The speakers also seem to overuse filler sounds as a strategy of communication. The possible role of the teacher in this context is to direct the speakers on the proper use of filler sounds and on creating conversations with proper structural discourses.
The exercise on writing may appear difficult for weaker students, who may only be able to answer a few questions. It is evident that more advanced students will definitely demonstrate the capacity to display more language when writing down the answers, while less-endowed students can respond to the items in shorter formats and still be able to attain a sense of achievement.
While writing in shorter formats may indicate a shortcoming, it is worth mentioning that repeat exercises in reading, speaking, and writing are essential in the development of a wide range of vocabulary as well as internalisation of common English idioms (Harmer 2004).
Furthermore, although the write-down extract appears quite complex for foreign students, it nevertheless provides them with the opportunity to expand their creative and critical thinking skills.
The extract on listening to Carrie and Don’s conversation is provided in simple language which ensures that learners are able to speculate about the topic of conversation (choosing a course). However, the listening activity does not have a warming up section which is credited for improving understanding by giving students an introduction to the topic (Sharma 2011).
For example, a good warm up activity within the context of the conversation would be to ask students if they consider themselves to be having difficulties in choosing courses. Students should then be requested to explain the reasons for their answers. Students are requested to listen again, which underscores the importance of repetition in improving listening skills and enhancing comprehension of language and grammar (Wilson 2008).
However, such repetition may not necessarily serve the interests of non-native speakers or listeners as they may not understand, interpret, and evaluate what they hear. The question on describing the reasons behind Carrie and Don’s decision to take the course together demonstrates that listening can be used to foster understanding, increase cooperation, and identify the main idea or concept (Sharma 2011).
The intonation patterns (pitch level, pitch range, speech rate) demonstrate a conversation that is full of emotions and attitudes regarding the best course to take in the college. Such intonations enhance the understanding of the listening activity and facilitate learners to predict the conversation discourse (Sharma 2011).
Although the listening activity does not demonstrate rhythm and assimilation in terms of features of connected speech, it nevertheless demonstrates authenticity in the teaching and learning of English language. The arrangement of words, sound, and grammar in the conversation creates meaning in terms of listening for specific information, recognising cognates, and identifying word-order patterns (Wilson 2008).
However, responding to the listening activity with short answers may serve to indicate a lack of understanding of the main idea behind the conversation. Teachers should therefore stress a top-down approach to listening to ensure that students use the background knowledge to understand the meaning of the conversation.
The extract on pronunciation focuses on the use of certain contractions (e.g., wouldn’t, doesn’t, cant, isn’t) and how learners can practice saying sentences with those words while leaving out the “t” sound. The “t” can be silent if it is at the beginning/end of the word or if it is between two consonant/vowel sounds.
The activity not only enhances smartness and smoothness in spoken English, but also demonstrates how pronunciation can be taught through imitation and repetition (Howlader 2011). Although the activity demonstrates the importance of phonology in speaking, it nevertheless fails to demonstrate how students can practice vowel and stress shifts for better pronunciation and understanding of meaning (Littlewood 1984).
The intonation patterns of the sentences provided in the extract are also not clear, though more guidance has been offered to students through the use of different colour schemes. Intonation patterns are needed in such an activity as they assist learners to pay attention to the overall communicative objective of the pronounced sentences rather than accuracy at the phoneme level. It would have been beneficial if the activity indicates how the voice rises and falls when dealing with mentioned contractions.
It can be argued that the sentences are designed to reinforce mechanical production of speech. However, the activity is silent on how it is supposed to achieve acceptability and intelligibility in pronunciation learning, teaching, as well as understanding (Howlader 2011). Affixation and tactile reinforcement are all important, though the activity is quiet on how these are to be achieved.
While it is suggested that students should practice saying the sentences (recitation), there is need for tactile reinforcement and kinaesthetic enforcement to ensure learners are able to pronounce the contractions correctly (Littlewood 1984). Consequently, the need for personalisation and memorisation of the activity cannot be underestimated. The requirement to develop visual and auditory reinforcement to assist in the proper pronunciation of the contractions is also predominant.
It is important for students to learn the pronunciation in small groups as this would enhance cooperation and minimise problems. Such a set up would also reduce student anxiety, facilitate feedback, and encourage a sense of collective responsibility. However, social and cultural considerations need to be addressed when using group dynamics as they may impede successful learning and teaching.
This paper has been successful in evaluating several English extracts in order to discuss and analyse their positive and negative points. The central components that have been evaluated include vocabulary, reading, speaking and writing, listening, and pronunciation. Overall, the extracts have been found to posses many benefits when it comes to the teaching and learning of English.
Teachers need to make use of these benefits to ensure that non-native learners are able to develop an adequate understanding of the English language. The negatives highlighted need to be addressed by all stakeholders to ensure that the discussed components are delivered to, and internalised by, students with much ease than is presently the case.
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