ESL Textbooks, a Critical Comparative Review

I. Introduction
After reviewing several textbooks in which pronunciation, as well as speaking and listening, are core components, it is obvious that there are a variety of ways to teach pronunciation. I was able to review textbooks from past decades of language teaching, and many texts from the current era. I will lay out my review beginning with the oldest language teaching books and continue chronologically to the latest ways and methods of language teaching. Throughout this paper, I hope to identify ways in which speaking and listening language skills are best taught, as well as the most common ways these skills are taught. I will also consider the changes in language teaching throughout the years, and how the textbooks reflect the standards and expectations of the era they were printed in.

The aspects I have chosen to pay most careful attention to include, but are not limited to; ways sounds are presented, which aspects of pronunciation are included, and what sorts of exercises are used. I chose these aspects because I wanted to learn more about the different ways to teach pronunciation and I thought that each of these aspects is broad enough to allow a more thorough knowledge base. The other aspects that were given as choices were more specific, and although probably quite useful, I chose the more general approach based on the belief that I would be able to take more from a general type of review. I will also highlight what I feel are the best methods and exercises used throughout the textbooks in order to teach speaking and listening skills. Overall, I will give a broad outlook on how various textbooks teach listening and speaking skills, and identify which text that I believe serves to be the most useful guide for language teaching.

The textbooks I have selected are mainly of an intermediate level and are as follows:

Drills and Exercises in English Pronunciation: Stress and Intonation Consonants and Vowels: Part II,
Drills and Exercises in English Pronunciation: Stress and Intonation Part I,
Jazz Chants,
Listening In & Speaking Out,
Interactions I: A listening/Speaking Skills Book,
Hearsay: Survival Listening and Speaking,
More Hearsay: Interactive Listening and Speaking,
Pronunciation Pairs: An Introductory course for students of English,
Speaking Solutions: Interaction, Presentation, Listening, and Pronunciation Skills, Tapestry: Sound Ideas; Advanced Listening & Speaking.

II. Compare
I will begin with a text by English Language Services, Inc. titled, Drills and Exercises in English Pronunciation. This text was printed in 1966, and contains (as the title clearly indicates) mainly drills and exercises. This text is very different from the other textbooks I reviewed, in that it focuses primarily on pronunciation. It begins with drills on specific consonants (nasals, stops, fricatives, etc.) and moves onto drills concerning vowels. The main drill section ends with special focus on consonant clusters. The second half of this text contains special exercises which pertain to specific pronunciation difficulties such as the homonyms and vowel alternations. There are two main goals as far as the student is concerned, recognizing sounds and reproducing sounds. This text is fairly simple overall and may provide definite aid in pronunciation especially with the use of the tapes that go along with the book.

I chose to examine the way that sounds are presented as one of the aspects and found that they are presented in a fairly straightforward way. The students listen to the sounds on tape, follow along, and eventually produce their own sounds. I also looked at which aspects of pronunciation are included, and again found this text to be straightforward. It contains all the individual consonants, and vowels, as well as consonant clusters and other trouble areas for language learners. The final aspect I am concerned with deals with what sorts of exercises are used. This text offered mainly drills and what would probably now be considered a “boring” way of learning pronunciation. I found that most of the other texts involved pronunciation as a fraction of the whole process called language learning. Pronunciation is often treated as a component and taught alongside the other main language skills.

A second text of the same series deals with Stress & Intonation. This text uses a similar series of drills; however, most of the attention is on stress, intonation, and juncture. This text also makes use of audiocassette tapes and is based off of American Pronunciation. The goal of the text is for students to be able to correctly use intonation and word stress in the English language. The text also noted that there is no uniformity among linguists as far as how to treat these aspects of pronunciation; however the Trager-Smith Analysis is the chosen way for this text. It was also noted that no matter what analysis teachers may favor, this text would no doubt be useful because they are based off of real English. The text begins by introducing students to the English writing system as well as intonation. Students first learn declarative intonation and question intonation.
Sounds are presented as pieces that make up a whole and are rarely treated individually. This is most likely because in the other books in this series focus is on individual sounds and sounds clusters. Students learn word phrases and where to put the stress, and of course how the intonation of certain phrases sound. Concerning the types of exercises used, again it is mainly through drills that students are able to learn. They begin by listening to words and sentences and repeating them, and continue through this process moving from simple to complex words and phrases.

The 1970’s of course offered new methods and ideas for teaching language, one of which is referred to as “jazz chants”. I selected a text of the same title by Carolyn Graham. I found this approach to be quite interesting and something I think students would tend to enjoy more than basic drills. The goal of this text is for students to be able to express feelings through stress and intonation, while building necessary vocabulary. The chants include three main types of conversation including; question and response, command and response, and responses to provocative statements. Sounds are presented in meaningful contexts. According to the author students are not only given a chance to practice the sounds, but the chants selected give students a chance to use language that they would normally use. Students are also being trained to comprehend the language of a native speaker in natural conversation. There are five main steps used for presenting jazz chants which include; explaining the context, having students echo the chant line by line, establishing a clear rhythm through clapping or snapping, students break up into groups and take turns with each line, and finally the class takes turns with the teacher line by line through the chant. Some of the structures taught in this text include articles, commands and suggestions, comparatives, demonstratives, and several other features of grammar. I found this text to be a valuable tool for teachers, and a natural way to teach rhythm and pronunciation as well as other features of language.

As we move through the seventies and eighties, dramatic changes in language teaching occur. The shift involved moving from a segregated language component approach to a more integrated, communicative approach to language learning. The next text I examined was printed in 1980, entitled Listening In & Speaking Out by Gary James, Charles G. Whitley, and Sharon Bode. This text was almost entirely different from the first text I reviewed, and I debated using it at all, but concluded it provided an interesting way to teach listening and speaking skills. The text had an overall purpose of getting students to understand English spoken at a normal speed. The text also focused on providing English that students are likely to encounter vs. the typical “classroom English” that students are often taught. Each unit in this text is based off of a specific event such as; a birthday party, a phone call, or a temperature check. Each unit is broken down into seven separate elements. These elements include; getting set, tuning in, summing up, retelling, filling in, pairing up, and speaking out. These elements all work together to give students a chance to listen on their own, try to pick out pieces of the language, summarize dialogue, retell the dialogue as well as practice the dialogue. Finally, students are given a chance to produce their own unique dialogue pertaining to a similar event as the one in the text.

Although this text did not pay specific attention to pronunciation, the skill is embedded within the listening and speaking skills that are directly included. Regarding the ways that sounds are presented, again, it is almost entirely different from the first text. Sounds are not presented in isolation, but rather as parts that make up the whole of language. Students may need more direct instruction on specific sounds and pronunciation in general; however, they will need to receive this instruction from a teacher rather than this text. Listening and speaking are definitely the focus of this text, but it does not appear that the goal is native-like pronunciation in any way. The goal instead is to understand everyday English.

The fifth text I examined was first printed in 1985 and is entitled Interactions I: A Listening/ Speaking Skills Book, by Judith Tanka and Paul Most. This text is sort of a combination of the first two texts I reviewed. There is specific focus on pronunciation; however, it is based around everyday subtopics, such as introductions, seasons, and parties. For example, the first chapter revolves around the topic of school life. Several reductions, such as “How’re ya”, “meetcha”, and “wanna” are introduced. These are followed by the introduction of several functions; such as starting a conversation and greeting people. Finally, pronunciation of -s is tacked on at the very end of the chapter. Each of the chapters seem to take the same route, with pronunciation being the last skill addressed.

The goal of this text is for students to understand everyday English, as well as to learn effective listening strategies. Sounds are presented through the use of audiocassette tapes and again are not presented in isolation, except in the specific pronunciation selections at the end of each chapter. The specific aspects of pronunciation included in this text are; -s, can/can’t, -ed, and several reduced forms of phrases (d’ya, hafta). This text also made use of a variety of exercises in order to teach listening and speaking skills. These exercises include role-plays, small-group activities, and class discussions; as well as performing practical tasks like drawing and using a map.

The next two textbooks I looked at were of the same series by Dale T. Griffee. The first is a “survival listening and speaking” book and the second is an “interactive listening and speaking” book. I will briefly discuss the former book first. Survival Listening and Speaking is designed to do exactly what its title indicates. The goal of this text is to teach learners key words and phrases that will help them to survive in a foreign country. Some of these key words and phrases include: the number system, time, “wh” questions, and some common questions and answers. HearSay uses listening comprehension to teach these skills and is directed towards adult learners. This text is also quite different from the previous texts.

The format of this text involves listening to audiocassettes and filling in blanks. There is also special focus on pronunciation of key words and phrases, rather than individual sounds. While pronunciation is only a small part of each chapter, there is emphasis placed on pronunciation and phonetic spellings are given. The audiocassette also gives examples of slow and fast speech in order for learners to hear and recognize various types of speech. Exercises are in a worksheet format and involve repetition and identification of words and phrases. The main difference between this text and the others is that it is focused on “surviving” in a foreign country. This text appears useful for students planning on going to a foreign country for a brief time, because it teaches basic words and phrases needed to communicate with native speakers.

The other text, More HearSay, printed about ten years after Hearsay, serves as a follow up to the elementary teachings of HearSay. This text is also meant for adult learners, and is designed to help learners increase vocabulary, practice listening and speaking, and prepare for travel in English-speaking countries. The text is broken up into 15 units, each of which revolves around a specific communication skill. As far as pronunciation is concerned, it is not directly taught. However, through listening and speaking activities, learners are able to practice pronunciation. The exercises are designed in a similar way as the first HearSay text. They are of course a little more complicated. There are several listening exercises involving slow and fast speech. There are also vocabulary expansions and pair work.

In the early 1990’s it seems the shift towards a more overall communicative competence was still at work, however, I was able to find a text that seemed to deal primarily with pronunciation. Pronunciation Pairs: An Introductory course for students of English, seemed to be quite set apart from the other texts of this decade. The main difference was the direct focus on the formation of sounds. The text used pictures of the mouth and tongue to help students make the correct pronunciations. There were also many more pictures in this text than any of the others that I reviewed. The text also used audiocassette tapes and each exercise begins with students listening to and repeating sounds and phrases. Students are also able to participate in dialogues and practice intonation with the exercises in this text. Spelling is also another component of this text, although much less emphasis is placed on spelling than pronunciation.

Another textbook from the 1990’s is entitled Speaking Solutions, by Candace Matthews. This text involves the use of interaction, presentation, as well as listening and pronunciation skills in order to teach language learners. This text is slightly more complex than the previous texts, as seems to be the pattern throughout the years. Speaking Solutions gives students a chance to listen as well as produce language in groups. There is also specific emphasis placed on pronunciation. Throughout the text pronunciation skills that are taught are as follows; word stress, the past tense -ed sound, the final -s sound, sentence stress, linking, and intonation in questions. While sounds are presented in the context of speech, rather than individually, learners are still given a chance to practice certain individual sounds. Speaking Solutions also uses various exercises that are more complex, and in my opinion more interesting than some of the previous texts. For example, there are specific activities that allow for small group activities and classroom participation. There was also attention on cross-cultural communication, a valuable component of language learning as well.

The final textbook I chose to review was printed in 1995 and contains more of the present-day methods for teaching listening and speaking. This text is entitled Tapestry: Sound Ideas; Advanced Listening & Speaking. This text is broken up into eight units each of which revolve around a communicative theme. The first theme involves small talk, other themes include; telephone conversation, humor, and cheating. Each theme involves two parts, first listening and then speaking. Students are listening for details and the main idea, rather than individual sounds and pronunciation. Although this text is one of the most recent I was able to find, I was surprised by the fact that it seemed rather vague on the student’s part. Like many other listening and speaking texts, students use audiocassette tapes along with the exercises, however, there did not seem to be as much emphasis as producing sounds correctly. The focus instead seems to be on understanding everyday language and using it correctly. The text also tries to get students to build vocabulary and practice writing skills. Through the introduction of learning strategies, students are given a chance to practice listening for stress and intonation; however, there did not seem to be as great of a focus on practicing the sounds on their own. There was a section that encouraged students to listen for stress and then reread the sentences out loud and put the stress in the correct places. This is a good start for understanding word stress, but it might not be a very authentic way to teach this aspect of pronunciation. While such a lack of direct instruction may work for some students, I would prefer a text that demonstrated word stress in a more direct and explicit way.

III. Critique
Finally, after much research on past and present listening and speaking texts, I will elaborate on which text I found to be the most useful guide for teachers and why. There were actually two texts that I would recommend using. The first of which is Jazz Chants. This method seems to be a simple way for students to practice individual sounds in a natural context, while naturally learning rhythm and intonation at the same time. However, I don’t know that this text would really be enough direct instruction for students to really have an understanding of listening and speaking the English language.

The second text I have selected would also be necessary alongside Jazz Chants. The second text is Candace Matthew’s, Speaking Solutions. I really enjoyed this text in that it taught a variety of skills while keeping the focus on speaking and listening. Not only was there emphasis on the most important aspects of pronunciation, but students were given a chance to practice these skills through a variety of exercises. I believe students would find this text to be able to keep their interest and that this text applies to a variety of learning strategies. Also the types of contexts that are used to teach listening and speaking are meaningful. Students will be able to take what they learn from this text and apply it to normal everyday conversations. Lastly, this book also had a focus on cultural norms and behavior, which I think many students and teachers find to be a very valuable part of language learning.

As far as some types of texts ignoring some types of activities and exercises I definitely found a significant shift from the early seventies compared to the present age. I noticed that many of the exercises used in the older texts were mainly drills and did not seem at all concerned with keeping the interest of the students. It seemed that throughout the years the textbooks became more thorough and contained useful aspects involved in learning a language. For example, the first couple of texts seemed focused merely on correct pronunciation. But as the years went on, the texts seemed concerned with “survival skills” and meaningful contexts. I also found that the early texts seemed to ignore the idea of group work or group communication. This of course aligns with the fact that the world of language teaching in the 1960’s and 1970’s was lacking in communicative competencies and was primarily focused on linguistic competencies. (Morley, 1991). The later texts seemed to promote communication, allowing students to interact meaningfully with their classmates. I would confidently say that language teaching has evolved for the better over the past few decades. Of course, there is always room for improvement. It seems as though vast improvements have already been made regarding language textbooks, and I would imagine that such improvements will continue to be made throughout the future eras of language teaching and learning.

IV. Conclusion
After investigating each of these texts I found that I have much to learn about language teaching and selecting appropriate textbooks. Through the research I conducted I was definitely able to learn a lot about language teaching and how it has evolved over the past several decades. It is evident that a thorough approach is necessary, meaning that not only do learners need to be given opportunities to engage in meaningful and authentic conversation, but they also need to be able to have direct instruction on speaking and listening. Although this seems to be quite a difficult task, I have confidence that the theories of language teaching will continue to evolve and that the language teaching process will grow for the better.

I was also able to gain an understanding of the different kinds of exercises used to teach listening and speaking, as well as which ones seem most popular and most useful. Among these I would conclude that the exercises that allowed students to engage in authentic language learning are the most appropriate to use in the classroom. There also needs to be some focus on pronunciation, however, to what degree is still somewhat undecided by linguists. I also learned that there is a vast variety of texts to choose from and that as a teacher; I will need to use discernment and thoroughly investigate textbooks before choosing one for my students. I also feel it is extremely important to be aware of the student’s needs, and to meet their needs to the best of my ability.

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