Vol. 2. No. 1 R-1 March 1996
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American Business Vocabulary

John Flower, Ron Martinez
Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications
Pp. 96.

ISBN 0-906717-69-8

Each volume of the American Vocabulary Program (three books at the low intermediate, intermediate, and high intermediate levels, and one text on business vocabulary) provides vocabulary practice in a series of one- or two-page lessons and covers approximately a thousand words and expressions. In addition, each book includes a series of progress tests at the back, and answer keys for all exercises and tests. Short prefaces encourage students, in simple language, to employ basic learning strategies, such as avoiding over-dependence on the dictionary or organizing words into meaningful groups. A number of the individual lessons are also prefaced with further vocabulary-learning hints.

Whether overtly presented as strategic approaches or not, the foci of lessons generally reflect current theory on effective vocabulary learning practices. Most exercises require significant cognitive effort, which contributes to retention. There is also a recurring emphasis on collocation; some exercises ask students to match or otherwise manipulate words that collocate; other exercises take a particular key word such as that or would and ask students to work with a group of expressions using the key word. In addition, texts employ a variety of means to create associative bonds through situational sets (e.g., words associated with going to the library or with going shopping) or semantic sets (e.g., antonyms or subordinates). Other exercises focus on dictionary use, pronunciation, words that are easily confused or sometimes simple topics such as health. Exercise types range from word ladders to fill- in-the-blank to multiple choice to matching to picture labeling. Exercise foci are recycled throughout the course of a book and from book to book. For example, in Book 1, Lesson 19 is "Opposites 1" and Lesson 33 is "Opposites 2." Book 2 includes three lessons on opposites, Book 3 two lessons and American Business Vocabulary two lessons. All of these lessons use the same type of exercise (sentence completion) to work with antonyms. In other cases, lessons which share the same focus may employ different exercise types.[-1-]

American Vocabulary Program is notable for the variety and interest of the exercises, for its focus on learning strategies and for the emphasis on collocation and associational sets. It seems probable that students will find these books very engaging and at the same time develop an effective repertoire of vocabulary-learning strategies while working with them. The concentration on collocations and items with close cognitive associations helps ensure that students will not just learn a new set of definitions, but will improve in fluency and in their ability to use language colloquially. In addition, students should find the assortment of expressions and words practiced in the lessons helpful, since these choices are common, generally useful, and cover a wide range of topics and situations. (Naturally the business vocabulary book limits itself to business contexts).

On the other hand, while the variety of exercise foci and types and the range of vocabulary covered make these books lively, they also contribute to a certain sense of disjointedness and disorder. Foci appear to have been chosen and ordered randomly. It is true that when Book 1 lessons focus on topics, the topics do correlate with those typical for less advanced learners of English--topics such as body parts, clothes, rooms of the house or shopping. However, these topical lessons are scattered randomly through the text, along with lessons on word groups, irregular past tenses, sentence starters, a memory game and sixty-six others. There is no regularity as to when a particular type of lesson focus recurs and, in fact, a number of them only appear once in a text. This irregularity may not constitute a major flaw, but it is possible that students might recognize and absorb learning strategies more easily if they encountered and re-encountered them in an orderly and predictable way.

Another possible drawback of these books, shared by many other vocabulary texts, is that there are no review exercises and little practice of each item. Between six and twenty vocabulary words, expressions or collocations are practiced in a one-page lesson and never seen again except in the progress tests. Though efforts are made to contextualize items, rarely is an item practiced in more than one context. In addition, no explanations of the meanings of idioms or usage of collocations are included in answer keys. Thus, a student can look in the back of the book and discover that he or she should have matched the word broaden with the words your mind, but retain only the vaguest idea of what the phrase might mean or when and how to use it. For many words and expressions, such explanations can be found in the dictionary, but not for all of them. Of course, a teacher can also help elucidate usage, provide further practice, and in other ways supplement the text. However, the authors suggest that these books may be used as classroom texts or for self study. While most vocabulary items would probably prove reasonably self-explanatory with the help of a dictionary, a certain number of them might not; thus, students utterly on their own might find portions of the books difficult to work with.[-2-]

In the books' prefaces to students, the authors express two purposes: "This book will help you to learn more words, but also how to use the words you know more effectively" (p. 5). It seems that the approach of American Vocabulary Program is less well-suited to meeting the former goal, due to the lack of review exercises and multiple examples. However, its format and the foci of its exercises are very well-suited to meeting the latter. It effectively introduces students to learning strategies and employs innovative and engaging approaches to activating and expanding on the familiar.

Margy Lawrence
University of Washington


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