Landscapes and Language: English for American Academic Discourse
Kay Lynch Cutchin, Gail Price Rottweiler, and Ajanta Dutt (1998)
New York, NY: St. Martin's Press
Pp. xix + 236
ISBN: 0-312-13724-9 (paper)
In the preface to Landscapes and Language, its authors explain that it is aimed at "students whose native language is not English. It is also beneficial for all students developing skills in academic English" (p. xi). The back cover material, however, describes it as "High Intermediate/Advanced" and suggests that the book will "motivate your ESL students and prepare them for the critical reading and writing assignments required at American colleges." I think that the narrower back cover description is more accurate, as it implies that the text is aimed at ESL students in U.S. high schools. I also agree with the authors that it could be beneficial for others, particularly for native English speaking high school students in English composition classes.
The book is a tightly organized anthology of readings chosen to provoke reflection on the themes of "Context and Identity" (chapter 1); "Environment and Behavior" (chapter 2); "Individuality and Acceptance" (chapter 3); "Dignity and Perspective" (chapter 4); and "Bias and Discovery" (chapter 5). All of these themes are ones that young people can be expected to have opinions about and experiences with, and are therefore good lead-ins for writing assignments. In fact, one of the best features of this text is the thoughtful way that writing assignments are composed. Teachers do not need to invent topics; rather, the topics are woven together at the end of the readings in ways that are meaningful in close association with the readings, and at the same time open-ended enough for students to explore for personal and social insights.
Readings are grouped in threes after each chapter theme. Each one is preceded by a prompt ("Preview") to elicit personal thoughts and experiences that are related to the theme and can be discussed prior to reading. This is followed by a "Word Preview" section listing (but not glossing) vocabulary likely to be unfamiliar, followed by the reading itself. The readings are grouped so that the first two are fictional or autobiographical and the third, according to the authors, is a "discursive or academic essay" (p. xi), although the only essay that rang genuinely academic to this reader was the last one, concerning intelligence. The last reading in each group of three is, in all cases, more reflective than the previous two, so that the writing expands beyond narrative and into reflective and interpretive dimensions, illustrating to students how to take a broader perspective on the theme. This pattern is maintained very well throughout the chapters and is a subtle and effective way of [-1-] drawing students into a more "distanced" (academic) perspective on text. It is particularly effective because rather than being described, it is repeatedly demonstrated in the text sequences and elicited in the writing assignment sequences.
Each reading is followed by "Word Focus" (a vocabulary gloss and exploratory questions about vocabulary), "English Craft" (grammar lessons), "Interpretive Journal" (thoughtfully composed prompts leading students to explore aspects of the text in writing), and an overall "Essay Question," also thoughtfully composed, requiring a meta-analysis of the reading.
At the end of each theme-based group of three readings the authors provide a sequence of interrelated essay assignments focused on the chapter theme. The first assignment is relevant to the first reading, the second integrates material from the first two readings, and the third integrates material from all three readings to explore aspects of the overall theme. This structure is important because one of the central features of academic writing is its integration of knowledge from many sources. These end-of-chapter writing assignment sequences provide a context for practicing that kind of integration, including summarizing, citing, and paraphrasing. I admire how the authors have constructed their writing assignments so they lead seamlessly from the personal, autobiographical, and immediate to writing that is more reflective and analytical. They have combined the advantages (and disadvantages) of "personal" writing and the advantages (and disadvantages) of assigning students purely academic writing.
The readings are multicultural in content and authorship. They include authors such as the Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchu, presently the subject of much controversy (see Wilson, 1999), Maya Angelou, and Nawal El Saadawi. Many of the stories are of emigration and immigration and all of them involve conflicts of class, culture, race, or gender. Some of the narratives--especially the excerpt from Nawal El Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero and Peter Freuchen's "Dead Man's Cache" are riveting stories. All of the readings seem appropriate for their audience and purpose except the excerpt from The Tiger's Daughter by Bharati Mukherjee, a complicated narrative that I found too confusing to follow in its decontextualized form.
The authors are refreshingly realistic in their descriptions of English grammar and usage. Fragments are examined as likely to be "unacceptable" in academic text, but clearly acceptable in the less academic readings. They describe their notions of a "thesis claim," of "topic sentence claims," and "supporting claims" flexibly, not prescribing, for example, that every paragraph must have a topic sentence. I liked their instruction that "the conclusion of an essay should emerge from the content of the essay. Rather than ending an essay by summarizing with phrases such as 'in summary' or 'in [-2-] conclusion,' the writer should focus on the central ideas of the essay" (p. 126). I especially appreciated their brief descriptive treatment of expository "structure" (beginning, middle, and end) on page 213. While providing the idea that there has to be some internal logic to a piece of writing, the authors do not offer any molds that students should jam their meanings into, nor do they hint that any recipes for good writing exist. Form, it is implied in their writing assignments, will unfold out of content. I think that allowing this to come about in student writing is the surest way to help young writers find their own voices and develop both confidence and skill in writing, and I was glad to find that the text lends itself to this conception of composition instruction.
I found two weaknesses in the text, one in relation to vocabulary teaching and the other to grammar/composition teaching. In the first case, the authors wisely caution students at the beginning of the book that "You do not have to understand every word or look up every word in order to have a conversation with a text" (p. xviii). However, all of the readings are prefaced by lists of words likely to be unfamiliar, preceded by the advice "You can familiarize yourself with the following words by looking them up in the dictionary. You can broaden your knowledge of these words by pronouncing them and understanding how they are used in context." While the authors avoid demanding that these lists of words be looked up, it is implied that doing so would be useful. Some of the lists are very long. One consists of 52 words, another of 53, and there is one list of 81 words. It would take a long time to look up so many words, and the pedagogical value of doing so is questionable. The words listed have numbers next to them, indicating their paragraph locations. I wondered why the authors considered it valuable to abstract these words out of the text rather than simply let students choose, in the flow of their reading, those they wished to look up. There is already plenty of dictionary work in the vocabulary and grammar exercises that follow the readings.
The other weakness I noted was that some of the grammar exercises seemed artificial, especially in the richly organic context of the reading and writing exercises. For example: "Look through the text and make a list of three modals and the base forms that go with each modal. Make three statements about [the text] using a modal and the base form of a verb" (p. 100). Another example is the instruction to write a paragraph about a text using "third person singular, present tense verb forms wherever possible" (p. 213). This is definitely putting the form cart before the function horse. Most of the grammar exercises, however, seem to be good consciousness raisers, useful for comprehending the texts and responding to them. [-3-]
The authors clearly put a lot of work and thought into the smooth organization of this textbook, work of the kind that saves time for classroom teachers. It could be used as a class text, from beginning to end, or just as well adapted in parts to many different writing/reading class formats. Many teachers of young writers will welcome it.
Wilson, R. (1999, January 15). A challenge to the veracity of a multicultural icon. The Chronicle of Higher Education XLV(19), A14-16.
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