July 1999 — Volume 4, Number 1
Joy M. Reid and Patricia Byrd (Series Editors)
Boston: Heinle & Heinle
US $27.95 each; UK £21.95 each
Looking Ahead 1: Introduction to Academic Writing
Sharon L. Cavusgil (1998)
Pp. xxiii + 287
ISBN 0-8384-7884-0 (paper)
Looking Ahead 2: Learning about Academic Writing
Linda Robinson Fellag (1998)
Pp. xxi + 258
ISBN 0-8384-7911-1 (paper)
Looking Ahead 3: Developing Skills for Academic Writing
Elizabeth Byleen (1998)
Pp. xxi + 267
ISBN 0-8384-7902-2 (paper)
Looking Ahead 4: Mastering Academic Writing
Christine Holten & Judith Marasco (1998)
Pp. xxiii + 376
ISBN 0-8384-7893-X (paper)
Looking Ahead: Videos1/2 and 3/4
ISBN 0-8384-0406-5; 0-8384-0415-4
These four volumes and the two accompanying video cassettes are designed to meet the writing needs of ESL learners preparing for mainstream U.S. college courses. The books may also be profitably used in other contexts, notably European composition classes at sixth-form and university level. There is a series-specific Internet site for instructors offering teacher’s notes, discussion lists and other useful resources (http://www.lookingahead.heinle.com/filing/fromframe.htm).
The authors have synthesized recent advances in psycholinguistics and language teaching into a holistic, process-based approach to academic writing. Far from teaching only narrowly focused composition skills, Looking Ahead promotes the acquisition of general academic competence. Of course, the content of the series is not entirely new; it seems inevitable for textbook authors to duplicate earlier work in places, and Looking Ahead is no exception. For instance, certain parallels may be detected between some sections of this series and Arnaudet & Barrett (1990), to name but one example. [-1-]
Each chapter centres around a particular reading theme and contains several short writing tasks. A large number of chapters close with a full-scale writing assignment designed to promote integration of newly acquired skills. The choice of material seems firmly grounded in practical teaching experience and provides rich opportunities for students to practise the rhetorical patterns most commonly found in academic writing (e.g., defining, comparing, classifying, developing, and so forth). Wolff (1992) gives a thorough survey of problem areas related to second-language writing; I shall take these as a starting point for judging how Looking Ahead shapes up among textbooks of composition.
- Novice writers often have difficulty in generating suitable ideas for their essays. Looking Ahead addresses this problem in a number of ways. Firstly, as noted above, it provides theme-based authentic readings in each chapter which prepare students for subsequent writing assignments. Secondly, the series encourages a variety of brainstorming techniques. Thirdly, introspective techniques such as a survey on writing habits (vol. 1, pp. 25-26) are used to elicit intuitive knowledge and raise self-awareness. Further, the accompanying videos may be used in pre-writing activities to provide additional language input and stimulate discussion.
- Current opinion among language teaching experts seems to agree that text planning poses serious problems for beginners. It is thus appropriate that planning activities form a thread running through the whole series, from collecting strategies in volume one to methods of research in volume four. While most of the writing activities foster specific text organization skills, the end-of-chapter writing tasks often require complex planning.
- Writing in a second language requires a shift in perspective which the great majority of learners find extremely hard to make. This series, being monolingual, does not explicitly deal with cultural differences between academic texts, but broadens and refines students’ understanding of the social and linguistic norms surrounding the use of academic English. One finds a widely held view in the contrastive rhetoric literature that academic English is characterized by greater continuity, more frequent use of advance organizers and more skilful integration of examples, statistics and quotations than is the case in languages such as German or Finnish. All these virtues of English academic style are taught appropriately in this series, often with the help of graphic organizers (cf. e.g., vol. 3, p. 144). This is true of the inter-sentence level, where special attention is paid to logical connections (cf. e.g., vol. 4, pp. 142ff.), as well as of the text level (cf. e.g., the final writing assignments). [-2-]
- To avoid mismatch between written cultures, a knowledge of (potentially differing) text type constraints is crucial. The authors have gone out of their way to give detailed descriptions of the features of particular text types, such as reports and evaluations on the one hand, and the characteristics of particular language functions, such as defining, comparing and generalizing, on the other.
- Considerable space is devoted to promoting the lexical adequacy of student productions. This is particularly true of the expression of conceptual content. Students are constantly encouraged to make entries in their vocabulary notebooks, and their attention is drawn to lexical items which they may usefully take over into their own writing. To take just one example, the authors, in discussing the subject of anger, point out words and collocations such as ‘infuriate’, ‘express one’s anger’ and ‘subdue one’s emotions’ (vol. 4, p. 10). Plainly, such lists of content words aid in maintaining sufficient variety of expression. A criticism one might make is that no sharp lines are drawn between the various points on the phraseological continuum (see below).
- Reader orientation is emphasized and practised in all four volumes. Students are asked to draw up profiles of potential readers and to compare two pieces of writing on the same topic addressing different audiences (cf. e.g., vol. 4, chapter 1).
- Routine formulae play a major role in academic writing. Except for the most basic fixed expressions like according to, these get short shrift in this series. This point of criticism will be taken up again below.
- Looking Ahead also teaches strategies for proofreading and revising drafts. The recommended self-editing strategies reflect the state of the art in writing research: students are asked to self-edit and peer-edit using “commenting guides” and to focus attention on particular points of difficulty rather than addressing every possible issue.
Two other features of the series deserve special mention. One is the genuinely innovative approach to grammar developed by series editor Patricia Byrd (1998). In recent years there has been growing recognition that grammar is text-type-specific; accordingly, sooner than teach isolated grammar points, Looking Ahead identifies and describes clusters of grammatical features such as “the grammar of past time narrative” and “the grammar of informational writing.” Reporting verbs afford another apt illustration of this discourse-based approach to grammar; readers are shown how different verbs signal different attitudes on the part of the author (vol. 4, p. 112). [-3-]
The second point to be noted is that Looking Ahead really puts the learner at the centre of things. In their choice of readings, the authors have managed the delicate balancing act of reconciling the interests and feelings of students with the expectations of academia. The theme-based texts presented in the four volumes are numerous and varied, ranging from “food and lifestyles” through “how to deal with anger” to “reality in film and TV”–subjects that students can be safely assumed to take an interest in. Use of the accompanying videos, which contain CNN broadcasts related thematically to each chapter in the series, may also have positive effects on student motivation. Beyond this, carefully thought-out exercises elicit personal information which is then incorporated into a writing task. For example, activity 3-8 in volume 1 asks students to complete a personal monthly budget and to compare it with that of a partner. In keeping with the general thrust of learning theory, students are also encouraged to keep a learner’s notebook.
All things considered, the books under review appear to pay careful heed to the demands of language teaching experts. Students aspiring to master the complex processes involved in academic writing will be amply rewarded if they work systematically through books one to four.
So much for the positives. My criticisms of Looking Ahead rest on observations of a general kind. The sad fact is that educational attainment seems to be on the wane in both America and Europe, with the result that, crudely put, many textbooks tend to pander to an almost ludicrous degree to channel jumpers with limited attention spans. Unfortunately, the series under review is not entirely free from such tendencies. It is one thing to pitch a book at the intended readership; it is another to employ a style of exaggerated simplicity and vapid ingratiation in a textbook designed to teach written English. The authors shy away from introducing useful linguistic terms such as collocation (volume 4, p. 61), preferring to speak vaguely of “fixed expressions and phrases.” A moment’s reflection, however, will show that fixed expressions such as be that as it may are poles apart from restricted collocations such as play a role or perform a function. For students to develop a confident command of second language writing requires a precise knowledge of such distinctions; without it collocational errors will be hard to avoid (cf. Howarth, 1996). A further problem is that the authors are prone to coin new terms which are either unnecessary or unfortunate (e.g., transition word for connector or -ing participle for present participle). [-4-]
Intimately connected with these deficiencies is another, more serious one, namely the limited range and variety of the language material offered in the area of logical sequence relations: cause and effect; comparison, coordination and contrast; exemplification; and so forth. By comparison with the aforementioned content words, the structural words associated with the expression of such relations are given inadequate treatment.
Both these problems are due to recent overemphasis on the teaching of process skills, much to the detriment of grammar, vocabulary and stylistics. A cursory glance at the writings of scores of non-native academics shows that, ultimately, language mastery is of paramount importance. While it would be foolish to doubt the compositional skill of such seasoned practitioners of academic writing, we are all too familiar with the breaches of grammatical, collocational and discursive norms characteristic of their texts.
With this in view, it is easy to see that a new balance needs to be struck between process and product. This will involve providing foreign language learners with sophisticated and sufficiently varied models on which they can base their own writing; it is simply not enough to cite three or four examples of a particular rhetorical pattern when the linguistic reality is much more complex. In doing so, we are condemning generations of non-native academics to writing stodgy, colourless and incorrect English. Corpus-based research enables us to collect huge amounts of authentic data, a selection of which should find its way into textbooks of composition. Here are some examples of what I have in mind, taken from Gallagher and Siepmann (in preparation). They show some of the forms that exemplification takes in academic English.
- take, for example, NP
- take, as an example, NP
- consider, for example, NP
- as examples of NP, consider NP
- as an illustration of this / by way of illustration, consider NP
- Some words in English have been taken over
from other languages. A[n] EXAMPLE /
ILLUSTRATION / INSTANCE (of this) is the word
- A brief example will serve to illustrate this.
- A brief example will illustrate this point. [-5-]
- Some examples will indicate how . . .
- This can be simply illustrated from the writing of business letters.
- It can be illustrated clearly with hackles.
- I can illustrate this with a couple of lines of dialogue . . .
This is only one tenth of the material contained in the chapter on exemplification; the extract clearly shows the importance of routine formulae and collocational networks in academic English. It is obvious that such a rich store of words gives non-native writers a better chance of developing an authentic and engaging style than do the short lists of “example structures” given in the second volume of this series (pp. 165 and 281).
In fairness to the authors, however, I must point out that it is no light task for ESL experts with (perhaps) little or no second-language proficiency to tease out the niceties of written English. This is because they are deprived of the possibility for interlingual comparison which such proficiency can offer; thus, as series editor Patricia Byrd (1998) openly admits, the English article system is one problem area which is difficult to explain for the average ESL instructor. For foreign teachers who have mastered the language it is mere child’s play.
By way of further illustration, let us consider differences in information structure between languages. Nowhere in current composition guides will the non-native writer find an explanation as to why the first of the following sentences would be preferred over the second, although both are grammatically correct (the first sentence is modelled on Doherty, 1992, p. 32):
(1) The major problem limiting the use of
these new techniques is that . . .
(2) ?The use of these new techniques is mainly
limited by the fact that . . .
Only cross-language comparison can shed light on a language’s preferred ways of structuring information. If, for the sake of example, we translate sentence (1) into German, we will be compelled to construct our German sentence along the lines of sentence (2) because German is an S – O – V language with a preference for adverbs over nouns: Der Einsatz der neuen Techniken wird hauptsächlich dadurch eingeschränkt, daß . . . (Doherty, 1992, p. 33). Of course, this series is not alone among textbooks of composition in omitting detailed guidance on such features of academic English as preferred information structure and general discursive vocabulary; books which take the fusion of process and product really seriously have yet to be written. [-6-]
To sum up: Looking Ahead, despite certain shortcomings, is a significant step on the road towards an ideal textbook of composition and may well become a standard work in the United States. I hope that European students of English will also be given access to the series through university and school libraries. It will be difficult to do better on the process side; but, as I trust this review has shown, much remains to be done on the product side.
Arnaudet, M. L., & Barrett, M. E. (1990). Paragraph development: A guide for students of English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Byrd, P. (1998). Grammar FROM context: Rethinking the teaching of grammar at various proficiency levels. Available: http://www.lookingahead.heinle.com/filing/fromframe.htm.
Doherty, M. (1992). Informationelle Holzwege: Ein Problem der Übersetzungswissenschaft. Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik 84, 30-49.
Gallagher, J. D. & Siepmann, D. (in preparation). Writing in English: A guide for advanced learners. Ein Schreiblehrbuch für fortgeschrittene Englischlerner, Wissenschaftler und Übersetzer.
Howarth, P. A. (1996). Phraseology in English academic writing: Some implications for language learning and dictionary making. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
Wolff, D. (1992). Zur Förderung der zweitsprachlichen Schreibfähigkeit. In W. Börner & K. Vogel (Eds.). Schreiben in der Fremdsprache: Prozeß und Text, Lehren und Lernen. Bochum: AKS-Verlag.
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