June 2003 — Volume 7, Number 1
Steps to Academic Reading 1: Steps and Plateaus, 2nd edition
Jean Zukowski/Faust (2002)
Boston: Thomson Heinle
Pp. vi + 280
Steps to Academic Reading 2: Out of the Ordinary
Jean Zukowski/Faust (2002)
Boston: Thomson Heinle
Pp. ix + 238
Steps to Academic Reading 3: Across the Board
Jean Zukowski/Faust (2002)
Boston: Thomson Heinle
Pp. iv + 272
Steps to Academic Reading 4: In Context, 3rd edition
Jean Zukowski Faust, Susan S. Johnson, and Elizabeth E. Templin (2003)
Boston: Thomson Heinle
Pp. x + 302
Steps to Academic Reading 5: Between the Lines, 3rd edition
Jean Zukowski/Faust and Susan S. Johnson (2003)
Boston: Thomson Heinle
Pp. vii + 342
Steps to Academic Reading is a five-volume reading development series for beginning to high-intermediate learners. It includes new editions of three previously published volumes and two new texts. Steps to Academic Reading 1: Steps and Plateau, 2nd edition, the first volume of the series, has been expanded to include new exercises that focus on identifying main ideas and key concepts, making inferences, skimming and scanning, practicing familiar forms, and increasing reading speed. Steps to Academic Reading 2: Out of the Ordinary and Steps to Academic Reading 3: Across the Board have been added to the series and provide material for the high beginning and low intermediate student. The last two volumes in the series, Steps to Academic Reading 4: In Context and Steps to Academic Reading 5: Between the Lines are both in their third edition. Volume four has been revised to meet teachers’ requests and observations. These revisions will be discussed later in the review. Volume five includes new and updated thematic readings as well as new discussion topics, writing prompts and a variety of useful expansion ideas. The five titles were recently issued as a series by Thomson/Heinle, and together form a comprehensive reading development curriculum.
The five volumes of Steps to Academic Reading have several features in common. Readings in each text are organized around a specific theme that is examined from several different perspectives. Each text offers level-appropriate exercises that encourage mastery of important reading skills such as identifying the main idea, distinguishing important from unimportant details, making inferences, separating fact from opinion, and understanding vocabulary in context. Vocabulary is recycled from article to article. And each title includes expansion exercises that encourage students to apply the critical thinking skills they have developed through reading to writing and discussion. The series offers a wide variety of clearly organized, high-interest, and level-appropriate materials to reading teachers and learners alike. Each volume includes an introduction which outlines the structure of the book’s chapters and offers guidelines for how to use the text. An answer key for each text can be obtained electronically from the publisher. [-1-]
Steps to Academic Reading, as the series’ title suggests, is designed to teach the vocabulary and reading skills needed to succeed in an academic environment. College programs that have ESL classes for students whose goal is matriculation would thus find this series particularly useful. However, at least some of the volumes, particularly Steps and Plateaus, could be appropriate for adult education classes as well. Although the reading level in Steps and Plateaus, is higher than one would use in with low beginners in an adult education setting, this volume would make a good foundation text for a high beginner adult education class. The fifteen units cover important survival topics such as personal information, shopping, banking, time, money, clothes, emergency information, housing, and recreation, and do so in a richer and more original manner than do many typical ESL multi-skill texts.
For example, Plateau II, the unit on clothes, includes readings on the history of clothing, making a list of clothing needs, bargains and sales, label reading, and some clever ways to save money. The readings lead naturally to discussions of fashion and style and cultural differences in dress, shopping and sizes. There is consumer information about fabrics, clothing quality, and how to be a smart shopper. Students learn important shopping vocabulary and idioms and practice writing through making inventories and lists. Some of the reading passages could easily be turned into aural cloze exercises to add a listening component to the unit and a shopping field trip or scavenger hunt would branch the topic out into the community.
Other examples in Steps and Plateaus are equally interesting. Step 5 starts with a reading on calendars. This topic is expanded to include information on time, seasons, days, weeks, months, and lore about the moon. Step 14 covers safety issues with useful information about fire and accident prevention both on the job and at home, poisons and antidotes, and a safety checklist. Cause and effect and its supporting vocabulary and structures appear in this unit, which is more complex than those at the beginning of the book. The readings and exercises are of high interest even while covering common general topics.
The vocabulary needed in Steps and Plateaus ranges from a few hundred words at the beginning to about 1500 words towards the end. Articles are written in fairly short simple and compound sentences with few embedded structures, and generally stick to the simple present and past tenses, future with “will,” and a few modal forms (can, must). Reading passages are of varying length, e.g., five or six to thirty-five or forty lines. Exercises encourage recall of important information, analysis of ideas, guessing meaning from context, and identifying the main point. In short, Steps and Plateaus would be a rewarding text for either college preparatory or adult education classes. The book is clearly organized, and each chapter follows more or less the same organizational pattern making it easy to use by students of varying levels within the same class. Graphics and line drawings accompany the text.
Volumes two and three, Out of the Ordinary and Across the Board, are the two new additions to the series. In Out of the Ordinary, topics of current interest are presented through the uncommon stories of unique people. Examples include a woman who runs a “hogan and breakfast,” a family of modern day “cattle rustlers,” men who “fight fire with fire,” a “junkyard engineer,” and a woman who spent two years in a tree to protest the decimation of virgin forests. Although several of the entries are familiar, e.g., the story of the Boys Choir of Harlem and a discussion of identical twins, the book generally lives up to its title. Through the telling of unusual stories, this volume also raises issues of importance to most people’s lives: meeting challenges and overcoming obstacles, learning to follow rules, protecting the environment, animal/human relationships, and ethical issues in business, science, and education. Out of the Ordinary is also mindful of its academic goals, and covers some basic vocabulary and concepts important to biology, ecology, psychology, sociology, history, and engineering. Well-chosen photos introduce each unit and serve as a springboard for pre-reading activities. Readings vary between 625 to 850 words in length. [-2-]
As described in its introduction, Across the Board, has “15 true stories told in the first and third person from the perspectives of a mother, a daughter, a son, and a father.” [i] For example, in Unit 3 a young girl describes how she worked with all her heart to do a perfect job cleaning her grandmother’s house, and earned not only $10.00 in pay but also a loving acknowledgement from her grandmother that she had indeed achieved perfection. In Unit 10, a young tourist describes her visit to Poland, land of her grandmother’s birth, and the amusing linguistic discoveries she makes at the end of her trip. And in Unit 14, the story of Harvey, a pigeon in a psychology research lab, leads readers to understand better some possible causes of all animal behavior, including their own.
Embedded in these and other stories are important issues related to family and work, customs and ceremonies, ethics, science, and nature, health and medicine, psychology, crime and violence, economics, education, and other fields of study. Living up to the series’ purpose, Across the Board introduces basic vocabulary and concepts important to a wide variety of academic fields. According to the Introduction, readings fall between grades 3.2 and 5.2 on common readability scales, and vary in length from 700 to 1500 words. [ii]
Out of the Ordinary and Across the Board are organized so that each chapter follows a similar organizational structure. In Out of the Ordinary, exercises following the main reading are: Answer These Questions, Learn New Words, Practice the New Words, Find the Details, Give Your Opinion, Make Some Inferences, Find the Main Ideas, and Write Your Thoughts. Across the Board has similar exercises with the addition of several new ones that offer a higher level of sophistication and challenge, including idiom practice, understanding sequence, and drawing conclusions. Such a consistent organizational approach is reassuring to students approaching more difficult academic readings for the first time. There is little room for confusion, and once expectations have been established, little time need be spent on explaining how to do a given task. However, an unvarying repetitive structure can easily become routine and dull. It is thus left to the teacher to avoid boredom by varying the pattern and pace of the activities and by introducing an occasional “surprise” element to the routine. This having been said, the inventive instructor seeking a sound text on which to base his or her reading class will find this volume easy to use and pedagogically sound, i.e., a strong foundational text that easily lends itself to expansion.
The last two volumes in the series, In Context and Between the Lines, focus on practical vocabulary building, strengthening analytical skills, and increasing reading comprehension and speed. The readings and exercises are significantly more challenging than those in the preceding volumes. In response to teachers’ suggestions, In Context has been revised to include a preliminary unit, updated information, and new readings and exercises. [Preface, i] Each unit contains anticipatory and pre-reading activities, opinion questions, vocabulary exercises that recycle the main ideas, exercises that focus on key readings skills, critical thinking exercises to help students integrate information, and timed readings. There are useful expansion exercises for writing and discussion, and a vocabulary journal section that encourages students to learn more about words that interest them. Information is presented in chart and graph as well as in prose form. There are photos and diagrams to encourage discussion and analysis. [-3-]
In Context is divided into eight units with the following titles: IT (information technology), The Water Planet, Different Views on Education, On the Road, The Virtual Shopping Mall, Generations, The Changing Climate, and The Color Green. Each unit has a main reading, several shorter related readings, and two timed readings. The main reading is at least 1000 words in length and includes exercises that focus on key reading skills. The shorter related readings offer the opportunity for further practice in specific skill areas, e.g., detail questions, inferences, cause and effect, vocabulary building. According to the book’s authors, “certain standards have been applied throughout the text to make the readings more accessible.” [Preface, ii] These include: a clear topic sentence and identifiable main idea for each paragraph; a limit on sentence length of 12 to 15 words; inclusion of signal words; and respiraling of vocabulary.
Between the Lines is the final volume in the series. It is aimed at the high intermediate college preparatory student. Low advanced students would also benefit from the readings and exercises in this text. According to the Preface, this volume introduces new reading strategies the authors believe are needed “to support learners in becoming effective academic readers in English.” [i] In addition to working on key reading skills, this text also focuses on: analyzing cause and effect, looking for meaning in context, making questions, restating main ideas, scanning for key ideas, understanding definitions and sequences, and understanding the audience.
The structure of Between the Lines is similar to that of In Context. Each of the eight units includes a main reading, two shorter readings and a timed reading. All the readings are followed by varied and challenging exercises. Unit topics include: Cleaning Up the Mess (ecology); Business: Watching the Bottom Line; Biotechnology: Feeding the Billions; A Changing, Living Planet; Living Together in Peace; Secrets in the Stones (archaeology); and All Kinds of Intelligence.
In Context and Between the Lines have several important strengths. The stated purpose of the series is to prepare students for academic reading, and both texts achieve this purpose very well. The unit topics are drawn from important contemporary fields of study, and the accompanying exercises focus on the development of key reading skills The inclusion of timed exercises in these volumes helps students move away from word by word reading to reading for the general idea of a passage, a skill necessary for success in college studies. The topics are generally of high interest and provide foundational vocabulary and information in a broad range of academic subjects. The units are well organized, and follow a generally consistent structural pattern, with similar types of exercises appearing regularly throughout the text. The exercises are well thought-out, clearly presented, and appropriate for the type of skill building these volumes address.
Both In Context and Between the Lines include a helpful Preface or Introduction with specific instructions for teachers regarding how to use the text. In addition, each volume offers a preliminary unit in which learners are guided through the types of exercises they will encounter throughout the text. For example, the preliminary unit of Between the Lines defines several key reading strategies (finding the main idea, reading for details, making inferences, reading to identify facts and judgments, etc.), gives examples of these strategies, and provides exercises for practicing each strategy. These important steps are sometimes missing from other texts, and are a welcome addition to these volumes.
If In Context and Between the Lines have a fault it is simply the scope and number of exercises offered. Each unit of both books covers such a wide range of material that the reader could be overwhelmed. It will be a challenge for teachers and learners alike to choose the readings and exercises that best fulfill class needs. Nonetheless, this is a minor flaw compared to the books’ strengths. These volumes, together with the first three in the series, provide a solid, challenging, and interesting approach to the development of academic reading skills.
New Hampshire Technical Institute
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.
Editor’s Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..