The Reading Matrix
Vol. 1, No. 2, September 2001
Vistas: Introducción a la lengua española
José A. Blanco, Mary Ann Dellinger, Philip Donley,
María Isabel García. (2001)
Boston: Vista Higher Learning
Reviewed by Gregory
University of Notre Dame
Vistas is an introductory series designed for college-level Spanish students with little or no prior knowledge of Spanish. The pedagogy of Vistas is based on the philosophy of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines (1982, 1986, 1999) and the Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century (1996, 1999). The five goal areas of the Standards, often called the Five C's (Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities), are emphasized in numerous activities marked with a "National Standards" stamp. The primary goal of this series is to develop students' speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills so that they may express themselves in meaningful, real-life contexts. Each Vistas Student Textbook includes the following ancillary materials: 2 audio CDs (or cassettes), a pocket dictionary, and an interactive CD-ROM. When the Student Activities Manual is also purchased, students receive either a free Vistas video CD-ROM or video cassette. Only the Instructor's Annotated Edition is reviewed here.
From the outset, Vistas stands out as a highly organized and visually vibrant text. The Instructor's Annotated Edition contains slightly reduced student-text pages overprinted with answers to all direct-response activities. Detailed side and bottom panels feature invaluable pedagogical suggestions and ideas for activity expansion. User-friendly page layouts, bold color schemes, and neat sidebars allow for easy navigation by instructors and students alike. What is more, the text is replete with visually impacting photos, drawings, realia, charts, graphs, diagrams, and word lists.
The Vistas series is divided into eighteen chapters and is easily adaptable to two-, three-, and four-semester language programs, not to mention quarter system programs. Lesson-opening pages feature a colorful photo and a succinct list of communicative and linguistic objectives for each chapter. Next, a Contextos section presents vocabulary in meaningful contexts, usually via meticulous illustrations of high-frequency vocabulary plus a side box with related lexical items for rapid vocabulary expansion. Vocabulary presentations are followed by four to eight activities that move progressively from interpretative exercises (Práctica) to open-ended, communicative activities (Comunicación). The first exercise is always a listening activity, which can be heard on the Vistas CD or cassette. (The tapescript is conveniently replicated in the Instructor's Annotated Edition). The next pair of exercises consists of input activities that require students to process vocabulary by matching words with definitions, identifying a word that does not belong in a list, and ordering scrambled sentences. Input activities are followed by communicative activities that require students to exchange information for the purpose of engaging in conversation.
Following Contextos is a Fotonovela section, which tells the story of four college students studying and traveling in Ecuador and the bus driver who accompanies them. The photo-based conversations in the text are an abbreviated version of the dramatic scenes that appear in the Vistas video. The Vistas video program is fully integrated with the textbook and contains eighteen episodes, one for each chapter. Video segments use chapter vocabulary as a starting point from which new vocabulary is progressively introduced with previously taught language. Most video episodes incorporate pauses for characters to reminisce about their home life in Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and parts of Ecuador. These video montages are real-life images shot in the various parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Fotonovela sections are accompanied by a vocabulary box with useful expressions, a box for cultural notes (Enfoque cultural), and four follow-up activities that test plot comprehension, character identification, and provide opportunities for paired discussion and communication.
Next, a Pronunciación & Ortografía section allows students to practice the phonetic concepts most challenging to native English speakers of Spanish. Topics covered include the distinction between the tap and trilled r, voiced and unvoiced consonants, and several issues related to spelling and punctuation. Exercises can be found on the Vistas CD (or cassette). Most of these sections also end with two idiomatic expressions that contain the phonetic or phonological features studied.
An Estructuras section introduces and practices the grammar points outlined at the outset of each chapter. Grammar explanations are concise and model sentences are often provided in dialogue boxes accompanied by lively color photos, which lend another nice visual effect. When new verb tenses are learned, all six conjugations are introduced at once. All grammar topics are followed by a mechanical, form-focused exercise called ¡Inténtalo!. In most cases this exercise is a substitution or transformation drill that requires little or no attention to meaning. Four to seven more exercises follow and range from various form-focused formats (Práctica) to various communicative output-based formats (Comunicación). (Mechanical, meaningful, and communicative activities are included). Communicative activities range from paired to whole-class discussion and offer opportunities for creative expression. Grammar sections are very well organized via charts, diagrams, and sidebars.
The following Adelante section is divided into three subsections that focus specifically on the skills of reading, writing, and listening. The pedagogical philosophy found in Omaggio Hadley's Teaching Language in Context resonates throughout the Adelante portion of the text. The reading (Lectura) section contains pre-reading activities that teach students to use different reading strategies (predicting content from visuals, using context, etc.) to ascertain meaning. Follow-up activities are also provided for comprehension checks and class discussion. Readings are related to chapter themes and are accompanied by bright color photos or authentic texts (advertisements, postcards, etc.) written in the target language.
The writing (Escritura) section systematically guides students through the writing process by providing an excellent one-page "Plan de escritura" that facilitates idea organization and content coverage while also providing editing techniques and peer evaluation suggestions. Writing activities utilize a variety of formats including pamphlets (Chapter 4), travel brochures (Chapter 5), and reporting on an interview (Chapter 6).
Listening (Escuchar) sections consist of a pre-listening activity that involves analyzing a photo and reading about a relevant listening strategy. Follow-up activities include comprehension questions in true/false, multiple choice, and similar formats as well as questions for paired or whole-class discussion. Instructors will find that Vistas has done a stellar job of covering the four language skills and has eliminated a lot of the preparatory work involved in creating these activities.
Every Adelante section ends with a subsection called Proyecto (project). This section requires students to engage in a task-based project involving research and the creation and presentation of a final product such as a brochure, a radio broadcast, or a Web page. These projects are creative and engaging and serve as great lesson-final proficiency goals. After completing these activities, students know what they are capable of doing with the language they have recently acquired.
Every chapter in Vistas concludes with a section titled Panorama, which presents one (sometimes two) nations of the Spanish-speaking world. All 21 Spanish-speaking countries (including the United States) are covered. The layout includes a list of interesting facts about the country, a map with major cities and geographical features, a series of short readings on the country's culture (history, places, fine arts, literature, and food), an intriguing fact, and a list of topics and web addresses for online research. Finally, the lesson-final page includes a vocabulary list that is divided into convenient color-coded boxes for quick, easy reference.
In sum, the Vistas program achieves its goal of developing proficiency in listening, reading, writing, and speaking in meaningful contexts. Wonderful illustrations, vivid, interesting photos, and graphic design give Vistas a strong aesthetic appeal. What is more, language teachers will find the Instructor's Annotated Edition to be a user-friendly, detailed, and comprehensive resource.