The Reading Matrix
Vol. 1, No. 2, September 2001

For Your Information, Books 3 and 4
Karen Blanchard and Christine Root (1997, 2000)
Addison Wesley Longman
White Plains, NY
ISBN: Book 3: 0-201-87798-8
Book 4: 0-201-34053-4
Pp. Book 3: 232
Pp. Book 4: 266
Reviewed by Jennifer Feenstra
Groupe CCL International, Montreal, Canada

Teaching reading strategies and helping ESL students become more skilful readers of complicated English texts demands a lot from teachers. Finding reading textbooks that have both timely topics and useful exercises, as well as introductions of the reading strategies and practice in using them is an even more difficult task when looking for course books. The materials chosen and the exercises created in such books have to give students not only the knowledge of which strategies to use, but also experience in applying those strategies successfully. The "F.Y.I." series of books, and in particular the two books I have been asked to review, fulfil all these criteria.

Both books have introductions that lay out the basic premises behind the selection of the readings included: to help adult learners of English develop their reading skills through a variety of readings and exercises. Book Three's intended user is a high-intermediate ESL student who is "ready to take on the challenge of reading 'uncontrolled' language from mainstream sources" (p. vi). The audience for Book Four is a low-advanced student who already has experience with reading challenging material in an ESL class and is preparing to read independently.

The eight units in Book Three each include three or four readings of varying length and difficulty, pre-reading, post-reading and comprehension questions, points to discuss, exercises to help build vocabulary and writing skills, a "Just for Fun" section and a reader's journal to finish the unit. Explanations of the purpose of each portion of the unit are given in clear and concise terms in the first unit and are developed throughout the book. The themes of Book Three are communication, winning, art, medicine, human behaviour, the information age, science and marketing. Scattered throughout the book are F.Y.I. cultural readings designed to highlight a point raised in the unit, as well as small boxes of F.Y.I. trivia-type information on the topic.

To help students build their reading skills, there are exercises devoted to previewing, skimming and scanning, looking at style, poetic rhythm, argument construction, understanding the author's point of view and separating fact from opinion. Development of writing skills centres on reacting to an article in writing, summarising, paraphrasing and the reader's journal. Work on vocabulary expansion takes several forms, from looking for synonyms or antonyms in the dictionary to writing out definitions of words from their contexts, either from the reading or in example sentences. Each unit also looks at idioms or proverbs related to the main topic of the unit, having the students write their own guessed definition of the proverb or idiom from the context of the text or sample sentence. As mentioned above, the development of speaking skills focuses on discussion questions, with each unit culminating in a "Tying It All Together" section of broader topics to discuss. In this final section, there are also charts in which new vocabulary can be seen in the verb, noun, adjective or other forms. As the book progresses, the students are asked to fill in more and more of the forms on their own. This section includes a "Just for Fun" portion that is connected to the topic of the unit, with I.Q. tests, crossword puzzles and the like to help make study more light-hearted.

There are also eight units in Book Four, with between two and four readings of various lengths in each unit. Some of the readings in this book are quite long and more complex than in Book Three, as they should be for the level of the intended audience. The exercises provided for each reading are similar to those in Book Three, as given above. The themes of Book Four are language and life, Antarctica, home, athletes and role models, families, entertainers, entrepreneurs and I.Q. versus E.Q. The F.Y.I. snippets discussed above are lengthened in this book, including not only culture, but also history, sports and other topics. There are also trivia information F.Y.I. attention-grabbers throughout each unit.

The reading skills students are exposed to include all those listed above for Book Three, but also include understanding poetry and visual poetry, punctuation, making inferences, contrasting view points, interpreting charts and graphs, understanding transitions, reference words and figurative language. The vocabulary building exercises in each unit are of the traditional form, asking the students to write out the part of speech, definition and synonyms from a dictionary, then to write a sentence showing the word in context. A more interesting exercise in this book is one to increase reading speed. The purpose of this exercise is to help the students become more efficient readers through word recognition; students are to give themselves 20 seconds to read across columns of words searching for a given element, and record how long it takes them for each exercise at the end of the book. Improvement should be seen as they progress through the book. The development of writing skills again includes those of Book Three, but also has freewriting sessions and how to use quotations properly in written texts. The amount of written reader response expected within the units is longer in this book, as is the amount of oral response to discussion questions within each unit. The "Tying It All Together" sections at the end of the units have more in-depth discussion questions, but the "Just For Fun" portion is shorter, being word games.

Having tested the two books with classes of my own, I encountered only two problems with them. First of all, the focus of many of the articles chosen is American culture or American experiences. This limits the usefulness of the books, both for those teaching ESL outside of the U.S. and those teaching EFL. This is especially true of the first unit in Book Four, which deals with the experiences of immigrants to the U.S. My second concern arises from a point one of my students raised. Many of the discussion questions ask the students to talk about themselves, sometimes in quite personal ways. Not all students are willing to speak freely about their beliefs or feelings, whether for cultural, personal or other reasons, so making them answer such questions could work against the aim of encouraging critical thinking. Caution might be necessary with some of the discussion exercises in some circumstances.

Those points aside, the units in these two books have been carefully constructed to help students develop not only their reading, but all four language skills. The readings all fit together well within the units and real effort was made to expand the abilities of the students in a coherent manner. The topics chosen are stimulating and up-to-date, while being diverse enough to satisfy the interests of all types of students. The exercises are varied enough to make them more interesting, and the answer keys and full text credits are given at the end of both books, which is not always the case in the student's book. After having finished this series of textbooks, students should be able to not only know which language skills to use when reading, but also how to use them successfully.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Jennifer Feenstra has taught EFL and ESL to adults learners for the past 14 years. Although the focus of her Master's research was listening comprehension, she has recently become more interested in understanding the strategic and pragmatic approaches ESL students adopt when learning in a multicultural classroom setting.