Safety and Challenge
I want to start this review, rather unusually, with a bit of hard-salesmanship to persuade you to read what I've written, just in case you've seen the fact that it is for Japanese learners and switched off straight away. Although I am teaching in Japan, and probably only would have picked up a title like this in London when I did have a class full of Japanese students (which happened often enough) I chose this book for review due to a general interest in seeing how much it can be useful to classify students and their learning styles by nationality rather than age etc. My conclusions are below. I have also included some of my favourite ideas from the book in the review.
The most fascinating part of this book is that the authors have come up with a totally new way of looking at and classifying classroom activities, being part of a continuum with "safety" for the learners at one end and "challenge" at the other. This is shown for each activity in the book by circles showing the amount of challenge in black surrounded by the reassuring safety in white. An example of a "safe" activity that should reassure shy students is having students try to reproduce pictures from memory before they try to do something similar as a language learning strategy. A more "challenging" one that could mean Asian students doing something they do not expect to in the classroom has students shouting out when the teacher makes a "mistake" reading through a text, as practice for increasing reading speed. A middle of the road one asks students to add typical (Japanese) mistakes to a corrected text. The book is a more or less equal division between the three categories above, divided into sections on Building on Existing Strengths, Developing New Models of Learning, Discussion Skills, Cultural Surf-Riding, Letting Go of Tension and Taking the Focus Off Language. These divisions work nicely in making the material easy to navigate and understand, and there are some good ideas here that I have not seen before--especially those that seem influenced by Humanistic Language Teaching. All the activities are described succinctly and well and seem to have been well tried out in the classroom.
Although the intro does deal with some cultural background on Japanese learners (some of which is obvious and some controversial), the book concentrates mainly on practical ideas and advice on how and when to use these ideas. So the question remains--is there anything culturally specific about the fact that most of the activities I tried in this book worked well with my classes in Japan? The authors are teaching in the UK, where the contrasts with other nationalities are clearer, but I have to say that I still believe culture is not very relevant to the activities that are given here. It is a great collection of activities, though, and if you need to introduce "safety and challenge for self-conscious (teenage) students" or "safety and challenge for classes where people don't want to embarrass themselves in front of their boss but need to loosen up" or "safety and challenge for the shy", this book is well worth a look. If you do sometimes teach Japanese or other East Asian students, so much the better.Alex Case has worked as an EFL Teacher, Teacher Trainer, Director of Studies and EFL Editor in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, the UK and Japan. Alex Case is Reviews Editor of TEFL.net.