Review ~ Raise the Issues

A discussion-based workbook for advanced students featuring authentic texts from various American publications and broadcasts from NPR that is particularly suitable for exam classes with academic orientation, especially TOEFL
Reviewed for Teflnet by Tom Alder
Raise the Issues

Raise the Issues

Raise the Issues is subtitled ‘An Integrated Approach to Critical Thinking’. ‘Integrated’ means what it means in the TOEFL exam. Rather than being treated in isolation, the skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing are brought together, with students responding to spoken and written texts by speaking and writing themselves. Reading matter is drawn from American publications such as ‘The New York Times’ and audio recordings from the American ‘National Public Radio’ (NPR) syndicate, edited into pieces lasting approximately 3 minutes each. It is generally oriented towards classroom use, with many exercises involving group or pair work. There are ten units, each with a distinct ‘issue’ and they all follow a similar pattern. Topics include law, sports, education, immigration and genetics. There is an introductory section giving suggestions for usage, and a teacher’s book (although a copy was not available at the time of writing this review: I managed without it).

The first thing to say about Raise the Issues is that to get to most out of it, you will need the audio CD. There are some exercises that work without recourse to it, but there is so much cross referencing between text, audio and written exercises that you would be left with half a book or less. But this CD is expensive and hard to get hold of- mine had to be imported from the USA. If I were intending to use this book in a course, I would order the CD in good time before it started. It is a shame it is not included with the book.

When looking at the blurb on the back, there is nothing explicitly to say that this book is aimed at learners of English as a foreign or second language. It simply says that it will ‘help advanced students develop critical thinking skills as they gain insight into American attitudes and values…’ But then it continues ‘…as students clarify, interpret and evaluate ideas from the material, they improve their command of sophisticated vocabulary and complex structures’. So this is language learning through the use of a context.

The subheading of the book is ‘An Integrated Approach to Critical Thinking’. This might lead us to expect a book about, say, identifying logical fallacies or spotting sophistry in political speeches; in other words, the sort of thing that normally appears in academic ‘critical thinking’ courses. You won’t find this kind of ‘critical thinking’ here. Yes, it involves criticism and debate, but this is much more in keeping with the kind of thing that appears in typical ‘discussion’ workbooks, or IELTS practice material. The target seems to be language rather than ‘thinking skills’. On the other hand, it does present opportunities for enthusiastic students to hone their debating skills if they are that way inclined, and presents a good deal of language suitable for the purpose.

You might also have wondered where ‘American attitudes and values’ (quoted from the blurb, above) fits into all this. Well, those fearing some kind of nationalist agenda need not worry; there is nothing particularly ‘American’ about the points made in this book, except in as much as Americans made them. Presumably the idea is to see these views as somehow representative of American people generally, and to subject them to critical analysis, perhaps from the viewpoints of other ‘cultures’. But the suggestion that ‘values’ and ‘attitudes’ can exist on a national level seems rather odd.

Everything is in American English, so one might wonder about using this book elsewhere, e.g. in the UK (as in my case). There are a few reasons to consider doing so. For one thing, American English is a major source of input for learners. TV and movies are obvious examples, but we might also consider audiobooks, lecture broadcasts and online talks (e.g. ‘TED Talks’), all of which seem to be becoming increasingly popular with students. Secondly, aside from adding variety to classes, exposure to different accents may help students to respond to spoken English more flexibly. It is not just a matter of being able to understand people speaking with that accent; it could also mean that learners become less dependent on recognising specific realisations of phonemes, and find other ways to interpret meanings. This of course is also an argument for using authentic audio materials generally.

In any case, is American English really so different from other varieties? We might find the distinctions ‘interesting’, but thus be prone to exaggerating their importance. But for learners, are such things as the meaning of ‘pants’ or the pronunciation of ‘herbs’ really a maker-or-breaker, compared to, say, sentence structure and general intelligibility? Such differences as exist can also be exploited with questions such as “What would an Englishman/ Irishman/ Scotsman have said in this situation?”

Raise the Issues follows a regular format, with each unit divided into seven subdivided sections. The first of these is ‘I: Anticipating the Issue’ and features a cartoon with a naff joke to introduce the topic, with a few anticipatory ‘discussion points’. It’s a typical intro or lead-in. Only one or two will get the joke before it is explained, and fewer still will laugh. But you never know.

‘II: Background Reading’ follows, and it has three sub-stages. First, we see a text of approximately 500 words, based on the main theme of the unit. Trickier vocabulary is highlighted and an exercise follows where students may have to do a task like paraphrasing the sentence where the word appears, demonstrating understanding of both word and sentence, and also getting more of an idea of the passage. The highlighting also provides a convenient aid for revision, for both teachers and students. Maybe the writer had one eye on the TOEFL iBT exam, since identifying the meaning and function of highlighted words in context features prominently there as well. One really good feature of this book is the recycling of vocabulary throughout the units. Words marked out in this section may well appear later, and the background readings generally are written in anticipation of the authentic listening and readings that follow them.

The following list of ‘highlighted’ words and phrases, taken from various points in the book, is offered to give an idea of the level and nature of the featured vocabulary. Here we go…

-Assimilated, detaining, craving, subject to, exuberant, short-changed, fostered, mandate, proponents, gaping hole, relinquish, staggering, ramifications, equivocal, intervention, validate, double standard, multifaceted, unprecedented, trauma, serene, forged, homogenisation, breached, eclectic, shallowness, compulsive, pipe dream, take a tough stand, commensurate with, harnessing, marshalled, by product.

We can see here a mix of collocated and idiomatic language (‘gaping hole’, ‘pipe dream’ etc) alongside more standard advanced academic vocabulary (‘proponents’, ‘unprecedented’). This selection is representative of the lexis in the book, for both receptive and productive purposes.

Following all this, there is a stage called ‘Summarizing the Issue’ in which students in groups interpret the ideas presented in the reading and may be asked to complete charts, tables or Venn diagrams. This collaborative effort gets learners talking, and gives them a specific task to focus their discussions. It is followed by the ‘Values Clarification’ stage in which students now discuss and compare their points of view on the matter, using a couple of given questions as prompts.

This stage rounds off ‘Background Reading’, and we come to ‘III: Opinion 1: Listening’. The recordings are generally around 3 minutes long and, being edited radio broadcasts, are easy on the ear, clearly enunciated and well organised. Students may listen three times, firstly for main ideas, secondly for detail, and finally for specific language points. Each listening stage is accompanied by a particular exercise, the final one involving a gap-fill transcript of the talk, with missing prepositions, articles or other vocabulary. Thus there is a balance between general comprehension and attention to ‘micro skills’. Working with a transcript is also a plus for students who feel frustrated by listening exercises.

In ‘IV: Opinion 2: Reading’, we are introduced to the main reading task of the unit, which is fronted by a single multiple-choice summary question. This passage, taken from an editorial or article, is longer than that in section 2, being similar in size to passages in the IELTS and TOEFL exams (around 700-800 words). Unlike the first reading, it is based around a single, specific point of view, usually contrasting with that in the listening. A series of ‘reading for detail’ questions follow, picking out points or relationships between ideas. Put together, the answers to these questions may serve to summarise the text. From here, we move onto a vocab-based ‘word search’ stage, which may take a variety of forms, such as having to say which of four given options would not work as a synonym.

The next section is ‘V: Synthesising Two Opinion Pieces’ and involves comparing and contrasting the broadcast and the article. The first activity is interpretive: students (in groups or pairs) have to fill in charts or diagrams showing how the two views on the same topic converge or diverge. This can be a good speaking activity if done in pairs or groups, since it may involve paraphrasing and giving reasons. After this comes a speaking activity in which students compare their own opinions on the matter. Generally, little direction is given other than asking which of the two opinion pieces is closest to their point of view. Finally in this section comes ‘vocabulary reinforcement’, which might take the form of a word transformation table, or an exercise for matching words related by association of ideas rather than form.

We now come to ‘VI: Speaking’. It starts with a ‘case study’ – a short piece of text describing a situation. For example, in the ‘genetics’ unit, there is a piece on Ashkenazic Jewish women who may, according to some quoted genetic research, have a higher than average disposition to breast cancer. But being screened for it, they fear, could lead to ‘discrimination in insurance or employment’. More research needs to be done, but many women are ambivalent about taking part.

This kind of thing is a typical set up for an ‘ethical debate’ which here (as in most units of the book) takes the form of a role-play. Class members, in groups, take on the role of the women and have to say whether they would agree to participate in the research. The suggestion is that groups ‘report back’ to each other afterwards, comparing decisions and reasons. This kind of thing can work well, but like all role-play needs to be timed well and handled carefully. The dangers are well known: weaker or less forthcoming students may defer to more upfront ones, and there may be homogeneity of opinion or over-reliance on the text, perhaps even with it being quoted verbatim. Some students do not look at a language class as a suitable occasion to air their views on things, especially those involving hypothetical situations. However, these problems are common to all role-plays of this sort. I cannot comment on how the teacher’s book might suggest dealing with them.

Two or three discussion questions round off this section. These may involve giving opinions, talking about consequences or assessing the impact of the views presented in the article or broadcast on one’s own view.

The final section is ‘VII: Writing’. This starts with a grammar stage, which draws on the broadcast (section 2) or the article (section 3). A grammar point relevant to one or the other is focused on, with well-presented exercises on such things as noun phrases, participle clauses or passive voice. This is followed by a subsection called ‘Writing Style’. This title may be misleading, since it is generally more concerned with the coherence and ‘internal workings’ of a piece of writing rather than aesthetics. It might be better described as ‘technique’, and it involves such things as cohesion, contrast, paragraphing, argumentation, concession and illustration. This is good classroom material, and could provide a solid basis for a writing lesson.

The writing section ends with a couple of essay questions. As essay questions go, they seem rather long. However, this is because they reiterate the views given in the broadcast or articles once more, and then may present one or two other ideas before asking students to give their opinion. If one were using the book over the course of a week, this would perhaps be set as weekend homework.

The overall impression I get from this book is that, for the right kind of group, it could be very useable and cohesive, and it has plenty of substantial material to get one’s teeth into. I would not personally want to use this week in, week out, as I like to vary materials and the ‘debate’ format might get repetitive after a while. Having said that, I think it could be ideal for a class aimed mainly at debate and discussion. I found it also makes an excellent break from standard course books, used every three weeks or so, and I have used a number of units in this way as part of IELTS preparation classes, stretching them out over a few days. It is well organised and the regularity of it would be helpful for teachers requiring a fairly easy-to-plan lesson. The use of authentic materials (especially audio) is a major plus, as is the integration between skills. This latter feature, as mentioned, makes it a natural choice for TOEFL classes. There is little, if any, extraneous matter: everything ties in with the theme of the unit one way or another. It is particularly strong on vocabulary, and it seems the author has made great efforts to ensure that new lexis is recycled throughout the units.

If you buy this book expecting it to be a kind of ‘English for Specific Purposes’ for ‘critical thinking’, applied logic or philosophy, you will be disappointed. It does however make a workmanlike effort to encourage language students to enter into discussion and debate, and provides plenty of language for them to do so. In this respect it is not so different from many other discussion-oriented course books, but I think the organisation, the use of authentic materials and the integration of the tasks give it an edge. My main reservation, in fact, is the price and the fact one has to buy the CD separately, considering how essential it is to so much of the material in the book. Buying both will set you back around £50. The fact that you can buy the book in the UK but have to order the CD from the USA is also irksome.

If these matters could be rectified, perhaps by including the CD in the price of the book, or giving online access to audio materials, I would strongly recommend this book, to international colleges and students as much as to American ones.

Reviewed by Tom Alder for Teflnet April 2011

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