English four you

23 February 2009


Writing a foreign language textbook can’t be an enviable job, or an easy one. Looking at the acknowledgements page in my Burlington English For You! [ESO 2] , I see that they even solicited the input of ten actual teachers in Spain for revisions & materials in the most recent edition (2006) —

— but that doesn’t mean I can’t hate them with a dull, stubborn intractability.

Today, preparing a worksheet for my 2º de ESO Íngles B (U.S. = 8th grade), I was confronted by the following, from Unit 4 (natural disasters, Past Simple, talking about the weather), reprinted here in its entirety. Imagine a photograph of a house reduced to rubble:

HURRICANES: Their names are Mitch, Floyd, Isabel, Ivan and Katrina. They are very powerful, and they are a serious problem in places near oceans. What are they? They are hurricanes.

In the USA, the hurricane season is from the beginning of June to the end of November and when a hurricane hits, it is very dangerous. People in hurricane areas always listen carefully to weather forecasts.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Katrina destroyed thousands of homes and killed hundreds of people. The Williams family sat on the roof of a house for two days and they survived. But the hurricane destroyed their home, their furniture, and all their clothes.

The question I’m left with is, if, in trying to include topical & recent material in a textbook, you are forced, because of the level of the students’ English, to simplify complicated & horrific events into trivialities, and inevitably dated trivialities at that – so that “topical & recent material” becomes neither, three years down the line in a pueblo east of Jaén, is it even worth it to include topical & recent material?

In a textbook, I mean.


ps. Test your knowledge! [Courtesy of English For You!, which has this bad habit of putting its special tips in this format: English 4 U!]

Circle the correct word to complete the sentence:

1. Mitch, Floyd, Isabel, and Katrina are the names of . . .

a. animals
b. hurricanes

2. Hurricanes hit places near . . .

a. mountains
b. oceans

3. Weather forecasts . . . . important for people in hurricane areas.

a. are
b. aren’t

4. The Williams family . . .

a. survived.
b. didn’t survive.

4 Responses to “English four you”

  1. Cordelia Says:

    I see what you’re saying. On the other hand, when I was learning another language (French), I think this would have been appropriate for a beginning level. I am interested as to whether the book explains, or leaves it to you to explain, the use of the verb “hit” for storms and disasters. What verb is used in Spanish ? How much freedom do you have in your curriculum ? Would it be possible to look up and print out an article from an American newspaper from the time (like the Times Picayune ?) to compare with the Katrina story, and to maybe work out a paragraph in class ?

  2. Jim Sligh Says:


    It isn’t the level of the text that I object to, exactly; I know that things need to be simplified, especially for beginners. It’s more that the textbook, in the name of “topicality,” feels the need to take a particularly traumatic & fraught event for many Americans and use that as its example.

    It’s not as though my kids are getting additional interest out of a natural disaster tens of thousands miles away that happened when they were 10 years old – the juice is not worth the squeeze, for a textbook, a fixed document that’s providing standardized curriculum.

    As for whether the book explains, for example, “hit” – like I said, this is the page in its entirety. The text, and then the questions, which are mainly to make sure that the student didn’t misunderstand the text entirely. (Animals or hurricanes? Mountains or oceans? Dead or alive?)

    Now, all of that said, there is a bit of happy news: I don’t teach out of the book at all.

    This is partly because I don’t really have my own classes, as an auxiliar (I essentially guest-teach in each class once a week – which is more than a lot of auxiliares do), and partly because teachers are willing to give me free rein during my hour.

    This is why I get frustrated with the book – I rarely read it. (I open it just enough to make sure I’m giving the kids vocabulary and grammar in my exercises that’s going to help them pass their test, & reinforce what they’re doing for the rest of the week, because otherwise their attention wanders and what I’m doing looks less effective to teachers).

    So I offer lessons that are up-to-the minute – I can do an Obama inauguration lesson the day of the inauguration, a weather lesson that involves weather reports from that morning, etc. I also incorporate much more speaking and listening than the textbook, which is used in practice (whatever the prompts that it tries to provide) as a purely written & read tool.

    The question I asked in my post was more . . . – it’s up to teachers as far as incorporating current events. But textbooks are permanant documetns (even if they’re changed out every so often). What kind of culture & event inclusion works? What doesn’t?

    (on the opposite page from “Hurricanes,” we begin Unit 5: What Makes You Laugh?)

  3. dave Says:

    It’s interesting how the textbook succumbs to the language of the digital age. “English 4U.” Does Spain have a similar morphing of the written?

  4. Jim Sligh Says:


    Spanish is refigured by text messages & IMs too; the most dramatic change is probably the use of “k” to replace “qu” – the sound’s the same, you save a character – so that “te quiero” becomes “t kiero.”

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