The belief that “discussion” classes are easy to teach is one of the biggest misconceptions new teachers have. They believe that you walk into class and simply ask the students “what’s up?” Then, waves of conversation flow from the students mouths and the teacher sits back thinking about a party they will go to later in the night. Well, maybe I exaggerate but only a little. While many teachers approach their “discussion/conversation” classes this way the truth is that those teachers classes are not very good. “Discussion” classes need structure, they need a good lesson plan and they need a good textbook that is devoted to discussion classes. Today we are going to see if the textbook “Communication Strategies” written by David Paul and published by Thomson is one of those.
“Communication Strategies is a intermediate level series discussion class textbook.The textbook has 15 units where each unit focuses on a particular topic. Each unit is about six pages long and has around 16 different exercises. Let’s take a look at an example unit.
On the first page there are four warm-up questions related to the topic. The teacher can simply ask the students these questions or you could split the class into teams of two or three and have them ask each other to start mini-conversations.
After that there is a vocabulary section, here there are 12 vocabulary words related to the topic and there are also some incomplete sentences below where the students have to choose a new vocabulary word to complete the sentences. The sentences are part of a short conversation related to the topic.
Next is a section called the “Mind Map”. I don’t have the teacher’s guide I can’t say for certain how the author suggests teachers use the section. I would be curious because I have used similar ideas to try and show students how they can naturally transition conversations in two other topics or subtopics. But without the teacher’s guide I can’t say for certain.
On the next page is another section titled “Points of View”. This is a small sample conversation about the unit’s topic that makes use of the previously learned vocabulary words.
On the next page you have a section titled “Personalization” that gives the students eight sentence structures that the students can use to create their own ideas.
On the same page is a section titled “Discussion”, this section is divided into two parts. One part is called “Discussion Strategies” where the author has given the students three sentence structures that can be used in a conversation. Most of these focus on agreeing or disagreeing, giving reasons for their opinions and contrasting another person’s opinions and other useful phrases. The second part is a list of 6 to 8 questions that are related to the unit topic and can be used to start or continue conversations.
On the next page there are three activities titled “Follow-up Questions”, “Role-Play”, and “Situation”. The “Follow-up Questions” activity tells a student to write a list of things that are related to the unit topic. For example, one unit’s topic is vices so the activity tells students to list three things that can be addictive. Then the students are to talk with another student about their list and ask follow-up questions to the other student’s replies.
The “Role-Play” activity is exactly what it sounds like, a role-playing activity. The students are given a situation and are assigned different roles/characters. Each role has a different goal or purpose. The students are given some example questions to start a conversation. Then the students are to have a conversation about the topic and their character’s goals in regards to the topic.
The last activity on the page is titled “Situation”. This is very similar to the role-playing activity. Two students are to brainstorm various situations together, for example they are to think about if they have seen a ghost are not, think of any ghost stories that they have heard or talk about what the ghost might look like. After this brainstorming each student will take a role. One student will try to convince the other student that they have seen a ghost before. And the other student is instructed not to believe the first student story and generally be cynical about and ask questions about the experience.
On the last two pages we have seven more activities, one of the activities focuses on giving speeches, another is a short writing activity, then we have two activities based on collocation sets, which are basically sets of words that are often used together, such as “strong tea” or “powerful computer”. Then there is a crossword puzzle that uses previously learned vocabulary words and last an activity that give some extra phrases and expressions related to the topic.
Student Age Range: from 15 and up
Author: David Paul
Publisher: Cengage Learning
Where should I start? If you’ve read my article about “discussion” classes then you’ll know that one big mistake a lot of beginner teachers make is that they think of “discussion” classes as simply the teacher writing the topic on the board and telling the students to “go”. Obviously this is very wrong. A good “discussion” class needs to have a well thought out lesson plan and a well-structured textbook. So many other “discussion” textbooks generally go for quantity over quality. They give you 30 to 40 different topics but very few activities. The strength of “Communication Strategies” is the huge number of very well made, thought out and tested activities. I can look at these activities and know that the author has taught “real” classes with “real” students which I can’t say for other textbooks.
The structure of the units is also very good. You slowly build upon what you learn in the previous activity. This way you review what you’ve learned as well as learning new things in digestible chunks. I especially liked the “Follow-up Questions” activities that are often ignored by many textbooks and teachers. The role-playing activities are also great practice and are very popular with my students as they are very fun. The crossword puzzle, writing exercises and some of the other vocabulary activities are great for homework.
While this is a very good textbook I do have some minor complaints. The “Mind Map” activity is a great idea in theory but in practice I generally I myself skipping over it. The “Point of View”, which is the short example conversation, is certainly not bad but I would like it to be a little longer and perhaps slightly more natural. The “Personalization” section I really liked and use almost every class but I find that teaching eight sentence structures takes up a little too much time for my classes and I usually will choose only four or five.
This textbook is definitely made for longer classes. Of course if you have a short class that is only 40 to 50 minutes you can certainly take your time and do one or two pages and then during the next class continue on with the activities. Or conversely if you had a longer class say 90 minutes to two hours you might be able to get through one unit doing most of the activities. My problem, which might not apply to all teachers, is that my “discussion” classes are “open”. What I mean is every class does not have the same students. Generally the levels of the students in the class are the same but the students may choose to come to a Monday discussion class or Wednesday discussion class or maybe even a Friday discussion class. So for me, it’s difficult to split one unit into two or three different classes because I can’t guarantee that the students present have already gone over previous activities.
I have reviewed David Paul’s other textbook, Communicate, and found that his teacher’s books have a lot of really useful information. I would imagine that the teacher’s book for Communicate Strategies would also have been very useful but unfortunately it is a little difficult to get. The publishing company’s website has a link for an “Instructor’s Site” where you can get a sample of the teacher’s guide but you need an ID and password and there is no button to register. Oh, and the login page is in Japanese as well. It’s a real shame because I think that this is a really good textbook that shouldn’t be hidden away,
Lastly the course is targeted towards intermediate level students. Which makes a lot of sense because beginner students don’t have enough fundamental English skills to have conversations. That being said any of my lower intermediate level students might have some difficulty using this textbook. In the end they would get by but it might be a little challenging. I would personally recommend these textbooks for middle intermediate or upper intermediate level students. On that topic I would have loved to see a version of this textbook targeting upper beginner or lower intermediate level students. This is something that I’ve often argued about with my fellow teachers but I feel that there can be a lot of benefit to having beginner students occasionally do a dumbed down version of a “discussion” class.
Communication strategies is a great book for any “speaking/discussion” classes that you might have. It has tons of great activities, good topics and a great structure to it. I recommend it highly.