Open Minds: Exploring Global Issues through Reading and Discussion
Steven Widdows and Peter Voller (1996)
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xxiv + 179
ISBN 0-472-08358-9 (paper)
Open Minds is very much what its title describes: a text that provides a launching point for exploring important global issues. It is designed to be used individually as a workbook or in a group. It provides structure for 40 to 60 hours of classroom work through reading, discussion, and discovery of some of the complex issues facing society. The book is designed for intermediate and/or advanced level adult students of English as a second language, although it could be used equally well in an English as a foreign language setting, where an awareness of "western" culture is often difficult to cultivate without total immersion.
It is difficult to find fault with the book, even given the lofty aspirations of Widdows and Voller. The authors aim to integrate activities that build skill in reading and oral fluency. Furthermore, they attempt to raise consciousness with regard to important social issues. Secondary goals relate to vocabulary development and organizational skills for writing or speaking in a group setting. The book opens with introductory notes written in a conversational style. These notes, addressed to the student and to the teacher, are useful in defining the roles in the classroom and in orienting the reader toward goal setting. Also in the introductory section, we find the contents described according to task type and skill--helpful for those who want to locate and practice a particular skill. In short, the organization of the text is simple and straightforward for learners and teachers. The ten units are well laid out and interspersed with varied examples of text, as well as authentic advertisements and photos.
One of the more important opening statements tells students that reading is not just one skill (p. xi). The authors go on to illustrate this by giving ample opportunity for learners to skim, scan, draw inferences, apply knowledge, and so forth. Widdows and Voller also suggest that it is important for students to find their own voices (p. xix). Often the best way to achieve this is to elicit opinions on topics students care about. Open Minds covers some of the numerous issues that will be relevant to international students in educational and social settings. For example, students will be expected to have opinions on or be aware of issues relating to organic food, the economics of the developing world, and homosexuality. At the very least, the topics presented in the book will serve as an introduction to the kinds of discussions expected of students in a classroom or in a social context. [-1-]
The text selections appear to be carefully chosen to reflect a range of reading skills. It is a pity that the texts are adapted, although the original articles are authentic and the sources are varied and fairly current. Although the exercises delineated for each unit appear simplistic, there are numerous opportunities for teachers and learners to go off on a tangent, to flesh out the discussion with some of their own experiences, or to take the discussion where they want it to go. Open Minds succeeds in tackling some difficult issues in a way that invites discussion and builds confidence-- no small feat, given the fact that one of the greatest barriers to nonnative speakers of English is full inclusion in the discussions that take place in classrooms or in social settings.
In summary, the book provides interesting topics and develops useful skills. However, the title suggests that topics dealt with are of global interest and I suspect they are seen and treated very differently outside a North American context. Although students can share their viewpoints and cultural values with classmates through discussion, it may be difficult to break out of the mold of a simplistic, rather "western" treatment of truly difficult international issues. The book could be improved if the texts were in their original form (not adapted) and if some writings from international authors were included. The strength of the book lies in the way it combines cognitive and affective tasks to both challenge students and draw them into classroom discussion. A course using this text should result in confident and articulate speakers of English!
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