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Lane, S. 2010. Instant Academic Skills. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reviewer: Simon Webster

11 November 2011

Given the commercial success of the range of Cambridge Copy Collection titles such as Instant PET and Instant IELTS, the publication of a title for use with the large numbers of international students undertaking academic studies in the medium of English should perhaps not come as a surprise. EAP teachers, like those in other sectors, have many demands on their time and can be expected to be receptive to professionally-produced materials which will suit their classroom needs. Programmes focussing on academic skills are often discipline-specific, however, which introduces an added consideration for such a resource book.

The author has tackled this challenge by identifying five broad subject areas to cover the diverse disciplines students might be entering: health and medicine, business, science and technology, the arts, and education. The organising principle is to dedicate three units to each of these content areas, with a unit comprising two stand-alone, one-hour lessons. Each of the lessons integrates two of the main language skills so that a unit will provide topic-based language practice in the four main skills. As the publishers clearly note, however, the materials are not intended to constitute a course to be followed sequentially but have been designed to maximise their flexibility to supplement existing courses.

As with the other titles in the Copy Collection series, the materials are produced to high quality standards. The layout is clear and there are simple illustrations to provide context for the subject matter. The written texts are authentic, contemporary, interesting and accessible in their content both to those with a background in the subject matter and to a more mixed-speciality group of students. Similarly, the recordings are well-produced and include academic settings such as lectures and interviews. The main language activities, although indexed by what students do rather than the skills they develop (and including, incongruously, the answering of yes, no, not given questions) do offer useful integrated language practice for upper intermediate and advanced level students.

It is in the other aspects of academic literacy that the book does not achieve what it might have. The simplified nature of the content and tasks relating to areas such as academic writing, giving presentations and note-taking mean that it can only be regarded as a light introduction to the areas covered. To illustrate this point, lesson 12B, which focuses on introducing quotations, omits referencing ‘to keep the focus on introducing quotations effectively’ (p.90). As a result, the book lends itself far more to pre-foundation and foundation courses. Although there are many elements which have practical value, such as the jigsaw reading and role plays dealing with plagiarism issues, and sections on funnel introductions and the Cornell method of note-taking, the skills practice involved is simply not close enough to the reality of academic study for in-sessional use.

There is also an intrinsic problem with a course composed of topic-based, free-standing lessons which contain integrated academic skills development. Should I decide that my students need practice in using transition phrases in presentations, this appears in the lesson on Ancient Egyptian Art; but then creating a conclusion to a presentation is practised in the context of Microloans in Uganda. Thus, although we are invited to dip into the materials ‘to supplement general academic skills’ this is more complex in practice than is suggested. Rather than lessons being ‘instant’, where desired topics and skills do not match, teachers will need to be creative in integrating the skills sections into other contexts.

The accompanying teacher’s notes also include warmers, instructions on setting up the tasks, answer keys and possible extension activities. For teachers at an early stage in their professional development, this step-by-step approach and suggestions such as creating cloze activities from written texts for extra practice may be invaluable. There is also a strong emphasis on classroom interaction and activities to encourage participation which are the stock-in-trade of many EFL classrooms.  Other teachers, however, may lament the lack of deeper discussion and explanation about the complexity of the skills being introduced. An activity in 3B with language structures to introduce quotations, for example, makes no distinction between those which are suitable for direct quotations and those used for indirect ones.

There are a number of other aspects of this book which are promising and yet which could have been further developed. The internet links listed to accompany each lesson include interesting topic-related pages and some useful external sources of academic skills information but miss the opportunity to offer additional customised materials and teacher guidance. Authentic texts are adopted, but their original formatting is removed and there are no references on the photocopiable material to reinforce their authorship for the students. There is also a strategy section suggesting that students note and learn collocations instead of single vocabulary items, but little else in terms of the learner training we might expect to see in preparing students for independent study.

In conclusion, this title meets a clear demand for photocopiable and subject-specific materials developing academic literacy. It is imaginatively produced and the light feel of the book will certainly be popular with those attempting to engage younger learners in pre-foundation and foundation programme settings. I have raised concerns about the depth of the academic skills development offered, however, and see scope for a far more robust publication which would be better matched to the needs of many pre-sessional and in-sessional programmes.  Although the materials here are promoted as being ‘instant’, experienced EAP teachers are ‘bricoleurs’ and access materials from a variety of sources, using and adapting them and drawing inspiration for the design of their own materials. In this sense, Instant Academic Skills will certainly prove a useful addition to the range of materials which are at their disposal.

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