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Catalyst: A Conversation Taskbook for English Language Learners – False Beginner to Advanced

Book Review: ETAS Journal Volume 30 No. 3 Summer 2013

Brian Grover

Speekeezy Publication Workshop, 2012 (www.speekeezy.ca)

ISBN: 978-0-9688018-2-6

iPad version downloadable through the iBook store

Anyone who knows me can confirm that I’m big on technology, so when I was asked to review a coursebook on an iPad, I needed no enticement. And since I’m also big on thinking skills and challenging my learners, I was hooked after just my first look into the iBook Catalyst.

When using digital technology, it is very easy to lose focus and become engaged in all the bells and whistles, but what I saw here was technology that did not aim to bedazzle but to engage and truly help learners complete their tasks. It is a well-thought-out taskbook for teachers to use in class, preferably attached to a digital projector or easily visible to the learners.

This iBook was developed for adult learners from “False Beginner to Advanced” as the title states, and can be used for general as well as in exam preparation classes, and I can even imagine using it in Business classes. It requires very little technical knowledge apart from what is necessary to download a book onto an iPad and use the device itself. All the interactive elements are self-explanatory and intuitive in use. It represents not only a new form of coursebook, but a new approach – one that activates the learner to take charge and construct meaning, rather than simply manufacturing materials to be learned.

Catalyst is learner-centered, which means learners are actively constructing their knowledge of and around the language. This is cleverly pieced together by supplying tasks which allow learners to practice conversation by building on gambits and idiomatic phrases. However, the teacher would be wrong to only use it to develop speaking skills. Many of the tasks are supported by journal assignments for the learners to reflect on the use of language in different situations, thus allowing for writing practice in the form of consolidation and transfer. In addition, learners are supplied with example dialogues to either read or listen to. These illustrate how the gambits are used in conversation, offering a model for the learners to follow.

The structure of the book is as follows. On each page there is a sidebar with quotations, jokes, prompts, and apps to be used for tallying points, giving marks, timing, and others. On each page there is a small box which, when touched, takes the user back to the Table of Contents at the front. On most pages there is also a red dot which opens a prompt for learners to speak about. There are three phases described in detail below, which lead the learner ever deeper into the structure of a large variety of conversation types.

Phase 1 is the Initializing phase. As this type of language learning will most likely be new to the learners, the tasks in this phase are meant to acquaint them with the structure and help develop spontaneity. The basis of each task is a prompt used for word association. These prompts pose the entry point for language development, conversation, and vocabulary expansion. The resulting vocabulary from the word association or prompt can be put into a mindmap and then further developed in the direction the learner and the task dictate. The tasks can be worked through or used as warm ups later on. The mindmap app on the sidebar illustrates how this can be done.

Phase 2 is called Output and the aim of these tasks is to activate and use the language based on prompts. Each task has the aim at the beginning and a model of the type of dialogue that learners are expected to create as well as variations. Further apps are presented on the sidebar as well. There is a tally app which keeps count and can be used in a variety of ways. One way is to set targets and count how many times these are reached. A timer is also presented with ideas on how to use it in class. Journal assignments are slowly introduced so learners begin to keep record of the vocabulary and phrases they are accumulating. These are not simply lists, but very situation-based.

Phase 3 is the main phase, also called Tactics. Learners develop confidence in speaking while acquiring conversational tactics. Once again, prompts are used and gambits and idiomatic chunks for specific purposes are illustrated. Different tactics such as echoing, negation, and rephrasing, to name a few, are made transparent to the learner, both in meaning and usage. There is a strong stress on the communicative factor, for instance by assessing the eye contact between the speakers. A rating system for assessment is introduced here and there are more tips found in the sidebar for the learner. The dialogues become more conversational and the journal assignments reinforce transfer of what was practiced orally. There is a strong progression found as this phase continues, and at the end there are a couple of surprises: interactive tidbits to engage the learner.

Finally, the book ends with a short appendix with several more traditional exercises which focus on language. Though few, they could stimulate the teacher to develop further exercises adapted to the specific needs of his or her learners.

This taskbook can be used alone or to supplement a coursebook. Its stress on conversation encourages collaboration among learners and provides plenty of opportunities for pair-work activities.

The beginning section of the book claims that it is a no-preparation course, and indeed, very little besides previewing and perhaps trying out the tasks beforehand is necessary. It is also declared as a stand-alone coursebook, and could be used as such. However, especially in Switzerland where so many adult learners are studying for exam preparation, it would be more appropriate as a supplement.

It would be wrong to think of it solely as a speaking course as there is a strong written element to it, as seen in the journal assignments. But through the implementation of gambits and idiomatic chunks, grammar in use is also supported by allowing learners to internalize expressions.

For teachers who are strongly dependent on coursebook materials and guidance from the teacher’s book, working with Catalyst will pose a challenging first step towards a paradigm change where the learner takes charge of what is learned. However, for those teachers who already use a learner-centered approach, this will be a welcome addition to the ideas they already implement with their learners.

A note on how to use Catalyst: to benefit fully from the taskbook, it is useful, though not necessary, for learners to bring their iPads to class so they can take notes, keep their journal, and so on. In any case, it will be necessary for the learners to be able to see the pages being used in class, and in some cases to be able to interact with the iPad. If it is a small class, the iPad can be set up so that the screen is visible to all. If the class is large, then there are cables with VGA connections between iPad devices and digital projectors. The prompts, apps on the sidebar, and possibly the example conversations will need to be projected. The journal assignments can, of course, be written on the learner’s iPad and will supply the opportunity for learners to go back and repeat some of the tasks on their own and with colleagues if they desire.

I highly recommend this iBook, which incidentally also comes in printed form.

Illya Arnet-Clark