Insight into IELTS / Insight into IELTS Extra (Workbook)

Author(s) Jakeman, Vanessa and McDowell, Clare
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Pages 191 / 128
ISBN 0521009499
Reviewed by Dr Richard Kiely
Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol
Review published 1 December 2004

The IELTS test and associated materials such as this coursebook, are of interest to different groups of educators: teachers of IELTS preparation courses, users of the test results and tutors in HE institutions who teach international students. The latter include university and college admissions tutors and lecturers on courses with students who have taken this test in order to meet an English language proficiency entry criterion. I am writing from both perspectives, a factor which accounts for the mixed message at the heart of this review.

As a teacher and researcher of English for Academic Purposes I am impressed by the selection of topics and tasks. In terms of the actual subject matter there is a commendable balance between the sciences, social sciences and the humanities. The tasks are varied and engaging, clearly designed to work successfully in the teacher-led classroom, in contexts where organised interaction is in pairs of small groups, and for independent learning. There are thirty units, spread over the four skills as follows: Listening 7; Reading 9; Writing 11; and Speaking 3, correspond in different ways to the preparation of students for IELTS and the relevance of these skills to the academic programmes for which IELTS is often a gateway. The heavier weighting toward writing and reading at the expense of listening and especially speaking also makes sense in terms of the classroom process: there will always be implicit learning opportunities in speaking and listening in classroom interactions.

Another positive feature is the progressive 'mining' of the materials provided: in addition to the main tasks there are supplementary activities for further work on specific aspects of academic language use based on the readings, etc. introduced in the thirty units on the four skills. The Workbook (Insight into IELTS Extra) provides an additional suite of learning activities, structured similarly around the thirty units of the coursebook. This mode of organisation gives the series a portfolio look, facilitating teacher design of a course based on this coursebook, and differentiation in the way a programme of learning is set out for individualised learning, whether guided by a teacher, or devised by the more autonomous student. In addition to this focus on developing language use skills, there is welcome attention to task and test-taking strategies, though I do not find that the marbled purple shading of these boxes makes for easy reading.

As a user of IELTS test results - I am an admissions tutor for a taught postgraduate course - the instances of language use focussed on in this book raises a key question: to what extent would a student skilled in these aspects of language use be prepared for the language demands of my course? And the answer unfortunately is 'not very well'. The main problem is the journalistic genre of the texts used. These are serious pieces of writing, representing issues in the fields of science, social science and the arts, and carefully selected for their topical and general interest value as well as their potential academic relevance. The fact that they are journalistic means however, that there is very little attention to positioning. It is a body of information set out to make a case (argument is a recurring notion in the reading and writing sections) with little engagement with complexity of positions or evidence. There is either agreement or disagreement. In Units 6 and 7 of the Reading section, there is some attempt to deal with different positions assumed by writers, and allocated by writers to the sources they quote. In the text on agriculture and the environment, - Australia's Growing Disaster - the views of a number of interested parties are set out, and there is a very engaging matching task. It differs from academic reading in two ways however: the sources are in the form of direct quotations, excerpts from brief telephone interviews which are often used in the construction of such articles (research in this journalistic frame involves identifying appropriate experts and securing their cooperation in supplying an appropriate quote); and the tasks for the reader do not involve critique in terms of the position represented, the interests of the source, or the connection between the evidence in the quote and the argument being furthered or refuted. The journalist here is representing a controversial issue in simplified and uncritical terms to introduce the topic to the general reader. Academic texts involve a writer who is an expert, exploring the complexities of an issue, and critiquing the position, arguments, and conclusions of others as part of the process on constructing a novel argument or perspective.

The problems which tutors on taught postgraduate programmes have with the writing of students correspond to some of the journalistic features of the training in academic reading and writing implicit in these books. Students find it difficult to identify the position of a writer which is embedded in complex prose rather than in a transparent 'sound-bite', and in their writing they set out the views of different experts or writers, without critical comment on them, or critically relating them to each other. Often this involves asking the fundamental question: Are they referring to the same thing?

It is perhaps unfair to lay these criticisms at the door of these books. Jakeman and McDowell are not responding to the needs of apprentice academic readers and writers: they are responding to the nature and structure of the IELTS test. And the IELTS might argue that the test is about English language skills rather than the capacity for reasoning or critique; that it is about readiness for new learning experiences, rather than proven achievement in such skills; and that the performance tested relates to what is done in a few short hours in a test context rather than over a year or longer in a specific academic community.

The positions issue at the heart of academic discourse, and of this review, must also be part of the way forward on this issue. IELTS as a test is in an ongoing process of enhancing its validity - the extent to which its results constitute a credible statement about readiness for academic study in English. It is doing this within the inevitable constraints - it operates across all academic fields and subjects, and bases its judgements on a performance in test conditions. Users of IELTS, admissions tutors and teachers of international students in universities and colleges should inform themselves of what IELTS results mean in terms of academic skills. An excellent starting point would be a careful reading of these books, especially where their subject area is represented, and the language use requirements set out in the tasks. Materials writers also need to take stock of their positions. In addition to preparing students for the particularities of the IELTS tests, they might raise awareness of the real academic process which these seek to represent. This might mean moving away from short journalistic pieces to articles or sections of articles from academic journals and university textbooks; introducing the notions of epistemological traditions, interests and types of evidence; and engaging with how language use, as well as topics from university courses, makes English for Academic Purposes different from General English.