Collins Academic Skills: Presenting and Group Work review

Another MET one. This time the reviews editor added words that suggested I’d still recommend the Group Work title, which is a rather “generous” reading of what I wrote…

Group Work by Graham Burton: ISBN 978 000 750714 6

Presenting by Patrick McMahon: ISBN 978 000 750713 9

“Presenting – Deliver presentations with confidence” and “Group Work – Work together for academic success” are in the new Collins Academic Skills series. As their subtitles suggest, they are much more like books of advice for people who have to give presentations and do group work in their own language than they are like traditional language-based EFL books. In fact, Presenting’s blurb’s only mention of language is “MP3 CD with model language and presentation techniques”.

Having realized this, my questions about the books were on their balance between language and advice, comparisons with advice online (mainly free but designed for native English speakers), grading and suitability of the language and advice for the target audience, and in what situations they were most suitable. As “Presenting” provides clearer answers, this review mainly concentrates on that book before moving onto Group Work.

“Presenting” has 12 chapters that can be divided into an overview, those dealing with specific kinds of academic presentations (“Seminars and tutorials” and “Poster presentation”), and those giving tips on more typical PowerPoint presentations (“Planning and structuring formal presentations”, “Using your voice”, etc). There are then appendices, a glossary, audio scripts, and an answer key. The appendices give eight pages of useful phrases, a general guide to citations, and a simple outline for how to organize presentation notes.

Each unit starts with aims and a self-evaluation quiz where students circle “agree”, “disagree” or “not sure” in answer to statements like “I know words and phrases to use when referring to visual aids” and “I know about the kinds of problems that can occur when using visual aids and how to overcome them”.

The unit then has short sections with advice on aspects of the topic, e.g. “The importance of body language”, “Choosing between sitting and standing”, “Finding the right ‘home position’”, etc in Unit 7. Most of these have one or two “Exercises”. Some of these are language exercises, some are to make sentences with good advice or analyse which good tips are being used, some are noticing exercises based on the CD, and others ask students to practise things out loud. There are a good variety of exercise types, but the difficulty can vary quite a lot, from identifying the function of “Are there any questions?” to guessing meanings of metaphorical gestures. This was also somewhat true of the language points covered, with quite advanced points such as cleft sentences, plus some almost unteachable points like intonation patterns.

The units also have highlighted “Tips” and “Glossary” entries scattered through them, e.g. “Do not be afraid to pause during your presentation,…”  and “The pace of something is the speed at which it happens” in Unit 5.

I generally agreed with the tips given and thought they were appropriate for those likely to use the book. My favourites included leaving the audience with an interesting thought, thinking about position of presenters who are not speaking, adding notes as hidden extras on PowerPoint and printing it out to speak from, practising with a long mirror to check your whole body language, practising over music to improve volume, thinking about a ‘home position’ to return to after moving, practising looking up from notes at least once every five seconds, using personal pronouns to engage people, creating blank slides so the audience can listen without distraction, putting questions rather than information on slides, covering parts of slides with blocks of colour to highlight what is left, and undertaking other English challenges to prepare mentally to give a presentation.

Although I’d agree with all the planning stages given in the book, I’d suggest mind maps to aid brainstorming, organisation and editing, and doing that before narrowing the focus of the topic down. I’d also recommend more concrete aims than remembering information, if possible changing people’s minds or actions.

I’m not sure if I agree on using prompt cards (which could get mixed up), learning general word stress patterns, thinking about words per minute, working on weak forms and joining words together (completely unnatural and distracting when rehearsed) or thinking about breathing or possible nerves.

There also could have been something specific on hooking an audience and using questions where people raise hands in response.

There were too many tips for anyone to take in, but this tends to happen with a book on one topic with more tips than language. Fewer highlighted “Tips” and more connected text might have helped, and there could have been a quiz/ questionnaire at the beginning to guide students to the most useful things for them.

The advice was generally written with suitably graded language. Although there are over 100 explanations of words used in the text, students are likely to meet most in other advice on presentations such as pre-sessional courses. The definitions were not the best. It is perhaps inevitable that a Collins book would use COBUILD definitions, but they really missed a chance to add something extra by using the exact same definitions in the glossary sections through the book and at the back.

The “Useful phrases” in the text and appendix are generally slightly higher in language level than the advice and definitions, including some quite advanced phrases like “In a sense”, “I’m just curious if”, “Just out of interest”, “Just thinking about your previous point”, and “Prices hit rock bottom”. Useful phrases which I had never thought of included “Could you expand on”, “One thing you might not know about… is”, “We’ll see some graphs about that later”, “We’ll come back to this table later”, “But take a closer look at” and “This has implications for”.

In general, the book is accessible to and useful for students above mid-Intermediate level, meaning the majority of students who have managed to enter a foreign university that this book is aimed at. Students who have a lower level or will give presentations only in their own country might benefit more from a shorter book, looking up advice on the internet and/ or advice in L1.

Given the talky style and the fact that an answer key is included, this book is not suitable to set as homework for a whole class. It is also completely unsuitable for use in lessons, where I would use much more brainstorming and elicitation, for example getting students to draw their own conclusions on what makes a good presentation from examples of suitable and unsuitable language. However, there is plenty of good advice and language that teachers could adapt, and it is well worth getting to know this book as a possible extra resource to recommend to students who need (more) specific practice of this point. For them, the book is accessible, varied and attractive enough to work through a good proportion of and learn some very good advice and some useful language from. There were also a couple of things that I will adapt for my classes, including using the CD.

“Group Work” is very similar, this time covering “Why do group work?”, “Preparing for group work”, “Planning your group assignment”, “Working collaboratively”, etc. The appearance and structure of each unit and most of the things at the back of the book are the same as “Presenting”, but instead of a CD there are transcripts of interviews with students and lecturers about group work and an example group presentation.

My conclusions are also similar, but with “Group Work” I’d concentrate more on the caveats. This is mainly because of the topic of group work, as it is more difficult for students to imagine the situation being described, practise the language, prepare for the next time they are really in that situation, etc than it is with presentations. Unfortunately, this situation is made worse by the strange decision to have no CD with the “Group Work” book, where it would have been even more vital, perhaps with exercises like “Listen and quickly respond to what your group work partner says”. It also seems that the author of this title had more in mind the possibility of a whole class having this book, because it seems difficult for a single student to take the advice given into real group work if the other members aren’t aware of that advice. For example, it would seem incredibly rude to use the “Ground rule reminder” telling people to “please remember the following ground rules” if they weren’t using the same book – and if only one person is bringing these ideas to the group from the book that would, ironically, be guaranteed to upset the group dynamics.

As with “Presenting”, the format only really suits students doing extra work on their own weaknesses and isn’t really suitable to serve as a textbook or workbook. Nonetheless, for the pre-sessional courses and first year undergraduate students in English-speaking countries that the books are designed for, teachers could get useful advice and language for their classes plus something they could recommend to struggling students. I’ll also be having another look before the next academic year starts to make my university classes here in Japan more useful for any group work in English that they might have to do in the future.

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