Mystery Tour
Handshake: a course in communication
Peter and Karen Viney
The course includes a Student's Book (ISBN 0-19-457220-X), Teacher's Book, Workbook and Cassettes, (Oxford University Press).
Reviewed by Paul Cane

Over the past few years EFL book-watchers such as myself have noticed an explosion in a specialist area of the course book market; course, generally at low lever, for adults in work that focus on general communication skills improvement with some elements of what has been described as 'Professional English' - the English required for work and perhaps travel, whatever that may be. Whether it is possible to identify English required for general professional work is a moot point, but publishers should be congratulated on providing us with a wider range of courses. In the past many teachers found it very difficult to find an appropriate course book amongst the range of standard General and more specialised Business English courses for groups of adults in work.

Handshake" is a pre-intermediate course for people in work. It is immediately apparent the it isn't a Business English course, so in what way does it differ from a standard General English course book? The key difference is that it focuses on improving students' oral communication skills, with a less marked emphasis on linguistic accuracy. It does not pretend to provide a balance range of skills work. In fact in the Student's book there are virtually no activities aimed at development of writing skills - perhaps the book's subsidiary title should really be "course in ORAL communication skills". Units are not based on topics but on aspects of oral communication (sometimes with a functional/notional feel). Therefore we have unit titles such as "Social Interaction", "Expressing Feelings", "Conversation Strategies" and "Requests". The promotional literature claims, with some justification, that the book "deals with...skills traditionally taught only at higher levels, all". Indeed this course does include a lot of useful work on communication strategies and skills such as turn taking, use of conversation fillers, body language and 'saying the right thing' that are often neglected at this level.

Let's have a look at how these general characteristics work their way into unit structure and classroom activities. There are 8 units, averaging at around 15 pages each. At the end of each unit there is a Language Focus - baldly speaking 2 pages of well constructed grammar exercises. At the end of the book we have an Interaction Appendix (role cards etc.), a useful Active Grammar Appendix (grammar reference) and a Listening Appendix (tapescripts - thank you author and publisher). The units themselves are not uniform in length or structure but have a similar feel in that they are all broken down into between 7 and 10 sections that have functional, notional or other communication-based headings that loosely fit within the overall unit title. So the "Expressing feelings" unit includes section headings such as "Compliments", "Complaining", "Being a good listener" and "How often do you get angry?". I like the way that these headings put a firm emphasis on communication but I did find it difficult to find my way around the book just from the Contents page and the unit and section headings. For example the Contents page does not indicate where reading texts or activities are to be found. The Teacher's Book helps but of course is not available to students- and indeed, some teachers.

All the units include lots of very interesting and practical oral activities, many with a keen focus on communication skills and strategies. The process within the units from awareness raising of aspects of communication (nearly always involving some listening) through to interactive practice is perhaps the main strength of the book. I was impressed by the range of oral activity type and length and, more importantly, by the oral activity type and length and, more importantly, by the oral skills development carefully fostered by the lead up, preparation and execution of these activities.

It is interesting to examine how the book "gives plenty of help with grammar, but is not grammar based" as the publisher tells us. The main body of each unit offers virtually no explicit grammar work. However, there is a systematic (albeit less comprehensive than in most course books) grammar syllabus running through the book in that the authors have identified areas of grammar relevant to the main communication skills syllabus and dealt with these via the Language Focus section in each unit, the Active Grammar Appendix (sounds painful!), and the Workbook. Throughout each unit there are useful references to relevant points of grammar: for example, in a section on "Giving Instructions" students are referred in passing to Conditionals type 1 which they can read about and then practice using the separate Grammar sections. If the teacher feels a grammar point needs introducing and clarifying they will have to do it themselves as there is nothing in the Student's Book beyond formal written explanation, although the Teacher's Book provides some ideas. I imagine that the way grammar is treated is designed to focus attention on fluent production in communication without what may be the distraction of a myriad of grammatical inaccuracies. It also gives the teacher a lot of flexibility with regard to the role of grammar work on the course: it can be lift for self access or play a more central role if the teacher has the skills to do their own grammar 'presentations'. However, with this flexibility goes a lot of responsibility for important decision taking. Either way students will need to be reasonably independent learners to make good use of the Grammar sections. In passing I would add that there is explicit work on phonology (some very useful intonation work) and vocabulary but not perhaps as much as many teachers would want.

This is an interesting book that brings to the learning of English originality in its approach and its wealth of interactive activities based, in particular, around conversation. I think that this book will work very well for mature learners whose prime aim is to improve their ability to communicate effectively in speech and who understand that grammatical accuracy is not of over-riding importance in the achievement of this. I think it will work best with the skilled teachers who can decide for themselves in consultation with the students quite how grammar should be dealt with and how to supplement the work provided on phonology and vocabulary.

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©Peter Viney & Karen Viney 2004