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ELT Book Reviews


Reflecting on Teaching the Four Skills: 60 Strategies for Professional Development

Thomas S.C. Farrell
The University of Michigan Press, 2012
pp. xvi +223

Reviewed by :

To the Profile PageRobert J. Dickey

Keimyung University, Korea

Beginning the Journey
Thomas S.C. Farrell, perhaps ELT’s best known (certainly its most prolific) writer on reflective practice, presents his latest guide, targeted primarily to new and incoming teachers. For those of us with more teaching experience, it is a useful "step back" in terms of guiding us through fresh re-considerations of what we do in the classroom.

Neither a coursebook nor a scholarly tome, perhaps it is best viewed as a supplemental text in a TESOL course or practicum, or as recommended reading for novice teachers. More experienced teachers can use the ideas and reflection questions within the book for their own self-assessment of professional practice.

... it is clearly intended to be an introspective guide rather than a survey of the literature

The book is comprised of six chapters: on the four macro skills – Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening – plus chapters on assessment and professional development that tie the preceding chapters into a more comprehensive whole. Each chapter consists of 10 strategies.

Introductory matters are kept brief, thankfully. We could easily skip the 5½ page introduction; each chapter jumps into strategies after only the briefest of overviews (roughly 200 words).

Farrell notes that the chapters can be read in any order: he starts with Reading (chapter 1). Within the individual chapters, the selected strategies, too, are less dependent on which is read first. Most chapters begin with strategies for reflection on “the nature of (topic)” and “the purpose of (topic)”. There were some clear progressions within some chapters, such as with Writing, where he introduces and then discusses the strategies for writing as product, process, and genre.

The scenarios which helped explain each strategy were useful and not too lengthy. In fact an index of scenarios, including the student levels referenced in each, could have been a valuable addition to the text. This points to the greatest shortcoming of this book: there are references listed at the end of the book, but no indexes or glossary. In a book catering to the less-experienced, a glossary can be invaluable, and indexes encourage future returns to the book as needs arise. To be fair, the table of contents is very detailed, including page numbers to the start of each of the 60 strategies.

Overall, while the book refers to scholarly works, it is clearly intended to be an introspective guide rather than a survey of the literature. For this reason, I wonder why the end of chapter reflection questions were not presented at the beginnings.

Working through our profession’s lack of unity
Farrell notes that there is no agreement on what is effective teaching, and little agreement on many other key concepts in teaching English Language Learners. He also points out in the introduction how there are widely divergent views on issues such as extensive reading and phonics. This seems to support his approach of offering 10 strategies for consideration in each chapter as samples, not as prescriptions. The brief “Precaution” for each strategy is a welcome addition, it clearly distinguishes Reflecting on the Four Skills from the too-frequent “one-size fits all” prescriptions for novice teachers.

Also it is important to realize, as Farrell points out, that few lessons are entirely focused on just one skill. Similarly, the four skills do not stand outside of the language elements of grammar, pronunciation, and so forth. The chapter on speaking does include strategies for pronunciation, grammar and tasks. Similarly, this book on reflection is not entirely retrospective, but includes strategies for lesson development and an entire chapter on professional development.

Reflecting on Reflections
Chapters 5 and 6 are interesting departures. While the chapter designs are similar, the topic areas are different, interesting, and exciting. The title of Reflecting on Teaching the Four Skills is pretty obvious, and would seem to be covered by the first four chapters. In some books, the chapter on assessment (chapter 5) would have been subsumed into the preceding four chapters. Farrell, however, rather than discussing specific assessment instruments for each of the skills, does a very nice job of summarizing some of the major classroom assessment issues in only 35 pages. Selected-response, Constructed-response, and Personal-response assessment designs, along with Washback and Bias, are each considered, then married to the four skills. Strategies specific to the four skills are quite broad, and the scenario of teaching to the university entrance test is one that is more controversial. Again, the theme here is less about “how to” – the book is about reflecting on possibilities.

The sixth and final chapter, on professional development, is a surprise to those who didn’t bother to read the subtitle. This chapter doesn’t attempt to address skills or assessment, but considers a teacher’s career rather than classroom practice. As with the fifth chapter, it does a remarkable job of deftly touching on a number of issues for those who might not be familiar with the issues, yet still retains the chapter format readers have become familiar with. It is this sixth chapter that makes the book different from Farrell's previous works.

Final comments
My reviews in are consistently focused on teachers in practice, particularly those teachers who have busy days, perhaps extended commutes, and various bits of time during the day but less time for sustained study. In this respect, books that meet the needs of subway readers always score “plus points” with me: shorter chapters, lots of subsections, more favorable “readability” scores, and more frequent illustrations (both visual and textual). Reflecting on Teaching the Four Skills gets high points in this regard.

Teacher Reflection has become a hot topic in ELT, but few authors dive into the nitty-gritty. Reflective Practice is more than "navel gazing," and Farrell is one of the few that talks about specific steps rather than "should oughta." His latest book, like his early Reflective Practice in Action: 80 Reflection Breaks for Busy Teachers, is a solid guide in "how to do" teacher reflection.

Farrell, T.S.C. (2004). Reflective Practice in Action: 80 Reflection Breaks for Busy Teachers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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