Co-author of over 100 textbooks, including the highly successful Side by Side (Side By Side Web site), ExpressWays, and Word by Word,
Steven J. Molinsky's major field of interest is the development of dynamic and innovative approaches to second language
teaching. He has traveled extensively throughout Asia and Latin America conducting teacher-training workshops on
language teaching methodology.
Professor Molinsky obtained his MA and PHD at Harvard University. He is currently a Professor of Education at Boston
University. He spoke with ELT News editor Mark McBennett in December, 2003.
Have you always been a teacher?
Yes, as a matter of fact, I have. That's all I've ever done and all I've ever wanted to do. My teaching career began
immediately after completing my graduate degree in Linguistics at Harvard University. For a while, I taught Russian
language courses as well as courses in Linguistic Theory at Boston University. (My PhD. is actually in Slavic Linguistics!)
After six years, however, I decided that I preferred to work with prospective teachers in the area of English as a Second and
English as a Foreign Language, and so I made the switch to the School of Education. I've been teaching methodology courses
and serving as director of the program since that time.
In 1982, you were awarded the Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Can you tell us about how you earned that?
I was truly honored to receive a Metcalf Award. Every year Boston University gives an award for excellence in teaching to two
or three of the more than three thousand faculty members at the university. It is considered the university's highest honor.
My students nominated me, and then several previous Metcalf award winners observed my courses. I was told in March that I
would be receiving the award at the university graduation ceremonies in May, but I was sworn to secrecy. The only ones I was
allowed to tell beforehand were members of my family. Winning a Metcalf Award has been one of the most thrilling and rewarding experiences of my professional life.
How and when did you first get into writing textbooks?
I actually began by working with the author of a rather innovative Russian language textbook as his assistant in the revision of his book. What I thought was going to be a short-term six-month project actually ended up taking five years. Working
with him during those five years was the best training I ever could have received. Most of all, it sensitized me to the issues involved in developing a solid curriculum for a foreign language syllabus. I enjoyed the process so much that I decided that
textbook writing would become one of my main goals in life. So when I made the switch from Russian to the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages, it was no surprise to me that I immediately began working on an ESL/EFL syllabus, which eventually resulted in the development of the original Side by Side series.
Yes, Side By Side is perhaps the text through which teachers and students in Japan will be most familiar with your work.
It's based on the 'guided conversation' methodology. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The "guided conversation" methodology is an attempt to combine the best features of traditional language teaching -- the clear structural focus offered by traditional grammar drills and the contextualization provided by traditional dialogs.
This blending of a strong grammatical focus and contextualization through short dialogs provides learners with the kind of intensive practice with grammatical structures they need, but always in relevant contexts and situations. It's a very student-centered approach. In a "guided conversation" classroom, it's the students who do most of the talking!
Does the guided conversation approach work better in some cultures than others? How about in Japan?
We have had positive feedback from both teachers and students in virtually every country where the books are used. Students like it because they feel success in learning the language. They are actually "speaking" the grammar as they learn it. There are also many opportunities for them to apply what they learn in the books to talk about themselves and the world around them. Teachers like it because all their students, no matter how large the class, have opportunities for oral practice, since the approach is based on students speaking with each other "side by side."
The design of Side By Side relies heavily on drawn illustrations and cartoons (detail below - click for larger image).
Do you ever hear of teachers complaining that it isn't "serious" enough for the
false-beginner type of students who would be using it in Japan? Or does it work
well, given Japan's deep-rooted manga culture?
Our rationale for using this style of artwork is to surround the learner with a lively and motivating environment. We use line
drawings rather than photographs because we want students to take on the roles of the different characters in the exercises and
stories. Photographs would make identifying with the characters difficult. (I'm supposed to "be" this person in the dialog, but
I don't look like him or her!) Line drawings, on the other hand, give the mind more freedom and as a result make it easier for
students to assume different roles. And yes, given Japan's deep-rooted manga culture, it's possible that teachers in Japan would
be more accepting of the style than teachers in some cultures who in fact do sometimes complain that the art isn't "serious" enough. What IS serious about Side by Side is its carefully crafted syllabus. The light-hearted look of the pages actually masks the serious framework beneath the surface.
How has the series evolved through its fifteen years and three editions?
The original edition, published in 1979, contained just the conversation lessons. The 1989 edition added reading, writing,
and listening exercises. The new edition moves well beyond that. In response to teachers' requests, we've added vocabulary previews before each chapter, pronunciation exercises, functional language development exercises, and journal writing activities. In addition, through our Side by Side Gazettes ("magazine-style" pages interspersed throughout the books), we have added additional readings, interesting facts about the world for class discussion, vocabulary enrichment exercises, cross-cultural photo essays, Internet keypal writing activities, authentic real-world listening tasks, and cartoons that lead to open-ended role play activities.
Tell us about the Word by Word Vocabulary Development Program.
Word by Word is a conversational picture dictionary program. Over 3000 words are illustrated through light-hearted illustrations, and students are given the opportunity to practice these words through short conversations. Our goal in writing Word by Word was to provide students with communicative practice with every word on every page! In addition, every lesson offers students writing and discussion opportunities as a way of relating the vocabulary words to their daily lives and experiences. The Word by Word program also contains Workbooks, playing cards for vocabulary games, a Teacher's Resource Book with more than 900 motivating classroom activities, and a songbook and karaoke-style song album of original songs to accompany each of the thematic units of the dictionary.
How was writing a book like Voices of Freedom different from a more general EFL/ESL textbook?
In Voices of Freedom, US citizenship content, rather than language structure development was the key guiding principle in developing the curriculum. For our other more "general" ESL/EFL books, we strive for a very carefully constructed grammatical sequence as its core, with content and functional language development tied to the grammatical foundation.
What are the core concepts of developing a new series of textbooks?
First, determine the target audience for the book. Who are the students, and what are their language learning needs? Once that has been established, a carefully constructed, well-sequenced grammatical syllabus must be developed to meet the needs of the target audience. That will be the driving force of the curriculum. Simultaneously, comes an analysis of the topics most relevant to prospective users of the book. Combining the grammatical core with relevant topics and situations will also lead to the inclusion of the functional language expressions tied to those structures and contexts.
You've written your best-known books as part of a team or partnership with Bill Bliss. How did you come to work together, and how does the collaborative process work? Do you prefer this collaborative style?
Bill Bliss and I started working together more than twenty-five years ago. He had actually been a student of mine when I taught Russian. We bumped into each other on the street one day in August of 1975, got into a conversation, and realized that we had something new in common. I had just switched from the Foreign Language Department to the TESOL Program in the School of Education, and he had just begun an ESL teaching job in Boston. We decided right then and there that we would like to begin working together on a textbook. We spent three years developing a manuscript that eventually became Side by Side.
Our basic writing style has remained the same during all these years. We sit across a table from each other and present our ideas. We write them down, analyze them, and decide together which ones we like. By the time we finish a lesson, we can't remember which ideas were his and which were mine, and it's not important! This collaborative style results in a blending of the best that each of us has to offer. And that's why I can't imagine working any other way!
Do you prefer writing or teacher training? How much of your schedule is taken up with the latter?
I enjoy both very much. In fact, I wouldn't want to give up either. These days, most of my time is spent writing. I go into the
university just two half-days a week to teach my methodology courses. I enjoy the stimulation of working with graduate students. My courses are populated with bright, energetic, culturally sensitive students -- many of them from Asia, in fact. Working with these students has greatly enriched my life.
What plans do you have for the future?
Now that we have completed the revision of the Side by Side textbook series and have completed work on our new Side by Side Interactive CD-ROM program, we will be undertaking revisions of some of our other texts. After that, we plan to develop textbook series for other market segments.
I look forward to many more years of creative work. In fact, I'm not sure I ever want to stop! People sometimes say to me, "You work too hard!" The truth is, I don't consider what I do "work." If it has to be defined as "work," then I guess I'm fortunate to derive so much enjoyment from it.
You've visited Japan many times over the years. What are your impressions of English language education here?
I've seen a great deal of effort toward empowering learners of English with the skills necessary for effective communication in the
language. And I'm sure these efforts will continue and expand in the future. I am continually impressed by the dedication and the enthusiasm that Japanese teachers of English have for their work. I always look forward to visiting Japan and spending time with the many teachers I've had the pleasure of meeting during my visits.
What do like to do that's not education-related?
My favorite activity is playing the piano. I'm fortunate to have been born with the ability to play the piano by ear. If I remember
a melody, I can play it. I'm not sure how I do it, but I've had that ability since the age of twelve. I took classical music lessons
from the age of six, but as I began to develop the ability to play by ear, I would upset my piano teachers by "improvising" classical
pieces of music they were attempting to teach me.
I also write music. The irony is that I'm the linguist who can't write lyrics! I write very pretty melodies (most of which sound like
soundtracks from sad French movies), but I have to rely on others to write the lyrics. Someday I might be brave enough to try to get my songs published. The truth is, I have more confidence in my book-writing ability than my song-writing ability!
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