Eng B Skills, reviewed

... and this is what you do

English B for the IB Diploma   ... Kawther Saa'd AlDin, Jeehan Abu Awad, Tiia Tempakka, Kevin Morley

OUP; Oxford IB Skills and Practice series     Price: £22.00

ISBN: 978-0-19-839284-2     Paperback: 208 pages

See the OUP website page

This volume forms an excellent complement to the English B Course Companion - it focuses on precise skills and techniques for successful handling of the assessment components, as opposed to the Course Companion's focus on course work.

As one expects from this team of authors, the approach is lucid and practical. The text is addressed directly to the students, with the aim clearly stated in the Introduction of providing "essential information to help you succeed in each assessment component" ... and since no student is going to quarrel with that notion, the audience will be on-side from the start !

The direct address is supported by a helpfully methodical flow of ideas and suggestions. The main chapter on Paper 2, for instance (Chapter 2: Writing to convince), starts with a clear summary of the ground-rules, gives a break-down of the marking criteria in diagrammatic form, and then develops a series of sections on the writing process - 'Skills for thinking / writing / communicating' - before finally launching into detailed consideration of each of the text types. A strong feature here, indeed throughout the book, is the skilful selection of sample texts, both as models and as examples of student work.

This is a pretty interactive coursebook - not only is the text full of practical tips, succinctly explained, but there are also Activity sections every couple of pages or so (look out for anything highlighted in blue!) which provide clear instructions for constructive practice of concepts or skills. There is much use of charts, so that students have to assimilate and organise what has just been explained ... although there are slight weaknesses in design here, at times, in that a few charts are too cramped to allow full answers. The instruction used at some points "Draw a chart like this..." bypasses this problem - but there is clearly value in filling in charts on the page, since this means that all annotations are conserved in the book itself. In general, the text would actually function pretty well as a 'self-access' coursebook - any committed student who worked through all of the activities and tasks would both learn the theory and put it into practice.

An obvious approach would be for teachers to use this as a coursebook to support effective preparation in class during the run-up to the assessments towards the end of the Diploma programme. However, much of it would be very helpful at any point during the course - the whole extensive section on text types would be useful reference material for basic teaching, the sections on HL and SL Written Assignments should be explored as soon as you introduce the WA project to the students, and the section on the Oral Interview has valuable points to make about how to do any oral presentation.

The point is that this is much more than a collection of tricks for exams. There are indeed Exam Tips - but these are rooted in the fundamental skills which underlie the testing mechanisms used in the particular format of IB assessments. Much of the advice about writing is applicable to any writing, anywhere; and one of the most impressive chapters, on Paper 1 Texthandling, is rooted in sensible guidance about good reading skills in general, applying these through a comprehensive look at the individual testing mechanisms usable for Paper 1. This chapter's technique is highly effective: it provides examples of a question type, explains in detail which answer is correct and why, and then provides further samples for students to practise what they have learned. The book's whole approach is valuable since English B exams are designed to test real, significant intellectual skills, even if testing mechanisms like MCQs are 'artificial'.

I found particularly interesting the chapters on the Written Assignment, at HL (Ch.4) and at SL (Ch.5). The procedures described appear to be based on the 'new' regulations for the WA, applicable from May 2015 : the SL procedure, for example, is that the students select their own texts. At each level, a clear approach, with a sequence of tasks, is suggested ... and these are backed up with examples to illustrate the key points. These examples are skilfully deployed in two ways: as annotated models, or as samples for the students themselves to assess and critique, applying what has been learned from the annotations. Overall, I found the advice and suggestions for SL rather more cogent than those for HL - but perhaps this is because the general principle of the SL task is more amenable to clear advice (involving basic tactics for how to combine source texts), whereas the HL task is inherently more idiosyncratic (involving personal 'creative' responses to very distinct texts).

By the way, the book is meticulous throughout in noting where there are distinctions between HL and SL - in the types of questions used in Paper 1, for instance, or the different offer of photographs in the Individual Interview. A useful checklist for the teacher, then...!

The whole text is packed with useful practical ideas, presented in stimulating ways. Although ... I did wince a couple of times at what I felt were rather over-simplified schemas, such as the division of texts (apparently) into 'Narrative-driven', 'Problem-driven' or 'Thesis-driven' (p.49) ... or the appearance of the 'Introduction - Main body - Conclusion' structure (p.53). The latter is a personal bête noire, since I feel that it may lead to dimmer students imagining that all writing consists of simply three lumps: a beginning, a middle and an end. I know that simple generalisations like that are necessary to establish basic notions of form, but they can become mind-traps, and prevent more sophisticated development. However, the authors avoid such mind-traps by regularly providing much more complex analyses - for instance the 'Self-assessment skills sheet' on p.41. Brilliant idea!

You'll see now why I claim that this is an excellent complement to the English B Course Companion. The two books, together, form an excellent foundation for any English B course with any group of students. I'm pleased to note, by the way, that the advice given in this book fits so closely with the many suggestions I make in this website! The comparison between book and website is interesting - the book is 'solid' in that it is print-based and so fixed, while the website is 'fluid' in that it is digitally-based and so changes and adapts over time. Two compatible approaches to educational materials ... see comments on these ideas in the blog solid fluid ... 

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