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AMEP Research Centre

New Beginnings

New Beginnings
By Veronica Ribbons
Published by AMEP Central TAFE, WA 2006

I approached this publication with curiosity and some anticipation, wondering if it represented an attempt at a textbook for beginner students in the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP). However such an idea remains elusive and is not the intention of the author. Instead it is a welcome set of attractive resource materials that will capture the attention of busy teachers. Selected pages will no doubt become familiar worksheets in ESL classes across the nation, given the book is produced for photocopying, a feature reflected in the price.

Veronica Ribbons has prepared this book to meet the needs of preliterate/low literacy beginner ESL adult migrants who are undertaking Preliminary and Certificate I levels of the Certificate in Spoken and Written English, the curriculum of the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP).

Resources such as this become a welcome part of the armoury of reflective teachers and Ribbons urges users of her book to set it in the context of an enriched learning environment, encouraging the use of methodologies such as the ‘language experience approach’ (LEA) and ‘total physical response’ (TPR). Without recourse to bibliographic references to these methodologies, teachers may overlook her intention for the work. She also insists it is an ‘integrated’ set of materials, suggesting that merely to photocopy pages in isolation is not her intention. Instead, each unit is based on a short text, features of which are then recycled into subsequent activities.

The author claims (again without substantiation), that a text-based approach ‘scaffolds and enhances learning, even for preliterate learners’. Learners at the CSWE I level with literacy skills in their first language may well manage the opening texts of each unit after substantial exposure but it is questionable whether such narratives would be accessible to a person encountering written texts for the first time.

Just because we recognize something as ‘simple English’ does not necessarily make it easy for every learner. I am interested in what comprises the initial set of concepts and processes deemed suitable for preliterate or low-level literacy learners in a class – the target group for this book. In such a class,  the tasks at hand usually include deciphering shapes on a page and ascribing sometimes unfamiliar sounds to them, forming letters and becoming aware of their meaning (in a new language) when they are randomly combined, and at the same time, learning to keep a file of papers in order. Given this reality, this book appears far too complex for much of its intended audience. The style, layout and content of the book are so inviting to teachers at this level that we may overlook the complexity inherent in the tasks we instinctively set. Each task or activity entails cognitive manipulations before seemingly simple texts can be mastered. An analysis of the learning and cultural assumptions underlying each activity is for me, the best measure of difficulty or suitability.

For example, in the first Unit ‘Introducing Myself’, learners are required to distinguish between question and answer form, select the appropriate answer from the text when faced with a complex question form (e.g. ‘How many months has Mary lived in Australia?’), follow conditional instructions (‘If you are not married…’ then do y), respond to diagrammatic representations of a nuclear family, recognize and identify their place on a world map, engage in a grid-based information gap activity, complete unfinished sentences by substituting personally relevant information (confusing, when all the model texts are already in first person), select options in a multiple choice exercise and draw their own family group (presumably if they are not traumatized by doing so). Then there are opportunities to arrange (by now) familiar words in alphabetical order, learn to identify, spell and write the numbers 1 – 10 and add initial sounds or blends to key words (although unfortunately, no example of blends are provided in such exercises – e.g. ‘stormy’ (page 80) is depicted as beginning with ‘s’, not ‘st’). 

This is not to be critical of the presentations in the book. Rather, it highlights the requirements necessary for students to engage successfully in seemingly familiar educational processes. The whole point of distinguishing between learners of a new language and first-time learners of a literate language is that many of these cognitive pathways may not have been activated before. The first task of a teacher of preliterate learners is to deconstruct his or her assumptions about the learners’ experiences.

Teachers have responded enthusiastically to this book, particularly the well-illustrated vocabulary pages. A revised edition could well consider adding a publisher’s contact address and correct the glaring spelling mistake on the back cover. There was some confusion distinguishing between ‘I go to work’ and ‘I cook dinner’ on page 99, just as depicting climate as uniformly having four seasons restricts the application of Unit 6. It is a challenge to any materials producer in an Australian settlement program to choose content that is uniformly relevant – something writers in the AMEP have to acknowledge if they purport to be writing for a national audience. However, Ribbons and her artist, Andrea Flint have thoughtfully reflected a variety of ethnicities in the stories and colourful illustrations.

This book is an attractive and contemporary resource for preliterate and low literacy level students and will be welcomed wherever new and emerging communities of the current intake of migrants and refugees are settling. However, it is unwise to assume that it can be used without substantial and complementary input from the teacher.

Reviewed by Margaret Gunn, TAFE SA English Language Services Adelaide