March 2014
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Diane Jacobson, & Amrit Bidegaray, University of Wisconsin-River Falls, River Falls, Wisconsin, USA

Diane Jacobson

Amrit Bidegaray

Pathways: Listening, Speaking, and Critical Thinking, published in 2012 by Heinle Cengage Learning and National Geographic Learning, is a series of four textbooks designed to help students improve their English listening and speaking skills and achieve academic success. The student textbooks are available in levels 1 through 4, from beginning to advanced. Currently, the English Language Transition (ELT) Program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF) uses Pathways 2, Pathways 3, and Pathways 4 in the low-intermediate, high-intermediate, and advanced courses.

Speaking and listening courses in UWRF’s ELT Program meet 50 minutes each class period, four times a week at the high-intermediate and advanced levels and five times a week for the low-intermediate level. Each Pathways textbook provides two semesters of content at the stated amount of instruction time. As of the summer of 2013, each textbook is available in split versions, with five units per textbook. The split versions eliminate waste when students advance to the next level in one semester, as the splits are suitable for one semester of content in UWRF’s ELT Program.


The Pathways series seeks to help English language learners develop academic skills by presenting different themes related to a variety of academic tracks. For example, Pathways 4 covers (a) the interdisciplinary themes of urban challenges, energy issues, tradition and progress, and food concerns; (b) the life science themes of protecting our planet and migration; (c) the sociology theme of beauty and appearance; (d) the economic theme of money and our lives; (e) the medicine theme of health and fitness; and (f) the psychology theme of mind and memory.

Each book has 10 units that include an introduction, two lessons (Lesson A and Lesson B), and a viewing section. All units open with an Exploring the Theme section, which is a visual introduction that encourages students to activate and share prior knowledge of the topic. Lesson A and Lesson B each consist of five sections: Building Vocabulary, Using Vocabulary, Developing Listening Skills, Exploring Spoken English, and Speaking (which is referred to as Engage in Lesson B). Additionally, a video from National Geographic presented in the Viewing section acts as a bridge between Lesson A and Lesson B.

Two sections of each unit focus directly on introducing and using new vocabulary. The Building Vocabulary section introduces the new vocabulary, typically in a text with new words highlighted in blue. The instructor may choose to have students independently read or listen to the text with the recording on the classroom audio CD. Students then match definitions with the new vocabulary words. In the Using Vocabulary section, students practice the new vocabulary by filling in the blanks, completing word family charts, answering comprehension questions, or discussing questions with a partner or group.

The remaining three sections of each lesson focus primarily on listening and speaking skills.Developing Listening Skills recycles the new vocabulary words in a listening text with the students completing pre-, during-, and postlistening activities such as discussion questions, comprehension questions, true/false statements, or cloze passages. Pronunciation skills are presented in this section primarily as a listening skill by identifying the intonation pattern and secondarily as a production skill by practicing the pattern. Exploring Spoken English presents short lessons in language function as emphasizing important information and grammar. This section provides direct instruction on the grammar rules, encourages students to identify the targeted structure in a listening or reading text, and presents opportunities for students to produce examples of the structure and use it in conversations. The Speaking section of each lesson brings together all the skills learned in the lesson with activities that focus on student production in addition to providing direct instruction for pragmatic considerations, for instance, apologizing or making eye contact. The Speaking section includes partner and group activities, for example, role-playing, discussing pros and cons, making individual or group presentations, brainstorming, debating, or conducting a survey.

In addition, the Viewing section acts as the transition between Lesson A and Lesson B. The video is from National Geographic, and the lesson based on this video includes a variety of pre-, during-, and postviewing activities, such as defining new vocabulary with a dictionary or from context, listening for main ideas and supporting details, completing cloze passages, note-taking, and discussing critical thinking questions with a partner or small group.

Heinle Cengage Learning and National Geographic include materials to supplement the textbook. The Teacher’s Guide provides the answer key for all textbook activities and includes instructor’s notes and expansion ideas. The listening text and video segments are all available on CD or DVD; however, in one easy-to-access location, the Classroom Presentation Tool CD-ROM delivers all of the listening and viewing materials in addition to replicas of some of the textbook activities with answers and additional presentation worksheets. The Assessment CD-ROM with ExamView offers pre-made materials for testing and evaluation in addition to permitting instructors to add their own test items. Finally, there are two options available for students at an additional cost. The Online Workbook can be used in class or independently for additional practice; the instructor can choose the activities for students to complete, and the website monitors and grades the students’ work. The Audio CD contains the audio recordings for each listening exercise in the student book.


The speaking and listening instructors in UWRF’s ELT Program have found the Pathways series to have many strengths. The textbook series is visually appealing. Each unit begins with large color images and questions (Think and Discuss, Exploring the Theme) that are useful for brainstorming the topic and sparking students’ interest. The videos include footage from high-quality National Geographic videos. Additionally, the topics presented in the series engage student interest and allow students to expand their English skills in different academic areas as well as explore and learn about different cultures.

The communication activities motivate students because many exercises are personalized. Students discuss the topics in relation to their lives and experiences, which leads to increased internalization of the topic. One example of this personalization is students’ learning from each other about energy use in their countries.

In addition to being visually appealing and engaging, the series uses a range of individual, partner, and group tasks for student practice. Each unit includes previewing to activate schema, true/false quizzes, multiple-choice questions, group and partner discussions, debate, fill-in-the-blank exercises, videos, and listening exercises. The presentation tool facilitates delivery of supplementary materials because all audiovisual materials are in one place. For in-class or out-of-class review, the online workbook is helpful for students to independently review material presented in class. Enrolling students in the online course, setting up assignments, and monitoring student progress on the online workbook are relatively easy tasks that require minimal computer skills. The test generator is also easy to use and to personalize.

Another valuable aspect is that individual skills like pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary are addressed several times in each unit. The pronunciation practice is contextualized and integrated into the unit, including a conversation component. An example of this contextualized pronunciation practice is intonation for choices and lists, which is integrated into the unit Fascinating Planet from Pathways 3. Students practice making choices from travel plans using the vocabulary. The pronunciation section of the online workbook is especially helpful for students because it uses speech recognition technology that allows students to record and listen to their pronunciation of key words, phrases, and sentences. Students have the opportunity to assess their mispronunciation, which helps them diagnose and correct their errors.

The grammar presentation is also contextualized for the specific units. For example, “modals of advice” are presented, and students subsequently are asked to practice giving advice and making suggestions. Students practice the grammar points by completing sentences, filling in the blanks, and practicing conversations.

Strategies for vocabulary, such as getting meaning from context, using a dictionary, gap-fill exercises, and conversational skills, generally use the same format in each unit. This repetitive format provides familiarity for students, which is especially important in the lower levels. Additionally, the majority of the tasks involve a language production component and the individual tasks, like the vocabulary and grammar points, are recycled and later used in discussions.

Finally, the expansion project at the end of each unit, such as a mini debate, presentation, Internet research, or summary, ties together the material and provides students with the chance to review and formally present what they have learned.


Although the Pathways series provides instructors with effective teaching tools, some aspects of the series require special attention. This is particularly true because of the "canned" nature of the listening activities, lack of attention to exceptions in grammar rules, errors on the presentation tool, lack of authentic note-taking opportunities for advanced students, repetitive tasks, and the need for the instructor to supplement explanations and activities.

Listening recordings are clearly prerecorded, with “canned” background noises, and are not authentic, specifically regarding the rate of speech. Even at the advanced level, dialogues are inauthentic, slowed down, and carefully enunciated. This type of listening exercise also impedes authentic note-taking. Not only is the speaking slowed down, but not even students at the advanced level have the chance to take notes of a full-length, or even nearly full-length, lecture. For example, students complete cloze activities during a 4-minute lecture excerpt and, as such, never have the opportunity for 100% independent note-taking. This lack of authentic note-taking requires the instructor to look for listening texts to supplement the series texts.

In addition to supplementing with listening material, the instructor must be prepared to supplement the explanations and practice exercises for each section. The rules presented are basic, and many students request more extensive information. Instructors may need to provide additional practice exercises as well. Although the similar format of exercises from unit to unit leads to familiarity, especially for lower level students, a more varied set of tasks would help students practice new skills and provide them with the opportunity to use the material in other ways. Furthermore, instructors must be diligent when using the presentation tool during in-class exercises because it occasionally contains incorrect answers. Instructors also need to be prepared for those portions of the textbook, typically grammar, that are not available on the presentation tool.

Even though the online workbook can be a useful resource for instructors as a review of material presented in class and as independent study for students, the exercises are very similar to those in the textbook and can therefore be repetitive for students. Also, the online video is the same content as in the presentation tool, with nearly identical questions to the textbook. Having another related video as well as a greater variety of exercises provided by the publisher would be beneficial for the students and more conducive to independent study. Furthermore, the online workbook sometimes experiences technical difficulties and prevents a student from submitting a score, which requires the student to log out, repeat the activity, and resubmit the score.

Finally, instructors must be careful when using the test generator because pre-made tests occasionally include exceptions to the rules that were not covered in the unit. For example, students using Pathways 4 are taught that the phrase “by + date” equals the need for the future perfect tense. On the test, one item includes the use of “in three weeks,” which was not included in the lesson and confused students, who generally chose the future tense.


On the whole, the instructors in the ELT Program at UWRF have found the Pathways series to be a valuable tool for students and instructors at all levels of their speaking and listening courses. The engaging topics, personalized communication exercises, and variety of exercises presented help students maximize their learning in and out of the classroom. Nonetheless, instructors need to be prepared to supplement the textbook with additional listening exercises, explanations, and activities, which can be time-consuming but also creates opportunities to tailor the supplemental material to the students in the class. In conclusion, the Pathways: Listening, Speaking, and Critical Thinking series provides a solid foundation for students to improve their listening, speaking, and academic skills at a university-level ESL program.

Books Reviewed

MacIntyre, P. (2012). Pathways 4: Listening, speaking, and critical thinking. Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage and National Geographic Learning.

Tarver Chase, B., & Johannsen, K. (2012). Pathways 2: Listening, speaking, and critical thinking. Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage and National Geographic Learning.

Tarver Chase, B., & Johannsen, K. (2012). Pathways 3: Listening, speaking, and critical thinking. Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage and National Geographic Learning.

Diane Jacobson is an associate lecturer in the English Language Transition Program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she teaches oral communication and grammar.

Amrit Bidegaray is an associate lecturer in the English Language Transition Program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she teaches courses in speaking and listening, vocabulary for specific purposes, and reading.
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SPLIS / IATEFL Webinar #1
On Wednesday, January 28, SPLIS and IATEFL joined together to offer the webinar Integrating Pronunciation Across the Curriculum: 15 content-based activities, hosted by Char Heitman.

A recording of the webinar can be found here

A follow-up discussion can be found here 

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