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Companions: an aid, a crutch, a snag?

    Now I can blame Ken (and Barb) for this post...


    Here are a few of the comments from the Twitter conversation with Ken Wilson that led to this post. I have written about companions before but thought that this blog post might be useful to a lot of educators who have never seen them, never used them, as well as to many new TEFL teachers in Greece who may be taking it for granted that they are used all over the world.

      From the Macmillan Online Dictionary

definition of companion

When we talk about a  companion in Greece,  the word does not refer to a young lady accompanying a richer or more elderly one on her travels or during her lonely hours , or any of the dictionary definitions above, but to a type of  publication containing lists of all the new lexical items in each unit of a main coursebook.

These lists are always accompanied by an explanation in Greek and/or English, notes on pronunciation and the grammar points of the unit. The role of companions, then, seems to be that of a glossary or mini-dictionary plus grammar reference sourcebook.

There is a great variety on the market, so I assume that this must be one of the most lucrative publishing ventures and the quality of the information also varies.

In Greece, this is now a typical accoutrement of any published coursebook. Companions have been around for quite a number of years now and I suspect they follow the good old tradition of a culture used to what in English may be referred to as spark notes but is in fact an answer key  (Lyssari) to anything in the school textbooks that requires an answer. Solutions to maths, physics exercise, translations of texts in Latin or Ancient Greek, anything that students should be working out for themselves you can buy the answer key to, so the appearance of Companions comes as no surprise.

What is surprising, is the enthusiasm with which foreign language centres dived into this market head first, making the Companion an essential buy for any coursebook the students have to use.

How have they evolved over time

I think companions must be the descendants of word lists plus translations, definitions, examples that some language schools used to produce for their own students. But then, local publishers must have seen a marker niche and started publishing them. In the early days, when the main producers were local publishers, Companions contained just the word lists for each coursebook unit and the pronunciation of the words either in greek script, or later, in phonemic script.

Local publishers sold thousands upon thousands of copies (some hefty publishing empires have been built on companions), literally riding on the back of British publishers’ sales, more often than not also illegally copying and using the front cover of the coursebook they were accompanying.

There are court cases still pending between interested parties.

Eventually, British publishers caught on and figured that rather than oppose this game and be involved in legal disputes, they might as well give in, produce their own, give them a bit of a polish here and there, add a couple of nice looking activities with visuals, add a little of this and a bit of that… and here we had a whole new generation of companions, now officially produced and sanctioned by UK publishing houses themselves.

How they are commonly used

A typical lesson will begin with “dictation” from the companion. The teacher says the word in Greek and the pupils have to write it in English. The list was assigned to them during the previous lesson (‘learn the words from No 56-102 for dictation’). Then after an exciting 20 minutes correcting exercises and reading aloud, it is time for the new vocabulary which the teacher reads out with the greek translation  while students listen/read passively. This may happen either before or after the text has been read aloud by the teacher and/or the students.This is the ‘presentation’ stage.

N.B. I have in fact watched lessons like this one on numerous occasions – not taught by trainees of mine, I hasten to add….so this is no hearsay.

Disadvantages of this approach

  • Students are not actively involved in discovering meaning for themselves, therefore, their chances of recall and assimilation are reduced.
  • Students are “robbed” of valuable linguistic input in terms of Teacher language, i.e the language of definitions, examples, as well as revised items like synonyms and antonyms.
  • Exposure to the written form of the word occurs too early, particularly significant for beginner/ elementary levels where learners have not formed any conscious or subconscious rules about how English words are pronounced. The mismatch, on the other hand, of English spelling against the actual pronunciation of words may result in students sightreading words and mispronouncing them.
  • Phonological transcripts of words may be useful to the more advanced students but too heavy a load for the beginning or elementary student who has not yet mastered the alphabetical code of the target language and whose reading skills are not fully developed.
  • Teaching vocabulary from lists – as opposed to creating memorable and meaningful associations through the use of visuals, mime, objects, topic areas, or situations – encourages the ‘isolated item approach’ . This again reduces the learners’ chances of attaching new words to existing meaning networks, resulting in poor recall.
  • In classrooms where the learning of new vocabulary is limited to memorization of this sort and use activities of various kinds through speaking, listening, writing are not included, the learner may ‘know’ the word, i.e. the meaning, without being able to use it correctly and appropriately.
  • Teachers themselves do not develop valuable teaching skills of providing correct and appropriate language samples to their students, realistic and natural contexts in which these items might occur.
  • All items are explained and students miss valuable opportunities of learning to guess meaning for themselves, in other words, students move from being teacher-dependent to being companion-dependent now and dictionary-dependent later.

Why companions

Companions are unique to Greece. In no other country in the world where foreign languages are taught will you find books of this type produced or published, nor do teachers or students ever express a need for them (but this may be changing as certain Greek publishing houses which are now selling worldwide may be promoting them to other countries as well).

Why do Greek  foreign language school owners adopt them is perhaps worthy of a short comment.

My own view is that this is due to a widespread lack of trust.

To the very suspicious FL school owner  with a mindset set in yesteryear, the  students must be protected  from lazy or poorly prepared teachers. In another blog post where I mentioned the excessive number of coursebooks used across the levels (my example was about a six-year-old beginner), I mentioned this feeling towards teachers, which also drives school owners to adopt many different coursebooks and supplementary books “to keep the teacher busy”. I have actually had numerous discussions with directors of studies to try and convince them against the use of so many books and especially companions, but they seem to be afraid of their own teachers.

Which leads to another vicious cycle – why not hired trained teachers they trust?  But that is an entirely different can of worms which I might open in a later blog post.

Why teachers need companions

Teachers who insist on using them claim they cut down on their preparation and they don’t have to worry about how they should present this vocabulary. They are usually underpaid and overworked teachers  and , not unjustifiably, claim that they have to teach so many hours to eke out a meager living that they just don’t have enough time for preparation and the companion to the coursebook can be a lifesaver.

I can sympathize but not necessarily condone this attitude to teacher preparation. It is usually the indifferent teacher who actually will find any excuse to avoid preparation.

Others claim that they have  to do this as this is the directive from their school and if they don’t follow this directive, they might as well say goodbye to their job. In these hard times, when jobs are so scarce, it is very difficult to tell anyone off for doing what keeps them in a job.  Quite a few don’t see the point of teacher preparation, anyway, this is just another job which many are doing without appropriate qualifications, so why bother?

In this market of ‘why bother’  publishers are having a field day. My ears are already ringing with the enraged comments I am sure I am about to get from my local community.

The Flipside

There is always a flipside to everything and  it is also fair to say that all material can be a crutch or a snag or an aid, depending on how we use it. Companions are not  necessarily an evil publication in themselves, but the use they are commonly put to makes them a hindrance rather than an aid to learning the foreign language.

My personal view is that in an ideal world companions should not be felt to be necessary. But this is not an ideal world, granted, and there will be teachers, students and parents who feel more secure by having access to this material.

Suggestions for putting Companions to good use

Here is how I see companions used to best effect.

  1. As reference/revision material for home study.

The first role/ function of companions should be that of reference material only, an aid to home study  when revising for a test, when a pupil is absent and needs to study on his/her own material they have ‘missed’.

  1. As class aids for revision/use/consolidation activities.

Companions can be put to many interesting uses in class activities AFTER vocabulary has been presented by the teacher through various other means (e.g. mime, pictures, demonstration, teaching examples, definitions, etc. ) or has been guessed by the students in the context of a reading/ listening activity through tasks set by the teacher.

The main responsibility for presentation, either through pre-teaching or through word search tasks, however, lies with the teacher and the ‘list reading’ approach should be avoided.

The activities that follow can make active use of the companion as a follow-up to vocabulary presentation through the other means suggested above.

Some Class Activities

1)  Categorizing & Copying: Ask the students to search through the word lists for one or more units and copy all the words that fit certain categories:

e.g.    FOOD, CLOTHES, ROOMS, FURNITURE, TRAVEL, SPORT

1) Synonyms-Opposites race: Write a list of words already known to the students on the board and ask your class to look through a page of the companion quickly and provide the synonyms or opposites.

2) Categorizing & Copying: Ask the students to search through the word lists for one or more units and copy all the words that fit certain categories:

e.g.    FOOD, CLOTHES, ROOMS, FURNITURE, TRAVEL, SPORT

3) Odd-Man-Out sets: After you have played the game Odd-Man-Out a few times, ask your class to prepare some odd-man-out sets in teams so that they play against another team. Put an example like this on the board:

e.g. shoe-sock-sandal-shirt

4) Student-made crosswords: Students revising make an easy crossword and check companion for help with definitions or examples.

5) Student-made board games: Students designing a board game to check another group on known vocabulary prepare cards with definitions, gap-fills or synonyms which will be used as question cards by the opposing group during the game.

6) Wordwatching: Students make multiple definitions of known words to trick an opposing team (as in “Call my Bluff”) or write sentences with correct/incorrect uses of a word.

e.g.  What is a HABITAT?

a. your clothes?

b. a bad habit?

c. the home of an animal?

d. an exotic bird?

7) Spelling bees: Groups select ‘difficult’ words to use against an opposing team in a spelling bee game.

8) Picture dictionaries: Younger learners use the companion to create a picture dictionary of their own, i.e. they enter the words in topic areas and draw their own pictures, stick magazine pictures, product labels, small objects (e.g. a pin, a dried flower ) or even parts of objects (e.g. a matchbox top) to illustrate their entries.

9) Storytelling competition: The teacher, a student or a group, assign random selection of words to everyone, i.e. the fifth word on every page. These words are studied by pairs/ groups or teams, and each one has to create a story in which these come in naturally. Best story wins!

10) Dialogue improvisation: Each group is assigned 3-4 words from a page which they study and then have to incorporate in an improvised conversation/ role play. The rest of the class has to spot the words, situation and topic.

11) Creative dictation/ improvisation: Each group selects six to eight words which they dictate to another group. This group must then cooperate and make up a little story or conversation in which all these words are used.

12) Word competition: A word is chosen randomly by the teacher. Pupils have to hunt through their companion as quickly as possible and jot down as many words as they can which begin/ end in the same letter.

13) How many words can you make? A long word is chosen and students try to make  as many other words as they can out of the letters of this word

e.g. elephant will yield words like:

ant   pan     net    leap    halt    ale    pen      neat    late

ate   peal     nap   lee     hate   hat    than     pat   plant   etc

14) Word accosiation game: A word is chosen randomly by the teacher or a student. The class in pairs/ groups/ or individually, hunt through the pages of the companion and try to find other words that they associate with this word. The teacher is the final judge in this game where the pupils can create any associations they like but should justify them, and the winner(s) are those who produce the longest list of acceptable associations.

This is just a handful of ideas. I feel sure that creative teachers will soon start developing their own for other types of class activity related to other skills as well, like writing and listening.

Let me note that of course all the activities above can be used without having a companion- naturally!!!

The pages of the coursebook can be used to similar, if not better, effect.

Final Comments

If you have got the impression that I do not like companions, you are right. My trainee teachers have heard quite enough about this and now, Ken has got me worrying everyone else as well!

And if you think I am trying to blame it all on Ken and that I am name-dropping, you are probably right.   Of course I have used the twitter image to blame it all on Ken’s persistence and  of course I am also trying to get teachers in my circle to engage in Twitter conversations, so mentioning Ken Wilson is, indeed, name dropping (Ken is a very popular presenter in Greece, as he is everywhere else) .

Do you also think that companions are a “scandal” ?  Please comment and,  Ken, I await your own response with bated breath!

P.S. I have no idea how that smiley came to rest next to one of the items in my activities list and no idea how to get rid of it either!

19 replies »

  1. Another outstanding post, Marisa.

    I would slightly disagree with you on two points here:

    1. (Your twitter comment) Greece is the largest market for ELT textbooks besides China (I think Spain, Korea and Taiwan rank pretty highly up there as well, but interested to know where you got this stat!)

    2. Greece is the only market that makes widespread use of ‘companion’-style supplementary texts. I think it is more common (albeit perhaps in slightly different formats) than you think.

    In any case, those two points I just challenged actually reinforce the importance and relevance of your post!

    Great stuff!

    ~ Jason

  2. Hi ya Marisa,

    Great post.

    Some books do actually have some form of companion here (Germany) too – often in the format of a CD.

    I’m huh-hum about them tho’ as I generally prefer students to seek out stuff themselves according to their own needs, rather than do prescribed activities… but then you knew I’d say that :).

    K

  3. Thank you both for commenting!

    Jason, the comments on Twitter are not mine but Ken Wilson’s. Thanks for pointing out that Greece is not the only market using companions. I don’t have that much information about international markets myself but,as you say, this may make my post relevant to teachers in other countries as well.

    Karenne, yes, I knew you’d say that 🙂 and have seen some of the material now being put on CD or DVD. Some of the better versions I actually like but I see them more as self-study material rather than companions – the stuff I’ve written about which teachers still use in class (in the 21st century, in the age of web 2.0) following the Grammar-Translation method.

  4. I do believe dictation like this is frustrating for ELLs who wonder why they do not know how to use the vocabulary correctly in context. Moreover, this boring approach really makes students detest learning and think they will never reach their learning goals. Instead, I prefer the several activity suggestions you mentioned!

  5. Thank you, Marisa, for satisfying my curiosity. I do think that something similar exists in some Asian countries, but I’ve never heard of anything quite as organized as the Companions you mentioned.

    I love the way you’ve provided ways to make the Companions a positive part of the classroom (since you can’t make them go away). A great example of making lemonade from lemons!

  6. Really good post, Maria, you took me back to those years I spent with companions in Φροντιστηρίa, never been a fan of the companion especially given the schools I worked for in Greece also insisted on covering a coursebook, grammar book and video book – I mean just how are you supposed to cover all that in academic year. Unfortunately moving to the Czech Republic didn’t give me the opportunity to leave them behind, we have similar thing here for the popular coursebooks – providing both word lists and grammar explanations in Czech. This makes a lot of teachers’ lives very difficult – parental expectations of language learning measure success by students memorizing the word lists in the companion, they do not help the sts become autonomous learners as they are spoon-fed (often inaccurate translations and rules) and parents (and adult learners) would rather put their trust in them rather than the teacher – “but that’s not what this book says syndrome”. Unfortunately rather than fight them and /or reeducate parents, the publishing companies fought back by simply producing Czech versions of coursebooks thus compounding the situation even further!!

  7. Hi Marisa!
    I didn’t know this type of material existed. It’s never been used in Argentina. You show that a resourceful teacher is a key factor to make classes interesting despite the material used. Your ideas to add “flavour” to something that seems to be boring for students are great. Making our classes creative is a way of catching students’ attention and that makes language memorable for them.
    Marisa

  8. Shelly, as an adult centre offering English language instruction, we get a lot of adults who have spent between 6-8 years learning English in this type of institution I describe. Their frustration about not being able to talk or write English is, to say the least, saddening.

    Shaun, I didn’t know you had worked in Greece! You know exactly what I mean and, probably how I feel, then! I find this is actually an embarrassment to these schools. Unfortunately, it is not an embarrassment they themselves feel or really care about…. 😦 Sorry you still have to deal with the same scenario in the Czech Republic.

    Barbara, you would be surprised at what unlikely drinks people manage to make from lemons…

    Marisa, the ideas are useful to people who care about their students and can be used with any published material and, it goes without saying, with no material at all if you are a Dogme follower… 🙂

    Thank you all for taking the time to drop into my parlour and leave a comment!

    Marisa

  9. Hi Marisa,
    Thanks for this really great post about a subject close to my heart as my years in Frontisteria were spent lugging lots of course books and their related companions, workbooks, grammar friends and all manner of bits and bobs around in my bag which made riding a bicycle a bit of a balancing act!! I think you are right that they are very over-used in Greece and I wonder if there has been some specific marketing drive towards them being so widely taken up? I do think the way they evolved (i.e starting off as semi-illegal) may actually have increased their attractiveness as is often the case during times of prohibition. I have to admit I was always a bit puzzled as to how to use them (and how to have the time to just cope with so much content) so I tended to do the materials light thing and just not really use them that much. I noticed though that students found them useful when serving as a quick dictionary reference, and I tried to encourage them to consult the companion after reading the text which generally worked. I also found with lower level students that the translated word list was useful, tho the extra exercises that are in some of the companions looked like they’d been thrown together in a bit of a hurry. For me, I am not sure that the companion issue is anymore of a scandal than the whole course book issue – it is certainly tied up so much with marketing and “incentives” for take up, that sorting the good from the bad is a bit of a can of worms. It has been interesting though to read about other countries and their experiences – thanks for opening up this discussion.

  10. Great response, Sara, and it’s really good to have people like you and Shaun who have actually used companions in class speak out and talk about their experience.

    I think you did rather well using them the way you did.

    I only wish more of my Greek readers visiting this blog would speak out, too!

  11. Thank you Theodoros for visiting here and for your kind comment.

    I feel very strongly about this type of publication, just as strongly as I feel about this great number of published materials (see Sara’s comment above) the students and their teachers are burdened with!

  12. Ifaced the ‘companion disease’ a few years back
    when I actually ‘lost’ a student because I refused to use one.

    The phenomenon of having a companion followed by an innumerable and unjustified number of books I encountered again a few days ago.when a poor 9year old boy was showing to me the books the parents had to buy,for this school year only.

    companions are every body s fault-teachers,school owners and parents alike.We have a long way ahead
    to prove to parents that their kids may learn effectively through pleasant activities,avoiding all this ‘chatty’ staff that doesn t actually ‘say’ something;as for the owners..well that is even harder sometimes.
    Let s hope that as teachers we can graduallydo away with all this situation by producing skillfull learners
    using all our resourseful techniques..

  13. Ow, my little Katey!

    Isn’t it a shame, this palaver with all these books AND the companion on top of it all!

    I am not very hopeful Katey…there’s thousands of them out there…

    And the ones I know, the ones I have trained, well they have no interest in helping their competitors, have they now.

    Blog, write, inform parents because parents are the key

    I plan to send this article to their newsletter.

    Hope all is well with you and here’s a big delighted hug for seeing your comment here.

    🙂

  14. Marisa,

    I’m really sorry to have discovered this excellent post so late – my only excuse is that I wasn’t home much in mid-September, and didn’t have access to a computer for most of the second half of the month.

    Can I say first of all that your list of suggested uses for companions is brilliant, and should be handed out to all new frontisteria teachers, especially the one with very little training. They could certain turn what are essentially legal cheating books into a useful resource.

    Secondly, to answer Jason’s point about the largest market. I was told that Greece was the largest market for UK ELT publishers by a publisher about 10 years ago, and maybe I should have checked my facts again before twittering it.

    But it remains astonishing that a country of ten million people should buy so many books. And frankly, the reasons for such high sales don’t reflect well on anyone, least of all the publishers.

    As I understand it, some Greek parents have a frantic desire for their children to learn English, which leads them in some cases to send them to a variety of different frontisteria, where they are presented with yet another book. The result can be that the same poor 14-year-old is staggering around with three or four different coursebooks.

    This may account for the fact that ten million Greeks buy more books than sixty million Italians and forty-five million Spaniards.

    Maybe I’m peddling old information. If I am, please put me right.

  15. Hi Marisa and congratulations on your fantastic blog!
    What a great blogpost! I have always been wary of companions and never quite understood the use of them. At the language school we had in Greece, we used it in “alternative” ways too (whenever we used them), but I must say you have fantastic ideas on using them! Thank you for posting them!
    Kind regards,
    Vicky

  16. Dear Ken,

    As you said on Twitter, better late than never! Am glad you eventually found this post which was inspired by our conversation there.

    Sometimes I get quite frustrated with the whole situation and, even if I write a blog post like this, or send it as an article to one of the local ELT news sheets, which I have, it looks like I am preaching to the converted.

    Those who have the attitudes I describe will not even read it and those who don’t, well, they don’t really need it, do they?

    I recently started a blog in Greek and wrote a quite similar article with a shocker of a title which roughly translates like this: “How to teach English without your learners learning anything”

    Hoping against hope that some Greek parents will read it.

    Thanks for coming in here to comment.

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