Book Review

Ron Carter   
Unlocking Self Expression Through NLP
By Judith Baker and Mario Rinvolucri
Delta Publishing, 2005

Reviewed by Sally Bosworth-Gerôme

In the September 2003 issue of TESOL France News, I reviewed two other books in Delta's "professional perspectives" series: Humanising Your Coursebook and Using the Mother Tongue. This series is designed to provide teachers with activities that can complement any type of class or any form of course book. The well-laid out simple instructions are easy to follow and the book’s thin format makes it easy to slip into your bag before leaving for a class.

Unlocking Self-Expression through NLP is different from the other two, however, because, as its name implies, it is based on NLP. "What is NLP exactly?", you may well ask. Even though the authors provide a clear concise description in the book's introduction, the definition I propose comes from a collection of Internet sites.
"Neuro-Linguistic Programming was developed in the mid-70s by John Grinder, a Professor at UC Santa Cruz and Richard Bandler, a graduate student. NLP, as most people use the term today, is a set of models of how communication impacts and is impacted by subjective experience. It's more a collection of tools than any overarching theory. NLP is heavily pragmatic: if a tool works, it's included in the model, even if there's no theory to back it up." (Stever Robbins http://www.nlpschedule.com/)

In other words NLP deals with how language influences mental states and vice versa. One important principle is that different people seem to represent knowledge in different sensory modalities. Their language reveals their representation. Communication difficulties are often little more than two people speaking in incompatible representation systems. For example, the "same" sentence might be expressed differently by different people:
Auditory: "I really hear what you're saying."
Visual: "I see what you mean."
Kinesthetic: "I've got a handle on that."

Another important idea is that of 'metaprograms' which are ways people process information and make decisions. Do you have trouble "seeing the forest for the trees"? Are you more comfortable beginning with abstraction and then going to specifics or vice versa (general/details)? Are you very goal oriented or do you prefer to make sure you escape from negative consequences (towards/away from)? Do you prefer to keep your own counsel or listen to others' advice (internally referenced/externally referenced)? Do you have a tendency of observing similarities or making distinctions (sameness/difference)? These metaprograms, which most of us are unaware of, determine how we will react in different contexts.

NLP is much more complex, but it is very well explained in both the introduction and the glossary at the back of this book. It also becomes much clearer as you go through the proposed exercises. Each exercise is clearly structured with a box in the beginning where you find the level (e.g. "lower intermediate onwards") and the NLP focus (e.g. "representational systems: auditory", "metaprograms: similarities and differences"). However strange this may seem, if you do not believe in NLP, you still will probably find a certain number of activities that you would love to use in class.

The first section of Unlocking Self-expression through NLP is devoted to Warmers with so many good ideas that these activities could easily be used for more than just a starter. The simple exercise "Remember My Name" is a good example of how both NLP lovers and anyone else would be able to use this book. Students are asked to teach each other their names explaining five things that are memorable about their name (e.g. the meaning of their name; the sound; the spelling; why their name was chosen; an anecdote in which their name is important). After this, the students write all the names they remember and what made each name memorable. The discussion that follows will be a real eye opener for most students who have never tried to analyse their personal memorization or learning techniques. The NLP focus is "representational systems: visual and auditory", but there is no reason why the discussion would have to use NLP terminology. It would be quite easy to point out to a student who remembers a name because he or she associated it with a song, that using this technique for difficult vocabulary would be very helpful in every context.

It often seems to me that coursebooks propose discussions on ubiquitous themes so they seem very up-to-date. However, just when you think that you are beginning something new, your class will say, "We talked about that last year." This is almost impossible with the activities proposed here because the content is student-based. For example, "Present Perfect Spaces and Weathers" personalizes both the comparative form and the present perfect with questions such as:
1 Which is the dampest, most humid place I have ever been in?
2 Which is the brightest, clearest, sharpest light I have been in?
3 When have I experienced the coldest cold? And the driest heat?

It is not just the content that makes the book qualify as student-based, because the procedures proposed to implement the exercises also put the learners in charge. For example several question-asking or interviewing-technique exercises ask the students to think of a person they know well. This person can be the central character of a book or a TV soap opera or a film hero. In a pair work, one student "becomes" the character while the other student is the interviewer. Of course the interviewers are provided with an Interviewer's Guide which will make the activity rich and interesting. This way the teacher sets up the situation but the students themselves create the subject matter.

One of the procedures that I particularly liked is used in several exercises. Instead of setting up a basic pair work, the students work in threes. I plan to use the "Linking Ideas" when I teach logical links next year. This activity begins with Student A interviewing Student B with Student C taking notes. After six to ten sentences they exchange roles.
Student A: "Tell me something you really like doing.
Student B: "I really like XX.
Student A: "You really like XX since …?
Student B: I really like XX since it relaxes me making me go into a different world.
Student A: You go into a different world whenever…?

As you can see "Linking Ideas" is based on what a student likes. This is one of the most positive aspects of all the activities because they constantly implicitly build student confidence. "How Do You Do That So Well?" asks students to think of at least three things they do well. This way their partner can choose to interview them on the subject the partner is most interested in. The questionnaire provided includes:
What motivates you to start doing this activity?
Is there any special place you need to do this? If so, describe the place.
Is there anything that can stop you from doing this activity well?

The authors state in their introduction to "The Five Skills" that they give students the chance to "explore an area they may well never have thought or spoken about before, even in their first language. This gives the lesson thrust and excitement, which is lacking when you ask students to walk paths in English that they have already trodden a thousand times in their own language." I think that the authors are very successful in fulfilling this goal.

Unlocking Self-expression through NLP is divided into five sections Warmers, The Five Skills, Writing, Vocabulary and Exams. From these titles, you might surmise that the fifth skill is exam taking, but you would be wrong. The fifth skill is internal monologue or dialogue. I find this concept very interesting for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it reassures me that I am not showing the first signs of madness when I do hold these private conversations with myself. On a more professional level, everyone would agree that when you are trying to say something in a foreign language you rehearse it in your head. Instead of ignoring this 'skill' why not work with it and develop it in our students?

The Writing section concerns more a creative writing class than the goal-oriented "write a business letter", "write an e-mail" or "write a CV" class that most of us have to teach. Many of the proposed writing activities are the same as the speaking activities and some of them could be used as speaking activities. I plan to use "Where Shall I Put This?" to help students get a feel for the importance of word accentuation and I have ideas for adapting other exercises for oral activities too.

I think that in all sections the authors have found ideas to enable even French people to express their private beliefs and opinions avoiding the mind-blocking question "What do you think?" For example in "Hearing What You Believe" students choose the subject they want to discuss from a list of controversial topics. One partner makes a brief statement of his or her belief. The other partner has to restate what has just been said. However, I do believe that sometimes personalizing a class too much would make most French people uncomfortable because it is culturally incompatible with what they are used to. Having students breathe together or close their eyes to better feel or smell memories go beyond what I could handle in the classroom. This is just a minor problem though since most exercises are student-based, students can answer what they want, as they are the only ones to know if it is true. Students choose what they want to reveal and the content they want to work on.

Once I have written a book review, my colleagues and friend often ask to borrow the book. I will not be lending this one because I will need to refer to it often during the upcoming school year. Colleagues and friends will have to go out and buy it for themselves.