Review: Activities for Mediation by Riccardo Chiappini and Ethan Mansur

Review: Activities for Mediation by Riccardo Chiappini and Ethan Mansur

 Reviewed by Christopher Walker

I don’t like the word mediation, for the simple reason that I don’t like any word that requires not one but multiple visits to a good dictionary. Let me explain. Chiappini and Mansur begin their otherwise splendid book by quoting from the Council of Europe (2020, p90):

“In mediation, the user/learner acts as a social agent who creates bridges and helps to construct or convey meaning, sometimes within the same language, sometimes across modalities (e.g. from spoken to signed or vice versa, in cross-modal communication) and sometimes from one language to another (cross-linguistic mediation).”

Did you get that? Because I certainly didn’t. The authors of Activities for Mediation, a compendium of activities in the Ideas in Action series published by Delta Publishing, are perfectly sensible in quoting from the Council of Europe, especially when you consider that the term mediation pops up in the band descriptors for the CEFR that we have all come to rely so much upon. But as an opener, it is less than scintillating. I had to check several of the words in my trusty dictionary, but I still feel no closer to a proper understanding.

It gets worse the deeper you dive, as mediation covers such disparate territory as explaining data, translating, taking notes, collaborating in a group, facilitating pluricultural space, and facilitating communication in delicate situations and disagreements, among a host of others. I mean - how does one facilitate a space, let alone a pluricultural space?

These terms are not Chiappini and Mansur’s own, I should point out - they were devised by the boffins at the Council of Europe, and in writing this book, C&M (as I shall shorthand them) have their hands tied. If you are going to write about the word mediation, as it appears in the CEFR, you have to go with what you are given.
All right - diatribe over. I actually love the book that C&M have put together, and I’ll tell you why without using too many words that I don’t understand.

For the whole of my career, I have employed what can loosely be termed the communicative method (a woolly term, I am happy to grant you, but one that is easier to grasp than mediation, much like a sheep is easier to grasp than a cloud). This mostly involves my setting up a task, waving my hands in such a way as to suggest who is supposed to work with whom, and letting my students go off to communicate with each other - hopefully in English. The rest of that lesson segment involves the students happily working in pairs or small groups.

Or not so happily, as the case may be. Perhaps that is my fault. When I set my students off to work on a project, have I given any consideration as to who is going to lead the way and who is going to follow the leader’s decisions? Have I given any thought to how the students are going to present the work they have invested so much time and effort in creating? Have I simply assumed that they will bring all of these skills with them from their L1?

This assumption has surely been my undoing as a teacher, but it will not be a problem for me from this day forth, because I have C&M’s book in front of me. I want my students to plan a journey somewhere, and then present what they have planned to the rest of the class. To do this better than I would have done in the past, I simply need to turn to page fifty, and the activity Travel Advice. This looks at the skill of relaying specific information; there is a rationale that explains why I should find it necessary to carry out this activity with my students, after which I can work my way through the stages - preparation, procedure, language (with some wise suggestions for non-topic-specific expressions like “It’s probably best to avoid…”), differentiation (because not all of my students are at the same level across their different skills), variation and extension, and feedback. There is even a suggestion of how I can adapt the activity for the online classroom.

In short, C&M have thought of everything.

I feel there are contexts in which I could replace my students’ coursebook with Activities for Mediation - the depth and breadth of activities is so wide-ranging that very nearly everything I would want to teach can be found here.

For instance, there is SOS SMS, a very smart and exceedingly useful activity that will help students to understand emergency messages in English. I cannot think of many coursebooks that cover this territory, and yet this is the kind of information that visitors to any English-speaking country need to be aware of, and be ready to handle.

Then there is Film Feelings, an upgrade on all those slightly tired coursebook activities that expect the students to think about and then respond to their experiences of watching a movie (usually before diving into a grammar point that has little to do with films or feelings). I think that getting students to record a short vlog-style response to a film is highly appropriate given how this will develop a skill set of value to this demographic (or, to put it another way, the kids will be delighted to spend lesson time making a TikTok).

And one that I’m quite excited to try with my next class of C1 students is Critical Incidents. Superficially, this is about managing intercultural encounters, such as when an international exchange student struggles to adapt to life with an American host family. This alone - with the worksheets provided - would make for a good lesson, but C&M go further, using this as an opportunity to teach the skill of encouraging conceptual talk. In other words, the task works on two levels, one the linguistic-cultural, and the second the socio-interactional (these are terms I have just made up, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they do nonetheless exist…). This is perfect for me in my exam preparation lessons, especially when I think about the C1 Advanced Speaking paper and parts three and four, where the candidates have to initiate and respond to the points presented in the material. Learning about encouraging conceptual talk will help my students do more than just listen passively - and I can well imagine that with this sort of practice, a student on target for a Band 3 in Interactive Communication could soon be heading for a Band 4.

Perhaps I have been unfair in my criticism of the term mediation. Clearly the activities in this book go beyond replicating or improving upon the activities I might have found elsewhere - they also seek to develop the students’ abilities to navigate discourse in different contexts; in short, to become better communicators.

However, I rather believe that this has less to do with the value of the term mediation and much more to do with the value of the work Chiappini and Mansur have done in putting together this book. Activities for Mediation is likely to prove an indispensable part of my teaching library, and I encourage any and all teachers to check it out for themselves.

(Is my encouraging teachers to do that an act of mediation? You see, I’m still not sure…)