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Modern Languages Study Guide: Como agua para chocolate

Author: Sebastián Bianchi and Mike Thacker
Publisher: Hodder
ISBN: 1471890104
Reviewer: Daniella Mardell

This new help guide is clearly structured and well laid-out on the page. It consists of nine chapters that lead the candidate through aspects of the text that merit classroom discussion and support individual study.

The first chapter consists of a synopsis of the text in English, presumably to ensure that all candidates thoroughly comprehend the plot of the novel. The authors offer tasks for candidates to complete but, in my opinion, there exists the opportunity to use the synopsis in a more valuable way educationally such as by creating an accompanying grammar or translation exercise.

Placing the social and historical context in the subsequent chapter is useful and each element is neatly divided into digestible chunks with an accompanying task. However, there is a significant oversight here as, were I to write this guide, I would have included some information about Laura Esquivel at this point. Again, English is prevalent on the page where all text could, and really should, be in Spanish. Although it is a study guide and not a workbook, I feel that the authors miss the opportunity for students to actively engage with the texts in the guide, rather than reading them and then completing an accompanying ‘critical skills’ task; however, these are undoubtedly beneficial. Helpfully, key quotations pepper the social and cultural section, and indeed each following section, drawing students back to the text and familiarising them with the text. Indeed, well-chosen key quotations appear throughout the study guide and will help learners to link certain phrases with themes, characters or the socio-historical context. However, be aware that it is assumed that the book has been read before this guide is used so, if using it in the classroom alongside reading the novel, watch out for spoilers!

Tasks are interesting and relevant, and the actividades at the end of the chapter aid revision. Some multiple choice grammar exercises now appear as well - hurrah. There is also an excellent bubble diagram for visual learners and the inclusion of key vocabulary at the end of the chapter is also useful.

In the third section, I was very pleased to see the chapter summaries presented in manageable chunks, in Spanish and alongside the appearance of gap-fill exercises. That said, the authors do miss the opportunity to set exercises such as ‘preterite vs. imperfect’ using text that is already in the past. In their gap-fill exercises the words chosen are not particularly the ones I would have elected but others may feel differently. While presenting key vocabulary down the sides of the pages is undoubtedly useful, I did find the words chosen a bit basic, for example ‘pastel’ and ‘receta’ are translated but surely, if this is a study guide, students should know these key terms after having read the novel? There is also a rather odd use of English titles or Spanish titles, followed by instructions in the other language.

The guide covers all the major themes of el amor, la gastronomía, la tradición, la libertad del individuo and la Revolución Mexicana, and does so succinctly but with sufficient information. I would have included a few additional themes such as the relationship between women that is briefly touched upon in ‘la libertad del individuo’ but which, in my view, merits more focus. Although ‘el realismo mágico’ is a literary technique, again, as a theme ‘the fantastical vs. the realistic’ deserves some attention at this point.

The analysis of the characters is clear but the guide becomes a little repetitive at this point, and it is a shame as a change in layout or the type of exercise could help retain the student’s attention. The bubble diagram that worked so well in an earlier chapter appears a little confusing here but students who are visual learners may well find it beneficial. I cannot help thinking that perhaps a family tree would have been a better idea.

The ‘methods’ section presents clear analysis of the plot and all the obstacles that Tita and others have to overcome through a well-presented, beautiful flow gram.

The exam advice is sound, as one would expect, and written in English in order to make expectations clear for all candidates. The final two sections contain useful sample essays for students to refer to and a their top ten quotations along with analysis of their importance, all of which is in Spanish – hurrah.

Overall, this is a beneficial guide and contains accurate and well-presented information about the novel. That said, there is an over-reliance on English throughout the book that they would do well to remove. It is contradictory that, in section, on exam advice, advice is given to students to plan the essay in the target language but the guide itself contains vast swathes of text in English! Equally, the ‘methods’ section is entirely in English, which is a real shame, as students should learn the Spanish for all these terms, especially as they will be writing in Spanish. If a second edition were to address this, together with a need to include some more varied activities to stimulate revision in each section, it would become a yet more valuable teaching tool.