C¢org¢ Vassilakis, Componions: Cleorinq tbe Hess page 1

C ueoige vassilakis 1998
Companions: Clearing the Mess



0. Introduction

A companion is a book of advice, or guidance, according to a definition that comes
towards the end of the relevant entry in my dictionary
1
, indicating that this is one of
the less frequent uses of the word. Non-Greek speakers of English might recognise it
to mean primarily a friend, partner or associate, but to the Greek learners’ ears, the
companion is actually both a friend and a book of advice at the same time. It is a book
that very few EL learners (and teachers) in this country seem to be able to do without,
meant to accompany the main coursebook. And yet, despite their popularity,
companions are almost never written about
2
, reviews thereof are never published, and
in many circles they are not even talked about, as if they were some sort of guilty
secret, the poor relation of Greek ELT!
1. Companium?
3

In fact, although most teachers and publishers would agree that the companion
situation is a rather messy one, companions themselves seem to be unexpectedly neat.
They normally contain information on two major areas of the syllabus underlying the
coursebook that they have been written for, namely vocabulary and grammar, and
lately they have also tended to include supplementary exercises and tests in these two
areas. Companions are well organised: first they supply all the vocabulary in the order
in which it appears in the coursebook, together with L1 translations and/or L2
definitions and examples, then they provide the grammatical information pertinent to
the corresponding coursebook unit, and third comes the optional practice section.
That this sort of book was developed in Greece and welcomed by a huge market of
both students and teachers is hardly surprising. Companions to the textbooks taught in
various subjects of Greek secondary schools have existed for decades and Greek
learners and their parents are used to the idea of a printed substitute teacher - cum -
homework helper; Greek teachers in their majority also acknowledge the need for
companions, as they too have been through the same educational system and formed
similar educational habits. The Pedagogical Institute of the Greek Ministry of
Education, having become aware of the proliferation of companions to its Ancient
Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, Science and Mathematics textbooks, started publishing
its own companions in 1983, which are distributed free to state school pupils, thus not
only lending credibility to but also institutionalising companions and their use. At the
same time, Greek publishing houses which had been specialising in and making
fortunes out of the companion business were able to turn to mainstream publishing

1
The Cbombers 21st Centurv Bictionorv. Laiousse 1996
2
I am only awaie of one aiticle having been wiitten about companions, Componions: on AiJ or o
Snoq? by Naiisa R. Constantiniues, publisheu in CELT Athens Newslettei 1 , 1994. It contains
some excellent suggestions foi using companions cieatively, as well as analysing potential uses
anu obuses of companions.
3
Low Latin woiu uenoting o mess. It may be etymologically ielateu to the English componion. In
fact, the Cbombers 20tb Centurv Bictionorv citeu it as the etymological ioot of the woiu, although
the 21st Centurv Bictionorv seems to uisagiee...
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and are now producing quality titles, which have even included the prestigious Diary
of the Greek Writers’ Association (published by Patakis, November 1996).
4

It seems to me that this almost unanimous acceptance of companions as an
educational aid is due to attitudes deeply ingrained in the Greek rote-learning-based
educational and examination system, which directs learners to a punctilious, if
superficial, study of rules and word meanings in foreign language learning and which
rests on the assumption that all learning aims at active command rather than
receptive awareness. Thus, learners are required to memorise as much information
about the language as possible, treating all grammar and vocabulary as material
intended for productive use and are not allowed to be “merely” receptively aware of
any language phenomena. In fact, receptive awareness often counts for half-learning,
not up to the mark, and, much to the horror of those of us who are more cognisant of
the protracted and painstaking processes involved in acquiring a foreign language, it
could even be penalised.
The companion, providing as it is supposed to do all the information in need of
assimilation in a neat, well-organised fashion, becomes an invaluable resource in the
quest of knowledge. It may be used quite overtly, with both learners and teachers
sanctioning its use both in class and at home, or covertly by the teacher in preparing
her lesson, or by the learners in their effort to make up for what was not clear in the
presentation. Less often, the companion might be prohibited altogether by teachers
who are still, usually unknowingly, firm supporters of the Direct Method, or teachers
who are simply apprehensive of the problems that use of the companion per se gives
rise to (see Section 3 below) or the problems that the specific companions available
might entail.
2. Neat and Tidy
As stated above, companions were originally meant as a vocabulary, and later
grammar, aid intended to support the learner’s home study programme. However, the
way they have developed seems to serve a number of additional purposes, reflecting
perhaps the changing needs of teachers and learners. An examination of their actual
and potential uses will hopefully help the reader assess the relative merits of
companions and reach a decision as to whether to use such material and what type of
such material to use.
The best known use of a companion is as an aid to the learning of vocabulary. To
this end, the companion contains lists of vocabulary items encountered in the texts,
exercises and even rubrics and captions of the coursebook; for each item on the list,
the information necessarily provided includes a Greek equivalent and a word-class
specification (i.e. whether the item in question is a verb, or a noun, or an adjective,
etc.); in addition, all or any of the following may be included: a phonemic
transcription; grammatical information (i.e. countable or uncountable noun, plural
form if irregular, attributive or predicative if an adjective, principal tenses in the case
of verbs, especially irregular ones); synonyms; antonyms; superordinate terms; an L2
definition; one or more examples of the item in use; a style and/or register
classification; dialectal distribution, if appropriate (whether the item is in British,
American, Canadian, etc. or in general usage). In reality very few companions

4
It is inteiesting that, mutotis mutonJis. similai uevelopments have occuiieu in the EFL
Companion maiket. 0n the one hanu, majoi Biitish publisheis, such as Beinemann anu 0xfoiu,
have staiteu to piouuce companions to theii couisebooks with theii own seal of appioval anu on
the othei hanu, uieek Companion publishing houses, such as Zachaiopoulos, have staiteu
piouucing couisebooks! The similaiity is most uefinitely not a coinciuental one!
C¢org¢ Vassilakis, Componions: Cleorinq tbe Hess page S
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provide all of this information for any one item, and the ones that do provide rich data
are usually at advanced level.
The sine qua non of the companion vocabulary section is, it seems, the L1 equivalent
provided for each lexical item; and this is also the feature that is most appreciated by
the majority of the users. Clearly, though, the underlying approach to the treatment of
vocabulary is extremely limited, as it does not take account of such fundamental
aspects of lexical meaning as connotation, style and register, or collocation; knowing
the Greek equivalent of a word does not guarantee that one will be aware of its socio-
cultural associations, the words that it can “keep company with”,
5
or when and where
to use it, and more importantly when and where not to. Thus, exclusive use of the
companion for vocabulary teaching can on the one hand make life easier for both
students, who do not have to learn to use dictionaries or pay any attention to the
vocabulary input during class, and teachers, who do not have to worry about teaching
vocabulary and can devote more time to other aspects of the language being learnt;
but on the other hand exclusive and excessive use of companions can lead to such
howlers as *it is referred that...., *I feel well, *I apologise to you
6
, precisely because
of the misleading simplicity of the vocabulary input. As with most aspects of
language learning, when vocabulary is left to take care of itself, then the quality of the
care is uncontrollable.
The second component of companions, which seems to be used quite extensively,
although definitely not as widely as the vocabulary explanations, is the grammar
explanations and rules. These are almost invariably in Greek and focus mainly on
morphology and less on syntax and semantics. Thus, the typical companion will
provide substitution tables for the affirmative, negative and interrogative forms of any
new tense, rules governing spelling of the inflections and a brief reference to the
meaning and use of the tense. To many students learning English in communicative
classrooms, this emphasis on forms may be a very welcome security outlet: at a
glance, they can see which form to use or they can tell whether a form they used is
right or wrong. The information on the meaning and use of these forms, however, is,
more often than not, confusing, in that it makes use of a rather heavy grammatical
terminology, which is not made any easier because it is in the learner’s native
language. The paradox is that whereas Greek school books have consciously departed
from a grammar presentation method which rests upon the fallacy of the universality
of Latin in an attempt to avoid metalinguistic descriptions, and whereas very few
English language coursebooks make use of explicit grammatical metalanguage in
their descriptions, the companion, which, ex definitio, is there to facilitate the study
of the language, uses precisely the sort of diction and employs precisely the analytical
tools which these other pedagogical materials have eliminated in the interest of
simplicity.
A third, but no less important use of companions, as it also constitutes the main
argument of their proponents, is as a self-study aid for lessons which the learners have
missed. So if young Dina was absent on Friday, she can always ring her friend who
will tell her which lesson they did, and she can then study the relevant lesson from the
companion, which therefore acts in lieu of missed input. That this view of the
content of the lesson leaves little place for teachers seems to escape the attention of
most of its vindicators. But clearly, if Dina can make up for what she missed by
merely studying the companion, then I would suggest that she has not missed very

5
To use Reuman anu uaiins' expiession - see Reuman anu uaiins 198S, Woiking with Woius,
Cambiiuge: Cambiiuge 0niveisity Piess
6
Authentic eiiois of uieek leaineis fiom my own collection.
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much and would not miss very much even if she did not have access to a companion
at all; indeed, the implication is that very little happens in the language classroom,
that the little that happens is exclusively coursebook-bound, and that of all the
material in the coursebook what represents not only the core but also the only content
worth learning is the grammar and vocabulary. Admittedly, the grammar and
vocabulary is basic, if not central, to the language being learnt, and it is better to have
some awareness of what grammar and vocabulary was taught than none, but unless it
is borne in mind that the companion will provide nothing but some awareness of some
of the things students might have learnt and done had they been present, then we are
treading on very dangerous ground, seeking to replace teaching with companions, an
impossible task for even the most capable companion writers.
The fourth area in which companions have proved useful for many teachers is as a
source of additional practice material. Most companions currently in use contain a
number of grammar and vocabulary exercises, which ostensibly practise and/or revise
the input previously offered. These are usually objective exercises in the format of
transformation, completion, correction or multiple choice items. The fact that they are
objective makes them appropriate for use as self-check homework exercises, while
their controlled nature makes them suitable for use in class as part of a process of
confidence-building or as an opportunity for “restricted use” of the newly learnt
items.
These supplementary practice activities are welcomed by many teachers and
frontisteria owners, whose appetite for additional exercises is next to insatiable
7
.
Provided such exercises are well-designed, so that they contain no language errors
and so that they practise what they are supposed to practise rather than what the
learners have not learnt yet
8
, I cannot imagine how their use, and even overuse, might
harm.
Finally, companions are very often used as sources of testing material, mainly for
informal diagnostic tests at the beginning of the lesson, when, for instance, the teacher
sets a word dictation exercise
9
based on the companion or a multiple choice exercise
from the companion, to check whether the learners have “studied the lesson”. Lately,
many companions have also included progress tests, but these are used principally as
a revision aid, because of their unrestricted availability to the learners, which is
believed to disserve their reliability as tests. Given the proviso expressed in the
previous paragraph with regard to practice material, and with the additional proviso
that tests should be used not only with moderation but also in full cognisance of the
fact that learners will, predictably, experience them as threats, I see no harm in using
this type of companion material either.
Evidently then, the companion is called upon to serve multiple functions: a
supplement to the main coursebook, containing input in two important systemic areas,
namely grammar and vocabulary; a supplement to the workbook, providing additional

7
Ciiculation figuies foi giammai books woulu, I am suie, piove this point. It is significant that
the giammai book seiies which has been the most populai foi the last five yeais at least contains
an aveiage of twelve exeicises pei unit. It is selecteu anu useu because of the sheei volume of
piactice exeicises it offeis, peihaps in the vain hope that heie, too, the Naixist uoctiine of
quantity eventually tuining into quality applies...
8
Stiange as it may seem, ciamming is actually a common fault of many companions anu othei
books publisheu foi the local maiket, incluuing the giammai book seiies iefeiieu to above.
9
This is, I believe, a uieek invention, ieminiscent of the woist excesses of the uiammai
Tianslation methou: the teachei uictates a numbei of uieek woius anu the leaineis have to wiite
uown the English equivalents which they aie supposeu to have stuuieu fiom the companion!
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written exercises; a better-than-nothing resource for learners who happened to miss
the lesson; a self-access study aid; a test book which can help learners and teachers
check progress and plan ahead. Given these virtues, it appears astonishing that not all
frontisteria use these marvellous little books. But let us take a look at the other side of
the coin.
3. Mess and Confusion

The gravest, perhaps, problem of the whole companion philosophy is that they
deprive syllabus planners and classroom practitioners of the right to select. Selection
of content is a fundamental step in the syllabus planning process, and further
selection of what to teach invariably happens on a day-to-day basis, related to the
needs and weaknesses of the specific learners taught. The companion appears not to
affect this process at all, as it merely follows the syllabus of the coursebook, but once
more appearances should not be trusted. In fact, a lot of the contents of a companion,
especially the vocabulary but to a certain extent the grammar input and exercises as
well, are only marginally determined by the coursebook it is meant to accompany -
often, what and how much to include is dictated by the views and pedagogic
philosophy of the writer of the companion.
The choices the companion writer has to make with regard to vocabulary are
manifold: (a) which lexical items in the coursebook are new; (b) how many of the
lexical items that are new require to be glossed; (c) how much information should be
given on each of these items - which meaning(s), how much grammatical information,
whether an example/synonym/antonym/explanation should be provided, etc.; (d)
which of these items the practice and test material will focus on. Clearly, the
companion can, depending on the choices made, complement or contradict the
coursebook as well as the teacher’s methodology. Whenever, for example, the
coursebook or the teacher attempts to develop reading or listening skills such as
guessing lexical meaning from context, or ignoring vocabulary items that are not
essential to an understanding of the meaning of the text
10
, the companion can easily
defeat the purpose of the exercises used by “helpfully” glossing all of the words
contained in the text in question. The long-term result, if these skills remain
unpractised and undeveloped thanks to the overzealous helpfulness of the companion
writer, can be learners who panic at the idea of a text, whether written or spoken,
which contains any unfamiliar vocabulary, which is precisely what most texts they
will be exposed to when using English outside the classroom will contain. Not to
mention the disheartening effect that the sheer volume of vocabulary included can
have on the learner’s motivation, given that most learners -and, lamentably, many
teachers- will view all the vocabulary that is there as vocabulary to be assimilated,
just by virtue of the fact that it is there, without taking heed of factors such as the
usefulness of this vocabulary or even whether the expectation of assimilation is
realistic.
The situation that obtains with regard to grammar is not very different - the
coursebook writer will have made certain choices of aspects of grammar that she or
he wants to present, only to be once more defeated by the companion writer’s wish to
include much more, so as to give the learner a “more comprehensive picture” of the
grammatical phenomena in question. It does not seem to cross many companion
writers’ minds that there may be very good reasons why only one particular use of,

10
In fact all of the skills uesciibeu by Nuttall as worJ-ottock skills in Teaching Reauing Skills in a
Foieign Language (2nu eu, Beinemann 1996)
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say, the present perfect is presented in Unit 14 - they therefore comment on as many
uses as they can think of, again with an overwhelming effect on the learner’s learning
effort. As usual, the intentions are virtuous, but the result is disastrous. At the same
time, the fact that companion grammar input always takes the form of rules in the
mother tongue would mock any attempt at a more process-oriented view of grammar
learning
11
, which most modern coursebooks and the more informed teachers seem to
have adopted.
As far as the practice material included is concerned, selection of what to include is
also significant. The fact that companions only include exercises on grammar and
vocabulary even in the progress tests that they sometimes contain has interesting
implications for the emphases which they are seen to consider most consequential in
language teaching. The subliminal message is as clear as it is paramount in the
pedagogic constructs of the people who produce such companions: what language
learning is about is grammar and vocabulary; the rest can take care of itself, but
grammar and vocabulary are the building blocks! Although this is not completely
untrue, to equate language learning with the memorisation of lexis and rules certainly
leaves a lot to be desired after more than twenty years of communicative language
teaching!
12

One would expect that after all these years of research into language acquisition and
the nature of communication, and all the concomitant changes in the way materials
are developed and in the materials themselves, companions would have changed too.
And they have: they now contain a lot more than they used to. But the section that has
not changed, though it may have been enriched and supplemented, is the explanation
section. Explanations are still provided in the mother tongue, even when the more
advanced stages of instruction are reached, and even though English explanations
may also be included that are accessible enough not to necessitate use of the L1.
The reasons for this bold use of the first language are, I believe, rooted in the very
raison d’ être of the companion: the need for security, for total comprehensibility, for
someone (or, in this case, something) that “speaks our language”. This need is not
necessarily a real one in terms of the actual prerequisites of understanding, but rather
a psychological one, developed through years of schooling which stresses the
importance of the correct answer. At the same time, resorting to the first language is
a convenient way out for teachers and companion writers whenever the learners’
communicative resources appear to be unduly stretched in the foreign language - that
this moment of stretching may actually be the moment of creation in the L2 does not
seem to concern them.
I do not wish to claim that use of the L1 is bad or that exclusive use of the L2 is good
- and it has taken me years of teaching and studying to realise that in language
teaching, as elsewhere, things are not black and white. But the cliché that the mother
tongue should be used cautiously and with moderation seems to me to be equally true
with the one about things taking various shades of grey between black and white.
There are, however, in my view, three principal reasons why the excessive use of the
first language in companions is detrimental to learning: one is linguistic, the other is
psycholinguistic and the third is educational in the broad sense of the word.

11
See Rob Batstone, uiammai, 0.0.P. 199S
12
Inteiestingly, the iole of giammai anu vocabulaiy piactice book which the companion has
glauly assumeu is one that seems to have been uenounceu by the oiiginal playei, the woikbook.
Woikbooks nowauays invaiiably contain a lot of skills piactice anu pionunciation piactice as
well as the tiauitional vocabulaiy anu giammai exeicises
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The obvious psycholinguistic argument against excessive use of the L1 is simply that
students are deprived of useful input for acquisition, which seems to work in
mysterious ways!
13
In simple terms, every time the learner sees or hears a Greek word
in the English class, she is deprived of an English one that she could have
encountered instead. In many cases, she would not have readily understood the
English words, of course. But we have no way of knowing whether these words
would eventually make their way into her subconscious mind and finally come up in
her own speech or writing, without ever having been formally taught. So by using the
L1 we may be temporarily serving the interests of learning, but we are not giving
acquisition any chances at all. And though this may be acceptable in certain cases, I
do not think that the blanket imposition of solely formal learning as a means of
attaining foreign language proficiency can be considered a commendable course of
pedagogic action.
Moreover, use of the L1 in vocabulary explanations, which is its principal use in
companions, can sometimes be objected to on purely linguistic grounds. Quite a few
items in the one language do not and cannot, usually for cultural reasons, have
equivalents in the other. To present an L1 and an L2 word as equivalents can
occasionally be quite misleading - tea time has nothing to do with for
instance, which is how I have recently seen it translated in a companion. In addition,
merely presenting bilingual lists of words, as most companions do, does not take
account of such determining factors in the use of vocabulary as collocation and
register and leads to errors which are often very funny, and thus stigmatising for the
learner, although clearly not her fault.
Thirdly, this over-use of the L1 at the slightest suspicion of communication
breakdown seems to me to encourage a peculiar sort of educational laziness, also
characterised by a most stagnant conservatism. To use the L1 every time the learners
face problems, justifying oneself by claiming that this is how they are accustomed to
learning and it is difficult to change old habits, is indeed a dangerous type of
educational conservatism, as it defies change even when it recognises the need for it.
In fact, while acknowledging the learners’ need for security and the need to gradually
implement change, I think the practice of never attempting to upset the learners’
habits actually hinders their development, as much as it does ours. There is no room
for teacher development or for learner development when the obtaining habits are
simply allowed to continue existing, regardless of their contribution or otherwise to
the business of learning.
4. Clearing
Looking at the arguments for and against companions as outlined above, I am finding
it increasingly difficult to decide whether I would recommend using them or not. It
seems that here, too, the not-just-black-and-white cliché applies. As with coursebooks
and other teaching materials, the dilemma cannot be whether to use companions or
not, but rather how to use them and what kind of companions to use.
I should think that the most important use of a companion is as a self-study aid - not
one that replaces the teacher, but one that provides clarifications on input provided in
the coursebook and exercises that the learner can do and check himself. Which makes
the companion sound like a primitive predecessor of modern self-access learning
systems, but unfortunately one that has rarely been used as such. To turn the
companion into a self study aid teachers would have to agree to the following:

13
See, of couise, S Kiashen, The Input Bypothesis, Longman 199S
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a. Teaching should go on as though the companion did not exist. It is not
acceptable to consider, for example, that the vocabulary has been taught, just
because it is in the companion. The companion can serve as a point of reference,
a memory aid, but not as a teacher.
b. The learners should not be asked to memorise the contents of the companion.
This would contradict its role as study aid and turn it into a sadistic master,
which the majority of students do not appreciate!
c. Use of the companion should not be allowed when the practice activity being
done requires that the learners discover a rule or a meaning. The companion
could then serve as a referee - it could help the learners decide whether they
guessed right, but it should not dictate what to guess!
d. The companion practice material should be used as self-access material; for
which reason, it would be necessary to procure companions with keys, so that
students can correct themselves.

This of course takes it for granted that companions are selected, and written, with as
much meticulous care as coursebooks are. Temporarily turning a blind eye to the fact
that whereas there are some very good coursebooks, the quality of the companions
available is far from comparable, I would like to conclude with some guidelines for
companion selection, hoping that if more teachers ask for companions that satisfy
these criteria, then publishers will eventually have to produce them.
The language used in a companion should be at the learners’ level and free of
linguistic error. English should be used as much as possible and metalanguage, in
both English and Greek, should be avoided as far as possible. Vocabulary sections, in
particular, should contain information on collocation, the grammar of words and
pronunciation, as well as examples where appropriate. If there is no exact Greek
equivalent, then it might be better not to include one rather than be consciously
misleading.
The syllabus of the coursebook should be followed. The companion should be
checked thoroughly to ensure that no additional input is included and that no
meanings of vocabulary or uses of grammar are analysed which are not presented in
the main coursebook.
The practice material should be controlled and accompanied by a key, so that its use
for self access work is made possible. Exercises should be included which practise all
the aspects of language that the coursebook places emphasis on, not merely grammar
and vocabulary.
Greek should be used with moderation, in full cognisance of its psychological value
as the learners’ L1, but not disregarding the fact that learners can never have enough
L2 input.
6. Epilogue
It could be claimed that what I am suggesting here is indeed a very different type of
companion from the one that we are used to. And so it is. But since publishers have
already started working towards a new generation of companions
14
I thought that
perhaps classroom practitioners could help them by stating exactly what it is that they

14
See, foi instance, the Eeinemonn Componion to ICF Posskev. oi the 0xforJ StuJv Componion to
ICF Hostercloss.


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would like to have. After all, the fact that these little books are evolving suggests that
they are here to stay. And rather than snobbishly refusing to see that they are there, it
may be a good idea to see to it that they turn into something of educational benefit...




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