The pedagogic nature of The
New Guinness Book of Records
The inclusion of authentic materials in the
classroom is one of the most important tenets in the teaching of EFL. Nevertheless, most
teachers are over- whelmed by the difficulty of using materials that are not intended for
the classroom. Materials may have complex lexical items or grammatical constructions, and
the length of the passages may be excessive and time-consuming. Also, students may not be
acquainted with the topics.
The New Guinness Book of Records (Matthews 1994) is a feasible alternative. As a
publication written primarily in English and for English-speaking readers, its value as
authentic material is beyond question. In addition, the book consists of very short
passages in which the difficulty of lexical items and grammatical construction is minimal,
thereby reducing the amount of time teachers need for preparation and use. The Guinness
Book of Records is well known by our students and its popularity is contin-uously enhanced
by references from the mass media.
The special nature of this book accounts for its highly motivational value in the
classroom. Students usually associate this type of material with entertainment and do not
necessarily think of it as a didactic tool. The book also has an attractive layout with
eye-appealing pages that show pictures accompanied by explanations. Since most of the
pictures are not self-explanatory, students must refer to the text. Furthermore, students
are curious about the book and even the most reluctant studentsas we have
experiencedare eager to browse through it to discover the most fascinating records.
Because of its bizarre and unique contents, a large number of students want to take the
book home for a day if the teacher allows it to be borrowed. Regardless of the degree of
difficulty, students experience the feeling of accomplishment when they can read and
understand the information from a genuine and authentic book in English.
Learning new information and having contact with the English language should not end
with English lessons. A wide range of follow-up activities can be designed by using the
book. The Guinness Book of Records is an excellent source of general knowledge that can
easily be linked with most cross-curricular areas. Certainly, the most important
curricular areas are represented, and this undoubtedly favours the global education of
students, which is the spirit of the Spanish Reform at the secondary education level in
The New Guinness Book of Records and the ELT curriculum
Countless new proposals concerning the didactic excellence of particular songs, films,
magazines, books, and so forth, are publicized every year. However, for a given tool to be
useful, it is essential that teachers familiarize themselves with its true potential as
well as the difficulties inherent in using it. The purpose of this article is to discuss
the use of the book to promote language skills, taking into consideration some of the
teaching possibilities as well as the drawbacks of The Guinness Book of Records.
Although most teachers would initially associate the concept of records with the
teaching of such grammatical structures as comparatives and superlatives, that view may be
restrictive. Indeed, the very nature of the book favours its exploitation from a wider
perspective. This article is largely devoted to the teaching of vocabulary but does not
exclude such topics as grammar, integration of skills, and culture.
Criteria for selection
Vocabulary is an essential element in learning a foreign or second language, but
vocabulary cannot be taught or learnt in complete isolation from the rest of the
linguistic components, namely grammar, phonetics and phonology, and notions and functions.
Authors have proposed diverse criteria to help textbook writers and teachers make valid
decisions on the right vocabulary items to teach at every educational level.
Gairns and Redman (1986:5763) have proposed the following criteria:
Frequency: The most frequently used words should be taught
first. McCarthy (1990:6970) adds a further factor clearly related to frequency
range. He suggests that useful frequently-used words should appear in a wide variety of
Students needs and levels: The vocabulary should be
appropriate to the students level and respond to the students needs. For
example, priority vocabulary for English as a subject in the curriculum might be different
from that for English for specific purposes.
Cultural factors: The learners background is to be
considered, since people from different countries may need different words to express
their everyday life in the second language. For example, the word bullfighting may be
relevant to a Spaniard, but not to a Chinese student.
Expediency: The classroom is a world by itself and requires
specific types of vocabulary such as grammatical terminology and activity instructions.
Harmer (1991:154156) adds to the discussion by pointing out the following
Concretion vs. abstraction: Concrete words should be taught
at lower levels, whereas abstract terms should be taught at higher levels. This criterion
is clearly linked to the cognitive development of the student and reflects the process of
learning words in the mother tongue.
Coverage: General words should be taught before more specific
Rapport: Either for reasons of spelling and pronunciation or cognates in the native
language, some words are easier to teach and learn than others. The students
personal involvement with the word is another aid to learning. This involvement is called
rapport and is a major motivator for vocabulary learning. The more related a word is to
the student, the sooner it should be taught. However, it is extremely difficult to predict
which words will "touch" our students because every learner has different
Using The New Guinness Book of Records for content
Thanks to the work of applied linguists and text developers, the application of the
criteria previously considered in foreign language teaching has resulted in the
establishment of relatively fixed content designed to be taught at different levels of
instruction. Indeed, the vocabulary items included in almost every single textbook at the
secondary education level in Spain are centered around such common topics as people,
clothes, food, housing, travel, animals, places, learning, mass media, the environment,
leisure, geography, occu-pations, transportation, work, money, education, technology, and
As we can see in the chart below, there is a close relationship between textbooks and
The Guinness Book of Records, as both the vocabulary items and topics are similiar. In
fact, The Guinness Book of Records surpasses the possibilities of textbooks and becomes a
perfect complement because it discusses topics similiar to those of many textbooks and has
the undeniable advantage of being authentic material. This chart shows that regardless of
the subject, there is almost always a parallel category in The Guinness Book of Records.
Techniques in presenting vocabulary
Using a wide range of techniques brings variety to the classroom and helps the students
remain alert. Used correctly, the following techniques favour the long-term retention of
newly-learned vocabulary. Following Gairns and Redmans (1986:7376)
classification, presentation techniques are divided into two groups: visual and verbal.
Realia: Using a variety of real objects is one of the most
efficient ways of teaching and learning vocabulary.
Pictures: The main advantage of pictures is that they are
able to illustrate very large objects which are not easily brought into the classroom.
Mime and gesture: This is an extremely effective way of
introducing a new word since it resembles the Total Physical Response, which clearly
promotes the understanding and meaningful retention of new vocabulary items.
Definitions and illustrative sentences: The introduction of a
word in English through the use of other words in the same language offers the advantage
of con- textualization. In addition, example sentences complement the definition because
they show how the new word is used.
Synonyms and antonyms: Synonyms and antonyms are especially
important in building new vocabulary because learners are able to use known vocabulary.
Scales: This technique is the presentation of related words
in scales that include the combination of both verbal and visual techniques; for example,
in the term 32° Celsius, the degree sign is the visual.
Explanations: This technique explains the meaning and the use
of a given foreign word in the foreign language itself.
Translations: Although many linguists state that translation is not a good presentation
technique, it is only considered dangerous for students if it becomes the only
presentation technique. However, the major drawback may be when L2 words are introduced in
The Guinness Book of Records favours presenting vocabulary through the use of pictures,
charts, graphs, maps, diagrams, and so forth. The book has an excellent selection of
shocking and highly appealing photographs that can be used by themselves or with the
written text that accompanies them, thus facilitating the combination of both visual and
It is worth emphasizing that the book itself mainly presents a record and its
explanation. Thus, teachers can easily provide students with real instances of definition
and example sentences or explanations taken from an authentic book. Let us consider the
following example taken from page 21 in The Guinness Book of Records.
THE TALLEST GEYSER - Waimangu. Imagine a fountain of boiling water higher than the
Empire State Building, and you can picture the tallest geyser on record. A geyser is a
spouting hot spring which discharges water and steam. The greatest height to which a
geyser has ever erupted is 460m or 1500 feet, in the case of Waimangu, near Rotorua in New
Zealand, at the beginning of the 20th century.
Because this passage concentrates on extremes such as longest or shortest and on
different degrees within a scale, it encourages the use of verbal techniques such as
synonyms, antonyms, and scales.
We would like to note that The Guinness Book of Records provides the student with an
excellent chance to interact with words through the use of use of discovery techniques.
Guessing from context is an excellent teaching tool as the vocabulary can be applicable to
any passage or excerpt within the book. Moreover, if connected to a visual technique, the
results can be even more successful for students.
We would like to summarize the main points of this article by highlighting a number of
recurrent features. First we stress the flexible nature of The Guinness Book of Records
for classroom practice. This flexibility can be understood in relation to different
aspects of teaching such as level of proficiency, teaching and learning styles, materials
in use, and time and length of implementation. All these factors combine to favour the
introduction of activities based on or related to The Guinness Book of Records at any
point of the lesson.
At the same time, the text of the book, together with its photographs, charts, and
other graphical information, contributes to making it easier for the students to move
freely through the different passages. As far as teachers are concerned, this
crystal-clear layout saves them much time when they have to prepare the different
Perhaps the most attractive feature of The Guinness Book of Records is its enjoyable
and gamelike nature. The fact that so few people have ever considered using this book for
ordinary classroom activities indicates a certain lack of awareness of its possibilities.
To put it in a nutshell, the feasibility of adaptation and implementation together with
the highly motivational aspects embodied in The Guinness Book of Records makes of it an
excellent tool to use in the introduction of authentic material into the EFL classroom.
Gairns, R., and S. Redman. 1986. Working with words. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Harmer, J. 1991. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Essex: Longman.
Matthews, P. 1994. The new Guinness book of records. Middlesex: Guinness Publishing
McCarthy, M. 1990. Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Morgan, J., and M. Rinvolucri. 1986. Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Allen, V. F. 1983. Techniques in teaching vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Carter, R., and M. McCarthy. 1988. Vocabulary and language teaching. London and New
Denton, J., and A. Fidalgo Benayas. 1995. Top marks in COU and selectividad. Limassol,
Cyprus: Burlington Books.
Foll, D., and A. Kelly. 1996. First certificate avenues. Cambridge: Cambridge
McCarthy, M., and F. ODell. 1994. English
Maria del Carmen Mendez-Garcia is a Research scholar in the Department of English
Studies at the University of Jaen, Spain.
Miguel Rodriguez Ramos teaches English at the secondary level in Jaen, Spain.