Webinar notes: What about principles for materials development? (Brian Tomlinson)

Here is Brian Tomlinson’s recent webinar in written form: ‘What about principles for materials development?’ The session was delivered as part of the MaWSIG ‘What about…? Webinar series. It was full of take home points so this post is pretty long!

Tomlinson started by stressing that materials development of any kind (writing, editing, teacher-created resources, etc) should be principled. He defined ‘principled’ as the following:

‘they should match criteria related to second language acquisition research, classroom research, materials development research, and also from [teacher] experience of adapting and using materials’

He moved on to outline a series of key principles for materials development, based on SLA research findings. He didn’t make specific references to those research findings during the talk, but implies that these are general tenets of SLA backed up by research. He supported his ideas with brief example activities/tasks/procedures to help include these principles in ELT materials.

Learners must be exposed to language in use which is…

rich the language they are exposed to is much larger than the intake (the target language to be acquired). Rich means rich in quality, variety of genres, text types, vocabulary, etc. The norm in most coursebooks is an impoverished exposure – this should be a rich exposure.

recycled, like naturally recycled he gave an example of how in one coursebook he analysed, the past perfect was introduced in a coursebook in unit 12, but did not appear anywhere else in the coursebook, either before or after being introduced. Contrary to this, learners need regular, frequent and varied recycling.

relevant to the learners this (according to Tomlinson) is particularly tough for a global coursebook writer as you don’t know the learners. Unless learners are exposed to language that is meaningful to them, they won’t acquire it. With this point in mind, materials should be written flexibly so they are a resource rather than a script. Teachers can make changes, additions, modifications for the learners.

comprehensible Tomlinson defined comprehensibility as ‘sufficient understanding to provide access to what’s being talked about’. He conceded, however, that the term is sometimes ill-defined.

contextualised it’s difficult for coursebooks to contextualise all language as it adds to length of coursebook but it’s essential. SLA research shows that when a vocabulary item is taken in, it is taken in with contextual information which is stored as part of the meaning of the word.

embodied this means that learners don’t just hear or see words, they get extra linguistic information (e.g. intonation, repetition for emphasis, punctuation, contextual information, etc), and sensory information. SLA research suggests that we visualise what we are listening to, and also we use the inner voice to repeat what we hear and read (he mentioned the phonological loop here but fleetingly), but there is evidence that L2 learners don’t do this. Visualisation and use of the inner voice are essential.

Tomlinson’s suggestions in relation to these principles…

  • Make sure materials contain a lot of spoken, written and multi-modal texts which provide extensive experience of the language in use
  • Make sure the language that learners are exposed to is authentic – it’s being used for a communicative purposes. ‘Authentic AND recycled….’

Example procedures that materials developers could use…

  • Task-free activities. Example: tell a story or read an extract from the newspaper. There are no questions and no task. Also, provide an audio copy/photocopy of text, which learners can then build their own library. This way you are massively increasing learners exposure to the target-language and a stress free way. Where do you get the texts from? You could get learners to find texts that engage them.
  • Extensive reading, listening, viewing. Lots of evidence to suggest the benefits of this. He stated that some coursebooks now have extensive reading at the end of units
  • Teacher talk. Training courses often teach that this is bad. On the contrary – teacher talk can be valuable. Not introductions and didactic stuff, just chatting informally. Teacher talk can be rich, recycled etc. Tomlinson strongly believes in the value of good teacher talk.
  • Looking out for English. Walk about, see English around – go on the web and find it. Raise learners’ awareness of just how much English there is around them
  • Unstructured interaction. Get students to talk to each other about what they want, and don’t interfere. Even if the English is erroneous, it helps with confidence
  • Inner voice activities. We talk to ourselves in our L1 a lot. We should do the same in L2. Tomlinson mentioned an activity where Japanese learners were encouraged to simply look out of the train window on the way home and commentate on what they see in their L2.

Learners need to be affectively engaged in their learning experience. This is SLA fact.

If you are affectively engaged at the time you are introduced to the language, you’re more likely to acquire it. Emotional engagement is important, but in coursebooks the texts are often not emotionally engaging – writers are told to avoid various topics (i.e. PARSNIP). Tomlinson gave an example of a mismatch between the topics a teacher thought the learners wanted to discuss (pop culture, sport) and what they actually wanted to discuss (corruption, drug abuse, etc).

Key points:

  • Base materials on texts or tasks which are likely to achieve affective engagement rather than on teaching points.
  • Make use of activities which get learners to deepen and express their feelings (personal response)
  • Stimulate emotive responses through literature, provocative texts, localisation and personalisation
  • Set achievable challenges which help raise learners’ self-esteem. A lot of coursebook tasks are simply too easy
  • Make the learning materials and environment as attractive and enjoyable as possible.

Procedures to incorporate the above included

  • Text-driven approachsee my post here for an example based on Tomlinson’s work
  • TPR plus (the teacher tells a story and the students act out the story). Good for comprehension, collaboration, etc.
  • Games – Tomlinson is a great believer in games (competitive or cooperative). STOP PRESS: my use of Kahoot! is officially justified 😉 hehe

Time got short in the webinar so the next few principles were a bit rushed…

Learners need to be cognitively engaged in their learning experience

Make use of activities that encourage personal response. Stimulate learners to think before, after and during language use

Procedures included…

Text-driven approach

Problem-solving approaches – he mentions lateral thinking tasks, also solving real world problems

Issue-driven approaches (he says these are becoming popular in coursebooks, but doesn’t elaborate)

L2 learners can benefit from using those mental resources which they typically utilise when acquiring their L1.

Encourage sensory imaging and visualising, and inner speech tasks. Reflect on mental activity during a task. Reflect on how they can complete a task more effectively

Procedures for Principle 4 included…

Readiness activities (these are part of the text-driven approach)

Recall activities – recall the visual images learners create

Drawing activities – draw what you can remember from a text

Learners can benefit from noticing salient features of the input and discovering how they are used.

Use experiential activities

Use discovery approaches where learners make discoveries for themselves

Learners need opportunities to use language in order to achieve communicative purposes

Provide many opportunities to use language for an intended outcome

Design activities for using rather than practising

Make sure the activities are fully contextualised


Our materials should help our learners to:

  • Experience the target language in use
  • Enjoy the language
  • Use the language

You can read more about Tomlinson and SLA theory here.


  1. Loads of great ideas in there. I love the idea of learners library – it’s stuck in my mind since reading about Willis’s idea of a pedagogic corpus in Doing TBL. Will be trying to put this into practice in my course planning 😉


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