materials development

Metaphors for teaching materials

What are coursebooks to you? This question prompted plenty of discussion on our materials development course. We were given various metaphors to choose from – a springboard, a straitjacket, a recipe, a compass, etc. I opted for a crutch, as I felt it was something that supported the students learning (and my planning). Mind you, one coursebook I used recently felt more like a headwind. More specifically, a headwind while running on a sloping, pebbly beach in winter during a mild storm. I won’t name the book in question…!


The role of teaching materials – deficiency vs difference

I took a course on materials development recently. It was really good – plenty of input and ideas I could apply in my current context. Here’s a link to the course if you’re interested.

The role of teaching materials (as in externally produced ones like global coursebooks) is something we considered early on in the course. We came across a good article which talked about  perceptions of materials.

Allwright (1981) mentions two ways in which teaching materials are perceived. There’s the deficiency view, that ‘we need teaching materials to save learners from our deficiencies as teachers’ (ibid, pg. 6). This suggests that a writer holds expertise above the teacher – they know how to map a syllabus better or how to make sure activities are logically sequenced. Allwright points out that this leads to the idea of ‘teacher proof materials’ – it doesn’t matter how deficient you are, the quality of the teaching materials will get you through…

Alternatively, there’s the difference view. This is more respectful of both writer and teacher roles. It suggests that teaching materials are written by those with different expertise to teachers. Writers might be skilled in making principled decisions about materials design, but the teachers are equally skilled in delivering the materials effectively.

I’m not sure I’d use the term ‘deficient’ to describe myself or my teaching colleagues (!!!), but I can see what Allwright is getting at. When I was fresh off the CELTA I used to think the coursebook and its teacher’s notes were there to mask my inability to teach – I could never write anything better than what was already there. As my confidence and experience grew I began adapting coursebook materials more. I came to realise that without tweaking them to suit my context it was actually the materials that were deficient! So with experience I settled on this ‘difference’ view – someone has put together these (normally global) resources in what they feel is a principled way, but they need me to realise how they can work for my students. As the teacher I’m just as empowered as the writer…

Deficiency vs difference – what are your views?

This article is worth a read:

Allwright, R.L. ‘What do we want teaching materials for?’ ELT Journal volume 36/1 Oct 1981

A rant about comprehension questions

On my module in materials development we’ve just looked at reading and listening tasks.

We spoke about what makes good/bad comprehension questions. ‘Plain sense’ questions are seen as pretty ineffective, as they just test familiarity with sentence structure rather than actual understanding. Here’s an example of a plain sense question that I came across on my Dip (at TLI)

Most zins are bosticulous. Many rimp upon pilfides.

Q1. What are most zins?

Q2. What do many rimp on?

Although the text is full of nonsense words you can answer the questions without really understanding it.

I can see why these questions aren’t considered that useful. So why do coursebook writers fall back on them?

I know, it’s really easy to be critical. I’m guilty of writing rubbish questions like this too. Actually, I don’t do it that often. I prefer to write really ambiguous questions which will prompt conversation/debate – these are equally annoying I think!

But these ‘plain sense’ questions… I mean… I came across this activity the other day:


these are from Beyond A2+ (copyright Macmillan), which is actually quite a good coursebook.

Here’s the text, with relevant parts highlighted for each answer:


I’m not saying the whole activity is pointless. It’s just that some questions are plain sense or focus on simple grammatical relationships.

Q4: To have a healthy heart, how often do we need to exercise?

A: (To have a healthy heart, we should exercise for) 30 minutes at least three times a week

Q5: What happens if we do puzzles?

A: (if we regularly use our brains to do puzzles), we actually become more intelligent

I could give the author the benefit of the doubt I guess. For example, you can still teach some reading strategies related to the questions. In Q4 students could predict the answer based on question stems (e.g. How often = a frequency), then scan the text quickly for the relevant info – if they didn’t already have a massive clue by being given the start of the sentence. Maybe Q5 draws attention to the word ‘intelligent’ as new vocabulary, but you don’t need to know the meaning to answer the comprehension question.

I’m not suggesting how these questions could be improved. That’s not because I’m lazy. It’s because when they were devised they must have been written by a far more experienced teacher and then accepted by a skilled editor, both of whom must have had a clear pedagogical rationale for choosing these questions.

The role of research in TEFL

I’ve been thinking about the role of research in TEFL recently. This was prompted by Dr Paula Rebolledo’s closing plenary on Day 2 of the Teaching for Success online conference, titled ‘How could research inform EFL practice?’ You can watch it here. The talk reminded me of a few things I’ve read by Penny Ur, including this Guardian article in which she questions whether research is directly relevant to pedagogical issues.

Here’s a summary of points made in Paula’s plenary (I hope she doesn’t mind this blow by blow account but it was a really engaging talk):

  • According to her poll, most attendees felt that experience informed their decision making above research (and other resources)

poll from talk by Dr. Paula Rebolledo

  • Research is often inaccessible to teachers (i.e. restricted access journals, costly, etc)
  • A lot of research is incomprehensible – it’s full of jargon and there are different discourses used among researchers and academics compared with teachers
  • Research findings aren’t always relevant to teachers (mentioned by Ur and others)
  • Teachers have different routes to research – engagement WITH research (i.e. reading it) or engagement IN research (doing it). NB: on the latter point – big up our Quircle!
  • Some authors (e.g. Ellis, Ur) have suggested that ‘mediators’ may be useful in helping teachers access, understand and facilitate teacher engagement in research
  • Huw Jarvis did a bit of self-promo in the chat box saying he was such a mediator. His site looks interesting
  • There could be a power imbalance between teachers and researchers. Teachers are seen as being on the receiving end of knowledge. We should rethink this. Perhaps researchers need to better understand teaching, as many may have been out of the classroom for a long time and more used to observing
  • Teachers may benefit from undertaking research or working with researchers in many ways, like these:

slide from the talk by Dr Paula Rebolledo

  • The idea of ‘teacher as researcher’ needs to be a ‘bottom up, teacher-led enterprise
  • There are practical issues for teachers engaging in research – lack of time, the need for support from schools and society as a whole, etc.