materials development

The 8 stages of teaching my own materials

I sat down to plan a General English class for our adult learners to the other day. I say plan, more like adapt. We have an in-house set of lessons so there’s already a plan in place, but the lesson needs tweaking to suit the learners. Anyway, I opened up my lesson schedule and there it was – ‘Lesson 93 – English around the World’. Just another lesson for other teachers, but really significant for me. It was the first time ever I’d taught published materials that I’d actually wrote!

I’m teaching my own materials week in, week out. Sometimes a coursebook or other materials are dry so I either just adapt them or scrap them and write something else. Most of my colleagues do the same, it’s standard procedure. I’m happy to share the resources I make with other teachers, if they turn out to be any good that is! But this time it’s different. I was actually paid to write these materials, they are formally published as part of a regional syllabus across 15 countries, and teachers across the region are using them daily.

My first thought – pride. It’s so cool. It’s a real sense of achievement to see something you wrote looking all organised on a handout. It’s funny to read teachers notes with your inner voice and remember the actual voice who wrote it was you…! Sure, it’s also a bit of an ego boost I guess, but that happens.

My second thought – relief. Phew! It’s Lesson 93! It’s one of the 50 or so lessons I wrote that I was fairly pleased with.

Third – confusion. Man, what are all these documents?! There’s like a handout and teachers notes, that’s standard, plus a few cut-ups. Then there’s a sort of jigsaw reading task, a running dictation, some more cut ups or something. Blimey. I went overboard for sure. A lot of this must be optional. I better read my own notes. (more…)

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Coursebook activities and SLA theory – do they match?

According to Tomlinson (2013:12-15), ‘it is generally accepted that [Second Language Acquisition] is facilitated by:

  • a rich and meaningful exposure to language in use
  • affective and cognitive engagement
  • making use of mental resources typically used in L1 communication
  • noticing how the L2 is used
  • giving opportunities for contextualised and purposeful communication in the L2
  • being encouraged to interact
  • being allowed to focus on meaning’

Plus, Tomlinson cites research that suggests language learning is facilitated by motivation, having individual needs catered for, making use of non-linguistic communication and being relaxed (among other things). (more…)

Problems with images in ELT materials

Images in ELT coursebooks are often ambiguous. What might seem a fairly obvious depiction of an act or concept to us may be perceived as something completely different to our learners.

In an interesting, small-scale study, Hewings (1991) asked a group of Vietnamese learners in England to interpret various illustrations found in Elementary level coursebooks. For most of the images correct interpretation would require some culturally-specific knowledge, and written text around the images was removed so the learners weren’t given any support.

Hewings found many types of image were interpreted differently from what was intended. One example was with illustrations portraying people in certain roles, where learners failed to recognise certain stereotypes (e.g. rich/poor). He found, understandably, that culturally-specific job roles (e.g. a priest) were misinterpreted, as were situational images.

Maps like this room plan were also confused…

taken from Hewings (1991)

Some learners thought this was a view of a house from top to bottom rather than a floor plan from above. Symbolic representations like thought bubbles were also misinterpreted, and images like the ones below were seen as something different – the first image being a children’s slide, a reception desk, and ‘information’.

taken from Hewings (1991)

Interpretation of graphs also seemed an issue, particularly dealing with keys.

Hewings made some clear points in conclusion (mostly quotes here):

  • ‘we inevitably see illustrations from a culturally based viewpoint…’
  • We assume that everyone perceives images in the same way
  • ‘We assume that students have the necessary skills to make sense of information presented in the form other than a text’
  • Interpretations are unpredictable
  • Images are a chance to make learners aware of visual representations of a cultural group/target language

(more…)

Lesson idea: Tomlinson’s text-driven approach

In Developing Materials for Language Teaching (2013) Tomlinson introduces a text-driven approach to materials development. He goes into quite a bit of detail regarding text selection, offers a suggested framework for the approach and provides a practical example (pages 99-114). I won’t attempt to summarise, I’ll just say read the chapter! It was the most useful and applicable reading I undertook on my recent MA course.

For the purpose of this post, here’s the framework overview, taken from Tomlinson (2013:110, ©Bloomsbury)

click on the picture to enlarge

We had to plan a lesson using the text-driven approach for a unit assignment. I chose to use my favourite poem as the text – Blessing by Imtiaz Dharker. Here’s a nice dramatization of it (I think originally BBC):

You can find the full text here

These activities are pitched at upper-intermediate, for young adults/adults.

I’m based in Bangkok, hence the personalisation in the first activity… (more…)

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…!

(more…)

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:

comp

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:

comp2

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.