NILE MAPDLE MAT: Materials Development module (week three)

This is my second NILE MA module, Materials Development for Language Education, abbreviated to MAT. I have previously complete the Trainer Development module. You can see my related blog posts here.

Here are various bits and pieces from week two of the course, things whic h I wanted to remember, notes I’ve made while reading, and on-going tasks we’ve been asked to provide. The notes are there for me and they don’t cover every section of the course, but you may find something useful in there, or something you’d like to investigate further. Please note: this is not intended as a subsistute for doing this reading or this course yourself – it’s very subjective and based on my interests adn the things which stood out to me. Any one section from it could easily be a post in itself, but I want to keep it all together, and you don’t want me to share hundreds of posts 😉 I’ll post one of these in each of the three weeks of the online course. Here are the posts for week one and week two.

Unit 5: Exploiting texts

  1. If you need a text (written or spoken) for your materials, where do you usually look, or do you write your own?

It’s a mix. I’ve learnt that it can often be faster to write my own text if I have a very specific idea about the type of information or language I want to be in it, rather than going down a rabbit hole. Otherwise, the majority of the texts come from the internet now, but the exact source depends on the learners.

2. What factors do you consider when choosing a text?

Learner interests and needs, linguistic complexity, cultural context, engagement, how much modification it might need, how much planning time I have, what kind of activities might work well with the text…

3. What are the pros and cons of writing your own texts?

Pros:

  • You can include the language you want.
  • You can direct the topic and content to what you need / what learners are interested in.
  • Personalisation is easy – sharing information about the teacher, or including references to learners or local culture.

Cons:

  • Language level can be challenging to maintain.
  • It’s easy to get carried away.
  • It can take a long time.

4. How do you feel about using authentic texts in the context you write for?

They can be very useful, depending on the learners’ needs. But copyright can be a pain! I’m quite used to adapting activities and texts if necessary (though thereby reducing the authenticity), so it’s fine.

5. How do you feel about the reading and listening activities in a coursebook you know well?

The reading and listening activities in Project 1 4th edition, which I’ve been using this year, were sometimes way above the level of the learners I was working with, and only the strongest learners could understand them. The listening was often very fast and contained a lot of information close together. The Mut and Millie stories worked really well – there was enough time to process the information and it was spaced out. We skipped the majority of the end of unit extra reading and listening because the students were quite demotivated by how hard they found it.

Text and task authenticity in the EFL classroom

These are my notes based on the article of this name in ELT Journal Volume 55/4, October 2001, pp. 347-353, by William Guariento and John Morley.

Authentic texts

Reasons to use them:

  • Helping learners improve their “receptive competence in the target language” (p347)
  • “To bridge the gap between classroom knowledge and ‘a student’s capacity to participate in real world events’ (Wilkins 1976: 79)” (p347)
  • Maintaining or increasing students’ motivation, because they’re interacting with ‘real’ language. (p347)

[This need to bridge the gap is an important one to fill, since many coursebook texts are still quite divorced from examples of real-world texts, particularly regarding listening. That’s why workshops like this one are needed!]

It is generally possible to select texts that will stretch the learner in terms both of skills development and of the quantity and range of new language.

Guariento and Morley (2001: 348)

They describe the fact that this is possible at post-intermediate level, but that at lower levels, learners may feel frustrated, confused and demotivated using authentic materials unless there is very careful selection of the text and tasks. (p348) However, it can be challenge to “seamlessly” execute simplification of texts, for a range of reasons (p348):

  • Technical and sub-technical words are removed from writing, therefore removing clues to context.
  • Listening texts are shortened and redundant features which could provide useful repetition are removed.
  • “The co-ordination of natural speech gives way to subordination” [I think this means that where two speakers might work together to arrive at meaning, it becomes more like two monologues slotting into one another, with little repetition or overlap – a pattern of question > answer > question > answer for example. Please correct me if I’m wrong!]

Partial comprehension of text is no longer considered to be necessary problematic, since this is something which occurs in real life.

Guariento and Morley (2001: 348)

The emphasis can shift to helping students to develop “effective compensatory strategies for extracting the information they need from difficult authentic texts” and to “make the most of their partial comprehension”. (Guariento and Morley (2001: 348).

[I agree with this – I think one of the most useful things we can for our students is help them to learn to deal with the fact that they will be unlikely to understand everything they read or hear. Especially at lower levels, this can make some learners feel quite stressed, and can be demotivating. If we help them to focus on what they can understand, and what they can do with that knowledge, it can be a real confidence boost.]

The text can stay the same, but the task can change. Having said that, we might want to consider how much comprehensible input learners therefore have exposure too, how authentic the tasks are which we ask them to do, and therefore how authentic their responses are. (p349)

[For me, this is a very important area to consider. We want to help learners to realise that they can work with real-life texts, but if those texts are always going to be above their heads, they need to very resilient. Therefore, we need to work with a mixed diet of authentic and simplified texts, with the balance between the two varying by level. We should use at least some authentic texts, even with low-level learners, to given them that connection to the real-world that makes them feel like what they’re learning is real language, but without overwhelming them with how much they can’t understand yet. By providing simple, achievable tasks to go with the authentic materials, we can aim to give them that sense of achievement.]

Task authenticity

Guariento and Morley identify “four broad schools of thought regarding task authenticity” (p349):

  • Authenticity through a genuine purpose (p349-350)
    Is there real communication for a genuine purpose? Is the focus on meaning?
  • Authenticity through real world targets (p350)
    Does it have a clear relationship with real world needs, for example buying a train ticket or taking lecture notes?
  • Authenticity through classroom interaction (p350)
    “Breen (1985) argues that the most authentic activities exploit the potential authenticity of the learning situation.” For example, discussing the usefulness and appropriateness of teacher feedback or of different homework tasks.
  • Authenticity through engagement (p350-351)
    Is the student engaged by the topic and the task? Do they understand its relevance and purpose? Did the students have any say in the selection of the task?

They acknowledge that these four schools of thought might not have much in common at first glance, but that it might be possible to “devise learning situations in which the four can operate in conjunction” (p351)

Authenticity and task difficulty

Skehan (1998) identified the elements of task difficulty as:

  • Complexity of the language
  • Cognitive load
  • Performance conditions [which I think means how the task is actually set up e.g. interaction pattern, scaffolding etc.] (p351)

They list a range of ways in which even relatively simple tasks can still be authentic, and therefore used with low-level students (p351-352):

  • Playing bingo
  • Remembering items from a picture
  • Playing verbal hide and seek
  • Finding the odd word out of a series
  • Surveys
  • Buying a train ticket
  • Ordering a coffee
  • Booking a hotel room
  • Asking for directions
  • Completing questionnaires or surveys, including as part of course evaluation

One common theme of many of these is a game-like quality. They mention Willis (1996) as a “useful source of genuinely communicative activities which can be used with beginners and young learners”.

Conclusion

The separation between text and task maintained thus far is a rather artificial one; in the real world, language input and language output usually occur as part of an integrated process of communication.

Guariento and Morley (2001: 352)

Integrating input and output, reception and production, mirrors real world communicative purposes, and therefore moves towards authenticity. (p352)

Issues in materials for developing receptive skills

These are my responses to questions we were asked.

  1. Why do we use listening and reading texts in class? Try to think of several reasons.
  • To engage learners.
  • To provide exposure to language input.
  • To develop reading / listening skills.
  • To act as model texts for students’ speaking / writing production.
  • To stimulate discussion.
  • To introduce different viewpoints into the classroom.

2. Do you think we can really teach reading and listening, or only give practice? Why?

I think it’s possible to teach students to become better readers and listeners. We can develop their knowledge of skills and strategies for approaching reading and listening texts, and increase their tolerance of situations when they don’t understand every word. We also need to show learners how to get huge amounts of exposure and practice themselves – with that kind of practice, they are likely to acquire the language much faster.

3. What are some of the differences between working on reading and listening in class?

Reading allows students to go back over the text, whereas listening is ephemeral. Students can read at their own speed, whereas they have to listen at the speakers’ speed. In reading (what Cauldwell calls) the sight substance remains constant regardless of the context, whereas the sound substance can be different depending on a huge variety of different factors, many of which students are generally unaware of. In reading, it’s easier for learners to answer questions without fully understanding what they are, lifting stretches of text from the original, whereas with listening this is generally more challenging.

4. Do you use literature in your materials or classes? Why or why not?

Very rarely, not least because for the last few years I’ve only had one group a week and have had a coursebook to work with! When I taught a lot more, I’ve used Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Good Omens, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It took a while to create the materials, but the students generally enjoyed the results and found them to be motivating and engaging.

My beliefs about using texts and developing reading and listening skills

These are some of my own beliefs about materials for developing reading and listening skills. The ‘But…?’ part is possible arguments others might have against these beliefs, not necessarily reflecting what I think. I haven’t included the counter-arguments as that would make it very long! [Note: I’m very sleepy right now, so not sure how coherent these are!]

  • The meaning of texts should be focussed on as a priority, before they are used for language work.
    Why? We process the world by seeking meaning. If we skip this step in materials, learners will be trying to find the meaning anyway, so won’t be concentrating on any other tasks we might give them.
    What does it entail? Having meaning-focussed activities before any language work.
    But…? I don’t think you can argue with this!
  • We should teach listening and reading, not just test them.
    Why? Exposure is not enough to improve listening and reading skills. Learners need to know about strategies they can use to improve their comprehension, and to reflect on what went wrong if they didn’t fully understand a text.
    What does it entail? Inclusion of activities focussing on listening and reading sub-skills, such as micro-listening, or understanding discourse markers and how they can help you navigate a text. There should also be opportunities for developing metacognition, and for learners to share strategies they used to understand – not just what was the answer, but how did you work it out. This should also build confidence, as learners realise that it is possible to improve their skills, and they are not just a ‘bad’ listener/reader.
    But…? How do you decide what sub-skills to focus on for each text? Different learners will be at different stages of reading/listening development – how do you cater for these different levels? Are some of these skills transferable from L1, so do we need to spend time teaching them?
  • There should be a range of different types of text and activities.
    Why? Because this is what learners will encounter in the real world. They need strategies to deal with different text types. This is also more likely to keep learners engaged.
    What does it entail? Different genres, different voices/accents/dialects/ages, different layouts, different lengths. Varied activities include confidence-building activities, comprehension activities, skills training, authentic tasks which reflect the real world.
    But…? How do you decide what to prioritise? Should all activities be authentic? There is a limited amount of space in materials, so how can you provide extensive listening/reading practice too?
  • We should respect copyright when selecting texts.
    Why? It takes a long time and a lot of effort to produce materials. We are also demonstrating ethical and legal behaviour to our students. It’s also a legal requirement in many places.
    What does it entail? Being aware of local copyright law, especially regarding educational fair use. Getting permission to use texts, preferably before you create the materials which go with them. Perhaps creating our own texts from scratch, for example by recording friends and family, with the necessary permissions from them to share those texts more widely (though issues of audio quality may come in at that point).
    But…? What if we don’t have the money to pay copyright fees? Should texts be free for educational use?

Reading and listening activity types

We were give some interesting links to help us to find other ways of working with texts. A few activities which were new to me and I particularly liked included:

  • Reduction: Turn a poem into an advertising slogan.
  • Interpretation: What questions would you wish to ask the author?
  • Creating text: Use the same title, but write a new text.
  • Analysis: Work out the ratio of one-word verbs to two-word verbs.
  • Analysis: List at the words to do with (the sea, movement, ecology, etc) in this text.

Listening comprehension

As optional further study, we were given this 5-minute video to watch about listening comprehension:

It’s a useful brief introduction to how listening comprehension works, including the concepts of bottom-up v. top-down processing and the idea of schema, if you’re not already familiar with them.

Text-driven approach

[I came back to this once I’d finished unit 8, as I felt like I couldn’t fit everything in during the week. I managed it in the end, but definitely felt better for deciding to leave this until later!]

These are my notes based on the section ‘A text-driven approach to materials development’ in the chapter ‘Develoing principled frameworks for materials development’ by Tomlinson on pages 99-114 of the second edition of Developing Materials for Language Teaching (2013, Bloomsbury) [Amazon affiliate link] Note: I highly recommend you read this yourself if you can, as my notes below are very opinionated and you may want to see the original first! In my week two post, I shared a table summarising the stages of this approach, though it seems to only have six stages, whereas the chapter describes eight, and they seem slightly different.

Tomlinson says that he found his text-driven approach “helped writers (mainly teachers with little previous experience of materials development) not only to write principled and coherent materials quickly, effectively and consistently but also to articulate and develop their own theories of language learning and language teaching at the same time” (p100)

Stage 1: Text collection

Find texts “with the potential for engagement”.

By engagement, I mean a willing investment of energy and attention in experiencing the text in such a way as to achieve interaction between the text and the senses, feelings, views and intuitions of the reader/listener.

Tomlinson (2013: 100)

The aim is to “achieve the affective impact and the deep processing which can facilitate language acquisition.” (p100)

[This sounds all well and good to me, but seems to put a lot of pressure on the person sourcing texts to find something which seems transcendent in some way, as well as on the materials writer not to mess that up!]

There is a caveat that reflects my point somewhat:

Obviously, such texts cannot be easily found and certainly cannot be found quickly in order to illustrate teaching points. […] It is much easier and much more useful to build up a library of potentially engaging texts and then to let the texts eventually selected for target levels determine the teaching points.

Tomlinson (2013: 100)

The library development stage is ongoing and context free. Its purpose is to create a resource with the potential for subsequent matching to particular contexts of learning.

Tomlinson (2013: 100)

[Still not 100% convinced by this idea. I think we inevitably keep texts which we think might be potentially interesting at some point in the future, but you’d still need a massive bank covering a wide range of different contexts / topics / text types etc. to draw on if you want to narrow it down at the next stage. Of course, all of this also assumes you can get the permission to use the text from the copyright holder!]

Stage 2: Text selection

Select from your library: one text for a lesson, or a number of texts for a set of materials / textbook. Because the materials are text-driven, Tomlinson emphasises that this should be criterion-referenced. He lists a possible set of criteria on p101.

[While the criteria look like they could be very useful, it does seem very ambitious that he would only use a text which had achieved a 4 on all of the twelve areas. Again, it feels unlikely that you’d find many texts which managed that, if you’re working as an individual. Maybe if you’re part of a large group you might find some texts like this?]

One note which he makes is:

Usefulness for teaching a particular language feature is a dangerous criterion as this can tempt writers into the selection of texts which do not engage the learners and which, therefore, do not help them to achieve durable learning of the teaching point.

Tomlinson (2013: 101)

He also highlights that even on EAP and ESP courses, we should include some variety of materials, not just focussed on the subject matter – he mentions the example of including poetry on courses for pilots, and for diplomats. (p102) He comes back to the importance of affect, and avoiding having learners whose brains are “focused narrowly on […] low level linguistic de-coding”, saying that “This means that the learners are not using their whole minds, that a multiplicity of neural connections are not being fired and that meaningful and durable learning is not taking place.” (p102)

He advocates the use of literature:

[not the “classics of the literary canon, but] well-written texts which narrate, describe, argue or evoke in ways which encourage the reader to respond in personal and multidimensional ways, and which leave gaps for the reader to fill in

Tomlinson (2013: 102)

I find the following suggestion to be very narrow and to limit the learners’ possible uses of and exposure to English, linked also to my agreement with Gadd in unit 6 below, even though it is for the well-meaning reason that the aim isn’t to engage all learners with one text, but to engage most of them in a class and all of them over a course.

The best way I have found of achieving this is to make sure that many (but not all) of the texts relate to the basic universal themes of birth, growing up, going to school, starting a career, falling in love, getting married and dying (though this is a taboo topic in some countries).

Tomlinson (2013: 102)

While I believe this could potentially be a fruitful approach in a short course or a single set of materials, I don’t see how this could work long-term over a number of years to create a fully-rounded English language user.

Stage 3: Text experience

Experience the text (read/listen to it) again to reflect on your experience with it and “try to work out what was happening in your mind during it.” (p102) If you can’t re-engage, perhaps choose different materials.

[This is the point at which I got particularly frustrated with reading this chapter. It all sounds lovely, but really not practical at all!]

Stage 4: Readiness activities

Come up with activities which “get the learners ready for the reading experience.” (p103)

You are aiming at helping the learners to achieve the mental readiness which readers take to L1 texts and to inhibit the word fixation and apprehension which L2 readers typically take to texts (Tomlinson, 2000b).

Tomlinson (2013: 103)

The aim is to get learners to think, to “open and activate their minds”. (p103) He lists a variety of ways to do this, which seem like fairly standard pre-reading activities to me, with the possible exception of mime, which I’m not sure I could persuade the majority of my students to engage in.

The important point is that the lesson starts in the learners’ minds and not in the text and that the activities help the learners to gain a personal experience of the text which connects it to their lives.

Tomlinson (2013: 103)

OK, that wording is quite interesting – to some extent, it echoes the questions Why should they care? which I’ve previously written about.

Stage 5: Experiential activities

These are activities which are designed to help the learners to represent the text in their minds as they read it or listen to it and to do so in multidimensional ways which facilitate personal engagement.

Tomlinson (2013: 103)

The activities should be mental, “contributing to the representation of the text.” There should be no writing or discussion, as this risks interrupting the processing of the text or making it more difficult to process it. Examples given include:

  • “visualise a politician as they read about him, using inner speech to give their responses to provocative points in the text”
  • “trying to follow a description of a journey on a mental map”
  • “thinking of examples from their own lives to illustrate or contradict points made in a text” (all p103)

The activities can either be given through concise instructions just before reading/listening as part of a more participatory approach, with learners contributing to the text. For example, the teacher reads the text, pauses, and learners shout out predictions of the next work or phrase; a similar approach with dictation (especially for poems) – write, pause, compare next line; the teacher stops before the end of a text and the learners write the endings (all p104 – there are more there)

[There are some interesting ideas here, and ones which I haven’t seen before, but I’m not sure how well they’d work with some text types. I can see them connected to literature, and some more story-like non-fiction, for example descriptions of processes, but not with texts which don’t follow that kind of story structure.]

Stage 6: Intake response activities

These are activities which help the learners to develop and articulate what they have taken in from the text.

Tomlinson (2013: 104)

Learners reflect on the mental representation they created in stage 5, rather than returning to the text. These activities don’t test comprehension.

[Learners] cannot be wrong because they are not being asked about the text but about their personal representation of it. However, it is possible that their representation is only partial (or even superficial) and the process of sharing it with others can help to extend and deepen it.

Tomlinson (2013: 104)

Suggestions include visualising, drawing or miming what they remember, summarising the text to somebody who hasn’t read it, or asking clarifying questions to somebody who knows the text well. (p105)

[I think you’d really have to manage learners’ expectations throughout this whole process. They’d need to know why they were doing all of this, why it will benefit them, and why they haven’t paid any attention to the language in the text yet. That could say something about the general way in which we use and approach texts in the classroom, but it also seems to me a question of efficiency. If you only have 90 minutes in a lesson, this seems like a lot of time with not much happening – there haven’t been any opportunities for upgraded language by this stage in the lesson, for example. It could work well as a one-off, but I’m really not sure about it as the basis for a series of materials.]

Stage 7: Development activities

‘These are activities which provide opportunities for meaningful languag eproduction based on the learners’ representations of the text’ (Tomlinson, 1999c, p. 63)

Tomlinson (2013: 105)

Examples given include writing part 2 of a story when they’ve heard part 1, rewriting a location-based story so it’s set in their own town, or creating a new advertisement based on one they’ve seen.

[These activities seem quite engaging and reflect task-based approaches quite closely, as the focus is on meaning, but learners have the opportunity to draw on the source text if they want to. However, it relies on teachers noticing opportunities to input new language, and learners being able to draw new language from texts and each other, rather than only sticking to what they know already.]

Stage 8: Input response activities

Learners return to the text, doing closer study which helps them “to make discoveries about the purposes of the language of the text.” (p105)

Interpretation tasks

Learners consider the author’s intentions, and develop critical and creative thinking skills. (p105) On p105-106, Tomlinson gives the following examples:

  • Deep questions
  • Debates about issues in the text
  • Critical reviews of the text for a journal
  • Interviews with the characters
  • Interviews with the author

[Most of these seem to imply that learners have a relatively high level of L2, or conduct these activities in L1. They would need a lot of scaffolding to be able to participate in many of these tasks, though I don’t deny that they could be engaging and fruitful with the right teachers and students.]

Awareness tasks

Learners might improve their awareness of:

  • language use
  • communication strategies
  • genre characteristics
  • text-type features (all p106)

They look both at this text and other, equivalent texts for their research.

The important point is that evidence is providing in a text which the learners have already experienced holistically and then they are helped to make focused discoveries through discrete attention to a specified feature of the text. That way they invest cognitive and affective energy and attention in the learning process and they are likely to increase their readiness for acquisition (Pienemann, 1985; Tomlinson, 1994b, 2013)

Tomlinson (2013: 106)

Tomlinson suggests that learners can revise the product of stage 7, based on the findings of stage 8. [Definite TBL influences here.]

Using the framework

Tomlinson says you can use it flexibly, though some stages probably need to precede others. You don’t need to use all of the stages, and you can decide on the weighting of the stages based on learners’ needs.

It is useful, though, for the materials developer to include all the stages in the actual course materials so that the teachers (and possibly the learners) can make decisions for themselves about which stages to use and what sequence to use them in.

Tomlinson (2013: 107)

Tomlinson describes using it to quickly create materials for a cover lesson, and to help teachers to produce an effective unit of material. [I wonder whether he’s used it to create whole coursebooks or even series of books.]

The sequence of activities on p107-109 for a 90-minute lesson based on a poem about an old lady are quite nice, and I could see myself picking and choosing from them for a one-off lesson. The news articles / online example on p111-114 also seems interesting for self-access or independent study, or for some kind of longer project with learners on an intensive course – it looks engaging and motivating, but again you’d need to justify it to the learners and train them in this approach. Still not convinced this approach is useful for larger materials writing projects though…

Unit 6: Affective factors in materials

These are my ideas to start the unit.

  1. What do you understand by ‘affect’ in language teaching?

These are the emotional and human factors which can influence learning, for example whether a learner is feeling stressed, excited, bored, hungry, cold, etc. When they are dealing with too many of these issues at once, it makes it harder for them to learn (their affective filter is up). Some aspects of affect can help learning though, for example if they are motivated, they will be likely to study for long and take more in.

2. Why is affect so important? Can you think of any personal anecdotes that illustrate this?

Because it takes up space in our brain and influences our attitudes to learning.

For example, right now I’m really tired and struggling to concentrate because I was very hot last night and didn’t sleep well (the heatwave has arrived in the UK!) This means that I’m not really sure how much I’ll retain from what I’ve done today on the course, and I’ve skipped some of the more cognitively challenging parts like reading a chapter from a methodology book. I’m aiming to come back to them when I’m feeling more awake!

3. What is the materials writer’s role in regard to affect?

A writer needs to consider what kind of support/scaffolding learners might need to complete tasks, reducing the likelihood of learners feeling stressed or anxious. They need to include activities which encourage learners to reflect on their learning, boosting their confidence and making plans for their future learning, again reducing stress levels and helping learners to feel they have some kind of control over what they’re doing. Writers also need to include good quality teacher’s notes, so that the teacher feels prepared and knows how to deal with different issues, and is also slightly less likely to feel stressed going into the lesson and transfer this to learners.

4. How affectively engaging do you think most of the materials used for your context are?

It depends on how well we’ve chosen our coursebooks! Generally I think they are quite engaging and encourage personal responses, but to some extent that’s due to how we train our teachers to use the materials. As a rule, materials are becoming more intrinsically engaging, at least as far as I can remember.

5. Do you know anything about gamification? If so, what do you think of the concept?

Yes, I’ve read a fair amount about it and attended conference talks connected to it. I think it’s one possible tool we can use to engage learners, and it can work really well for some learners, but it depends very much on the way it is used. If it creates a lot of extra work for the teacher or the students, or if it is just used for the sake of it, it’s not worth it. But if it’s incorporated in a principled way, it can prove very motivating.

6. Note down three elements of successful speaking materials and three elements of successful writing materials.

Successful speaking materials:

  • Promote extensive speaking, not just short answers.
  • Engage the learners and make them want to speak, not just do it because the teacher told them to.
  • Provide support for the learners, for example planning time, reflection on their performance, etc.

Successful writing materials:

  • Have a clear audience and communicative purpose.
  • Provide support for learners, for example through genre analysis or providing a model.
  • Incorporate achievable tasks for all learners, not just the strongest/most confident in the group.

A definition of affect

Aspects of emotion, feeling, mood or attitude which condition behaviour.

Arnold and Brown, 1999. Affect in Languag Learning. CUP

Humanising the Coursebook

We read an interesting article by Brian Tomlinson from the September 2001 HLT Mag. No notes, as I could highlight the Word document 🙂 Reminds me that I should go back and look at my copy of Humanising your Coursebook by Mario Rinvolucri [Amazon affiliate link / BEBC non-affiliate link]

Gamification in education

I’ve read and heard a bit about gamification already, but it was interesting to explore it in a little more depth and think about how I might want to incorporate it into my own materials.

This was a fun introduction to different kinds of reward (2 minutes), focussing on piqueing interest rather than extrinsic rewards:

This TEDx talk by Gavin Pouliot had some interesting ideas:

  • Include different levels of choice: legendary is the highest level he mentioned.
  • Personalise learning: let learners be whoever they want.
  • Let students make their own world, for example through a digital portfolio.
  • Allowing cooperation and competition, though not assuming all learners want to work in the same way. For example, giving XP for completing certain tasks.
  • Gamificiation requires teachers to really know their learners and requires learners to know what works for them.
  • Allow learners to retry when needed to build mastery and competence, not just rushing them on to the next thing.
  • Assessment can be done in different ways, for example through badges.
  • Be clear where pathways/skills lead so students know why they’re doing activities.

This infographic provides a particularly useful summary, including this clear definition of gamification:

The use of game design elements in non-game contexts.

The key elements of gaming which the infographic suggests we could use for educational purposes include (please look at the infographic for full information – this is just a quick reference for me!):

  • Progression
    • Levels
    • Points
  • Investment (pride in your work)
    • Achievements (public recognition)
    • Appointments (challenges)
    • Collaboration
    • Epic meaning (sublime or transcendent)
    • Virality (involve others)
  • Cascading information (unlocking more)
    • Bonuses
    • Countdown
    • Discovery
    • Loss aversion (avoid losing what you’ve gained)
    • Infinite play
    • Synthesis (multiple skills needed)

This article from TESOL by Deborah Healey mentions lots of game mechanics which could be useful. These ones extend the list above:

  • Behavioral momentum (tendency to keep doing something you’re already doing)
  • Ownership (publishing work, autonomy/learner choice)
  • Blissful productivity (we like working hard and feeling productive)

We were also given a one-hour webinar by Elena Peresada on how gamification works, which is worth watching for all of the examples of gamification Elena has used in her lessons (the first few minutes are missing):

She talks about game components as the first level of gamification:

  • XP points
  • Leaderboard (can be divided into smaller segments so it’s not just bottom v. top, for example going up through ranks)
  • Badges
  • Progress bar
  • Goal
  • Avatar
  • Levels

Class Dojo can be a useful tool for this, but you can’t divide your leaderboard into segments.

Learners became more engaged, nobody was a loser, and learners started to ask for extra assignments to keep up with their classmates and get more XP. However, it was short-term motivation and the learners focussed on points, not English, with some learners cheating to get more points. There is purely a focus on extrinsic motivation, so it doesn’t work in the long term. It’s therefore important to move to higher levels of gamification.

The second level is game mechanics:

  • Meaningful choices
  • Tries and fails

When you play a video/real-life game, this is what keeps you going. These make gamification different to school. For example, we don’t read instructions before we start a video game: we start and see what happens. At around 20 minutes, Elena gives an example of a haunted house game she used with her students. Learners could remember a lot of vocabulary after the game because they were emotionally engaged. They repeat the activity multiple times willingly.

She uses a framework of different activities with different point values, where learners can decide what they want to do – this can be as simple as allocating point values to activities you are already using.

You can turn activities into games by adding small mechanics to them, for example Find Someone Who becomes a game if there is a goal and a time limit [though I’d be wary of the competition element that might generate].

The third level is dynamics, often through storytelling:

  • Emotions
  • Narrative

One way to create a narrative is through a simple framework, like this:

Empire, Friends, and Reddit: Once upon a time there was a lonely orphan..
 Who was friends with two social outcasts...
 The trio lived happily until the evil...
 Tried to take over...
 The
 Muggle/ Gotham Galactic
 The
 The
 Middle
 The
 Pride
 Wizard
 City
 Empire Xingdom Earth Jungle
 Lands
 Worlds
 Thankfully [hero] defeats [villain] with a...
 AND EVERYONE
 LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER.
 pleated jeans
Every epic movie.
Original by Pleated Jeans (though I can’t find the link!)

Elena uses a lot of RPGs in her lessons – I’ve seen examples of her talking about this at IATEFL, and they seem great! Her learners are very engaged and talk a lot in lessons. These are examples of the games Elena and Studycraft have produced (site is in Russian).

She recommends exploring https://yukaichou.com/ for more information. He has a framework called Octalysis covering many different elements of gamification.

Speaking and writing materials

We were asked to look at supplementary materials to see how writing and speaking are dealt with and answer a range of questions.

For speaking, I thought it might be interesting to look at materials I’ve previously posted on my blog. I chose something from 2011 for working on FCE Speaking part 3 (in the old version of the exam – can’t remember if it’s still the same part!) The activity was designed to practise the format of that part of the exam, encourage students to converse rather than monologue (though I don’t seem to have explained how that aim should be met), and practise holiday-related language. As written, it is product oriented, because there is no explicit strategy development – I may have included it in the lesson, but I didn’t in the blogpost – it’s a long time ago and I don’t remember! (Note to self: include strategy development in activites you post on your blog, where relevant!) Possible ideas for strategies which could be explicitly practised would include turn-taking strategies, interrupting, and asking follow-up questions. I also didn’t explicitly mention what preparation they had for the practice tasks, though I suppose by creating the pictures themselves they at least had some level of input into the task, thinking about the language they might use to describe this kind of picture. Overall, the activity is fine, but the teacher’s notes could be a lot more useful!

For writing, I chose a Learn English British Council resource for B2 Upper Intermediate on writing an informal email to a friend. The activity is designed to focus on phrases which you might use in an informal email – it’s language focussed, rather than really developing writing skills. The focus with the phrases are formal v. informal, coming up with appropriate replies, and prepositions (mostly) in informal email phrases. There is no strategy development and the learners don’t actually write an email as part of the activity – instead they write a comment about the best way to stay in touch with friends you don’t see often. It is kind of a product-oriented reading activity more than a writing activity, although the main focus is on functional language. These activities could be useful language preparation for writing an email, but they would need to be supplemented by content preparation activities, and an actual writing task, along with (ideally) some writing strategy development. Examples of strategies you could include would be identifying what to reply to in an email you receive, drafting and editing an email, or checking an email for overly formal language.

My beliefs about speaking and writing materials and making materials affectively engaging

These are some of my own beliefs about materials for developing writing and speaking skills and recognising affect. The ‘But…?’ part is possible arguments others might have against these beliefs, not necessarily reflecting what I think. I haven’t included the counter-arguments as that would make it very long!

  • Speaking and writing materials should include opportunities for learners to develop their skills, not just practise them.
    Why? We need to help learners to develop strategies to become more fluent communicators, building their confidence and supporting them in producing better quality, richer speaking and writing.
    What does it entail? Including specific activities focussing on strategies such as turn-taking, interrupting, planning and editing writing, and using useful chunks of language. Also, including reflection on the success of speaking and writing to develop learners’ ability to notice what works and doesn’t in specific contexts.
    But…? How do you decide which skills should be developed in what order? How do you fit strategy work into the limited space available in published materials? How do you ensure that reflective questions home in on the most useful aspects of the strategy being developed?
  • Speaking and writing activities should be as authentic as possible, with a clear aim, audience and communicative purpose.
    Why? If learners can see the point of activities, they are more likely to be engaged by them. Changing the audience for speaking and writing changes how that speaking/writing might happen, for example, the level of formality, so we need to include this in the activity. Having a communicative purpose gives learners a reason to speak, listen, read and write, rather than just because the teacher told them to.
    What does it entail? Ensuring the aim, audience and communicative purpose are clear to the learners. These should reflect real-world tasks whenever possible, but if that’s not possible (for example in exam preparation courses), they should at least be clearly engaging for learners, thinking back to Guariento and Morley above and the four schools of thought regarding authenticity.
    But…? How do you make sure that tasks are achievable for (especially low-level) learners if they are real-world? What do you need to include in the teacher’s notes to give teachers flexibility when adapting the materials, rather than dictating how to set up the activities? How do you help teachers to personalise and localise tasks?
  • There should be an opportunity for learners to prepare the content and language of what they are going to say and write.
    Why? Their output is likely to be richer if they have had time to consider it first. It could also reduce their stress levels, and help their communication to be more fluent, especially if they’ve had the opportunity to ask about useful language.
    What does it entail? Including explicit preparation stages in materials, with a specific focus on content and on language. Making sure teachers know the usefulness and importance of these stages through including information in the teacher’s notes. This could also be tied up with strategy development, as mentioned in my first belief above. It could also include rehearsal stages, visualisation, or use of the inner voice for speaking. For writing, it might include brainstorming ideas and writing a plan.
    But…? Will learners always have preparation time when speaking or writing in the real world? If not, how will this approach prepare them to produce language when they’re put on the spot? How much does this approach balance accuracy and fluency of production?
  • Affective factors should be taken into consideration within materials.
    Why? If learners are disengaged, feeling stressed or anxious, lack confidence, or feel demotivated, learning is unlikely to take place. They are less likely to want to or be able to push themselves to speak or write, particularly at length, and may drift off when reading and listening. Learning English may feel like a chore or a stressful experience, particularly speaking/writing, and learners are likely to try to avoid it in the future.
    What does it entail? Choosing engaging topics, encouraging learners to personalise and/or localise topics when they want to, providing scaffolding and support, including opportunities for reflection on performance, introducing strategies to help learners deal with challenging situations, focussing on what learners can do/produce, and helping learners to see their strengths when speaking and writing. In materials, this can be done through carefully staged activities, the use of clear aims and reflection activities, and the inclusion of strategy training, as well as the choice of topics.
    But…? To what extent is this the materials writer’s job v. the teacher’s job? What happens if learners want to keep some kind of emotional distance in their language learning? How do we teach teachers and learners to reflect effectively on speaking and writing performance? How do we overcome the fact that many learners may be reluctant to write (or, less commonly, speak) in their language, and therefore might carry over those emotions to English?

Adapted speaking materials

I have decided to adapt the FCE speaking activity I wrote about above. My evaluation criteria are:

  1. To what extent do the materials develop the learners speaking skills?
  2. To what extent is the aim, audience and communicative purpose of the speaking activity made clear to the learners? [Note: This should potentially be 3 separate criteria as it covers 3 areas.]
  3. To what extent do the learners have the opportunity to prepare before they speak?
  4. To what extent are learners likely to be affectively engaged with the activity?

They should be graded 0-3, with 3 being the best.

Based on my criteria, this is my evaluation:

  1. Grade = 1
    There is some repetition built into the activity, but otherwise there is no skills development.
  2. Grade = 2
    The audience and communicative purpose are clear – it’s FCE speaking, so the audience would be the examiner, and the communicative purpose is to answer the two questions selected. The aim is less clear, other than repeating the activity – there’s no specific learning/skills upgrading/language upgrading aim, just getting practice.
  3. Grade = 1
    They drew the pictures, so may have thought about some of the language. There’s no specific preparation stage for either language or content.
  4. Grade = 2
    Because the learners drew the pictures, they are likely to be engaged in discussing them. However, the questions come from the teacher. Learners could also be more engaged if they knew there was a clear aim and some form of upgrading of their language, boosting their motivation.

Possible adaptations:

  • Include an aim or can do statement at the beginning of the materials, for example ‘I can interact successfully with a partner when making decisions related to holidays.’
  • Ask the learners to generate the questions discussed.
  • Include a preparation stage at the start of each activity cycle, where learners can ask for any vocabulary or phrases they might need.
  • Include a reflection stage at the end of each activity cycle, where learners reflect on their interactive communication by answering a few short questions. In the teacher’s notes, suggest ways of improving learners’ interactive communication depending on their self-assessments, for example functional language phrases which could be fed in, or the use of a visual reflection tool like conversation shapes. These act as strategy work and shift the materials to be more process-oriented.

Towards less humanistic teaching

These are my notes based on an ELT Journal article by Nick Gadd (ELT Journal, Volume 52, Issue 3, July 1998, Pages 223–234, https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/52.3.223). My partner on the course read the article this one was responding to: ‘Towards more humanistic language teaching’ by Jane Arnold (ELT Journal, Volume 52, Issue 3, July 1998, Pages 235–242, https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/52.3.235). They’re from the Point and Counterpoint section of the journal.

Gadd starts off by charting the history of the term humanism, moving from the “outwardly directed humanism of the Renaissance” to the “inward-gazing humanism of the twentieth century.” (p223) He refers to Hunter’s historical survey of how English teaching (in secondary education) has developed in England since the 1800s:

He points out that the teaching of English in schools has frequently involved three separate elements: linguistic and grammatical knowledge, aesthetic and literacy appreciation, and ethical or personal self-knowledge.

Gadd (1998: 223)

The interesting question here is:

Why is it, for example, that maths or science teachers rarely feel that they have a duty to undertake any kind of operation on their students’ feelings, or to improve their souls, in the way that many English teachers do?

Gadd (1998: 223-224)

[I wonder to what extent this is still true, with movements like mindset theory encouraging teachers to consider attitudes to learning across all subjects.]

One problematic idea connected to humanism from the early 20th century was an example Hunter/Gadd gives of “moral training designed to reform the personalities of problem populations and make them easier to control” (p224).

In TEFL, Gadd mentions Stevick (1980) as an advocate of humanism:

For Stevick, its basis is the desire of every student and every teacher to be ‘an object of primacy in a world of meaningful action’. He therefore believes it is essential for teachers to take into serious consideration what goes on inside and between their students.

Gadd (1998: 224)

Elements of Stevick’s work Gadd mentions include students developing and exercising initiative and co-operation, and increasing learner empowerment. There is also the idea of reconciling the ‘performing self’ and the ‘critical self’ [I’m not entirely sure what this means]. (p225) Some potential problems with humanistic teaching which Stevick identifies include (p225):

  • “Teachers who abdicate responsibility for structure and input, leaving it all to the initiative of their students.”
  • “Too much focus on the students’ own experiences and inner selves is unhelpful.”
  • It becomes “an excuse for the teacher to dazzle students and colleagues with their educational originality and virtuosity.” (cf. Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society)

Gadd describes Stevick as a ‘pragmatic humanist’, as opposed to a ‘romantic humanist’.

A common view is that it is the primary task of the English teacher to encourage and advance the development of the students’ inner selves, and that to this end the greater part of the work done in the language classroom should be devoted to the students’ feelings, experiences and ideas.

Gadd (1998: 225)

The teachers’ role in these cases appears to be that of a kindly confessor or therapist.

Gadd (1998: 226)

The principles of this more romantic humanism are summarised like so:

Students should draw predominantly on their own feelings, ideas, and experiences in order to learn English; some forms of expression are more genuine than others because they derive from the true inner self; English teachers should not limit themselves to language but should teach students to be better, nicer people, power in the classroom can be devolved from the teacher to the students. To sum up, this kind of teaching focuses attention on nurturing the student’s inner self.

Gadd (1998: 226)

[I think this is the problem I’ve always had with what I previously understood about humanistic approaches – it all felt overly touchy-feely and far too personal, sometimes invasively so, limiting the world down to the people in the room and their experiences, rather than reaching out into the world and learning from external sources. I’ve seen that it can be more than that, connected to dealing with issues of affect and engagement, engaging the whole person rather than students being depersonalised language learners, but it’s still something I need to learn more about to be truly comfortable with incorporating these aspects in my work and materials.]

Gadd points out that these ideas of romantic humanism are predominant in supplementary materials, rather than mainstream coursebooks or EAP/ESP texts. (p226)

Gadd’s counterarguments are (I think) strong (p227), and seem to some extent to reflect my comment above:

  • “It is based on a view of the English teacher’s role as a monitor and nurturer of the student’s inner self which, while well established, is presumptuous and of doubtful value.”
  • “It leads to the students being taught an inadequate number of registers of English, and thus hampers their progression towards independence as language users.”
  • “A focus on the inner self as a source of learning does not encourage or permit the students’ intellectual and cognitive development.”

Gadd goes on to contrast humanistic approaches with the ‘rhetorical tradition’.

They emphasized the skills needed to be an active member of a public community, rather than a mere communer with oneself, or passer-on of one’s private feelings to select individuals.

As Hunter says, it is a grave mistake to imagine that these skills, which make students active and powerful in the public sphere, are any less ‘human’ than those which focus on the private self.

Gadd (1998: 227)

It is this position [of moral and ethical surveillance] which romantic humanist teachers still desire to occupy today, hoping to shape the learner’s personality and impart values education. Leaving aside the question of what gives English teachers the right to impose their moral and ethical values on their students, it is certainly disingenuous: for while this moral training is going on, humanist educators contiune to deny their own power and claim that it is the students, not the teachers, who are in control.

Gadd (1998: 228)

[I’m very grateful to Gadd for putting into words some of the vague feelings I’ve had about this kind of teaching before!]

Other potential problems with romantic humanism:

  • It’s a product of western tradition, and therefore may not be appropriate in other cultures. (p228)
  • It results in an extremely limited used of language, focusing only on the private self. (p229)
  • It relies on a limited range of register: “friendly, informal, even intimate”. (p229)
  • They limit the learners to “being able to chat with friends and commune with themselves. They are not of much use in training students to participate in public or academic spheres.” (p229)
  • Learners may have different levels of educational experience or come from quite different cultures, meaning they cannot rely on learner-based teaching and they may get frustrated if the teacher refuses to give instruction. (p231)

[These are summarised much more concisely as just three main points in the conclusion on p232-233 of the article.]

He contrasts the process approach to writing to the genre approach, emphasising how the latter seems to have become dominant in English teaching in Australia (note: this article was written in 1996). He talks about how at lower levels, writing texts are “completely personal and based on the immediate world of the learner” but that they become more abstract at higher levels.

This is an acknowledgement that the learning process involves a movement beyond oneself […] and underlines the need for us to lay aside the notion that the purpose of speech and the written word is to express one’s inner self.

Gadd (1998: 231)

Gadd believes that he has a responsibility for more general education, not just English, partly because he teaches a lot of adult migrants who may not have had much school learning in the past.

This involves factual knowledge about the world but also intellectual skills. It involves developing the ability to reason, interpret, synthesize knowledge, evaluate and critique different points of view, and construct an argument. Little of this can be achieved if the students remain trapped within the prison of the self.

Gadd (1998: 232)

[This seems to closely reflect the modern focus on critical thinking, and higher-order thinking skills.]

He talks about an example of working on advertising, based on a humanist activity from a supplementary book, or a serious unit of work on the topic drawing on lots of different input.

At the end of this our students are gong to be able to produce much more informed opinions by drawing on knowledge outside themselves.

Gadd (1998: 232)

If our sole aim is to fill thirty minutes with uninformed talk, then it may not be necessary for them to be encumbered with much actual knowledge. If, on the other hand, we seek to educate in the much broader sense, then there are no short cuts. We have to move beyond the self, and explore the great world which lies beyond it.

Gadd (1998: 232)

[A much more erudite way of expressing what I mentioned in my earlier response to this article!]

In the conclusion, Gadd mentions that the need for teachers to understand their learners’ psychology, as advocated in Stevick’s pragmatic humanism, “enables the teacher to ensure that teaching and learning are at their most effective”. (p233). [I agree that this is useful, and that’s why I’m so interested in the work of Sarah Mercer and co.]

Unit 7: Visual design and image

Elements of design

These are my ideas of what contributes to design:

  • Colour
  • Layout
  • Font
  • Text size
  • Use of images
  • Other stylistic features such as quotes, stylised headings, etc.
  • Space (is there any?!)

The NILE list was longer (of course!) They are listed below, along with my ideas for good design criteria for each of them.

  • Headings and icons
    Consistency in the use or omission of icons
    Transparency in the meaning of icons – I shouldn’t need to look at a key to work out what they mean
    Headings should indicate the function/aim of each section
    Headings should be a different size (font?) to the main text so they clearly stand out
  • Sequencing and Numbering
    Numbering should be used for all activities
    It should follow across the whole spread, rather than restarting in each section/for each new skill – there shouldn’t be multiple Exercise 1’s on the page for example!
    The sequence of activities should be clear from the layout
  • Text
    The font should be clearly legible, preferably sans serif to help learners with SEN.
    The text size should be large enough to read easily, and suitable for the target age group of the learners (for example, senior learners may benefit from a larger font).
    The amount of text should be suitable for the level and age of the learners.
  • Colour
    SEN-friendly, with useful contrasts (for example, dark text on a light background)
    Consistency in the use of colour, for example one unit = one colour, or one type of spread = one colour (reading = green, listening = blue, etc.)
  • Page layout
    Space should be available on the page – not too cramped
    Use of columns if applicable/appropriate
    Texts clearly separated from other elements, e.g. instructions
  • Consistency
    Different pages of the same materials should clearly belong to the same resource!
    Icons, colours, use of headings, and layout should remain consistent, so I know where to find things on the page.
    When consistency is disrupted, this should be for a clear reason, for example a different kind of unit.
  • Back of book reference pages
    Should be easy to find
    Should be clearly laid out
    Audio scripts should be legible – not so tiny that you need a magnifying class!
    Activities should be clearly differentiated from information, for example in a grammar or vocabulary bank
    If applicable, an index should be included
  • Cover
    Needs to tell me the level and target audience of the materials
    Should include a short blurb telling me what’s different about these materials
    Should include information about other components of the course
    Should have the book’s name, author, publisher etc. clearly visible
    Age appropriate
  • Images
    Should be included as a resource for the materials, not just to make it look pretty
    Should appear throughout the materials, breaking up large blocks of text
    Shouldn’t appear behind texts – this makes the texts harder to read, especially for learners with SEN
    Age appropriate
    Culturally sensitive

It’s just occured to me that ‘Contents’ / ‘Scheme of work’ should be added to this list. This should be clearly laid out, with the main aims of the book in earlier columns. Page numbers should be referenced for each of the elements, not just the first page of the unit.

We were referred to this critique of a coursebook page by Jason Renshaw (I miss Jason’s blog – it was very influential on me when I was first starting out!) It demonstrates really clearly how important design can be to learning, and includes this quote:

But if you feel, as a teacher, that my analysis and objections to the layout here go beyond simple fussiness to an essential understanding of how important content and layout can be for practical classroom application as well as independent learning efficacy, you may be asking yourself how and why it happens in coursebooks.

(and then I scrolled down to the comments and realised the first one was by me, in 2011!) 🙂

Why do we use images in materials?

These are my ideas:

  • To support vocabulary learning.
  • To clarify the meaning of grammar.
  • To create/set contexts.
  • To illustrate texts.
  • To prompt discussion.
  • For prediction or summarising activities.
  • To make texts seem more realistic, for example mocking up an email.
  • As part of diagrams – to show sequences.
  • As design features, for example the icons for a chapter heading.
  • To create image-based activities, particularly for YLs, for example colour XYZ red, colour ABC blue, etc.
  • For decoration / To break up the page.

Using images in language teaching materials

We read this blogpost by John Hughes about visual literacy in the language classroom.

John starts by defining visual literacy, then describes three levels of visual literacy and how we can use them in the classroom:

  • Basic comprehension and understanding
    The image is ‘read’ and responded to: ‘What does it mean?’ Students see pictures to understand and remember words, or predict what’s in a text based on an image.
  • Critical thinking
    The image is ‘read’ and responded to: ‘Thinking beyond the frame’ Using ambiguous images, or speculating on the thoughts of people in the image, or thinking about what happens next – images like this encourage the viewer to ask questions.
  • Creative thinking
    Students ‘write’ or ‘create’ their own images: They can talk about images using Fotobabble [though the old site seems to have disappeared], create an animated movie using Dvolver, or take photos connected to the theme of the lesson.

John says that he won’t suggest that we should ‘teach’ students how to be visually literate, but that an awareness of some of these concepts can help us to exploit images in a wider range of ways, including for higher order thinking skills. [I agree with the fact that as English teachers, it isn’t our role to teach visual literacy, but that’s not to say we can’t use concepts connected to it, and introduce some of them to our students too. It’s as good a topic as any for the classroom, and useful beyond lessons too.]

Next, we listened to an interview with John to follow up on his article.

He starts by describing how much easier it is to access and produce images now, and therefore how much easier it is to exploit them in the classroom.

John describes examples of visual literacy (reading/writing images) in daily life:

  • Clicking on icons on our phones and knowing where it will take us.
  • Sharing images on social media.
  • Understanding road signs.

Some people say that it’s becoming more and more important in our daily lives. There are also new text types, like infographics, which combine texts and images in different ways. Design choices like the use of font and colour are also connected to visual literacy. Because it’s a feature of everyday life, John believes that many students arrive in our classrooms already being quite visually literate. He says that we can take advantage of students’ visual literacy skills. He also says that because it’s so important in our students’ lives, the classroom should reflect that and we should include images and video in our lessons. Having said that, there should always be a linguistic aim because we’re teaching English, not visual literacy.

Choosing interesting images, like advertising, artistic images, or an image where it isn’t clear where is was taken, they can generate discussion and engage students, apart from the critical thinking activities mentioned above.

A 30-second video with just images can be an interesting prompt too: introducing a topic, picking out images and describing them, engaging learners. It doesn’t have to be a long video to be useful.

John mentions one activity from the Hands Up Project, where Nick Bilsborough asks students to draw images and then describe them, as a simple way of encouraging students to create/write their own images. This gives them preparation time and thinking time before they speak, as they can consider what they want to say. Using images in a range of ways like this can make lessons much more memorable and motivating.

It’s important for us to consider the design of our materials, as poor design can distact learners. For example, having images with a listening or speaking activity can gives learners a way into the activity and help to set the context.

John thinks that there are very few lessons that wouldn’t include at least a little visual literacy: diagrams in EAP, charts in business English to communicate visually…

When asking students to create and share images, we need to be aware of rules connected to the images. As long as we keep the images within the classroom, we should generally be safe, but it’s important to check with parents if we want their children to take photos to share.

With technology, there are extra layers of visual literacy too – for example, thinking about virtual environments, augmented reality, or virtual reality headsets.

John tends to set creative image or video activities for homework, rather than in class, as they can be challenging to set up and be quite time-consuming. If they’re done in English, it can work well, but it often works better outsides lessons.

He mentions the Visual Arts Circle as an interesting site to explore if you want to know more about visual literacy and visual thinking.

Finally we looked at John’s ETpedia blog list of 10 visual literacy activities for language learning. I’ve never tried using memes in lessons (idea 5), though I’ve been to an interesting talk about it (here’s a version of the same talk), and seen examples of memes created by teacher trainers (go to the bottom right of the page on a computer to see more!). I also like idea 7, getting learners to guess the question from the answers in a video.

My beliefs about design and layout

These are some of my own beliefs about materials design and layout, both print and digital, and using images. The ‘But…?’ part is possible arguments others might have against these beliefs, not necessarily reflecting what I think. I haven’t included the counter-arguments as that would make it very long!

  • Layout should be easy to understand and should aid in the use of the materials.
    Why? Bad layout is distracting and frustrating, and requires extra mental effort, which could be dedicated to better teaching or learning.
    What does it entail? Clear headings, numbering which works across the spread (not multiple exercise 1’s on the same page!), images which are close to the activities they correspond to, lines to separate off different sections, boxes and columns used as appropriate, large enough gaps for completing activities, white space for thinking and processing (not having lots of things crammed on a page), icons as appropriate. This should be consistent across the materials.
    But…? What happens if you need to include a lot of information/activities on a page? How much time / money do you have to dedicate to design?
  • Materials should be SEN-friendly.
    Why? What generally helps learners with SEN often helps learners without SEN too. It creates a more inclusive learning environment.
    What does it entail? Minimal clutter, space around and between text, contrasting fonts and backgrounds (though not stark contrasts), sans serif fonts, lines and boxes to create clear divisions between parts of the text, no text directly displayed on images, minimal use of italics (bold is preferable) – I’m sure there’s a lot more I’ve forgotten!
    But…? What if this makes print materials take up much more space?
  • Images should be varied and representative.
    Why? Varied images allow for varied activities and materials. Considering representation is important, as it reduces the potential distance between learners and materials. If all of the images are stereotypical, only taken from Western culture, or only relate to middle-class lifestyles, they could create distance or dissatisfaction for learners. It also makes for a more inclusive learning environment.
    What does it entail? Drawing on diverse, age-appropriate, sources for images. Having a checklist of factors to include / check for, for example a balance of genders, cultural backgrounds, ages, body types, building and landscape types, etc.
    But…? How can you possibly include everybody in your materials?
  • Images should be exploited within materials.
    Why? Decorative images are fine, but there are so many ways in which images can be exploited to benefit the learning process. These can often be particularly motivating and engaging, as well as memorable.
    What does it entail? Including activities which exploit materials in a range of ways throughout the materials, both for more basic activities like clarifying the meaning of language, and for higher-order activities, like suggesting possible contexts for ambiguous images.
    But…? Nope, can’t think of a counter-argument.

The interpretation of illustrations in ELT materials

These are my notes based on the article of this name by Martin Hewings which originally appeared in ELT Journal Volume 45/3, July 1991, Oxford University Press, pp. 237-244. It looks at how learners from different cultures perceive illustratoins in language teaching materials. The learners in question were Vietnamese students of ESL in Britain, with the article received by the journal in August 1990. To me, it very much feels like an article of its time, and I wonder how differently the opening paragraphs would be framed it if was written today. Here’s an example:

For those learners who come from an educated, European background, divergence between how publishers and textbook writers intend illustrations to be perceived and how they are actually perceived may rarely be problematic. For those learners with a limited exposure to ‘Western’ conventions of illustration, it may present a barrier to language learning.

Hewings (1991: 237)

While I realise that not everybody has been brought up in the same illustrative tradition, I feel like the advent of the internet and the spread of various aspects of culture globally may mitigate some of this today. It’s not something I’ve ever come across, though it has to be said that the majority of my teaching has been done in Europe and/or in private language schools. The only time I think I’ve heard it might be a problem is with cultures with a different perception of time, who may not interpret a left to write timeline in the same way as I might.

Some of the problems with interpretation identified in the article included:

  • Representation of roles (p238): how people are shown in roles which are challenging to illustrate (for example, criminal, bank manager, lover). The lessons the article draws are “if students are not able to make the connection between the cues (age, dress, etc.) and the particular stereotype or role, they will get the answers wrong; and secondly, the even if they do make a connection, it may not be the connection that the teacher or materials writer intended.” (p239)
    [I feel like we have moved on a long way from the kinds of illustrations which might have appeared in materials in the 1980s, as well as the kinds of activities based on stereotypical roles described in the article, so I would hope this would no longer be a problem.]
  • Representation of situations (p239): how pictures are used to establish locations or situations, including if people are in the image too.
    [Same point as above]
  • Representation of topographical space (p240): plans or maps.
    [The question asked by researchers seems odd here – they ask which rooms are upstairs and which are downstairs, which seems designed to prompt misinterpretation when no stairs appear on the plan in question. I would sincerely hope the second example given would never appear in modern materials, not least because the question is so generic.]
  • Symbolic representations (p241): symbols, speech/thought bubbles in cartoons.
    [OK, some of these might cause problems, but many of these symbols feel fairly international now from my experience of travel. This would depend more on the learner’s world experience I think – there may be a point here for modern materials writers.]
  • Graphic representations (p242): charts, graphs, diagrams, visual organisers, tables.
    [I think learners from all cultures could potentially have problems with this – it’s not just the difference between the materials writer’s culture and the learners’. We spend a lot of time learning how to interpret this kind of representation during our schooling, particularly in maths lessons, and inevitably some people find it more challenging than others. All teachers/materials writers should bear that in mind when using this kind of illustration.]

Having disagreed with a lot of the first part of the article, the reminders in the second part are quite useful (p243). They can be summarised as:

  • Be aware of your cultural bias when interpreting an illustration.
  • Remember that not everybody sees illustrations in the same way you do.
  • Students may not have the skills to interpret an illustration in the way that is needed to complete a task. Be aware of this, and be prepared to provide extra support if necessary.
  • Problems of perception should be differentiated from problems with English language. When checking answers, check which of the two has happened. [Not the point Hewings made at all here, but the one I’ve chosen to take from it.]
  • Ask questions about the illustration itself to check interpretation, before using it to introduce the context or practise language.

Unit 8: Teacher’s notes / Trends in language materials / Course review

Teacher’s notes

These are my answers to questions we were asked.

  1. How do you use teacher’s notes in the published materials you use?

I rarely use them now when working with coursebooks. I might refer to them to double-check answers, or if I’m feeling particularly uninspired and am hoping the teacher’s notes might prompt some ideas. If it’s a new coursebook series, I might flick through the pages at the front to see if there are any useful ideas, such as a page of flashcard activities in a YL teacher’s book. I’m more likely to read teacher’s notes in supplementary materials, where the activities are often not as transparent on the page.

2. How do you think less experienced teachers use them?

It depends on whether they’ve realised/been shown that they might be useful. I’ve found teacher’s books to be quite hit and miss. As a relatively new teacher, the Straightforward Pre-Intermediate teacher’s book by Jim Scrivener was fantastic – it was full of ideas for exploiting activities, and included lots of methodology tips. English File and Speakout teacher’s book have often been quite useful in terms of potential grammar problems, cultural notes, and some ideas for extension activities or extra support. The Outcomes teacher’s books are like a mini teacher training course and are potentially very useful for new teachers. Other teacher’s notes are glorified answer keys, and not necessarily that useful.

3. What is a Teacher’s Book for? How many reasons can you think of?

  • Providing answers
  • Providing inspiration
  • Activities for extra support, fast finishers, extension activities, alternative warmers etc.
  • Identifying potential problems with activities, especially with grammar or vocabulary areas, but also with skills tasks. Even better, suggesting solutions for how to deal with them!
  • Homework ideas
  • Professional development for teachers
  • Justifying the methodology/beliefs of the materials
  • Links to other resources, e.g. extra activities in the TB / online

4. What else might a Teacher’s Book include besides notes for the teacher.

  • Supplementary activities
  • Answers
  • Tapescripts
  • An explanation of the thinking behind the book (beliefs, etc.)

5. Look at some teacher’s notes. [I chose the English File Intermediate 3rd edition Teacher’s book] What do you notice about how the instruction to teachers are written? Do you have any reactions to this? You might like to consider:

Consistency of wording? Generally quite consistent.

Sentence length? Relatively short, generally connected by ‘and’ if there are multiple clauses.

Imperatives or descriptions? Descriptions to introduce each unit, with imperatives in the activity notes themselves.

Use of metalanguage? Only metalanguage that students might be expected to know too, with the occasional word like ‘elicit’. Otherwise fairly minimal.

Layout of stages? Very clearly broken down. Each stage is a new point in the instructions.

Current trends in language teaching materials

This is a word cloud I made based on some of the comments we were shown connected to trends that various materials writers noticed:

21st~century~skills
emotional~intelligence
cross~cultural~communication
developing~the~whole~child
creativity
imagination
leadership
citizenship
higher~order~thinking~skills
problem~solving
digital~literacy
collaboration
communication
enquiry~based
multiple~literacies
visual~literacy
intercultural~awareness
lexical~phrases
discovery~learning
meaningful~visual~support
cultural~diversity
CLIL
projects
video~based~narrative
author~teams
inclusivity
adapted~for~learners~with~dyslexia
texts~only~used~for~language~focus
little~critical~reading
little~reader~response
exam~and~assessment~focus
tied~to~official~exams
measurable~progress
global~standardised~curricula
digital~practice
assessment~software
flipped~classroom
Made using http://wordclouds.co.uk based on materials from NILE

Another trend I’d add to this list is a move to include more strategy training connected to skills, particularly listening, in general English coursebooks. Pronunciation is now being treated for both listening and speaking in some materials.

If you’re interested in possible current/future trends, the closing plenary from IATEFL 2019 might make interesting watching for you, particularly Katherine Bilsborough talking about materials.

3 thoughts on “NILE MAPDLE MAT: Materials Development module (week three)

  1. Hi, Sandy,

    this is a very useful post, as usual. When reading, I couldn’t help revising (in my mind’s eye) all the supplementary materials I have created over the past two years. I caught myself ticking boxes: good, could be improved, not so good. 🙂
    By the way, when reading the section on images, I remembered a post I’d read a few days before yours called Default: male (https://debuk.wordpress.com/2016/04/16/default-male/). This reminded me that images can still appear problematic, even to a westerner, especially if you decide to scrutinize them and look at them from some of the less common angles.
    Anyway, thanks for the heaps of food for thought!

    Like

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your notes, thoughts, and all these links, Sandy. I’ll be reading them again when it’s time to take the course! I really liked the conversation shapes-thanks for the powerpoint! Good luck with the rest of the course 😊

    Like

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