It’s nearly three months since I completed the live parts of the module (!) and I’ve finally got time to get back to the course input I didn’t have time for during the three weeks in July. When I did weeks one, two and three, I found it useful to summarise what I read/watched on my blog, so I’m going to do the same for this additional input too.
These are notes I’ve made while reading. The notes are there for me, 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 yourself – it’s very subjective and based on my interests!
Getting learners involved
These notes are based on chapter 8 of McGrath (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching [Amazon affiliate link for 2016 edition] on involving learners in the materials adaptation/production process.
Utilising learner language
You can use learner language as ‘learning-teaching material’ in a range of ways (additional information about the benefits of each activity can be found in the chapter):
‘Retrospective error focus’ (p164) Make them written (unless you’re focussing on pron) Include context Include correct examples Group similar errors together Keep the list a manageable length > “It is a good idea to keep the lists and to label them with a note of the date, the class and the activity from which they were taken.” (p164) The materials can be as revision with this group, or to predict problems other learners might have (see next idea)
‘Prospective error focus’ (p165) Predict errors learners might make and give a task based on these.
‘Learner transcriptions of their own stories’ (p165) Record a story (with permission!) as a learner tells it The learner then transcribes it, correcting it and highlighting any areas where they feel unsure The teacher checks the transcription with the recording and responds to learner questions The materials allow for personalised, focussed correction
‘Learner generated texts for use with other learners’ (p166) Students tell a pre-prepared story to a small group based on prompts The group choose one story to develop, tell the class, and write up, along with comprehension questions The story is recorded The materials can be used with other learners
Drama (p167) Students improvise and collaborate on a script / recordings of scenes The materials can be used with other learners
‘Transcript comparison’ (p168) Based on images or short video extracts, students record a description of what’s happening They transcribe the description They compare their transcript to another group They can also compare their transcript to a recording/transcript of a more advanced speaker doing the same task
‘Picture description for exam preparation’ (p169) e.g. Students record a 1-minute description of photos for a Cambridge exam – they can’t make notes, but can re-record as many times as they like They transcribe the recording They can correct the transcription The teacher can provide feedback / prepare additional practice based on problem areas
Learner-produced exercises and worksheets
Rather than the teacher doing all of the work, students could:
Prepare a paragraph describing X e.g. a recent news event. Put all of the verbs into the infinitive. Other students then supply the correct verb forms.
Design a questionnaire.
McGrath suggests the following caveats:
1. exercises should be kept relatively short (e.g. five gap-filling sentences);
2. the exercise designer marks the answers of the other students and discusses with them any wrong answers;
3. the teacher circulates during the exercise-writing, answering and feedback stages and helps to settle any disputes;
4. students rewrite their exercises in the light of feedback from other students.
McGrath (2002) p170
Learners as teachers
Learners as teachers of other learners
Implicit in the argument for learner-made materials is an acceptance of the learner as a potential teacher of other learners.
McGrath (2002) p171
This section seems to build on the previous two.
Teachers also test, but what they test reflects their ideas of what is important. […] learners might be asked to construct tests for each other (with the teacher providing guidance in the form of ‘model’ test types) (Clarke 1989b). This will not only stimulate them to review what they have been learning, it may also reveal important differences between learner and teacher perceptions of what is significant.
McGrath (2002) p171 (my emphasis)
There’s a fascinating description of what happened when Assinder (1991) handed over materials creation to her class on Current Affairs – two groups preparing work for each other, getting into intense discussions about the language they heard in the video clips they were using and the activities to be created. (p172-173) She listed these effects of involving the learners like this (p173):
increased ‘real’ communication
increased in-depth understanding
increased responsibility for own learning and commitment to the course
increased confidence and respect for each other
increased number of skills and strategies practised and developed
Learners as teachers of teachers
The book suggests learners preparing questions for ‘a native English-speaking teacher […] teaching a monocultural class’ about the local culture. As the book was written in 2002, I feel like this is of its time and (hopefully!) wouldn’t make it’s way into a book now. It’s also very limited in vision – there are so many things that learners can teach teachers, regardless of both of their backgrounds! I also don’t understand why it’s only preparing questions – that seems to be testing the teacher, rather than teaching them. What about creating a guide to something they know about (their job, the place they live, a particular style of cooking, their hobby…), or introducing people (famous or otherwise), or really anything that involves learners sharing what they know with the teacher.
What is novel about learner-based teaching is the idea that all activities can be based on [students’] wealth of experience, be they grammar exercises, exam preparation, games or translation…
Campbell and Kryszewska 1992: 5; original emphasis, in McGrath (2002) p174
This immediately rang alarm bells for me (see my notes on ‘Towards less humanistic teaching’ in the MAT week three post). Thankfully on p175 (and in the caveats below), McGrath details some of the disadvantages of this approach, but also notes that:
For teachers working within an externally-defined course framework, the answer may be to use learner-based activities as a complement to other, textbook-based work; for teachers who are more autonomous, it is probably still desirable to introduce such ideas gradually […]
McGrath (2002) p175
Deller (1990) suggests periodically handing potentially interesting materials which she has previously stored away over to learners to classify or select from.
This material [created by the learners] has the advantage of being understood by them, feeling close to them, and perhaps most importantly of all, being theirs rather than something imposed on them. As a result they feel more comfortable and involved, and have no problems in identifying with it.
Deller 1990: 2, in McGrath (2002) p175
Tudor (1996: 15-16) suggests a typology of learner-generated activities (McGrath, 2002: 176):
activities in which learner knowledge is utilised as a source of input bringing their own content to lessons
activities in which the learners’ L1 is used bringing L1 into the classroom
direct learner involvement in activity development and organisation handing over responsibility from the teacher to learners for materials selection, explanation, and ‘diagnosis and evaluation’
affectively-based activities giving ‘learners scope to use their imaginative skills, creativity and sense of fun’ (p16)
McGrath lists three caveats to getting learners involved (p177).
“It needs to be recognised that if the materials used are restricued to those produced by learners this will have an effect on their ability to cope with other types of text (Gadd 1998). A combination of teacher-selected and learner-generated texts is therefore likely to be preferable.
Handing over control may be seen as an ‘abdication of responsibility’. It may take time and patience to prepare learners to participate in learner-centred teaching.
The relationship between learner-centred teaching and learner autonomy might not be as direct as it may seem.
Worth reproducing in full I think:
The focus in this chapter has been on learners producing materials for use in class by their classmates or other students. This has a number of positive effects as far as the learner is concerned, both in relation to motivation and learning. When learners are actively and creatively involved, motivation is increased; such activities as peer teaching (including correction) consistute a valuable and valued learning experience and can contribute to group solidarity. There are also benefits for the teacher. Monitoring learners as they discuss and prepare materials raises the teacher’s awareness of individual or general difficulties. Some of the material is potentially re-usable with learners in other classes. Teacher-preparation time is reduced. And because there will always be an element of unpredictability, the classroom is a more interesting place for the teacher as well as learners.
While the use of most of the activity-types described here is likely to lead to increased motivation, one type of material – that is, spoken (and recorded) and written texts produced by learners – is likely to be the most relevant from a linguistic perspective. Careful in-class analysis of this type of material, which is as finely tuned to learner level as it could be, is sure to be helpful not only for those involved in producing that text, but for others in the same class.
McGrath (2002) p177-178
I’ve used transcription with students before, but mostly only in one-to-one lessons, and only very rarely. I feel like this is a missed opportunity, and is definitely something I’d like to experiment with more if/when I get back into a classroom again.
Fluency revisited – Mike McCarthy
This was a recording of a guest lecture for NILE which is not publicly available – you’ll need to do the MAT course to get access to it. 🙂 Interesting points/reminders for me:
Fluency isn’t just a quality of the speaker, it’s a quality of the listener too (and the CEFR recognises this – see B2 criteria)
Fluency is an unusual term in our profession, because it’s one that’s understood by the general population too – we all have an idea of what fluency means.
If you translate fluency into other languages, it’s always related to the idea of ‘fluid’.
The two qualities of fluency are ease and readiness – we have to be able to start speaking pretty immediately, or listeners will wonder what the problem is. That’s why we use fillers when we’re thinking.
Fluency is an aspect of social capital for immigrants.
Our fluency can affect other people’s perception of us.
Conventional criteria for spoken fluency:
Speed of delivery Depending on the context – e.g. presentations v. conversations with friends (120wpm!) are different speeds
Pauses When, how often, how long, again depending on context – in conversation the average length is 0.6 seconds according to research
Dysfluencies Coherent messages
McCarthy’s suggested extra criteria
Can the learner use chunks accurately and automatically? (e.g. you know what I mean, or something like that) Most chunks are 2-5 words. We can process 7 chunks of information at once, after which we restart – this speeds up processing. These expressions are often culturally loaded, but are required for natural communication – without them we can sound like a robot or far too specific and detailed. There shouldn’t be pauses within the chunks – they are generally spoken very quickly. We cannot be fluent if we don’t have a range of chunks in our vocabulary, and if we can’t use them immediately and readily.
Can the learner use a repertoire of small interactive words? (e.g. just, so, actually, then, etc.) The lack of these words can affect our perception of fluency. These words carry a lot of extra information: compare Can I just ask you a question? to I don’t want to interrupt you but I need to ask you a question.
Can the learner link his/her turn smoothly to the previous speaker’s, using linking words and phrases, to create ‘flow’? (The technical term is ‘confluence’) 20 or so words regularly start our turns in a conversation (see below). Without these words, the conversation sounds much less fluent / more robotic. Fluency is about being a speaker, but also showing you’re a listener at the same time. If students can react appropriately to something, we don’t need to test listening in a more traditional way – we shouldn’t test listening skills separately from speaking skills. “Good listening materials allow you to be the speaker and the listener at the same time.”
I had a look at Mike McCarthy’s website afterwards, and found a long list of videos you can watch, including (I think) a similar talk on fluency to the one I watched. The list also includes three videos for learners on how to use the chunks ‘you know’, ‘or something’ and ‘the thing is’.
Learner preferences and affective learning – Martin Parrott
This was another recording of a guest lecture for NILE in 2015 which is not publicly available – you’ll need to do the MAT course to get access to it. 🙂 Interesting points/reminders for me:
We tend to teach in the style we like to learn in. It’s important to remember that our learners are very varied, and have lots of different preferences.
Affective = to do with feelings, think about ‘affection’ Effective = efficient, works well
Affective teaching = our learners can grow as people
SEAL = Society for Effective and Affective Learning, originally begun by the teachers who created Suggestopedia, and is an organisation for teachers interested in humanistic approaches. (I can’t seem to find a website for it through – not sure if it still exists?)
Benjamin Bloom – educational psychologist, known for Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain (Parrott says that we need to remember that we need comprehension before application), but he also created a taxonomy of the affective domain (Parrott particularly highlighted the fact that ‘value’ is repeated three times)
Carl Rogers – American psychoanalyst who became a psychotherapist – wrote about the relationship between the psychologist and their client, and has had a huge influence on teaching indirectly through the counselling model (and therefore Community Language Learning). Important features are:
Unconditional positive regard Not judging the client
Empathic understanding Moving away from your instinctive reaction to what is happening and finding out what students are really thinking – our perceptions of what learners are thinking are not always correct
Congruence Matching your body language and your words
Learner-centredness = consultation/involvement about content and style, the teacher keeps low profile, activities are collaborative and self-directed
This is a questionnaire Martin Parrott used to do some research with a class of 10-year-olds he was teaching and two other similar classes. He wanted to find out whether his learners valued affective or cognitive factors of lessons more.
The affective factors can be sub-divided into ones which the teacher can control directly (4, 5, 14 (8)) or only indirectly (1, 10, 11, 15).
His 10-year-old students said 7, 10, 11, 14 and 15 were not important, four of which are affective factors (!) 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, and 12 were all important. 4 and 13 were considered very important: one is affective, one is cognitive, and both are about the teacher. This goes against what we might think about learner-centredness.
He emphasises the importance of finding out about our learners as a group, and as individuals, and what they want, not what we think they want. We should also remember that their priorities might change throughout their time in the group based on their experiences in the class.
Martin also asked them what makes effective learning. They said they wanted a teacher who is funny, strict and fair – Martin hadn’t asked specifically about the teacher at all.
Martin has some warnings:
Don’t turn ‘affective learning’ into a method.
One model doesn’t ‘fit all’.
Don’t impose your own cultural values onto learners.
But remember that for many learners affective = effective – if learners feel they are learning, then they are happy. We need to find out first-hand from the learners want they want, and aim to provide this if we can.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.]
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
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):
Remembering items from a picture
Playing verbal hide and seek
Finding the odd word out of a series
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”.
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.
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.
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.
[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)
Learners consider the author’s intentions, and develop critical and creative thinking skills. (p105) On p105-106, Tomlinson gives the following examples:
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.]
Learners might improve their awareness of:
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.
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
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:
Leaderboard (can be divided into smaller segments so it’s not just bottom v. top, for example going up through ranks)
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:
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:
One way to create a narrative is through a simple framework, like this:
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).
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?
To what extent do the materials develop the learners speaking skills?
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.]
To what extent do the learners have the opportunity to prepare before they speak?
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:
Grade = 1 There is some repetition built into the activity, but otherwise there is no skills development.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
These are my answers to questions we were asked.
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?
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!
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.
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:
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.
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 which 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 is the post for week one.
Unit 3: Cognitive Demand
Interested to get some proper theory on this, as that was the topic of a recent couple of posts (one, two) on my blog 🙂
My answers to a sentence completion task:
When I give my learners material that is too difficult for them, they get depressed and demotivated. Some of them give up. If I’m lucky, they ask for help, but only once they’ve already struggled for a while.
When I give my learners work that is too easy, they either (a) get complacent, (b) get bored, or (c) mess about, the last one particularly so if they’re young learners or teens.
Somebody once said “Every class is a mixed ability class”. My class is a mixed ability class! (Because I completely agree with that statement – not thinking about any one particular class)
When it comes to working things out for themselves, most of my learners are able and willing to try, especially if they’re older. For young learners, young teens, lower levels, those with prior history of problems with education (particularly connected to dyslexia and other working memory problems), this may be more challenging though.
For my learners, critical thinking is something I don’t specifically talk about – I’ve learnt more about it over the past few years, but have mostly worked with very low levels over the last couple of years, so it’s been a challenge to incorporate it.
How cognitive demand affects learners
These notes are based on videos we watched on the NILE platform.
If the cognitive demand is too high/the materials are too difficult, there are high levels of frustration which means there’s no learning and demotivation. The effects include learners speaking L1, getting anxious and stressed, a drop in confidence. With adults who are paying for their lessons, they might be particularly frustrated.
If materials are too easy, learners are not challenged or engaged. Again, they’re not learning. Sometimes it can be a confidence builder if learners feel they have achieved something, but only when used in moderation. It can seem patronising for learners, as well as boring. Parents and learners might be annoyed that they’re not learning.
In mixed-ability classes (all classes!), materials which can be used flexibly and/or which include suggestions for differentiation in the teachers’ notes can be particularly useful. Tasks which can appeal to a range of levels work well: scaffolding for lower levels, and providing extension tasks for higher levels. Tom Sarney gave the example of reading questions which start easy and get more cognitively challenging, and Carole Robinson suggested providing a glossary or images to help learners understand a text.
Materials requiring learners to work things out for themselves can be good if it provides learners with a push, but if they work things out too easily then it might not be motivating for them. Claudia Rey mentions working within the ZPD, helping learners to work things out for themselves with a little guidance. For teens, it’s helpful to push learners to work independently – this doesn’t just help them with their English, but with life skills too. Tom Sarney mentions an enquiry-based approach. Adults may be more likely to want to work independently in their studies, though we may need to give them the tools to do this.
Critical thinking is important at all age groups and levels, not least because it’s in such demand in work. The challenge is the balance between language skills and critical thinking. In some contexts, there may be resistance to critical thinking activities. Bloom’s Taxonomy can be a useful way to incorporate a range of different thinking skills. With young learners and teens, you need to develop these skills. With adults, you can consider critical thinking skills to help you make materials more interesting.
We could learn from video game designers, who need to create the correct level of challenge to keep us playing.
Questions in language learning materials
These are my ideas about characteristics of good questions in language learning materials:
They need to be answerable! Or lead to some form of meaningful discussion about possible answers if they’re questions which are more philosophical in nature.
The language of the questions should be at or below the current language level of the students.
The language learners need to use to answer the questions should be available to them, for example language they have previously been introduced to. If they need new language to answer the questions, it shouldn’t get in the way of smooth communication.
Discussion questions should motivate a genuine exchange of information, rather than being pure display questions.
Comprehension questions should require responses spaced throughout the text, rather than being bunched too closely together. They should also not be answered by information in the first sentence or two.
You should include a wide range of different types of questions.
We were asked to look at a double-page spread in a coursebook, find the questions, and identify the reasons for them.
I looked at the sample unit for the student’s book of English File Intermediate third edition on the OUP website. These are the questions I found on pp. 4-5, and the reasons I think they’re there: (Note: I only selected things which were phrased as grammatical questions – there were lots of other things for learners to do)
Vocabulary: Can you think of…ONE red fruit, ONE yellow fruit, ONE green fruit? (etc. – a quiz with 6 questions) To engage learners in the topic. To assess prior knowledge.
Vocabulary: Listen to these common adjectives to describe food. Do you know what they mean? To assess prior knowledge.
Pronunciation: Look at the eight sound pictures. What are the words and sounds? To assess prior knowledge. To stimulate learnes to remember (if they’ve used a previous book in the series)
Pronunciation: What part of the symbol tells you that a sound is long? To assess prior knowledge. To guide learners to notice. To guide them to form hypotheses.
Listening and speaking: questionnaire with 5 questions (I’ll call these 5a when referring back to it) (before listening) To engage learners in the topic (they’re about to listen to people answer the same questions) (before listening) To activate schemata related to the listening they’re about to do. (after listening) To stimulate language use. (they answer the questions themselves) (after listening) To encourage personalisation. (after listening) What do you have in common? (I’ll call this 5b) To improve group dynamics, as learners learn more about each other and find out what they might have in common.
Reading: Are the foods in the list carbohydrates or proteins? To assess prior knowledge.
Reading: What kind of food do you think it is better to eat…for lunch if you have an important exam or meeting? (etc. – this is one of 4 endings to the question) To engage learners in the topic. To encourage personalisation. To stimulate language use. To share ideas. To stimulate learners to remember (vocabulary covered previously could be re-used here)
Reading: Look at the title of the article. What do you think it means? To engage learners in the topic. To stimulate learners to think. To activate schemata related to the reading they’re about to do.
Reading: Find adjectives inthe article for the verbs and nouns in the list. What’s the different between the two adjectives made from stress? To guide learners to notice. To guide them to form hypotheses.
Reading: Three questions following the text, for example How often do you eat chocolate? Does it make you feel happier? To encourage personalisation. To stimulate language use. To stimulate learners to remember (vocabulary covered previously could be re-used here) (final question only) To stimulate learners to think more deeply
I find Bloom’s Taxonomy to be pretty abstract, and often struggle to work out which category particular questions or activities might fall under. I feel like it could potentially be pretty overwhelming when used as a way of generating questions too, though The Bloom Buster I’ve just mentioned could be a useful tool if you’re feeling writer’s block. Diana Freeman’s taxonomy is the most useful of these categorisations for me, as it’s specifically connected to EFL, and the three main categories of content, language, and affect seem like they are the most useful way of breaking down questions I’m likely to be working with. The way they are sub-divided incorporates some of the complexity of models like Bloom’s Taxonomy, but in a way which I find to be much more accessible. Of the ones we’ve been introduced to, this is the model I’m most likely to use when checking questions/instructions I have produced or looking for inspiration for my materials. The downside is that it’s specifically aimed at reading comprehension, though I think the main categories could be adapted to other areas of materials.
Looking at the same coursebook double-page from English File as before and attempting to use Freeman’s taxonomy, I think I can see the following types of questions:
(not sure – doesn’t really map onto this taxonomy – probably a Language question?)
Language: Form (? might not be possible to map onto this taxonomy)
Language: Form (? might not be possible to map onto this taxonomy)
5a: Content: Textually explicit (if memory serves! I don’t have access to the transcript/audio now) 5b: Affect: Personal response
Language: Re-organisation (matching)
Affect: Personal response
Affect: Personal response
Based on the prompts we were given about problems with questions, these are my tips for writing good questions, some of which are still the same as when I started this section, and some of which are more specific 🙂
Use display questions with caution – don’t overdo them.
Aim to convert closed questions into open questions when appropriate, to increase thinking and language output.
Limit memory testing questions to testing memory! If you want to teach and you want learners to learn, use a wider range of question types.
Make questions specific, so it’s clear what kind of answer is appropriate.
Keep question wording/structure simple, so that learners have cognitive space left to give complex answers, rather than struggling to understand the question. (this refers back to the language level in my ideas)
Make sure that if a range of answers are possible, you don’t rely on learners getting one specific answer for the next stage of the materials. Avoid ‘guess what I’m thinking’. (this refers back to ‘make sure they are answerable’ in my ideas at the start)
Have a clear pedagogical purpose in mind for questions you include in materials.
Check that questions require genuine understanding, not just lifting of information.
These are my ideas for what makes for clear instructions in materials:
Keep sentences short and language simple.
Have one idea per sentence in the rubric, or, if necessary two which are linked by a simple conjunction, like ‘and’.
Break down stages of activities into separate instructions or parts of the task as needed. (Stage instructions.)
Include all of the instructions that a learner would need to complete the task. Don’t leave them guessing or struggling to work out exactly what is needed. For example, tell them where to write the answers.
Include parameters where appropriate, for example time limits or an indication of the number of items learners should think of.
Wherever possible/appropriate, supplement instructions with a worked example of what learners are expected to do.
Design : Make sure that instructions stand out from the rest of the text.
Design: Avoid having instructions run over to a new line wherever possible – this can make it easier for learners with dyslexia to follow.
There were a few extra points in the materials we were given on the module, but this was a pretty good start. I’m afraid you’ll have to do the course to get the full list!
Think globally, act locally
We watched this talk by Alan Pulverness.
Before watching: When and why do you usually adapt materials?
I adapt materials all the time – I rarely use materials exactly as they are in class, even if that’s what I planned to do when I started the lesson. I adapt them for a wide range of reasons (in no particular order):
To be more engaging for learners (I hope!)
To make them longer/shorter
To add/decrease challenge for the learners
To change the presentation style, for example pulling out images to work with them separately without the text to distract the learners
To localise them, for example adding references to Polish culture
To match my teaching style
To change the structure of the lesson, for example reordering the stages to fit my learners’ needs more appropriately
Before watching: What kinds of adaptations do you make?
I might adapt/add to/change:
The questions asked
The amount of support provided
The examples given
The language covered
And probably more!
While watching: Why adapt materials?
Materials adaptation can span a range of procedures from adding carefully contextualised role plays with the objective of providing more opportunities to communicate to not finishing a pronunciation drill because of time constraints.
Islam and Mares (2003)
…to make material more suitable for the circumstances in which it is used; to compensate for any intrinsic deficiences in the materials.
From conscious (designing extras) to less conscious (making decisions in the lessons), we all do it, to a greater or lesser extent. No coursebook is ever perfect.
What are the limits of the course book? These are possible answers according to Alan Pulverness:
Fail to provide: choice, variety, topicality, phonology
Not provide enough of: practice, assessment, productive skills work
Course books expected to provide: texts, language information, visuals, structure
Should be provided by the teacher: warm-up, presentation, practice, consolidation
Could be provided by the learners…
Clarke (1989) in an ELT Journal article called something like ‘Why leave it all to the teacher?’, says that the learner can play a role in adapting materials too:
Learner commitment: enlist them to take a fuller part in the lesson
Learner as materials writer and collaborator: as consolidation or extension exercises, use in revision, maybe with other groups
Learner as problem solver: give learners a materials design task as a problem which they can solve, for example adapting it for stronger or weaker students (not sure I agree that this is a good idea)
Learner as knower: put them in a position of authority for example about a particular area of language
Learner as evaluator and assessor: can peer review, suggest further adaptations
Alan suggested some ways that learners could adapt materials:
Integrating traditional and communicative methods.
Catering for students’ needs.
Integrating listening and speaking skills into lessons based on reading.
Meeting teachers’ own preferences and needs.
Cunningsworth (1995) gives the following reasons for adapting materials in Choosing your coursebook [Amazon affiliate link / BEBC non-affiliate link]:
Availability of resources
Learners’ motivations and expectations
Alan gives the following suggestions for when you might want to adapt materials:
To provide more systematic grammar coverage
To provide more practice activities
TO make texts more accessible
To provide more challenge / more support
To make tasks more meaningful
To devote more attention to phonology
To replace inappropaite content
To provide greater visual impact
To provide more authentic language input
To provide variety, topicality, engagement
Islam and Mares (2003) give these reasons for adaptation:
To add real choice
To cater for different sensory learning styles (!)
To provide more learner autonomy
To encourage greater use of Higher Order Thinking Skills (according to Bloom’s taxonomy)
To make language input more accessible
To make language input more engaging
Alan lists various problems with materials:
Mismatch with curriculum goals
The textbook as de facto syllabus
More material than time available
Dependence on technology / supplementary components
Written for the widest possible audience
While watching: So what can we do about it?
This was Alan Pulverness’s summary:
Extension: How can I augment it?
Modification: How can I change it?
Supplementation: What can I bring to it?
Substitution: What can I replace it with?
Alan Maley (1998) suggests the following:
McGrath (2002) has the following principles motivating change:
Extrapolation (taking what’s there, following the logic and adding more)
Check that your adaptations are:
Principled rather than ad hoc, when possible
Informed by evaluation
Responsive to learners’ needs (and wants)
Proactive or reactive (what fits in this situation?)
While watching: What can you adapt?
Modes of interaction
While watching: How do you approach materials adaptation?
Ideally, there should be some kind of flow…
Identify strengths and shortcomings.
Consider principles for adaptation.
Decide on specific adaptations.
While watching: Caveats
Don’t adapt or replace too much! Otherwise you become a materials designer [I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it could lead to overwork, stress, a loss of continuity, learners/stakeholders who are frustrated at wasting money on materials they never use…]
Make sure that adaptation is principled.
Avoid replacing one routine approach with another – be creative.
Don’t be self-indulgent – be self-critical.
Effective adaptation is a matter of achieving ‘congruence’…The good teacher is constantly striving for ‘congruence’ among several related variables: teaching materials, methodologies, students, course objectives, the target language and its context, and the teacher’s own personality and teaching style.
McDonough and Shaw (2003)
i.e. take into account all of the variables when deciding on adapting your materials…no easy job!
Advice to a new or inexperienced teacher who is unsure how to adapt coursebooks
This is a short email I wrote as a forum task:
Dear new teacher,
You’ve been given a course book which doesn’t work for your students. What should you do? Ask yourself:
– Look at the pages. What do my learners most need to practise/learn?
– What should therefore be the main lesson aim?
– How will I prove learners have improved their performance connected to the lesson aim?
– What activities on the page could I use unaltered? What small tweaks could I make to engage, support or challenge learnes more?
– How long are those activities likely to take? What stage of the lesson are they best suited for?
– What other stages are needed to ‘glue’ the course book activities together? For example, do you need to add preparation before speaking? Or extra language clarification? Or feed in functional language before pair work? Is there anything on the page you could adapt or re-write to help with this?
– Look at your plan so far. Does the lesson flow? Is there a clear context tying activities together? How will you introduce the context? Using the coursebook, or supplementing from elsewhere?
– Look at the whole lesson. Is there enough practice of the language or skill the aim focusses on? Can you exploit the activities you’ve already selected in other ways to add practice? For example, adding post-listening activities to focus on connected speech.
– Go back to the aim. Does the plan really fulfil it? Will you definitely know that learners have improved?
– After the lesson, ask to what extent did the adaptations I made benefit my learners?
By repeating this process of experimenting and reflecting, you will get better and better at adapting coursebooks successfully. When you’re ready, you can also research the theory behind coursebook adaptation, but until then, good luck!
In the feedback on an assignment I did, our tutor referred be to the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson on differentiation, and particularly this interview with her.
These were quotes which I found particular interesting.
Differentiated instruction assumes a more positive mindset: Let’s assume they can all do good work, and let’s attend to the ways that they need us to teach them in order to get there.
Carol Ann Tomlinson
It’s really important for kids to come together and understand and appreciate their differences, and to be willing to help one another succeed—as opposed to the cut-throat competition that sometimes goes on in schools.
Carol Ann Tomlinson
If what you differentiate is boring enough to choke a horse, you’ve just got different versions of boredom.
Carol Ann Tomlinson
These are some of the principles of differentiated learning which Carol Ann mentions:
Respectful tasks: “everybody’s work needs to be equally engaging, equally appealing, and equally important” with every students having to “think to do their work”.
Flexible grouping: systematically moving kids into different groupings, so they can see “how they can contribute in a variety of contexts”, not just arbitrary groupings or at the same skill level. Examples of grouping types given are:
similar readiness groups
varied readiness groups
mixed learning-profile groups
mixed interest groups
Teaching up: start with “high-end curriculum and expectations” then “differentiate to provide scaffolding, to lift the kids up”, rather than starting with “grade-level material and then dumb it down for some and raise it up for others”.
Ongoing assessment: “continually checking in on who’s where with the knowledge and understanding I’m trying to teach”, not just through formal quizzes and tests, but also by “systematically watching kids, taking good notes, checking work regularly and closely, and asking good questions”
I’m sure there are more! Her book The Differentiated Classroom, looks like a good place to go if you’d like to find out more [Amazon affiliate link].
Unit 4: Language input and output
How do you feel about the way grammar is dealt with in the books you use?
It’s good enough, though formulaic in many ways. Learners will only pick up the grammar when they are ready to, regardless of the order in which it’s introduced in the books, though having grammar in materials can help them with this. The rules vary in quality, truthfulness (i.e. how fully applicable they are to any example of that language point), complexity and accessibility – for example using lots of metalanguage in a book aimed at beginner 10-12 year olds. There are generally plenty of different types controlled practice, and some freer practice and/or personalisation opportunities. Over the time that I’ve been using coursebooks, I’ve noticed that it’s generally become much better contextualised, and there is a shift in some books to move slightly away from a fully traditional grammar syllabus, such as in the Outcomes books.
How do you feel about the grammar syllabus in one coursebook you use?
I don’t have any particular feelings about the grammar syllabus. If I’ve chosen to use a coursebook, it’s because I think that the grammar syllabus has the potential to work wirth my students.
Can you think of some different approaches to teaching grammar?
Task-based learning – working on grammar as the need arises.
Grammar reference tools
We looked at three different grammar reference tools which we might want to refer to when developing materials. The pros and cons are related to materials development and are my responses.
The core inventory table is available as a single page, and therefore very easy to refer to.
The appendices map a range of different areas: written and spoken text types (p36-37), functions/notions (p38), discourse features (p39), grammatical forms (p39-41), lexis (p42), topics (p42). These are all potentially useful reference points.
p43 onwards contains a comprehensive list of exponents which were considered core, and which appeared less often – this would be a great starting point for example sentences in materials. There are also some short texts showing how some features can be used in context, for example ‘describing places’ at A2 on p47.
It summarises common practice in the industry in a descriptive way, so materials created could be slotted into industry standards.
It shows the “extent of agreement between the different types of sources” and “the broad agreement” across the profession regarding consensus on when particular language points might be introduced to learners, so a materials writer would be more likely to introduce level-appropriate language points, if creating a grammar syllabus is an important factor for them in materials design. (quotes from p18)
The scenario on p14-15 shows an interesting structure for considering how to approach planning lessons and/or materials for a given situation, in this case a business meeting. There are more scenarios from p26-35. Each scenario shows an overview (what is needed to succeed in this situation) and implementation (one way in which this might be transferred to the learning process).
It is aware of its own limitations (p20), emphasising that it can act as a point of reference but that needs analysis should “give the basis for actual teaching”:
It implies a somewhat linear study of grammar, vocabulary, topics, etc. though it does specify that “the language point appears at the level(s) at which it is considered of most relevance to the learner in the classroom.” (p11)
There is some overlap in levels. A2 covers elementary and pre-intermediate. Elementary is included in A1 and A2.
Although there is a lot of consensus in levels A1-B2, there is less consensus for C1. The consensus which does exist throughout may well have been influenced by previous editions of similar documents (such as the Threshold Level, 1976), meaning it’s potentially somewhat self-perpetuating: learners are taught those items at those levels because people have previously decided that’s what they should learn, and they decide what they should learn based on what is taught to them at those levels.
C2 is not included – consensus was only shown regarding preparation for the CPE exam. (p20)
It’s based on a range of sources, but this doesn’t included learner language (I think).
Some items appear in multiple places on the summary page on p10-11, such as collocation and colloquial language (B1, B2, C1) or leisure activities (A1, A2, B1) – this makes it seem very generic.
There are numbers throughout the list of exponents, but no clear information about what those numbers actually refer to (at least, not that I could find!)
It includes definitions and examples of each item to make it easy to understand what grammar feature is being referred to.
It was compiled from learner data. There are learner examples, both corrected and uncorrected, for every item. The learner examples are taken from a range of different language backgrounds, and include information about when they were collected and what level the learner was.
It can be searched and filtered by level.
It allows you to see progression across levels in terms of how a single grammatical item might be used.
The levels are colour-coded, making them easy to pick out from a longer list.
The grammar spotlight posts analyse the database in an interesting way to show what kinds of language learners are likely to use at different levels, including how this might differ depending on their language background, if relevant.
Lists can be downloaded.
It could be quite overwhelming to navigate due to the amount of information included.
There’s potentially far too much information for any single level. For example, filtering by A1 gives 109 items, so it might be hard to select which could be the most useful to include in materials.
It only covers grammar items, or very fixed lexical expressions containing grammatical words, for example ‘might as well’. (The English Vocabulary Profile also exists – we’re focussing on grammar in this unit of the course though)
The data was compiled from exam scripts, so the conditions learners produced the language in was controlled. I think they may also be written scripts (though I’m happy to be corrected) so it doesn’t feature examples produced when speaking.
It breaks down levels more than the CEFR does, including pre-A1. It also includes A2+, B1+ and B2+, which the other two resources we’ve looked at don’t.
It can be filtered by language skills, rather than only grammar or vocabulary.
It can be filtered for academic learners, adult learners, professional learners or young learners (6-14) for skills. Grammar and vocabulary have fewer options in this case.
The GSE allows finer grade filtering than the CEFR due to its use of numbers.
Lists can be downloaded.
There are resources linked to some of the grammar can do statements, which might provide inspiration for materials design.
Grammar can do statements come with a sample structure, examples, and related learning objectives which are functional, for example “Can form questions with ‘what’ and ‘who’ and answer them.” is connected to 20 different possible learning objectives.
It has a text analyzer you could check your writing with, which could be useful for rewriting or selecting what to include in a glossary.
It could be quite overwhelming as there is so much possible information.
It could imply a very linear ‘first learn this, now learn this, now learn this’ approach (I’m sure there’s a proper term for this, but can’t think of it now!) which might seem somewhat mechanical.
I think if I’m writing materials for a specific level, and especially if I decide that having a grammar component is important, I would potentially use the BC/EAQUALS core profile as a starting point, then supplement it by referring to the other two databases, comparing what I found in each to help me decide on my grammar syllabus. This would obviously also be connected to a needs analysis and my own predictions of what language learners might need in given situations.
What is practice?
Why do language learners need to practise? Without practice, learners will never activate their knowledge. They also need the opportunity to experiment, and to get feedback on their efforts. The more practice they do, especially if it is accompanied by useful feedback, the more likely they are to remember language they are trying to learn. Without feedback, they may remember this incorrectly though.
What are some elements of an effective practice task? It has a clear pedagogical purpose. It’s engaging. It’s motivating. The instructions are clear and achievable. It practises what it is supposed to practice. Anything else it practises is within the learner’s skillset. There are clear opportunities for feedback, and the feedback provided will enable learning.
What is the difference between an activity for practising language and testing it? Activities for practising language include feedback on performance, and the opportunity to repeat the activity again. Learners would ideally get support while they are completing the activity if they need it. Activities for testing language are far less likely to include feedback. Support is not available during the activity, and it’s much less likely that repetition will be built in.
Review and recycling
What do we mean by recycling language?
Reusing it in different contexts within materials so learners get multiple exposures to the language. Encouraging learners to recall and reuse language in later practice activities covering a range of contexts.
What are the benefits of recycling?
Learners get more exposure to the language, making it more likely they will be able to recall it later.
Learners see the language in a range of contexts, building up their awareness of possible collocations and co-text.
They are able to get feedback on attempts to use the language in a range of different ways.
How do we incorporate recycling into our materials?
Providing opportunities for learners to reuse language in later tasks.
[I feel like I should definitely have more ideas than this, but I’m out!]
Yep, there were a lot more ideas in the unit, though some kind of overlapped with what I said.
Quotations about teaching grammar and my reactions to them
Despite the advent of the Communicative Approach over recent years, and despite the daily evidence offered by learners that the difficulties they encounter in using another language to encode their own meanings to do with lexis and (in the spoken mode) with phonology, the dominance of grammar in teaching materials remains high, to the point of obsession.
Stranks in Tomlinson 2003 p. 329
I agree with this. Most teaching materials I’ve used seem to prioritise grammar, with the grammar syllabus forming the core of the book. There is a fair amount of discussion about this within the teaching and materials writing community as far as I’m aware, but it’s a challenge to shift away from this due to the expectations of many different stakeholders. Some minor attempts have been made, such as the local coursebook Bruno Leys spoke about at IATEFL 2021.
That seems like a reasonable sequence of events and set of parts in the formula. The challenge for a materials writer is making sure that affect, cognition and meaningful purposeful interaction are all referenced in the activities.
Many people involved in ELT – and that includes learners – have considerable difficulty accepting exercises which do not have clearly demarcated right or wrong answers. Unfortunately, however, language – and that includes grammar – is frequently not a matter of correct or incorrect, but possible or not possible.
Stranks in Tomlinson 2003 p. 337
I think some learners may have trouble with understanding that grammar is not always correct or incorrect – they struggle with the idea of language as choice. To some extent, I think this is due to them having done lots of activities in the past which are correct/incorrect, and therefore relatively easy to administer and mark. Our challenge as teachers and materials writers is to help learners to move away from this, and to feel comfortable with the uncertainty of language, while still building their confidence in their own ability to understand and produce ‘acceptable’ language in a given situation.
(I’m really happy that this source exists – I’ve never seen it before. It seems to build on ideas from The English Verb by Michael Lewis, one of the books which has most influenced my thinking about language.)
Tense, aspect and voice seem to be a huge part of the way which languages carry meaning, and each language seems to have a different way of approaching their verb system to a greater or lesser extent. These systems rarely map cleanly onto each other, making it challenging to directly transfer knowledge of one language to another language. The verb system also influences the way in which we perceive actions and how they might be divided up: for example, in English we might perceive actions as factual, remote, before but connected to a later event, or in progress, whereas in Polish we might perceive actions as complete or incomplete. Because of these differences, we therefore focus a lot of our grammar teaching on verb forms to help learners to see how the languages differ. This is not true to the same extent in other areas of grammar, or it can be much easier to clarify how differences work between languages, for example in the system of comparatives, or the use of adverbs.
The exercise format should reflect the objective of the exercise […]. Worksheets which do not necessitate language production or which closely control what students produce will have at best an indirect effect on their ability to produce language fluently in less controlled situations.
McGrath 2002 p.94
To some extent this is true, but control over production can be useful in the early stages of understanding a new language point, or attempting to produce the form correctly. There should be a range of different types of practice activities, including ones which encourage learners to “produce language fluently in less controlled situations”.
Research on methodology is inconclusive, and has not shown detectable, lasting and wide-ranging effects for implicit versus explicit instruction, for inductive versus deductive learning or separated-out study of structure versus incidental focus on form during communicative activity.
Swan 2006 quoted in Mishan and Timmis 2015 p.153
This doesn’t surprise me, as it would be very difficult to tease out any of these variables in long-term research. Each of learn differently and have so many different opportunities to get input. Ultimately each person has to find what works for them, and that may be different for different people. What we really need is instructions and activities which engage learners and keep them coming back. For some learners that might be listening to somebody else explain language and processing that explanation for themselves, for others it might be picking things up as they go along. For some it might be experimenting with language in real life, for others it might be completing practice activities and getting a confidence boost when they realise they’re right. Each to their own! As materials designers, we need to include a range of activities and types of instruction to appeal to a range of learners, and to cover our bases when it comes to SLA research.
Beliefs about materials for teaching grammar or functions
These are some of my own beliefs about materials for teaching grammar or functions. 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! The principles are numbered so I can refer back to them in the section below, rather than to imply any particular order – I think they’re all equally important.
Language should be clearly contextualised, and the context should be exploited to support understanding. Why? Decontextualised grammar or functions involve learners trying to figure out when or where the structures might be applicable. By providing a context, you are already helping them to see how the language can be used in longer discourse, rather than only seeing individual sentences. What does it entail? The context needs to be understood before any study of the language can be effective. This can be done in two main ways: by providing the context, through supplying a reading or listening text, or by creating a space for the language to potentially be produced, through a speaking or writing task. In the former case, you can work with the text for comprehension, then highlight the language. In the latter, learners can focus on the task, then teachers can help them to notice gaps in their language and how to fill them. The context also shouldn’t be abandoned or lost once the language study starts – there should be references back to the context, and it should continue to be a part of the activity sequence. But…? How do you deal with the fact that grammar or functions can appear in a wide range of different contexts? How do you balance understanding the context and understanding the language?
Learners should be engaged in the language clarification process. Why? I believe that learners are likely to switch off or miss key information in pure lecture-style/text input language clarification. By providing opportunities for some level of interaction, they are more likely to process the input they are being given regarding the language. What does it entail? This could be done at a low level by creating gaps or options in rules. At a deeper level, it can be done through more detailed guided discovery, asking questions to help learners to find the rules themselves. At the deepest level, it could be through asking learners to formulate rules for themselves, as Danny Norrington-Davies suggests in From Rules to Reasons [Amazon affiliate link / BEBC non-affiliate link]. But…? Just because learners have participated in formulating a rule for the use of particular language, how can you guarantee that they actually know it or will remember it? If they are formulating their own rules, how do you check that the rules are ‘correct’ or applicable to other contexts? How much support do learners need to be able to create rules themselves? How do you make sure this process is engaging rather than intimidating or off-putting?
There should be plenty of opportunities for learners to practise the language and to get feedback on this practice. Why? Without practice, input is just information. It won’t be transferred into long-term memory, nor will it become automaticized as part of the skill of understanding or using English. But practice without feedback is just testing – they need to happen together. What does it entail? Practice opportunities should be varied, including opportunities for a focus on different areas of the language (meaning/use, form, pronunciation), different levels of control and support (controlled, semi-controlled, freer – not necessarily in that order!), different activity types (spoken, written, games, etc.), different interaction patterns (individual, pairs, groups, teams, whole class). Obviously not all of these can be included for every grammar item or function mentioned in the materials, but there should be suggestions for how activities could be tweaked in the teacher’s notes, and a range of activities across the materials. Feedback suggestions should be built into the teacher’s notes, with ideas for how to make the most of the learning opportunities available in feedback stages, rather than simply giving information about what was and wasn’t correct and moving on. But…? How do you decide what practice activities to include in the main materials, what to suggest in teacher’s notes/other supplementary materials, and what to leave out? How much space and time is available in the materials to include all of these different practice opportunities?
Language should be revised and recycled. Why? Once is never enough! Learners need multiple exposures to new language, both receptively and productively, for it to be available to them for understanding and use. Multiple exposures also mean building up a better awareness of when it is and isn’t possible/appropriate to use a given grammatical structure or functional exponent. What does it entail? Including opportunities for revision or recycling in materials, using a range of different techniques. Some of the ones mentioned on the course include end of unit reviews, self-assessment activities, writing personalised questions, useful language boxes, task repetition and revisiting texts. But…? There is a limited amount of space in materials and a lot of language ground to cover – how do you balance these two issues? Is recycling and revision the responsibility of the teacher or the materials writer, since different students will have different needs?
Evaluating digital activities
We were asked to think of a grammar or functional area that we are likely to teach or write materials for soon, find three different resources, and evaluate the activities according to the beliefs we noted.
I selected ‘English for travel’ as this is an area I’m interested in writing for, and decided to particularly focus on checking into hotels. I did a Google search for English for tourism: checking in at hotels and found three resources from different websites of varying quality and for different audiences. The numbers refer to the principles in the section above in this post.
The first resource is two gapfill pages from Learn English Feel Good, which I’ve never come across before. It’s designed for self-study, and I think it would probably be best for intermediate due to the types of phrases included. There are two pages with short gapped written conversations between a hotel clerk and a tourist. The first conversation has somebody turning up at the hotel and selecting a room during the conversation. The second conversation has somebody with a reservation who wants to see the room before they pay.
Context The phrases are used within a conversation. There is not other support for understanding the context, for example pictures or a video.
Engaged in understanding the language clarification Each sentence is a 3-option multiple choice activity – learners could guess if they don’t already know the phrase. There is no language clarification at all, much less any which might involve cognitive processing of the meaning of the phrases.
Practice opportunities There is only one practice activity, and it is the same format for both conversations. Learners could do it as many times as they want to, but they would have to create their own supplementary activities, for exampe by looking at the phrases, hiding the window, and trying to write the phrases elsewhere. Learners are probably unlikely to know this kind of activity or do it if they do know it. The feedback only says whether something is right or wrong, not why, so learning is likely to be minimal – learners can just try again until they get it right, but won’t necessarily know why.
Revision / recycling This is not present in the materials.
The second resource is a podcast from British Council Premier Skills English. It’s designed for self-study, but could be used by teachers as the basis of a lesson plan. It would probably work best for pre-intermediate and above as it’s fairly straightforward but there’s quite a lot of input. It’s the first in a series of four podcasts on the topic of English and Tourism. There is a transcript to accompany the podcast, as well as a vocabulary activity and a description of some key phrases and how they’re used, divided up to correspond with the four sections of the podcast: introductions, problems at reception, resolving problems, and costs and changes. There’s then a gapfill to practise the key phrases, a quiz, and a hotel review writing task which learners can respond to by writing in the comments.
Context The phrases are used in a clear context: a conversation between a customer and a hotel receptionist. The conversations are somewhat buried in the rest of the podcast, but they clearly follow the football theme of the website, and listeners are likely to be familar with the format of the podcast. The context is introduced clearly, including listeners being told that the role play will be in four sections. After each section, the language is dicussed. There is a question to answer when listening to each part of the roleplay to help learners focus on comprehension. The context is very rich, and contains a lot of potentially useful language. It is referred back to in the clarification.
Engaged in understanding the language clarification The language clarification is all described, with no pause or questions for learners to think about their own answers. Learners are passive during the language clarification process. They can hear the clarification in the podcast, read it in the transcript, and read a slightly different version of it on the webpage.
Practice opportunities There are no practice opportunities in the podcast, and the written task of describing a hotel stay is connected to the vocabulary rather than the functional language of checking in. There are two written practice activities on the webpage. The first is a gapfill, with each sentence missing one word from each sentence, though sometimes these are functional language, and sometimes they’re vocabulary. The second is a quiz, but you could only see if it you log in. I imagine it’s possibly multiple choice, but I don’t know.
Revision / recycling The hotel review allows revision of the vocabulary, and learners could read each others’ reviews to see the vocabulary used in multiple contexts. They could listen to the podcast or read the information as many times as they want to, but there are no opportunities for retrieval practice.
The third resource is a lesson plan from One Stop English and is available at elementary and intermediate – I looked at the elementary plan. It’s a complete lesson plan with teacher’s notes, and also covers checking in at an airport. The plan is aimed at learners who are 16+ years old and should take 90 minutes. There is a warm up to elicit vocabulary, a mime to introduce the topic and elicit more collocations, whiteboard work to focus on the vocabulary in more depth, revision of numbers, eliciting questions hotel reception staff might ask (the first stage of the actual functional language), a running dictation of a conversation / an ordering task (depending on the teacher’s choice), dialogue practice with the option of changing the dialogues, and a role play.
Context By the time the phrases are introduced, the context of checking into a hotel is clear. They are within a short dialogue, and a sample answer is provided with a longer version of the conversation (in one of the pdfs – slightly confusingly, there are two very similar pdfs!) There’s no clear language clarification in the notes, so it’s not clear whether the context would be referred to again for this, though the dialogues are reused in stage 7.
Engaged in understanding the language clarification Before they see the dialogue, the learners are given the opportunity to come up with their own possible questions, meaning they will be processing the meaning themselves. It’s not clear from the teacher’s notes in stage 5, but presumably the assumption is that the teacher will upgrade any language they produce to ensure that the questions are correctly formed. The ordering task involves the learners in processing the meaning, although again there doesn’t seem to be any feedback or meaning checking included in the teacher’s notes to ensure that the learners have got it right.
Practice opportunities The main opportunity to practice comes in the dialogue (stage 7), with learners repeating the task multiple times and reducing the amount that they look at the dialogue as they go through. They also change roles. There is then a freer practice activity (stage 8) consisting of a role play with learners switching roles multiple times. To some extent the running dictation (stage 6) is also a form of practice, as they say and/or write the phrases, though if they don’t know what the phrases mean this stage may not be particularly useful in fixing the language in learners’ memory. There is an extension activity for stronger students related to including requests in the check in conversation.
Revision / recycling There are lots of opportunities for the learners to revise the language through the task repetition in the dialogue and the role play.
Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and Materials Development (1)
These are my notes notes based on a chapter by Tomlinson (2013) in the book Applied Linguistics and Materials Development [Amazon affiliate link]. He also edited the book and it was published by Bloomsbury.
Some terms defined at the start of the chapter (p11):
Second language acquisition: “the process by which people acquire and/or learn any language in addition to their first language. It is also the name of the academic discipline which studies that process.”
Acquisition: different definitions depending on the researcher: “the informal, subconscious process of gaining a language from exposure and use”; Tomlinson (2007a, p.2) “the initial stage of gaining basic communicative competence in a language”
Learning: “the deliberate, conscious study of a language in order to be able to use it”
Development: Tomlinson (2007a, p.2) “the subsequent stage [after acquisition as defined above] of gaining the ability to use the language successfully in a wide range of media and genres for a wide variety of purposes”
Most researchers seem to agree that learning is insufficient and needs to be at least supplemented by acquisition.
Tomlinson (2013: 11)
What we know about the process of SLA
It is facilitated by (headings lifted directly from the chapter):
A rich and meaningful exposure to language in use Rich = “contains a lot of implicit information about how the language is actually used to achieve communicative effect and that it provides natural recycling of language features (Nation, 2011)” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12) Meaningful = “relevant to the learner and the learner is able to understand enough of it to gain meaning from it” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
Affective and cognitive engagement “Learners who are stimulated to laugh, smile, feel joy, feel excited and feel empathetic are much more likely to acquire communicative competence […]” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12) “Positive emotions seem most likely to stimulate deep processing (Craik & Lockhard, 1972) and therefore to faciliate language acquisition.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12) “Negative emotions […] are much more facilitative than no emotional responses at all.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12) “Self-confidence and self-esteem are also important aspects of affective engagement, as is feeling positive about the learning environment.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12) “If they do [use high level mental skills], they are much more likely to achieve deep processing and to eventually acquire language and develop language skills […]” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12) “Put very simply, in order for learners to acquire a second language they need to think and feel in the process of acquiring it.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
Making use of those mental resources typically used in communication in the L1 Examples include our inner voice, visual imaging, motor imaging (“to recreate movements which are described”) – collectively “multidimensional mental representation” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13) “L2 learners rarely make use of these mental resources at all. [For a range of reasons, they engage in] linguistic micro-processing which takes up all the brain’s processing capacity.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13) Tomlinson and Avila (2007b) has suggestions for activities to help with this.
Noticing how the L2 is used “Noticing linguistic features in the input is an important facilitator of language acquisition.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13) “One way of doing this is to draw the learner’s attention to language features in use either through direction of through making the understanding of that feature important for task completion. This does not lead to instant acquisition of the feature but it does contribute to and can accelerate its eventual acquisition.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13) Two approaches are suggested to help learners achieve what Pienneman (1985) calls “psychological readiness”: learners “respond personally to the content of an engaging written or spoken text and then go back to make discoveries about the form and function of a particular feature of that text” / “a form-focused approach […] in which learners first focus on the meaning of a text and later focus on the form and function of a specific linguistic feature (through instruction and or consciousness raising)” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13)
Being given opportunities for contextualised and purposeful communication in the L2 Output = “producing language for communication” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14) “It can provide learners with contextual feedback, it helps to automatize language, it constitutes auto-input and it can elicit further comprehensible input too.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14) [I’m not sure what ‘auto-input’ is.] Pushed output = “communicating something which is not easy to express” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14) “[Pushed output] can be particularly beneficial as it stretches the learner’s capabilities by making them make full use of their acquired language and of their strategic competence, as as providing opportunities for new but comprehensible input from their interlocutors who are helping them to negotiate meaning.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14) “This would suggest that setting learners achievable communicative challenges is likely to be more useful than providing easy practice.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
Being encouraged to interact “It helps to make input more comprehensible, it provides meaningful feedback and it pushes learners to modify their output.” especially when communication breaks down (Tomlinson, 2013: 14) “Such communication is contextualised and purposeful, it is relevant and salient, it is generally comprehensible and it promotes meta-talk about the L2.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
Being allowed to focus on meaning “Learners are more likely to acquire forms if their primary focus is on meaning rather than form.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14) “However it does seem that more attention to form is needed as the learner progresses to advanced levels.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14) Possible approaches suggested are an “experiential approach”: “learners first experience an engaging text holistically, respond to it personally and then return to the text to focus discretely on a salient feature of language use”, what Long (1996) calls a “form-focused” approach, rather than a “forms-focused” approach (on a “predetermined, discrete form”); “language awareness approaches”: “learners first experience a form in use and are then helped to make their own discoveries about it”; “consciousness raising approaches”: “learners are guided towards finding out how a form is used” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14-15)
Other generally accepted features (all taken from Tomlinson, 2013: 15):
being motivated to participate and to learn
being help to develop an emerging interlanguage which gradually moves closer to the target language
developing hypotheses about how the language is used for communciation
being catered for as an individual
making full use of non-linguistic means of communicating
being ready to acquire a focused feature “which can be powerfully influenced by materials which create a need to ‘know’ a language feature in order to complete a motivating task and by materials which help learners to notice a particular feature being used” (Tomlinson, 2013: 15)
On the same page, Tomlinson also says there are other features which he discusses in other literature (Tomlinson 2008, 2010, 2011a):
Allowing for the inevitable delayed effect of instructions
A silent period at the beginning of instruction
SLA and published materials
So many areas to consider! In the next part of the chapter, Tomlinson analyses a number of global coursebooks to see how their practice matches up to this theory.
I found that none of the coursebooks focus on meaning, that they are all forms-focussed and that the majority of their activities are language item practice activities. Some of the coursebooks provide some opportunities for noticing and most make some attempt at personalization. None of them, however, offer a choice of content, route or activities.
Tomlinson (2013: 16)
The mismatch between SLA theory and practice is demonstrated in a number of ways on p16-17. By implication, any materials which want to match up to SLA theory should:
Include more use of literature
Use longer and more complex texts
Include activities which focus on use, rather than practice
Choose topics and activities which stimulate affective responses
Ask learners to think for themselves and be creative
Aim to vary approach, not only using conventional practice activities like T/F, matching, gap fills, sentence completion, role play, working in pairs to compare ideas
Recycle language in use
Encourage learners to speak or write at length
Encourage learners to interact for a communicative purpose and at length
Focus on form, not on forms
Some ideas for ways to vary materials from p17 which I might want to include in materials I create for this module are:
Visual imaging tasks
Inner speech tasks
Extensive / creative writing with an audience and a purpose
Tasks offering choice
Different versions of texts for learners to choose form
A meaning focus
On p17-18 Tomlinson lists various reasons why this mismatch between SLA theory and materials might exist, the biggest of which I think is the “massive mismatch between typical examination tasks and SLA principles”.
Unanswered questions in SLA research
One question he asked is “Is there a natural sequence in langauge acquisition?” (Tomlinson, 2013: 19) This answer appeals to me:
One plausible explanation for similarities in sequences of acquisition is offered by MacWhinney (1987; 2005). His competition model claims that what learners can pay attention to at any one time is limited and that they filter out features of language when they listen to a second language. Learners gradually get better at processing sentences and mental resources are freed up to focus on more complex features of the input. […] What is essential for communication is learned before what is perceived as redundant.”
Tomlinson, 2013: 19
Another area discussed was text enhancement (TE) “(e.g. colour coding, boldfacing, audio repetition) as a means of drawing [learners’] attention to salient features of their input”, as proposed by Sharwood Smith (1993) (Tomlinson, 2013: 19). “Lee (2007) found that only when input has been understood can learners attend to form.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 20)
I foudn it very interesting that three of the questions included in Tomlinson’s list demonstrate that three things which feature in a lot of materials and which I personally find to be useful don’t necessarily have any SLA research behind them:
Do controlled practice activities facilitate acquisition?
Does memorization facilitate language acquisition?
Do repetition derills facilitate language acquisition? (Tomlinson, 2013: 20)
It would seem that many coursebook procedures have become accepted as dogma to be followed, even though there is little research or even anecdotal evidence to support them.
Tomlinson, 2013: 20
Suggestions for applying SLA theory to ELT materials development
Task-based materials “provide the learners with a purpose and an outcome […] which can only be achieved through interaction in the L2.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 21)
In problem-based approaches “learners communicate with each other in order to solve a problem.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 21)
There is an example from task-based materials of instructions Tomlinson wrote for learners, where the first time they listen and visualise what they’ll do, and the second time they listen and do (making use of mental resources…)
Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) approaches “help learners to acquire an L2 by teaching them a subject, topic or skill they are interested in through the medium of the L2) (Tomlinson, 2013: 22)
Some examples of wording I think might be useful from CLIL instructions Tomlinson wrote:
Visualize your idea in action and talk to yourself about its potential applications.
In your group help each other to understand any ideas which were not completely clear.
Reflect on your presentation. Decide how you would make your presentation even more effective if you had to give the presentation to another company.
Tomlinson, 2013: 22-23
Text-driven approach (Tomlinson, 2003): “Text-driven materials are determined by potentially engaging written and/or spoken texts rather than by language teaching points. The learners’ interactions with the texts drive personal response activities, thinking activiites, communication activities, creative writing activities and language awareness activities, as well as often inviting supplementation with other locally appropriate texts.” The table below outlintes a “flexible text-driven framework” (Tomlinson, 2013: 24, based on Tomlinson and Masuhara, 2004)
This was a very useful summary of SLA theory, and has really got me thinking about the materials I have created in the past and might create in the future, and how they (don’t!) match up to this theory.
My answers to some of Tomlinson’s 2013 questions
Is SLA primarily implicit or explicit?
I’ve learnt lots of languages in lots of ways, but I’ve always felt that until I was actually using the language myself and getting lots of exposure, I wasn’t making progress. In Polish, I’ve done almost no explicit study and I’ve never had lessons, but have reached B2 level over a period of 6 years. I had a largely silent period for the first year, and I have only done explicit study when I felt that I was ready to learn a particular feature, for example looking up how to form conditionals or comparatives in a grammar book. I’ve never completed a grammar exercise. In Mandarin, I’ve done only explicit study over a period of about 10 years, but can say almost nothing and am possibly at A1 level, but probably still pre-A1. Based on this experience, I would say that SLA is primarily implicit, but that explicit study can provide a boost which helps with noticing and to make leaps in progress.
Is there a natural sequence in language acquisition?
Yes, I think there is, though I really like the explanation given by MacWhinney for why this might be. Again, having learnt various different languages, I tend to find I learn different structures at similar levels. For example, comparatives and superlatives at about A2, conditionals come at B1 – though I can’t produce them until B2 and higher. This is because of their importance in what I’m trying to communicate (I don’t really need them earlier, and/or I don’t have enough other language to think of trying to build them myself). I’ve noticed a similar process in the first language acquisition of friends’ children, and in the problems learners have at different levels.
Are the factors which determine the effectiveness of language acquisition variable?
I think that individual learners will learn in different ways for a huge range of reasons, including educational background, culture and engagement. I think these factors might be variable between learners, but not within an individual learner, if that makes sense!
Does text enhancement facilitate language acquisition?
I find it quite distracting as a learner, and find it much more useful to notice features of a text myself, focussing on the areas which I feel are important for me at that point in my study, or on something which I find interesting about a text. I think it might help some learners to find their way around a text when it comes to a specific focus on the language, but I believe it’s better for learners to enhance the text themselves than for it to be provided by the writers.
Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and Materials Development (2)
These are my notes based on Tomlinson’s 2008 chapter ‘Language Acquisition and Language Learning Materials’ in English Language Learning Materials (Contiuum 2008) [Amazon affiliate link].
One of my arguments is that many ELT materials (especially global coursebooks) currently make a significant contribution to the failure of many learners of English as a second, foreign or other language to even acquire basic competence in English and to the failure of most of them to develop the ability to use it successfully. They do so by focusing on the teaching of linguistic items rather than on the provision of opportunities for acquisition and development. And they do this because that’s what teachers are expected and required to do by administrators, by parents, by publishers, and by learners too.
Tomlinson (2008: 3)
That’s quite some statement!
He goes on to share a slightly different list to the one in his later chapter (above) of what is required to facilitate language acquisition, “a rich experience of language in use” whereby:
“the language experience needs to be contextualized and comprehensible
the learner needs to be motivated, relaxed, positive and engaged
the language and discourse features available for potential acquisition need to be salient, meaningful and frequently encountered
the learner needs to achieve deep and multi-dimensional processing of the language” (Tomlinson 2008: 4)
He suggests the use of extensive reading and extensive listening to provide exposure to language.
It is my belief that helping learners to notice features of the authentic language they are exposed to can facilitate and accelerate language acquisition. […] This is particular true if the learners are stimulated and guided to make discoveries for themselves […] and to thus increase their awareness of how the target language is used to achieve fluency, accuracy, appropriacy and effect.
Tomlinson, 2008: 4
It is also my belief that helping learners to participate in meaningful communication in which they are using language to achieve intended outcomes is essential for the development of communicative competence. […] Practice activities which have been designed to give the learner frequent opportunities to get something right make very little contribution to language acquisition because they don’t add anything new and they make no contribution at all to language development because they focus on accurate outputs rather than successful outcomes. What the materials need to do is to provide lots of opportunities for the learners to actually use language to achieve intentions and lots of opportunities for them to gain feedback on the effectiveness of their attempts at communication.
Tomlinson, 2008: 5
There is a long list of conjectures Tomlinson has arrived at from his experience as a language teacher (2008: 5-6). Ones which particularly stood out to me were:
Learners gain from sometimes being allowed to hide and from not always being put under a spotlight. [makes me think of this]
Those learners who participate mentally in group activities often gain more than those participate vocally.
Reading should be delayed in the L2 until the learners have a sufficiently large vocabulary to be able to read experientially rather than studially and then extensive reading should be introduced before intensive reading. [Not sure I agree with this – I think that reading is one of the ways they will gain this vocabulary, and you can start with short texts. Extensive reading is definitely highly beneficial though.]
Learners should be encouraged and helped to represent language multi-dimensionally. [makes me think of this]
Tomlinson implies that the following are desirable for ELT materials to promote language acquisition and development (2008: 6):
Using different genres, text types and multimedia to provide a rich experience
Provide an “aesthetically positive experience” through illustration and design
Help learners to make discoveries for themselves
Help learners to become independent learners
Provide opportunities for extensive listening/reading
Help learnres to personalise and localise their language learning
Some of the problems he mentions connected to the fact that many ELT books are selected by adminstrators, and none by teachers, are (2008:7):
Colourful photographs in the top right-hand corner to pass the flick test
As many words as possible on a page “to achieve optimal coverage at an acceptable price”
Uniform unit length and format = makes timetabling, teacher allocation and teacher prep easier
Tasks replicating conventional test types = facilitates exam prep
Many of them [educational publishers] try to add as much educational value to their products as possible but for all of them the main objective it to make money. […] What this situation means for writers of commercial ELT materials is that they can at best try to achieve a compromise between their principles and the requirements of the publisher.
Tomlinson, 2008: 7
Other generalizations he makes about problems with many coursebooks are (Tomlinson, 2008: 8):
Underestimating learners’ language level and cognitive ability, especially the treatment of low-level English learners as intellectually low-level learners.
Simplifying language presentation and therefore impoverishing the learning experience.
Using PPP > creating an illusion of language learning, results in shallow processing [I think this might have changed a little in more modern materials, though I’m not sure processing is necessarily deeper]
Ensuring most activities are easily accomplished > memorisation, script repetition, simple substitution / transformation
Trying to teach language features during listening/reading activities, and therefore confusing language learning and skills development [again, I think this might have changed somewhat now]
Bland, safe, harmonious texts and activities which don’t stimulate thinking and feeling [there’s more of an attempt to include critical thinking in materials now, but I’m not sure this has moved on much beyond what Tomlinson stated]
“Not nearly enough experience of language in fully contextualized use”
Focussing on comprehension over enjoyment in listening and reading [at least, that’s how I read it…a little unclear to me!]
Not exploiting what’s available outside the classroom
Decoding OR encoding, not multidimensional activities “involving the use of the full resources of the brain”
He describes some examples of locally produced materials which he feels have been developed in more principled ways, while acknowledging the need for “due consideration being given, of course, to the face validity and conformity to market expectation which is necessary to ensure profitability”. (Tomlinson, 2008: 9)
Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and Materials Development (2)
These are my notes based on’Second language acquisition research and language-teaching materials’ by Rod Ellis (2010) in Harwood, N. (ed.) English Language Teaching Materials: Theory and Practice (CUP, 2010).
Some definitions to start (Ellis, 2010: 33):
An “unfocused task” elicits general samples of language use, “although it may be possible to predict a cluster of features that learners are likely to need when they perform a task.” (Ellis, 2010: 36)
A “focused task” elicits use of a specific linguistic feature, often a grammatical structure
In any task, “the primary focus must be on meaning and achieving a communicative outcome”
Task-supported language teaching: “focused tasks support a structural syllabus”
Task-based language teaching: “the syllabus is specified only in terms of the tasks to be performed”
“Interpretation activities”: “aim to teach grammar by inducing learners to process the target structure through input rather than by eliciting production”, with the example given of bolding a target feature in a written text
“Structured input activities”: “force processing of the targeted feature by requiring a response from the learner”, with the example given of choosing a picture that correctly matches a sentence learners hear
A “consciousness-raising (CR) task”: assisting learners to discover how a grammatical feature works for themselves, focussing on understanding rather than the ability to use it.
Despite this activity and our growing understanding about what learning an L2 entails, doubts exist as to whether the findings of SLA are sufficiently robust to warrant applications to lagnauge pedagogy. […] The fact tha tmost teacher education programs include an SLA component is testiomny to the conviction that it has relevance to language pedagogy.
Ellis, 2010: 34
SLA and “tasks”
Ellis (2003) identifies various criteria for a task of which the main ones are (quoted in Ellis, 2010: 35):
There is a primary focus on meaning.
The students choose the linguistic and nonlinguistic resources needed to complete the task.
The task should lead to real-world processes of language use.
Successful performance of the task is determined by examining whether students have achieved the intended communicative outcome.
2 cannot be met if there is a model which learners are given and they substitute items in it.
3 requires some kind of gap (information / opinion / etc.) to lead to a negotiation of meaning.
4 must be met for it to be a task, and not a “contextualised grammar activity” (Ellis, 2010: 35) – Ellis gives examples of both on p36-37.
Focused tasks are different to contextualised grammar activities because the latter specifies the target feature to be used, whereas the former doesn’t. They have two aims, to “stimulate communicative language use” and to “target the use of a particular, predetermined target feature and provide an opportunity to practice this in a communicative context”. Ellis notes that learners may not use the targeted structure in focused tasks: “success depended on whether the target structure was one that the students were already in the process of acquiring.” (Ellis, 2010: 37) A dictogloss is an example of a focused task.
The rationale for using tasks according to a number of SLA researchers is that (Ellis, 2010: 39):
“Learners will only succeed in developing full control over their linguistic knowlege if they experience trying to use it under real operating conditions.”
“True interlanguage development (i.e., the process of acquiring new linguistic knowledge and restructuring existing knowledge) can only take place when acquisition happens incidentally, as a product of the effort to communicate.”
[I’ve never experienced TBL as a learner, but I definitely feel like both of these statements are reflected in my experience of when I feel I have made the most progress as a language learner, experimenting with the language and finding out the limits of what I can produce.]
Task-supported language teaching features tasks as the final step in PPP, acting as ‘text-creation’ tasks which follow on from ‘text-manipulation’ exercises (Ellis, 2010: 39). The idea is that you move from teaching grammar explicitly (declarative knowledge) to exercises (proceduralizing the knowledge) to tasks (automatizing the knowledge through real-life communicative behaviour). The problem is it implies language learning is sequential and ignores the time-lapse involved in language acquisition. It also encourages learners to focus on form, not meaning, during the task, so it ceases to be a task in the definition Ellis gave.
Task-based language teaching
Task-based language teaching features tasks as “the organizing principle for a course” (Ellis, 2010: 40). Attention to form can be pre-emptive (asking questions about form) or reactive (corrective feedback). It can also be done through posttask activities. There are various forms in which tasks can appear (Ellis, 2010: 40-41):
“humanisitic exercises” (Moskowitz, 1977) [one example was given, but I’m not 100% sure what these are – I think there ones focussed on information about the people in the room]
“procedural syllabus” (Prabhu, 1987): ” a series of meaning-focused activities consisting of pretasks, that the teacher completed with the whole class, followed by tasks where the students worked on similar activities on their own”
with a “metacognitive focus for learner-training purposes”
Some of the contructs and theories TBLT draw on include (Ellis, 2010: 41):
Teachability (Pienemann, 1985) – whether learners are actually ready to acquire the target structure. This causes problems as learners may not be ready for the same structure at the same time, and is contrasted with following their own “internal syllabus”.
“Implicit knowledge”: “linguistic knowledge that is intuitive, unconscious and proceduralized” which is “acquired incidentally as a response to the frequency of sounds, syllables, and words in the input that learners are exposed to – that is, it involves associative rather than rule learning”
“Focus on form” (Long, 1991): requiring learners to “attend to form while they are engaged in trying to communicate”, for example proactively seeding input with the target structure, or reactively with corrective feedback)
Noticing (Schmidt, 1994): “acquisition takes place when learners pay conscious attention to exemplars of a linguistic form in the input”, meaning that at least some of the process of acquiring knowledge needs to be conscious.
Although there’s no guarantee that learners will do what the task designer intended: “there is no necessary relationship between task-as-workplan and task-as-process” (Seedhouse, 2005), “to some degree at least, it is possible to predict the language samples that result from particular tasks” (Ellis, 2010: 41-42).
Ellis (2003) proposes a frameowrk for “distinguishing the design features of tasks”. This is an example, accompanying a task shown in the chapter:
Some of the terms are defined as follows (Ellis, 2010: 42-43):
“tight” organization: it “structures the interaction that the learners will engage in”
split information: the participants have different information
required interaction: “the task cannot be performed successfully unless both students speak”
“convergent”: “the aim is for the students to agree on a solution to the task”
“closed” scope: only one correct answer
What design features of tasks are likely to be effective in promoting L2 acquisition? (Ellis, 2010: 43) – with the caveat that SLA research so far (by 2010) shows the relationship between tasks and language use, NOT language acquisition:
Jigsaw tasks have the “greatest psycholinguistic validity” according to Pica, Kanagy, and Falodun (1993), drawing on Long’s Interaction Hypothesis (1996): “when learners engage in the effort to negotiate meaning as a result of a breakdown in communication, their attention will be direct to linguistic forms in a way that promotes acquisition”.
Tasks need to be varied “so that they induce learners to attend to different aspects of language use at different times”. (based on Skehan (2001), Cognitive Approach to Language Learning)
When designed tasks, you might choose to start from (Ellis, 2010: 43-44):
a task function, e.g. describing a person
a task genre, e.g. information gap
a task frame, i.e. “giving consideration to a cluster of factors such as the participatory organization, skills to be practiced, timing, and teacher roles”
SLA and grammar teaching
They are a type of comprehension activity in which learners process the target structure through input. They “require learners to process the target structure in order to arrive at the meaning of the text.” (Ellis, 2010: 45) with learners creating a kind of “form-function mapping” – they can’t avoid the target structure in the activity, they have to understand it to achieve success in the activity.
Input-enrichment activities include enriched input with frequent and/or salient examples of the targeted features. There is an example on page 45. It may be a simple listening or reading text, a text with features highlighted, or a text with follow-up activities “designed to focus attention on the structure” – “questions can only be answered if the learners have successfully processed the target structure.” “Input flood” through a number of texts is needed to have a real effect on their acquisition of the target structure, but this is ineffective for some structures according to the studies Ellis quotes. (2010: 45) For this to be effective, learners need to notice the target structure, though they don’t need to be intentionally focused on it – enriched-input tasks “aim to assist noticing by increasing the salience of the target structure in the input.” Ellis contrasts this with traditional grammar activities, saying that the latter “may result in explicit knowledge rather than implicit knowledge”. The benefit of input-enrichment activities may be that they “reinforce the learning that results from a more traditional, explicitly instructional approach”. (all quotes: Ellis, 2010: 46)
Structured-input activities don’t just present enriched input (the stimulus), but provide “some instruction that forces [learners] to process it (the response)”. (Ellis, 2010: 46)
“The stimulus can take the form of spoken or written input.”
The response is generally either completely nonverbal or minimally verbal, for example T/F, tick a box, select a picture, draw a diagram, perform an action.
A suggested sequence is attention to meaning > notice form and function of the grammatical structure > error identification.
Learners should be able to “relate the input to their own lives”.
There should be a focus on common errors, as well as correct usage.
Immediate and explicit feedback on learners’ response to the input is necessary. (Ellis, 2010: 46-47)
There is an example of an activity on page 47. The grammar teaching approach is called Processing Instruction, defined by VanPatten (1996: 2) as “a type of grammar instruction whose purpose is to affect the ways in which learners attend to input data.” (Ellis, 2010: 47)
These tasks “make language itself the content by inviting learners to discover how a grammatical feature works for them”, with grammar the topic to communicate about. The focus is on developing understanding rather than noticing. (Ellis, 2010: 48)
Characteristics of CR tasks include (Ellis, 2010: 48-49):
An attempt to isolate a specific linguistic feature for focused attention.
Data to illustrate the targeted feature, and maybe an explicit rule describing or explaining the feature.
Intellectual effort is needed to understand the targeted feature.
Maybe learners need to verbalize a rule describing the structure.
Data might be (Ellis, 1997, summarised in Ellis, 2010: 49):
authentic v. contrived
oral v. written
discrete sentences v. continuous text
well-formed v. deviant sentences
gap v. non-gap (i.e. each learner has all of the information, or learners have different information)
Operations learners might perform on the data could be (Ellis, 1997, summarised in Ellis, 2010: 49):
identification (find the TL)
judgment (is it correct? is it appropriate?)
completion (complete a text)
modification (e.g. replace this with this)
rule provision (“state the rule they have discovered”)
A CR task constitutes a kind of puzzle that, when solved, enables learners to discover how a linguistic feature works.
Ellis, 2010: 49
There are examples on page 50 and on page 54.
The justification for CR tasks is that explicit knowledge is needed to help learners “notice the gap between the input and their own interlanguage” and that “learning is more significant if it involves a greater depth of processing”. (Ellis, 2010: 50) One caveat is that “learners need sufficient proficiency to talk metalinguistically about the target feature” (Ellis, 2010: 51) [though the study which lead to this conclusion had learners from mixed L1 backgrounds – I wonder whether it’s necessary if they’re allowed to discuss the language in L1?]
Other limitations are that CR tasks may not work well with young learners, learners need a certain level of metalanguage [though Danny Norrington-Davies’ approach in From Rules to Reasons may counter this somewhat – Amazon affiliate link / BEBC non-affiliate link], and they may not appeal to “learners who are less skilled at forming and testing conscious hypotheses about language”. (Ellis, 2010: 51)
Ellis offers tham as a “valuable alternative to direct explicit instruction”. (Ellis, 2010: 51) He acknowledges that they are increasingly common in materials – I think that this is true too, though I think with only limited variety regarding the data and operations mentioned above.
That’s it for week two. Next week: Units 5, 6, 7 and 8. I spent a lot of time reading articles and a day doing other work this week, so didn’t make it to unit 5 as promised last week!
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 one of the course, things which I wanted to remember, notes I’ve made while reading, and on-going tasks we’ve been asked to provude. The notes are there for me, 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 yourself – it’s very subjective and based on my interests! I’ll post one of these in each of the three weeks of the online course.
Unit 1: Introductions
My metaphor for coursebooks is that they can be a guidebook:
It shows you where you can go, but you can pick and choose.
There are lots to choose from – different styles suit different people.
Some people don’t bother with them and prefer to explore by themselves.
People use it in different ways: some read cover to cover, some dip in at random, some know exactly what they’re looking for.
You can pick up all kinds of interesting or unusual ideas from it.
They can inspire you to want to try new things, or tell you more about places (methods) you were already familiar with.
It can date quite quickly!
Initial beliefs about Teaching, Learning and Materials
These are some of my own beliefs about teaching and learning materials, compiled at the start of the course. 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!
Teaching and learning materials should be engaging for both learners and teachers. Why? If teachers or learners aren’t engaged by the materials, they won’t want to interact with them, and they are less likely to be open to learning/teaching with them. What does it entail? This involves having a clear and transparent aim for the use of the materials, which both learners and teachers can see will develop the English level of the learners. It also involves choosing engaging topics, with clear reasons for learners to care about the topics and the aims of the materials. Those reasons are most likely to come from helping learners to personalise the topic in some way and/or connect it to their own experience. Good design is also an important component of engagement – we have to want to pick up the materials / open the website. But…? Who decides what is engaging? What role does the teacher play in bringing materials to life? What about self-study materials which need to be self-mediated? What about learners/teachers who feel uncomfortable sharing personal information?
Materials should enhance and support the learning experience for all learners. Why? If they don’t do this, then they’re making our jobs harder in some way! Materials which don’t support the learning experience add unnecessary barriers for learners and teachers, and can demotivate them. What does it entail? A smooth User/Learner Experience (UX/LX) is important – finding your way around the materials easily and with the minimum of stress. This should be true for every learner, not just those who are neurotypical. We need to make sure as many learners as possible are catered for with our materials. This can be done through design aspects, such as our choice of fonts or spacing, as well as through the types of tasks and the options we provide within materials. But…? How do we know that materials which work for one learner will necessarily work for another? Is there enough space in the materials to provide the necessary support? Or enough time to create materials with this level of scaffolding? Is it the materials job to do this, or should it be the teacher’s?
Materials should provide opportunities for interaction. Why? We learn better when we are actively involved, rather than passively receiving information. We retain new knowledge for longer. What does it entail? This interaction could be with other people, for example sharing or explaining ideas. It could be interacting with the materials themselves, through creating our own notes (as I’m doing now!), diagrams, or summaries of the information. Each of these methods force us to process the content of the materials in some way. But…? What if learners don’t want to interact with others or with the materials? What if they prefer to just be ‘fed’ information? What happens if you’re working with large groups? How can you manage noise levels during social interaction, or monitor effectively online, or check that they have processed information effectively when they interact with the materials by themselves?
Materials should not just be about language; they should also include learner training, and, where necessary, teacher training. Why? We often make assumptions that learners know the best way to learn, but this is rarely true unless they are very experienced language learners, and even then they might pick up something new. Teachers also benefit from support within materials – this is a very valuable avenue of professional development. What does this entail? Materials should be accompanied by teacher’s notes, explaining the rationale behind methods used, and feeding in variations and extra ideas to support teachers, as well as cultural or other supporting information as appropriate. Learner training can be highlighted by feeding in ideas directly in learner materials, or via teacher’s notes, showing tips and tricks to help them become more effective language learners, and encouraging them to reflect on the learning process and what does and doesn’t work for them. This is particularly true of areas like revision and memorisation, where our instincts might run counter to what science shows are effective learning strategies. But…? Is it the job of materials to teach teachers? How do you decide what assumptions you should have of learners’ language learning skills or teachers’ methodology knowledge in terms of what you decide to highlight/omit? Note: I believe this is to some extent what Allwright (1981: 9) calls ‘guidance’ [see quotes below for full reference].
What do we want teaching materials for?
I found this quote from Allwright thought-provoking, partly because of my interest in classroom dynamics, but also because of how many people I know who think they ‘can’t’ learn languages because, I suspect, of attitudes that were ‘available to be learned’ in the classrooms they studied in:
It is well accepted that one of the goals of school language instruction is to improve the attitudes of speakers of different languages to one another. However seldom this may be achieved, the development of positive intercultural attitudes remains important, but it is not often discussed as part of the content of instruction. Even where attitudes are not being explicitly ‘taught’, however, they are almost certainly ‘available to be learned’ in any language classroom, from the teacher and from everyone present. They include attitudes to learning, of course, and not just language or intercultural attitudes. To summarize, anyone involved in the management of language learning has necessarily to deal with attitudes as part of what learners may learn.
Allwright, R. L. (October 1981) ‘What do we want teaching materials for?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/1, p8
Another quote from the same article:
‘What activities, or what learning tasks, will best activate the chosen processes, for what elements of content?’ A less deterministic version of this question might be ‘What activities of learning tasks will offer a wide choice of learning processes to the learner, in relation to a wide variety of content options?’ This amendment suggests, I think correctly, that we can neither predict nor determine learning processes, and therefore perhaps should not try as hard to do so as we usually do in our teaching materials.
Allwright, R. L. (October 1981) ‘What do we want teaching materials for?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/1, p9
It’s interesting that this quote is nearly 40 years old, and yet the concept of learner choice with regards to processes or content is still not really all that common within materials.
Allwright also mentions the implications for teacher training of his views of materials. Here are a couple of excerpts:
Teachers, it appears, seem to do ‘all the work’ and exhaust themselves in the process. [Allwright goes on to describe the results of this, such as failing to present the language to be learned as clearly as intended]
If, however, we entertain the possibility that teachers are not just doing ‘too much’ work, but doing work that the learners could more profitably be doing for themselves, the immediate implication for teacher-training must be that teachers need to be trained not to do so much work, and trained instead to get the learners to do more. Hence the concept of ‘learner-training’, since it is unlikely that learners will be able to share the burden without some preparation.
Teacher ‘overload’ often entails learner ‘underinvolvement’ since teachers are doing work learners could more profitably do for themselves.
‘Involvement’ means something akin to Curran’s ‘investment’ (Curran, 1972 and 1976), which suggests a deep sort of involvement, relating to the whole-person. [including decision-making and management of language learning]
Allwright, R. L. (October 1981) ‘What do we want teaching materials for?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/1, p10
I think this is a balance many teachers, particularly those new to the profession, struggle with – they feel like they need to be seen to be teaching demonstrably to meet learners’ expectations. It’s a real challenge for them to let go. This reinforces my belief above about the importance of teacher’s notes and guidance in terms of how to use materials and how to learn effectively.
He goes on to suggest how teachers can share their expertise with learners, without imposing it on them, in order to make learners more independent:
I suggest that teachers, in addition to their role as ‘activities managers’ in the classroom, need to accept the roles of:
1. ‘ideas’ people, ready with practical advice about language learning strategies and techniques, both for classroom and for outside use;
and 2. ‘rationale’ people, ready to discuss language learning and justify their opinions and advice.
Allwright, R. L. (October 1981) ‘What do we want teaching materials for?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/1, p14
For me, this demonstrates the importance of teachers being (language) learners themselves, as they can then share ideas and rationale that have worked for them. While it’s obviously possible to be an excellent language teacher without ever having learnt another language, I do think it can make a huge and very valuable difference (said as an avid language learner myself!)
This is the final sentence from the article:
The most important point for me is that materials should be related to the conception of the whole of language teaching and learning as the cooperative management of language learning.
Allwright, R. L. (October 1981) ‘What do we want teaching materials for?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/1, p16
I feel like this is far from true in most materials and most contexts – the teacher uses the book they have chosen/had chosen for them, and they manage the language learning, with learners the somewhat passive recipients of this learning management, regardless of how active they may be in a given lesson. This teacher-/materials-mediated learning may fit into a broader plan of what learners are doing to improve their language, for example through self-study, but there is rarely a connection that could be described as ‘the cooperative management of language learning’.
Why use textbooks?
Robert O’Neill wrote a (kind of) response to Allwright’s article. This is my favourite paragraph from it, particularly the third sentence and the final one.
Even though technology has moved on a lot, and textbooks are more often than not ‘glossy, glittering products in full colour’, I think they are still good value for money and easy to use.
Further down the same page, we find:
In my opinion it is important that textbooks should be so designed and organized that a great deal of improvisation and adaptation by both teacher and class is possible.
O’Neill, Robert (January 1982) ‘Why use textbooks?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/2, p107
I’m not convinced how possible this is in the market-driven production of coursebooks which we have today, in terms of how materials writers might put products together: everything needs to have its own USP, and be seen as a complete package. Having said that, this view has implications for teacher training and learner training: both need to know how to improvise and adapt materials as appropriate to meet language learning goals. O’Neill goes on to share his own implications for teacher training:
There can be no model of an ideal teacher, or lesson, or learner (or textbook). […]
A teacher-training programme must seek not to mould all teachers according to a pre-conceived notion of what teachers should be, but must try to build on the individual and differing strengths of each teacher so as to make the maximum effective use of that teacher’s qualities.
O’Neill, Robert (January 1982) ‘Why use textbooks?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/2, p108
I think all I can say to that is: Amen!
O’Neill gives an example of a textbook unit with three different objectives designed to cater for learner choice. This is an idea I’d like to explore further, based on his statement that:
There are many ways of designing textbooks so that they can be used by a variety of learners with a variety of ultimate goals, and so they can be taught by a variety of teachers with a variety of teaching styles.
O’Neill, Robert (January 1982) ‘Why use textbooks?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/2, p108
I found myself nodding along to the final paragraph of the article. It’s over a page long, but I feel like these excerpts summarise O’Neill’s ideas:
Textbooks can at best provide only a base or a core of materials. They are a jumping-off point for teacher and class. They should not aim to be more than that. A great deal of the most important work in a class may start with the textbook but end outside it, in improvisation and adaptation, in spontaneous interaction in the lcass, and development from that interaction. Textbooks, if they are to provide anything at all, can only provide the prop or framework within which much of this activity occurs. Textbooks, like any other medium, have inherent limitations. The authors of textbooks must make it clear what those limitations are.
O’Neill, Robert (January 1982) ‘Why use textbooks?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/2, p110-111
The roles of English teachers and materials
This section is a copy of a(n over)long post I put in the forum – I doubt it makes sense without the article itself! The post was based on McGrath, I. (2013) Teaching Materials and the Role of EFL/ESL Teachers, Bloomsbury pp. 2-24
Which of the models (Figs. 1.1 – 1.4) best represents your relationship (and that of your learners) with materials?
I think 1.3 (pdf p17) or 1.4 (pdf p18) most closely represent my relationship with materials, depending on who I’m using them with. With adult groups, I think I’d lean more towards 1.3, with learners taking more responsibility for creating content and with less of hierarchical nature in the relationship. With teens and young learners, I suspect it’s more 1.4, with the materials taking precedence in many ways, but trying to feed in bits and pieces of the children’s lives, largely because I feel less confident teaching them – the materials may serve a little as a crutch here too. My role is to try to reduce the distance between the learners and the materials, especially with teen books (the bane of my life!)
How important for you are the advantages listed in Section 2.3?
As a new teacher, coursebooks were particularly useful for me, and I still find the ‘visible coherent programme of work’ (point 2) to be helpful, though I’m better able to make one of these myself now. The time-saving element (point 1) is also very important, as it often takes much longer to create the programme of work and find the materials for it yourself than it does to riff off a coursebook. I learnt a lot from Teacher’s Books, especially English File and Straightforward, when I was a new teacher, due to the clear methodological input in them (point 3). I also agree with 4, 5 and 7, though I’m not so sure about point 6 in the age of the internet and (for many people, though not all) instant access to up-to-date cultural information. I’ve found integrated resources to be useful as well, particularly photocopiable extras and suggestions for varying activities – seeing these has provided a lot of the input I’ve had in terms of my own ideas for materials design and different ideas for engaging activities for learners. As a DoS, having editable tests available has also been useful, although they often require a fair amount of work before I’m happy putting them in front of our students! Coursebook software is also very popular at our school, with the Oxford Discover Futures being the best example I’ve used so far.
Or are you one of McGrath’s ‘doubting voices’?
Not catering for the whole person, etc: I think this has improved over recent years, though there’s still a real need for a well-trained teacher to mediate the materials for learners and bring them to life. The arguments about catering for different needs regarding who learners are likely to interact with are also being addressed in some modern materials, though there is still a way to go. A wider range of voices can be heard, not only British, American and the occasional Australian or Irish speakers, though they are very much still in the majority: “native speaker norms continue to dominate”. One example of a new course trying to change this norm to some extent is National Geographic’s Voices, which aims to take a more global perspective. The idea of a hidden curriculum or what Jill Hadfield calls a ‘covert syllabus’ is a very interesting avenue to explore too.
Not reflective of research, etc: While there is still work to do in this area, I believe most global coursebooks are now based on corpus research, though many are still heavily influenced by the grammar syllabus. Outcomes by Walkley and Dellar is an attempt to create a more lexically-led syllabus, while still having the overt grammar syllabus many stakeholders might look for in a coursebook. The most recent studies quoted were in 2010 – I’d be interested to see how this has changed in the intervening 11 years. In coursebooks I’m aware of, task design has also improved, though this is again not universal. Some books still isolate grammar and present it out of context, but the vast majority of global coursebooks I’ve come across now use a reading or listening text to introduce new language points in context – they don’t always capitalise on this later in the sequence though, with the context being abandoned once rules or practice activities come into play. The issue of misrepresentation and underrepresentation in coursebooks has also received ever more attention, though changes in global coursebooks are still somewhat glacial in pace! James Taylor and Ila Coimbra have worked on an independently produced series called Raise Up! which aims to be more representative of the real world than a typical global coursebook. I’ve also recently seen examples of other minor changes, such as a family featuring two female parents in a global teen coursebook (a Cambridge one, I think?) Gone, too, (I hope!) are the mother doing all of the housework or the female secretary supporting the male boss in images, though more diversity would still be good to see here.
Marginalise teachers, etc.: (pdf, p12) “If teachers hand over responsibility for decision-making to textbooks, the argument goes, this reduces their role to that of mere technicians.” – if they are passive in this, then yes, but it is up to schools, trainers, and managers to make sure that this is not the case, and that teachers are supported in finding their way around the materials, and trained in how to exploit them effectively to meet learner needs. Teachers also need to tell learners why they are making changes: as Bolitho says (pdf, p20), “learners are entitled to know why they are asked to behave in certain ways…and how they can learn most effectively.” (pdf, p12) “There is now a real danger that it is the coursebook which determines course aims, language content and what will be assessed.” – this was certainly true at our school to a large extent, but I disagree with the wording ‘a real danger’ (note: the section on Control, pdf p22, counters this statement in a way I agree with). For our brand new teachers, this was a boon – 80% of our teachers are in the first 3 years of their teaching career, and this enables us to provide some level of standardisation across the school and maintain a high level of quality in our general English and exam classes (potentially dealing with the deficiences/limitations of new teachers). We train teachers in how to exploit the coursebook and learn more about their group students to adapt it to their needs, as well as learning to critique materials and decide what is good and bad about them (moving towards a difference perspective, reflecting the Harmer quote on p14 of the pdf of reducing “unthinking coursebook use”, as well as the final paragraph of the whole excerpt about implications for teacher education). With 121 and ESP groups we may or may not use a coursebook. Our books are chosen in a (somewhat!) principled way by an experienced senior team who know the school well, and our typical students, somewhat because we are still working on developing these principles (the section on Choice from p20-22 of the pdf is interesting regarding this)
Unit 2: Learners and Context
The implications of context on materials
Here are three different ways in which context might vary, and my ideas about what implications this might have for a materials writer.
Being ‘seen’ in the materials – not only portraying affluent people, but having a range of images shown or experiences described.
Realistic target uses of language, for example writing focussing on a range of different genres, not only essays (these may only be relevant for those going on to further study), or doing what Bruno Leys described in The Grammarless Syllabus and focussing on functional language exponents rather than grammar study for learners most likely to use English in vocational contexts, such as working as a mechanic.
Acknowledgement of challenges and affordances of people from different socio-economic backgrounds, e.g. time available for learning, money available to invest in learning/opportunities/extra materials/resources, space available for study – for example, materials which require learners to pay separately for access to audio which they then need a quite place and a strong internet connection to access may not be achievable for some learners. On the other hand, learners with a lot of time and money available may require materials which provide lots of in-built opportunities for extending their learning.
Having quiet/loud variants of the same activity.
Balancing the amount of individual and pair/group work.
Providing information in teacher’s notes about which activities are likely to be noisier so that teachers can warn colleagues in advance.
Teacher’s training and experience
The amount of guidance needed in teacher’s notes: balancing spoon-feeding with support.
Providing opportunities for extending/adapting/reducing materials so teachers can use them flexibly.
Being aware that materials are not always going to be used ‘as is’ – this may mean including information in teacher’s notes about which activities are reliant on other activities, and which can be used in a more stand-alone way or in a different order.
Considerations I need to remember when writing possible materials for students at IH Bydgoszcz
This is a selection of possible areas based on what we’ve looked at in this unit. I’d be interested to hear what you would add.
Age Will the materials be for very young learners? Young learners? Teens? Adult groups? Properly adult (i.e. 22/23+) or including older teens/university-age students too?
Level We teach everything from beginner to proficiency! Also, have students worked through our school to get to this level or have they joined the school at this level? That has implications for the ‘coverage’ of the level and how spiky their profile might be.
Resources Assuming we’re teaching face-to-face, we have projectors and access to the internet. Teachers can also write on the whiteboard to highlight things on projected materials. Learners have coursebooks, so am I writing a coursebook unit? Or supplementary materials? Or stand-alone units?
Time Courses are generally 90-minutes x 62 lessons per year, running twice a week. Materials need to comfortably fit that time, with some flexibility for teachers to choose what to use. Time for assessment and building good group dynamics also need to be built in.
Socio-economic profile As learners can afford private language school classes, they are probably in at least a middle-income bracket. Many of our learners come from families with occupations such as medicine, teaching, law or engineering featuring strongly, or families own their own businesses. Manufacturing and agriculture are also strongly represented. As far as I know, students can all afford holidays, many of them abroad and often in quite far-flung places, despite the Polish zloty being relatively weak compared to the Euro/Pound/Dollar. Catholicism is an important cultural influence, and caution should be exercised when dealing with potential ‘hot-button’ issues. Particularly controversial areas in Polish politics in the past few years have been abortion and LGBT rights.
Number in class Although some students have 121 classes, most students study in groups of 6-12. Materials should include opportunities to exploit the small group nature of the courses.
Classroom layout Student chairs have small desks attached which can be folded down out of the way. These can be arranged in many different ways. There is a teacher’s desk with connections for a projector, speakers and the internet – this can be move a little, but not much. There are two display boards in every classroom for student work and other important information. Materials can make use of the opportunity to reorganise the furniture, and to display information in different places in the classroom.
Noise tolerance Teachers generally expect other classes to be noisy at points and quiet at others, though occasionally parents complain if they think there is too much noise when they are listening from outside. Most activities that would be classed as noisy are possible within the school, provided they are balanced with quiet activities too.
Collectivism vs individualism Learners expect to have individual attention from the teacher, but are also happy to work in groups. Family is very important, and from my observation I believe it is the defining social unit in society. Learners who come from a family background which is considered non-traditional within Polish society may be reluctant to share this information as it can be potentially stigmatising, so this is an area to be treated with potential caution when writing materials. There is generally respect for people in positions of power, including teachers, though there may also be cynicism depending on the people involved. [Please note, these are my personal impressions and should be taken as such. These insights are very interesting and (possibly) more scientific, and seem to reflect at least some of my impressions.]
Learner expectations For YLs and teens who have come through our school, they expect engaging lessons with lots of speaking, a bit of writing, and enough of a language focus for a clear sense of progress. For adults, or teens joining our school after learning elsewhere, they tend to expect a strong grammar focus with plenty of speaking. Learners expect their teachers not to speak/know Polish, and for lessons to be completely in English, with materials fully in English to reflect that. Adult learners may expect ‘serious’ lessons, especially older learners who have been out of education for a long time. They may be reluctant to do activities which they feel are too childish or game-like. Most learners are quite motivated, and if they aren’t, adults tend to quit the course. Teens may be forced to continue by their parents, though thankfully they are very much in the minority. Many students come to us for 6 or more years, working towards Cambridge First or Advanced exams over a period of time. They expect to be trained to succeed in these exams, so materials need to help them achieve this goal, while also catering for the smaller number of students who don’t want to take exams. Learners (and parents) also expect high quality classes and to have a clear sense of progress over their time at the school. Materials need to factor in opportunities for assessment to help learners to notice this.
Teacher’s training and experience The majority of teachers at the school are within the first three years of their career, with an initial CELTA or CertTESOL certificate. Some come to the school with a little prior experience, but most may have only done a few weeks teaching, if any, before they join the school. Materials therefore need to provide guidance and support, be clear and flexible, and be accessible to early career teachers, without assuming too much prior knowledge about how they can be exploited. There is support at the school to help with this, but we also aim to make teachers as independent as possible, so materials which help with this would be a boon.
‘PARSNIP’ topics are often considered taboo. We were asked to consider whether these topics are appropriate or taboo in the culture we work in. These are my answers for Poland.
Politics You’d really have to know your group, as politics can be very divisive and controversial in Poland, especially since 2015 or so. As mentioned above, issues such as the politics of abortion and LGBT rights are particularly divisive.
Alcohol This should be fine, though portrayals of drunk characters may not be.
Religion Poland is very strongly Catholic, and many issues are tied into religion. Questioning faith or the church would be very controversial. I would generally avoid this topic, unless it was a group I knew well and they specifically asked to be able to talk about it.
Sex Because of religion as well as the politics of abortion, I think this would be a topic to avoid.
Narcotics I don’t think I’ve ever come across any particular issues with this, but I’d avoid it as it may trigger religious or political topics.
Isms (such as communism or atheism) Both communism and atheism are probably topics to avoid, not least because of Poland’s difficult history. However, with a group you knew well who had asked to talk about them, they could be discussed civilly and safely.
Pork This is Poland’s national meat 😉 so it wouldn’t cause any issues.
Beliefs regarding vocabulary in materials
These are some of my own beliefs about vocabulary in materials at this point in the course. 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!
Learners need to be exposed to the same vocabulary in context and in a range of different ways. Why? Context aids both understanding and retention. A range of contexts helps learners to see the spread of where the vocabulary can and can’t be used. It also provides exposure to a range of typical co-text – other vocabulary and grammar which typically co-occur with the target items. Fluent language use requires collocational awareness, which cannot be developed if words only appear in isolation. What does it entail? Providing repeated encounters with the vocabulary within the materials, for example in a reading/listening text, in vocabulary focussed activities (such as matching definitions), and in models for speaking/writing activities. Highlighting co-text and context and drawing attention to collocations. But…? There’s a limited amount of space in materials and a large vocabulary load: how do you decide what takes precedence? How do you ensure that all vocabulary is encountered sufficiently without contrivance?
Vocabulary work should provide opportunities for learners to use the vocabulary actively. Why? Learners need to experiment with the language and get feedback on how successfully they’ve used it, for example whether they have chosen the correct vocabulary item for a given situation. Saying vocabulary enables them to practise the pronunciation, and writing it, to practise the form. What does it entail? Including activities such as opportunities for personalisation, categorisation, and speaking and/or writing using the new vocabulary. But…? We need to be clear whether vocabulary is introduced for receptive or productive use. There’s a large vocabulary load, and it’s difficult to provide opportunities to use all vocabulary actively. Learners may be reluctant to experiment with new vocabulary, particularly if they don’t feel confident about it, and may stick with vocabulary they already feel comfortable using.
A key component of learning vocabulary is memorisation. Why? If we don’t remember the word/chunk, we can’t use it! A larger ‘in-built’ vocabulary store allows more fluent use of English across all areas: reading, listening, writing and speaking. What does it entail? Including memorisation stages in the activity sequence, and showing learners why these are useful and how they can work with the same techniques themselves. Including spaced repetition, and requiring learners to attempt to retrieve vocabulary from their memory rather than the teacher/materials always supplying the vocabulary for activities. But…? We have translation software and dictionaries, so we don’t necessarily need to memorise vocabulary – we can look it up when we need it. Some people find it difficult to memorise language particularly if they have problems associated with their working memory, and others find it boring or demotivating.
How are materials evaluated at IH Bydgoszcz
We mainly evaluate materials when we look at the spread of coursebooks we use each year to help us decide what was (un)successful, what we want to keep and what we want to replace for the following year – this is ‘pre-use’. We also evaluate potential new materials to use at the school – ‘post-use’. We only do informal evaluation ‘in-use’, listening to teacher and learner comments about what they (don’t) like about books and considering how our use of them may need to change based on teacher/student needs as we go through the year – this is particularly possible if the senior team are teaching from the books themselves. These are some of the ways we evaluate materials:
Flick test First impressions of the book, including whether teachers/students are likely to want to pick it up, density of information on the page/throughout the book, general impressions of the design (for example, does it look old-fashioned?) + Provides a quick way to remember which book is which! – Very superficial. – Publishers expect this and might put the ‘shiny things’ in the top right corner to appeal to those flicking through.
Teacher questionnaire For books we’ve used previously, we have a short questionnaire for teachers based on various aspects of the book, including usability, general suitability for their groups, topics, engagement, level of challenge, grammar and vocabulary covered, skills work, whether they would want to use it again. + Gives teachers a say in the materials evaluation process. + They have first-hand experience of using the materials with students, so their opinions are valuable. + It tells us what teachers are looking for in coursebooks in general, informing our decisions about which ones to adopt. + Getting a range of opinions about the same books can tell us how they suit different teaching styles / groups. – It’s not obligatory, so we only get a few responses. – It can take teachers a while to complete. – It’s very subjective. – Teachers haven’t been trained to complete such questionnaires, and may only have limited awareness of what makes good or bad materials, especially if they haven’t been teaching for long and have little to compare their current coursebooks to. – The questions were created by me based on previous experience, without necessarily having a grounding in theory.
Trialling materials in class. Some teachers might volunteer to test out a lesson or two from a coursebook we’re considering using. + We can see how it might work in practice, including possible student responses. + It’s practical, using the materials rather than just discussing them. – It’s only a snapshot – sometimes one lesson has been fine, but the book as a whole has not worked for our school/ teachers/ students.
Student feedback Either based only on the book students have been using, or showing them a range of possible books for their level. + They’re the end users of the book, so they should have a say in what materials are chosen. + Students who have learnt English for a while have quite a good idea of what might be a good/bad English coursebook would be for them. + When they can compare books, students can be very responsible and offer considered and useful insights into the materials which teachers/ managers may not have seen. – Some students don’t take it seriously. – Students don’t necessarily have anything to compare the materials to, and they don’t have training in recognising good/bad materials. – It can be very subjective. – It can be quite superficial: for example, the design or the topics can influence them, without regard for the quality of the language work.
Comparative evaluation This is largely connected to the language and skills syllabus, looking at how the coursebook fits into our overall selection of coursebooks, what the progression is from one level or age group to the next is, and whether there is the coverage of language we’d like. + This helps us to provide some level of standardisation across the school, and maintains our sense of progression. + As it’s partly based on a list of grammar items compiled a few years ago, there is consistency from year to year. + We have practice at doing this now, so compare a wide range of different factors, for example: language clarification, topics, skills coverage, flow of units, length of units, and many others. – There’s a risk of trying to find a book which is the same as ones we’ve previously used – we may be less likely to take a risk. – We may end up focussing too much on the grammar syllabus, without considering other areas as much.
Materials and culture
I’ve put this paragraph here because I need to think about it – definitely requires some more processing before I can fully take it in I think!
Another interesting quote from the same chapter:
As readers, we should always be ‘suspicious’ of texts and prepared to challenge or interrogate them. However, in the foreign language classroom, texts are customarily treated as unproblematic, as if their authority need never be questioned. Learners, who may be quite critical readers in their mother tongues, are textually infantilized by the vast majority of course materials and classroom approaches.
Pulverness, A. and Tomlinson, B. (2013) ‘Materials for Cultural Awareness’, page 451, in Tomlinson, B. (ed) (2013) Developing Materials for Language Teaching, pp. 443-459 (my emphasis)
This sentence is part of a section on ‘Critical Language Awareness (CLA)’, the idea that “language is always value-laden and that texts are never neutral” (ibid.) This is not something I’ve ever considered before, though I’m not really sure how you would go about remedying this in mainstream materials production, or even in the small amount of materials I’ll be creating for my MAT assignment. I wonder whether the increased inclusion of critical thinking tasks is enough, though ones I remember seeing don’t necessarily ‘challenge or interrogate’ texts in the materials. This is what they go on to suggest as a possible solution:
I think some of the questions they mention are reflective of some of the critical thinking tasks now included – I wonder how they would rewrite the chapter if they published it today?
Evaluation of materials
These notes are based on chapter 3 of McGrath (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching, looking at close evaluation when choosing a coursebook. They are my summary of the main points of the chapter to refer to when writing my MAT assignments, so there’s not much commentary.
The first section concerns using a checklist. The examples of published checklists include the following variants in design:
Rating systems Value x Merit = Product (from Tucker (1975: 360-1)): Value rated 0-5, Merit 0-4 Weight / Rating: Ratings 4-0 Rating and comments: Ratings = Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent (1-4) Yes / No / Comment Tick boxes (next to some quite long questions, not always with yes/no answers!) Yes / Partly / No: scored as 2, 1, 0 respectively
Categories Pronunciation Criteria (3) / Grammar Criteria (4) / Content Criteria (3) / General Criteria (8) General (4) / Speech (4) / Grammar (3) Factual Details (16) / Factors (17) No categories – only 3 long questions Language content (5) / Skills (6) / Topic (7) / Methodology (7) – though somewhat misleading as the questions are long and often cover multiple areas Does the book suit your students? (10) / Does the book suit the teacher? (10) / Dose the book suit the syllabus and the examination? (10)
Criteria expressed as: Noun phrases of 3-7 words Statements of around 10 words Nouns, occasionally with adjectives (max. 4 words) Yes/No questions, all at least 10 words long Yes/No questions, sometimes followed by information questions, all at least 5 words, but averaging at least 10 Yes/No questions, varying in length from 4 to about 20 words
Potential problems with textbook evaluations based on checklists (based on McGrath, 2002):
If you decide to have a specific number of items in each category (like the final one which has 10 questions in each), you may exclude important information or include trival questions to make up the number. (p42)
Weighting is complicated – it’s important to ensure that different items are weighted appropriately. (p42) This is especially important as weighting can help you to differentiate between materials which may seem to have a similar number of strengths and weaknesses. (p52)
Having the same kind of response to every question might not be appropriate – some may lend themselves to a score, others to a comment for example. (p42)
It’s important to only have one focus per question. (p42)
You need to consider the difference between answers of ‘No’ and ‘Not applicable’, especially if connected to weighting. Do you ignore statements which are ‘Not applicable’? What does this do to your total scores if you have them? (p42-43)
Transparency of criteria (p44) – “certain concepts […] may be unfamiliar to or only partially understood by potential teacher-users. (= you very much need to be aware of the target user your checklist)
Criteria date – they need to “reflect new insights into language description, theories of learning and teaching and changes in society.” (p47)
Evaluation is values laden. (p48)
The conflicts “between breadth and depth, between informativity and economy, between the needs of the evaluator and the needs of the checklist designer – if these are different people, and between the forces of conservatism and innovation.” (p48)
Making a final decision can still be difficult, as you might struggle to “reconcile strengths and weaknesses in the same textbook” (p53)
You have to ensure validity and reliability, perhaps through arriving at a consensus for criteria (inc. involving end users) for validity, and carefully briefing evaluators for reliability. (p53)
They can “encourage rather superficial judgements.” (p54)
McGrath (2002: 43) comments that while published checklists “vary considerably in their scope, form, detailed criteria and the terms used to describe criteria”, most make reference to:
Specific areas which criteria might I might want to include when compiling my own list, in no particular order and taken from throughout the chapter:
Representation: gender, disability, ethnicity etc.
Purposeful communication (key word!)
Rehearsing for real-world target language use
“Opportunities to express their own meanings in their own words” (p46)
Balance between meaning/use and form
Inclusion of pronunciation work
Varieties of English represented
Authenticity of language
Opportunities for assessment
This sums up some of what I’ve written about elsewhere in this post:
The reality is that evaluation is value laden, and this will be less of a problem if evaluators (1) look critically at the criteria formulated by others; (2) are aware of their own values; and (3) in specifying criteria for use by others, investigate and take the values of the ultimate users into account.
McGrath (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching, p48
McGrath describes some of the potential conflicts inherent in creating evaluation checklists:
The challenge is to “minimise the chance of decisions being taken on the basis of individual subjective judgement.” (p48)
When deciding how to format a checklist, McGrath mentions the following (p48-):
Including a summary of basics about the book at the top. (e.g. title, publisher etc.)
Decide between (a combination of?) open-ended questions and questions/statements/prompts requiring a tick/score: the latter allows easier comparison and can be completed faster, the former adds information
Consider the order of categories / criteria, including whether any overlap
Rating, weighting and scoring: Rating is often 3-5 points – picking 4 means the evaluator has to make a decision. Weighting could be scored, or a system like A / B / N – absolutely essential, beneficial / preferred, not applicable (Skierso, 1991), rated as 4 / 2 / 0 if a numerical score is needed Score = R(ating) x W(eighting) (p50)
Improving your evaluation:
McGrath advises piloting a checklist if at all possible (p51), preferably against both a familiar and an unfamiliar book.
Daoud and Celce-Murvia (1979) suggest group evaluation, by three experienced teachers. (p52 of McGrath), thus creating discussion, a more thorough examination, and shared responsibility.
Teachers may need time to understand the checklist, especially important if different teachers have the responsibility for evaluating different materials. Some kind of practice (standardisation?) would be useful by working through a familar book and “checking that all would make similar judgements about its key features”. (p52)
In addition to using a checklist, do an in-depth analysis of one or two units, along with analysing some specific features, for example the treament of a particular grammatical feature (Cunningsworth 1995 in McGrath 2002: 54). This “affords an insight into the view of language learning on which the materials are based” (McGrath 2002: 54). However, this can create a lot of demands on the evaluator, requiring a lot of effort and analytical expertise. (p55)
That’s it for week one. Next week: Units 3, 4 and 5.
I just wrote these guidelines for post-observation feedback to supplement an MA assignment and feel like they’re worth sharing. What would you add/remove/change?
The aims of post-observation feedback are to:
boost teachers’ confidence.
develop teachers’ ability to reflect on their own teaching.
help them build on their strengths.
identify 2-3 key areas to focus on developing and come up with concrete ideas for how to do this.
deal with any questions or concerns the teacher may have.
explain, if necessary, any areas of methodology or terminology which may be useful for teachers in examining their future practice.
Effective observation feedback is
Timely / Prompt
The closer in time the feedback is to the observation, the better, as events will be fresher in both of your minds.
Factual and non-evaluative, describing behaviour without judgment Feedback should clearly establish what, when, where, and how, and avoid commenting on why. It should address the actual lesson based on direct observation, rather than the assumptions and interpretations of the observer, or criticisms of the person (You’re not organized at all, are you?). It also avoids value judgments (The students were engaged in the activity. rather than That was a good activity.)
Specific Feedback should address specific aspects of the lesson and provide clear examples of what was observed.
Balanced Both positive and negative aspects of the lesson should be discussed, and always should always be reinforced by specific examples.
Something which can be acted upon
Action points should be based on things which the teacher can do something about, not things over which they have little or not control (e.g. Teachers can make sure late students come in quickly and quietly, but they can’t stop them from being late). Any suggestions for action points should be accompanied by discussion about how to work on these, with ideas preferably coming from the teacher rather than the observer.
A space for learning within a dialogue / Not over-directed The observer should ask relevant questions to encourage teachers to come to their own conclusions as far as possible, rather than presenting them with the observer’s conclusions (How do you think the lesson went? Why do you think the students took a long time to complete that activity? rather than I thought that lesson was too difficult for the students. They didn’t understand the activity so couldn’t complete it.) If the teacher is talking more, they have the space to formulate and articulate ideas, process thoughts and form new understandings – they are less likely to do this if they are just listening. The more the feedback comes from teacher reflecting on their lesson, the more ownership they have over it, and the more likely they are to be able to act on it. Dialogue also reduces the danger of giving advice without fully identifying the problem.
Caring and respectful The amount of feedback given should be limited to what the teacher can handle, rather than covering everything the observer would like to say. Equally, don’t be afraid to challenge the teacher to push their thinking. The teacher needs to know that we have their best interests at heart. Remember that the teacher’s nonverbal behaviour can be a clue as to how they feel about the lesson and the feedback, not just what they are saying.
Checked for clarity You need to make sure that the teacher has understood the feedback you have given, and what they need to do to work on action points. Asking teachers to summarise the feedback at the end of the meeting is an opportunity for the teacher to tell you the positives from the observation as they understand them, plus what the teacher needs to do next, and for you to clarify any confusing points.
Part of a process Emphasise that you don’t expect teachers to be able to resolve any issues you have noted instantly, and that it may take time to work on them. Request feedback on your feedback too, so that teachers see you as a learning observer and feedback giver and you demonstrate how to successfully receive feedback.
A positive experience, balancing feelings and rationality For post-observation feedback to be successful, teachers need to trust the observer and feel comfortable receiving feedback from them. They also need to feel ready to receive feedback. If they are already feeling very stressed, anxious, angry, or in any other way negative about the situation, ask them if they would like to rearrange the feedback session for a later date. If you are not sure about how to give feedback in a particular situation, discuss it (confidentially) with somebody else first if you can. Teachers have the right to have an emotional reaction to observation feedback – their feelings should not be discounted. Equally, don’t be afraid to say how things in the lesson made you feel as an observer. Emphasise strengths and improvements made, and encourage confidence and positive thinking as much as possible. Make sure the feedback meeting ends on a positive note.
These guidelines are adapted from the following sources, with my own ideas added:
Mann, S. and Walsh, S. (2017) Reflective Practice in English Language Teaching. London: Routledge. (page 165 and page 159-160 based on Waring 2013:104-105)
White, R. Hockley, A., van der Horst Jansen, J. and Laughner, M. S. (2008) From Teacher to Manager: Managing Language Teaching Organisations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (page 65-66 based on Porter 1982)
Wallace, S. and Gravells, J. (2005) Mentoring, 2nd edition. Exeter: Learning Matters. (pages 55, 58, 69, 70, 74).
This is part of a series of posts summarising the contents of some of the books I’ve read for the NILE MA Trainer Development module. They aren’t really intended as traditional book reviews, more as a way of reminding myself of what’s in each book and helping other people decide which ones might be useful to them.
The awareness-raising process and its consequences
Talk in training courses
Creating meaning: new learning
Planning for action
Feedback, assessment and evaluation in training
Inside a training course 2
Developing as a trainer
Chapters 1 and 11 describe a training course in full, with commentaries from the authors describing the principles the courses demonstrate (they ran one of the courses each). Chapters 2 to 10 expand on these principles, including acknowledging potential problems if you follow through with them in your own courses, all drawn from the authors’ experience. Chapter 12 summarises these principles and shows how the two authors have developed and will continue to do so.
235 pages of content, including a range of activities that can be used in the training room. These often have examples of responses to the activities taken from Wright and Bolitho’s real courses. There is a focus on the processes of training, and social and affective factors trainers should consider. There are also quotes from their previous course participants throughout to support their points.
Comprehensive list of resources for trainers (a little out-of-date now, as the book was published in 2007, but a lot is still relevant)
No index, and the typos are somewhat distracting at times, especially in chapter 11. One or two diagrams are missing and page numbers are sometimes incorrect when referencing other parts of the book.
What I found useful/thought-provoking/myself saying ‘yes!’ to
(These could be concepts, ideas or descriptions. Please note that quotes are obviously decontextualised here, and for the full effect you should read the book. Bold and italics are from the original source, not mine.)
The focus on starting from where the trainees are:
We have to be prepared to start where they are and to make the journey of professional learning with them, hand in hand, rather than starting from where we are, exhorting them to come over and join us and follow us. (p225)
We believe that the participants themselves are the preferred starting point in training courses. They come to courses with experience. They also possess a system of beliefs, attitudes and values about teaching and learning, and about how people relate to each other in a variety of contexts. They also come with expectations. We believe that it is imperative that a course begins with an exploration of all these elements, in any order that seems appropriate to the group in question. (p4)
Work from existing to new knowledge and constructs. (p16)
Training means change, and change isn’t easy:
Even if participants volunteer for courses (as opposed to being ‘selected’), they do not, as a rule, come looking for change. Or they might be unaware of the need to change in order to accommodate new knowledge or skills. (p107)
By involving them [participants] in activity to experience new ways of teaching and learning, we may invite irritation, anger, fear or silence. Reactions are more often than not defensive, no matter how well intentioned or motivated a group might be. (p108)
The unknown is frightening, possibly overwhelming. (p107)
As well as being uncertain, unable to make decisions, believing contradictory ideas, holding opposing positions, we are also ‘fragile’. We want the new awareness to go away. Its consequences scare us. (p107) [I’ve realised this myself over the past couple of years, and have therefore been more forgiving of trainees/new teachers when they’re stressed, and have been able to stay calmer myself when helping them.]
Talk is an important part of this process (Chapter 7):
We need to move away from a transmission approach to training towards a more participatory one. (p122) [This is something we’ve been trying at school over the past 6 months or so, based on an instinct of mine and my colleagues but without really knowing why or how to do it – this book helps! We’ve had good results so far.]
Change is unlikely unless we make our principles public. (p78)
The role of talk in the processing of ideas is pivotal, and the generous allocation of time allowed for focused discussion of issues is crucial. (p8)
…with the trainer’s role being one of facilitator and summariser:
We often find that, in the excitement of open discussion, so many ideas are reverberating around the training room that no-one can see the wood for the trees. Our responsibility in this case is to pull things together, to pick out and highlight key themes from the discussion so that a set of priorities emerges for the group to focus on. (p123)
True learning and development are about something deeper:
The real confrontation on any training course is between each individual participant and herself. The sense participants make of a course is essentially derived from the degree to which they are prepared to explore their own thinking and to relate it to their own context in the light of wider trends and findings. (p98)
The challenge for us, as tutors, is to provoke and promote the kind of thinking and conceptualisation which reaches the level of values and beliefs, and which involves participants in a principled reappraisal of their practices. (p227)
…and it takes time:
Our experience is that professional learning cannot be hurried if it is to be valuable and that time spent on follow-up procedures […] is an investment in depth and quality of learning. (p89)
People change and develop in unpredictable ways; the messages in a course component may take years to digest, and it may only be 5 years after a programme that real summative feedback can be given, usually by the participant to us. (p188)
This also means it’s worth following up on a course six months or so after it’s finished [I’m going to try this with the course I’m currently running]:
Many will not really know what the course means to them until long after it is over, and they have had time to digest all the ‘lessons’ they have learned and to try out their ideas in practice. (p177)
It gives us more useful balanced feedback than we could ever get through reviewing the course formally on the final day. (p177)
Emotions are integral to training, but rarely acknowledged as such:
When a trainee learns how to teach she makes a huge personal and emotional investment in the process, which is very close to our being or essence. (p106)
We believe that in the initial stages of reflection, participants need to ‘unload’ their feelings about an experience before proceeding to describing or reconstructing it. (p26)
The emotional side of being a trainer is one that poses us some of the greatest challenges in our own development and learning. (p61-62)
We would contend that one of the key development areas for us as trainers is in understanding the world of the emotions. (p106) [I think this is important for managers too.]
It’s important to be careful with our words and work on our interpersonal skills:
Participants are often at their most vulnerable in one-to-one sessions (especially after the high level of emotional investment in an observed lesson or an individual presentation in the training room). (p226)
[When we feel frustrated, often due to our expectations of participants] An ill-chosen comment in such circumstances can have a negative effect that is difficult to ‘undo’ later. (p228)
Some of our participants may not even be fully aware that they are ‘censoring’ their own contributions, since the avoidance of self-disclosure or public self-doubt may be so ingrained in their ways of behaving. (p71)
Listening is a key part of this, but it needs work:
A commitment to listening attentively to a participant as they make a contribution is not easy. (p119)
We have, on occasion, sat in with participants as they attempt to resolve a problem. It demands intense patience and we find ourselves having to resist the temptation to offer solutions. (p56)
Group formation and group disbanding are both really important, shouldn’t be rushed, and should involve the trainer where possible (p36, p180):
When things have gone wrong in a training group, and we wish to diagnose the problem, we find that this is a good place to start – to ask whether or not we have done enough facilitation of the ‘getting to know you’ process. While we can attempt repair, we have often, to our cost, found that it is difficult ever to achieve this fully. The learning experience suffers as a consequence. (p49) [Definitely something I’ve experienced with a couple of English classes, and to a lesser extent on training courses.]
We see it as a major task of the trainer to provide the conditions for the group to explore this experience [the collective experience of the group], to share their diversity and to establish points of commonality. (p113)
Trust and honesty are the basis of effective communication in groups, and are built progressively (and not without difficulty) through activities which promote disclosure. […] Disclosure can help to build mutual respect, and enable members to cope with the inevitable conflicts and disputes that characterise a working group. (p112)
Mutual trust cannot be taken for granted. (p36)
Add destabilisation and uncertainty to the group process, where people are struggling to establish identities and relationships, with perhaps undeveloped communication skills, and the training room is an even more stressful environment. (p107-108)
Thinking questions can be added to the end of written summaries of discussions and prompt further reflection. (p102-103)
‘Suitcases’ are a good way to start and/or end courses (mentioned on p44-45 and on p181, plus in an article we received when we were in Norwich)
Activity grids and ‘degridding’ (mentioned in chapter 5) can be used to go deeper into activities done in the training room. [Something I’m learning to do more consistently.]
It is necessary to go beyond the activities themselves and to ‘excavate’ them to uncover the principles which lie behind them. (p90)
In order for meaning to be derived from any activity, structured and, if necessary, guided reflection need to take place. (p25)
Better to explore activities in depth and to gain insights that are generative than to attempt to cover too much and spread ourselves to thinly. (p90)
All of this reading I’m doing is worth it!
Professional reading has a vital part to play in teacher and trainer development. It is an opportunity to be alone with ideas, to make connections, to find support, to open horizons, to excite, to inspire, to consolidate and to help gain ownership of ideas. (p156)
Part of the process of training should be to enable participants to select and add to their bookshelf titles which they find useful. (p155)
…but it’s vital that theory is connected to participants’ experience whenever possible:
We have found that completely abstract ideas on training and training processes mean little to participants without the concrete reference point of personal history or shared experience in the training room. (p29)
Experienced teachers and trainers have often well-developed and well-thought-out personal theories on teaching, learning, people and so on. These personal theories inform action and reaction. They are usually developed, maintained and used unconsciously. (p144)
Training that explicitly draws upon participants’ personal theories and the capacity to theorise is likely to be perceived as more ‘relevant’ by participants. […] A specific time when we can do this is when exploring training or teaching experiences. (p144-5)
Assessment on training courses should be as practical as possible, reflecting things they need to do in their professional lives (Amen!) and should be based on clear(ly communicated) criteria. (Chapter 10)
Assignments should have professional face validity. (p175)
We believe that the basis of a developmental assessment and evaluation system is the effective communication of intents, purposes, process and outcomes. (p173)
For training to be truly effective, it’s important for trainees to do some form of action planning at the end of their courses, both to summarise what they have learnt and to prepare for the transition (back) to their workplaces. (Chapter 9) [I’ve tried this for the first time on the course I’m running at the moment for participants leaving after one week, and I think it worked pretty well.]
Our aim is always to try to pace our courses in such a way as to allow time and opportunity for participants to plan for this [their return to teaching or training] towards the end of their course by bringing together the ideas they have accumulated and putting them into some kind of organised framework for implementation on their return to work. (p158)
There is no guarantee that transfer will take place, that participants will change and develop, and adopt new principles, and put them into practice. (p168)
We can easily forget the strains on a course participant whose worldview has been disturbed to the point that they are still in flux when the course is finishing. (p168)
They will benefit if they can go back to work not only with renewed vigour and zeal, but with usable materials and plans, and a clear notion of what they might achieve. (p172)
The authors demonstrate a continued desire to learn and be challenged, including in public: [something I hope I share!]
Our knowledge and expertise will always be incomplete. (p1)
We have to remain flexible in order to respond to these twists and turns, and it is from the surprises and unexpected turnings that we learn and develop. (p231)
[Going public] Both of us speak regularly at conferences and participate in other professional activity in publishing, examining and consultancy. In all these endeavours we find our principles challenged, open to the scrutiny of our colleagues and we value this immensely. (p233)
The act of articulating one’s thought processes is a valuable way of clarifying why we take certain courses of action. (p141)
Once we take the decision to involve training participants in an open discussion of training issues, to interact as a learning community, to acknowledge the resources for learning available in a group, and to set out deliberately to understand and work with the social and emotional world of trainees, we create a challenging agenda for all concerned. (p63)
Questions I still have
To what extent could a transmission approach work on pre-service courses? Especially if they really are pre-service and don’t include experienced teachers!
Why has it taken me so long to realise that group dynamics are such a key part of teacher and training?! Really need to find the time to read Classroom Dynamics by Jill Hadfield, which I’ve dipped into before, but never gone through completely. [Amazon affiliate link]
I really liked this book, and often found myself agreeing with points made about social and emotional aspects of training. I liked the way that the two courses described were for teacher trainers, so there was a kind of meta aspect in two of the chapters. All of the activities described as part of those courses could be adapted for other training contexts. There was a real sense of the authors’ voices, and what it would be like to be trained by them. I also liked the exploratory nature of the book, with the recognition that they are not ‘finished’ as trainers and still have things to learn.
The course consisted of three sessions a day of input covering a wide range of topics including:
working with teachers’ beliefs
input and process options for sessions
planning different course types
evaluating published training materials
observation and feedback
Our group of six had two trainers who shared the sessions between them. I was particularly impressed at how seamlessly the sessions fed into each other, something I hope to achieve if I’m co-training in the future. Briony and Simon were very receptive to our needs and requests, and were able to adapt sessions and the course as a whole to meet them. They are very knowledgeable about teacher training, particularly in terms of where to find extra resources to explore areas further. They also practise what they preach: I think I learnt as much from observing them in action as I did from the actual input itself, especially regarding techniques and activities for reflection on sessions and the course as a whole.
The course was well-paced, and allowed plenty of space for discussion and reflection on the concepts we were learning. It was a great chance to learn from the experience of the others in the room, and to think about my own training in the past and future, both as a participant and trainer. Towards the end of the course we had a chance to try out what we’d learnt by micro-training, putting together 40-minute workshops for our colleagues.
If you’re interested in reading about some of the concepts we discussed on the course, these are the blog posts I wrote as I went along:
To complete the requirements for the MA module, I now need to write three assignments in the next six months. This is not required if you attend it as a stand-alone course. I will continue to receive support for this from one of our trainers on the face-to-face course – I like the fact that I won’t just be interacting with a name on an email address, but somebody who I’ve got to know and who knows me.
For anyone who would like to find out more about becoming a teacher trainer or developing their knowledge of training-related theory, I’d highly recommend the two-week NILE Trainer Development course, whether or not you want to do an MA with them. They also offer a range of other face-to-face courses, mostly in the summer, and online courses which run all year.
This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts summarising the contents of some of the books I’ve read for the NILE MA Trainer Development module. It’s not really intended as a traditional book review, more as a way of reminding myself of what’s in each book and helping other people decide which ones might be useful to them.
Title: Teaching Language Teachers: Scaffolding Professional Learning
Teaching Teachers Online [I didn’t read this chapter, as it’s not currently relevant to me]
Sustaining Professional Learning
Each chapter starts with a quote, a list of objectives, and a few questions for the reader to think about, plus space to write notes to answer them. It ends with a conclusion summarising what was covered in the chapter.
At the back, there’s one task file per unit, including a way to ‘Act on it!’ (though these don’t seem to be referred to in the rest of the book)
Introduction plus 151 pages of content, 12 of tasks
Comprehensive index and bibliography
What I found useful/thought-provoking
(These could be concepts, ideas or descriptions. I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book or do a search to find out more details.)
Traditions in teacher learning (pp. 8-14):
Look and Learn
Read and Learn
Think and Learn
Participate and Learn
Four domains of foreign-language teacher’s knowledge (p28):
Language and Culture
Pedagogy and Assessment
‘Adaptive Expertise’ is “the teacher’s process of enacting the other domains in real-life contexts and reflecting on the impact of his [sic.] actions.” It “allows them to effect positive changes in their situation, with the aim of improving their students’ learning opportunities.” “It uses the other types of knowledge to prompt changes in current pedagogy.” (all p28)
The range of ways in which teacher learning can be scaffolded, including through assessment. (whole book, but particularly chapter 3)
The idea that knowledge, skills and dispositions (not sure exactly what the latter are?) can be divided into (p63):
relevant as support to the essential
…and this implies different approaches to assessment. You can use this to help you decide what to include in courses/sessions.
The ‘Question Exploration Guide’ to help you determine what areas might be useful to explore in a training course. (p65)
The example rubric for discussion board participation in an online course (p72) and assessment criteria for a course and the written assignments on it (p76)
Two different sample rubrics for ‘Teacher’s Use of the Foreign Language’, one analytic/task-specific, and the other holistic/task-specific (pp. 88-89)
The charactistics of constructive formative feedback (p92) and the steps of the CARE model for delivering it (p93), the latter based on Noddings (1984)
List of possible foci for classroom observation (p105, adapted from Diaz Maggioli 2004:86)
The most accessible breakdown I have yet seen of Heron’s six-category intervention analysis (pp. 112-113)
Questions I still have
How do you identify desired results if teachers/other stakeholders aren’t clear about what they want a particular training course to achieve? You can obviously make these decisions yourself, but it’s better to have stakeholder involvement. In that case, how flexible can/should your course be and to what extent is this determined by context? (pp. 57-61)
What might constitute acceptable evidence of ‘expert performance’ on in-service courses? I feel this is much easier to identify for new(er) teachers, or where there are clear teaching standards to be achieved such as on the MA TESOL course that was referred to through the book. (pp. 57-61)
Which of the ideas from this book would transfer from the MA TESOL context to the private language school context and which wouldn’t?
I think it’s mostly aimed at trainers on MA TESOL courses, rather than trainers in general, and a lot of the descriptions are geared towards “aspiring teachers”. It’s therefore not always relevant to me as I work at a private language school and train teachers on CELTA or other short INSETT [In-service Teacher Training] courses.
Generally very readable, though I had to re-read some of the theoretical sections a few times to get my head around them (not sure if I actually did or not!) Definitely ideas in here which I’ll be coming back to.
Reflection is one of the areas of professional development which I’m most interested in, to the extent that I’ve written two books to try and help teachers and trainers to reflect when they don’t have any face-to-face support where they work. Yesterday we had a 90-minute session with ideas for helping teachers to reflect, as part of the NILE MA Trainer Development course.
Reflection doesn’t work
I’ve tried to get teachers to reflect in my sessions. I’m a bit disappointed with the results. To be honest, I’m not really sure how to get them to think. Help!
Here’s a list of questions I came up with to ask this trainer, supplemented with ideas from my partner in the group:
What techniques have you tried so far?
When did you use them?/At what point(s) in the sessions?
Are your trainees ready to reflect? (both in terms of experience of teaching and of reflection i.e. do they know how to do it?)
How do you model reflection for them?
You said you were a bit disappointed with the results. What kind of results would you like to see?
How much time do you give them for reflection activities?
How concrete or abstract is the reflection? i.e. Is it based on concrete events or abstract ideas?
How personal is it? Do they have to ‘expose’ their beliefs/their classrooms/their ideas in any way?
What kind of questions are you using? i.e. Open? Closed? Leading? Hypothetical?
What’s the balance of listening to speaking in the reflective activities?
How active is the reflection?
How consistent/patient were you with setting up reflection? Did you persevere with it?
What would you add to my list?
Reflection on short courses
We also read an article from English Teaching Professional Issue 55 March 2008 (pp57-59) called ‘Time for reflection‘ by Sue Leather and Radmila Popovic. I’m afraid you’ll need to be a subscriber to read the whole thing. It talks about “the importance of reflection on short training courses and how to structure and support it.” There are two ideas in the article which I particularly like.
The first is timetabling 30-60 minutes into the daily schedule of the course for reflection, either at the end of the day or the beginning of the next day. It should be timetabled as ‘reflection’ and not part of another session.
The other idea is including a notebook as part of the course, which will become the participant’s journal. It will be private unless they choose to share it, and could be used for free writing, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in English or not.
Has anybody tried either of these two ideas? Did they work for your trainees/context?
For homework last night we read The consequences of INSET, an ELT Journal article from 1995 by Martin Lamb (Volume 49 Issue 1, pp72-79). I’m really sorry to keep sharing articles which are hidden behind paywalls 😦 but hopefully my very short summary will give you the general idea. This article was a real eye-opener for me, and I hope you get to read the original at some point!
Teachers attending short INSET courses are usually exposed to a great amount of new information and ideas. While this can be exciting at the time, the after-effects may be less salutary. This article describes one particular INSET course and the reactions of the participating teachers one year later. It suggests that very few of this ideas presented on the course were taken up in the way anticipated by the tutors, mainly due to the mediating effects of the participants’ own beliefs about teaching and learning. Any INSET course which is seriously concerned with long-term change in teachers’ practice will have to take these beliefs into account.
Before reading this article, I knew that training that I do is not always taken wholesale into the classroom and incorporated into teachers’ practice – if anyone could manage that, it would be a miracle! But I suspected there were three states for any given activity/theory/idea I might present:
How wrong I was! In fact, according to a study done by Lamb there are lots of different ways that ideas from courses can be taken up. Interviewing and observing teachers one year after a 2-week, 25-hour course, Lamb found “seven different ways in which participants had reacted, consciously or unconsciously, to ideas presented on the course” (p75):
Labelling (applying a term to an activity they were already doing)
Appropriation (justifying changes in teaching not anticipated by the tutors)
Assimilation (transferring techniques without necessarily understanding the rationale)
Adaptation and rejection
In short, very few of the ideas from the training were actually incorporated into the practice of the participants, although they had responded positively to the course.
As a result, Lamb highlights the importance of making participants aware of their routine practice and the values [beliefs] behind it. He also reminds us that participants should decide which areas to develop and “formulate their own agenda for change” (p79).
For me, it’s another example of the importance of including an examination of teacher beliefs in training courses, something which I rarely remember being included in any of the training I have done or delivered (!) but will definitely be adding to my training!
Teachers often talk about what and how, but often don’t say why or why not.
That was a quote from a session on teacher beliefs (the why/why not of what we do) on the NILE Trainer Development course today. We talked about various ways of uncovering beliefs, and I’ve thought of one more. What would you add?
Have 2-3 statements connected to beliefs teachers could discuss at the beginning of a session.
Say a statement – they stand to the left or right depending on whether they agree or disagree, or somewhere in the middle if they prefer.
Have statements which trainees tick/cross/modify.
Create short case studies with some kind of dilemma – each ‘solution’ is valid, but discussing them can show up beliefs.
Today on the NILE trainer development course we read an article by Briony Beaven about how to make trainees aware of all of the different methods of input that we use on a course, as well as the variety of interaction patterns and activity types we use. She suggested using a poster at the end of each session with a tick list that can build up over the course. Trainees are often not able to notice input processes because they are so focused on the content of sessions. The poster draws explicit attention to input processes and will hopefully help trainees to vary their own input, activities and interaction patterns in their lessons. The original article appeared in English Teaching professional issue 74, in May 2011 and includes examples of such a poster. We’ve started using one for our course too.
We read this article today as part of a session on the Trainer Development module at NILE (part of my MA). I really like the idea of developing professional pride and confidence in teachers I work with – I know confidence is an area I’ve definitely thought about before, but I’m not sure about professional pride. Here are my ideas so far for how to do this:
Today I arrived in Norwich, the first time I’ve been here.
I’ll be here for the next two weeks for the MA Trainer Development course, the first module that I’m doing on the NILE MA in Professional Development for Language Education, or MAPDLE for short. For those who don’t know, NILE is the Norwich Institute for Language Education.
I registered for this module in March, got my approval in April, and since then have been doing lots of background reading. This has been fascinating, and has really inspired me so far, with lots of ideas swirling around in my head. It’s also confirmed some of the thinking I already had about what does and doesn’t work in teacher training. The most frustrating thing is that I have so many ideas for blogposts at the moment, and no time at all to write them!
The books I’ve read so far are [Amazon links are affiliate ones, BEBC is the Bournemouth English Book Centre]:
Reflective Practice in English Language Teaching by Steve Mann and Steve Walsh (Amazon,Book Depository) – I devoured this, and got so many ideas from it – highly recommended!
…and two others from the reading list I read a while ago and keep recommending!
Professional Development for Language Teachers by Jack C. Richards and Thomas S. C. Farrell (Amazon, Book Depository)
A Practical Introduction to Teacher Training in ELT by John Hughes (Amazon, BEBC, Book Depository) – I think this is the best basic introduction to teacher training
I have another three or four books on my shelf waiting for me to read when I get back to Poland too.
Tomorrow I start two weeks of face-to-face input as part of the blended course, and I will then have until 31st January 2020 to complete three assignments (retrieved from the MA Module -Trainer Development page):
A portfolio (50%) containing TWO of the following three options:
A criterion-referenced evaluation of a piece of published training material in relation to a specified context.
Production or analysis of an in-house developmental scheme for monitoring and/or supervision of a specified group of teachers.
A piece of self-produced training material for use on an INSETT or PRESETT course in a specific context, accompanied by a rationale and evaluation.
A main 3,000 word assignment (50%) consisting of a fully worked out design for a short in-service or pre-service course for a specific context, including a rationale, a means of evaluation and a statement of staffing and resource provision.
I already have ideas for the two portfolio tasks, and ‘just’ need something for the course I have to create.
Why this MA?
I like the fact that I can pay for the modules as I go along, and that my Delta means that I don’t have to do the Core module. It also seems to be a very flexible course, and you can work around what’s happening in your life.
The assignments look like they will be highly practical and applicable to my job – I prefer that to lots of theory.
The blended modules mean I can spend two weeks in the summer completely focussing on the course, without having to work at the same time as taking in new information. I also get to meet the people I’m doing the course with, something I really feel I missed out on by doing the Distance Delta.
NILE has a great reputation, and I’ve heard lots of good things about the course. I’ve also found them to be really helpful so far.
But mostly, I chose this MA because of its flexibility – I think it’s possibly the most flexible MA in the world 😉 Here’s an excerpt from their FAQs:
Do I have to enrol for the whole MA programme?
Yes, you do need to enrol for the whole programme, but you enrol and pay for each module within it separately, according to your individual needs. There are then two possible exit points where you can withdraw from the programme with a ‘contained award’: a Postgraduate Certificate (after gaining 60 credits) or a Postgraduate Diploma (after gaining 120 credits). The Core module counts for 60 credits and the elective modules count for a further 30 credits each.
Feelings before the course
I was super motivated about the course, and really fired up by all the reading I’d done. Then I had two weeks’ holiday and lost my momentum 😉 …but in the few days since that finished I’ve started to get excited again.
I’m most looking forward to getting external feedback on my professional development, as most of my CPD for the last few years has been things I’ve done independently.
I’m also intrigued to find out who else will be on the course, and to learn more about where they work and who they work with.
It’s also great to be able to really focus on my CPD for two whole weeks, without worrying about anything else (apart from a little recruitment!)
Oh, and I already really like Norwich and am looking forward to exploring it more fully!
Watch out for more MA-related posts, though they might be a while in coming (and I still need to write my IATEFL ones too…)