NILE MAPDLE MAT: Materials development module (extra reading)

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:

  • Create flashcards.
  • 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):

  1. increased motivation
  2. increased participation
  3. increased ‘real’ communication
  4. increased in-depth understanding
  5. increased responsibility for own learning and commitment to the course
  6. increased confidence and respect for each other
  7. increased number of skills and strategies practised and developed
  8. increased accuracy.

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.

Learner-based teaching

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):

  1. activities in which learner knowledge is utilised as a source of input
    bringing their own content to lessons
  2. activities in which the learners’ L1 is used
    bringing L1 into the classroom
  3. direct learner involvement in activity development and organisation
    handing over responsibility from the teacher to learners for materials selection, explanation, and ‘diagnosis and evaluation’
  4. affectively-based activities
    giving ‘learners scope to use their imaginative skills, creativity and sense of fun’ (p16)

Caveats

McGrath lists three caveats to getting learners involved (p177).

  1. “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.
  2. 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.
  3. The relationship between learner-centred teaching and learner autonomy might not be as direct as it may seem.

Summary

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
    • Automaticity
  • 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
    • Genuine-ness
    • 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.

NILE MAPDLE MAT: Materials Development module (week three)

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

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

Unit 5: Exploiting texts

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

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

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

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

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

Pros:

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

Cons:

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

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

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

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

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

Text and task authenticity in the EFL classroom

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

Authentic texts

Reasons to use them:

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

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

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

Guariento and Morley (2001: 348)

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

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

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

Guariento and Morley (2001: 348)

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

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

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

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

Task authenticity

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

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

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

Authenticity and task difficulty

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Guariento and Morley (2001: 352)

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

Issues in materials for developing receptive skills

These are my responses to questions we were asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My beliefs about using texts and developing reading and listening skills

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

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

Reading and listening activity types

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

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

Listening comprehension

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

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

Text-driven approach

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

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

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

Stage 1: Text collection

Find texts “with the potential for engagement”.

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

Tomlinson (2013: 100)

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

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

There is a caveat that reflects my point somewhat:

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

Tomlinson (2013: 100)

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

Tomlinson (2013: 100)

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

Stage 2: Text selection

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

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

One note which he makes is:

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

Tomlinson (2013: 101)

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

He advocates the use of literature:

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

Tomlinson (2013: 102)

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

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

Tomlinson (2013: 102)

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

Stage 3: Text experience

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

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

Stage 4: Readiness activities

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

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

Tomlinson (2013: 103)

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

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

Tomlinson (2013: 103)

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

Stage 5: Experiential activities

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

Tomlinson (2013: 103)

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

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

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

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

Stage 6: Intake response activities

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

Tomlinson (2013: 104)

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

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

Tomlinson (2013: 104)

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

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

Stage 7: Development activities

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

Tomlinson (2013: 105)

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

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

Stage 8: Input response activities

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

Interpretation tasks

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

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

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

Awareness tasks

Learners might improve their awareness of:

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

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

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

Tomlinson (2013: 106)

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

Using the framework

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

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

Tomlinson (2013: 107)

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

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

Unit 6: Affective factors in materials

These are my ideas to start the unit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Successful speaking materials:

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

Successful writing materials:

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

A definition of affect

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

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

Humanising the Coursebook

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

Gamification in education

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

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

This TEDx talk by Gavin Pouliot had some interesting ideas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second level is game mechanics:

  • Meaningful choices
  • Tries and fails

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

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

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

The third level is dynamics, often through storytelling:

  • Emotions
  • Narrative

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

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

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

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

Speaking and writing materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapted speaking materials

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

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

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

Based on my criteria, this is my evaluation:

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

Possible adaptations:

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

Towards less humanistic teaching

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

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

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

Gadd (1998: 223)

The interesting question here is:

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

Gadd (1998: 223-224)

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

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

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

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

Gadd (1998: 224)

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

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

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

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

Gadd (1998: 225)

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

Gadd (1998: 226)

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

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

Gadd (1998: 226)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gadd (1998: 227)

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

Gadd (1998: 228)

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

Other potential problems with romantic humanism:

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

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

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

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

Gadd (1998: 231)

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

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

Gadd (1998: 232)

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

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

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

Gadd (1998: 232)

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

Gadd (1998: 232)

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

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

Unit 7: Visual design and image

Elements of design

These are my ideas of what contributes to design:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do we use images in materials?

These are my ideas:

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

Using images in language teaching materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My beliefs about design and layout

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

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

The interpretation of illustrations in ELT materials

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

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

Hewings (1991: 237)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teacher’s notes

These are my answers to questions we were asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consistency of wording? Generally quite consistent.

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

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

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

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

Current trends in language teaching materials

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

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

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

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

NILE MAPDLE MAT: Materials Development module (week two)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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)
  4. 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.
  5. 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)

  1. 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.
  2. Vocabulary: Listen to these common adjectives to describe food. Do you know what they mean?
    To assess prior knowledge.
  3. 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)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Reading: Are the foods in the list carbohydrates or proteins?
    To assess prior knowledge.
  7. 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)
  8. 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.
  9. Reading: Find adjectives in the 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.
  10. 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

This was an interesting process to go through!

We were referred to Bloom’s Taxonomy, Diana Freeman’s Taxonomy of Reading Comprehension Questions, and the idea of moving from conrete to abstract questions Mike Gershon as ways of checking that you have included a range of questions in your work. (Mike Gershon has a resource called ‘The Bloom Buster‘ with hundreds of question stems.)

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:

  1. (not sure – doesn’t really map onto this taxonomy – probably a Language question?)
  2. Language: Lexical
  3. Language: Form (? might not be possible to map onto this taxonomy)
  4. Language: Form (? might not be possible to map onto this taxonomy)
  5. 5a: Content: Textually explicit (if memory serves! I don’t have access to the transcript/audio now)
    5b: Affect: Personal response
  6. Language: Re-organisation (matching)
  7. Affect: Personal response
  8. Content: Inferential
  9. Language: Lexical
  10. 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.

Effective instructions

These are my ideas for what makes for clear instructions in materials:

  • Use imperatives.
  • 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 layout
  • The presentation
  • The content
  • The questions asked
  • The task
  • The amount of support provided
  • The examples given
  • The language covered
  • The instructions

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.

McGrath (2002)

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:

  • selecting texts
  • extending texts
  • creating tasks
  • constructing activities
  • constructing texts

He told us about some research by Yan (2007) published in HLT Magazine about trainee teachers and their adaptation of materials. They did this for a range of reasons:

  • 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]:

  • Classroom dynamics
  • Learner personalities
  • Syllabus constraints
  • 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
  • Culturally inappropriate

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:

  • Omission
  • Addition
  • Reduction
  • Extension
  • Rewriting/modification
  • Replacement
  • Re-ordering
  • Branching

McGrath (2002) has the following principles motivating change:

  • Localisation
  • Personalisation
  • Individualisation
  • Modernisation
  • Simplification
  • Complication
  • Variation
  • 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?

Language:

  • Instructions
  • Explanations
  • Texts
  • Exercises
  • Output

Process:

  • Classroom management
  • Modes of interaction
  • Activities
  • Tasks
  • Learning styles

Content:

  • Topics
  • Contexts
  • Cultural references

Level

  • Linguistic demands
  • Cognitive demands

Everything basically!

While watching: How do you approach materials adaptation?

Ideally, there should be some kind of flow…

  1. Textbook evaluation.
  2. Identify strengths and shortcomings.
  3. Consider principles for adaptation.
  4. 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.
  • Be congruent…

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!

Sandy

Differentiated learning

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
    • interest groups
    • mixed interest groups
    • student-choice 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

Language input

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.

British Council – Eaquals Core Inventory for General English (2010)

Pros:

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”:

Cons:

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!)

English Grammar Profile 

Pros:

It’s very comprehensive.

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’s free!

Cons:

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.

Global Scale of English Teacher Toolkit 

Pros:

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.

Cons:

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.

Overall

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?

(My ideas)

  • 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

(My ideas)

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?

  • Building in a spiral syllabus.
  • Including revision activities.
  • 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.

input + output (interaction) + affect + cognition > meaningful purposeful interaction > language acquisition

Mishan and Timmis 2015 p. 25

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.

Why is ‘grammar’ equated so much with verbs?

Buckmaster 2001

(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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

  1. Context
    The phrases are used within a conversation. There is not other support for understanding the context, for example pictures or a video.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 relaxed
    • 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
    • Impact
    • Self-confidence
    • Relevance
    • Self-investment
    • Positive attitudes
    • 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
  • Thinking tasks
  • 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)
(Tomlinson, 2013: 24, based on Tomlinson and Masuhara, 2004)

Overall

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):

  1. There is a primary focus on meaning.
  2. The students choose the linguistic and nonlinguistic resources needed to complete the task.
  3. The task should lead to real-world processes of language use.
  4. 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).

Task design

Ellis (2003) proposes a frameowrk for “distinguishing the design features of tasks”. This is an example, accompanying a task shown in the chapter:

Ellis, 2010: 42

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

Interpretation activities

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)

Consciousness-raising tasks

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):

  1. authentic v. contrived
  2. oral v. written
  3. discrete sentences v. continuous text
  4. well-formed v. deviant sentences
  5. 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):

  1. identification (find the TL)
  2. judgment (is it correct? is it appropriate?)
  3. completion (complete a text)
  4. modification (e.g. replace this with this)
  5. sorting (categorising)
  6. matching
  7. 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!

NILE MAPDLE MAT: Materials Development module (week one)

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:

Attitudes

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.

O’Neill, Robert (January 1982) ‘Why use textbooks?’ ELT Journal Volume 36/2, p107

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.

Socio-economic profile

  • 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.

Noise tolerance

  • 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.

Cultural appropriacy

‘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!

Pulverness, A. and Tomlinson, B. (2013) ‘Materials for Cultural Awareness’, page 446, in Tomlinson, B. (ed) (2013) Developing Materials for Language Teaching, pp. 443-459

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:

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)

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:

McGrath (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching, p43

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.
  • Learner training
  • 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:

McGrath (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching, p48

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)
McGrath (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching, p56

That’s it for week one. Next week: Units 3, 4 and 5.

Breaking down an activity into stages

This post is based on emails I exchanged with one of my colleagues last week. He gave me permission to turn them into a blogpost – thank you!

The lesson was revision of superlatives with elementary 10-13 year olds. They had 8 prompts like this: young / person / my family. For each prompt, students needed to individually create a statement, some true, some false. This was very challenging for most of the students in the group, despite the teacher demonstrating it to them first. Only two students out of eight were able to complete the task as it was originally planned. The others ended up writing only true sentences. The teacher emailed me afterwards to find out how to do the task differently next time. The rest of the post is a slightly edited version of my reply (I’m happy to be corrected on my understanding of cognitive load!)

Especially at this level, it’s important to think about the cognitive load you’re putting onto students, and how many levels they need to complete the task on at the same time.

“Cognitive load” relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. Sweller said that, since working memory has a limited capacity, instructional methods should avoid overloading it with additional activities that don’t directly contribute to learning.

Mind Tools – Cognitive Load Theory (accessed 5th April 2021)

For example, in this task students need to:

  1. work out what the prompts are/mean (i.e. what does the teacher want from me)
  2. create a superlative sentence (a new grammar structure they’ve only just encountered)
  3. decide whether to make it true or false
  4. add the information – either true or false

…so they’re dealing with the task on 4 different levels. It’s an achievable task if you break up each of those levels so students are attacking them separately. This helps students by staging the task for them carefully, enabling them to successfully complete something quite complicated. You can think of this as providing scaffolding or a staircase to help the students reach the high point of the final goal. For example:

  1. Have 2 or 3 examples completed already for reference, refer them to the references to show how the prompt turns into the superlative
  2. Do 1 or 2 of them in the chat box so all of them complete it, then they complete all of them as stems only + feedback
  3. Write T or F next to each piece of information with parameters e.g. 3 x T, 3 x F – check afterwards – have you got three T? three F?
  4. Add the true/false information depending on what letter they wrote before

Alternatively you can remove/change some of the levels – this reduces cognitive load and takes less time in the lesson. You can think of this as students joining the staircase at a higher point, so they’re already closer to the final goal. Any of the levels can be removed:

  1. Don’t use the prompts – make it free choice with a sentence stem e.g. The _______ in my ________ is….
    make it a gapfill e.g. The _______ (tall) person in my family is… (requires careful instruction checking so they don’t fill in the end of the sentence yet!)
  2. Supply the completed stem for them to just understand and complete with information (shift from a form focus to a purely meaning focus, but you don’t know if they actually understood how to form the grammar – you can get around this by asking them to write 2-3 of their own examples at the end)
  3. and 4. Do what you did in the lesson and take away the true/false element.
Image by Vicky Loras from ELTpics, under a Creative Commons 2.0 license

Mind Tools theorises this process like this:

Reduce the Problem Space

The “problem space” is the gap between the current situation and the desired goal. If this is too large, people’s working memory becomes overloaded.

This often happens with complex problems, where the learner needs to work backwards from the goal to the present state. Doing this requires him to hold a lot of information in his working memory at once. Focusing on the goal also takes attention away from the information being learned, which makes learning less effective.

A better approach is to break the problem down into parts. This reduces the problem space and lightens the cognitive load, making learning more effective.

Other methods of reducing the problem space include providing worked examples and presenting problems with partial solutions for the learner to complete. These approaches are particularly useful, because they demonstrate strong problem-solving strategies in practice.

Mind Tools – Cognitive Load Theory (accessed 5th April 2021)

If you’re interested in reading more about how to break down a task and provide scaffolding to help learners complete it, take a look at my idea for a scaffolding continuum.

A blogpost of blogposts

I use Feedly as a blog reader to collate posts from the blogs I follow. I love the simplicity of the format, and being able to see at a glance what is waiting for me to read. I generally look at it for a few minutes each day, sharing posts that I think would be useful for others on social media and bookmarking them for future reference using Diigo.

Since I started reading posts on my phone this workflow has become a little more convoluted, and I often end up emailing myself things to bookmark for later as it’s not as convenient to bookmark from my phone. This post is a collection of many of those posts as I clear out my email folder, and could serve as a good starting point if you’re looking for blogs to follow. They show a cross-section of what I read, and demonstrate just how varied the ELT blogosphere is.

On a side note, if you’ve considering starting a blog but think ‘Nobody will care what I write’, remember that there’s room for all kinds of teachers and writers, and your voice is interesting too. You never know what will click for somebody else when they read what you write. The blog is also there as notes for yourself later – I’m often surprised when I come across posts from my archive!

Happy reading!

A robot lying on a lilo, with text below

Health and wellbeing

Lizzie Pinard summarised an IATEFL webinar on Mental health, resilience and COVID-19, adding her own experiences too. Lizzie also recommends Rachael Robert’s webinar on avoiding burnout for ELT professionals, and shares how she has been managing her workspace and mindset while working from home. I’ve been doing inbox zero for about two months now, as recommended by Rachael in a talk I went to in January, and it’s made me feel so much better!

If mental health is important to you (and it should be!) here’s my list of Useful links on Mental Health in ELT.

Activities for very young learners and young learners

Chris Roland’s ETprofessional article on Managing online fun is full of activities and classroom management tips for working with young learners online.

Anka Zapart talks about the benefits of online classes with very young learners, many of which are applicable to young learners too. She shares a useful site with online games with VYLs and YLs, and introduced me to colourful semantics as way of extending language production for children. She also has a very clear framework for choosing craft activities which would and wouldn’t work for a VYL/YL classroom, and this example of a very reusable caterpillar craft.

Pete Clements has a lesson plan for young learners (and older ones too!) which combines all kinds of different areas: environmental awareness, drawing, used to, modals of advice…all based on a single student-generated set of materials.

Activities for teens and adults

Making excuses is a game to practice making requests and making excuses, including both online and offline variations, from Mike Astbury’s incredibly practical blog.

Jade Blue talks about the benefits of drawing to learn language, including a range of simple activities that should help students to remember vocabulary and grammar structures, and process texts they read and listen to. She also shares ideas for exploiting authentic materials, both for intensive and extensive use.

Ken Wilson has started to post English language teaching songs he and colleagues wrote and recorded in the 70s and 80s. They still seem very relevant now and could still promote a lot of discussion. The first three are What would you do? (second conditional), It makes me mad (environmental problems) and Looking forward to the day (phrasal verbs / the environment).

Rachel Tsateri shares 10 simple and practical pronunciation activities (useful for listening too).

Leo Selivan has a lesson plan based on the Coldplay and Chainsmokers song Something just like this. David Petrie using sound effects as the basis for a review of narrative tenses.

Julie Moore has written ten posts with vocabulary activities based around coronavocab. The last one has examples of phrases which learners might need to describe how coronavirus has changed their lives.

James Taylor has a lesson plan about helping students to set useful goals for their language learning. If you’re interested in making and breaking habits, you might like James Egerton’s 11 lessons from The Power of Habit (not an activity, but relevant!)

Alex Case has hundreds of resources on his blog, for example these ones demonstrating small talk using specific language points.

Hana Ticha has an activity for promoting positive group dynamics called the one who.

Cristina Cabal has eight different activities based around the topic of travel.

Online teaching

Marc Jones suggests ideas for and asks for help with speaking assessments online when your students just won’t speak.

Matthew Noble is writing a teaching diary of his fully online blended Moodle/Zoom courses, with lots of interesting insights and learning shared. Here’s the post from week two (on building group dynamics) and week five (on making sure your computer will work properly and encouraging students to have good online etiquette).

Rachel Tsateri shows how to exploit Google Jamboard as an online whiteboard, including vocabulary revision, brainstorming, and sentence structure activities.

Naomi Epstein describes the journey she went on when trying to add glossaries to reading texts for her students, and the problems she encountered when she was on a computer but they were on a phone.

John Hughes shares three ways you can exploit Zoom’s recording feature in lessons.

Teacher training

Zhenya Polosatova has been sharing a series of trainer conversations. This interview with Rasha Halat was fascinating. I also liked this parachute metaphor from a conversation with Ron Bradley.

In my trainings I like to use the example of the students taking a class on how to fold a parachute that will be used the next day to jump out of an airplane. The students tell me “It was a wonderful class—the teacher explained and showed how to fold the chute step by step. Then the camera moves to the students and they are taking notes—very engaged in the lecture. They all pass the written test. The question is, will they now be able to successfully fold their parachutes in a way that they will have a successful jump? What would you suggest that the teacher did differently? I have always loved Michael Jerald’s (my SIT TESOL Cert trainer) question(s), “What did they learn and how do you know they learned it?” Now we are talking about skills, not knowledge—and effective communication is a skill. The parachute teacher had no way of knowing that they would be successful, even though they had aced the written test. So, whether or not face-to-face or by way of video, the nature of student engagement is the most important issue. It needs to be observed!

Zhenya also wrote about a reflective activity called Four suitcases, which could be particularly useful for anyone feeling down about the current state of the world and their place in it.

Jim Fuller has recently completed the Cambridge Train the Trainer course. His weekly posts about the course were good reminders of what I did on my NILE MA Trainer Development course last summer, including this one on exploratory talk and observation and this one on course design and developing as a trainer.

You might also want to explore my Useful links for teacher training and consider purchasing ELT Playbook Teacher Training. 🙂

Materials writing

Pete Clements offers advice on finding work as a writer, including various smaller publishers you probably haven’t heard of.

Julie Moore talks about reviewing in ELT publishing, something which helped me get my foot in the door for occasional work with some of the big publishers.

Distractions can make the writing process much longer than it needs to be. Rachael Roberts offers tips on how to deal with them on the IATEFL Materials Writing Special Interest Group (MAWSIG) blog.

John Hughes has a comprehensive selection of tips on materials writing on his blog, for example this checklist for writing worksheets or these tips on writing scripts for audio recordings. Explore the blog for lots more.

Professional development

Chris R from What they don’t teach you on the CELTA suggests a range of techniques to help you teach more student-centred lessons. Stephen J has written an accessible beginner’s guide to task-based learning and describes one way he worked with learners to make the most of a coursebook he was using, rather than mechanically moving from one page to the next. Charlie E shares ideas for recording and recycling emergent language which pops up during a lesson, including an online variant.

In a guest post on the same blog, Kip Webster talks about the importance of explicitly teaching directness and indirectness, particularly for maintaining group dynamics, and taking advantage of ‘teachable moments’ during lessons. In another guest post, Miranda Crowhurst shares an excellent range of tips for using social media to advance your teaching career. (As you can see, it’s a blog well worth following!)

If you’re thinking about alternative approaches to lesson planning post-CELTA, Pete Clements talks about the steps he went through when moving towards materials-light teaching. This reflects my experience too.

Monika Bigaj-Kisala reviews Scott Thornbury’s Uncovering Grammar, which helped her to change her relationship with grammar in the classroom.

Pete Clements reflects on the differences between an MA, PGCEi or DipTESOL, all of which he’s done. He also hosted a guest post from Michael Walker on the benefits of student and teacher reflection journals, particularly how it worked as an avenue for him to get regular feedback from his students which influenced future lessons.

Russ Mayne shares 5 non-evidence-based teaching tips, all of which I agree with.

Helen Chapman answers the questions Should I teach in English in Morocco? in this very comprehensive post (not necessarily professional development, but doesn’t fit anywhere else!) You might also be interested in a similar but less comprehensive post I wrote about why Central Europe should be on your list of dream TEFL destinations.

Questioning our practice

Philip Kerr’s posts are always thought-provoking. Mindfulness for beginners questions the strength of research behind the attention mindfulness is now receiving in education.

Russ Mayne asks should we use translation software, especially questioning its role in EAP contexts, and how we might need to update our teaching and assessment criteria to assess the inevitable student use of this ever-improving tool. He also writes about retraction in ELT and shares examples of research which has been retracted. (This BBC Inside Science episode has an interview with Stuart Ritchie which I would also recommend.)

Classrooms and coronavirus

David Petrie talks about how he helped his exam students prepare for doing speaking exams in masks.

Alex Case shares ideas for coronavirus changes for EFL classes. While this might be tongue-in-cheek, I’m sure some of them aren’t that far from things we might be seeing in our classrooms/schools over the next couple of years!

You might also be interested in my post on social distancing in the ELT classroom.

What have you been reading recently? What currently active blogs have I missed here?

Stopped teaching? Don’t stop developing!

In April 2019, Rob Howard edited an edition of the free online teachers’ magazine Humanising Language Teaching. He pulled together various members of the Independent Authors and Publishers group to fill an edition of the magazine with articles from across the world of EFL, including teaching, materials writing, and teacher training.

It is a with great pleasure that I introduce this edition of HLT Magazine. As the organizer of the INDEPENDENT AUTHORS & PUBLISHERS, I have the honor of working with some of the biggest names in self-publishing and this like-minded group of individuals has come together for the third year to help spread the word and give new authors and publishers a voice in the everchanging arena of ELT books, training and “socialpreneurs” that will surely make up a big part of the future of ELT.

My own article, Stopped teaching? Don’t stop developing contained a selection of ideas for trainers, managers and materials writers to continue developing their craft. Here’s the opening paragraph:

There is a lot of information out there for teachers who want to continue to develop professionally, and there are a couple of other articles in this magazine about it too. However, there is nowhere near as much information about how to keep developing if you are still involved in language teaching but not in the classroom every day, for example working in academic management, training teachers, or writing materials. Although you can continue to use many of the methods recommended for teachers, such as writing a reflective journal, it can be difficult to know where to find specific resources relevant to these career paths. This article aims to remedy that.

You can see the full contents page here – there’s plenty of good stuff to read in there!

I’m in IA&P because of my books Richer Speaking and ELT Playbook 1/Teacher TrainingClick on the links to find out more and learn how to buy them. Right now, I’m also working with Freeed to find 30 people who will win copies of ELT Playbook 1. The competition closes on September 30th 2019.

ELT Playbook 1 cover

IH Academic Managers and Trainers (AMT) conference 2019

One of my two favourite conferences each year (along with IATEFL!) happened at Devonport House in Greenwich from 10th-12th January 2019. I was surprised to realise that this year’s AMT was my 6th – time flies! I’ve blogged about some of them: 2014, 2015, 2016. If you want to see photos from this year’s conference, take a look at the IH World page. You can also watch the video here:

I decided not to live tweet this time as we were given a beautiful notebook and my iPad is getting quite old and tired! Instead here’s a summary of the things from my notes which I think were most useful and/or thought-provoking.

In the classroom

Although the conference is aimed at teachers and trainers, there are always some sessions which are directly related to what happens in the classroom.

Engagement

Sarah Mercer spoke to us about the differences between motivation and engagement, and how to keep learners’ (and teachers’!) attention in a world full of distractions. She suggested looking at how video games do it, and taking some of those principles into our classrooms. We should make sure lessons are CLARA:

  • Challenging
  • Learner-centred
  • Active (what is the learner doing?)
  • Relevant/Valuable
  • Autonomy-rich

and that we incorporate GOSCH:

  • Goals (including interim goals)
  • Options
  • Surprise (through variety, promoting curiosity)
  • Challenge
  • Hooks (emotional, through storylines, and ensuring personal relevance)

Both of these acronyms incorporate the idea that in video games you can make the choices – you are the agent, not the audience – and there are easy wins at the start, with challenge building and immediate feedback throughout. Storylines in games create curiosity and there is a clear sense of progress.

I also agree with Sarah’s observation that teachers who’ve built good relationships with students have dramatically lower levels of discipline problems.

Sarah is continuing her research in the area of engagement, and I look forward to seeing more of her findings – there are certainly lots of ideas to explore here.

Assessment

Gordon Stobart has a UK state school background. He spoke to us about assessment for learning within the UK school system, and how it could be applied to language schools. A key ingredient is clear success criteria, answering the question:

What will it look like when I’ve done it?

If students don’t know that, it’s hard for them to even start working (definitely something I remember from Delta days!) Having clear success criteria means we can help students to work out which work best meets the criteria, give them guided practice to work towards achieving it, and give them clear feedback on how many of the criteria they have met and what to do to meet the others. These criteria can, of course, be negotiated with students – they don’t have to come from the teacher.

He mentioned Geoff Petty’s ideas of giving medals and missions which I like as a way of really boiling down feedback. To push higher level students, Gordon suggested missions like ‘What would you do if you only had half of this material?’ or ‘Argue the other side.’ The goal of all of this is self-regulating learners who can think for themselves.

In an aside, Gordon mentioned that he had one group who he used to jokingly start lessons with by saying ‘Previously in this course, we’ve looked at…’ in the style of a TV series. The learners said it really helped as they had often forgotten!

Autonomy

Katie Harris blogs about language learning at joy of languages. Her talk described what learning languages has taught her about teaching. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about attending this, as I kind of felt like I’ve written about that a lot myself, but I’m glad I did. In the first half of her talk Katie covered what independent language learners like herself (and me!) do to learn, and in the second half she talked about a different way of approaching lessons that she has come up with as a result, which I definitely want to experiment with. Her suggestion is that for some or all of every class (depending on what else you have to do) you let students work on things which they are passionate about, for example TV programmes, books, or whatever else it might be. Here’s how a typical lesson might look:

  • Students share what they did and show each other the new words/grammar they found. Teacher circulates, answers questions and gives feedback.
  • Flexible productive tasks, such as mind maps, creative tasks (change the story, add a character etc), writing a diary entry from the perspective of a character, changing the language to a different register, I’m an expert on (for other learners to ask questions), etc.
  • Deal with emergent language.
  • Learner training.

The learner training is a key component, as you have to show students how to do things like access learner dictionaries and record new language. If you want to give them more structured homework, beyond just watching/reading more, you can give them questions like ‘Can you find examples of the structure XXX we studied last lesson?’ or ‘Can you find examples of new grammar which you think you’ve never seen before?’

The whole idea is that learners can follow what they are interested in, but that a qualified, professional teacher can help them get there faster than they would be able to alone. By doing this in a group with other people, they can share their interests and learn from each other.

Katie has done a webinar for Macmillan on the same topic if you want to see her talk about these ideas for yourself – I’d recommend it. I really want to experiment with this structure with one of my groups this year who I think would really benefit from it. I’ll speak to them about it in our next lesson, and will report back if I try it out!

Determination

Chloe Pakeman-Schiavone talked about the importance of helping learners to understand the reality of learning a language, while noticing the small achievements along the way. Building determination will help them to stick at it. You can do this by:

  • setting smaller, interim goals (as Sarah Mercer mentioned above)
  • making changes in support explicit – learners don’t always notice when you reduce support, for example by them doing something alone which they needed your help with before
  • helping learners spot determination in other people
  • creating a Positivitree – Chloe’s school has one in every classroom where students can add any achievements they want to, no matter how small they may seem to other.

In the training room

Intervening

Amy Blanchard investigated the role of the trainer during teaching practice (TP) on CELTA courses. She advocated interrupting TPs early on in the course if it could be beneficial to trainees, as long as both TP students and trainees know what is happening. The areas she particularly focussed on are the ones where we often find ourselves asking questions like ‘Should I be doing this right now?’ Examples might be:

  • Positioning
  • Instructions
  • Speed of speech
  • Boardwork
  • Concept checking

The benefits are that these interventions are often far more memorable than delayed feedback, which is generally at least a couple of hours and sometimes a couple of days after the lesson (if there’s a weekend in between), that trainees get immediate answers to internal questions, that you are training not just testing, and that information is given at the point of need. Caveats are that trainee and student expectations must be very clear, it requires you to read the situation carefully (it’s not suitable for every trainee), you should only intervene in ‘little’ things not big things that could change the course of the whole lesson, and that support should be withdrawn as the course progresses, so you definitely shouldn’t be intervening in this way in the final TP, and preferably not the last few. It’s also important that all interventions are followed up on in feedback, with action points reflecting the pre-intervention situation, as trainees still need to prove that they can do these things effectively without trainer intervention. Amy got very positive feedback from trainees who she used this technique with, and even months after the course they remembered it in a positive way. This was an interesting idea, and one I’d like to explore with trainees and fellow trainers on the next course I do.

Integrating training

Chris Farrell‘s talk was fast and full on – so many ideas that I couldn’t possibly get them all down, and I will be coming back to them again and again. He was talking about the work they have done at CES to support bottom-up teacher development. Some of the areas he covered were:

  • making sure that teacher development is an ethos throughout the organisation, not a separate activity (these talks from IATEFL 2018 are related to the kind of culture change that may be required) and that everyone is clear about what this ethos means and how it is communicated
  • evaluating teacher development (see below)
  • using nudges to drive cultural change, and knowing when a nudge is not enough
  • mentoring, particularly for teachers when they join the organisation, and the training needed for mentors to be effective. Senior teachers should not be forgotten here! (Please ask Chris if you want to find out more)
  • lesson aims, success criteria and assessment: making sure we know what the teachers are teaching and they do too, and that they know how to measure whether a learner and/or a lesson has been successful or not, as well as making it as easy and convenient as possible to see the links between these things (an area that bears a LOT more exploration!)

If you don’t know what the students are supposed to be doing, how can you know what you should be doing as a teacher or an organisation?

  • reflective enquiry, with different levels depending on how serious teachers are – these vary from notes and peer observation up to full-blown action research projects, and include professional development groups

Chris also mentioned that students can self-assess their ability to use particular language using a three-point scale:

  • I know.
  • I can use.
  • I do use.

Simple, but effective!

I suspect this is the talk I will come back to most from the whole conference!

Evaluating training

Silvana Richardson talked about an idea so simple that it’s never even occurred to me before: the importance of evaluating the impact of the continuous professional development you offer, both on the teacher and on student learner. I’ve never even asked for trainees to complete a ‘happy sheet’ as Silvana called them – an immediate post-session evaluation. That’ll be changing!

She talked about five levels of evaluation based on Guskey (2000):

1. Participants' reactions, 2. Participants' learning, 3. Institution's capacity to support change, 4. Participants' use of the new knowledge, 5. Students' learning outcomes

She covered a huge range of data collection techniques. Here are just a few.

Level 1 tends to just reveal the entertainment value, but is the easiest one to collect data on, including through using ‘happy sheets’. One way to make it richer is to ask ‘How are you going to apply what you’ve learnt today?’ or ‘What are you going to do with what you’ve learnt today?’

Level 2 could be done through exit tickets for example:

  • What I didn’t know before this session.
  • What I might need support with.
  • How I feel I have progressed as a result of this session.

Level 3 needs to be done at the level of the organisation, and may require institutional change. Silvana gave the example of an altered mobile phone usage policy following a session on mobile learning when they realised that phones were banned in the classroom.

Level 4 requires time to elapse: you can’t measure impact on practice instantly, and you may need to do it at several time intervals, though sometimes we forget! Silvana’s suggestion for this was learning walks, adapted from a system used in state schools. At Bell, they choose one area to focus on (student tutorials in the example Silvana gave), do some CPD based on that area, then drop in to lots of lessons to see how that CPD is being put into action. With the student tutorials, every teacher audio recorded tutorials with student permission, chose one to focus on, completed a feedback form they’d created as a team in a CPD session, had an ‘observer’ listen to the same recording and add comments, then all of the written feedback was anonymised and compiled into a single report. The organisation (it was done across multiple schools) learnt about what was and wasn’t working from their CPD sessions, and uncovered examples of best practice that had previously gone under the radar.

Level 5 is the hardest to assess, as so many factors could contribute to students’ learning outcomes. You can look at assessment scores, retention, changes in study habits, etc, or interview students, parents, teachers or managers to see this. However, it can be hard to assess cause and effect.

Evaluating your CPD programme in a range of different ways covering as many of these levels as possible is the only real way to ensure that it’s actually doing what you want it to do.

In the manager’s office

Curiosity

Monica Green encouraged us to nurture curiosity in ourselves as managers and in our teachers, inspired by this fascinating article from the Harvard Business Review. I really like this quote she finished on:

Albert Einstein on a bike: 'I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."

Developing everybody

Olga Connolly reminded us of the importance of making sure that senior staff get professional development relevant to their role, not just teachers. For new senior staff at BKC IH Moscow, they have a shadowing programme and five training sessions based on core responsibilities like observations and how to give training sessions. For more experienced senior staff, they meet regularly to have discussions based around a table, the headings of which are:

  • skill/are to develop
  • why is it important
  • how (action points)
  • support needed
  • feedback collection
  • time frame

Senior staff complete what they can by themselves, then Olga helps them with the parts they can’t complete, and works out with them what support and guidance she/the school needs to give them. Examples of areas to work on which her senior staff have looked at include:

  • setting priorities to give more focussed feedback
  • improving body language in promotional videos made by the school
  • improving computer skills to be able to watch webinars
  • noticing strengths and weaknesses when observing lessons in languages you don’t speak
  • increasing the number and variety of warmers in teacher training courses.

This system came about because previously Olga noticed that there was no clear system, no goal and no focus for the development of her senior staff. That’s definitely something I’ve been guilty of, both in my own development and that of the senior team I work with – we’ve just kind of muddled along, though some things have become a bit more systematic as I have built up my own experience. Clearer goals would definitely be useful, though for myself endless curiosity (see above) tends to deal with a lot of things!

Change

Ania Kolbuszewska talked to us about why change does and doesn’t work. The know-feel-do model was new to me:

  • What is the one thing you want me to know?
  • Why do you want me to do this?
  • How do you want me to act as a result?

I like how this boils down change communication to the absolute essentials. She also reminded us that communication is NOT the message sent, but the message received, and that perceptions are an image or idea based on insufficient information – the more information we give to people about a change, the fuller their picture will be. This can help to reduce the amount of fear associated with changes, including fear of:

  • loss of money
  • loss of social or network traditions
  • loss of power
  • loss of control
  • loss of status
  • loss of jobs
  • not having the competences to unlearn old habits or learn new things
  • (not) being involved in the change.

My favourite quote from her talk was by C.S. Lewis:

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

By the way, if you’re interested in change management, I’d highly recommend reading Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson [Amazon affiliate link]. I read it when I was in my teens, and it’s always shaped how I think about change and how to respond to it. It’ll take you all of about an hour to read and will give you a whole new vocabulary 🙂

Evaluation

Giovanni Licata and Lucie Cotterill reminded us that when evaluating courses, we shouldn’t rely on immediate post-course evaluation by students, as this often focuses on the entertainment/ performance value of the course, but try to investigate the longer-term effects on learning. We should also move away from star ratings – as they said, some of the ‘best’ restaurants in the world, and McDonalds, have very similar star ratings, and yet they’re doing very different things! One model you could use is KISS:

  • Keep (what are you doing to keep doing?)
  • Improve (what do you need to improve?)
  • Start (what are you going to start doing?)
  • Stop (what are you going to stop doing?)

In general

Communicating more effectively

Loraine Kennedy did a three-hour workshop entitled ‘The Craft of Conversations’ to kick the conference off. Among other things, she talked about developing emotional intelligence, coaching v. mentoring, and giving and receiving feedback, both positive and negative.

Here are five questions she asked us at one point which you might like to answer:

  • Why is emotional intelligence important in dealing with difficult people and situations?
  • Think about someone you think has high emotional intelligence. Why do you think this is?
  • “Know thyself.” Why is this important before judging others?
  • What can you do deepen you own self awareness?
  • What can you and your team at work do together to increase emotional intelligence?

She reminded us of our own role in any communication:

Your behaviour will influence the way the situation develops.

If you have a problem, you are both part of the problem and part of the solution.

The latter can be particularly hard to remember!

1. Description (what happened?), 2. Feelings (What were you thinking and feeling?), 3. Evaluation (What was good and bad about the experience?), 4. Analysis (What sense can you make of the situation?), 5. Conclusion (What else could you have done?), 6. Action plan (If it arose again, what would you do?)
Shared by http://www.researchgate.net under a CC 4.0 license

We practised using the Gibbs reflective cycle (shown above), as well as focusing on listening and asking questions, and not giving advice. I found this process particularly useful, as it made me realise that an unsuccessful and very negative interaction I had in my first year as a DoS probably came about because I was making statements and telling the teacher about a problem situation, rather than asking questions and helping them to describe the situation themselves.

At every AMT conference, there’s at least one idea which I’ve been struggling with in my own head for a while, and then somebody gives you the answer. In this case, it was Loraine’s guidelines for a complaint conversation:

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare! Get as much information as possible, including more feedback from the complainant. Write a list of relevant questions.
  2. Explain the reason for the meeting, e.g. student feedback.
  3. Meet in the right place, and make it as comfortable as possible. Do not rush the meeting.
  4. State your position ‘on side with the teacher’, and remind them about confidentiality (yours and theirs). Remind them of the need to agree a way forward together.
  5. Ask the teacher to talk about the class and the students. Any issues?
  6. Outline the feedback received.
  7. Invite comment and discussion. Expect anger, embarrassment, denial.
  8. Listen and use exploratory questions.
  9. Support the teacher. Empathise.
  10. Reaffirm that a way forward needs to be found. Stay focused on this.
  11. It is better if the teacher finds the way forward, but be prepared to offer suggestions. (‘Way forward’ suggests that it is negotiable, it may have various steps, and the person the complaint is about is involved in working it out. ‘Solution’ suggests that there is one answer, and you may go into the conversation thinking that you know what it is.)
  12. Agree on action, and a time to follow-up.

The most important thing to remember is that a complaint must always be responded to, including if the response is that you do not believe that the complaint requires anything to be changed. Loraine also reminded us that if we have more teacher to student feedback, we may avoid complaints in the first place! If you want Loraine to help you out with management training, coaching, and teacher development, you can find out more information on her consultancy work on her website.

In a related talk, Lisa Phillips also talked about the importance of emotional and social intelligence, and making sure we:

  • Pay attention
  • Anticipate situations (both positive and negative)
  • Explain, don’t blame
  • Accept criticism
  • Remember about how contagious emotions are
  • Are human!

Questions I want to keep asking myself

What does success look like in this situation? How will I know when I’ve achieved it? How will my learners/teachers know when they’ve achieved it?

Are we doing enough teacher-student feedback? Are we doing it in the right way?

How can we promote curiosity, not just in learners, but in teachers, trainers and managers too?

How much am I taking what I know about what works as a language learner into the classroom? Do I really give them what I know works for me and a lot of other people?

How can we make our mentoring scheme as effective as possible?

What questions am I asking? Am I asking enough of them or jumping in with advice instead? Are they clear enough?

Am I really listening?

What am I doing to make sure I reduce how much of the problem I am in any given situation?

How can we evaluate what we’re doing more effectively?

Writing ‘ELT Playbook 1’

I’ve been thinking about what support we can give newly-qualified teachers for a while now. I was very lucky when I started out as a teacher, because I ended up in a school with a strong development programme for fresh teachers, but I know that’s not always the case. In February 2018, I published the results of this thinking, which eventually turned out to be ELT Playbook 1. Inspired by a talk given at IATEFL Manchester 2015 by Jill Hadfield, I also decided to document the process behind putting together the finished result, which is what you’ll find below.

The roots of the idea

The original idea I toyed with was to put together an ebook of tasks that could be worked through week by week in the first year after qualifying from an initial certificate course, like CELTA or Trinity CertTESOL. Tasks would build on each other and cover areas that had probably been included in the initial course, like classroom management, teaching grammar and teaching reading. I put together a speculative proposal and sent it off to a publisher, but they didn’t accept it as they said they had something similar in the works.

This then developed into something in the form of a course, similar to the International House courses that I’ve done throughout my career. I was thinking along the lines of a CELTA revision course which goes over the main areas of the course again, but with the trainee having more time to absorb the ideas and to experiment with them with real students over a period of time, instead of intensively in just six hours of teaching practice. However, there were various problems with this approach.

  • Participants might not have completed an initial certificate course.
  • The initial certificate might have covered very different areas, so it was hard to make assumptions about what they’d covered.
  • Contexts could differ widely, so it would be hard to produce generic tasks that all participants would work through.
  • The timing of academic years varies widely, adding another variable that would make timing a course very challenging.
  • The whole thing would require a lot of work from the trainer.
  • It would be difficult to decide on assessment criteria.
  • How do you decide how much to charge?

I shelved the idea for a year after this, and continued in my position as a Director of Studies, working mostly with freshly-qualified teachers. Through this job, I developed a better understanding of what teachers in this position might need in the way of early career support.

Initial planning

Gradually I came back to the idea of an ebook, partly due to a very positive experience working with The Round and Karen White. This time, though, it would be arranged such that it could be followed in a range of ways, depending on the teacher’s preferences:

  • from beginning to end of the book;
  • category by category (there are six strands in the book, each with five tasks);
  • by looking at how long a task might take and seeing what can be fitted in;
  • by choosing a task completely at random.

I wrote up the basic idea for the ebook in my shiny new MaWSIG notebook after the Pre-Conference Events at IATEFL 2017, with the initial strands chosen as:

  • Back to basics
  • Exploring your context/The wider world of ELT
  • Being creative
  • Examining language
  • Upgrading skills
  • Health and wellbeing

I also wanted to use the taskbook to encourage teachers to reflect on their own teaching, perhaps through a blog, a teaching journal, or video- or audio-bites. This was partly inspired by Shelly Terrell’s excellent 30 Goals Challenge, something which I took part in a couple of times when I started out with my blogging.

At IATEFL 2017 I was very happy to see Sarah Mercer’s plenary, where she focussed a lot on the psychological health of teachers, which validated the decision to include the final category. ‘Health and wellbeing’ then became the first one that I wrote notes for when I had nothing else to do on a train journey to Torun. I decided at this point that I would like to include a quote before each strand and each task which would somehow link it back to the literature and back up the suggestions I was making. Hopefully this would also give teachers an idea about where to find out more. It would also force me to do research to support my ideas, and not just include things I instinctively felt would help.

The name The Teacher’s Taskbook came to mind pretty quickly, and after searching for it a few times and discovering that the title didn’t seem to be in use either for a book or a website, I decided it was worth using (though see below…)

As I thought about the ebook more, I realised that 30 tasks wouldn’t be enough, and have since decided that I’d like to put together a series of ebooks, so watch this space for more!

Developing the structure

At the beginning of June 2017 I watched a webinar by Nik Peachey about becoming your own publisher, organised by the IATEFL Materials Writing SIG, and available on the IATEFL webinars page for IATEFL members if you’d like to watch it yourself. He shared lots of tips from his own experience of self-publishing.

A few days later I came across a blog post by Adi Rajan on Open Badges for CPD. Although I’ve been somewhat sceptical about badges in the past, I thought it might be a good idea to offer people the chance to collect badges to document their progression through the tasks in the book.

On the same day I decided that if I want to put together a series of books, and perhaps accompany them with badges, it would probably be a good idea to have a logo, but had no idea what I wanted to do. See below…

A few months later

It’s now 4th July 2017, and things have moved on a bit. I’ve got a clear idea for the structure of each task, with about half of the tasks now written out on paper, plus the titles for the rest of them, and a bit of my introduction. I’ve also changed the title from the original idea of The Teacher’s Taskbook: Year One, which I thought was a bit too functional, to ELT Playbook 1, inspired by a conversation with Adi Rajan. To find out why I chose this title, take a look at the introduction of the book 🙂

Other things I’ve done:

  • Sketched out a rough logo with a graphic designer friend.
  • Researched the possibilities for awarding badges, though the costs for many of these seem to be quite prohibitive.
  • Decided to use icons for sections of each task, inspired by Nik Peachey’s webinar mentioned above. Watching another webinar by Lindsay Clandfield today, I came across The Noun Project, which is the perfect source for my icons – I’ve just paused in my search to write this update!
  • Started a spreadsheet to keep track of what I spend when preparing the book, though there are no entries yet.
  • Shared the idea with a few people, and it seems to have got a positive response so far. Here’s hoping I can get it published by September, ready for the new school year in a lot of the world!

Draft one complete!

It’s 16th August 2017, and today I’ve finished hand-writing the last of the tasks. I decided to write everything out longhand first as I find it easier to think of ideas that way (unless I’m blogging!), and it meant that typing up the tasks would then be a process of redrafting. By limiting myself to one small piece of paper, it also encouraged me to keep the tasks short and of a similar length.

I started typing up some of the tasks a couple of weeks ago, in between some teacher training I was doing. I’ve now got about 24 of the 30 tasks on the computer, and will hopefully type the rest of them up tomorrow, as well as looking for the quotes to accompany each task.

I’ve also contacted an editor in the last couple of days, as I want to make sure a professional looks over what I’ve been doing before it goes public. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been building up a list of questions I’d like her to answer, covering things I’m not sure about or which I think could be expanded or changed.

Coming together nicely

A couple of weeks ago I sent off a complete typed first draft to my editor, Penny Hands, along with a list of questions I would like her opinion on and some of the conventions I’ve used throughout the book. These are both things I’ve picked up as tips during previous IATEFL MaWSIG events – the Materials Writing SIG is a great one to join if you’re interested in writing materials at all. They have so much helpful advice.

I’ve also just had an email from my friend who’s working on a logo for me. She sent me a range of different options for me to choose from. It was very exciting to think about which one most suits the idea I have for the book, and I’m looking forward to seeing the final results.

So that’s it for 18th September 2017: apart from choosing the logo, I’m taking a short break as our induction week started today. It’s a very busy time for me, helping new teachers settle in at our school and working out the timetable. Listening to them talk about qualifying and hearing their hopes and fears for their new jobs and lives reinforces my feeling that a book like this is necessary – I hope it proves that way!

Looking back at my previous entries in this post, it doesn’t look like the book will be ready by the end of September, but hopefully it won’t be too long after that. I’ve also now decided against awarding badges with the book, as it seems like it would involve a lot of complicated logistics and/or a large financial outlay on my part. If anybody has suggestions for how I can get around this, I’d really appreciate them!

Here’s a quote from a blogpost I read today which kind of chimes with what I’d like ELT Playbook 1 to do:

Maybe the provision of so much scaffolding for trainees on a course like the CELTA helps fuel things ‘forward’ and accounts for why I’ve enjoyed and been positively affected by it so much…scaffolding which does provide ‘data’ (written and oral feedback galore), at least some collaboration (in teacher-tutor guided lesson co-planning, minimally), plenty of non-written forms of reflection (though I do wish I’d already have tried giving the option to replace written post-feedback reflections with other kinds!), and detail, detail, and more for sure. Now if this aspect of an intensive one-month course like the CELTA could just be unfurled, exploded, and evenly distributed throughout an entire career path!

Collaboration

In the last week I’ve received logos for the different parts of my book, which I really like. For me, they capture the essence of ‘play’ which I would like to be central, while also incorporating both analogue (book) and digital (the mouse) elements. This one’s my favourite colour too 🙂

ELT Playbook 1 logo Back to Basics
Designed by Ola Walczykowska

A couple of days ago I got an edited version of my book, along with a few questions covering areas which I’d been a bit concerned about too. One of these is how much I’ve emphasised the community/sharing in many of the tasks. While I believe this is an important element to the book, I don’t feel that it should be highlighted as much as it is, as I don’t want people to feel like they have to share with the community if they don’t want to. I think it should be an option that’s available, but not something obligatory. I’m going to try to rewrite the reflection ideas to make them mirror my beliefs more.

It’s the beginning of October, and I originally hoped to publish the book in September, but I’ve now realised I was too ambitious in terms of managing my time around my work. I’m not going to put pressure on myself for the sake of having it published – I’d rather it was ready to the standard I want it to be, and that I have a work-life balance, than that it’s published before it meets the standards I want it to.

Editing

A month later on the 29th October, I’ve finally got time to take a look at the edits that Penny has suggested, almost all of which I’ll keep, as they certainly upgrade the text. I think it’s really important to have a professional editor for a project like this, as Penny has caught many things I wouldn’t have noticed. She’s also been able to point out some of the ways in which my book might not be clear to a reader, like places where some of my assumptions have come across. The biggest change is the addition of a subtitle: ‘Teacher development in an online community’, which conveys what I hope is one of the key characteristics of the book, as can be seen in this section from the introduction.

Learning together

A key objective of ELT Playbook is to give teachers who are new to the profession the chance to become part of a wider community. You can find other members of the community on the following social media channels:

Via these forums, you will be able to benefit from looking at and commenting on the reflections of other people, and sharing your own reflections if you want to.

We also took out a quote which didn’t really fit the structure of the book. I liked it though, so I’m going to share it here 🙂

Many teachers find that writing a short journal about their experiences and lessons is a great way to reflect constructively on their teaching. Putting your ideas down on paper sometimes gives you a clear perspective on the problems and issues that arise, and may help you to reflect on possible solutions. These days, more and more teachers even make their experiences public by sharing them on blogs. It might be worth reading some of them to discover you are not alone!

John Hughes (2014) ETpedia: 1,000 ideas for English Language Teachers. Pavilion Publishing and Media, page 25

Another thing I’ve really benefitted from when writing the book is sharing the concept with friends and colleagues, and taking on board their ideas and suggestions. For example, this week my friend Natasha suggested publicising the book using the #weteachenglish hashtag on Instagram, something I’d never heard of before.

Finally, I now have a cover (though the subtitle means it’ll need a bit of editing). Thanks to Ola, Penny and Natasha for their help!

A bit of a hurdle

I’ve just looked at the 2nd edit of my ebook, and in Penny’s email she let me know about something that had never occurred to me: if you use a lot of quotes in your work, it’s a good idea to find out whether you need permission to use them or not. This is something I now need to follow up on, as I don’t want to get into trouble. This is why it’s important to have an editor! Thanks Penny 🙂 (though it does mean delaying the publication date while I make sure…it’s 20th November, and I’d hoped to publish next weekend)

Hiatus

Oops…it’s Christmas Eve and I haven’t looked at my book for over a month. Instead I’ve been prioritising differently at weekends and doing a lot more baking, as well as consciously trying to relax more. However, if I ever want this to be published, and to get back the money I’ve paid my editor it’s time to crack on again. So Guys and Dolls is on TV, and I’m refamiliarising myself with the manuscript. (I don’t usually double-screen, but Christmas is different…)

A few hours later, and I’ve responded to all of the comments from Penny, and added a few quotes to try and balance out the male/female balance. I’ve also managed to write a contents page for ELT Playbook 2, which I hope will make the process of writing the follow-up a little faster than this one!

On Boxing Day, I’ve opened it up again and spent another 90 minutes or so checking all of the hyperlinks in the document, and adding a further reading section to make it easier for readers to explore further if they want to, as suggested by a couple of people. I’ve now sent it to my mum for a final proofread before I write to the publishers to ask for permission to use their quotes.

Permissions

29th December – Things I have discovered while writing to publishers to ask for permission to use quotations from their books:

  • I should have written down ISBNs for every book. I can find them on Amazon, but it would have been faster to write them down originally.
  • It’s easier to do this with the books in front of you, not in a different country (they’re in Poland, I’m in the UK for Christmas!)
  • Each publisher does things very differently. My favourite is Cambridge at the moment, because they currently grant permission to use up to 400 words of prose freely as long as it is accompanied by a full citation (according to their permissions page as of 29th December 2017) [Please check there – don’t take my word for it!] Some publishers require word counts, some have email addresses, some have forms to fill in. One publisher has a Word form to fill in and send back, where the formatting is quite troublesome. Another couple use external sites to do their permissions.
  • If a publisher no longer exists, you might be able to find out who bought their list using the Association of American Publishers lookup function.
  • Some places charge, some don’t. This is something to factor in when you’re thinking about costs.
  • Asking for permissions takes a good 2-3 hours if you decide you want to use 30 or so quotes from at least 15 different sources!

A major change

11th February – by a week ago, I’d only received about 25% of the permissions I need to publish the book. Apart from that, everything else is ready. After discussing it with a couple of people, I’ve decided that the inclusion of quotes in the book doesn’t add enough to the book to justify the amount of work it’s taking to get permission to use them, and that a further reading list is enough of a pointer. It’s disappointing as I do think they added something, but if I want to write a series of these books (and I do!) then I need to make the process as easy to repeat as possible.

In the last week I’ve also decided that the official launch date will be Valentine’s Day, a nice easy date to remember, and conveniently in the middle of a two-week school holiday, so I have time to get everything finalised before I publish, including putting together a blog to complement the series, an idea I toyed with previously and have now decided I definitely want to have.

The big day!

14th February 2018 – I went through the book one last time, making a couple more minor tweaks and making sure that none of the questions referred to the quotes I’d removed. I also set up the facebook page, and put together a page of content for the new ELT Playbook blog explaining what the book is and where to get it from.

Once everything was ready, I uploaded the ebook to Smashwords and Amazon’s KDP platform. These were the hitches:

  • My cover image was a bit too small for Smashwords. I used http://resizeimage.net/ to make it the required 1400 pixel width.
  • When I downloaded a sample .epub file from Smashwords, I noticed that the icons for the sections were all giant, even though they were only about 2x2cm in the file. I then had to save small versions of each icon onto my computer, and replace 214 of them. Luckily that only took about 20 minutes, and also reduced the file size from 10.5MB to 1MB, which means Amazon will hopefully not charge me as much when people download the file.

A few months down the line

It’s 3rd June 2018, and the ELT Playbook 1 ebook has now been available for a few months. By my calculations I’ve sold 22 copies on Smashwords and about 21 copies on Amazon (it’s a bit harder to work it out there!) I’ve talked about it at IATEFL and in a webinar for EFLtalks.com (see below), as well as in passing at the IH Torun Teacher Training Day and in a webinar for International House as part of the latest Teachers’ Online Conference. IATEFL was also a great opportunity to get ideas from people like Dorothy Zemach about what to do next with the book and the series.

As part of the prep for IATEFL 2018, Rob Howard gave me the excellent idea of making postcards advertising the book, with a space to sign or write notes on the back, and I was one of the authors who benefitted from the chance to do a signing session at the independent publishers’ stand.

ELT Playbook 1 postcards

On 2nd May I went back to the idea of badges that I discarded earlier as being potentially too much work. This was as a direct result of the fact that thus far nobody has posted their responses to any of the tasks on the social media platforms (facebook, Twitter and Instagram) – I just need somebody to be first, so if that’s you, I’ll be incredibly grateful! If you complete all of the tasks in one section or in the book, you can get one of these badges:

ELT Playbook 1 all badges preview small

The badges aren’t proper Open Badges, as the expense of me paying for an Open Badges scheme is prohibitive, but I think these ones will do for now. I look forward to adding names to them and sending them out!

Rereading this post before I publish it, I also noticed that in the end I didn’t use the subtitle that was suggested ‘Teacher development in an online community’ – I can’t remember why, but I suspect I simply forgot about it. What do you think? Should I use it? I ended up adding the strapline ‘Learning to reflect, together’ on the ELT Playbook blog – maybe that would be better?

It’s been great to hear people’s responses to the book and the idea of a series, and I’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried out any of the tasks. I already have the contents page for two more books (ELT Playbook 2 and ELT Playbook: Teacher Training) and have started writing tasks for the teacher training book. I can’t wait to share them with you, so watch this space!

IATEFL 2018: Our developing profession

This blog post collects together a few ideas that look at how English as a Foreign Language has changed as a profession over the years, for better and worse.

Barry O’Sullivan’s closing plenary looked at the history of the testing industry. I found the overview fascinating, not having realised quite how recently testing became such big business, or the incremental changes that have gone into shaping it. You can watch the full plenary here.

I felt independent publishers were much more prominent at this IATEFL conference than in previous years, with their stand right in the centre of the exhibition. The stand featured EFL Talks, Alphabet Publishing, Wayzgoose Press (run by Dorothy Zemach – see below), PronPack, The No Project, Transform ELT, and I was able to advertise ELT Playbook 1 there too. (Apologies if I’ve forgotten anyone!)

ELT Playbook 1 cover

My main presentation was introducing ELT Playbook 1, which I self-published. I was pleased to be able to talk to so many people about it and get feedback on my idea throughout the conference. If you have missed my advertising it all over this blog 🙂 and don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s an ebook designed for new teachers, supporting them with questions to aid reflection, along with suggestions of ways to record their reflections, and option to join in with an online community and get support from others. It’s also suitable for trainers or managers who would like help with supporting their teachers. I’m aiming for it to be the first in a series, so watch this space for later entries. You can find out more information, including how to buy it, on the ELT Playbook blog. Mike Harrison and Shay Coyne both attended and sketchnoted the talk – thank you!

As well as books you pay for, like mine :), there were also a range of free titles advertised, all designed to advance our profession. These included:

The visibility and importance of independent publishers was helped by Dorothy Zemach’s plenary, ‘Sausage and the law: how textbooks are made’. It was one of the highlights of the conference for me. You can see responses by Helen Legge in this tweet:

and by Steve Brown in this blogpost. Emma-Louise Pratt, the conference artist, responded to the talk visually during the conference, which I thought was an interesting addition to the event this year.

You can watch the full plenary yourself here, as well as watching Dorothy talking after the plenary here:

Here’s my summary (though you should watch the talk yourself!):

Students’ books used to be the component of coursebooks which made all the money, with teachers’ books given away for free. They were basically just an answer key. Now publishers still try to make money on the students’ books, but there are a huge range of other possible components. There is also more copying and piracy of components, as well as old editions being used for longer and teacher-made materials replacing the books.

The combination of these factors mean that profits fall, so the price of books has risen, making them harder to afford, meaning there is even more copying, and so on. This, in turn, means that there is less money to pay the writers, especially as publishers have moved from a royalty system to a fee system, so authors find it harder to make a living. They also are less likely to care as much about the project, become reluctant to market the book, and quit, or they just don’t propose the innovative ideas they might have in the past.

The knock-on effect of all that is that experienced writers leave the profession, and less experienced writers fill the gap as they cost publishers less money. There are also more non-educators in other parts of the publishing process, meaning that the quality of projects drops. The whole process involves more work for everyone, as these writers need more support. Writers are also far more likely to be doing this work in addition to another job. Dorothy included a quote from Michael Swan summarizing the problem with writing on the side, rather than full-time:

To expect the average working teacher, however gifted, to write a viable general language course is like expecting the first violinist to compose the whole of the orchestra’s repertoire in his or her evenings off.

Dorothy also talked about the amount of money an author might (not) make from a book put together by a publisher versus a self-published book. She mentioned that digital was blamed for the drop in revenue from books, but as she said, if digital is losing you money, you’re doing it wrong! Technology should be making things easier and cheaper, not harder and more inaccessible.

In a nutshell, Dorothy’s plenary explained exactly why I decided to self-publish ELT Playbook 1: my ideas, my control, my timescales, my responsibility, my money.

So what can we do? Evaluate materials critically, compare and contrast them, keeping your learners’ needs in mind. Give feedback to publishers, push them when they don’t want to include particular things, up to and including the name(s) of the author(s) on the cover. If you love a book, tell publisher what they’re doing right. Pay attention to the content, trust authors to defend the pedagogy of their work, and remember that nobody wants to put together a bad product, because it just won’t make money. Most importantly

PAY FOR YOUR STUFF.

If you can’t afford something, don’t copy it or download it illegally, choose something else. The more often you refuse to pay, the more expensive things are likely to become. Piracy is not a victimless crime. If we don’t pay, people can’t earn a living, and we all suffer.

As Dorothy said, good writing is hard. It shouldn’t be us and them. It should be us, all together in education.

Amen.

Writing ELT materials for primary (guest post)

At this year’s IATEFL Materials Writing SIG pre-conference event, Katherine Bilsborough offered us tips on writing materials for primary-age young learners. These were really useful, so I asked her to put together a blog post summarising them for you.

Writing ELT materials for primary can be great fun but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s somehow easier than writing materials for an older age group. It isn’t. It has just as many challenges but some might be less obvious at first. Following on from the talk I did at this year’s MaWSIG pre-conference event at IATEFL, here are five things to take into consideration for anyone thinking of writing for primary.

1 What does primary actually mean?

The term primary usually covers six years – a long period in the life of a child. Materials that are suitable for a year 1 or 2 pupil aren’t suitable for a year 5 or 6 pupil – for a number of reasons. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the age group for which you are writing. The best way, of course, is to teach this age group yourself, but this isn’t always possible. The next best thing would be to observe some classes being taught – but fortunately there are a few easier things you can do too.

When you know the age group for which you are writing, check out the kind of things they are doing at school by using the UK’s Key Stage classification. Once you know the key stage, you can go to sites such as BBC Bitesizeand look at what children are doing in terms of subject matter and activity types. Remember this is a site for British school children whose first language is usually English so the language used might be more complex that the language you need to use in an ELT context. A good place to go to get an idea of the kind of vocabulary and grammar your target users need for their age group is the Cambridge English Exams website**. The word lists are very similar to word lists in the syllabus of most course books, especially since more and more course books now include exam preparation materials.

2 Primary appropriateness

The most important starting point for anybody writing materials for primary children is appropriateness. There are lots of ways to interpret this but we all know what it means. Primary materials have all the usual no-no’s and then a few more. Publishers usually provide a list of things they wish to avoid. Many of them are common sense but others might surprise you. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with all of the potential restrictions to your creativity. It’s frustrating having to completely rewrite a story, for example, because you’ve included something that needs to be cut … and the story won’t work without it. This is why it’s also a good idea to run your ideas past your editor before embarking on a writing marathon. I haven’t given any specific examples here … that’s a whole blog post in itself!

3 Illustration

Illustration is important in primary materials and once again the importance of age appropriateness needs to be considered. Look at some storybooks for five-year-olds and then at some others for nine-year-olds. You’ll notice all kinds of differences. Not only obvious things like word count or language used but also themes, genres and art styles. I have heard that more and more photos of real-life people and objects are appearing in materials for ever-younger learners. This might reflect changes in their real worlds where they are watching an increasing number of youtube videos and have much more access to photos.

It’s worth investing in a scanner if you start writing primary materials. Editors, designers and illustrators appreciate getting a scanned sketch of your perception of a page. They also like to see more detailed drawings of story frames or pages where the illustration is key to the understanding of the text. It’s worth pointing out that one of the best things about seeing the final product is seeing the brilliant work of the artists in transforming your roughly sketched ideas into work of true beauty.

4 Instructions/rubrics

When it comes to writing materials for primary I think a good rule of thumb for an instruction is ‘the simpler, the better’. That’s probably the case for all kinds of materials, for all ages and levels, but with primary it’s especially important because in the case of the youngest learners, some might not be able to read yet. Have a look at the instructions in materials for this age group. Note how they change according to the age and how simple icons are used for year 1 pupils to support the learning.

5 Useful websites for a primary materials writer

All professionals have their favourite websites and primary materials writers are no different. Here are 6 of mine. If you have any others, let us know. It’s always great to discover a new one.

http://vocabkitchen.com
Paste a text and get an instant colour-coded version, showing at a glance where each word lies within the CEFR guidelines or the AWL (academic word list) guidelines. Perfect for adapting the level of reading and audio texts.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/education
*BBC Bitesize archives for different UK curriculum key stages.

www.vocaroo.com
Easy-to-use, quick and simple recording site. Useful for sending your editor an audio of how you imagine a chant, song etc. sounding.

http://www.timeforkids.com
Age appropriate news stories from around the world (older primary).

http://www.puzzle-maker.com
Free online puzzle maker where you can create crossword grids and word searches quickly and easily. Other online puzzle makers make anagrams, jumble sentences and create other kinds of puzzles.

http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/exams/young-learners-english/
** Downloadable pdf wordlists for each level (Starters, Movers, Flyers, KET and PET).

 

Whether you are writing primary materials for your own classes or to share with others, for a blog, a website or a publisher, don’t forget the most important thing – have fun!

About Katherine

Katherine has worked in ELT since 1986 as a teacher, teacher trainer and author. She has published coursebooks and materials for all ages and contexts. Her primary materials include Dream Box, Ace! Oxford Rooftops, a new course book for OUP and a new online course for BBC English. She develops print and digital materials for the British Council and the BBC and regularly contributes to the LearnEnglish and TeachingEnglish websites. When she isn’t writing, she is gardening. Not having a blog of her own, Katherine enjoys gatecrashing other people’s blogs and was recently named ‘the interloping blogger’ – a title she approves of.

Katherine Bilsborough

If you want to find out more about materials writing, why not get a copy of Katherine’s new e-book How to write primary materials, written for the ELT Teacher2Writer site. (If you decide to buy it through Smashwords with this link, I’ll get a few pennies!)

Getting started as a materials writer (MaWSIG guest blog post)

MaWSIG is the Materials Writing Special Interest Group of IATEFL, the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language.

MaWSIG logo

They run a blog which features a new post every month from members of MaWSIG. I think I’m the least experienced writer to feature on there so far 🙂 It’s a real pleasure to be asked to join in with what I have already found to be a very useful blog from a very useful SIG!

My post is called Getting started as a materials writer. I share some of questions I have wanted answers to as I’ve started out with materials writing and tips for my fellow new writers. I’d be interested to see what people add to the list.

IATEFL Manchester 2015: The ones I missed

For various reasons, not least the sheer size of the conference, there were various talks I missed during IATEFL. Thanks to the power of the internet, I’ve managed to catch up with some of them through tweets, videos and/or blogposts. Here’s a selection of them:

The ear of the beholder: helping learners understand different accents – Laura Patsko

Laura’s talk was on at the same time as mine so I wasn’t able to watch it. I know it started with her ‘having a cold’ to demonstrate how we can make meaning evefn when the sounds we hear don’t correspond with our expectations, and I’m intrigued to hear more about her suggestions. She’s shared her presentation, and hopefully there will be a video of at least some of it soon!

Here’s one of her tweets from another point in the conference:

Fostering autonomy: harnassing the outside world from within the classroom – Lizzie Pinard

Lizzie‘s talk was also in the same slot as mine and Laura’s – so many possible times and they put us all on in the same one! Lizzie has written a lot about autonomy on her blog, and demonstrated it with her own Italian learning. The aspect of learner training is key when trying to encourage autonomy, and is one I’m sure Lizzie’s presentation would have helped me with. Thankfully, she’s blogged about it as has Olga Sergeeva, but it’s not quite the same as hearing it first-hand. I’m hoping the gods of IATEFL shine on all three of us next year and put us on at separate times!

Where are the women in ELT? – Russell Mayne and Nicola Prentis

As with last year, the talk which Russ was involved in is one of the ones which seems to have taken on a life of its own after the conference. Nicola and Russ picked a subject which is another very important discussion point, after Russ tackled the myths of EFL in 2014. [Original text (see comments for why I’ve kept this) As with last year, Russ’s talk is the one of the ones which seems to have taken on a life of its own after the conference. He has a way of picking subjects which are very good discussion points, and this year he was ably assisted by Nicola Prentis.] Their talk immediately followed my own and was in a tiny room, so I knew it was wishful thinking to believe I might get in, but I tried anyway. A whole group of us were waiting outside, disappointed. Last year Russ’s talk was officially recorded (content is currently being updated on the IATEFL 2014 site), and Russ and Nicola have recorded their own version this year – thank you! This area is one of particular interest to me, being a woman and in ELT as I am. 🙂 Through the Fair List, I’d become aware of the fact that plenary speakers at conferences are often men speaking to a room full of women, which seems odd. As I understand it, Russ and Nicola were questioning the fact that men feature dispropotionately at the ‘top’ of the ELT profession, despite it being a female-dominated one in general.

They did an interview about it which you can watch as a taster:

Here are two of the blog posts which were triggered by their talk, both of which have fascinating discussions in the comments which are well worth reading:

  • He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy! Steve Brown highlights the amount of time that the ‘big’ names highlighted in Russ and Nicola’s talk have been at the top (something which they mentioned in their interview too)
  • P is for Power: Scott Thornbury questions the balance of power in the ELT profession, not just in terms of gender, but also covering native/non-native speakers and the socio-economic circumstances that teaching takes place in.

Russ and Nicola have also set up their own website to examine gender equality in ELT, with a lot more information about their research. At other points in the conference there were tweets about increasing the number of non-native speakers visible at conferences and in the global community.

Walk before you run: reading strategies for Arabic learners – Emina Tuzovic

I saw Emina speaking about helping Arabic students with spelling at IATEFL last year, and she subsequently very kindly wrote a guest post summarising her talk for this blog. I’m hoping to encourage her to do the same again this year, as her ideas are very practical and deal with areas which there isn’t much coverage of in the literature I’ve read.

People, pronunciation and play – Luke Meddings

Luke shared a couple of his ideas in an interview:

I really like Luke’s focus on playing with language, which is something I’ve become more and more interested in.

Olga Sergeeva went to Luke’s talk and wrote a summary of the whole thing, although she admitted it was difficult because they were laughing too much!

Tools, tips and tasks for developing materials writing skills – John Hughes

John has shared his slides, which gives me a taster of the tips he has for developing these skills. I think the most important idea is to ‘develop a materials radar’, which echoes what Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones talked about in their presentation on using images at the MAWSIG PCE.

Technology

Mike Harrison talked about using Vine to make short videos, and Shaun Wilden and Nikki Fortova looked at apps on the iPad to do the same.
Here’s an idea from Nicky Hockley to use a mobile phone to practise past continuous:

If you’re considering whether to use technology in your class or not, this handout could be useful:

Random tweets

These are things which I retweeted because they made me think. I’m sharing them here to make sure I don’t forget those thoughts and to see what you think. They’re loosely grouped into topics where possible.

Student abilities
Memory and engagement

These link back to Joy Egbert’s plenary.

Materials design and the importance of editors

An opportunity for anyone wanting to get into materials design?

This looks amazing!

…and on Twitter!

And if you decide to self-publish:

Research

Patsy’s accompanying blogpost is available on the OUP blog.

Empowering teachers

Yes, yes, yes to all of these!

Training and professional development
Management

(Hoping the rate of sickness at IH Bydgoszcz doesn’t go up when I take over as DoS!) 😉

About language
Pronunciation
Dyslexia
Miscellaneous

Other people’s blogging

Lots of people were blogging throughout the conference. You can find a full list of all of the IATEFL Manchester registered bloggers on the ManchesterOnline site.

IATEFL Manchester Online 2015 registered blogger

As always, Lizzie Pinard was very prolific, and has helpfully indexed all of her posts. Apart from the plenaries, I only went to one of the same talks, so there’s a lot to catch up on! Olya Sergeeva also has an index of the posts she wrote about the sessions she went to, including some which I’ve linked to above. Tyson Seburn wrote about his bite-sized takeaways from the conference. Jen McDonald summarised the talks she saw in short paragraphs. The British Council had a number of roving reporters at the conference, one of whom was David Dodgson.

IATEFL online

Apart from the many sources I’ve mentioned above, there is, of course, the wonderful resources that is IATEFL online, full of interviews and recorded sessions, at least some of which I hope to find the time to watch at some point in the future. Are there any you would particularly recommend?

IATEFL Manchester 2015: Materials writing

Following on from the excellent MaWSIG pre-conference event, I ended up going to quite a few more talks related to materials writing during the conference. Here are summaries of said talks.

Designing materials: from theory to practice? – Sonia Munro and Susan Sheehan

Sonia and Susan work on the MA TESOL at the University of Huddersfield. The course originally had only a traditional dissertation at the end of it, but they have now added the option of a more practical materials design project rather than a dissertation. Students have to create 15 hours worth of classroom materials for a specific context and do a 30-minute viva. The only course participants who now do a dissertation are those who are required to do so by external forces, such as those who are being funded by a Ministry of Education. All others opt for materials design.

Why did they choose to offer this alternative? Feedback on the dissertation module was not as positive as for other modules on the MA, with participants complaining that they couldn’t collect the necessary data from their students over the summer. Materials design doesn’t just help those who are creating materials; it also helps teachers to be more critical when choosing materials for their students.

The viva allows participants to show the theoretical underpinnings of their materials, but Sonia and Susan noticed that there was a huge range in the ability of course participants to do this. Tomlinson (2003) mentions that many established writers start with intuition based on their own experience in the classroom, but MA students don’t have that luxury and must demonstrate that they have clear reasons for their materials design. In the viva, they have to present their materials and demonstrate the theory behind them, then participate in a discussion building on this. Some participants could do this easily, but others were unable to demonstrate any awareness of theory at all. To be successful, they need to:

  • Draw on a wide range of sources, not just readings suggested by tutors;
  • Demonstrate critical engagement with theories and sources;
  • Show a clear relationship between theory and practice, demonstrating they understand this;
  • Analyse materials that are typically used in their context and use these as a springboard for their own materials;
  • Notice the good points and limitations of the materials they use as a reference;
  • Show an awareness of their context: What are the constraints? Are these materials appropriate?

These are the main problems their MA students had in the viva:

  • Only citing a narrow range of authors.
  • Not referring to SLA (second language acquisition) theorists.
  • Sticking to authors writing about materials design only.
  • Not referring to authors specific to their context (e.g. EAP).
  • Not mentioning issues like Global English or English as a Lingua Franca.
  • Conflating literature and theory and not going deeply enough into the theory.
  • Not demonstrating enough criticality: for example by comparing authors or mentioning the weaknesses of the research. Being quite superficial.

To increase the students’ engagement with theory, Susan and Sonia would like to:

  • Make the use of theory more explicit and show students how to find theory more usefully.
  • Emphasise that theory is the core of the module.
  • Stop students from getting lost in the aesthetics of the materials – they tend to spend too long on this and not enough time on the theory.
  • Train students to do better literature searches.

I haven’t done an MA yet, but would like to at some point in the future, so I think this will come in very useful when I get to that stage.

Frameworks for creativity in materials design – Jill Hadfield

I’ve been connected to Jill on facebook for a while, and she’s been able to help me out a couple of times, so I went to this talk to be able to meet her in person for the first time. It gave me lots of ideas for potential workshops in the future, and furthered my understanding of some of the principles behind materials design, following on from the talk above. It’s also encouraged me to consider in more depth the principles I believe in/follow/use (What’s the right verb?!) when designing materials, teaching, and training.

When Jill was writing her latest book, Motivating Learning [affiliate link], with Zoltan Dörnyei, she started keeping a reflective journal to help her uncover the principles behind her own writing. She then analysed her journal and categorised her comments to try to find underlying patterns. She was motivated to do this by theorists who posited that materials writers tend to rely on intuition rather than theory, but as she said “We do have principles, but we’re too busy writing materials!”

Jill divided up the principles from her journal into two areas: framing principles and core energies. Framing principles ask questions like ‘What makes good materials?’ Here are some of Jill’s examples:

They are a kind of limit, and you shouldn’t include anything which does not adhere to one or more of these principles. In contrast, core energies suffuse your work. They are the underlying themes of your materials, which resurface again and again, but may not be obvious in every activity. In Jill’s journal, these were Affect, Creativity and Play. The example Jill gave to show the difference between the two types of principle was that she believes all activities should be communicative (framing principle), but that there are times when activities should be cognitive, logical or serious depending on the aim (which could be seen as contradicting some of her core energies).

In analysing her journal, Jill realised that she wrote most when she was dealing with problems, and very little when the writing was going smoothly. She seemed to have a lot of tacit principles underlying her writing. Here are some of them:

  • Does this activity fulfil the aim in the best possible way?
  • Is the staging in the best logical sequence?
  • Does staging scaffold the students by providing achievable steps?
  • Are the groupings appropriate to the task and do they provide variety and balance of interaction?

She also noticed a system of checks and balances that stopped her forward progress at times. These included trying out the materials by putting herself in the position of the teacher (imagining), the student (trying out), or the writer explaining the materials to the teacher (dialoguing). Through this process, she sometimes discovered that her activities didn’t do what she wanted them to, which meant she had to rethink them.

Once she has finished writing, Jill uses checklists based on questions formulated from her principles. These help her to ensure quality, coverage (a range of activity types/interaction patterns etc) and analyse covert syllabuses (a hidden agenda). Covert syllabuses can be positive, for example by promoting rapport within the group through activities focussing on dynamics and groupwork, or negative, such as those implied by the kind of images that might be chosen to illustrate a course book (see Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones’ talk at the MaWSIG PCE).

Jill shared lots of possible tasks which you could do to examine your own priniciples, or which could be used as the basis for workshops. Here are just a few examples:

  • Pyramid discussion, where participants first detail their own principles relating to materials design, then compare them with others.
  • Look at the principles you have related to classroom practice and consider them in more depth. Which of them are supported by research? Which of them do not seem to have theoretical support? Why do you think this is?
  • Give participants a range of different activities from published materials, chosen to demonstrate a range of writing styles. Analyse how much they like doing the activity, how often they create similar activities and how much they like creating that kind of activity.
  • Analyse the principles you have come up with in more depth. What are the potential advantages and drawbacks of having these as principles? Can these principles be justified by theory and classroom practice? What questions should you ask yourself about being driven by personal preference in your writing?
  • Dialoguing: participants work in pairs, with one as the classroom teacher and the other as the materials writer. The writer must justify their design decisions to the teacher. Record the conversation, play it back, and see if there are any decisions the writer wants to rethink.
  • Imagining: go through the activity step-by-step, as if you’re using it in class. Record yourself talking through the process, then listen back and analyse it critically. Is there anything you would change?
  • Trying out: put yourself in the students’ shoes. Record your interactions. Listen back and ask yourself questions. For example: Did the activity produce the language required? Did it produce enough of it? Was it engaging? Did everyone have equal turns?
  • Spoken protocols: participants design an activity and verbalise their decisions as they make them. Record this and listen back, with participants trying to verbalise what unspoken design principles are influencing these decisions.
  • Take an activity you have designed and try altering one element, for example, changing it from a pair to a group task. What effect does this have?
  • Develop your own checklists based on the principles you have uncovered. Use them!

Uncovering culture – Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones

When Ben and Ceri started teaching, cultural content in coursebooks looked very different. It tended to reflect and/or reinforce cultural stereotypes, drawing on students’ prior knowledge of the world. There was a lot of pop anthropology or negative etiquette, ‘othering’ the cultures discussed by distancing students from it: ‘They do it like this, not like you do.’ It also reinforced the idea that everyone in a country acts in the same way: ‘Americans eat fast food’. Subliminal cultural content was also common, for example in the choice of images used.

Ceri and Ben wanted to move from this global, stereotypical image of culture, making it more relevant to the students’ lives, combining the global and the local to make it ‘glocal’. For example, rather than an article describing food of the world, including McDonalds as the food of the USA, you could:

  • Compare menus served by McDonalds in different countries.
  • Question what junk and healthy food really is.
  • Look at the designs of McDonalds restaurants, and how they differ around the world, for example the McCafé.
  • Find local news articles featuring McDonalds.

Continuing the food theme, try exploiting these food flags, designed for the Sydney Food Festival. Each image showcases food typical of that country. Students can identify the food, then decide whether they think it really does represent the country. Finally, they create a flag for their own country and other students discuss whether it’s truly representative.

Food-Flags
Image from peacechild.org

‘Breaking’ stereotypes in this way can be a very productive exercise in the classroom. Something similar can be done with postcards too: do they reflect true experiences of what it is like to be in the country?

Ben and Ceri have written various course books together. The most recent are the Eyes Open series, written for secondary school students and published by Cambridge University Press. They have used ideas to exploit culture throughout, and showed examples like this one during their presentation.

There is a move away from stereotypes, showing a more multicultural view of Britain. Texts also have links to the outside world, so that the restaurant mentioned is a real place which students can visit the website of if they want to.

You need to build a bridge between the materials on the page and the lives of the students. One way to do this is to have the voices of ‘insiders’, rather than ‘outsiders’, talking about their own cultures. The example Ben and Ceri gave was a video about dabbawallas in India, leading on to a discussion of whether this system would work in the students’ own countries: What kind of food would they include in the boxes? Who would cook it?

Another avenue for uncovering culture is to emphasise the trans-cultural flow of ideas, rather than separating out cultures artificially. One way to do this is through YouTube videos and the associated comments, like those by Bethany Mota, who often shares videos about food. The ‘unboxing‘ meme is a productive one, and this video of an American opening a pizza in Korea gives lots of language students could draw on to make their own video, making the connection to their own lives and culture.

Here is an abridged version of Ben and Ceri’s slides.

Can a picture tell a thousand words? – Hugh Dellar

You might think that this metaphor is as old as the hills, but according to Hugh’s research, it was actually coined about a century ago by an advertiser in the USA trying to sell advertising space on the side of trams! Hugh decided to continue this theme by advertising too, in this case the new edition of Outcomes, which he co-wrote with Andrew Walkley. 🙂

Hugh’s attitude to the use of images in materials has developed over his writing career. Originally he thought they were just a way of breaking up the page, and that the focus should be on language, because this is what students learn from. When his publisher changed and he was asked to incorporate more National Geographic content into his materials he was initially reluctant, associating them with doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms and pain! He also highlighted the fact that although many of their images are beautiful, they aren’t necessarily great for generating language. They say 1000 words, so you don’t have to. Instead, he finds images which have the potential to ‘bring 1000 words into being’ much more useful.

So what are the functions of the image in the ELT classroom?

  • To illustrate the meaning of lexis. Learners can label things, but it’s not great for longer phrases.
  • To test whether students have remembered lexis. This is great for nouns, but not so good for things which are more abstract.
  • Decoration.
  • Prompts for grammar drills. Hugh mentioned ‘English for voyeurs’, which is true whenever you use images to practise the present continuous!
  • To check receptive understanding (e.g. choose the picture which shows…)
  • To set the scene.
  • To generate language and ideas.
  • To generate discussion, stories, opinions, etc.

The last three are the ones which are the most fruitful, but they require a certain type of image, preferably with some kind of ambiguity or something unstated.

In Outcomes, the picture above is used to introduce a unit on business. One of the discussion points is why there are no women shown. It then leads on to a unit about business, including making phone calls.

The same principles which apply to images could also be used for videos. Again, just because it’s on YouTube, doesn’t make it interesting. There is no guarantee that the language in the video is intelligible, appropriate for the level of your students, or will ever be used by them again. Once you’ve found a suitable video, you still have to write the materials to go with it too! This is where video content accompanying coursebooks comes in. In Outcomes, video is exploited in a variety of ways, not just for traditional comprehension tasks. It’s also a way of improving students listening skills by analysing small chunks of language, and then attempting to reproduce them to experiment with their pronunciation.

You can watch the whole 30-minute presentation on YouTube.

MAWSIG Open Forum

The Materials Writing SIG has gone from strength to strength since it started a couple of years ago. At the open forum, they updated us on what has been happening over the last year and their plans for the next year, including MaWSIG May, a series of webinars which happened very successfully last year and which they would like to repeat. They also held a raffle, and this happened 🙂

In summary

All of these talks have given me a strong incentive to examine the principles behind materials design in more depth, which is something I hope to do if and when I ever get round to doing an MA! I really like the idea of the Anglia Ruskin course, which focuses heavily on materials design, but unfortunately it’s only available face-to-face and I can’t afford it at the moment. One day…

IATEFL Manchester 2015 MaWSIG Pre-Conference Event

The Materials Writing Special Interest Group is the newest IATEFL SIG, and very active. They have a blog, a facebook page, and a Twitter account.

MaWSIG logo

Each SIG has a pre-conference event (PCE) with a specific theme. The MaWSIG theme this year was The Materials Writer’s Essential Toolkit and featured a whole range of speakers with huge amounts of experience between them. I’ve done a little materials writing myself, and thought this would be a very useful way to find out more about how to develop in this area, even if none of my materials end up being published. I’m very happy I chose to go to this PCE as it turned out to be incredibly useful, with lots of tips that I can start using straight away, and hopefully build on if and when I get more writing work.

How to write multiple-choice activities – Sue Kay

This was a very practical way to start the day. Sue offered us these tips:

  • Keep options of a similar length and style, preferably short and avoiding linkers – students should be spending time processing the text, not the question;
  • Keep distractors plausible – avoid humorous or silly options because they’re obviously wrong;
  • Don’t have any obviously incorrect answers;
  • Avoid any overlap between options;
  • Make sure questions can’t be answered using world knowledge or common sense;
  • If using an unfinished sentence as the stem, divide it in a logical place (e.g. not in the middle of a fixed expression).

Sue also advises writing the text and the multiple-choice items at the same time whenever possible, unless you have a text which you’re required to base your items on. It’s much more natural than writing the text first, then trying to shoehorn distractors in.

When writing distractors, here are a few techniques you can use:

  • Change the period of time using phrases like I used to…but now I… or Normally…but this time…
  • Compare the desire/hope/intention of the speaker to what actually happened: We planned to…, We thought about…
  • Use unreal past in conditionals or after ‘wish’: If the boss had given me a raise, I’d have stayed.
  • Use negatives or near negatives, especially less common ones: It’s not as if we’re desperate for a car park. or It’s hardly my idea of fun.

To find out more, Sue recommended two ELT Teacher2Writer books: How to Write Reading and Listening Activities by Caroline Krantz and How to Write Exam Practice Materials by Roy Norris.

The role of the image in materials design – Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones

Ben and Ceri shared lots of image banks and showed how the same search of ‘beach’ can yield very different results depending on where you search and the filters you use. Panos seemed particularly interesting. It’s a collection of photojournalism, often accompanied by short texts. Even if you don’t end up using the images themselves, they can provide inspiration for your writing as they are a lot more generative than stock photos. Other image banks are:

Unsplash is a Creative Commons image bank where you can use the images for any purpose, including commercial. They share 10 free images a week. Another option is Death to the Stock Photo. For non-commercial use, there is of course ELTpics, and there are lots of ideas for how to use those images on the Take A Photo And… blog.

On Alamy you can set filters to look for certain kinds of image. For example, if you choose ‘square’ you’ll end up with Instagam influenced shots. As a materials writer, you may have to write an artwork brief to tell publishers what to put with your materials. By experimenting with filters, and telling publishers what you DON’T want, the image is much more likely to be what you’re looking for. Don’t get your heart set an image though, and remember that there is a budget.

Other tips for writing an artwork brief:

  • Consider including sample images you’ve sourced – this can be clearer than describing the image;
  • Explain how the image will be work/be used in the materials, not just what it looks like;
  • If you know what you want, but can’t find an example, describe it in as much detail as you can to make it more likely that the final result is what you envisaged.

We may also need to move away from the traditional image and consider modern types of image such as the selfie, infographics, dronies (new to me!), panodash, Dear Photograph, Draw My Life, memes and kinetic typography. With these, they may be hard to sell to publishers, and they may go out of fashion. To stay up-to-date with images, try these ideas:

  • look out for images being used in adverts, etc;
  • subscribe to adweek for the top 5 commercials every week;
  • follow accounts like @nytimesphoto on Twitter;
  • subscribe to Unsplash for weekly emails with taster images;
  • [my addition: download the Guardian app for images from Eyewitness]

Images have four roles in materials:

  • scene-setting
  • illustrative
  • decorative
  • driving force

When choosing your image, consider which role it will play and choose accordingly. For example, CAE images tend to be mid-shot (rather than close up) so you can see the surroundings too.

Find out more at Ben Goldstein’s blog and Ceri Jones’ blog.

A technological toolkit for Materials Writers – Nick Tims

I learnt  a lot of useful tips here!

  • Use multiple monitors so you don’t have to flick between screens too much. (I’m doing this for the first time as a I finish this blogpost!)
  • Get browser extensions to save you time and reduce clicks.
  • Link shorteners (like bit.ly) make huge links to Google Images (for those artwork briefs!) much more manageable.
  • Use ‘Grab’ for Mac or ‘Snipping tool’ on Windows to take partial screen shots instead of copying and pasting things into Paint or other cropping tools.
  • Create custom search engines in Chrome. Go to any site with a search box, right click the search box, add as search engine, create a keyword and you can use that search that site directly from the address bar. It took me about 10 seconds when I just tried it – amazing!
  • Use Evernote to archive texts you find for future materials writing. It appears in Google searches you do later too. (I use diigo which does something similar, although Evernote is more elegant and has a much better app)
  • Macros are ways of using one click to do a series of actions. You can download a whole set of macros from Teacher’s Pet to do things like automatically create matching activites, making activity and worksheet creation much faster. This got a round of applause and a collective gasp from the audience! (Unfortunately there are only versions for Microsoft for Windows and Open Office, but no Mac version – it’s a work in progress according the developer.)
  • StayFocusd is a browser extension you can use to limit the time you spend on particular sites in a single day. Don’t be over-enthusiatic though, because you really can’t get round it!
  • The Pomodoro technique can make you manage distractions. It involves 25 minutes of work, followed by 5 minutes of ‘reward’. That’s also good for getting you to move around. You can download browser extensions to help you with the timing.
  • RescueTime sends you a report at the end of each week telling you how much time you spent on useful/distracting websites. Can be a bit depressing, and Nick says he never gets more than 70% productivity 😉

Nick says that you need to experiment with these tools, and you may need to ‘kiss a few frogs’ in the process of finding what works for you. Here is his handout.

Writing ELT audio and video scripts – John Hughes

John showed us ways of improving our scripts to make them more interesting and add a little drama to them.

To add authenticity, you can record people in real situations. Interesting bits of language come up in this way that you might never consider if you are trying to write things yourself. However, this can be time consuming: from half a day of recording, John only got five minutes of usable audio.

You can also add features such as fillers, false starts, contracted forms, slang and more. This may depend on the publisher and the purpose of the materials (developing language or developing listening skills?), as some markets are resistant to this and prefer the more ‘polished’ nature of traditonal coursebook audio. One audience member mentioned the difference between spoken and written grammar, and there was some discussion of the fact that spoken grammar has only recently started to appear in published materials.

Target language needs to be balanced with incidental language.

Increase the amount of turn-taking to make audio more manageable for students, particularly at lower levels.

Stick to a limited number of speakers, and differentiate them through accent, gender and use of names to help SS follow the turn-taking.

Video helps you to show context, whereas you need to set up the situation more clearly if you’re writing an audio script. With video, don’t state the obvious. Show, don’t tell.

To add drama to your scripts, we can learn from Kurt Vonnegut. He said that in a good story you need to have a clear central character who wants something. You can then add drama by applying the ‘try it three times’ rule. The first two times the character fails to get what they want, but on the third attempt they succeed. This can give you more opportunities to showcase the target language, and in a more natural way than a short two or three line dialogue might. It also gives you the opportunity to add characterisation.

The final idea was to video the same scene twice, once running smoothly, and the second with the ‘try it three times’ rule. Students can watch both and compare the difference.

John has many ideas for writing materials on his blog, and has written a book about writing audio and video scripts for ELT Teacher2Writer. Here are his slides from the presentation.

Writing ELT activites for authentic video and film – Kieran Donaghy and Anna Whitcher

Kieran is the man behind the very successful Film English website on which the majority of the videos have little or no dialogue. He’s particularly interested in exploiting images used in film. Anna is an ELT film-maker, and her opening quote was that there is an increased demand for authors who can write for video, film-makers and script-writers, so this is definitely an area to develop your skills in if you want to get into materials writing. Together they’ve written a book for ELT Teacher2Writer including many more ideas than those below.

Videos need to be consciously integrated into course material, rather than used as an add-on or as glorified listening comprehension. It particularly needs to match the topic, with a language fit as secondary. To aid comprehension, follow these guidelines:

  • Use dialogue which is clearly enunciated and not too fast.
  • Include a high degree of visual support.
  • Ensure the soundtrack is not too loud or distracting.
  • Have only one person or character speaking at a time.
  • Include supporting, titles, subtitles or graphics.
  • Reduce the number of dialects and/or strong regional accents.
  • Use a slow, clear voiceover or narration.

Keep videos to 2-5 minutes to hold the attention, and make repeat viewings easier to fit in. Try to use different activities for each viewing. When choosing a video, consider the relevance and interest of the topic, the cultural backgrounds of your students, and their experience of the world. You can also ask your students about the kinds of videos they enjoy watching. Vimeo Staff Picks, Future Shorts, BBC Earth and National Geographic are good places to look for videos.

Once you’ve chosen one, follow a three-step approach to exploit it. Editors often recommend the structure and/or the kind of activities they would like you to use, and you should ask if they don’t.

  1. Pre-viewing
    e.g. Look at the stills and have a discussion/complete the sentences with the missing words. (could be used to pre-teach vocabulary)
    Match collocations.
    Complete a summary/review.
  2. While viewing
    Don’t overload the students at this stage – stick to short answer tasks like true/false or ‘Number the sentences in the order you hear them’. The answers should be from the video, not from their knowledge of the world. Ask questions in the same order as they are in the video, and spread them evenly throughout.
  3. Post viewing
    Draw out the key concepts of the video in some way, for example through a discussion or a longer project. Students could also make their own version of the video or a follow-up to it.

Does a corpus have the answer? Corpus tools for ELT writers – Julie Moore

Julie started by telling us that she can’t imagine writing materials without a corpus, and once she told us the range of things she uses it for, I’m not surprised!

  • Ask questions like ‘How do we use…?’ ‘Do we say…?’ ‘Which is the most common…?’ ‘What’s the difference between…?’
  • Find natural examples.
  • Get inspiration for the context you introduce language in.
  • Search for collocations. Once you’ve found that a collocate exists, click through to read examples.
  • Expand the range of words which you collocate with a key word.
  • Check your intuitions.
  • Find phrases and chunks of language.
  • Do a ‘context search’ to find words around the key word, accounting for variable collocations or ones which might have other words in the middle of them.
  • Examine British/American/global English variations.

Corpora can’t do everything though. They’re not good for:

  • Searching for language features that don’t involve specific language chunks, e.g. present continuous to talk about the future.
  • Getting longer stretches of complete texts – these are still subject to copyright. This also makes it difficult to use corpus examples for things like discourse markers which require longer texts.

SketchEngine is a good tool for searching within corpora. Know your corpus! Think about British v. American English, the kind of texts used to build the corpus (e.g. newspapers, stories, academic journals…), spoken v. written language, expert v. student writers… Choose a corpus based on the text types your students will have to produce. Here are some ways you can access a corpus:

Ways of accessing a corpus

Other useful tools you can use to analyse language are Vocab Kitchen (breaks down the language in a text by level), Google NGram Viewer (showing changes in language use over time) and the Macmillan Online Dictionary. Dictionaries with CD-ROMs in them are particularly useful because of the advanced search tools which are often available on them. Julie has put more information about using these tools on her blog.

Finally, don’t accept everything the corpus tells you blindly. If it looks like a strange result, question it. Go deeper by clicking on the results to see the longer text, and look carefully at where the examples are taken from.

Tailor-making materials from an ESP perspective – Evan Frendo

Evan works mainly in the corporate sector, and has spent many years developing materials specific to his clients.

Corporate culture can influence the materials you make as you need to fit them into the training culture of the organisation. The needs of the business take priority over the needs of the individual students, and the focus is more on training than education. Materials tend to have a short shelf-life and may need to be frequently updated depending on the market. When creating tailor-made materials, you don’t need to worry so much about PARSNIPs (the topics which are often avoided in more commercial materials) providing the people you are creating the materials for are happy for them to be included. However, sometimes even in ESP they can cause problems. Evan was asked to use the longer term not the shorter term in some materials for oil workers (see photo below), even though ‘pig’ is a very generative term and is in common usage across the industry, including in the Middle East: Have you pigged the pipeline? Is the pipeline piggable?

When designing your own materials in these situations, you need to find the gap between ‘where they are now’ and ‘where they need to be’, then create materials to move the students from the first point to(wards) the second. This involves in-depth needs analysis which can be done through:

  • Analysing real texts that the students will need to be able to read/write. Tools like WordSmith can be useful here.
  • Finding out about the specific terminology students need, and what they are aware of already. Many of these may be well above their ‘level’ if they were in a traditional EFL environment.
  • Interviews with various stakeholders, not just the students and their managers.
  • Recordings (e.g. of meetings, telephone conversations).
  • Field notes (e.g. a day in the life of…, collected by shadowing somebody using the target language/doing the target job).

The materials you put together need to reflect the target discourse, which is why such in-depth research is vital. It shouldn’t be about what we as outsiders perceive to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather what is required within the organisation/industry you are creating the materials for. Genre is a key focus, including how to handle different/international understandings of those genres. For example, presentations may be done differently in different cultures, and there may be varying requirements for the amount of information included on slides depending on what they will be used for after the presentation. Use experts to tell you what counts as “successful communication”.

Communication style can be as important, if not more so, as lexis and grammar. Many learners don’t care about accuracy in the traditional sense, they care about meaning. They are often not aiming or a native speaker model, with English as a Lingua Franca becoming instead.

Ultimately, the materials you create must be evidence-led, not intuition-led.

Adventures in self-publishing – Christien Lee

What should you self-publish?

Something which fills a gap in the market, has good sales potential and where there is limited competition. Do your research! Christien decided to publish a print self-study guide for an English test in Canada, with an online component.

Print or e-book?

What are your audience likely to respond better to? Print can be considered more trustworthy, and for some people they prefer it because they’re more familiar with it. It can reduce the ease of pirate copies being distributed. Cost is also a factor here, as you need to spend more money up-front if you choose print.

Why self-publish?

Traditional publishers offer more cachet, better production values, no up-front costs, and you should get either commission or royalties. However, there is no guarantee of publication, it takes a long time to get products to market, you get less money and there is a delay in payment. Sales might also be quite low depending on how much the publishers choose to promote it.

Self-publishing means guaranteed publication, a short publication process and returns of up to 70% of sales. The disadvantages of it are that there is no guarantee of a return on your investment, and you may lose money due to upfront costs. There is also more work pre- and post-publication if you choose to self-publish.

How do you go about it?

You can use crowdsourcing, freelancers, friendsourcing (my favourite new word of the day!) or go it completely alone. The latter option is difficult as you need to deal with editing, layout, audio (maybe) and many other options, so it’s a good idea to look for specialists to avoid too much work for you. VoiceBunny is a tool you can use for audio: post a project on the site, and people can audition to be allowed to record for it.

Where should you publish it?

Amazon has a system called CreateSpace which is a print-on-demand service. You could also use book distribution systems like Draft2Digital, Lulu or Smashwords. Wayzgoose Press is a publisher which is somewhere between a traditional publisher and self-publishing. The Round is specifically aimed at ELT authors looking to publish something a little different from what traditional publishers offer.

Ensuring quality

Christien was putting together a test preparation book. When putting together something like this, it’s particularly important to provide a quality product. Questions need to match the original test for length, genre, register, topic, difficulty, distractor patterns and more. Here are some tools you can use to check that your material is at the right level:

Developing online content

If you decide to create online content to accompany your book, WordPress with premium options is a good choice as you can get features like a login-only area and a shopping cart. Articulate is a versatile tool for creating professional-looking online courses. Christien described it as ‘like PowerPoint on steroids’!

Problems with self-publishing

It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time, money and work involved in self-publishing. Be prepared for everything to take longer than you expect!

Other summaries of the day

Lizzie Pinard wrote four blogposts covering two talks in each:

Olga Sergeeva has summarised the whole day in one post.

Christina Rebuffet-Broadus writes beautiful SketchNotes of the talks she goes to, and the MaWSIG PCE was no different:

Finally, if you want to follow the day as it unfolded, Sophie O’Rourke, part of the MaWSIG team, put together a Storify with tweets from the whole event.