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Using outside materials in the classroom

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Young adults in classMike Boyle has taught English to adult learners in Japan and the United States, and is now a materials writer in New York City. He is the co-author of the Starter level of American English File Second Edition. In this article, he shares his thoughts on using outside materials to make your lessons more relevant, effective, and memorable.

For the last two years, I’ve had the great privilege of working with Clive Oxenden and Christina Latham-Koenig on the second edition of American English File. One of the best parts of this experience has been seeing firsthand how these great authors find and adapt outside texts, topics, and stories for the course.

I think Christina and Clive’s approach to outside materials not only makes for a great coursebook, but can also be helpful for teachers who use outside articles, videos, songs, and other materials in their lessons. Here are some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned.

The “train test” and the “wow factor”

Clive and Christina always say that the readings in a textbook must pass the “train test.” If you picked up the coursebook on a train, would you read the texts with interest?

We know that students are going to learn more, and retain more, if they are interested in what they’re studying. For the same reason, the best materials have memorable facts or characters which make your learners think, “Wow!” and which stay in their minds after the lesson has ended.

Very few texts truly pass this test, which is why so much of a writer’s time is spent reading newspapers, magazines, advertisements, news sites, social media, blogs – anything and everything – in search of the next great idea.

The “so what?” test

The best texts (or audio recordings, or videos) do more than grab your learners’ interest. They also lead to genuine speaking and communication. It’s vital to use texts that your learners would be stimulated to read and talk about in their own language. Because if they wouldn’t be, they certainly won’t be very motivated to do it in a foreign language.

The best topics are usually ones that you and your class have some experience of or an opinion about. A text about a totally unfamiliar topic (tornadoes in the American Midwest, for example) can be very interesting, but might go nowhere in class. It would be better to find a text that lets the class see something familiar in a fresh, new way.

For these reasons, when considering a text, a good test is whether you can think of three great discussion questions that would follow it. If you can’t, it might not work in class. Your learners might only shrug and think, “That’s interesting, but so what?”

Google-ability

We know how disappointing it can be when you Google the people in a text and discover the authors simply made them up. That’s why we’re very proud that the people, places, and stories in American English File are real. You can Google them and find out more about them – and maybe even find photos or videos of them to share with your students. In many cases, we’ve gone to great lengths to interview these people ourselves and get their stories firsthand.

Teachers can do the same to bring real, interesting people and their stories into the classroom. Blogs are a great place to look. Bloggers who are doing interesting things are often quite easy to reach and happy to be interviewed over email or even Skype. Knowing that they’re hearing from a “real” person will make your lessons much more motivating and rewarding for your learners.

Humor and suspense

Anything that makes your class laugh (or even smile) can be a huge benefit in the classroom. Laughter creates a relaxed, stress-free classroom, and this will make everyone more comfortable about speaking English and participating in the lesson. Humor can also be a great check of comprehension – if they didn’t understand, they won’t laugh.

Another great way to engage a class and keep their attention is to use texts and stories that have surprising endings or unexpected results. Give the class everything but the ending and have them guess before you reveal it to them.

The text comes first, and the target language follows

Some writers and teachers begin their search for a text by thinking: “This is the simple past unit, so let’s find a text with lots of regular -ed verbs.” The problem with this approach is that it often leads to texts that don’t get your learners’ attention and don’t get them talking.

It’s more effective to find something truly interesting and then dig into the text for the appropriate vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation points. When your learners are eager to discuss the text they will be much more motivated to master the new language that’s already in it.

To hear more from Mike on using outside materials in the classroom, sign up for one of the following webinars:

24 October 2013: 02:00 BST / 10:00 Japan / 23:00 Brazil / 21:00 New York (-1 day)
25 October 2013: 16:00 BST / 11:00 New York / 12:00 Brazil / 00:00 Japan (+1 day)

Register for the webinar now!

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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7 thoughts on “Using outside materials in the classroom

  1. thanks for a very interesting post! that’s true, texts in the coursebooks have to be interesting! In fact, when I was starting my work as a teacher, I used to flick through coursebooks on trains, buses, etc., and English file always passed the “train test”. I remember I learned a lot of interesting facts and stories from the coursebooks then!

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  3. Hello Mike,
    Thanks a lot for these awesome tips. I couldn’t agree more with you about what you have said.
    Google-ability is great. Yesterday I had the opportunity to do it. I was teaching pre intermediate I with English File and there was a text about a famous fashion designer and I googled videos and pics of the fashion designer interviewed. It was so cool… students loved that, the mood of the class was so nice and they learned a lot. Thanks you for doing a great work,
    Marta Luchesa

    • Hi Marta, thanks for sharing and for your kind words. I can’t take credit for Pre-Intermediate but it’s great to hear that you were able to do this and I know Clive and Christina will be thrilled as well! Hope to see you at the webinar.

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