The ELT Journal debate at IATEFL Liverpool was a lively and well-attended affair. Thanks to the British Council, you can see the whole event online on the IATEFL Liverpool website. Here, Catherine Walter, who opposed the motion, gives her round up of the debate.
Scott Thornbury claimed that Published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners. Surprisingly, he did not repeat what he’s been saying for years in his Dogme / Teaching Unplugged strand – that teachers should not bother with course materials. Instead, he started from the weaker premise that course materials need improvement. Scott began by showing images of early twentieth-century books – hardly germane to the discussion, as if the nutritional value of deep-fried Mars Bars gave a picture of the contemporary diet. He maintained that there is a prevalence of employed, white, heterosexual male middle class characters in current materials. This doesn’t correspond to the regular exercises I do with students to count and classify representations in materials, where some materials do very well indeed. Scott also suggested that vocabulary syllabuses are not based on frequency, and that spoken grammar is not well represented. I would argue with both these points.
There are high quality materials available today from international and national publishers. Most learners globally learn from materials in countries where English is not a dominant language, in large classes that meet two or three times a week, where access to other materials or the internet may not be good. The book is still a valuable technology here; and it is also often doorway to different possible combinations of supplementary materials and activities, in whatever media the teachers and learners can access.
What about reflecting the lives of learners?
When I was learning a foreign language as an adolescent in a semi-rural working-class industrial town, I did not want language teaching materials to reflect my life – I wanted them to take me out of it, to show me other lives and other ways of living. Further, if materials are too firmly anchored in the here and now of the learner, how will that prepare them for the future? Of course, there are some ways in which course materials should and do reflect learners’ lives – for example, by being based on knowledge about how people learn at different ages, or by comparing learners’ lives to those in other places.
What about learners’ needs?
- Learners need to learn the language, not just those bits of the language that might happen to emerge in a lesson. Teams of course developers think very carefully about the range of language learners need, and make sure this range is covered. Individual teachers don’t have the time or resources for this.
- Learners need classroom time to be used effectively, because typically there isn’t much of that time. Course materials offer clear, efficient ways of teaching language – and Norris and Ortega’s (2000) and Spada and Tomita’s (2010) analyses show that this works, and results in lasting acquisition.
- Learners need materials that will help them with the next English language situation they will meet. Course materials provide structures and contexts for out-of-classroom situations.
- Learners need access to extra resources that can be tailored to their needs. Modern courses offer pathways and activities to suit different learners.
- Learners need clear goals and records of progress, and they value materials because they give these.
- Learners need teachers who are well supported: course materials scaffold teachers, giving them a base from which to replace, reinvent, innovate and fine-tune materials for learners.
- Learners need teachers who have access to professional development activities. Few teachers around the world can come to an IATEFL conference. Teachers in the majority 3-hour-a-week context, and not only there, regularly report on how they benefit from the teacher’s materials in their course books and in their development as professionals.
There is an unprecedented choice of materials available today; teachers don’t need to feed their students deep-fried Mars Bars. Materials can give teachers something to depend on, and something to kick against; they can give teachers frameworks and ingredients to depend on and to improvise from. How teachers nourish their students’ learning will always stem from the teachers’ creativity and their awareness of learners’ needs and lives.
Catherine Walter writes English language teaching materials and lectures in applied linguistics at the University of Oxford (UK). She is the convenor of the low-residency Postgraduate Diploma / MSc in Teaching English Language in University Settings (on which there are still a few places available for the coming academic year!).
Norris, J. M. and L. Ortega. 2000. Effectiveness of L2 instruction: a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning 50/3:417-528.
Spada, N. and Tomita, Y. 2010. Interactions between type of instruction and type of language feature: a meta-analysis. Language Learning 60/2:1-46.