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This house believes that published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners

Young woman public speakingAhead of the ELT Journal debate at IATEFL Liverpool, Graham Hall, editor of ELT Journal, presents his arguments for and against the need for published course materials.

Teaching and learning materials of one form or another are almost, but not quite, universal in ELT classrooms. And, obviously, the materials available to teachers and learners vary widely according to context; teachers and learners may also use similar materials in different ways depending on, for example, their beliefs, knowledge and skills, and wider social and institutional expectations.

But over time, changing ideas about language learning combined with developments in technology lead to changes in ELT materials. ‘Older’ materials are often replaced by newer resources which, in turn, eventually become outdated or unfashionable. So it can help us as teachers to think through some of the debates surrounding teaching and learning materials to make up our own minds about their strengths and weaknesses.

By way of example, let’s look at some of the debates surrounding textbooks (and here I mean textbooks generally, rather than evaluating a particular book or series). Textbooks are the main source of teaching ideas and materials for many teachers around the world; indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine ELT without textbooks. But whether they are a help or hindrance to teaching and learning is often a source of heated discussion.

Well-designed textbooks have a number obvious benefits for teachers and learners. They provide language input for learners; they can provide interesting and motivating material, organised in an appealing and logical manner; and they provide a written record of what has been studied, allowing for revision and continued study beyond the classroom. Textbooks also reduce the amount of time teachers’ require for preparation. So, one way of thinking about textbooks is that professional materials writers and teachers have different areas of expertise which complement each other. Using well-presented, professionally published textbooks frees teachers to deal with the day-to-day business of actually teaching.

But there are a number of criticisms of textbooks. Perhaps they create a ‘dependency culture’ in which teachers avoid responsibility and just do ‘what they are told’ by the textbook writers. As a result (so the argument goes), teachers may become ‘de-skilled’, losing their ability to think critically and work independently in the classroom. Textbooks are also said to fail to cater for individual needs, lead to material- rather than person-centred classes, and constrain creativity in the classroom.

However, criticisms of textbooks extend beyond these classroom-focused concerns. As well as being an teaching resource, textbooks are commercial products, which, it is claimed, are innately conservative in order to sell as widely as possible. This caution might be methodological, or it might be reflected in the cultural images that textbooks present. Most textbooks, for example, continue to focus on native-speaker lives, lifestyles and language varieties, and images of successful L2 learners are absent from many ELT materials; likewise, images of poverty, disability and many other aspects of ‘real life’ are difficult to find in many textbooks. Thus, it is argued, textbooks are not ‘neutral’, but reflect a particular view of social order and particular sets of values.

Of course, it is would unfair to suggest that textbooks writers and publishers are not aware of, or concerned about, these issues; yet producing a marketable product which does not ignore global and local realities and contexts is a difficult challenge.

These issues will be discussed and debated in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Liverpool on Thursday 11th April (17:05-18:20 UK time). There, Scott Thornbury will propose the motion ‘This house believes that published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners’; Catherine Walter will oppose the motion. For more information about the conference, and to access the debate via Liverpool online, go to http://www.iatefl.org/.

Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.


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Involving Parents in the Learning Process

Parents helping with homeworkAhead of her talk at IATEFL Liverpool, Olha Madylus takes a look at best ways to involve parents in the learning of languages.

Beginning foreign language learning at a young age is generally agreed to be a good idea. Younger children’s brains are more sensitive to linguistic changes pre-adolescence, teachers have more freedom to teach the ‘whole’ child, so learners can learn holistically without getting bogged down and put off by a ‘grammar’ approach. As well as this, children can develop very positive feeling towards English having been introduced to it through meaningful stories, catchy kinesthetic songs and fun activities. And, very importantly, this motivation can underpin many years of further study.

But the reality is younger learners usually study English for a limited time per week, quite often just an hour or two. Their parents take them along to English lessons, believing quite rightly that an early start is a good idea. Alas the children themselves have no extrinsic motivation to learn English and this lack of the kind of motivation which spurs older students to continue their studies outside the classroom autonomously – in addition to the fact that, although they can pick things up very quickly, they also tend to forget quickly, too – can lead to little perceived progress in learning English.

Parents getting involved in their children’s learning of English can help to fill these gaps.

Let’s just consider the advantage of parents reading English story books with their children at home. (Even parents who themselves have little or no English can use audio CDs to support such reading. They can even take advantage of learning with their children).  By reading together even for 30 minutes a week, the learners’ contact with English is increased and crucially children’s perceptions of the value of English is heightened – if mummy and daddy want to read these English stories too, it’s not just something for the classroom, but it has relevance in my wider life, too!

Bringing parents into the equation has other benefits. Getting involved and understanding what, and how, their children are learning in English, makes it not only a shared, and therefore very special, experience but also encourages parents to take a greater interest in what their children are doing in their English lessons and support that learning-teaching dynamic.

Renee Sawazaki, writing in IATEFL CATS Spring newsletter describes a Japanese scheme where parents got involved in reading with English their children and the marvellous successes it had.

My presentation at IATEFL Liverpool will look at very practical approaches to encouraging parental involvement and how a website like Oxford Parents can give invaluable aid in this process.

Olha Madylus will be talking about Involving Parents in the Learning Process at IATEFL Liverpool on Wednesday 10th April in Hall 1A at 5:10pm


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Reading for pleasure – Activities to get students involved

Teenage Girl ReadingContinuing the Reading for Pleasure series, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at ways of involving students in the reading process.

So, we’ve started our class library. Students have the books and many have begun reading them. In an ideal world, my students would now go on to read a variety of stories, sharing their experience with their friends, while effortlessly improving their English. Like I said, in an ideal world. In the real world of my classroom, most of my students are looking at me with a look that says, “Okay, we’re reading. Now what?” There is the expectation to do something with the reading. And I need to meet that expectation to keep them involved and motivated.

In my classes, I use the first lesson of each month to introduce an activity they can do based on their reading. The main aim of the activity is to keep them involved and share their reading experience with their friends and family. You can find 10 of these activities on the Oxford Big Read website, so I won’t explain how to do them here. However, there are some important underlying features in these activities that are crucial for the reading experience to also become a learning experience.

Let’s take the first 2 activities from the Oxford Big Read as examples of this. The first is based on the whole class and the second is based on students working individually.

Bingo

“Why are we playing Bingo?” they ask me. It’s a good question. As I am a firm believer that teaching should not be a secret, we discuss why we are playing Bingo.

First, playing Bingo involves all the students in the class, even those who have not yet started reading their book. Everyone can participate, some by saying words from their stories, others by simply writing them in their Bingo card. Without preaching to them about the value of reading, I am saying to all my students, “If you want to, you can do this!”.

Second, each student reads and understands based on their own ability and interest. There are no wrong answers. Maria may decide to say “love” in relation to Tom Sawyer because that is the part she liked, or simply because that is the last part she read. One student in my class said “adventure” simply because it was on the cover. I wrote the word on the board, the students wrote it on their Bingo card and the activity continued.

Third, playing Bingo creates a certain curiosity about the different stories.

Students become curious about what others are reading based on just words. A word like “dragon” or “murder” will raise a few eyebrows. This may lead students to talk to each other about the stories outside of the classroom. In this context, playing Bingo is just a means to another end.

Finally, playing Bingo reinforces the positive reading environment I want to create around the class library. The activity associates reading with fun and enjoyment, going against their original perceptions. As the first activity in our class library, Bingo encourages the more hesitant and sceptical students to start reading, showing them how they can participate.

Discussing this with them helps them to see that there is more to Bingo than simply playing a game.

Posters               

The first individual activity I ask my students to do is to make a poster for the story they are reading. Making posters reinforces the features I have mentioned in playing Bingo, but it goes further.

First, the language for the posters is in their stories. There is little need for the teacher to intervene. Whether based on a sentence or around 10 words, students refer back to their stories to find the language they will include in their posters.

Second, displaying posters reinforces that their work is for their friends to see, not simply for the teacher to correct. This will emphasise that they are sharing their reading experience with others. Becoming fully aware of this will lead them to be more careful about spelling and grammar mistakes. They will browse through their books to help them get it right and thus reinforce language learning.

Third, displaying their posters will add to the sense of achievement they already feel in understanding and enjoying a story in a foreign language. Seeing their poster amongst everyone else’s will strengthen their involvement in learning English, regardless of whether they are weak or strong students. After all, there is their work being looked at and read by others.

Finally, their posters have a communicative purpose. They are not meant simply for the teacher to correct, but primarily to encourage their friends to read the story. And this encouragement is based on what they liked about the story. There is real student-to-student communication, making the English they use more memorable to them.

The features of these 2 activities will become part of the class library as the activities change. As students’ confidence and self-esteem increase, so will their learning.

Verri will be running a workshop on setting up a class library at IATEFL Liverpool on Tuesday 9th April.