Materials designed for english language teaching a critical analysis
MATERIALS DESIGNED FOR ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING A Critical EvaluationMagdalena BobekIntroductionA coursebook is definitely a convenient aid in the language classroom, providing, a structurefor teaching and something teachers can rely on for linguistic, cultural and methodologicalsupport (McGrath 2002:10-11). However, even though carefully designed, a singlecoursebook can never completely meet the needs of a specific class of learners, but will oftennecessitate the integration of additional material to bridge the gap between what thecoursebook offers and what the teacher knows the learners still need, be it more practice of aparticular grammatical structure, exposure to more textual material, use of differentiatedmaterial for different levels of proficiency, or more use of activities for affective purposesand motivation (ibid:80-81). The set of materials that I have designed aims to show howcoursebook material can be supplemented to meet the learners needs and enable them topractise grammar with content they can identify with and enjoy.My Teaching Concept and Working EnvironmentAs a language practitioner I have always tried to hold my ground against coursebookdependency, because I believe it marginalizes the teachers role to that of little more than atechnician to use Richards words (1998:132). I have always favoured using a combination ofdifferent techniques and materials in my teaching either for reinforcement or for motivationpurposes of content that has proven to be laborious or uninteresting for learners. Linkinglanguage content to the learners life experiences and making pedagogy context-sensitive,location-specific [and] based on a true understanding of local linguistic, social, cultural, andpolitical particularities’ (Kumaravadivelu 2006:69), has not only proven to have a positiveinfluence on learners of all ages, but also complies with Prabhus view of the teacher as beinga reflective practitioner whose sense of plausibility or pedagogic intuition, with regard toclassroom practice is constantly being reviewed and refined in the light of theory and practicalexperience (Gray 2009:74). Like the teachers mentioned in Torres study of the use of an
ESP coursebook, I find myself adapting or changing textbook-based texts, adding new textsor deleting some, changing the management of the tasks, changing task inputs as well asexpected outputs (Hutchinson and Torres 1994:325 in Gray 2000:275), and sometimes evenreshaping the planned lesson while teaching it. It is my firm belief that besides being receiversof knowledge, learners should have the opportunity to respond to or challenge theinformation they receive from the perspective of their own culture (ibid:280) as well as fromtheir own point of view as individuals. This is something I strive to incorporate in myteaching as much as possible.The main aim of education at the primary, lower secondary school level in which I teach is forlearners to receive general knowledge of the various subject areas offered in the curriculum,including English. The national or school-leaving exams that learners sit in at the end of theirfinal year, play a key role in getting accepted into the secondary schools of their choice,especially into those with limited enrolement. It is worth mentioning that besides Mathematicsand the learners mother tongue (L1), these examinations also test knowledge of the firstforeign language (L2), which in the majority of schools in the country is English. Thosepupils who excel in L2 have additional opportunities in which to make good use of theirknowledge of English, such as taking part in the annual national English competition, wherethey can acquire extra credits for secondary school enrolement, or participate in externalexaminations such as the Cambridge ESOL examinations for young learners. Besides theprescribed coursebooks, most of our teachers have opted for ICT as a convenient tool to use intheir teaching, so that each classroom is equipped with a computer and if needed, lessons canalso be held in the school computer room.Class and Material ChoiceOf all the classes I teach I find my sixth graders, a group of twenty twelve-year-old pupils, tobe the most lively and yet the most inquisitive. Most of them are into their fourth year ofEnglish. Quite a few excel in L2 and three pupils are fluent L2 speakers. There are also a fewslower learners in the group and two who need extra help in all activities. The atmosphere inthe class is very positive as they seem to get along very well with one another and help eachother out whenever necessary. The main aim for learning English at this stage of their secondlanguage acquisition (SLA) is to obtain a good level of knowledge of the language, which is aprerequisite for successfully completing their scholastic year and continuing at the next level.
The prescribed coursebook, Messages 1 by Diana and Noel Goodey (2005), is quiteinteresting to follow, and as well as being attractive to the eye, offers more than adequatelearning material. A lot of the reading material is, however, culture bound with excessivereference to the British, American and Australian cultures. Because the learners cannotalways identify with its contents, quite often an additional explanation of a cultural orlinguistic particularity within the reading is required before they are able to further analyse itgrammatically or use it for other purposes. When the reading involves a theme that is ofparticular interest to the learners, I will often supplement it with additional material fromother sources and try to bring it as close as possible to their own life experiences. Havingdone that it can then serve other purposes more easily such as for grammar review orextended reading, writing and speaking practice.One such example can be found in Unit 6 of Messages 1 (2005:58), entitled Im usually late,which begins by introducing the learners to a few wild animals and some of their habits. Thetext and pictures serve to introduce the meaning and use of the frequency adverbs, always,usually, often, sometimes and never, as well as their position in the sentence. In my opinion,however, the above-mentioned frequency adverbs are not dealt with adequately enough at thisintroductory stage in the coursebook. The set of materials that I designed, [see lesson plan inAppendix 1], aim to supplement the coursebook material and help reinforce the learnersknowledge of the adverbs in more depth. I elaborated on the theme of animals from thecoursebook, because most children at this age have all sorts of pets at home, adore animalsand can easily identify with the subject matter, making the grammar easier to review.Material Analysis and CommentaryThe pupils were divided into five mixed ability groups with four pupils in each group, inwhich each member had a significant role to play in reaching the final goal. Even thoughsome practitioners, among them Penny Ur, do not consider group work to be good enough forlanguage development, arguing that it does not put enough emphasis on fluency and accuracy(Balancing fluency and accuracy, date not given), I found that the group tasks created a goodlearning atmosphere, as they triggererd interaction among the learners, and encourage[d]socialisation and teamwork, made learning possible through observation, and providedpractice in transferrable skills, such as collecting and classifying information, reasoning,critical thinking and creativity, which McGrath (2002:205-206) points out are important
factors within the learning process. Slower learners felt less intimidated, overcame theirshyness, participated better and were able to adopt certain things much faster just by listeningto their peers than they would being taught using only the traditional frontal approach. Theinstructions, which were explained and written on the board at the beginning of the lesson inL1, made it easier for all the pupils to understand what was expected of them. Had I used L2,there would always be a few pupils left in the dark, who would need an additional mothertongue explanation by a peer who […] understood, which Atkinson (1987:243) rightly pointsout, may often be better than the clearest inductive presentation by the teacher. The use ofL1 undoubtedly saved time. I welcome the use of L1 in the classroom, because as a potentialresourse (Auerbach 1993:21) it helps overcome problems of vocabulary, sentence structureand language confidence (Shamash 1990:72 in ibid:19) and, therefore lessens the feeling ofintimidation that slower learners go through far too often in their SLA. Each activity carriedout by the groups had a time limit, so as not to over-extend the tasks and make them boring.Once the instructions were clarified, my role as teacher changed to that of monitor/advisorand the power of decision-making was carried over to the pupils in the groups.Each group was given an envelope which contained the picture puzzle of an animal that theyhad to put together as well as additional information for the group tasks. This led to a lot ofinteraction mainly in L1 with frequent remarks in L2, which is something to be expected atthis level. Two pupils from each group, preferably those with a good knowledge of English,had to search the Internet to find at least three facts about their animals habits that werealways, usually, often, sometimes or never true. Learners at this age know how to operatecomputers very well, but are still inexperienced at searching for information (McGrath2002:126). They may waste precious time looking at irrelevant material, get lost ordistracted, and with the limited time available, their work may not be good (ibid). It is,therefore, always a wise choice for the teacher to prepare Internet material in advance andmonitor the learners at the computers. Pupils were advised to go to the Google Search Engineand type in questions about their animal using the frequency adverbs. Examples referring tothe anteater include: What do anteaters usually do?; What do anteaters never do?; What doanteaters always eat?; Where do anteaters usually sleep? [see Appendix 2]. Webpageaddresses were also prepared for each animal [see anteater example in Appendix 3], whichsaved time and enabled the pupils to search more easily. I emphasized writing short, to-the-point sentences and to avoid getting tangled up in long complex explanations. It was then leftup to the pupils to decide what was or was not relevant information. Even though some
learners needed more guidance in using the Internet than others, it gave them more freedom indeciding what to write and more responsibility in getting the work done. In short they becamemore autonomous (ibid:132). The pupils copied as much information from the computer asthey could find in the allotted time, and took it back to the group, where the other twomembers were busily pasting the puzzle pieces of their animal together and searching formore pictures from the Internet and other sources. The speed at which the groups workedvaried, depending on the animal they had to work with and their computer and L2 skills.Nonetheless, by the end of the first lesson all the pupils had found something about theiranimal and were ready to discuss it in their groups.During the second lesson the pupils were busy in their groups discussing and deciding on thebest and most relevant Internet information about their animal, paying particular attention tothe use and position of the frequency adverbs. The discussions in the groups were carried outin both L1 and L2. There was a lot of debate and peer explanations regarding the informationobtained. Some pupils even made use of the coursebook and their own notes to check if thefrequency adverbs were being used correctly. When things came to a standstill, some pupilsasked for my assistance. Once the members in each group came to an agreement as to theinformation they wanted to present, a third pupil from the group copied or typed it out, and itwas shown to me for final approval before being added to their picture puzzle [see Appendix4]. The information and picture puzzles of all the animals were then put on a big poster,forming the overall class project. Finally, a representative from each group presented theiranimal by reading the information out loud to the rest of the class. Had there been enoughtime, we could have taken this activity a step further for reinforcement purposes and playedthe Guess the animal game, where the pupils would try to guess the name of the animal bylistening to hints given by the teacher based on the material collected in the groups. I left thegame for another day.At the end of the second lesson everything began to focus on the learners and their lifeexperiences with animals. I monitored their comments by asking them questions such as:Where does your dog always eat? or When do you usually clean your budgies cage?, so as tokeep to the grammar point that was being reinforced, and get them to properly formulate asmany examples as possible using the frequency adverbs. This then led to their homeworkassignment, which involved writing five sentences about their favourite animal and/or pet, in
which they had to include as many of the frequency adverbs as possible, such as: what itnever eats, where it always sleeps, what it usually plays with, and so on.On the whole our goals had been met. The learners reinforced their knowledge of thefrequency adverbs, learned new facts about less-known animals around the world,subsequently concentrated on their own experiences with animals, and had fun in the process.Overall EvaluationPerhaps there is some truth in Swans claim that for the most part of the worlds languagelearners the task-based approach might prove less effective for the systematic teaching ofnew language especially in cases where time is limited and out-of-class exposureunavailable (2005:376). However, it works very well for reinforcement purposes as the aboveactivities have shown. The pupils not only reviewed the grammar as such, but they did it bybeing engage[d] in a language activity, and using [the] language pragmatically (Ellis2003:9-10). They also used the cognitive processes mentioned by Ellis, that of selecting,classifying, ordering, reasoning, and evaluating information (ibid:10) to get the task done. Itwas not just a matter of learning a grammatical structure and supplying the right answers in agiven exercise from the coursebook. They were actually putting their knowledge of frequencyadverbs to real use by searching for new information by themselves, debating and discussingit and finally coming to an agreement as to its relevancy. The activities were learner-centeredwith the teacher stepping down and giving them freedom of choice. Of course, they all neededsome sort of guidance from time to time, even if it only meant answering yes or no to a simplequestion. But this pushed them forward and urged them to get the work done. It also got allthe learners in the groups involved on an equal level. Perhaps there was less of L2 being usedin the discussions themselves, but that cannot be evaded at this level of SLA. What wasimportant was achieving content relevancy and lingustic correctness of the final result towhich they all contributed each in their own way – searching for information, reading to thegroup, listening to the facts being read, choosing the best information, copying it on paper,and reading it to the rest of the class. They all gained something positive from the activities,and judging by their remarks during and after the lessons, the vast majority of the pupilsenjoyed the different approach. There were also no disciplinary problems, because even theslower learners wanted to be involved in this challenging task.
ConclusionAs a practitioner I firmly believe that learning a language is a jointly constructed and sociallymotivated process, contingent on the concerns, interests, desires, and needs of the user, andthat my role as teacher is among other things to manage and facilitate the social processes outof which – and for which – language develops (Thornbury and Meddings 2001:11). I will notdeny using the coursebook in my teaching, however, not to the extent that it dictates how Iteach or which learning element I give priority to in a particular unit. Using a variety ofapproaches and allowing learners to interact with one another, where they can make use ofwhat they have learned, through activities that encourage learner initiation and creativity andallow the possibility of peer feedback (McGrath 2001:209), adds to the vitality needed insuccessful SLA, where the learners are not only receivers of knowledge, but also decision-makers.APPENDIX:
1. Lesson PlanI have designed a follow-up activity whose main aim is to reinforce the use of the frequencyadverbs, always, usually, often, sometimes and never, and their position in the sentence whileat the same time allowing learners to discover new facts about yet other less known animals intheir country and the world.Pre-activities: - pupils give a quick oral review of the frequency adverbs and their meanings - they listen to the follow-up activity instructionsActivity:Step 1: - divide the class into groups of four/five (There can be fewer learners in each group depending on how big the class is) - each group is given an envelope in which there is a picture puzzle and name of an unknown animal - the pupils first task in the group is to put the picture puzzle together to see which animal they have to work withStep2: - two pupils from each group go to a computer (Google Search Engine) and type in the name of the animal from the envelope. Eg: anteater, or the webpages and/or questions about the animal suggested by the teacher - they search the Internet to find new facts about the animal and try using the frequency adverbs that are being reviewed (ie. what it never eats; how it usually looks for food; where it always sleeps; and so on) - the pupils write as much information as they can in the allotted time and return to their groups - other pupils in the group put the animal puzzle together and look for more pictures from the Internet and other sourcesStep 3: - the newly acquired information is read to the other members of the group and discussed - there may be a pupil in the group who knows something more about the animal - this additional information (if any), is also added - any disagreements regarding the information are discussed with the help of the teacher
- a pupil from the group writes or types the sentences about the animal on an A4 paper and shows the teacher for approval - this is then added to the picture puzzleStep 4: - all this information is then put on a big poster along with the information of the animals from the other groups to form the overall class project. - a pupil from each group reads the information of their animal to the rest of the classPost activities: exchanging information – a guessing game – writing a similar presentation of your favourite animal2. Google: what do anteaters usually do?http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&ei=E_r1SYuANYv3_Aa-y7jLCQ&sa=X&oi=spell&resnum=1&ct=result&cd=1&q=what+do+anteaters+usually+do&spell=1
3. Webpage addresses of each animal were prepared for the groups to look at, such as: (Web Links): http://www.maiaw.com/anteater/links.html (Giant Anteater): http://www.thebigzoo.com/Animals/Giant_Anteater.asp4. End product of pupils group work. The Anteater.Picture of anteater taken from:http://www.chatanplay.com/arcade/attachments/kids-area/185d1217800634-forum-game-kids-anteater1.jpg
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