What we talk about when we talk about best practices: Choosing materials
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Learner autonomy is connected to motivation. If a curriculum does not use materials relevant to learners, their motivation can — at best — lag.
"One of the most challenging tasks constantly facing language teachers is how to capture the interest and to stimulate the imagination of their students so that they will be more motivated to learn," writes Gail K. Oura.
Oura, David Nunan, Jerry G. Gebhard and many others make a powerful case for curriculum to use authentic materials. Nunan defines authentic materials as "spoken or written language data that has been produced in the course of genuine communication, and not specifically written for purposes of language teaching."
Significant research suggests that textbooks pose a variety of problems. One criticism that Jane Crawford points out is that textbooks hamstring teachers to "managing or overseeing preplanned events." Another concern is that textbooks have cultural prejudices.
Further, textbooks "fail to present appropriate and realistic language models." Still other criticisms are that learners' roles are subordinated, and textbooks lack contextualizing language activities. They encourage "inadequate cultural understanding," they do not "address discourse competence," and gender representation lacks equality.
There are some advantages to textbooks, however. According to Crawford, they can encourage learner autonomy, provided students are intrinsically motivated to use the texts. Textbooks can provide necessary "structure and predictability" and can be a "map or plan of what is intended and expected."
The question, Crawford writes, is how to balance the use of textbooks with other materials. "The issue, then, is not whether teachers should or should not use (textbooks) — most do at some point in their career — but what form these materials should take if they are to contribute positively to teaching and learning."
Crawford asserts that "teachers and their experience have a crucial role to play in materials production as well as in their critical classroom use, and the best writers are probably practicing teachers." She notes that teachers must be given the time and technology to produce authentic materials.
"Without such authenticity ... it is difficult to provide culturally rich input, or to develop coping strategies that will enable students to take advantage of the extracurricular input to which they have access," Crawford writes.
Crawford delineates that effective materials must:
- Be realistic and "must contextualize the language they present."
- Be resources that students can use as "references beyond the classroom and independently of the teacher."
- Use language that "is not artificially constrained" and simultaneously "amenable to exploitation for language teaching purposes."
- Be realistic. "The more realistic the language, the more easily it can cater to the range of proficiency levels found in many classes." Those developing and choosing materials must account for students' needs and learning style preferences.
- Cover "a range of genres" — particularly reading materials.
- Include audio visual elements — regardless of the skills focus.
- Nurture learner independence. "No language course can predict all the language needs of learners and must seek, therefore, to prepare them to deal independently with the language they encounter as they move into new situations."
- Incorporate self-assessment and critical reflection so learners are required to "reflect on their progress."
Edith Kusnic and Mary Lou Finley observe: "Self-evaluation is a learning strategy that helps students make meaning, derive relevance and build coherence through their educational experiences. They assert that self-reflection is an especially key technique ― for particular populations of students: older students, students of color, women, and students with more divergent or active learning styles."
Effective materials will "be flexible enough to cater to individual contextual differences" because language learning ― while a social activity ― is an "individual process." Therefore, "teachers must recognize the different backgrounds, experiences and learning styles" of their students, Crawford writes.
As Crawford asserts, "It is to a large extent the learners, not the teachers, who control what is learned since it is they who selectively organize the sensory input into meaningful wholes." Therefore, instructors must be given the freedom "to adapt the materials to the context in which learning is taking place." Effective materials must involve the whole learner by "engag(ing) learners affectively and cognitively."
Ultimately, effective materials are "guides" and not "straitjackets" (which textbooks often are) that provide "cultural and linguistic input and a rich selection of integrated activities" that will allow teachers the time to "cater to individual (student) needs."
Charles Kelly, Lawrence Kelly, Mark Offner and Bruce Vorland have been using authentic materials for over a decade with great success. They have a vast library of authentic materials, which they attribute to "enlivening the class and creating a more positive attitude toward learning."
When Bernice Melvin and David Stout used authentic materials, they found that students' motivation to learn increased and students demonstrated a "renewed interest in the subject matter." Chi Cheung Ruby Yang asserts that instructors "should tailor-make the learning materials that suit the proficiency levels and interests of their own students."
While textbooks have their place, Robert O'Neill warns that "textbooks can at best provide only a base or core of materials. They are a jumping-off point for teacher and class. They should not aim to be more than that."
Best practices research illustrates the need for instructors to be given the opportunity to develop and implement authentic materials that are adaptable to their students' needs and goals.
In the next article, we will explore placement testing, needs analysis and needs assessment, and literacy autobiographies.
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