SLB member Myles Klynhout shares his thoughts on what a materials bank could offer ELT teachers & learners.
Talk of a new wave of ELT materials
Last Saturday I caught up with some of my fellow co-opers (before the Barcelona vs. Madrid match of course) for an informal workshop on building a materials bank. The discussion was led by Neil McMillan and Geoff Jordan and continued our efforts to adapt our existing bank to fit better with the concept outlined in this post on Geoff’s blog. Our desire at SLB to develop a fully functional ELT materials bank which meets Geoff’s criteria has now resulted in an exciting, easy-to-use and rapidly growing online database. I thought it was time for myself to sit down and evaluate the relationship between coursebooks and the materials I take along to my ELT classes.
What is a materials bank?
Earlier in the year, we at SLB tweeted a range of ELT materials and lesson ideas featured on www.designerlessons.org. This is a prime example of a blog-form materials bank and there are many others to be found online. It is only fair that all of the lesson ideas were road tested before tweeting and it was an enjoyable teaching experience for me. The following is not a review of the materials used, but my own reflections as an experienced teacher (working primarily with adults) on what materials banks can offer to both the teacher and learner.
Throughout this post I draw comparisons between materials banks and coursebooks. It would be unfair to tar all coursebooks with the same brush. You may well find a diamond in the rough. The type of coursebook I refer to is one built around a focus on forms approach and tightly bound to a structural syllabus. That is, a book that supports a structure-of-the-day approach, where the students’ primary focus is on form (i.e., accuracy) and where the activities are directed intensively at a single grammatical structure, lexical set, function, etc (Ellis 2001). A coursebook of this nature guides the teacher through a series of pre-ordained forms from a pre-selected syllabus (set by the order of chapters in the book), of which the learner has had little to no say over the content. In each lesson the majority of attention and time is dedicated to working on the meaning & form of one discrete item at the expenses of communicative activities and may restrict time allowed to focus on emergent language.
Likewise, to clarify, there are materials banks that are also based on a focus on forms approach and seemingly only produce worksheets organised by the principals of a PPP that can already be found in coursebooks. An ideal materials bank, in contrast, should be free or affordable, contain highly flexible materials and not conform to one distinct methodology. The majority of these ‘ideal banks‘ are run by everyday teachers and independent materials writers, not by the big publishers.
Four thoughts on why a materials bank offers more than coursebooks
1. Ability to pick & choose selectively
Many materials banks take the form of blogs, such as decentralisedteachingandlearning.com, film-english.com, lessonstream.org; social media groups, like Free and Fair ELT; or can be realised in a book or ebook, e.g. At work by Paul Walsh. Materials banks are non-sequential and do not impose a syllabus or order of lessons to be followed. They allow teachers to dip in and out of the bank as they please to cherry pick and adapt the materials to their students’ needs and level. Materials could be used in a one-off class or build a series of classes.
The majority of resources featured in an ideal materials banks are written for the teacher. They can be accompanied by instructions on how the material ranging from a detailed lesson plan, a paragraph summarising how they used the material in the past, or a couple of bullet points suggesting things that went well when tried out. However, as many things in ELT, I feel less is more when it comes to instructions for teachers! With increased flexibility of use, the onus is placed on the teacher (and rightly so) to adapt the materials to the needs of their learners and apply their own pedagogical beliefs. Conversely, a coursebook is inevitably written for and to be sold onto a student. The materials are tied to the method in which the book is written to support (whether it be PPP, the lexical approach, etc) and show little courtesy to experienced teachers. As teachers we need to ask who knows our students better – the coursebook writer or you?
An all-too-familiar scenario: it’s day one of class with a new group and the first thing I want to know is what makes them tick and what their needs are. The next week often proves to be one of the busiest as hours are invested outside the classroom to put a plan of action together that has been negotiated to some extent with the students. This comprises a series of tasks that rely on input from a range of materials banks and authentic materials. At this point, the last thing I require is a pre-packaged, sequential syllabus with strict instructions on the box – that’s to say, a student coursebook accompanied by a teachers book. This is where the flexibility of a materials bank could come in handy. Just imagine if you could filter by level, topic, input (listening/reading), desired output (speaking/writing), possible focus on form, and so on.
2. Why can’t I pick and choose from a coursebook?
You may be able to, but I’m afraid it would be slim pickings. Unfortunately, as structural or grammar based syllabi still remain in place as the key organising factor for most coursebooks, their content includes numerous instances of texts littered with discrete items which make it feel artificial. If text included in the book has been included from an authentic source, e.g. a newspaper article from ‘The Telegraph’, it has often been manipulated to the point where it bears little resemblance to the original version. That is, if the grammar point of the day is the passive tense, the text will be seeded with an exorbitant number of examples of the passive tense, consequently making it difficult for a teacher to teach anything else with it.
And to this day, I am yet to see any alternative approach successfully realised in a coursebook. It would involve a collection of flexible input materials with ‘guidelines’ rather than ‘instructions’ for teacher. And due to the teaching skills and human factor required to implement a lesson successfully, it may just not be possible to capture this in a ready to go coursebook. All of this seems best left to the ideas and activities freely generated in materials banks which teachers handpick and adapt to make their own. These materials do not need to be neatly polished, marketable, packageable or sellable, just editable & useable!
3. Sharing is caring
A Creative Commons ‘CC’ licence is used when an author wants to give people the right to share, use, and build upon a work that they have created. This could be either openly free to everyone online, or free to those who contribute to the shared project. Such ELT materials created for non-commercial profit are, more often than not, flexible enough for teachers to download & adapt.
As previously mentioned, when shared via a blog, teachers are encouraged to leave feedback on how they used the materials to meet their learners’ needs, the changes they made to any suggested procedure or lesson plan can be added as a ‘version 2.0’ for the next teacher to come along and try out. Thus, the materials are not static, they continue to evolve over time and encourage the sharing of new ideas, just jump on twitter and the blogs mentioned above and have a look. Odds are, one of the ways in which the material was exploited by another teacher might be similar to what you had in mind for your class!
Some may argue that such an approach to materials writing undermines the work done by experienced writers. My gut tells me that work of professional writers is well-intentioned but once passing through the publishers’ filters, the final product is skewed. As a teacher the time invested to deconstruct and shape coursebook material to use for anything else than its exact intended purpose (the seeded language item) could be better spent developing my own from an authentic text.
4. Finally, the fun is in the making
Coming together for a bi-monthly lesson jam at the cooperative allows me to share and develop materials and ideas for the classroom. There is something great about the feeling of teaching using your own materials, or those of a colleague, then having the opportunity to come together and discuss and evaluate how they were used. Additionally, being locally produced, many of the materials are relevant to the issues Catalan & Spanish speakers face, and the topics they are often interested in.
As a member of SLB you can both benefit from and contribute to our materials bank. You can find out more about joining our cooperative here. However every now and then we like to share some ideas online for teachers to freely access worldwide – many have appeared on designerlessons.org (which was the brainchild of founding SLB member George Chilton).
Ellis, R. (2001). Investigating form-focused instruction. In R. Ellis (Ed.), Form-focused instruction and second language learning (pp. 1–46). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
— Serveis Lingüístics (@SLBCoop) December 3, 2016