How many times have images like this one leaped out at me when I flip through a newly published Business English coursebook?
Too many times to count.
It’s not just the pictures that show a striking similarity in published Business English materials. It’s also the exercises, the accompanying audio materials, the storyline running through the coursebooks, and the underlying beliefs about how people learn languages.
No matter what your teaching context is, you can probably relate to seeing the same types of materials over and over from publishers. Without a doubt, published materials have their advantages. They can be a timesaver for busy teachers; they’re a source of activities students can do in the classroom; and they can give teachers an idea of how to structure their lessons. Perhaps most importantly, published materials show us the result of careful drafting, revising, and editing. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to examine them from two angles: from the materials user’s perspective and from the materials writer’s perspective.
Evaluating other people’s materials
Even though published materials are very polished, we need to remember that they are often heavily influenced by what publishers believe will sell. As a result, certain topics, like politics or religion, are less likely to appear in published coursebooks. And what is covered in published materials might perpetuate stereotypes of certain groups of people. Worst of all, the way target language is presented and practiced in published materials is not always grounded in second language acquisition research or the science of learning.
It’s not always our choice to use a certain coursebook in our classes. Sometimes that decision has been made for us. But, no matter who selects a coursebook or course materials, teachers should still examine those materials with a critical eye. There are many frameworks and checklists for evaluating learning materials (e.g., collection of checklists) that teachers can use as a starting point for developing their own criteria. For me, the important questions I ask when looking at learning materials are:
- Learning goals: What are my learning goals for my learners? To what extent will the materials help them reach one or more of these goals?
- Learner wants: What do my learners want to learn? Are the materials a good fit for their wants? Will my learners find the materials engaging?
- Assessment: How will my learners be assessed? To what extent do the materials prepare my learners for upcoming assessments?
- What we know about learning: Do the materials fit what I know about second language acquisition? The science of learning? Neuroscience?
- Values: Whose values are foregrounded in the materials, and what are these values? What values might my students discover in the materials? For example, in the photo at the beginning of this article showing two men shaking hands in front of a city skyline, one learner might see a willingness to cooperate, successful communication, and good business practices. Another learner might see powerful men, a lack of diversity, and a sparkling cosmopolitan cityscape hiding poverty.
- Adaptation potential: Can I easily adapt the materials for my learners?
That’s a tall order for materials!
You likely have your own criteria for evaluating materials. And after inspecting someone else’s materials, you might end up feeling frustrated if the materials don’t meet your selection criteria. And yet, it’s not necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater: you might still use those materials. But you may choose to supplement them with materials you write yourself. And you might decide to rely more and more on your own materials . . . or even write your own coursebook. As the teacher, you know your teaching context best, and therefore you are best positioned to develop materials for your learners.
Writing your own materials
So, what do we need to consider when taking materials development into our own hands?
The criteria we use to evaluate other people’s materials can be used to develop and subsequently assess the worth of our own materials. When I write materials, I simply use the same six criteria listed above: 1) learning goals, 2) learner wants, 3) assessment, 4) what we know about learning, 5) values, and 6) adaptation potential. You might find it odd that adaptation potential is still an important criterion for me, but I might want to tweak the materials to suit different groups of learners. Plus, when I share my materials with other teachers, I want them to have the freedom to make changes easily, too.
A funny thing happened on the way to the publishers!
About 40 years ago, the famous textbook author, Jack Richards, was on the final panel of a large teacher’s conference in Japan. He implored an audience full of language teachers not to write their own materials, but rather, to leave it to the experts (like him) who knew more about linguistics and teaching techniques. His declaration was right in many ways, a textbook author should have a good understanding of textbook design, but at that particular time in that particular place, it seemed out of touch at best and maybe even outrageous. You see, as every language teacher back then knew (although big changes came in the nineties) there were almost virtually no textbooks from major publishers that we could use in Japan. We taught ‘high beginners’ and everything from abroad was way too hard, written by “experts’ in English-speaking countries who taught native-speaker-level grad students. Their ELT textbooks full of great linguistic theories, but generally unusable.
So rather than an admonition, for many of us, Jack Richards statement became a challenge. In fact, it inspired me to write my first textbook, Pearson’s Significant Scribbles. As long as teachers know the basics about how language is learned, they are true experts on their particular students.
Curtis Kelly has published with Longman, Cambridge, Pearson, Cengage, Abax and Oxford.
So far so good. But I can imagine that you, as a reader of the MindBrainEd Think Tank, have been patiently waiting to find out how neuroscience can inform materials writing. So, it’s time to delve into my criterion #4, “What we know about learning.” We’ll look at the following broad areas: four theories of learning, memory, and design of materials and tasks. For each point, I’ll give a brief comment, questions I ask myself when developing materials, and links to previous Think Tank issues, allowing you to read more on topics that intrigue you.
Theories of Learning
Four areas of research from the neuroscience of learning help us understand how language is learned: predictive processing, embodied simulation, emotion, and the social brain. Let’s briefly dip into them, one by one:
- Predictive Processing: The brain processes language by predicting what sound, word, phrase, sentence, etc. comes next. Question: Do the materials hone students’ prediction skills?
- Embodied Simulation: We learn through our bodies and our senses. Questions: Do the materials allow for multisensory processing? Do the materials ask students, for example, to visualize something?
- Embodiment: March 2020 Think Tank, especially this article
- Brain–Body: October 2022 Think Tank, especially this article
- Body Matters: May 2020 Think Tank, especially this article
- Exercise: July 2018 Think Tank, especially the “Exercise and intermittent movement” article
- Metaphor: May 2023 Think Tank, especially this article
- Emotion: We cannot sever our emotions from our intellect. Question: Do the materials engage learners both cognitively and affectively?
- The Social Brain: Learning is often a social experience, and because we are social animals—after all, that this why we have language—interaction and relationships play an important role in language learning. Question: Do the materials help you and your students build a community of learners?
It goes without saying that learning IS memory. Questions: To what degree do the materials help students learn the target language? Do they provide students with opportunities to retrieve language from their memories? Do the materials keep cognitive load at a manageable level?
- Evidence-Based Learning Strategies: May 2021 Think Tank, especially this article
- Cognitive Load: December 2019 Think Tank, especially the “Cognitive Load Theory” article
- Working Memory: March 2018 Think Tank, especially “Just what is working memory anyway? And what does it mean for language teachers?”
Design of materials and tasks
Designing materials requires special skills in visual design, but also in activity design. Questions: Does the design of the materials match the purpose of the materials? Do the tasks and materials give learners a real reason to communicate with one another?
Now, the questions above are just my starting points, often leading to further questions and reflection. What’s more, it’s not possible to answer “yes” to all of the questions for any one set of materials. It all depends on the purpose of the materials being developed.
As teachers, it’s our responsibility to scrutinize the materials we use in the classroom. We need to ensure our materials align with the learning goals and the assessments for our learners. It’s unlikely that published materials will perfectly fulfill our learners’ needs and wants, prompting many of us to adapt published materials, supplement them with their own materials, or even ditch them entirely in favor of our own home-grown materials. When writing materials, we need to use a principled approach, keeping our learners front and center. Developing our own materials is time-consuming but well worth the effort
Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently she has the privilege of working with Business English students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.