Review ~ Perspectives on Language Learning Materials DevelopmentA wide ranging book with something for everyone who develops their own materials.
One of the most interesting things about this book is the breadth of its scope. It is divided into three sections: Materials Development and Naturally Occurring Discourse (four chapters); Technology and Materials Development (two chapters); and Tailoring Materials for Learner Groups (four chapters). Six of the ten chapters were originally given as papers at the MATSDA (Materials Development Association) conference held in Ireland in 2008. The second section is entirely composed of new articles (one by the co-editor of the book) and there is one new article in each of the other two sections. The authors work in many different environments, with learners from a wide range of ages and backgrounds, using many different types of material, and in countries as far apart as Japan, Pakistan, Tunisia and Venezuela.
One of the postulates here is that every language teacher is a materials developer, and it is for this reason that the book is a must-read for those of us who want to take things just that little bit further. Naturally occurring discourse is far more readily available now, in the age of internet, than it was in the past. The problem now is one of knowing how best to use the vast quantities of material available. The first chapter shows how the authors McCarthy and McCarten, well-known in the field of ELT publishing, used the Cambridge International Corpus to build a conversation management syllabus. The four macro-functions identified are: organising your own talk; taking account of the other speaker(s); listenership; and managing the conversation as a whole. Part of the problem of using a corpus of naturally occurring speech is that such conversations rarely fit the ideal textbook format of 50-word snippets. The authors suggest strategies for overcoming these problems, illustrating them with examples taken from their Touchstone series.
Chapter 2 gives more information about integrating corpus materials into pre- and in-service teacher training, using examples from French, from Irish English (the excellent “does be”), and also mentioning the VOICE corpus of English as a Lingua Franca. It addresses the issue of the local context, and the relevance of teaching materials to that context. The authors go into the underlying principles in some depth, discussing various aspects of the theories we now draw on to inform our philosophy of teaching.
Chapter 3 looks at many features of spoken language and explores the best ways to integrate natural materials into our teaching. There is some discussion of context of use, and of how close to “native-speaker English” the learner wishes, or needs, to be. Again, corpora such as ELFA and VOICE are discussed, as is the importance of teacher talk. Teacher-generated material is created simply by recording an informal discussion between teachers about how they got involved in language teaching. There is a good balance in this chapter between the theoretical and practical aspects of the method, with the transcript of the discussion, and sample tasks for listening and language work based on it.
The final chapter in this section is the one that I found least convincing, probably because the author seeks to demonstrate that corpora cannot cover all forms of language. The short answer to that is simply that more corpora should be built to cover the gaps. Instead, Tomlinson suggests using naturally occurring material (in this case a TV programme on cookery) to explore an aspect of the language that he noticed while watching the programme. While his analysis of the phenomenon he describes seems accurate enough, it would have been very easy for him to check out his initial findings by comparing them to corpus data, and the results would have probably provided even more insight into the way language is being used. The table he provides (pp 103-105) makes it fairly easy to search for similar examples in the COCA corpus http://corpus.byu.edu/coca. For example, there are 72 examples of the use of “So if you can” in the spoken section of the COCA corpus, but there are also 22 examples of “So if you could”, which does not occur in Tomlinson’s data. Using naturally occurring data without referring to a corpus seems to me only one step better than using made-up examples, and almost as strange.
Section 2 focuses on using technology. The first chapter discusses the use of film discourse in the classroom. Part of the problem is that of copyright laws, which vary from one country to another. Gilmore has few suggestions as to the legal ways of using film in the classroom, and even specifies that using a single screenshot from Faulty Towers required a hefty licensing fee. It would be wonderful if not-for-profit educational use could be authorised at an international level, but that is not the case for the moment. However, there are some public domain videos available (see http://www.archive.org/details/movies). If you can get hold of an authorised video, Gilmore’s step-by-step guide to the production of language-learning materials will prove invaluable.
The second chapter in this section explores the concept of task-based learning in the context of ICT, by means of webquests and wikis. Yet again, there is a nice balance between theoretical concepts and practical applications. Any teacher with access to a computer lab should be able to find many excellent practical ideas in this chapter.
Section 3 covers materials development for specific groups and contexts. Anyone working with young learners will find Hughes’ chapter invaluable. Again, the author has a very practical approach, where the theoretical implications are presented in an easily accessible manner. I would definitely recommend this chapter to all teachers, whatever the age of the learners in their classes.
The context of the second chapter is that of learners in Tunisia. The challenge for the author was to find a way of making learning meaningful by capitalising on the specifics of their environment: a tourist resort in a country visited by over 300,000 British and Irish tourists every year. The project was based on ethnographic interviews. Obviously, this research may not be immediately adaptable for teachers in other contexts, but a case-study it is interesting in its own right, and some of the other suggestions could well be adapted to less favourable contexts.
The third chapter paints a broad canvas of ESOL materials, as they are and as they could or should be. It ends with a wish list first proposed by Tomlinson, which is definitely a reference for all teachers, whatever their specific environment. ‘Greater’ and ‘more’ are the key words, which would tend to suggest that we are, after all, on the right track, even if sometimes we fall short of these ideals.
The final chapter is a case-study of a very specific context, constrained by learner-level, time and geography. As a blueprint for materials creation, it is detailed and informative. The authors acknowledge from the outset the constraints of their context: they were required to consolidate students’ basic knowledge of English within a 12-week period, presumably full-time. It would have been useful to know how many hours of teaching were provided over the 12 weeks. And I must confess that I would have liked to have had more information about the personal ‘hand computer’ for vocabulary. I shall definitely have to track down that reference.
All in all, this is a very useful book, with something for everyone, and where every chapter is thought-provoking and encouraging. Language teachers worldwide will be able to confirm the initial postulate, that we are all potential contributors to the field of materials development.