How to write effective classroom materials

ImageAt IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate last week, I went to lots of interesting talks and workshops. One stood out as immediately useful, and very practical! The talk was “More than just a worksheet: how to write effective classroom materials” by Rachel Roberts. Whilst I was sitting there, I was already convinced that the things I heard in the informative but brief session would land on my blog. For people new to teaching, or for people like me who sometimes benefit from re-visiting some things learnt a while ago on training courses, the talk was excellent, and of immediate use! So, this is my summary of her talk, peppered with my own ideas, for anyone who was unable to attend or who’d like a brief reminder of things to consider when designing materials for the EFL classroom.

(P.S. Sorry for the blurry photo … this is in fact the very first photo I’ve ever taken during a talk at IATEFL, and it seems my phone’s camera is not really up to the job. Plus I was distracted, which is an issue for an enitrely separate blog post! Anyway, you get the idea!)

To start with, it is important to note that no material can be particularly effective if it is not a coherent part of a well thought-through lesson with clear and logical progression. The lesson’s topic and the input (e.g. texts) need to be relevant to the learners’ lives, so that the learners can really engage with the content and are therefore driven to learn the language and/or skills being taught or practised. If they are truly interested in a topic, it will probably also mean that they talk about it outside of class, so they will get extra practice of the points covered. Rachel calls this the ‘water cooler effect’ … which gets the points across very nicely. (Though in my own setting it would be more appropriately termed the ‘mad rush to the coffee machine in the short break between classes effect’!)

One of Rachel’s particularly helpful hints here is to try to find a new angle or a new perspective from which you can approach the topic. One example given by an audience member was the news on new 7-a day recommendations (Yes, apparently, health experts are now recommending that people eat 7 portions of fruit & veg per day, and some even say 10! This is up on the usual 5 that we’ve been hearing about for a while now, and I wonder how many of us manage?!) But the point is, instead of taking the perennial topic of ‘obesity’ and going through the same-old-same-old motions of looking at people’s poor eating habits, listening to the news on 7- (or 10!) a-day could bring in something new and therefore be more interesting and motivating for the learners. It is also good if the topic provides scope for personalised output by the learners.

Naturally, the linguistic and cognitive abilities of the learners need to be judged fairly accurately to ensure that any input used and materials designed will be appropriate to their level. Things that are too difficult or too easy will dampen motivation. Easier said than done sometimes, though! But I’m convinced that the new English Profile and English Vocabulary Profile will be of assistance here (I heard about these in another talk, and I definitely think they deserve a mention!). And, Rachel reminds us, good materials should also include both linguistic and cognitive challenges for our learners.

Regarding language input, Rachel proposes the strategy of ‘compromising’ between authentic input and teacher-composed texts. I have the feeling that the former are often lavishly praised as motivating (which may be very true, particularly when used for skills work), but there is of course the frustrating aspect of them not including much example of the target structure and sometimes being too hard for EFL /ESOL learners. Teacher-composed texts, of course, are often (if you’re anything like me!) overly full of examples of target structures, but somehow don’t have the same appeal to learners. Rachel’s suggestion, a cunning idea, is that teachers find inspiration in authentic texts, and then merge bits of various texts with the target structures and text-book texts to form a new material, which imitates the authentic input, but where we have more control over level and completeness.

And finally, Rachel reminds us the tasks learners are set should have a concrete outcome. By including some constraints, tasks can produce better output which the learners can then justify and discuss. She gives the example task “List in order of priority five things you would miss if you emigrated”. It’s clear to see that this fulfills all of the ‘criteria’ mentioned above and could lead to some lively discussions. (I have emigrated and I miss a whole lot more than just 5 things!). When composing task questions, I find that a list of good verbs can be found by looking at explanations of Bloom’s Taxonomy. (I’m adding this, although I’m sure Rachel knows it already, even if she didn’t mention it explicitly!)

File:Bloom's Taxonomy.png

In a nutshell, then, Rachel’s talk highlighted the links between the points shown on her PPT slide in the photo (Input – Content – Language – Task, if it’s too blurry for you, sorry!). It may not be a re-invention of the wheel, but having things clearly spellt out in this way seems like a nice memory jogger for all of us!

By the way, if you’re too short of time to read this whole blog post, or too short of paper to print it all out as a reminder, the phrases highlighted in bold form a very nice summary which fits on a post-it note:

Effective classroom materials should…

  • be part of a well thought-through lesson
  • be relevant to the learners’ lives,
  • take a new angle or a new perspective on a topic
  • have scope for personalised output
  • include a compromise between authentic input and teacher-composed texts
  • have a concrete outcome

 

Useful links

Rachel’s full handout: https://www.dropbox.com/s/gn2dh9m7lswj6c8/More%20than%20just%20a%20worksheet%20handout%20-%20Rachael%20Roberts.docx

More information on Bloom’s Taxonomy: https://www.teachervision.com/teaching-methods/curriculum-planning/58765.html

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