Examining our beliefs in the function and purpose of materials

This week’s seminar involved a ranking exercise, a higher order cognitive task in Bloom’s taxonomy. We were required to complete some sentence stems about materials and rank them. It proved to be far more challenging than I, and my group imagined and we found it impossible to rank the sentences about materials.

Prioritising attributes of materials

A flat hierarchy of importance

The sentences exposed our underlying beliefs about the function and purpose of materials. It also further exposed how unprincipled our beliefs were and, similar to beliefs in teaching, our approach to creating materials did not necessarily match our stated beliefs.

I think this loose understanding of our own beliefs in materials may lead to problems later on when evaluating materials. We have baggage regarding the the effectiveness of published materials, but cannot clearly articulate which of our beliefs that the evaluated materials impinge upon.

 

Course books, materials, and our relationships with them

During our seminar, 11th February 2021, introducing the module, we discussed a few questions regarding materials and our relationship with them. Some varied and interesting opinions were shared in the seminar and on our discussion board. I would like to talk about defining materials, the paradox of course books, the economics of creating materials, and our relationship with materials as learners and teachers.

One definition of materials that stood out was that they could be anything “designed to assist learners achieving desired learning outcomes” (Colburn, 2021) and this aligned with Tomlinson and Masuhara’s definition (2018, p. 2) that “anything that can be used by learners to facilitate their learning of the language”. They go on to list some examples both tangible and intangible. From a teacher’s perspective, this definition could present challenges and opportunities in the classroom.

Lesson preparation necessarily requires forethought about what to use and possible outcomes of activities and language production. To share this lesson and describe the materials for the lesson, encompassing all aspects of materials would be difficult if not impossible to communicate to another teacher. However, the flexibility and options available to teachers in the classroom are endless when anything can be used as teaching materials. Evaluating its effectiveness is another challenge, though. Giving materials some semblance of order would be helpful for teachers to choose materials for their lessons and describe them to others.

Gray (2016, p. 95) offers a more limited but helpful categorisation of materials: published materials, including print and digital, and audio-visual; authentic materials, those which were not originally designed for language learning; and teacher-made materials, which could be anything the teacher creates to supplement or replace other materials. I do not see how we can easily fit tasks and activities into these categories. Tomlinson and Masuhara (2018, p. 2) would classify a discussion as material but it does not satisfy the criteria for any of Gray’s definitions. In practical terms, I think that having materials that fall outside of these categories is not an issue that negates the benefits of making the discussion of materials more manageable for teachers.

Despite the plethora of materials and the wide choice, the course book remains a staple in the majority of classrooms (Tomlinson and Masuhara (2018, p. 25) referenced a British Council survey in 2008 that I cannot find). Even though many teachers “found them uninteresting and not relevant” (ibid, p26), we persist and supplement and adapt them rather than replace them completely. In a school in Norway, the course book has been removed and this loss was lamented (Standal, 2021) citing the extra work required to create lesson materials that course books, traditionally, provided. This was echoed by another respondent citing the economics and role of teachers, “[c]reating materials is so time consuming and we don’t get paid to do it”. There is a paradox that published materials are considered to not be very good, but we want to use them, and the thought of no course book is worse than having one. This is possibly the reality of teaching butting against an ideal teaching environment: with all the time in the world, we would create bespoke materials for every learner and lesson.

That leads us to an issue at the heart of materials development and second language teaching/learning: the economics of creating materials. My experience of creating materials is an expectation that all teachers can create quality materials as part of non-teaching-day work. It either speaks of the high esteem in which teachers are held or the underappreciation of the work involved in creating materials. That is purely in the realm of teacher-made materials, but this attitude appears to permeate published materials, too. The industry has switched from paying a fee and royalty payments to a fee with ever reducing royalty payments, and to offering a fee only (Zemach, 2018). The knock-on effect of this is the reduction of materials creation to a side job and control of content moving from the materials creator(s) to marketing managers focusing on global/international editions that do not differentiate for regions (ibid). Zemach alluded to piracy and the increasing number of free extras offered on top of the course books sold being a driving force in pushing publishers to offer less and less money to professionals who would write and create materials. That Zemach can receive more royalties from selling self-published materials online at less than $1 than from course books sold at retail for more than $30 highlights the absurdity of the situation. These high prices increase the barrier to language learning (at institutions) driving learners to seek cheaper and/or free materials.

The learner has been very much left out of this discussion thus far, but their language learning is the focus of teachers and materials producers. They form an important part of the raison d’etre of teachers and materials. I have spent most of my teaching career in the private sector where learners have a closer relationship with the teacher than materials and are afforded more control over materials. This can take the shape of how much a course book is used to the type of tasks and activities used. I can imagine on a distance learning course that the relationship might be different with materials being closer to learners. A reduction of the power and influence of learners would be the state-education classroom and I have seen in language learning classrooms in Japan how materials dominate. Teachers work through materials given to them and learners have no input. However, the recent onset of online learning has upended some of these relationships. My nephew has been castigated for missing live online lessons at school and is content to work through the tasks set outside of that. Learners can interact directly with materials at home whether they be published or authentic and can directly influence those through social media, gaming, and other forms of communication.

The move of online education to the front and centre of our lives offers exciting opportunities and promises paradigm shifts. I am very excited to see how the democratisation of materials creation and the prominence of the learner’s agency will change what we consider materials and how we create it.

References

Colburn, L., 2021. TE714 – Week 1 – Discussion Board Post, Brighton: University of Brighton.

Gray, J., 2016. ELT Materials: Claims, critiques and controversies. In: G. Hall, ed. The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching. s.l.:Routledge, pp. 95-108.

Standal, I. U., 2021. What type of materials do I use?, Brighton: University of Brighton.

Tomlinson, B. & Masuhara, H., 2018. The Complete Guide to the Theory and Practice of Materials Development for Language Learning. New Jersey: Hoboken.

Zemach, D., 2018. Sausage and the law: how textbooks are made. [Online]
Available at: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/sausage-law-how-textbooks-are-made
[Accessed 10 February 2021].