Not so long ago, I used to believe that materials written by ‘experts’, whatever that might be, were certainly better than anything I could write. And though professionals with experience in materials writing certainly know what they do, those materials would probably be designed to be as global as possible.
I will argue that global materials can definitely be of use, but they sometimes lack the necessary specificity to fit our own contexts, whether that is related to topic, vocabulary, language level, skills, special needs, methodology or any other implicit aspect of the materials and the learning context.
A starting point is the evaluation of materials in order to decide whether we need to make any changes. Rubdy (2003, p. 45) mentions three categories that are essential for evaluation of materials:
- The learners’ needs, goals, and pedagogical requirements.
- The teacher’s skills, abilities, theories, and beliefs.
- The thinking underlying the materials writer’s presentation of the content and approach to teaching and learning respectively.
So that’s when a teacher’s knowledge of their own context (institutional culture, students, curriculum, methodological approaches, etc.) comes into play to leverage the suitability of existing materials. My experience is that teachers can and should learn to write their own worksheets, tasks, projects… and to select suitable authentic input to prompt these materials and make them more personal, individual and local.
Whether you use a coursebook or any other materials that provide structure to your classes, it is always good to analyse the materials critically and decide whether they can be used as they are or need to be adapted or replaced by more appropriate materials.
Different ways of adapting materials, according to McDonough (2013), are:
Adding: in order to address specific factors not included in the original materials, such as further examples related to your students’ specific needs, a more detailed explanation than the one that appears in the materials, an extra reading text that complements the view or updates the info in the original one, further exercises for a language item they find difficult, or extra images that improve the cultural representation of the topic.
Deleting or omitting: in order to remove items that are nor relevant for your students, such as topics that are not age-appropriate or culturally appropriate in your context, or examples and exercises on aspects that do not present difficulty to your students.
Modifying: in order to improve the existing materials, such as rewriting sections to reflect students’ interests and culture, or changing the focus of a task, from listening to reading by using the script at the back.
Simplifying: in order to make the materials more accessible to your students, such as rewriting instructions in a simpler way, adding choices to a fill in the blank task, or providing alternatives or guidance to open ended questions.
Reordering: in order to adjust the pre-selected order to your own context or curriculum, such as moving a certain language item earlier or later to better match your students’ needs, or changing the order in which items are presented within a lesson to reflect a different methodological approach. For example, changing a PPP lesson to be used as a Guided Discovery one.
And sometimes a teacher decides to write their own materials from scratch in order to address a missing need. In my case, it is mostly projects as stand-alone materials or to complement a missing element from the materials I use. For other types of materials, it’s advisable to have a structure to follow.
You can download an example of a project plan template I have used at the bottom of this page.
Writing your own materials, whether it is adapting existing materials or starting from scratch, requires practice and a thorough knowledge of your context. Madsen and Bowen (1978, p. ix) talk about the teacher striving to balance the tensions among ‘teaching materials, methodology, students, course objectives, the target language and its context, the teacher’s own personality and teaching style’. I would add these two variables: the L1 and the teacher’s beliefs about teaching and learning. In all, it’s a complex task that is well worth diving into as, when it’s well done, it has a profound effect on learners’ motivation and more effective learning experiences.
Madsen, K. S. and J.D. Bowen (1978). Adaptation in Language Teaching. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
McDonough, J., et al. (2013). Materials and Methods in ELT: A Teacher’s Guide. (3nd ed) Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Rubdy, R. (2003). Selection of materials. In B. Tomlinson (Ed.) Developing materials for language teaching (pp.37-57). London: Continuum.