Materials Development

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Macmillan publishers held their XVI methodological conference in Novosibirsk on March 30 this year.

More than 400 EL teachers from the region gathered together to listen to Mike Riley, teacher, teacher trainer and methodologist who spoke mostly about EL resources and the challenges of today. Mike started his career in Manchester, then spent fifteen years in Milan, Italy, progressing from EL teaching at all levels and ages to manager, director of International House, and is now a Macmillan specialist. His main report was titled “More than Words”. He demonstrated three types of resources, images, videos and graphs, and gave three major reasons for their usage:

  1. Introduce the new lexis 
  2. Practice/activate 
  3. Springboard for production (writing and speaking).

Visual aids are of course a corner stone, one of the key elements in our daily work. As the saying goes, a picture can tell more than a thousand words. We saw, for instance, photos of the Queen, Brad Pitt and a football player. To activate the new vocabulary, Mike Riley suggested that we work in pairs or groups and answer a few simple questions about the people shown. Who eats caviar for breakfast? Who likes to play games? It is not as easy to answer as it seems at first glance!

Using video in a lesson is a familiar device

But this time we watched the video without the sound, and had to deduce what was discussed, what every speaker said based on the actual items shown. Pictures of various advertisements can be used, for instance, when teaching the modal verbs. What might they advertise? What should we pay attention to? What is the purpose of this thing? This unusual development of already-existing materials definitely helps stimulate the listeners’ activity. Another way to both enhance the impact of the teaching aids and to provoke discussions is to use a familiar story in an unexpected way. For instance, what if the Three Little Pigs were engaged in an insurance fraud and the Big Bad Wolf was not to blame for the destruction of their houses? Naturally before introducing any such element into our lesson we need to evaluate our students’ age and level.

Any teacher is faced with new challenges, especially today 

Imagine going into the classroom to teach the new arrivals, and discover that they are illiterate. It means that all the materials you prepared carefully are of no use. Mike spoke about one of his recent experiences, and told us how he managed to conduct such lessons by recycling the vocabulary, by trying to help his students remember at least some useful lexis. Comparing my own few encounters with the same problem, I thought that I would start by teaching the students to read and write first. It goes without saying that the younger one’s learners are the easier this always daunting task is.

Here is a saying: the best textbook is the one you wrote yourself 

I would add to that, first, that we should have a new textbook, a new set of materials for every class every year. Secondly, with all the new technology we should be able to conduct our lessons without any textbooks. And third, not every teacher has the skills to compose a book, and no teacher on earth has the time to do it while teaching full time. So we have to make do with what we have. I wrote my very first textbook for senior university students during my two months of summer leave. When a publishing house asked me a few years ago to compile a workbook to accompany an existing textbook, I estimated the amount of time needed, took into account my workload and family, and asked the school administration for a half-year’s sabbatical (I was denied that). Whenever I felt that a textbook was not enough, I composed my own lessons for any level. Practice makes perfect: once you picture a new lesson plan, a desired format in your head and manage to shape it into a coherent whole, every new undertaking will go faster.

It was fascinating and amazing to hear the oft-repeated maxim, “Grammar is always boring”. Many conference participants agreed. My experience shows that in fact Grammar is not boring provided you put your mind to it and produce innovative lesson plans, interactive presentations, and yes, use a good age-appropriate textbook. Time and again my students of all ages would rush at me shouting, “Let’s do grammar today!” That’s enthusiasm for you.

The design, the outcome, the usefulness and even the necessity of creating new materials may all be dictated by life itself. For instance with primary school children I started doing that because their textbooks were obsolete and the children were quickly bored. Once I brought the first colorful funny presentation on the theme “The Article”, which is always difficult for the Russian learners because there are no articles in our language, the students reacted enthusiastically and had no trouble grasping the unfamiliar notion. Moreover, my senior classes asked me next day whether I could show them the same PPT and quite enjoyed working with it. This in turn stimulated me to patiently work through all the major grammatical topics and arrange them in a similar way. I shared this unusual grammar aid with my colleagues at many teacher trainer courses.

Sometimes I composed new lessons simply because there were no textbooks for this or that year at the school library and the parents could not buy them (too expensive). I also wrote some key lessons for senior students in the format required for the state final examination. I believe that every dedicated teacher may compile a good solid folder with all kinds of materials that feel useful and natural for them, and keep on doing that through their whole working life. Some of us may also compose new lesson plans, full-fledged lessons and even textbooks.

If we do not try we do not succeed.

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