Bringing the outside in – choosing supplementary resources for the classroom

One thing the world of ELT doesn’t seem to be lacking is materials.

There are coursebook packages with all their extra components, graded readers, photcopiable resource packs, dictionary sets, exam practice papers, digital resources and much more. However, despite the plethora of materials on offer, teachers always seem to want more! Many produce and share their own worksheets and activities, while many more go online to find, adapt and download lesson plans and ideas.

Why do we do this? Well, hopefully, it’s because we are striving to meet the needs of our students. No coursebook will ever be 100% relevant to our teaching context or our learners’ interests so supplementary resources will always be necessary. Authentic materials also offer the advantage of exposing our classes to ‘real English’ and building the confidence that in our students that they can interact with language from outside the classroom.

It is always important, however, to ensure that any extra material is chosen for the right reasons and not just because it looks like a good way to ‘fill a lesson’. Here are six questions I always ask myself when selecting materials and/or designing tasks for my students:

How does it match our learning aims?

This is a question we should ask ourselves with any resource we bring into the classroom, supplementary or not! The important point here is never to use something just because we think the class will enjoy it or because another teacher said it worked well. The starting point has to be the learning aim. If we see, for example, contrasting photos of a town as it is now and as it was 50 years ago, they potentially match the learning aim of comparing and contrasting and could be useful practice for the FCE exam. A funny photo of a cat inside a shoe might be more difficult to justify, however!

Does it match my learners’ needs and interests?

This is often one of the main reasons for using a supplementary resource – the material on offer in our coursebooks may cover language they already know or it might be centred on a topic that they are not particularly interested in. We may then look for something that offers the right amount of challenge or a more engaging topic. I recently taught past tenses to a group of teenagers and one of the tasks in the coursebook was to read about the life of Lionel Messi and then write a biography of a sports star they liked. Many of the group were simply not into sports that much. Knowing that many of them were interested in (strangely for 15-17 year olds) cookery, I prepared a short biography of Jamie Oliver for them, tweaked the tasks to make them a little more challenging, and then offered them a free choice on who they would write about, thus matching their interests and meeting their needs more closely.

Is it appropriate for their level, age and culture?

These points might sound obvious but it is something I have seen many times over the years (and also something I did a few times myself early in my career) – the teacher selects something that they think will be interesting and useful for their students, a song perhaps that contains many examples of the second conditional. However, in the classroom, despite a series of well-designed activities to go with it, the material receives a muted response. Why? Well, when this happened to me several years ago (using a song as described above), reflection brought me back to the above points – while the target structure was in the song, the level of vocabulary was way over the students’ heads; the song in question was a hit in the early 90s but was unfamiliar to most of the class (who were adults but a few years younger than me); and neither the style of music nor the content of the lyrics were what those students were used to from their own culture. When it comes to songs, I usually let students choose them these days!

How much adaptation is needed?

Connected to the previous questions, it is always worth thinking about this before spending hours adapting the language and preparing the activities. In terms of language, this is why I often use photos and videos with little or no dialogue – there is less to adapt! It also allows for students to create more language themselves (but that is something to focus on in another post!) If you need to spend a long time preparing activities to pre-teach the vocabulary in a video clip, it is perhaps a sign that the level or the content is not suitable for your class. Likewise, if you feel the need to rewrite a text to make it more appropriate for your class, you might be better off continuing your search for another text.

What advantages does it offer over what is already available?

As mentioned at the start of this post, schools often have materials in abundance. It is always worth checking through those before you decide to create something entirely new. Despite their limitations, these resources have been created by ELT experts and there are often alternative ideas for how to use them in the teachers’ notes. If you aren’t sure where to start, asking your colleagues who have taught similar courses is always a good idea. They are likely to have resources and ideas already adapted to your context (although you should still think about your own class and their needs before using it) and they may also have useful advice on teaching the course in general. If looking through the resource cupboards, shared digital folders or asking colleagues doesn’t prove fruitful, then by all means find different resources and make your own activities but make sure you share them in the staffroom as well!

Can I use it legally?

Last, but by no means least, is the issue of copyright. We must remember that images, videos, articles, music and even pdf worksheets are not always legally available for use in the classroom. The key things to check for are:

  1. that the material has been posted by the author (a video on the official BBC YouTube channel, for example, is more likely to have been uploaded legally than the same clip under the username ‘LOLTV Moments’)
  2. permission for the content to be re-used – look out for a Creative Commons licence or any terms and conditions on the webpage and always credit the creator/website
  3. that the material is connected to the aim of your lesson (back to the first question again) and you only use the amount necessary to illustrate the point (in other words, a clip from a TV show, not the entire episode).

What about you? Where do you find material for your classroom and how do you adapt it to your learners’ needs and context? Please share your ideas and thoughts in the comments section.

David Dodgson, originally from the UK, works for the British Council in Bahrain as an ICT coordinator. He has also worked in Turkey and Gabon, gaining experience with young learners, adults, ESP and EAL classes. He runs two blogs,, which is about his teaching and learning experiences, and eltsandbox, which focuses on using digital games as authentic materials for language learning.

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