WRITING LANGUAGE LEARNING MATERIALS
Some factors to consider: an action list
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1. OVERALL APPROACHES
you consulted a sample of your target users (both learners themselves
and fellow teachers) before starting to write - talking to them about
your general intentions and perhaps your initial outline, for example?
- Are you making arrangements to try at least some of the materials out with appropriate users, before you finalize them?
are the materials going to be appropriate/motivating for the learners -
in terms of age, interests, reasons for studying English, etc.?
Theoretically, language learning materials can be about anything. An opportunity, but also a challenge!
your topics be motivating for your target learners - a good test might
be, will they be the kind of thing they might want to read or hear
about in their first language?
- Will the topics generate all the types of language you want to teach - descriptive, narrative, interpersonal, etc.?
your materials be clear and uncluttered? (It's best to avoid too many
different colours and fonts, and excessive 'bells and whistles' -
especially tempting with multimedia!)
- Will they be well organized for learning (is it easy to find your way through each page or screen)?
- Will the overall effect be attractive?
- Do your proposed photos and other illustrations feel culturally 'right'?
- Are the materials economical in terms of space - generating maximum learning activity for each page, or screen?
on-screen materials, is the system of navigation within and between
individual screens clear? (Above all, if you're preparing a CD-ROM, be
careful not to leave users at a particular screen in a sequence with no
way out - or at best only a return to the main menu. It does happen!
Online, at least there's a browser back button!)
for on-screen materials, have you formed a clear policy on scrolling?
Some people don't like it (how do you find the current version of this
Student progression / sequencing
- Will the learners get regular 'payoffs'?
- Will there be opportunities for them to reflect on their learning?
there be opportunities to revisit learning items encountered earlier -
often called 'recycling', or the 'spiral curriculum'? (The nonlinear
nature of electronic materials actually makes this easier - but you may
still need to build in specific provision for it.)
everyone learns in the same way. (For example, some people seem to find
'rules' genuinely helpful; others prefer plenty of practice to help
them form an understanding of the regularities for themselves. Beware
single-factor gurus, who may really just be talking about how they learn!)
- Will different learning styles be accommodated flexibly by your materials?
- Do you plan to include opportunities for this?
- If so, in a class context, or self-access / home study only?
- In coursebooks? In workbooks / photocopyable worksheets? In audio/video/electronic materials?
- Are you planning specific opportunities for this? Pair work? Group work? Projects? Role-play?
- Do you plan to pay specific attention to providing this?
- If so, will it be explicit or implicit?
- Do you plan to focus on one or more specific English-speaking cultures?
is your focus on international communication, often between nonnative
speakers - in which case you may want to sensitize your target learners
to general questions about cultural differences, and the resulting rich
potential for misunderstanding.
with younger learners, do you need to start with development of a
positive and open attitude to foreign cultures in general?
- How far do you want to get into these - reading for information, drawing inferences, memorization, note-taking etc.?
in materials for use at school level, can you help teach something else
while you are teaching English? (A little synergy is always a good idea
- especially in today's crowded curriculum!)
opportunities for formative assessment (i.e. feedback on progress)
clearly identified in your materials - and linked to any local or
national syllabus which may be relevant?
- Do they arise naturally out of the teaching context?
there provision for summative assessment at the end of the materials -
and perhaps at a limited number of strategic points during it?
- Do the assessment materials allow sufficient differentiation of the learners' individual achievement levels?
so, are they going to achieve that by offering separate tasks at
different levels of difficulty - or by setting single tasks which allow
learners to operate across a wide range of competence?
teachers, do you plan to provide notes on methodology? (Particularly
useful for less experienced teachers - but even old hands may welcome
information on what the author intended, and/or shortcuts in lesson
- Will you offer them support for developing schemes of work, and lesson planning?
they have to meet specific local or national aims and objectives, can
you clearly show, activity by activity, how your materials help to
- Will it be helpful to supply answers to exercises?
new/recycled language items (structure, functions, vocabulary)
conveniently listed - both for teachers and for individual learners?
user instructions for activities, and any explanations of language
points, totally clear and unambiguous? (Especially vital for
self-access materials.) Incidentally, it always helps to find someone
else to edit what you have written - a second pair of eyes almost
invariably picks up something you've missed.
- For online and CD-ROM materials, is there clear, comprehensive and easily accessible onscreen help?
Audio and video material
- Will your material be enjoyable?
- Will it have an authentic feel?
- Will it be scripted, briefed or genuinely unscripted?
- How long should each 'chunk' of material be?
- What is your attitude to speed - native-speaker, or something less?
- What about sound effects?
- Will the material have good cross-referencing to other materials, and good internal organization, for easy access and use?
CD-ROM and online material
is your policy on graphics? (Still pictures? Animation? Video?) They
can motivate and contextualize - but they can also waste space.
Pictures aren't language - at best they are starters for (or support
your materials are primarily on-screen, do you still want to provide
support through other media for some activities? (Workbooks for
extended writing, say; or a cassette for listening when a computer
- If the on-screen material is a subsidiary component, is it well cross-referenced to the rest?
hardware availability are you going to assume? Educational
institutions, of course, aren't necessarily at the cutting edge of
computer development! (Ironically you can probably expect a higher
minimum specification if your target users are going to be working at
Other computer-based activities
your target users do have computer access, do you want them to use
other software for language activities - writing with a word processor,
for example; or designing a magazine with a DTP package; or classifying
material with a database program. (More opportunities for
cross-curricular work here!)
you do have plans of that kind, have you checked your target users will
definitely have appropriate software - and can use it?
3. LANGUAGE-RELATED QUESTIONS
you want to get your target learners to think, at a conscious level,
about how languages in general - and English in particular - work?
- If so, how are you going to integrate this into your materials?
Use of first language
you plan to use the target language only? This may be inevitable where
your target learners have mixed language backgrounds - and it certainly
maximizes exposure, which is clearly desirable. But where it is
possible to use the first language, could that be more efficient for
such things as quick explanations and background information - and even
sometimes for direct translation equivalents? Pragmatism is probably
preferable to dogma in this area (as in so many other aspects of
Handling of new language
- The time-honoured sequence of presentation/practice/consolidation/extension (surveys, simulations/role-play etc.) still has much to recommend it. But whatever approach you adopt to introducing new language, it needs to be clear and systematic.
Range of language types
you need to reflect the full range of ways in which language is used:
instrumental (using language to get things done) / interpersonal /
creative (stories, poems, songs etc.)
- Or do the particular needs of your target learners require you to zero in on a narrower range?
Approach to structure and functions
you intend to offer explanations, or simply give intensive exposure to
particular grammatical aspects in the hope that learners will
internalize their own 'rules'? (Or both - see the earlier comments on
Approach to vocabulary
you make expansion of learners' vocabulary knowledge an explicit goal,
or leave them to acquire it by 'osmosis' from their exposure to the
- What approach are you adopting to vocabulary control in your materials?
you are providing word lists, how will they be organized: a list for
each section of the materials? topic-based lists? overall alphabetical
lists? (You can offer more than one type, of course!)
you want learners to approach the lists systematically, whether for
initial learning or revision, have you organized them in 'chunks' of some kind, to make them easy to learn/revise?
- Will you offer explicit coverage of pronunciation?
- What level of accuracy are you looking for - i.e. how close to whatever native-speaker model you are adopting?
- Will you offer linked listening material?
- How do you plan to represent the sounds of English orthographically? (Are you going to bite the IPA bullet?)
Listening (to cassettes etc.)
(See the comments on audio and video materials in the first section.)
Conversational speaking and listening
do you plan to introduce the target learners to the more extensive and
open-ended aspects of oral communication - planning what you want to
say; responding appropriately to unpredictable contributions to a
conversation; gambits for interrupting or politely disagreeing; and so
provision do you plan to make for intensive reading - looking at how
text is organized within and beyond the sentence, for example?
about extensive reading and the skills which go with it - guessing from
context, skipping and skimming; use of headings, contents lists and
indexes; and so on? (And don't forget reading for pleasure, and the
opportunities it gives for enticing learners to continue their exposure
to English outside the classroom!)
- Is the controlled / guided / free sequence appropriate?
- Or have your target learners progressed to a point where they can skip the earlier stages?
the other hand, if they use another script in their first language,
will they first need some introduction to the conventions of writing
Mixed skill activities
you plan to include activities which enable learners to move from use
of one of the 'four skills' to one or more of the others? (One of the
basic features of 'real world' language use!)
Have you avoided:
'Teaching English for No Obvious Reason'!
Language examples and exchanges which could not possibly occur anywhere outside a language classroom!