I can still remember my first day in the classroom as an English Teacher nearly 10 years ago. I was handed a textbook and told to do chapter 3B. This is the way many new teachers start out but it quickly starts to feel limiting. And so does using materials written by someone else who doesn't know the students you are teaching or what makes them tick. This is why teachers should create their own materials.
Throughout this post I draw comparisons between materials banks and coursebooks. It would be unfair to tar all coursebooks with the same brush. You may well find a diamond in the rough. The type of coursebook I refer to is one built around a focus on forms approach and tightly bound to a structural syllabus.
A coursebook of this nature guides the teacher through a series of pre-ordained forms from a pre-selected syllabus (set by the order of chapters in the book), of which the student has had little to no say over the content. In each lesson the majority of attention and time is dedicated to working on the meaning & form of one specified grammar or vocabulary point. This comes at the expenses of communicative activities and may restrict time allowed to focus on emergent language- the new language students are trying to produce in conversation.
Likewise, to clarify, there are materials banks that are also based on a focus on forms approach and seemingly only produce worksheets organised by the principals of a PPP that can already be found in coursebooks. An ideal materials bank, in contrast, should be free or affordable, contain highly flexible materials and not conform to one distinct methodology. The majority of these ‘ideal banks‘ are run by everyday teachers and independent materials writers, not by the big publishers. So, why should teachers create their own material in a shared materials bank?
1. Ability to pick & choose selectively
Many materials banks take the form of blogs, websites or internal databases within a school or academy. Materials banks are non-sequential and do not impose a syllabus or order of lessons to be followed. They allow teachers to dip in and out of the bank as they please to cherry pick and adapt the materials to their students’ needs and level. Materials could be used in a one-off class or to build an entire course.
The majority of resources featured in an ideal materials bank are written for the teacher, who can then adapt it to their students' needs. The materials can be accompanied by instructions on how the material ranging from a detailed lesson plan to a couple of bullet points suggesting how it was used with the students. However, as many things in teaching, I feel less is more when it comes to instructions for teachers! With increased flexibility of use, the onus is placed on the teacher (and rightly so) to adapt the materials to the needs of their learners and apply their own pedagogical beliefs.
Conversely, a coursebook is inevitably written for and to be sold onto a student. The materials are tied to the method in which the book is written to support (whether it be Audiolingual, PPP, the Lexical Approach, etc) and show little courtesy to experienced teachers. As teachers we need to ask who knows our students better – the coursebook writer or the teacher?
2. Why can’t teachers just pick and choose from a course book?
They may be able to, but I’m afraid it would be slim pickings. Unfortunately, as structural or grammar based syllabi still remain in place as the key organising factor for most coursebooks, their content includes numerous instances of texts littered with discrete items which make it feel artificial. If text included in the book has been included from an authentic source, e.g. a newspaper article from ‘The Telegraph’, it has often been manipulated to the point where it bears little resemblance to the original version. That is, if the grammar point of the day is the passive tense, the text will be seeded with an exorbitant number of examples of the passive tense, consequently making it difficult for a teacher to teach anything else with it.
And to this day, I am yet to see any alternative approach successfully realised in a coursebook. It would involve a collection of flexible input materials with ‘guidelines’ rather than ‘instructions’ for teacher. And due to the teaching skills and human factor required to implement a lesson successfully, it may just not be possible to capture this in a ready to go coursebook.
All of this seems best left to the ideas and activities freely generated in materials banks which teachers handpick and adapt to make their own. These materials do not need to be neatly polished, marketable, packageable or sellable, just editable & useable!
3. Sharing is caring
A Creative Commons ‘CC’ licence is used when an author wants to give people the right to share, use, and build upon a work that they have created. This could be either openly free to everyone online, or free to those who contribute to the shared project. Such ELT materials created for non-commercial profit are, more often than not, flexible enough for teachers to download & adapt.
As previously mentioned, when shared via a blog, teachers are encouraged to leave feedback on how they used the materials to meet their learners’ needs, the changes they made to any suggested procedure or lesson plan can be added as a ‘version 2.0’ for the next teacher to come along and try out. Thus, the materials are not static, they continue to evolve over time and encourage the sharing of new ideas, just jump on twitter and have a look. Odds are, one of the ways in which the material was used by another teacher might be similar to what you had in mind for your class.
Some may argue that such an approach to materials writing undermines the work done by experienced writers. My gut tells me that work of professional writers is well-intentioned but once passing through the publishers’ filters, the final product is skewed.
As a teacher, the time I spend to deconstruct and shape coursebook material to use for anything else than its exact intended purpose (the seeded language item) could be better spent developing and writing my own materials or using authentic texts to suit the needs of those who matter - my students.