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Adapting Materials For A Specific Context Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 4395 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Although most people associate language-learning materials with course books, in fact materials encompass a much wider scope. A very general definition would be that materials are anything that teachers and learners use to facilitate learning of a language. As well as course books this could encompass cassettes, videos, dictionaries, grammar books, newspapers, photographs, and much more (Tomlinson 1998). Added to this is the realisation that materials are not simply the mundane apparatus of the language teacher, they are a personification of the aims, values and methods of the particular teaching or learning situation (Hutchinson 1987). Therefore the selection of materials is probably the single most important decision that the language teacher has to make (Hutchinson 1987).

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With such a broad definition teacher produced materials will obviously play a role. However there are very few teachers who do not use published course materials at some stage in their career and the use of published materials is now more pervasive than ever before with the course book being at the centre (Littlejohn 1998, McDonough & Shaw 2003). Although it is convenient to lump both teacher produced materials and commercially sponsored published course materials together there are in fact noteworthy differences pertaining to the circumstances under which they come to be written, produced and distributed. Customarily teacher produced materials are aimed at a more specified local audience, and commercially sponsored materials are for as wide an audience as possible (Dubin & Olshtain 1986).

Often the sheer time consuming feat of writing your own materials coupled with the reality that many teachers have little or no control over what course book and main materials will be selected leads to most teachers having to live with published materials selected by others (McDonough & Shaw 2003). It is rare to find a perfect fit between learner needs and course requirements on the one hand and what the course book contains on the other. Every learning and teaching situation is unique and inimitable (Cunningsworth 1995). For this reason the option open to the teacher is to adapt and develop the materials. However before we can adapt and develop the materials we have to be able to evaluate the materials. Before we can change something we have to be clear about what we are changing (McDonough & Shaw 2003).

Teachers’ evaluations of course books and materials usually involves making general impressionistic judgements on materials based upon common assumptions and expectations. Some very common expectations of materials now are that they should achieve impact and have a noticeable effect on learners, help learners feel at ease, help develop learners’ confidence, and should be perceived by learners as being pertinent and useful. It has become common for materials to be expected to necessitate learners to make discoveries for themselves, expose learners to language in authentic use, entice attention to linguistic features of the input, recycle instruction, and present frequent and abundant exposure to the instructed language features in communicative use (Tomlinson 1998). It is also now highly desired that materials bear in mind that learners differ in learning styles and that learner’s inclination for a particular learning style is variable depending on what is being learned, where, with who, and for what. It is also hoped materials take into account that learners differ in affective and emotional attitudes (Tomlinson 1998). However a lot of these expectations are things that can mean different things for different groups of learners and teachers. For example achieving impact is variable in different places. What achieves impact in Brazil might not achieve impact in Germany, and what achieves impact in a private language school in Brazil might not achieve impact in a Brazilian high school. Often these expectations and assumptions about what is desirable, and others, such as up to date methodology, being foolproof, and containing realistic language, are all debateable. Is up to date a desirable characteristic in itself (Littlejohn 1998, Tomlinson 1998)?

Teachers are also likely to focus less on the programme as a whole in their evaluation and more on whether specific activities and techniques appear to work in the context of a particular lesson (Ellis 1998). This combination of relying on general impressionistic judgements and concern with specific activities and techniques creates a type of micro evaluation that leads to a very eclectic type of adaptation. Rather to ensure a good match between what the course book includes and the requirements of the learning and teaching situation, and to avoid an eclectic approach to evaluation and adaptation teachers need to develop more methodical and potentially informative approaches creating a more in-depth evaluation of materials. (Cunningsworth 1995, Ellis 1998, Littlejohn 1998, Tomlinson 1998,).

How do teachers begin a more in depth evaluation of teaching materials? Firstly by understanding that materials are indeed an embodiment of the aims, values and methods of the particular teaching and learning environment teachers can reflect over and analyse their knowledge, understanding and experience of how languages are learnt and should be taught. They can relate this to how near a match there is with the aims and values of the materials. This will lead teachers to be able to clearly state what they actually expect from their materials rather than regurgitating the latest buzzwords in the teaching industry. Teachers are then able to proceed from here and have a basis to analyse what materials contain and aspire to achieve, what materials make learners do while they are learning, how materials assume or even demand the teacher to teach learners in the classroom, and the appropriateness of the materials to the learners’ needs and interests (Breen & Candlin 1987). This will enable us to build our evaluation of materials, and subsequently our adaptation, on the principles built upon our knowledge, understanding and experience of learning and teaching language. This evaluation helps cultivate insights into various views of language and learning and should be done against an environment of knowledge of our learners’ demands and the potential of the teaching situation (McDonough & Shaw 2003).

The subsequent stage is gathering as much information as feasible about the spirit and make-up of a course book (Hutchinson 1987). The information gathering of materials begins with what the materials say about themselves by probing the organization of the materials as stated explicitly by the author and publisher on the cover, and in the introduction and contents. Then what is actually presented inside the materials needs a thorough evaluation, and often the contents can be used as a conduit between the external claims and the reality inside (McDonough & Shaw 2003). However as well as the importance of information gathering and analysis of the materials, the same is needed of the teaching and learning situation that the materials are required for. This is vital as materials evaluation is essentially a matching process in which the needs and assumptions of particular teaching-learning contexts are matched to available solutions (Hutchinson 1987).

The teaching-learning situation and the classroom have a culture of their own. Culture is most commonly used in a very broad way to describe national culture, and there is often a prevailing cultural stimulus that may well be attributable to the wider society, governing for example, the rhythm and movement of classroom groups, and gender segregation. However there are also influences from institutional or professional-academic cultures, which dominate aspects of classroom cultures such as protocols and the formality of certain classroom events which therefore mean we need to be far more precise when we are talking about classroom culture (Holliday 1994).

Classes will not have permanent membership, groups meet to carry out restricted and limited activities, the length of history is relatively short, and the culture only exists when the class is in session. Expectations are brought to the class that are built on other, previous classroom experiences (Holliday 1994). This in addition to different personalities and ethics that evolve in different classroom groups makes each classroom contain a unique culture. Cultures of individual classrooms are diffused to new members enabling both teachers and students to be equipped with inferred understandings about what sort of behaviour is acceptable, which they must learn and impart if they are to be fully received into the group. They assert a social force that prevents teachers from replicating their lesson agendas with different classroom groups. These understandings in turn are strengthened by common acceptance by peers (Holliday 1994)

Habitually in the field of English language teaching there is frequent discord between the conventional and established interaction of the classroom and the innovation created by new language (Holliday 1994). Many teachers try to stimulate appropriate English teaching with students who are foreign to them, and try to understand their attitudes and ways of doing things, which to the outsider are obscure and unclear. Conversely teachers who are native to countries they work in, and of the same nationality as students they teach are repeatedly endeavouring to decipher methodologies cultivated and developed in the west for “ideal” teaching-learning situations. “Ideal” meaning different from the methodologies in their countries and particular teaching-learning situations (Holliday 1994).

In some countries and contexts large classes are not necessarily indicative of scarce resources. Large classes might be tolerable where prevailing educational ideologies do not see the role of the teacher as a monitor and overseer of learning, but as a fount and spring of knowledge, which is delivered without any dispensation to students, and which students must exert great effort to attain. This leads to interesting observations in countries where this type of mentality holds sway such as Holliday’s (1994) observation in Egypt of a newly graduated junior local lecturer. The local lecturer had undergone numerous hours of training in communicative English language teaching methodology from expatriate personnel and was supposed to be using a course book whose objectives were communicative teaching of pronunciation. The local lecturer was playing what she perceived to be the lecturer role very well. This was built on the basis of the local lecturers’ conviction that their responsibility stretched to the extent of presenting the subject matter to their students, not as far as overseeing and administrating learning. Szulc-kurpaska (1992 as cited in Holliday1994) reports an interesting case in Poland of how discontent on the part of students arose pertaining to the degree of informality practised by expatriate lecturers both in and out of the classroom. Students became perplexed and apprehensive over hazy definitions of teacher and student (Holliday 1994). Here we must realise the importance of understanding each unique classroom culture and not trying to enforce an ideal teaching-learning situation in different contexts. What is important is that learning takes place.

Unfortunately even taking into consideration that all learners, all teachers and all teaching situations are different, published materials have to treat them as if they were the same, commonly for commercial reasons (Maley 1998). Whether we like it or not any course book will directly or indirectly communicate collections of social and cultural morals and standards that are intrinsic in their make-up. This may be referred to as the hidden curriculum that will bring up issues of sexism, ethnic origin, occupation, age, social class, and disability (Cunningsworth 1995). Whether this is intended or not, it is a reality. Therefore the need to ensure a course book situates its material in the social and cultural contexts that are comprehensible, significant, appropriate and decipherable to learners, in terms of location, social mores and traditions, personal interests of learners, and age group is highly important (Breen & Candlin 1987, Cunningsworth 1995). Often this can only be done by evaluation leading to adaptation.

Lack of matching the teaching-learning situation to the materials leads to teachers returning from training programmes incapable of instigating what they have learnt, because it does not correspond to the conditions, needs and philosophies of their classrooms, institutions, and communities (Holliday 1994). In fact the materials become a constraint upon teachers’ sense of what may be appropriate at a given pedagogical moment, and on the autonomy and independence of teachers’ actions. The reality in the classroom is a trade off between materials, teachers, and learners (Maley 1998). If learners are to judge materials as legitimately offering them the prospect to develop their language knowledge and capabilities, the materials must take account of what learners perceive their needs to be, no matter how various and vague these perceptions may be (Breen & Candlin 1987).

Therefore information gathering and analysis of materials and the teaching-learning situation although without doubt can be driven by the teacher must include the input and feedback of learners. Especially in situations where the classroom culture is totally alien to the teacher they must be careful not to trample over the already set protocols and behaviours. Although classroom culture is open to large degrees of change, especially in the case of English language education – which has supplied an abundance of new methodologies, it is largely conservative. When there is a lack of knowledge of the particular classroom culture, often on the part of the teacher, and a lack of input from the students, change can come that is too abrasive and disturbing. This develops into a crisis that leads to the closing of ranks within the classroom culture (Holliday 1994). Both the information gathering and analysis of the materials and the teaching-learning situation must be based on knowledge, feedback, experience, and negotiated learning objectives. This will enable the reduction of wasted time and effort and result in clear pinpointing of the steps which compel attention in the continuous process of evaluation (Bolitho & Jolly 1998).

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The evaluation process is never static, when materials are considered suitable for a particular course after a preliminary evaluation, their ultimate success or failure may only be ascertained after a certain amount of classroom use (McDonough & Shaw 2003). Therefore materials whether they are for publication or a teacher’s next lesson need to be persistently and incessantly evaluated and revised. Ideally materials need to be monitored by authors, other experts not involved in the writing team, and by representative users of the material such as teachers and learners (Tomlinson 1998). A pooled evaluation effort such as this can develop awareness in a number of ways. It obliges teachers to analyse their own presuppositions as to the nature of language and learning. With the almost certain reality that there will be a variance between the various materials that are available for evaluation it forces teachers to establish their priorities, and helps teachers to see materials as an integral part of the whole teaching and learning situation (Hutchinson 1987).

It must be stated that evaluation takes on a wider and more extensive role than merely evaluating to be able to adapt and develop materials by teachers. There is an increased concern for management macro evaluation of programmes and projects, carried out for accountability and developmental purposes and rationales by accumulating information relating to various administrative and curricular aspects and features of the programme. Educational decision makers formulate policy and work out strategies for budgeting and purchasing and therefore teachers do not always have direct involvement. At best they may be invited to make suggestions and comments (Ellis 1998, McDonough & Shaw 2003). Such an approach to evaluation is not in concurrence with the perspective that many teachers have about what evaluation involves (Ellis 1998).

There is a strong relationship and connection between evaluation and adaptation. Adaptation is a process subsequent to, and dependent on evaluation (McDonough & Shaw 2003). Moving from the evaluation of materials and the teaching-learning situation in to the practical aspect of actually adapting the materials teachers will need to consider both external and internal factors. External factors are dynamics such as the characteristics of particular teaching situations, and content, organization, and consistency of the materials being an example of internal factors. To adapt materials is to endeavour to bring together these elements. Just as materials evaluation is a matching process so too is adaptation of materials. A good teacher is persistently striving for congruence and correspondence among materials, methodology, students, and course objectives. The teacher must satisfy the demands of the textbook but in ways that will be satisfying to those who learn from it by matching. Therefore maximising the appropriateness of the teaching materials in the particular teaching-learning context at hand (McDonough & Shaw 2003).

With evaluation of materials often constructed and fostered upon very impressionistic general judgements, teachers’ first steps in materials adaptation will also frequently be based on very vague motives and rationales leading to haphazard eclectic adaptation. Teachers will sometimes give the textbook a rest. The songs and games on a wet Friday afternoon are familiar to all teachers. However these don’t have to remain part of a chaotic adaptation method. Rather they can be built into teaching in a principled way (Maley 1998). This means returning to our understanding of the underlying principles that evaluation of materials is based upon and subsequently looking at what adapting of materials actually involves. What must be noted is that this doesn’t automatically mean adaptation has to continually be a rather formal process, although it often is. Rather, it can also be transitory. A teacher instantly rephrases a textbook elucidation of a language feature and so adapts. A good teacher is constantly adapting whether formally or informally (McDonough & Shaw 2003).

Therefore adaptation can be quantitative, by altering the amount, or qualitative by altering the methodological nature. This can be done using an assortment of techniques or a single technique applied to different content sections such as leaving out, adding, replacing, and changing. Materials may require adapting because they are not ideal in areas such as methods, language content, subject matter, balance of skills, progression and grading, cultural content, or image (Cunningsworth 1995). All of this must be done within a framework of gauging what materials contain against the requirements of a particular teaching environment and being sensitive to students’ interests, learning styles and motivation (Cunningsworth 1995, McDonough & Shaw 2003).

We can add to materials by supplementing them. More is put into them by extending or expanding. Materials are extended when we add more of the same, such as further grammar exercises if the grammar point being studied is difficult. By expanding we actually add to the methodology by moving outside it and developing it in novel directions. Also additions can be made before a language point appears in the framework of the book (McDonough & Shaw 2003). Leaving out material is the other side of the same coin from addition. Generally subtracting does not have a significant impact on the overall methodology (McDonough & Shaw 2003).

Often using other published general course books or our own material for supplementary options is unsuitable. However there are numerous books that focus on skills. These afford a simple option to find exercises at a lower or higher level than the regular course book being used. For example, some general courses do not cover pronunciation as comprehensively or systematically as is necessary. Supplementary pronunciation books can fill in the gap. Usually vocabulary is covered more fully in modern books however there is still scope for supplementary vocabulary learning materials. Most books cover grammar meticulously, but there are still occasions when additional grammar work is needed, or an alternative approach (Cunningsworth 1995). Often the reasons why more pronunciation, vocabulary, or grammar is needed are the particular culture of that institution, managerial influences and teacher perceptions as well as the perceived needs of the students. The teacher has to take consideration of all of these to be successful.

In my particular experience of teaching in Saudi Arabia the perceived importance and need for exhaustive grammar teaching, that was an influence of the culture of the institute, students, and the wider academic culture in Saudi Arabia, led me to adapt my teaching materials by supplementing the regular course book with grammar exercises from a well known grammar book (See Appendix 1, 2, & 3). As a new teacher presented with the challenge of supplementing just because grammar was needed without any questioning I adapted in an extremely eclectic style without any worthwhile evaluation. A return to teaching will provide me with the opportunity to base my evaluation and adaptation on my understandings of teaching and learning and very importantly the context of the teaching-learning situation.

Where we can usually make a noteworthy impression on the materials is by changing or modifying. Teachers can effect internal change in the style or focus of an exercise or other piece of material by rewriting when some of the linguistic content needs amendment. A prime example would be relating activities directly to learners’ backgrounds and interests (McDonough & Shaw 2003). We could take a clearly mechanical, pre-communicative activity such as a drill and utilize the idea behind it by making the interaction more genuine and communicative by personalizing the content whilst keeping focus on structure and using authentic content. The important thing is to learn what students are interested in and build on that, showing that the English lesson is not just about English, but is about all aspects of life (Cunningsworth 1995). Restructuring involves classroom management, as in the case of when materials contain role-play for groups of a certain size and the class is too big. We can use simplification by rephrasing instructions, explanation, or even the visual layout. Obviously there are repercussions and implications for simplification, such as the possibility that any linguistic change will have corresponding stylistic effects and therefore change the meaning or intention of the original text (McDonough & Shaw 2003). As well as adapting by adding, taking away, or modifying we can transform the way the content of the materials is presented. Teachers can reorder by putting parts of a course book in a different order. For example we can adjust the sequence of presentation within a unit, or put units in a different sequence. We may do this in circumstances where the teaching programme is too short to work systematically through the book (McDonough & Shaw 2003).

Obviously there are patent areas of overlap among the various techniques that can be employed in adaptation. At one end adaptation is a practical activity carried out mainly by teachers to make their work more relevant to learners, however it is directly and indirectly related to a wider array of professional concerns such as administration and management of education. Adapting is one consequence of setting of objectives in a particular educational context and can only be executed effectively if it develops from understanding of possible design features of syllabuses and materials (McDonough & Shaw 2003).

We must be circumspect of becoming enslaved to course books. Rather course books are best seen as a resource in realizing aims and objectives that have already been fixed in terms of learner needs. They should not determine objectives themselves or become the aims. The concern must be with teaching language and not the textbook. The course book should be at the service of teachers and learners and not their master (Cunningsworth 1995). However we must strike a balance and not fall into dismissing all course books of being devoid of any value. The need to adapt does not necessarily entail that a course book is defective (Tomlinson 1998). We have to realise the entire arena of evaluation and adaptation is about matching between materials and the teaching-learning situation, basing this on our understanding and knowledge of teaching, learning and the context. Therefore the possible and inevitable areas of mismatch often can be dealt with by adaptation rather than abandoning the materials available (Tomlinson 1998).


Taken from: Headway, a typical EFL course book. The presentation of the grammar point here is not considered in depth enough and so the need to supplement.


Taken from: English Grammar In Use, a popular grammar skills book. Present the same grammar point to students as we studied in course book but with some more detail.


Taken from: English Grammar In Use. Present these additional exercises to the students usually by writing questions on the board. The students copy questions and complete with answers.


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