The landscape of language teaching has changed so radically in the last few months that even experienced teachers are finding themselves in the position of novices, as they scramble to master new technology and organise the delivery of lessons online. In addition, many of us have found ourselves without access to familiar materials and coursebooks and are now trying to locate and evaluate a new range of resources online. Panic aside, it’s helpful to remember that good online teaching is just good teaching via another medium, and that we can apply the same criteria as before to help us select the right materials for our lessons.
Commercially published materials from reputable websites have been written by experienced professionals and have gone through several stages of planning and editing. This means new teachers can expect them to be level-appropriate and engaging. The use of these materials ensures a sense of progression as students move through the units, avoiding lessons that just feel like “one damn thing after another.” 1
The most important factor in selecting materials and planning a lesson is that the students learn something. However, I believe that it’s also important for materials to offer teachers support in consolidating and upgrading their skills; teachers in many contexts have limited opportunities for continuing professional development. Quality materials can provide teachers with valuable insights into standard sequences and routines that they can embed into their practice – if they know what they’re looking at.
A WALK IN THE WOODS
Evaluating materials to use in a lesson can raise an overwhelming number of questions for a new teacher: Is the topic interesting? How will I find the audio for the listening? Where are the answers to the exercises? These are valid questions, of course, but they don’t address the central issue. The most important thing to identify is the thread that holds the whole lesson together through a logical sequence of activities. My own teaching changed radically when I recognised how one stage of a lesson should link to and build on the previous one, and it improved even further when I started sharing this information with students! The template I always have in mind when I plan a lesson or write commercial materials uses the metaphor of a walk in the woods, and it goes like this:
|Walking in the woods||An English lesson|
Assemble your group. Are they:
|2||To reach the destination, the group will have to walk along a path. The path is a story - a listening or reading text. The group needs a leader to guide everyone over dangerous obstacles and to make sure that no one is straggling behind or running ahead.|| |
|3||At the end of the path, there is a clearing in the woods. This is the destination. The leader will build a campfire here so the group can pause to notice and examine target language from the text in detail. Students need to have a written record of this stage which they can look back on as needed.|| |
|4||The leader then organises some activities in the clearing, starting with very controlled exercises and finishing with games or free play. Some activities are for individuals while others are for pairs or groups.|| |
|5||When it’s time to go home, the leader gives feedback for both specific individuals and the group, sets activities to continue at home, and gives an idea of which clearing they will visit next time, before offering a shortcut out of the woods.|| |
When teachers get distracted by superficial differences in materials, they can’t see the wood for the trees, as the saying goes. The beauty of the deep structure of this template is that each stage could be delivered in a variety of ways, e.g. one lesson plan includes a gap-fill and roleplay in stage 4 while another includes an error correction exercise and a discussion, so lessons can feel fresh and interesting from one day to the next while still delivering the goods. With practice and experience, teachers can also master the delivery of a range of these individual elements for each stage.
Pairwork is one area where new teachers particularly need to develop a critical eye. Of course, pairwork is the bedrock of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), but it can be such a cliché in CLT that it becomes a boring or repetitive default instruction at best, and at worst, an impediment to achieving the objectives of the lesson. There may also be challenges with setting up pairwork in online contexts, so if we are using it, we should be clear why and really make it count. The rubric and teachers’ notes accompanying many commercial materials can offer valuable guidance about when and how to use pairwork effectively during the lesson. The examples below are based on commercial materials that I have written.
A typical note for a teacher about including pairwork in a speaking task in stage 4 of the walk in the woods template might be:
Task: Tell your partner which of the activities in the pictures you have tried. Say when and where you were and whether you enjoyed the activity.
Note: Give students some time to work in pairs to formulate their answers. Remind them to use present perfect and past simple in full sentences. Then conduct feedback with the whole class, asking students to report what their partner told them, not their own answer, or alternatively ask them to comment on something that was either the same or different for them and their partners. This promotes communication and memory skills.
Sometimes it’s actually more efficient not to check answers after pairwork in order to keep the momentum going, as in this stage 1 task:
Lead-in question: Work in pairs to answer these questions. Do you enjoy visiting the beach? (Why or why not?) What do you like to do at the beach?
Note: Students can answer the question in pairs or small groups to personalise the topic before the listening; there is no need to conduct full class feedback.
Unless this stage is being used for the prediction of content of the following listening task, it would be tedious for students to listen to each other’s answers, which would be unlikely to offer much variation in any case.
Often a stage 1 lead-in task about an unfamiliar topic is more efficiently managed without any pairwork at all:
Task: Look at these pictures of natural disasters and say what you can see.
Note: Working with the whole class, focus students’ attention on the pictures. Elicit/teach the vocabulary to describe what they are seeing and encourage individuals to share what they know about this topic. It’s fine if the class has limited knowledge – the purpose of this task is to establish a context for the next stage of the lesson, a reading about hurricanes.
Commercial materials are used in many different contexts. Writers don’t know what kind of training or experience teachers have, if they are familiar with CLT methodology, or even their level of proficiency in English. We don’t even have any information about the teaching context - L1 and age of students, class size, length of lesson or time of day. Perhaps, in the end, this is not so important. Even if it’s never going to be possible to fully define the demographics of the students and teachers who will be using these lesson plans, the overall aim of EFL lessons in any context is to promote the communicative ability of students in English. The methodology of CLT is flexible enough to serve a range of learning environments, including online, and the inclusion of both implicit and explicit support for teachers in materials can further enrich this model for users and encourage teachers to develop their own good practice and even adapt or write their own materials.
1. The original "life is one damn thing after another" is variously attributed to Edna St Vincent Millay and to Elbert Hubbard (Letters, June 16). The version "history is just one damn thing after another" is attributed to Arnold Toynbee and to Henry Ford (and doubtless to others). Jo Billingham, Brighton, East Sussex https://www.theguardian.com/news/2006/jun/17/mainsection.guardianletters
About the author
Stephanie Hirschman teaches teens and adults at all levels on the International Programme at East Sussex College Group, Lewes, UK, and coordinates the summer school and various other special programmes, including teacher training. She has been writing commercial lesson plans and professional articles for a number of years and is developing an original resource which uses colouring to practise grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation (http://www.onestopenglish.com/community/lesson-share/winning-lessons/speaking/collocations-in-colour/556464.article)