A Guilty Confession, Part 1

I have a confession to make. I hold my hands up, officer, guilty as charged. I have used pre-published resources: worse still, they have come from the old DfES materials designed in the early days of the Skills for Life era.

Joking aside, I was actually feeling genuinely and weirdly guilty. Guilty because I’ve never had a very high opinion of those materials in particular, and because this last term, more than any other year since becoming a teacher, I have moved almost completely away from extensive reliance on published materials, or indeed using much of anyone else’s materials. So when I set out to use pages 10-11 of this section from the old DfES ESOL skills for life materials as a fairly straight lesson, I felt like I was about to do my learners some kind of disservice.

This is silly of me, of course. The extra work, for example, that making use of an authentic text can entail, or having to explain your materials free, learner-as-a-resource lesson to someone else, or the planning hassle. A well selected chunk of published materials can be brilliant: give me a page or two and I reckon I could more or less walk entirely unprepared into a class and get them to learn something. Many published materials are of an exceptionally high quality, have been trialled carefully (although I find it hard to believe that sometimes), and by and large work pretty well. Learning outcomes write themselves, and are easy to assess learners against, and thus tick that particular box as well. Pre-published materials are not , in and of themselves, bad things. So why the guilt when I set out to use them pretty much as they stand?

There’s the obvious thing, which is the inappropriate nature of some published resources: I once saw a lesson to a group of migrants in the UK centring around a section from Cutting Edge which had a selection of young middle class people talking about computer games, travelling round the world, going to university and so on. By the same token, and at the other extreme there is a lot of material in ESOL where learners are clearly placed as fairly passive service users: where they are portrayed as customers, consumers, interviewees, employees at the very bottom end of the employment ladder. I understand the reasoning behind both extremes. A major market for international text books is the private language sector, which, owing to the high costs of fees, is more likely to draw middle class people, probably under 30. The ESOL materials do reflect some aspects of the reality of migrant learners’ lives: they need to be able to access services, get (better) jobs, and so on. However, this, at least for me, is not an excuse just to blindly use the Skills for Life resources: they need to be read as critically as published international materials. If anything they should be read by teachers and learners even more critically given that they were published by a government with an agenda.

When it comes to reading texts, my general habit is to use authentic materials. This has a number of advantages: you can get learners to choose them for the lessons, you have control over what you do with them, but at the same time there is flexibility in the language which can derive from them, both learner identified and teacher selected.

Authentic resources can also be built to fit the learners and the lesson, instead of the usual compromises which occur with pre published materials. You know the thing: not quite the right context, too many Americanisms – or Britishisms, of course, the text doesn’t quite produce the language which fits, or introduces language which would pre-empt the next week’s work too early. I’ve seen so many lesson ideas skewed by reliance on published materials: a slight change in context, for example, can alter the lesson before and after, not necessarily for the best. And I’ve seen so many teachers agonise over resources, situations where the resources tail wags the lesson dog: “I’ve got this great idea, but there are no resources.” Or, even worse, “I’ve got these great resources, how can I use them?” It has to be learning and learners first, resources second.

And so what if you don’t have a resource and no time to make one? All you do is alter the idea – not so it fits someone else’s lesson, but alter the idea so it can be done with the resources available: you, the learners, pens and paper, a board. Learners are far and away the most useful and one of the richest sources of ideas and indeed language in the classroom, and an over-reliance on pre-prepared resources can so easily side-line learners, and if anything close down possibilities for learning.

And this, I suppose, is why I felt guilty. On my personal set of standards, using someone else’s resources, even with my own spin on them, is a cop out. It’s an admission that I don’t have the internal resources to think of the best way to do it, and that means that in some way I have let the learners down. But you know, I should probably just get over that, and save myself some time.

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