It’s really rather simple

Just occasionally, no, actually quite often, I don’t really understand all the fuss about materials. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a teacher once about lessons they were planning, and they sat there with a pile of resources, trying to work out what to do, but crumbling before the rather pertinent question of “what is it you want the learners to learn?”

I just don’t get it. If there is one thing that has stayed with me forever it is this: the learning and the activities come first, the resources second. I don’t particularly care if the outcomes are bloody SMART or have the word “understand” in them, I really don’t, but what I do care about is that you have something you want the learners to be able, or better able, to do. Everything else is beholden to that one point. Mind you, I’ve been saying this for years at work and nobody seems to be listening, so I’m sure that saying this outside of the college isn’t going to make the blindest difference at all.

Let me demonstrate. A lesson. Level 2. 4 photographs of people in curious or interesting situations (a woman in prison, a man in a wheelchair drinking from a water fountain, three “princes” on Brighton beach and another one which escapes me because I’m at home and I have a terrible memory sometimes) and access to the internet and PCs. The technology was a bonus and could have been done with paper and pens, and some reference books. Learning outcomes: write a narrative, review grammar points, develop proof reading skills. Simple.

We started with the outcomes to be met with disbelief by many of the students: how will we do all that? Ah ha! says I, just watch! The learners worked in groups of 3 or 4 and brainstormed ideas around their picture: Who are they? Where are they? How did they get there? These ideas were then turned into individual short narratives, two or three paragraphs, no more. In this case, the learners worked on PCs, using Word, although this could have been done on paper, quite easily.

The work was saved, and each group of learners was given an area of language to focus on: articles, present tenses, past tenses, and language patterns (gerund/infinitive, etc.) These language points all related to some area of need I had identified for the group, or individuals in the group. The learners then had to review, with the help of the teacher or online resources, their aspect of language.

They then reviewed briefly their own work for this aspect of language.

To be fair, this next bit got a bit scrappy, in terms of managing the groups and the movement, but it worked out OK. The learners then spent 3-4 minutes at each PC checking for their language point, as well as general issues like spelling and punctuation. In this instance we used the “comments” function in Word, but this would have worked just as well with learners writing on every other line, then sticking the finished piece into the centre of a sheet of A3, then giving each learner a green or red pen with which to write comments. Even on paper, though, I think I would have insisted that the learners move, rather than the papers, just to stop the lesson being very static, almost like a factory production line of error correction. (I’d have stuck the papers to the desk…)

At the end of all this, they returned to their own work and made value judgements about what others had written, and whether to accept or reject their changes, before printing the whole lot out and handing in for me to check.

And yeah, yeah, yeah, this is level 2, on the upper end of the intermediate spectrum, that’s what you’re thinking, right? And I’ll admit this is easier with higher levels, you know, more or less everything above Entry level 2, (that was sarcasm) but you still don’t need more than one or two handouts for a 2 hour lesson at any level, not if they are well designed and appropriate.

Anyhow, it’s not about reducing materials out of principle, just in the same way that reducing teacher talking time is not really about saying less. Reducing TTT is actually about getting the learners to do more talking, and reducing materials is about focussing on what is to be learned first then measuring up your resources against that. Those resources may well be from a coursebook, or similar, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just about where the planning and the lesson is coming from. It’s not a difficult thing to do, really, is it?


One comment

  1. Oh resources….they would be nice! Even just some paper and the ability to print…..I’ve become amazing at drawing stick people on a chalkboard! Joking aside, you’re totes right, I miss resources for inspiration and making the lessons more interesting and varied, but I’ve become much more focused on “what are we learning today – how can we do that with what’s in the room”, and most of the time, it works well enough.

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