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Replacing the Textbook: Context is King in TESOL

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Teacher-made TESOL materials form an important part of most English language courses.

Despite the rich array of commercially available materials, many teachers continue to produce their own materials for classroom use.

Indeed, most of us spend a substantial amount of time looking for, choosing, evaluating, adapting or making our own materials to use in our classrooms.

With all this work going into preparing supplementary materials, it’s important for us to think about how to make things work as effectively as possible.

Over the course of several posts, we’ll look at all the factors you need to keep in mind when preparing worksheets and handouts.

In this post, we’ll start off by examining the importance of contextualizing your materials, and then move on to making sure that our materials generate interaction and promote the use of new language.

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Context is King in TESOL

Ok, so what do we mean by contextualization?

Basically, all TESOL materials should be contextualized to the syllabus they are intended to address.

When designing your material, the objectives of the syllabus must be kept to the fore.

Although we’re not suggesting you stick rigorously to a particular vocabulary list or to one or two specific syllabus objectives, these should nevertheless be among your preliminary considerations.

In addition to the content of your syllabus, materials should match the context in terms of the experiences, daily realities, and even the first languages of the learners.

This essentially refers to understanding the ‘socio-cultural appropriacy’ of things such as the material maker’s own style of presenting the material.

In its simplest terms, this might mean making adjustments from what you consider to be a good piece of supplementary material to what learners think is good.

This might mean, for instance, making materials more serious than you’d like and cutting down on the fun aspect.

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Finally, contextualization refers to the kinds of topics and themes that can provide meaningful, purposeful uses for the target language.

Relevance and appropriateness are key here; for many learners, this will actually mean sticking to tried and tested topics such as family, holidays, or money.

One action is vital here: find new angles on those topics! Having done that, the next thing is to develop activities that ensure purposeful production of the target language or skills.

Key questions for your materials

  • What is it in your material that will make it compelling to your teaching context?
  • Is there anything in your material that will be totally unknown or inappropriate?

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