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Context is King in TESOL: Replacing the Textbook with Authentic Communication

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.

Teaching materials used with the objective to replace the textbook create situations where learners need to interact with each other in ways similar to those in which they will engage outside of the classroom. Why is this so? Basically, the majority of learners who are able to communicate fluently in a second language do so by being in situations where they have to use the language for some real communicative purpose. The activities in the textbook are often inadequate, so this article will explain how to stimulate student interaction with authentic material and communication.

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The Importance of Integrating Skills

One of the worst things about professionally published language teaching materials is that they often tend to focus on one particular skill in a fairly unnatural way. Indeed, a lot of language courses even go as far as focusing solely on productive skills. In such courses, reading and listening become secondary skills (while other courses do the exact opposite, of course). Authentic materials, on the other hand, allow teachers to plan for integrated skills lessons.

Our self-made materials should provide learners with opportunities to integrate all the language skills in an authentic manner. For instance, if you have learners listening to an argument, it might be natural for them to write a gossip email about it to a friend.

Key questions for your materials

  • Have you included tasks that transition from a reading/listening activity into a speaking/writing task?
  • Is there a natural basis for this post-receptive task production, i.e. is it something they might do in real life?

Read More: What’s the difference between OnTESOL and other online TEFL course providers? 

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.

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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TESOL Materials Should Be Authentic

Perhaps the greatest ongoing debate in TESOL concerns the desirability of using authentic materials in our classrooms and, indeed, to define exactly what we mean by genuine versus simulated input. The simplest way we can deal with this issue is to ask ourselves one simple question; ‘To what extent will our learners come into contact with authentic English resources in their daily lives?’

While this will vary according to your teaching context, it’s nonetheless very important for language learners to have regular exposure in the classroom to real, unscripted language. Because texts in course books have been written specifically for the classroom and generally distort the language in some way, developing your own materials based on real-life documents represents your chance to address this issue.

Key questions for your materials

  • In what kinds of situations do my learners encounter authentic English in their daily lives?
  • How inauthentic does the coursebook input feel, and how are you going to overcome this?

Stimulating Student Interaction with Authentic Communication

Three things are necessary for authentic communication to occur:

  • Having some information we want to communicate
  • Having someone to communicate with
  • Having a real interest in the outcome of this communication

Fortunately, creating teaching materials that do this is not as difficult as it may appear. For instance, classic information gap and information transfer activities can be used to ensure that interaction is necessary.

However, make sure that your materials also address issues such as the ‘norms of interaction’ in the situation which your materials are trying to replicate. For example, a telephone call doesn’t occur between two people sitting next to one another; how can your material add realism to your scenario?

In addition to stimulating interaction, our TESOL materials should get learners involved in exploring a new language. Fortunately, material that focuses on interaction often stimulates the need for learners to stretch beyond what they can currently do.

When you decide to become a material designer, try to think of ways to ensure your materials allow sufficient scope for learners to go beyond what they know and to generate new language. An example would be beginner learners working on the simple present: how could asking a question about the past get them trying to use past tenses?

Key questions for your materials

  • Does your material promote interaction among learners?
  • Are there opportunities to experiment and try out new language?

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