In the context of a very large and varied offer of course books publishers do their best in promoting their products by pointing out very attractive features, which may make teachers’ choice even more difficult in absence of any guidelines. In addition to the general principles here are some guidelines we think may be useful to you when evaluating a course book. (Bălan, 2003:271)
Course books should reflect the uses which learners will make of the language for their own purposes. Consequently, teachers should look beyond what is going on in class and anticipate the use which learners will make in real life of what they have learned in class.
Course books should facilitate the learning process without imposing a rigid method, they should take into account the diversity of individual learning styles and develop effective individual strategies. The approach adopted by a course book towards learning strategies may not be always explicit but certain learning styles and strategies will be promoted in the book explicitly or implicitly and it is important that these are identified by the teacher.
Alan Cunningworth, (1995) in his book entitled Choosing your Course book mentions two ways of approaching the matter of selecting a course book, the impressionistic overview, and the in-depth evaluation.
- The impressionistic overview gives you a general impression of a course book, when looking quickly through it, noting significant features. „This is what most of us would do when sample copies of a new course book land on our desk (…). This kind of impressionistic overview gives us a general introduction to the material.” It cannot give us enough details or very reliable information to ensure the right course book in terms of suitability of the content and methodology of the course book to the concrete teaching situation.
- The in-depth evaluation gives more detailed information on the course book as a result of a close examination of specific features and of how particular items are dealt with „particularly those which relate to students’ learning needs, syllabus requirements and how different aspects of language are dealt with”.
The in-depth approach is characterized by „its active nature”. As Cunningworth says, „we actively seek out information about the material in line with an agenda that we have already decided on. The impressionistic approach is more receptive in that we look for anything that is noteworthy and interesting”.
Alan Cunningworth invites teachers to combine the two approaches and by doing this to form a „sound basis for evaluation and for ensuing choice of the most suitable course book”.
Teacher designed materials may range from one-off, single use items to extensive programmes of work where the tasks and activities build on each other to create a coherent progression of skills, concepts and language items. The guidelines that follow may act as a useful framework for teachers as they navigate the range of factors and variables to develop materials for their own teaching situations. The guidelines are offered as just that – guidelines – not rules to be rigidly applied or adhered to. While not all the guidelines will be relevant or applicable in all materials design scenarios, overall they provide for coherent design and materials which enhance the learning experience.
Guideline 1: English language teaching materials should be contextualised
Firstly, the materials should be contextualised to the curriculum they are intended to address (Nunan, 1988:1–2). It is essential during the design stages that the objectives of the curriculum, syllabus or scheme within the designer’s institution are kept to the fore. This is not to suggest that materials design should be solely determined by a list of course specifications or by large inventories of vocabulary that need to be imparted, but these are certainly among the initial considerations.
Materials should also be contextualised to the experiences, realities and first languages of the learners. An important part of this involves an awareness on the part of the teacher-designer of the “socio-cultural appropriacy” (Jolly & Bolitho, 1998:111) of things such as the designer’s own style of presenting material, of arranging groups, and so on. It is essential the materials designer is informed about the culture-specific learning processes of the intended learners, and for many groups this may mean adjusting the intended balance of what teachers may regard as more enjoyable activities and those of a more serious nature. Materials should link explicitly to what the learners already know, to their first languages and cultures, and very importantly, should alert learners to any areas of significant cultural difference.
In addition, materials should be contextualised to topics and themes that provide meaningful, purposeful uses for the target language. Wherever possible, these should be chosen on the basis of their relevance and appropriateness for the intended learners, to ensure personal engagement and to provide motivation for dipping further into the materials. For some ages and stages the topics may well be ‘old faithfuls’, such as money, family and holidays. Part of the mission for the materials designer is “to find new angles on those topics” (Bell & Gower, 1998:123) and having done that, to develop activities which will ensure purposeful production of the target language or skills. When producing materials for one-off use with smaller groups, additional student engagement can be achieved by allowing students to ‘star’ in the passages and texts that have been designed specifically for them.
Guideline 2: Materials should stimulate interaction and be generative in terms of language
Hall, (1995:9) states that “most people who learn to communicate fluently in a language which is not their L1 do so by spending a lot of time in situations where they have to use the language for some real communicative purpose”. Ideally, language-teaching materials should provide situations that demand the same; situations where learners need to interact with each other regularly in a manner that reflects the type of interactions they will engage in outside of the classroom. Hall outlines three conditions he believes are necessary to stimulate real communication: these are the need to “have something we want to communicate”, “someone to communicate with”, and, perhaps most importantly, “some interest in the outcome of the communication”. Nunan, (1988:8) refers to this as the “learning by doing philosophy”, and suggests procedures such as information gap and information transfer activities, which can be used to ensure that interaction is necessary.
Language learning will be maximally enhanced if materials designers are able to acknowledge the communication challenges inherent in an interactive teaching approach and address the different norms of interaction, such as preferred personal space, for example, directly within their teaching materials.
Effective learning frequently involves learners in explorations of new linguistic terrain, and interaction can often be the medium for providing the ‘stretch’ that is necessary for ongoing language development. Materials designers should ensure their materials allow sufficient scope for their learners to be ‘stretched’ at least some of the time, to build on from what is provided to generate new language, and to progress beyond surface fluency to proficiency and confidence.
Guideline 3: English language teaching materials should encourage learners to develop learning skills and strategies
It is impossible for teachers to teach their learners all the language they need to know in the short time that they are in the classroom. In addition to teaching valuable new language skills, it is essential that language teaching materials also teach their target learners how to learn, and that they help them to take advantage of language learning opportunities outside the classroom. Hall, (1995:12) stresses the importance of providing learners with the confidence to persist in their attempts to find solutions when they have initial difficulties in communicating. To this end, strategies such as rewording and using facial expressions and body language effectively can be fine-tuned with well designed materials. (educendika.blogspot.ro/2011/12/guidelines-for-designing-effective.)
In addition, materials can provide valuable opportunities for self-evaluation by providing the necessary metalanguage and incorporating activities which encourage learners to assess their own learning and language development. This can utilise the learners’ first language as well as English. Some EFL course books, such as (Ellis & Sinclair, 1989:52), also build in exercises for students to explore their own learning styles and strategies.