• Tom Garside

4 ways to adapt teaching materials for your students

If you follow a curriculum with your students, the content that you teach is likely not to be the best match for everyone in the class. Textbooks and other published resources tend to be designed generically for a level of study, an age group or a specific purpose such as academic or business English.

The language being taught through the resource may be a good fit for the students, and the tasks may be well designed for maximum practice, but a course book writer or curriculum designer cannot know the specific profile of the individuals in your class, their motivations, strengths, weaknesses, study preferences, likes and dislikes. These factors influence how effectively students learn, so the ability to adapt to these important factors is essential to facilitate the learning that your students need.

When we evaluate a piece of teaching material, there are several features which we can isolate and change, to make it a better fit for the individuals in the class. A little extra planning can go a long way, turning a potentially unengaging, dry resource into something that will work for everyone in the class. Breaking materials down and adapting these elements of material can help us to adapt what we do to make our teaching more effective.

  1. Think about the context

One aspect which can make a teaching resource successful (or not) is the context in which it is set. Think about the situation, topic or setting where the language is presented from. Is it relevant to the learners that you teach? If not, it is unlikely to engage them fully, and more effective learning will result.

Often, language is presented through a context where it frequently appears, but many forms are used in different contexts. The language of polite requests (may I…, would it be possible to… / Do you mind if I…) could be presented through the context of a high-class restaurant. However, if you are teaching younger students, or students from a culture where this kind of dining does not exist, they may well have trouble associating the language to that situation, and deeper connection (and therefore uptake of language) would not be possible.

However, fancy restaurants are not the only places where polite language is required. Shifting the context to a more familiar, or less culturally-bound setting, could open up this important language to your learners. Think about a family dinner with respected elders or an event in a religious setting, or another situation where the learners you teach would be required to use polite language. This will make any task more relevant for them, raising the level of investment that they have in the language they are learning.

2) Think about the task design

Another factor which affects student performance with a piece of task-based teaching material is how the tasks are designed. Consider how your students prefer to navigate language in tasks - do they rely on a dictionary or translator? Do they ned to to be instructed in every step of the task, or do they work independently on activities that you do in class? Do they process information at a broad, global level, or focus on the meaning of every single word? How closely do the tasks in the material you teach mirror the preferred study strategies of your learners?

One aspect of task design which can easily be adapted is the level of language support which appears around tasks. At the point of the task, have the students had exposure to the language they are learning, or is this their first chance to think about it? Will some of your students need extra support when they come to start reading or listening, and how can you plan that support into your lesson?

Adding a glossary of challenging words, or taking some time to pre-teach some key vocabulary from a task can save a lot of time and questions later in the class, and a quick discussion of key ideas from a text can help to prepare more dependent learners for topic-heavy readings. Just because these don’t appear in the book, it doesn’t mean you can’t add them in to the lesson one way or another.

3) Think about taking a plurilingual approach

Use of the students’ first language (L1) in the English classroom is often frowned upon, but a growing body of research shows that using a considered mixture of English and learners’ L1(s) can greatly benefit performance in a task, and helps to support understanding of new language, while taking less time than laborious instructions in English.

Ask yourself: If a task requires some discussion and planning before the heavy language work begins, will your learners be capable of doing this in English, or might it be more workable if planning and preparing for the task is done in their first language? Separating planning and preparatory activity (talking about a task), and actually doing the task (using the target piece of language in English) is the first step to effective use of students’ first language in the English classroom. Performing the former in students’ L1 will not affect their performance of the latter in English, but the chances are that it will support learning as a result.

4) Think about reordering to be more inductive

Finally, the ordering of tasks in a piece of material can dictate how students work with it. Too many tasks presented before students have to use the language they are learning, and they can get bored of it. Not enough support, and the result will be too challenging for students to achieve.

If a productive activity focuses on language that students are somewhat familiar with, it may be more useful to let them try it out before you teach anything directly. This top-down approach lets students figure out patterns of language on their own, through usage, which can have a beneficial effect on learning. Follow this first productive stage with a longer feedback session, where you correct errors and answer questions about what the students just did, and you can create a more discovery-based approach, which is engaging for many learners.

If you finish the class with a second productive activity, you can gain a measurable increase in performance, with the students reflecting on whether their use of the language was easier the second time around. This works towards a test-teach-test approach, where language development can be appreciated in the space of one class, a motivating feeling for many.

However you evaluate and adapt the resources you teach, think about the learners in your class and how they work best. One size does not fit all, so adapting the ways that students work with materials can raise engagement levels and help students connect more to the content that you teach.

Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.