• Tom Garside

Quick tips for new teachers Part 1: Designing effective teaching materials

So you've just finished your initial training course, you've started your first job and you’ve been given the materials you'll be using with your students. This could be a textbook that has to be followed, or a set of online materials to work through in class. Now what?

Whoever wrote these resources is experienced, qualified and published, but they don’t know your students, they don’t know you or your teaching style, and they don’t know the setting where you'll be teaching.

The mismatch between materials, learner needs and the teaching environment is all too common, so how can we be sure to design high quality, useful materials to supplement what we are given by the school?

Focus on your learners’ specific language needs

One issue with published teaching resources is that they aim at a very broad range of language and skills. This is fine as a starting point, but every group of learners has its own specific difficulties with language. This is especially true for monolingual groups, who share a first language, so it is a good idea to supplement the set text you use in class with more specific, needs-based work in those areas.

Listen out for common errors in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary. If you hear the same type of error again and again, it is likely that the coursebook you are using is not addressing that point in enough detail. Keep a notebook handy to record problems in your students’ language, to keep you informed of areas of need. These can be useful starting points for tasks or extra work that you design yourself.

Research the language you are teaching

Once you have identified some areas of need in your students, go to a couple of reference books and look up common issues with that piece of grammar or pronunciation. If you are teaching a monolingual class, a quick google search for ‘linguistic analysis of…’ focused on the first language of the learners will throw up some points which might explain why the mistake keeps happening.

It is also important to research any language you build in to your own materials so that you don’t misapply rules or overgeneralise concepts for learners. The English language has many exceptions to rules that are easily overlooked, and you don’t want to misinform your students with your own materials. The extra work of looking things up will benefit you and your students, and you will end up producing more reliable and reusable material as a result.

Grade your language in tasks and instructions

Any effective task should have clear instructions - it is not enough to simply tell students what to do verbally, as some will not catch the purpose of the task and others will get distracted easily. Written instructions provide guidance on what to do, and should be clear, simple and graded to your class level or below.

The same is true for any texts, recordings or sentence examples that you use in your materials. The language you are working with can be simple enough for the class, but if the surrounding content is too complex, the students won’t be able to complete the task due to vocabulary problems. Use the textbook to help you to grade your language appropriately and think about what your learners can and can’t understand at the current point in their study.

Make sure the content is relevant to your learners

A lot of standard textbook content becomes outdated quickly, and may contain culturally-bound content that is not relevant to your learners and where they are in their lives. If this is true for the resources you use, there is no harm in taking the structure of a task or activity and simply changing the topic to something that will be more interesting to your class.

The usefulness of any content relating to film, music, fashion, sport or celebrity will depend on whether the film, song or famous people mentioned are familiar to the students. Don’t assume that your students have the same cultural reference points that you do - if in doubt, ask them for films, music and personalities that they would like to know more about, so that you can prepare relevant materials for them. If the topic is outdated or not known in the learners’ own culture, the same basic material can usually be rewritten to feature one that is, bringing discussion alive about themes that your students can engage with and promoting more meaningful interaction in class.

Check for accuracy

Once you have created a relevant, focused piece of material, the final step is to edit it for accuracy. Check the numbering, answer choices and spelling so that the material is easily usable in class. Even a small error in formatting or numbering can cause confusion and waste time, so taking a moment to check that everything lines up is essential for a lesson to run smoothly.

The best way of doing this is to complete the tasks on the material yourself. While you do this, think about how long it is likely to take your learners. The timing of tasks is important, and may mean the difference between having time to check answers or having to finish the class before the students have finished the tasks.

A focused, relevant and engaging piece of teaching material which works for the types of learners that you teach is an invaluable resource. You can keep it on file, reuse it and add more materials to build library of resources that really work for the groups that you teach.

If you want to develop your design and delivery of ESOL materials further, the Trinity College London Certificate for Practising Teachers (CertPT) focuses on the evaluation, adaptation, creation and delivery of teaching resources to fit the needs of learners studying in specific contexts. The CertPT can be used with young learners, for exam preparation, EAP or online ESOL settings. For more information, go to https://www.languagepointtraining.com/trinity-certpt or contact us for upcoming course dates

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