This is the second part of my article on qualities I value in ELT materials. In this first part I looked at genuine communication. Now I’m considering the amount of choice students have in lessons.
Think about a lesson from a learner’s perspective. In the vast majority of cases, it’s the coursebook or teacher that choose all the activities. The discussion questions are given, the text has been selected, the language point is predetermined. There’s an extended speaking or writing task, but it’s been chosen in advance. Students come to class and are served what’s on offer. Needs analysis at the start of the course, or as it progresses can be used by teachers to help plan future lessons. Students might even say what they want, but again this is usually for future lessons. How much can they actually feed into the class once it has started?
In materials, there are some choices, but they are rare. When dealing with sensitive topics there may be opt out options. For example, tick the topics you’d feel happy discussing: childhood obesity, euthanasia, etc. With stories there may be a selection to choice from. For example, talk about a good/bad/recent/future holiday. The idea of holiday is fixed, but the students can take slight deviations from each other. While these are useful choices, I value materials which do more.
The dogme approach tries to use the students as a resource, which gives them a choice in the content, as they’re the ones making it. However, this too is often planned. There is still a direction, which generally includes tasks from the teacher’s bank of activities. I am also wary of lessons in which students just use language they already know. I accept and encourage peer learning, but for me, there needs to be input or upgrading. Dogme lessons can do that, but they could end up being simple conversation classes.
So how can we increase choice for students? It’s a difficult question, as having any course content creates a degree of control. However, there are a few options.
Use students to create some of the materials
Engagement generally rises when students ask each other questions they’re not expecting. Find someone who activities (or should they be find out abouts?) often come complete. But why not leave some space for students to ask questions they’re interested in? It’s also true for surveys or discussions; students can create some of the task. Materials which allow for choice usually create more authentic chat.
Role-plays or simulations
In role-plays the students are given a role. In simulations they play themselves in a situation. Role-plays might tell students what to think or do. Simulations tell them to be themselves. So simulations give greater control to the learners. It’s possible to get students involved in selecting any necessary roles. For example, choosing a chairperson. Some cultures might choose the oldest person, so it might make a role-play unnatural if roles are set. In most cases students are able to work it out for themselves. The choice might even generate some more useful language.
Forcing an opinion or letting students decide
Debates are common tasks and one way to administer them in class is by dividing into for and against groups. While some students are happy to get into character, there are more who want to give their genuine opinion. If there’s a debate in which everyone’s obviously going to take one side, then surely it’s not worth doing. ‘Death or cake?’ as Eddie Izzard asked, always got the same answer.
Have a menu of choices
As previously mentioned, there are materials which allow students to opt out of topics, or select from a list of possible topics. Give students the chance to choose whenever practical. It could be to show sensitivity to learners, but it could also be to maximise interest. For example, have six discussion questions and let students choose the three most interesting ones to talk about. Have jigsaw reading texts, so students read about something different. However, let students choose the text and have tasks which allow for an imbalance in numbers. They choose what to read in their normal life, so choice in class make this more real.
Allow for student generated language
Some materials provide language for students to use, but it’s always possible to rephrase something in another way. This is clearest with the vocabulary and functional experiences. Think about the number of ways to make offers as an example, and consider how many could be included in materials. Language focus stages should be two-way, with students providing some of the language where possible. Authentic speaking tasks should avoid a linguistic element, such as rubrics directing students to use the language in this lesson. The materials should provide language, but still allow for the students to express themselves in the way they choose.
What do you think? How much do you think materials/activities control the lesson for students? How can materials increase choice? And how much of the onus is on teachers to build in options?