IATEFL 2018: Versioning coursebooks for different contexts: What, how and why? – Heather Buchanan and Julie Norton

Heather and Julie, some of the authors of Navigate, while at OUP came across a room that was full of different versions of Headway and this was quite a revelation to them. They wanted to find out more about it as there is not a lot written about it in the academic literature. Later in the session we will be doing some versioning but first we will hear about data collected based on three questions that were asked.

Versioning is making changes to a course book for particular conditions in a country or region. Can be categorised in three ways – market versioning (make it suitable for different countries/regions), customer versioning (for particular institutions who may request it) and cosmetic versioning (very small changes). Often retains branding and name but in some cases a completely different name. As the world and coursebooks become more globalised, versioning becomes less of an issue.

Task 1 – A double page spread from Headway elementary, to be adapted for the Middle East

  • can’t have women showing any flesh
  • no wine in the pictures
  • family is a safe area? not culturally offensive

…were ideas put forward.

Actual changes:

  • The vocabulary for boyfriend and girlfriend has gone, also the pictures
  • No asking the teacher questions
  • Names and images are different
  • People are all covered up
  • Fewer photographs, page looks simpler, more white space

This is not prescriptive, just an example.

Three research questions:

(H and J would like to add to the data if anyone in the audience/beyond has experience of versioning, via Skype interview.)

What is involved in versioning a coursebook?

It depends! Course content, language content, might be making it more suitable for SEN, the package might change (e.g. combing student book and workbook or adding an extra digital component), design and image might change (fewer photographs, clearer font), rubrics in L1 might be added. Publishing cycle might influence versioning, affecting the extent of the changes that can be made.

What roles do different stakeholders play in the process?

Same stakeholders are involved. It’s like making a mini-product. Local focus groups will have a lot of input. Authors will have different roles – the original authors might decide and implement changes or they might not be involved at all or it might be outsourced to local experts.

How is the original text changed in terms of cultural content, language, methodology and design, and why?


Digital components may be customised, additional support may be added. For secondary versions, additional support is popular e.g. including dyslexia friendly fonts in reading texts. This may be required by the customers. Student book and workbook for Italian secondary schools is common.

Cultural content

Doesn’t only involve taking things out but also involves putting things in. This may be the case with national identity for example. Local festivals, traditions and places might be integrated. There was also a concern to make sure that world cultures are represented in a balanced way, as well as including the familiar. Sensitive topics had to be removed e.g. references to religion or alcohol. Gender representation may have to be looked at. Language content might need to be geared towards particular exams that students have to pass. Content for discussion topics would need to be carefully considered and appropriate.

In Headway Plus there are more photographs of males than of females in the book.


Might include more exam practice. Language doesn’t change that much but the grammar syllabus might change e.g. in American courses book, the present perfect. Levels of formality might be different too – more direct in American versions. Accents needed to change and the audios to represent the right kind of cultures. Bilingual word lists could/should be added for certain markets. Phonemes/sound charts might be different too e.g. American vs British. Minor changes.


An area you don’t tamper with so much. You start with the best fit so fewer changes are necessary but an example of a change could be including L1 rubrics, as in a German coursebook they looked at.


Images change e.g. in terms of clothing. If there was foresight of a version becoming available, the photoshoot might be done with two shots for any given image. The covers tend to be recognisable for the brand similar but a little bit different. Where there is a script different, having more white space makes a big difference. In America there is a single column to a page usually while in the UK there are two. Changing accordingly may or may not happen. If multiple images aren’t comissioned at once, stock photos may be used instead. E.g. the example of the kitchen where in Headway + no people rather than with a bottle wine. Seamus McSporran with 13 jobs became the man with 12 jobs to eliminate the one where he delivers beer in a barrel!

Political Concerns

Versioning aims to make materials relatable but it involves representing the world in a particular way which raises political, ethical and commercial concerns. Coursebooks determine the nature of what is presented in the classroom. What about diversity and incidental representation – the question raised is “Could we have a little bit of diversity in the background perhaps? E.g. a wheelchair user in the background of a photo” – Would that be useful?

Comments on this was left for later on…

So where do we go from here?

Hugh told us that in the Belgian market has welcomed lots of traditionally “taboo” topics.  Versioning can enable this.

Another member suggested there is more scope for considering how to include diversity for a conservative market. Also Muslims need language to express I don’t eat/drink pork/alcohol because… However, another said that the Ministry of Education in Dubai would remove it and heads would roll.

I managed to squeeze in my question as the last of the day: Do publishers ever version course books for the UK? The response from the speakers and the audience was not to their knowledge…

And a final request:

My top ten materials development resources

For the next post in my “Top 10” series, I’m focusing on an aspect of ELT that has seen a significant growth in popularity in the last few years. This surge in popularity has led to the development of dedicated websites, a new IATEFL SIG and a lot of interest in ensuring “best practice” both among established authors and teacher-writers, as well as everybody in between, whether their goal is to be published or simply create materials for use in their classroom. Yes, you’ve guessed it! (Oh alright, you saw the post-title!) The focus of this “Top 10” post is Materials Development.

In this top 10 list, you will find a mixture of freely available articles, not-so-freely available but surely worthwhile books, ground-breaking websites and dedicated associations. Click on the picture to be taken to the corresponding site. NB: I am not on commission for any of these resources, sadly… 😉

Without any further ado…



1. Materials Development for Language learning and Teaching by Brian Tomlinson

Screenshot of the article header, taken from the Cambridge University Press link.

Screenshot of the article header, taken from the Cambridge University Press link.

One of the great State-of-the-Art Article series, Materials Development for Language Learning and Teaching is by Brian Tomlinson, published by Cambridge University Press, in their Language Teaching Journal, and reviews all the literature related to the topic of developing learning materials. Interestingly, since it was published in 2012, a lot of growth has occurred in this field. Nevertheless, it provides a good starting point if you want to find out more about the development of the field and the associated literature. This article is currently freely available from Cambridge, by clicking on the above link, from which you can download it as a .pdf file. (Please let me know if this stops being the case!)

(Another good article, but which isn’t freely available so cannot be given its own entry in this list, is another in this State-of-the-art series, dealing with the prickly issue of authenticity in language learning. Authentic materials and authenticity in foreign language learning  [the link will take you to the article abstract] is by Alex Gilmore, published by Cambridge University Press in their Language Teaching Journal.)



2. Materials Development in Language Teaching by  Brian Tomlinson

The red-and-blue book!

Screenshot from Amazon: the red-and-blue book!

Known affectionately among our cohort in the Materials Development module at Leeds Met as “the red and blue Tomlinson book”, this edited book is another Cambridge University Press gem. It is divided into 5 sections: A: Data collection and materials development; B: The process of materials writing; C: The process of materials evaluation; D: The electronic delivery of materials; E: Ideas for materials development. For an example chapter from this book, you can see Andrew Littlejohn’s chapter, “The analysis of language teaching materials: inside the trojan horse” which is available on his website as a downloadable .pdf file.

 3. (a) Developing Materials for Language Teaching by Brian Tomlinson

The purple book! Screenshot from Amazon

Screenshot from Amazon: the purple book! 

(Don’t worry, not all the resources on this list will have Tomlinson’s name attached!) The purple book, or Developing materials for language teaching, is another edited volume, with a lot of practical as well as theoretical value. (I found it really useful when developing materials for my module assessment…) It has now, however, been updated and is no longer the purple book but a book with a cover whose colours are difficult to use as a brief name-tag! Unlike the red-and-blue CUP book, this one isn’t yet available in e-book format, but give it time…

Screenshot from Amazon: the updated purple book!

Screenshot from Amazon: the updated purple book!

…or if you insist on another that is available as an e-book (cos e-books are cheaper!):

3. (b) Applied Linguistics and Materials Development

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 07.46.46

Screenshot from Amazon – the blue book!

The blue book is another edited volume, bringing together applied linguistics theory and materials development practice. It is divided into four sections: Part 1 – Learning and teaching languages; Part 2 – Aspects of language use; Part 3 – Language Skills; Part 4 – Curriculum development.

Ok, ok! Enough Tomlinson!! (Though he makes a reappearance as president of MATSDA – see below…)

4. Materials and methods in ELT by Jo McDonaugh and Christopher Shaw

Screenshot from Amazon

Screenshot from Amazon

This book, as you can see, is also available as e-book, though you don’t save so much on the paperback price – at least you wouldn’t have issues of storage, I suppose! It is broken down into three sections, each section having several sub-sections: Part 1 – Topics in the design of materials and methods; Part 2 – Teaching Language Skills; Part 3 – Aspects of Classroom Methods. For a complete break-down of all the different sections and a sneak preview of the content, why not visit Amazon and have a “look inside”! This is what the book sets out to do:

Screenshot from Amazon

Screenshot from Amazon

I think it succeeds pretty well: it is a very accessible book in terms of readability and contains lots of examples which are thoroughly discussed/analysed.



5. MaW SIG

Screenshot of the MaW SIG Facebook page

Screenshot of the MaW SIG Facebook page

MaW SIG, or the IATEFL Materials Writing Special Interest Group, to give it it’s full name, came into being as a SIG only just over a year ago. Though young, it has achieved a huge amount in this time. It has produced the first issue of its newsletter, a pre-conference event, a stand-alone one-day event and a month of webinars known as “MaW SIG May”. An active SIG with a grand number of achievements already featuring in its young life, together with ambitions and plans for the future, this would be an association that is well worth joining, if you have an interest in materials development. As you can see from the screenshot, they aim to support materials writers of any level of experience/expertise, with any materials writing goals. I have had first-hand experience of this support so can attest that these aren’t just empty words.

6. ELT Teacher-2-Writer

Screenshot: ELT Teacher2Writer website

Screenshot: ELT Teacher2Writer website

This website is a very interesting resource for would-be and established materials writers. It gives you the opportunity to join a database of materials writers that publishers look at when looking for new writers to work on their projects, and access to resources such as a writers toolkit of a style-sheet, a template and a permissions sheet  (free) and their “How to…” training modules series (available as e-books, at a modest price), which deal with different aspects of materials writing and publishing, so that you can learn how to write materials more effectively, for a range of purposes. (I’ve got my eye on the EAP module, written by Julie Moore currently – looking forward to learning from it!) The brains behind the outfit have spoken at IATEFL twice now, as well as giving webinars. For more information about ELT Teacher-2-Writer and what they offer, why not read ELT Teacher-2-Writer: training teachers to be writers – my summary of their IATEFL presentationfrom Harrogate this year.

7. ELT-Resourceful


Screenshot: ELT-Resourceful site

Screenshot: ELT-Resourceful blog site

Rachael Roberts’s blog is a haven for anybody with an interest in writing materials, because, as the tagline says, it is FULL of tips and ideas. And all are simply expressed so that it is possible for any teacher to have a look and find something to take away and play with. Rachael is a professional materials writer, who has also presented at numerous conferences and delivered webinars. In her “spare time”, she also volunteers on the MaW SIG committee (see above) and is part of Free and Fair ELT (see below). Ever wondered about how to write activities using concordances? Activities for helping learners deal with connected speech when they listen? Find out about this and more on this gem of a site.

8. Free and Fair ELT

Screenshot: Free and Fair ELT

Screenshot: Free and Fair ELT

This Facebook page is the new kid on the block. And you know what happens when the new kid arrives? People talk. Well, Free and Fair ELT is no exception. Launched on the 2nd June, this page already has nearly 1500 “likes”! Their goal is to keep materials creation and sharing fair, to ensure copyright is respected. Obviously at 4 days old, it is early days, so who knows where this new kid is headed, but one thing’s for sure: it has taken the ELT materials writing world by storm thus far… Watch this space! Or, otherwise put, “like” the page and see what  happens next!


Screenshot: MATSDA's website

Screenshot: MATSDA’s website

MATSDA is the Materials Development Association. Headed by Brian Tomlinson, whose name is all over the materials development literature, they run conferences (the next one is on the 28th and 29th of June this year! Don’t miss out!), produce a newsletter (Folio) and have a website. The conferences are a great opportunity to connect with others who have a keen interest in materials development, as well as great social occasions!

10. ELT Materials Writer

Screenshot: ELT Materials Writer

Screenshot: ELT Materials Writer

This blog site maintained by John Hughes is another little gem for all you materials writers out there, containing a wealth of tips and resources. Topics are wide-ranging, from rubrics to videos to digital skills and much more. Well worth checking out if you haven’t done so already!

As ever, if you have a burning desire to see a site included on this list that isn’t already there, please do comment and share the link for others to have a look at! 

(One book I’d like to add, but won’t because it only exists in hardback at the prohibitive price of £52.50, is John Gray’s The Construction of English: culture, consumerism and promotion in the ELT Global course book published by Palgrave Macmillan. It’s a fascinating read, if you can get hold of it!) 

Coursebooks and Cookery

I read this post about the coursebook as guidebook a while back, and found it an interesting metaphor. I wondered what my own metaphor for coursebooks would be, but then forgot all about it amidst the million other things I had to think about… Then, last night, when I should have been falling asleep but instead found myself hostage to a buzzing brain, it finally came to me in spades: For me, the coursebook is a cookery book. A recipe book. I have divided up my metaphor into sections but there is plenty of overlap between them…

asian recipes

A recipe book ready for use! (Taken from Google advanced search: labelled for commercial reuse with modification.)


  •  Recipe books might be divided up into regions for a book dedicated to the recipes from a particular country or parts of a meal e.g. starters, mains, desserts, or any other, while coursebooks are generally neatly divided in some way, for example “units” (Headway), “modules” (Cutting Edge), “lessons” (Choices). For both, there is generally a handy map to help you find what you are looking for (gravies or pastries, roasts, desserts, reading or speaking, grammar, vocabulary)
  • There are recipe books for everybody – vegetarians, students, people who can’t cook, people who only  have ten minutes to cook, children, people who want to make a multiple-course banquet-esque meal – and course books for everybody – learners of General English (Global; Innovations), EAP, ESP, Business English, learners of different ages and levels and so on.
  • You don’t have to start at the beginning – you can choose the recipe that best suits your/your learners’ needs at a particular time. You can select recipes from different books and combine them to make your own special meal. Or you may go through the recipe book in order but not use all the recipes (there’s only so much rice/grammar/potatoes you need with one meal! And the recipients of your cooking may not need feeding up with grammar/potatoes in all lessons/at all mealtimes).
  • Recipe books and coursebooks both tend to be written by people who know what they are talking about and know (from experience and learning) what ingredients work well together. Therefore, they are a useful tool. Neither are intended to be bibles. (Or their authors would have written….bibles!)


  • Recipe books contain a myriad of ingredients and suggestions of ways to turn these into a tasty meal. Coursebooks contain activities and instructions for how to use these as part of a successful lesson. But the more you use the ingredients, and the more you learn about cooking, the more your understanding of what does and doesn’t work grows. You know that certain things need cooking. You know that certain flavours go well together, while others, well, just not happening.
  • This enables you to experiment – to combine ingredients in different ways not specified by the book in front of you. You may base your concoction on a recipe but substitute various ingredients that suits your tastes/needs/stock at the time. Just because you don’t follow the recipe, doesn’t mean your meal will taste terrible. Equally, just because you don’t follow the recipe, doesn’t guarantee something delicious either!
  • Experimentation is a messy business both in the kitchen and in the classroom. Sometimes it works really well, sometimes your version of the cake recipe just doesn’t rise. Of course, even if you follow the recipe to the letter, sometimes the cake just doesn’t rise either. Ingredients can be slightly unpredictable and you might have the amounts ever so slightly wrong. In the classroom, learners can be unpredictable. What works well in one kitchen/classroom for one chef/teacher may not turn out great in another.
  • Experimentation is likely to be haphazard/hit-and-miss if you aren’t doing it from a principled base. If, like I did when I was 8 years old, you attempt to make hot-cross buns by putting every single ingredient on your list in one big mixing bowl at once, you end up with a goopy mess and your mum isn’t best pleased. In the kitchen, we may think we are being entirely haphazard in what we are doing, but that haphazardness, when successful, tends to be informed with underlying knowledge about what does and doesn’t work. (8 year old me hadn’t learnt that bunging everything into one bowl at once does not a hot cross bun produce…)
  • Sometimes, if your experimentation goes really wrong, and you end up with a pan on fire, it’s best to put the fire out and start again! If an activity goes flop, sometimes ending it and moving on is your best bet. Sometimes, perseverance can lead to results – your recipe may look like it’s going wrong but you try a bit of this and a bit of that and the outcome is tasty! Sometimes, changing things around a bit during an activity can be the difference between success and failure. The trick is to know when to stop. If your pan is on fire, this is probably quite a good time to do so… :-p
  • However, despite the dangers, experimentation is also great fun! And the better you understand the principles of what you are doing, your aims, your learners needs (the cake won’t rise if you keep opening the door, you want to make a ginger and lemon cake not a triple chocolate cake, your guests don’t want a roast dinner when they come round for a cup of tea later), the more successful your experimentation is likely to be. You can also learn from your mistakes/successes if you think about what went wrong/right and why when you’ve finished creating.
  • You can be inspired by your recipe books and throw in extra ingredients of your own: they can make a great starting point but the recipes might need some adaptation for your vegetarians, coeliacs, diabetics, fussy eaters who don’t eat x, y and z… out with one ingredient, in with another. The same applies in the classroom – you have different learning styles to cater for and different personalities, both individual and collective class personalities, which requires careful adaptation.

Not suitable for vegetarians – whatever the French may say! (Taken from Google advanced search: labelled for commercial reuse with modification)

Learning potential

  • Some cookery books reflect the idea the people using them don’t know everything about the ingredients/origins/meals in question. Such books contain useful additional information to guide the users or just to broaden their horizons. For example, a book of Indian curries may contain background information about the different spices, rices, chillies, specific origins of different types of curry etc. Some coursebooks are accompanied by teachers books that help the teachers to understand the background/origins of the activities the coursebook writers have used in the student book or background to useful elements for teaching and learning. E.g. Global Advanced has some essays for teachers about things such as developing learner autonomy.
  • Some people who cook may not be able to go on cookery courses to develop their cooking skills. For them, the recipe book (and especially the more informative ones that weave the theory into the procedure etc.) may be the biggest source of learning. We also learn by watching more experienced others cook and seeing what they do/what results.


  • Some people who do a lot of cooking may start to make their own recipes and recipe books, to share with others – initially through forums/websites etc. and maybe one day being published. They enjoy the process of experimentation, evaluation and creation, they enjoy sharing what they create. Teachers, too,  may enjoy making their own materials and sharing them – on a blog, on a website that curates materials/lesson plans e.g. Onestopenglish and may or may not end up getting published one day.

We all have our favourites… (Taken from Google advanced search: labelled for commercial reuse with modification)

  • There is no limit to the number of recipes it is possible to create. New ways of combining ingredients and, indeed, new ingredients, are always being coined/discovered. People study the art of cooking, the science of tastebuds and their response to different flavours – which are most effective? – and they also study the art of teaching and learning, to discover new ways of doing this more effectively.

Finally, you never really know if a recipe will work FOR YOU/YOUR LEARNERS until you roll up your sleeves and get dirty! There is no substitute for experience. But you could equally spend 20 years making the same recipe, using the same ingredients, in which case, you are living one day of experience 20×365 times… So the trick is to try out new recipes, as well as learn from recipes that are known to be reliable, experiment, reflect, evaluate and broaden your repertoire of what you can do in the kitchen. That way, you will discover many, many tasty dishes that you wouldn’t otherwise have known about. And that keeps life interesting! 🙂

I’ll finish off with a current favourite recipe of mine:

Take 1 helpful, friendly, supportive DoS

A handful of helpful happy colleagues

A few cups of fun

A dollop of creativity

A pinch of inspiration

A large cup of conscientiousness

Lashings of hard work

A tablespoon of rest to be added every so often

Season with regular CPD

Stir vigorously and allow to simmer in a lovely school 🙂

Low-level Teens and the Global SIG Food Issues Month (Part 2)

In my first post about the Global SIG’s Food Issues Month, I described the background to my materials, some reflections on using them in the classroom with two groups of low level teenaged learners and the links to the materials themselves. In the two lessons I described, I had not managed to complete all of the activities in the materials. In fact, with each group, we completed two out of the three pages of activities. I also mentioned that I would be very interested to see how much each group had taken in during their lesson.

This post is the next instalment in the story and some reflection on the concept of the Global SIG Food Issues Month: 

So, in the next lesson, we started off with a review of what we *had* done, before proceeding to complete the final activities. I did this review phase in a different way with each group:

Class 1:  I put learners into groups to make a mind-map of what they remembered (modelling with an example on the board first), and then each group contributed to a central mind-map on the board. Unfortunately, I mismanaged this somewhat, so learners referred to their papers from the previous lesson part way through the process and gathering the ideas centrally was a bit laborious.

Class 2: I elicited what they remembered orally, giving them time to discuss in groups before they responded to each elicitation. This worked really well, there was lots of discussion at each point when this was required, and learners demonstrated that they had retained a very substantial portion, the majority, of what we had looked at in the previous lesson, both in terms of content and language (e.g. the vocabulary learnt). I was/am so proud of them! 🙂

The remaining activities involved considering the meaning of the Fair Trade symbol (none of the learners had come across it, but it does appear on some chocolate in the supermarkets here e.g. the Carrefour supermarket own brand dark chocolate, and I had an example packet to show them), how this could help children like Aly (the boy whose experiences are depicted in the reading text that learners had looked at in the previous lesson) and then brainstorming other ways that the children could be helped. This all culminated in learners writing a letter to Nestle, to express anger at the situation of children working on the cocoa farms and asking Nestle to become a Fair Trade company so that their chocolate would no longer be produced by child slaves.

Learners had plenty of ideas for how people in general could help the children (raising awareness of the issue through television/internet/radio, education etc.) and what they, themselves, could do (buy Fair Trade products, talk to their friends at school about it, encourage their families to buy Fair Trade products etc.)

When it came to writing the letter, I scaffolded it with some chunks of language that they were able to use to frame their thoughts/ideas and they managed to produce some good pieces of writing. (Again, very proud of them!! 🙂 )

My reflections on the Global SIG Food Issues Month concept: 

Firstly, I enjoyed the challenge of creating a lesson plan and materials that fit within the parameters of the Food Issues Month and weaving this in to the syllabus my learners are following, to increase the benefits for them. I think ‘events’ like this are perfect for stirring a teacher’s creative juices, which can only be a good thing.

I also thought it was a very interesting idea, to have a month where teachers all contribute ideas/materials/sources etc. on a central theme, taking something that is very bog standard in EFL materials (e.g. food) to a different level; looking at a common EFL theme from an uncommon perspective.

It encouraged me to look for unusual sources to turn into resources, and in the process I, myself, learnt things that I wasn’t previously aware of. In this case, that child workers on cocoa farms are still, today, far from uncommon and do live in terrible circumstances. I think twice before buying chocolate now, and do look for the Fair Trade symbol. So, I think such events also enable teachers to learn, which, much like the challenges and the stirring creative juices, keeps things interesting and fresh for us.

Such an event also provides a good opportunity for experimentation, reflection and evaluation (so, experimental/reflective practice), even if you don’t create the materials yourself: Using materials and resources you wouldn’t usually use, to teach something in a way you wouldn’t normally teach it helps you to break out of any rut you might be in. Even if you are not in a rut, it provides the perfect excuse to try out something new and see how well it works. You can then reflect and evaluate, to decide what you would do differently next time around, as well as what was effective enough that you would do it that way again. Of course, if you did create the materials, the reflection/evaluation could/would be applied to the effectiveness of these too.

In conclusion, then, I think the Global SIG Food Issues Month concept offers both learners and teachers a valuable opportunity: Learners, to break away from the run of the mill treatment of typical EFL themes that they usually meet in class, and teachers a chance for some extra in-work professional development.

I hope there will be another such themed month again before too long! Thank you, Global SIG, for a most enjoyable challenge! 🙂

Dissertation Diary 8

I’ve decided to use my blog as a reflective tool while doing my dissertation project – the final component of my M.A. in ELT –  hypothesising that this will make it an even more effective learning experience for me, by mapping it, enabling me to look back on my thought processes and decisions and see what effect these have on the project development. (Other posts in this series can be found here) Once I get to the end (13th September is D-Day!), as well as looking back over the experience of doing the project, I plan to try and evaluate the effect of these reflective blog posts on it.

Yesterday (how can it be nearly the end of June already?!), it was time for another tutorial (no. 3) with H. The focus for this one was my rationale and my materials framework. Once again, a gap in my reading was identified: The works of TBLT opponents. I need to read up on those, weave them in to my rationale and take a stance – argue against what one of them said, or take some of it on board. So, next on my reading list is:

Swan, M. Legislation by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based Instruction


Bruton, A. From Tasking Purposes to Purposing Tasks; A Non-Marginal Role for Tasks; When and How the Language Development in TBI?  (from the ELTJ)

Further problems with my rationale include:

  • Overly long introduction/description of context (words can be saved for the other parts)
  • Lack of bridge between context and why TBLT is going to do it better than anything else. I need to address the question of why TBLT is going to be suitable for exactly what it is that I am trying to do. (i.e. making the most of the English-speaking environment. Why is TBLT any better an approach for this than anything else? What are the learners going to get out of TBLT that they wouldn’t get out of any other approach? The answers to these questions need to come across strongly. So that it doesn’t seem to have just been plucked out of a set of possibilities, it needs to be argued why it’s the right approach.)
  • Need to say more about fluency/accuracy/complexity as competing goals – I mention it but I don’t make it clear how TBLT affects it and how a balance can be managed. It needs to be clear. One of the biggest criticisms of TBLT is that learners develop fluency at the expense of accuracy. I’ve got an accuracy/complexity focus in there, with the CR/LA, which compensates for the possibility that learners might not notice new language, just need to make it explicit.
  • Need to make sure when I refer to task organisation within the rationale, that either it is clear without a diagram to explain it or I put in a diagram to make it clearer what I mean, or  refer to an already existent diagram and adjust that diagram to clarify what I mean.

Then we moved on to the Task framework/map of my materials.

Issues that emerged:

  • What content in the first task is going to grab the learners’ attention and engage them, get them excited about the module? Need something more interesting and inspiring.
  • Lack of a ‘getting to know you’ type element for the beginning of the course as well.
  • Making sure the questionnaire-making is suitably scaffolded
  • Making sure the question-focus brings out issues of register/context so that learners can make suitable choices depending on who they are speaking to.
  • Lack of coherence in the task where they analyse an interview transcript?
  • Scaffolding for looking back on the pilots and deciding which questions did and didn’t work etc?
  • When they brainstorm possible problems, reasons and solutions, how will they be equipped with communication strategies, dealing with misunderstandings, language for asking for clarification etc so that they are armed with language and things to help them deal with problems that arise?
  • How to make sure the data collected doesn’t end up being incredibly superficial? How to encourage learners to dig a bit deeper? (Maybe model the questions in the first place to help the students get behind the attitudes, or get the students to research more after collecting the data to follow up on it?)
  • What if students are stuck for ideas? Need to preempt it a bit – make it a bit less open, so that there is less potential for it to end up being superficial – shepherd them towards deeper, more interesting directions. Give them topic suggestions/a model to help them dig a bit deeper etc (maybe a set of models, to illustrate different issues)
  • How to make it challenging for the students? To sustain the interest, it needs to be something worthwhile that’s coming back, not something really obvious that comes out of something really obvious that you asked, making no point in doing it in the first place.
  • How to push the students to set it up so that it’s interesting, that they are culturally engaging with other students and the outside world, how will it be set up? If it’s very loose and open, there may be issues with students lacking imagination. Need a model or a prompt or parameters, something to push them a bit more. So that what’s coming back is worthwhile. It needs to be an engaging process to go through, that they really learn something from.
  • When they take the least successful exchange, analyse it and write an idealised version, what happens if the lack of success isn’t their fault? You can focus them on the communication strategies used and so on, but it might not lend itself to idealised versions being produced.
  • If they have a choice of formats to use to present the information they’ve collected, how will that work? (Possibly go to the self-access centre and find an example of the format they want to use, which they analyse by guided discovery and use to help them produce their own.)
  • How will it be possible draw conclusions from the data collected? Maybe the key is to use it to illustrate the problem of making massive assumptions/jumping to conclusions. So that they can find things out without doing that and be aware of the need to keep finding things out rather than assume.
  • It’s very student-centred but relies a lot on students’ motivation and interest in the whole process. It goes on for 8 days. Quite a long time, not long for what they are doing, but will the students’ interest and motivation be able to be sustained for that long? Can more input be worked into it? Need to cater for the students who are not fully on board on it, maybe they don’t do the homework – what then happens? In the non-ideal situation. What if they don’t like analysing things? It’s a long, focused project to sustain, so it needs careful thought. Can some strands of something different be woven in? To minimise the risk of disengagement, which is higher when it’s so dependent on their own motivation. Need a contingency for when students are stuck for ideas, to make sure it doesn’t end up being mundane. Need to anticipate problems and make sure there are solutions on hand.
  • Can more use of the self-access centre be woven into the materials too? To justify spending the first task on getting to know the way around it. Related to language points? Exploit it by weaving in more things for them to work on. Otherwise what is the point of the self-access centre lesson?
  • How am I going to sell a research project to General English learners? What are they going to get out of it in terms of interest and enjoyment that’s going to keep them motivated?

(There were some positive comments too… ;-))

I need to step back and have a little think about how it’s all going to work with a group of students. Think through all the what-if’s and what the safety nets/support will be.  When I’ve decided what I’m going to do, then it will be time for the next tutorial to discuss it further!

…A little think? Ok, maybe more than a “little” one…! Anyway, seems my weekend has been taken care of! 🙂

Comments/questions/suggestions etc all welcome! 

Summary of 20th February 2013’s #Eltchat Discussion on Materials Evaluation

The topic this week was:

Materials evaluation: What would be your top tips for effectively evaluating materials for language teaching? What do you look for? What do you avoid? What influences your decisions in using or not using a given material?

When we evaluate materials, we inevitably ask lots of questions. Turns out discussion of materials evaluation generates a great quantity of questions too. Here is the summary I have cobbled together from a particularly challenging transcript:

(NB: I have filled in the missing letters from all tweets containing abbreviations, just to make reading easier!)

@Marisa_C helpfully defined materials for us: “Materials = coursebook, supplementary, own design, downloads, anything” and everybody jumped in with criteria they consider important. Further criteria arose throughout the discussion, but for convenience and clarity, they are all gathered together here:

Needs to provide good mix of skills and be interactive. Lots of heads-up activities. (@MarjorieRosenbe)

Also important is clear structure and engaging topics. (@MarjorieRosenbe)

Level should be appropriate. (@MarjorieRosenbe)

Materials able to be connected to students’ intrerests/background/culture..? (@TomTesol)

We usually look at  whether suited to specific learning situation  + offer valid methodology in relation to course aims. (@AlexandraKouk)

I think materials need to allow us to communicate well with students – that creates rapport. (@MarjorieRosenbe)

For me, the point of a book is to help me present new input to ss — I have to do the rest (communicative stuff) (@TomTesol)

For me, an important criterion is how memorable is the topic/.content going to be so that language can stay ‘glued’ to it. (@Marisa_C)

How does the material lend itself or be adapted) to natural,meaningful,relevant communication? (@CotterHUE)

I don’t think a book should tell you what, but rather present a selection of things to choose from. (@teflgeek)

F=fun R=rapport I=ideology N=needs D=design. …Sorry missed the E=education (as in principles of) (@Marisa_C)

When I look at a page of material I see if I would be interested myself – then I decide. And I ask sts what they think too. (@MarjorieRosenbe)

I like materials which show you something interesting about the world and help learn/practise language/skills (@robertmclarty)

Systematically:  Does it fit age, level, syllabus criteria… (@teflgeek)

I also feel materials need to appeal to variety of learner types…Learner types can be sensory perception (VAK) but also global-analytic cognitive processing types. (@MarjorieRosenbe)

Another issue to consider with mats is that subject matter might interest you, but does it interest sts? (@pjgallantary)

Assess supplementary audio: is it an EIL approach with non-natives holding conversations? Or native English speakers? (@CotterHUE)

Done and dusted? I think not. Materials evaluation is a complex business.

I posed the question “how do you identify the criteria and which are more/less important also?” and @pjgallantary supplied a useful answer: “course books are where we all start – knowing how they work helps us understand what to look for in materials”  Of course, being able to evaluate effectively isn’t the whole story – there are institutional constraints to take into consideration too. @Shaunwilden reminded us that course books  “are establishment enforced more often than a choice by teacher and students” and @teflgeek told us about a group evaluation process in which nobody agreed, and the resolution? “There were three of us and the DoS got the casting vote”.  Meanwhile, @TomTesol reminded us that materials evaluation is not just about selection prior to the beginning of a course but a continuing process involving “constantly reviewing, getting students’ and faculty feedback…”

The discussion meandered naturally into the question of materials adaptation, which is a common follow-on to evaluation and identification of shortcomings. Why do we adapt the all-singing, all-dancing glorious multi-colour materials on the market these days?

The following reasons emerged:

Books written for a specific demographic with set format from publisher…which doesn’t match your students (@CotterHUE)

Problems with delivery but mostly missing keys and audioscripts which meant I had to copy them for students (@MarjorieRosenbe)

Other reason was that book on ICT was really outdated. Or book for BEC prep didn’t deal with exam (@MarjorieRosenbe)

Main issue with coursebooks is their homogeneity – T needs to be able to make relevant to own students (@pjgallantary)

Ultimately NO book is ever going to be right for your class because it wasn’t designed specifically for your class. (@teflgeek)

The point in the book is that you may HAVE to use it in which case try to salvage what you can & improve (@Marisa_C)

I constantly adapt and update materials based on surprises, feedback, etc. design new materials too. Assessment important (@CotterHUE)

And how do we go about it?

To lessonize: first, look at relevance of content  i.e. what u want it for –  to teach language point, vocab., skills etc (@AlexandraKouk)

As to developing own materials, As ever we must start from sts needs -WHY are we using this text, this video, etc, then HOW (@pjgallantary)

I create materials for PEO using articles – lots of things you can do – vocab, discussion, grammar etc. (@MarjorieRosenbe)

I adapt to suit the SKILLS I want them to develop (@TomTesol)

As Marisa implied, if you can’t figure out a way to adapt materials so the inpurt will stick, your evaluation is finished: They stink. (@TomTesol)

The question of the role of the Teacher’s Book within the evaluation process, and ultimately teaching, was touched on a few times throughout the discussion and opinons were varied:

Never really use the teachers book, except for answers. Looking at teachers book means I’m unresponsive to the class.(@CotterHUE)

Depends. Came across word I didn’t know in ESP book, now have printed teachers notes.(@MarjorieRosenbe)

Most are now online and often very long. 120 pages or so of pdfs to print out.But lots of info. (@Marjorie Rosenbe)

Teacher’s Book Important to most ‘non-natives’ I’ve worked with. (@TomTesol)

Or inexperienced ‘natives’. Or experienced ‘natives’ looking for new ideas or something to bounce off maybe. (@LizziePinard)

For me not very [important] but if I am choosing for a group of teachers it is something I look at closely. (@Shaunwilden)

Well, depending on the market and availability of training – sometimes that’s all a Teacher can get – a good Teacher’s guide. (@Marisa_C)

A few curveballs were thrown near the end – broadening the scope of “materials” but there wasn’t enough time to go into this in any depth as the hour was fast drawing to a close and next thing we knew everyone was being invited to contribute their final five minute words of wisdom. This is what emerged amongst fielding of curveballs:

Constant assessment of materials, be it website, publisher, etc. What works with your style and students? What doesnt work? (@CotterHUE)

I think to evaluate effectively you need more awareness of your own beliefs/principles etc and good awareness of context etc (@LizziePinard)

Test drive stuff before landing yourself with a CB for a year of pain! Use good placement to match students to level especially important first (@oyajimbo)

Finally, here are the links that were thrown up throughout the discussion:

Very old blog post on choosing a CB or materials (@Marisa_C)

Here’s more recent research with v. useful checklist on p.6 (@AlexandraKouk)

Subject matter might interest you but does it interest sts? Wrote about that (@CotterHUE)

A useful research paper  (@AlexandraKouk)

Another useful research paper (@AlexandraKouk)

Have a look here and add sth if you can – been collecting interesting texts/topics for developing lessons. (@Marisa_C)

Pecha Kucha with mnemonic for evaluation (@Marisa_C)

This is a MATERIALS mnemonic from Tanner and Green (back in the day) (borrowed) (@TomTesol)

Phew! That finally brings me to the end of this summary. Thanks all for a great discussion. And, if you have any criteria you want to add to the list, anything you want to add, agree, or indeed disagree with, feel free to do so in the comments section. Nobody will object to the discussion continuing, I am sure!

Thank you to all who participated. 🙂


If you want an overview of all the literature out there on materials development and have access/can wangle access to journal articles, @HeatherBu2011 recommends the following:

“State-of-the-Art Article: Materials development for language learning and teaching” by Brian Tomlinson in Language Teaching (2012), 45.2, 143–179.

And here is an article I found on evaluating E-textbooks, which may lend itself to interesting comparisons with what we’ve discussed today…