English teaching materials are like bridges. First, all bridges span a gap. Learners of English are trying to cross the gap between their current language level or ability and their target ability. Even relatively unmotivated learners of ENOP – English for No Obvious Purpose – are usually trying to pass a class or achieve an exam result.
Second, to be useful, a bridge needs to be designed for the specific gap that needs to be spanned. You can’t have a ‘general’ bridge. Even in so-called general English, there’s huge variation in context between classroom: age, culture, language level, and reason for studying. And for those in ESP and EAP, the target is often very specific – to join a university course or perform a job in English. The materials they use to learn English need to be tailored to their goals.
Third, to do their job effectively, bridges need to be carefully designed and constructed to be strong and carry traffic safely year in and year out. Similarly, teaching materials need to be pedagogically sound – designed and constructed in a way that makes learning possible.
The job of English teachers and materials developers, then, is to build bridges that get students across this gap. In my next series of blog posts, I’d like to look a several real-world bridges – bridges that suffered some kind of failure – and use them as metaphors for the bridges we build when we create teaching materials. By looking at what went wrong, we may be able to identify some common ELT pitfalls and thereby avoid them.
Bridge number 1: The bridge to nowhere
Image by Ketti2606. Public domain.
This is the Soda-Brücke bei Euskirchen, in Germany. It was designed to a high standard and constructed of top-quality materials and will no doubt stand for decades. But as you can see, it’s useless. It doesn’t connect any Point A with a Point B. In German, Soda-Brücke means “just there bridge” – a bridge to nowhere. This isn’t the only one. A number of similar bridges were built throughout the country in the 1970s for the purpose of extending the national motorway network. But the oil crisis and rising environmental consciousness halted work on many highway extensions. The bridges remain, but the roads connecting to them were never built. What’s wrong with these bridges? They completely fail to address context.
As teachers or materials developers, we might plan and create well-constructed lessons that are engaging, motivating, have clear targets, plenty of support and so on, but unless the lessons 1) address learners where they currently are and 2) take learners to a place they want or need to be, then we’ve built a bridge to nowhere. Useless. An obvious example is failing to get the level right. Another is developing lessons around topics about which learners have no likely future hope of needing to communicate about.
Here are three materials designs tips to avoid building bridges to nowhere:
Let the target context and discourse lead the language you teach
Do a needs analysis. If your students are doing EAP, find out about what field(s) they’re going into or are already working in. Similarly, if you’re doing ESP, find out as much as possible about the world your learners need to be prepared for. Focus on giving learners the language they need to get things done.
Bring the context into the classroom
Once you’ve identified the context, do everything you can to bring it into the classroom. Often, this will involve task-based learning, extended role plays, or appropriate case studies. But it can also include selecting and presenting appropriate grammar and vocabulary. For example, if your learners need to get to grips with describing processes, you’ll want to include the passive voice as early as possible.
Have the confidence to learn from your learners
If you’re working in academic or professional English, chances are you aren’t an expert in the field. And even when you’re working in general English, you may not be an expert in the interests and activities of your students. In either case, invite them to bring their work or their interests to the class and explain them – in English. This will give them practice communicating about appropriate topics and will help you learn more about where they need to go in English.
What context are your learners preparing for? How do you bring it into the classroom?