The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Using Discipline Specific Materials

Question:

Submitted by Abbas Masoumi, PH.D student ELT, Iran

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using discipline specific materials versus general academic materials in an advanced ESL class?

Dr. Richards responds:

Discipline specific materials offer the advantage of preparing students for the discipline specific genres, text-types and vocabulary of their disciplines, and also connect more closely with the learners’ interests and needs.

Vocabulary for Designing Textbooks

Question:

Submitted by Italo, The University of Queensland, Australia

How you know what vocabulary should be taught when designing your textbooks. How do you decide which words are appropriate for some levels and which aren’t?

Dr. Richards responds:

Textbooks writers usually consult any of a number of word lists that group words according to level and frequency. (Paul Nation’s vocabulary level’s test is a useful reference here). Increasingly reference is also made to corpus studies of word frequency.

In discussing knowledge of words, an important distinction is usually made between a person’s active, or productive, vocabulary and their passive, or receptive, vocabulary, since our passive vocabulary is generally much larger than our active vocabulary. In spoken English, for example, native speakers may use a relatively small number of words in daily conversation – as few as 1,500 different words – though they recognize far more words than they use. For passive vocabulary knowledge, researchers suggest that knowing a minimum vocabulary of 3,000 word families (which equals some 5,000 words) is required to enable a person to understand a high percentage of words on an average page of a text, and that 5,000 word families (some 8,000 words) is required to be able to read for pleasure. Twice as many words may be needed to read first-year university materials. It is also important to distinguish between knowledge of content words (those that carry the main meaning of sentences, such as nouns, main verbs, adverbs, adjectives and question words, e.g. why, when, what), demonstratives (this, that, these, those) and function words (those that express grammatical relationships, such as articles, prepositions, auxiliaries, pronouns, conjunctions and relative pronouns). There is a small, finite list of function words in English, but a very large set of content words. When people expand their vocabulary knowledge, they add to their knowledge of content words.

O’Keeffe et al. (2007: 37–47) suggest that based on their research on the frequency of items in spoken English, a basic or core spoken English vocabulary for second language learners contains several different categories of words:

  • Modal items: These describe degrees of certainty or necessity and include modal verbs, such as can, must, should, may, etc.; lexical modals, such as look, seem, sound; and adverbs, such as probably, definitely and apparently.
  • Delexical verbs: These are words with little lexical content but high frequency, such as do, make, take, get, and their collocations with nouns, prepositional phrases and particles.
  • Stance words: These communicate the speaker’s attitude towards something and include words such as just, whatever, actually, really, basically, clearly, honestly and
  • Discourse markers: These are words that are used to organize talk and monitor its 
progress, such as you know, I mean, right, well, good and
  • Basic nouns: These are nouns referring to common activities, events, situations, places and people, such as person, problem, trouble, birthday; days of the week; family members; and colours.
  • General deictics: These are words that relate the speaker to the world in terms of time and space, such as here, there, now, then and
  • Basic adjectives: These are words that communicate everyday positive and negative evaluations of situations, people, events and things, such as lovely, nice, horrible, brilliant, terrible and
  • Basic adverbs: These are adverbs of high frequency referring to time, frequency and habituality, such as today, tomorrow, always, usually, suddenly and
  • Basic verbs for actions and events: These are verbs describing everyday activities, such as give, leave, feel, put and
  • Some of these types of words are not found in vocabulary lists for ESL/ELT learners because such lists have often been based on frequency counts of written language, rather than spoken English 
Beyond the core vocabulary, O’Keeffe et al. (2007: 48–9) suggest the following targets for vocabulary learning: 
A receptive vocabulary of some 5,000 to 6,000 words would appear to be a good threshold at which to consider learners at the top of the intermediate level and ready to take on an advanced programme. Such a programme would ideally have the following aims:
    • To increase the receptive vocabulary size to enable comprehension targets above 90% (e.g. up to 95%) for typical texts to be reached.
    • To expose the learner to a range of vocabulary at frequency levels beyond the first 5,000– 6,000 word band, but which is not so rare or obscure as to be of little practical use.
    • To inculcate the kinds of knowledge required for using words at this level, given their often highly specific lexical meanings and connotations.
    • To train awareness, skills and strategies that will help the learner become an independent vocabulary learner, and one who can continue the task for as long as he or she desires.

For further information see the chapter on vocabulary in my book Key Issues In Language Teaching (Cambridge University Press 2015) and also:

  • Nation, I. S. P. (2001) Learning Vocabulary in a Second Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • O’Keeffe, A., McCarthy, M. and Carter, R. (2007) From Corpus to Classroom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Evaluation, Use, and Adaptation

Question:

Submitted by Mohamed Bakkas, Rabat, Morocco

What’s the difference between textbook evaluation, textbook use and textbook adaptation?

Dr. Richards responds:

Evaluation refers to the process by which a textbook is reviewed and assessed according to a set of criteria. There are a number of check-lists that have been developed for this purpose.

Textbook use refers to how a teacher implements a textbook in his or her class, and involved collecting information on how much time was spent on particular activities, what grouping arrangements the teacher made use of, and how he or she used realia and other course components. The focus is on description rather than evaluation.

Text book adaptation refers to changes the teacher made to the book to make it more suitable to a particular class. Changes could include adding or dropping activities, changing activities, replacing topics or content etc.

For further information see my book Key Issues in Language Teaching.

Benefits of Instructional Materials

Question:

Submitted by Jeffrey, Philippines

What are the benefits of instructional materials to teachers, learners and to teaching learning process?

Dr. Richards responds:

This kind of question is too general to be meaningful, and is rather like asking, “what is the role of motherhood?”.  What is the context for the question? In relation to what kinds of situations and with what kinds of learners?

Commercial vs Teacher-Made Materials

Question:

Submitted by Abdu, Yemen

What are the virtues and the weaknesses of the commercially-produced materials as opposed to the localized teacher-made materials?

Dr. Richards responds:

Commercial materials are usually intended for a diverse audience of teachers and learners, so will often not be directly applicable to a local context and may need to be adapted and localized.  Teacher-made materials have the advantage of reflecting the specific context and the needs of learners in that context. An advantage of commercial materials is that they are usually prepared by experts and carefully edited and field tested before publication. With teacher-made materials there is no guarantee that the quality will match those of commercial textbooks, since teachers may not have had any training in materials’ preparation.

 

Using Authentic Materials

Question:

Submitted by Weldehaweria Gebrekrstos, Ethiopia

We teachers are required to use authentic materials to enrich learners’ use of the language. What advice can you give?

Dr. Richards responds:

When textbooks and commercial materials were the primary sources of classroom teaching and learning, a debate that emerged was the use of authentic materials versus created materials. Authentic materials refers to the use in teaching of texts, photographs, video selections, realia, and other teaching resources that were not specially prepared for pedagogical purposes. Created materials refers to textbooks and other specially developed instructional resources that have been prepared to include examples of specific grammatical items discourse features. Dialogs in course books, for example, might be specially written to highlight certain grammatical choices or to illustrate specific conversational strategies. Hence, it was often argued that authentic materials are preferred to created materials because unlike the often rather contrived content of much created material, they contain authentic language and reflect real-world uses of language.

Typical claims for and against the use of “authentic” materials are:

For

  • They have a positive effect on learner motivation.
  • They provide authentic cultural information about the target culture.
  • They provide exposure to real language.
  • They relate more closely to learners’ needs.
  • They support a more creative approach to teaching.

Against

  • Created materials can also be motivating for learners.
  • Authentic materials often contain difficult language.
  • Created materials may be superior to authentic materials because they are generally built around a graded syllabus.
  • Using authentic materials is a burden for teachers.           

In many language programs, teachers use a mixture of created and authentic materials because both have their advantages as well as limitations. Furthermore, the distinction between authentic and created materials is increasingly blurred because many published materials incorporate authentic texts and other real-world sources. And today many books take on the aura, if not the actuality, of authenticity, containing considerable amounts of photographically reproduced “realia”, in the form of newspaper articles, maps, diagrams, memo pads, menus, application forms, advertisements, instructional leaflets and all the rest. Some books, indeed, almost entirely consist of authentic material, including illustrations, extracted from newspapers, or magazines.

In addition, this debate has become less relevant in today’s world since the Internet provides ready access to authentic materials of every kind. Classroom teaching and classroom materials hence serve to prepare learners to navigate, explore, and access authentic materials related to their needs and interest through the Web, as we discuss further below. There is no reason, therefore, why textbooks and other classroom materials should not contain a mix of authentic and created texts depending on the intentions of the materials.

When choosing authentic materials care must be taken to ensure they are at an appropriate level for learners, and that that they are used in a way that supports learning rather than causes frustration for learners.

 

Effective Teaching Materials

Question:

Submitted by Sokun Chea, National Institute of Education, Cambodia

What are the qualities of effective teaching materials?

Dr. Richards responds:

Effective materials do many of the things a teacher would normally do as part of his or her teaching.

These include:

  • Arouse the learners’ interest.
  • 
Remind them of earlier learning.
  • Tell them what they will be learning next.
  • Explain new learning content to them.
  • Set clear learning targets.
  • Provide them with strategies to use in learning.
  • Provide opportunities for meaningful practice.