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Advantages and disadvantages of using instructional materials in teaching ESL


submitted by Matet Balaguer, San José Community College, Philippines

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using instructional materials in teaching ESL?

Dr Richards Responds:

In deciding on teaching materials there are a number of options:

  • Choosing a suitable published course
  • Adapting a published course to match the needs of the course
  • Using teacher-made materials and authentic materials as the basis for the course.

There are a number of advantages to using institutionally derived or teacher derived materials for a course:

  • Relevance: Materials can be produced that are directly relevant to students’ and institutional needs and that reflect local content, issues, and concerns. Develop expertise: Developing materials can help develop expertise among staff, giving them a greater understanding of the characteristics of effective materials.
  • Reputation: Institutionally prepared materials may enhance the reputation of the institution by demonstrating its commitment to providing materials specifically for its students.
  • Flexibility: Materials produced within the institution can be revised or adapted as needed, giving them greater flexibility than a commercial course book.

However there are also potential disadvantages:

  • Cost: Quality materials take time to produce and adequate staff time as well as resources need to be allocated.
  • Quality: Teacher-made materials will not normally have the same standard of design and production as commercial materials and hence may not present the same image as commercial materials.
  • Training: To prepare teachers for materials writing projects, adequate training is necessary. Materials writing is a specialized skill and not all teachers area capable of writing good materials.

In many situations textbooks form the basis of the curriculum in language programs. Provided there is a good degree of fit between the textbook and the teaching context teachers use textbooks to provide the major source of input and direction to their teaching. Thus does not necessarily mean that the teacher plays a secondary role in the teaching process since teachers normally improvise around their teaching materials, moving back and forth between book-based input and teacher-initiated input. Hence even though a teacher may teach the same lesson from a textbook many times, each time he or she teaches it becomes a different lesson due to the improvisations the teacher initiates during teaching. These may result from on-the-spot decisions relating to timing, affective factors, and responses to learner difficulties. Experienced teachers hence use textbooks flexibly as a teaching resource.

Sometimes however adaptation may be required to reflect the needs of a specific teaching context. Various forms of adaptation are possible:

  • Adding material to address an examination requirement: sometimes supplementary material may need to be added to address the requirements of a specific institutional or other exam. For example the reading component of an institutional text may make use of multiple-choice questions rather than the kinds of comprehension tasks found in a course book, so extra material to practice using multiple-choice questions may be needed.
  • Extending to provide additional practice: a book unit has a limited number of pages and at times the teacher may feel additional practice of grammar, vocabulary or skills is required and sources additional materials to supplement the book.
  • Localizing: an activity in the book may be more effective if it is modified to reflect local issues and content rather than the content that is discussed in the coursebook Localization also involves adapting or supplementing an activity to address the specific needs of a group of learners. For example pronunciation problems might reflect interference form the students’ first language and these might not be covered in the book. Additional activities can be added to address problems specific to the  learners.
  • Modifying content: Content may need to be changed because it does not suit the target learners, perhaps because of the learners’ age, gender, social background, occupation, religion or cultural background.
  • Reorganizing content: A teacher may decide to reorganize the syllabus of the book, and arrange the units in what she or he considers a more suitable order. Or within a unit the teacher may decide not to follow the sequence of activities in the unit but to reorganize them for a particular reason.
  • Modifying tasks: Exercises and activities may need to be changed to give them an additional focus. For example, a listening activity may focus only on listening for information, so it adapted so that students listen a second or third time for a different purpose. An activity may be extended to provide opportunities for more personalized practice. Or some exercises within a sequence may be dropped.

While in many cases a book may work perfectly well without the need for much adaptation, in some cases different levels of adaptation may be needed. Through the process of adaptation the teacher personalize the text, making it a better teaching resource, and individualizes it for a particular group of learners. Normally this process takes place gradually as the teacher becomes more familiar with the book because the dimensions of the text that need adaptation may not be apparent until the book is tried out in the classroom.