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How to Select and Create Effective ESL Materials
Admin - Feb 20 2016
Educators need to take considerable effort in choosing or building their collection of learning materials. Otherwise, haphazardly selected teaching aids that poorly match the students' cultural background or level of competency will only prevent the learning process from smoothly moving forward. As is often the case, poorly selected learning materials generate confusion among learners instead of the planned appreciation of the subject matter. This is doubly true in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) where the learning dynamic is usually between a native English speaker who functions as the knowledge source and a class of non-native speakers whose socio-linguistic contexts are very distinct from their teachers.
In ESL learning, the choice of learning materials is a major factor that directly affects learning outcomes. Successful interactions often involve learning materials and teaching approaches that are authentic and deeply relevant to language learners. On the other hand, the roots of problematic engagements can often be traced to a disconnect between teaching materials and the students' learning contexts.
Certainly, there is no specific set of learning materials that consistently produce successful outcomes across different learner demographics. Such a thing cannot exist even in theory, simply because there are a lot of variables in ESL learning. That is, each ESL classroom is unique in itself and, therefore, requires an independent assessment in terms of its instructional requirements. Even then, the techniques that effective educators adopt when selecting or creating appropriate learning materials follow a more or less uniform pattern. The bottom line is to custom-build or adapt instructional materials based on key learner-related factors. These are:
1. The teacher's preferred instructional style or teaching methodologies. Over the years, effective ESL educators have developed distinct teaching styles that have generated successful learning outcomes among different sets or types of learners. Frequently, these educators also switch across different approaches depending on the specific needs of their audiences. When switching between instructional methods (such as from Problem-based learning to the Whole-Language Approach, for example), educators should also select the appropriate learning materials that effectively complement the selected methodology. Related to this factor is the specific learning or lesson objective established by the language instructor. That is, learning materials should always help both teachers and students meet the learning objectives, and should never become a stumbling block that prevents either from fully performing their roles in the learning dynamic.
2. The class' cultural and linguistic background. While there are classes composed of students from several ethno-linguistic backgrounds, the bulk of ESL learning scenarios involve students from a single cultural context and their native English-using teacher. Over the years, different sets and iterations of learning materials have been developed for both cases. For multicultural classrooms, a culture-neutral approach is possible but many contemporary educators would rather showcase multiculturalism not only as a platform for launching language lessons but also as a means to foster understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity, something that can enrich out-of-classroom interactions in increasingly globalized environments. On the other hand, there's a wealth of ESL materials for specific ethno-linguistic learners. For example, there are available ESL modules specifically for Spanish-speaking, Chinese, or Korean students. The selection of the appropriate learning material depends on how the ESL teacher assesses the specific needs of her students.
3. The mean age of students. Simply put, teaching English as a second language to mature professionals is radically different from teaching the new language to grade school students. The experiential knowledge base from which to draw and share ideas in English are not the same. Lifestyle priorities are different. For each group, moreover, the nature and level of motivation is very distinct from the other. That is, children are generally motivated by play and their innate curiosity to discover and learn new tricks. On the other hand, adults are motivated by professional advancement, financial gain or a pure desire to learn a new language. Language encounters that become opportunities for comprehending a message or articulating an idea in English are inescapably approached differently by different age groups. For example, meeting new friends in a playground and meeting acquaintances in a business setting require different communicative tools. Given these facts, ESL educators need to match teaching materials with the possible learning scenarios (and needs) generally associated with the student age group they are currently handling. Based on the level of motivation, attention spans also differ, with children less able to focus on a lesson as soon as a new interesting stimulus (such as a classmate's new toy) comes up or the lesson simply becomes boring. This leaves ESL educators with the responsibility to identify and adopt learning materials that will help keep their students interested in the lesson. Comics, video clips of cartoon characters, interesting animal documentaries are some of the teaching aids that can keep young learners glued to the lesson. Meantime, more mature students need practical but no less stimulating materials to remain motivated in learning English.
4. The financial aspects of the class. When selecting learning materials, ESL educators need to consider their individual (in cases wherein they are willing or need to personally shoulder the costs of teaching aids) as well as institutional budgets (when learning materials are provided for by the learning institution they work for). Advanced, computer-aided learning materials including flat screens and rich media content are effective but can be very expensive, such that only well-capitalized language learning organizations can afford them. Classroom facilities also differ in how much and which type of high tech equipment they can support. In addition, there are also a few instances wherein the financial capabilities of language students need to be considered. For example, political or war refugees under the protection of the UN and tutelage of a host country are likely to have limited financial resources. Requiring this type of students to sign up for paid, third-party learning resources might just represent an additional strain to their already diminished conditions.
5. The students' English proficiency level. Watching a comedy skit in English may not be appropriate for learners who are still grappling with basic or intermediate linguistic challenges. This may come as a surprise, but language-based humor (as opposed to the slapstick variety) requires some of the highest form of linguistic abilities to conceptualize, execute or appreciate. That is discovering and delighting in the humor delivered during a theatrical monologue or a conversation in English is nearly impossible to experience among linguistically challenge audience. On the other hand, using trite and clicheic learning materials in a classroom comprised by advanced learners will just make the learning interaction meaningless and boring.
6. The class size. Class sizes limit the types of learning materials that can be effectively used by the ESL teacher. For example, audio visual aids are perfect teaching aids but need to be adapted depending on the class size. For example, when there are only a few students--say three or four--a unanimously liked subject (such as football or wild animals) can be arrived at and experienced easily. On the other hand, a class of forty students will have quite a number of preferred subjects and arriving at unanimously and resoundingly liked subject can be very rare indeed.
For ESL educators, the broad range of learning resources now available (traditional, alternative, digital, online) provides a formidable platform for language learning. However, learning materials are not created equal, and each will have specific benefits and drawbacks in given learning scenarios. The trick is to determine the best material for a comprehensive set of factors (teaching method, learning objectives, student background, level of competency, class size and budget) and further adapt or customize the material to deliver the best learning outcomes.