In Theory/In Practice
Most ESL/EFL classes rely on textbooks to guide the curriculum and to provide the bulk of the material used in the classroom. Good textbooks make teachers’ jobs much easier. But, even the best textbooks are unable to anticipate and address the needs of every class. So – with or without a textbook – teachers often need to provide supplementary material. The choice then becomes one of creating original material or sourcing “pre-packaged” exercises from elsewhere.
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The off-the-shelf lifeline – Authentic Material
Both new and experienced teachers like the ease of ready-made materials. The wealth of such resources available online makes it easy for teachers to quickly search, print and distribute.
The search-and-print method has many merits. One of the greatest merits for teachers is exposure to a variety of ideas for how to present and practice language concepts. This is especially beneficial in environments where a single textbook or approach is very heavily used. Searching for supplementary material online is also relatively easy: a huge benefit. Other big benefits are that outside material enriches lessons and adds variety. Many of these resources are visually attractive, and elicit an interest that a teacher may not otherwise be able to generate. For teachers who do not follow a textbook, ready-made, off-the-shelf material is more than meritorious; it is a necessity.
The off-the-shelf traps – Authentic Material
The ease of use of downloadable resources is seductive, and can lead to over-reliance or complacency. Teachers who are aware of common problems with this type of resource generally avoid the traps.
The biggest trap is sloppiness. Just as it’s easy to download teaching material, it’s easy to post it, too. Grateful as teachers may be for the kind souls who make the effort to put (free) resources online, they should remember that these kind people are generally not accountable to anyone. If there are errors in the material, there is nothing to flag it or to stop the material from being posted.
The most common negative result of cavalier posting and downloading is that the material is not well-developed. Sadly, a high percentage of well-intentioned postings are laden with errors. Many of the errors that students often make are also commonly made by people hastily developing and distributing classroom resources.
Some of the most common errors are:
v categorization errors (listing an adjective like “lovely” on a list of adverbs, for example)
v conceptual errors (confusion of gerunds and present participles, for example)
v incorrect definitions
v incoherent or incorrect explanations of concepts
v inappropriate focus (wrong level, or examples that are inconsistent with the lesson’s language focus)
In spite of the seeming ease of use of many online teaching resources, it’s never quite as easy as print-and-go. Every resource must be scrutinized for quality as well as applicability to the needs of an individual class. If in doubt, double check with a good dictionary, course book or grammar book before using material in the classroom.
It is good to use ready-made material, but use discernment. Although it can be time consuming, try to create original material and activities. This is particularly burdensome in the beginning, but it pays dividends later. Once the basic techniques for developing lessons from external material are learned, they can be applied repeatedly (and much more quickly), to excellent effect. Learning the basic techniques to exploit all skills (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, listening, reading, writing and speaking) enables easy adaptation of activities or ways of presenting a topic from the course book. It allows teachers the ability to quickly and effectively supplement textbook exercises to emphasize a particular need that students may have.
Some basic techniques to start with
Here are some examples of extension activities that can be created to supplement vocabulary work. (Of course, there are many more techniques for extending vocabulary work, as there are for extending course work for the other skills; this list is just for getting started.)
Activities to practice vocabulary previously taught:
v create a crossword puzzle with the words you want your students to review
v create a gap-filling exercise
After you pre-teach words that will be part of a reading comprehension lesson, do not give students the full text. Instead, white out the words you pre-taught, and have the students read the passage and complete the gaps with the missing words. To make it easy for lower levels, write the first letter of the word they need to fill in the blank.
v Marion could feel her heart p______________ as she noticed the mob a short distance away.
(Missing word: pounding)
v create a morphology table
Reinforce spelling, meaning and usage in a sentence by paying attention to items that may cause common errors. Insert key words into a table that requests possible noun, verb, adjective and adverb forms of target vocabulary.
(Missing words: success; successful; successfully – failure; fail; failed / failing)
Suggested reading on authentic material: