Writing for a specific sociocultural context

Rhiannon Sarah Ball describes her approach to writing materials for NGOs.

At a time when ELT is dominated by learning technologies, solutions, outcomes and meta-tables, it’s easy to forget that sometimes education can’t be measured. Working with ELT in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is harder to quantify, but it is no less impactful. However, finding suitable materials can be difficult as neither global nor regional publications sufficiently address socioeconomic variables.

I have volunteered in various NGOs in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with limited resources. In some cases there was no money for materials, so I printed my own worksheets from the Internet. In other cases we had resources that had been donated, but they varied in level and methodology used, or they had missing components. Most of the materials were also difficult for students to identify with, both in terms of the topics presented and the images depicted. This prompted me to create my own series of young learner materials for this context. Being free from the constraints of market, government and commercial demands (key factors that drive the development of an ELT coursebook) meant that I could get closer to achieving student-centred materials. Here is how I approached designing materials for the specific sociocultural context below:

  • children aged 8 to 12 years old
  • NGOs in low-income communities
  • a very informal teaching structure (previous attempts to implement courses that followed similar structures to those of language schools had been unsuccessful, mainly due to the pace of the materials, students’ literacy levels in L1 and the informality of the organisation)

How did I design the scope and sequence?

Rather than devising my scope and sequence using international or exam-orientated learning objectives, I took my inspiration from the students themselves – from the comments that I overheard, from the fights that I broke up, from excuses that I was given by students who turned up late. My main aim was to raise aspirations by giving students contact with English. As objectives go, this was pretty simple, but I was working in a low-income community with children who didn’t have many opportunities (or even the chance to go after opportunities), so I wanted to make the materials interesting and meaningful for them and their reality.

I spent some time brainstorming the issues I had encountered over my five years volunteering, talking to the children themselves and discussing issues in the community with residents. I then picked out common themes and mapped these to low-level vocabulary sets and functional language.

How did I consider sociocultural and racial identities?

As a great believer in the importance of reading in childhood, I was always uncomfortable about the fact that participants had limited access to books, and that reading in general was associated with textual interpretation rather than pleasure. Therefore, I decided to add a story element in the students’ L1 that would drive the material. And so, The Adventures of Marcos and Maria were born. Not only are the two main characters similar in age to the target students, they have similar racial and cultural identities. Without needing to worry about being inclusive for different markets, I was able to design characters that reflected the communities in which I hoped to use the material, which happened to be made up of over 60% Afro-Brazilians living in low-income housing and with diverse family structures. Although exposure to diversity is important, evidence suggests that identifying with the characters presented in the material has a more positive impact on motivation.

How can I bring this altogether into easy-to-use material?

In The Adventures of Marcos and Maria, two cousins are transported to different English-speaking countries using an English mobile phone manual whose magical powers are triggered by rainwater. This storyline sets up a citizenship theme, which in turn influences the English language learning. Each unit is divided into three parts: Read, Learn and Reflect.

How does it work in practice?

Here is an example of a unit.

Background

Agatha, a nine-year-old student, was frequently late to activities. She explained that it was because her older sister, who looked after her, didn’t get up in time to do her hair for her, and she was embarrassed about coming to class without having smoothed down her curly, afro hair. Having frequently heard comments from young Afro-Brazilian girls about not wanting to wear their hair in its natural style and frequently commenting on how lucky I was to have ‘good’ (straight) hair, I used this as inspiration for a unit.

Unit outline

Read:

A new boy arrives at the main characters’ school. He’s from Angola and has a darker skin tone than other students; he is teased about this.

Learn:

In this unit, the lexical set consists of words used to describe physical appearance (brown eyes, curly hair, straight hair, etc.). The functional language presented and practised is related to describing physical appearance. This section gives the learners an opportunity to produce language. The material follows a simple PPP structure; this mainly takes place orally because of low literacy levels in the students’ L1. Activities in the Learn section consist mostly of drilling games, controlled oral practice and some ‘freer’ (as much as possible with this level) production.

Reflect:

Students are able to reflect on racial differences, self-esteem, and issues related to the acceptance of differences.

You might be thinking, yes, but what can students do at the end of it? My answer: I don’t know. Maybe they can have a basic conversation in English, or maybe they can only say a few words. Maybe they’re inspired to read a whole book for pleasure. Maybe they start thinking about things a little more critically. Or maybe they spend a few hours a week doing something they wouldn’t normally do, and enjoying themselves. It might not be easy to measure, but I still think it’s a worthwhile outcome. Don’t you agree?

Rhiannon Sarah Ball (rhiannonsball@gmail.com) is a freelance ELT content development editor with an interest in education and social mobility. She runs non-profit projects in Brazil (currently on a shoestring), aimed at raising aspirations in children and young people. She is currently looking for sponsorship to provide other NGOs in Brazil with copies of the material and training in using it. Information about The Adventures of Marcos and Maria and these social projects can be found at www.imaginebrazil.org.

Bibliography

Buchanan, M., & Hoffner, C. (2005). Young adults’ wishful identification with television characters: The role of perceived similarity and character attributes. Media Psychology 7: 325–351.

All data from Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Economia: http://www.cidades.ibge.gov.br

 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone

5 responses to Writing for a specific sociocultural context

  1. Katherine Bilsborough 20 March 2017 at 9:39 am #

    Great post Rhiannon. It’s fascinating to read about different experiences and contexts for writing materials. I hope you get sponsorship soon to continue the good work you do. The materials you describe above look spot on!

    • Rhiannon Ball 20 March 2017 at 8:08 pm #

      Thanks Katharine!

  2. Nigel Bwye 20 March 2017 at 9:21 pm #

    An inspiring post Rhiannon!
    Making ELT materials relevant and meaningful to real students is always an uphill struggle but you’ve shown that creativity supported by deep understanding of the students’ needs can make a difference in the most challenging of learning environments.
    I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in your classes!

  3. Lise Bell 23 March 2017 at 3:28 pm #

    Great to read this article Rhiannon!. Thanks!

  4. Julie Kacmaz 23 March 2017 at 9:17 pm #

    Thanks for this, Rhiannon. As the founder of Heart ELT, I know just how difficult it is to get projects like yours off the ground. Keep banging on doors and I am sure you will get the sponsorship you need to keep your very worthwhile project going. Hats off!

Leave a reply

© 2016 IATEFL MaWSIG All Rights Reserved.