Our latest blog post is by Penny Ur, who discusses the need for materials writers to pay attention to research on language learning.

I’ve just read Katherine Bilsborough’s blog entry ‘ELT materials writing: More on emerging principles’. I really enjoyed it and learned from it. If you haven’t read it yet, do so! I’d like to pick up and take further one interesting point she makes:

a (surprisingly low) number of theorists … have drawn on research findings from ELT teaching and learning. [my italics].

Yes, surprisingly low. And it’s not just the theorists. It’s the writers themselves.

Materials writers, like teachers, don’t read the research very much. Teachers don’t read because they simply don’t have time: their job description in most cases (there are exceptions, but lamentably few) doesn’t include time for any kind of teacher development, including reading the research literature. Materials writers don’t have that excuse: they organise their own time, and one would expect that, as a matter of professionalism, they would make sure they are up to date with reliable research findings that are directly relevant to the content or design of materials writing, and that they use this research to inform their own work. But very few do so.

OK, admittedly there’s a lot of unreliable ‘research’ out there, lots of studies that are inconclusive, and others that contradict one another. We still have no clear answers to questions like ‘Does task-based instruction work, or doesn’t it?’, or ‘Is it better to teach grammar proactively through traditional “formS-focus” or through reactive “form-focus”?’ This is partly because, of course, language teaching is a very complex construct, and it’s difficult or impossible to design research that neutralises all other factors in order to draw conclusions about the one the researcher has chosen to study. It’s also very context-dependent: something that works well in one context may be completely useless or even counter-productive in another.

Having said all that, there has been some research over the last twenty years or so that has produced convincing evidence for ideas which may be unfashionable but which have certainly made me think twice about my own teaching and about the way I design my own materials. And this research is worth reading and paying attention to. Here are some examples.

Use of L1
It’s fairly clear today that it is rather silly to try to eliminate the L1 from courses in English as an Additional Language. There’s research to show that we inevitably map new words in a second language onto our L1 rather than onto their real-world referents (Jiang, 2002), and there are lots of studies on how L1 use can enhance learning. (I won’t even try to list them all here, but write to me if you’re interested in references.) Even in a multilingual class, students can – and should – be encouraged to insert translations to clarify meanings in their vocabulary notebooks, to note L1 glosses on their reading texts if they feel it helps, or to help classmates with the same L1 to understand new language. And in materials designed for a monolingual class, there are lots of ways of using the mother tongue, apart from instructions and explanations. You can use it to present the meaning of new vocabulary, for example, or as a quick and easy way of checking that learners have got the gist of a reading or listening text, or to test a grammatical feature by asking students to translate an L1 sentence into an English one that uses it.

And while I’m on the subject, what happened to translation? Just because it was done to death in old grammar-translation methods doesn’t mean that it should be banned in modern language teaching. If you’re writing materials for a particular language community, then occasional translation exercises, in either direction, are often motivating, learning-rich, and a nice change from the traditional gap-fills, true/false, and so on.

Lexical sets
Lexical sets are groups of words that all mean the same sort of thing and are the same part of speech; examples are colours, animals or parts of the body. They’re typically used in beginner-level books as a basis for new vocabulary. But there is research to show that teaching lexical sets is counter-productive: learners actually learn new items much better if they are disconnected, or connected thematically, i.e. they are likely to co-occur in a given context (e.g. home, love, mother, family, together). The original research was done a while ago (Tinkham, 1993) but has been replicated a number of times more recently, every time giving the same results (again, write to me if you want references). Beginner coursebooks, however, continue to use lexical sets as a basis for vocabulary teaching: mainly, in my opinion, because these are convenient to compile and easy to make up exercises or design graphics for – in other words, beneficial for the materials writer rather than for the learner.

Another problem with the use of lexical sets, incidentally, is that their use as a basis for vocabulary in the early levels leads to the teaching of relatively rare items because they happen to be in a lexical set. The colour purple for example, is relatively rarely used, as is toe. They take up time and space that could be used for teaching more useful and frequent words and multi-word items.

Guessing from context
Guessing from context is a thoroughly unreliable way of accessing meaning. Again, I’ll give one reference (Nassaji, 2003), and if you want more, ask me. This is mainly a feature of teaching rather than materials design, but it’s something that materials designers need to be aware of. It’s an important strategy for learners to use when reading on their own, but it is not a good way to find out the meaning of a new word used in context. More than 50 per cent of the time learners guess wrong, misleading themselves and sometimes others. This is not just because they don’t know the language well enough: it is more often because a natural context simply does not usually provide enough clues to the meaning of the word.

Supposing I give you a paragraph from Katherine’s blog:

I first considered the concept of principles for ELT materials writers when I attended a presentation by Jill Hadfield at IATEFL 2014 called ‘Do writers have principles?’ Before Jill’s talk I knew plenty about principles of language learning and teaching, but I’d never really thought about materials writers having principles. In _________ that’s a daft supposition; after all, principles from language learning theory find their way into our materials in all kinds of ways. It’s just that most materials writers don’t stop to think about them, perhaps because we are far too busy writing!

Could you guess the missing word? Guess, and then check back to see if you were right. Even if you were right, how sure were you?

If you’re reading for information, then it doesn’t really matter if you got it wrong; you can get the gist of the message from the surrounding text. But if you want to learn the meaning of the target word, then there’s a very real problem: inferencing takes a lot longer than just being told the answer, and guessing the wrong meaning may actually interfere with successful learning.

Bottom line: don’t include guessing-from-context tasks in materials if the aim is to access meanings of new words.

In conclusion, then, keep an eye out for research that is relevant to materials design, and set aside time to read. A good place to start is the overview articles from Cambridge University Press’s quarterly Language Teaching: they give excellent summaries of state-of-the-art research on different areas of language teaching and save you trawling through the periodicals to find particular studies.

Jiang, N. (2002). Form-meaning mapping in vocabulary acquisition in a second language. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24(4), 617–637.
Nassaji, H. (2003). L2 vocabulary learning from context: Strategies, knowledge sources and their relationship with success in L2 lexical inferencing. TESOL Quarterly, 37(4), 645–670.
Tinkham, T. 1993. The effect of semantic clustering on the learning of L2 vocabulary. System, 21(3): 371–380.

Penny Ur has 35 years’ experience as an English teacher in elementary, middle and high schools in Israel. She has also taught BA and MA courses at Oranim Academic College of Education and Haifa University. She has presented papers at IATEFL and other English teachers’ conferences worldwide, and in 2013 was awarded the OBE for services to English language teaching. Penny has written a number of handbooks for teachers, published by Cambridge University Press, the most recent being Penny Ur’s 100 Teaching Tips (2016). She has written or co-written English coursebooks for elementary and middle-school classes in Israel.

Can you recall and share with us a piece of research that you came across that made a difference to your materials-writing or teaching?

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