Materials design in English teacher education: a neglected and dumbed-down craft

Every year, the Special Interest Groups within IATEFL are invited to curate a day of talks related to their area of special interest. At MaWSIG’s Showcase on 4 April in Liverpool this year, our choices included four talks that formed part of a Forum on Research informing materials writing. This week’s posts on our website all come from that Forum and in today’s post, Luis Carabantes looks at how and why pre-service teachers should learn to design their own language teaching materials.

The following article summarises part of my doctoral research, which I presented at the 2019 IATEFL Conference in Liverpool. I argued that much of the pedagogical rationale underlying the design of materials by pre-service teachers (PST) is underpinned by disparaging beliefs about the learners’ capabilities and dispositions, which result in a dumbing-down of practice in ELT. I also argued that elements from both university and school contexts tend to reinforce this pedagogical practice that the PSTs expose their learners to.

Context of study
Following international trends, Chile has embarked on a programme of standardisation of English language teacher education (Díaz-Maggioli, 2017). Despite these standards being only a suggestion from the national authorities, the current processes of accreditation of higher education – and consequently teacher education – have pushed Chilean universities into complying with these guidelines in order to secure financial support from the Chilean state (Espinoza & González, 2013). Whether or not standardisation of teacher education is a positive change in teacher education (an issue that is beyond the scope of this paper), I take the view that ‘Standard Eight’, which tackles the design, selection, and adaptation of materials by teachers, is a positive move because it makes teachers’ work more visible. In my experience as a language teacher and teacher educator, this area has been traditionally neglected, despite being reportedly beneficial in teacher education (e.g. Garton & Graves, 2014). This said, my analysis of 25 Pedagogía en Inglés programmes in Chile reveals that only three of them have an explicitly stated module tackling the above-mentioned standard, which would appear to leave materials design, selection and adaptation to take care of themselves.

With this situation as a backdrop, I designed an ethnographically oriented case study to answer the question of how pre-service teachers learn to design their own language teaching materials. Acknowledging commonly accepted theories of teacher education that recognise the pivotal role of the sociocultural elements in a teacher’s learning of teaching, I used an offshoot of sociocultural theory known as Activity Theory (AT) to help me map the sociocultural factors influencing the development of conceptual tools mediating the PSTs’ design of materials. To this end, I used Grossman, Smagorinski and Valencia (1999:14) who define conceptual tools as ‘principles, frameworks, and ideas about teaching, learning, and English/language arts acquisition’ employed by teachers as heuristics guiding their pedagogical decision-making.

I gathered the data with PSTs in their final year of a five-year English teacher education programme who were doing their work placements across different schools in a city in the south of Chile. The methods employed were interviews and stimulated recalls with PSTs, interviews with teacher educators and schoolteachers, pieces of material designed by the PSTs, and official documents provided by the university. I analysed the data using thematic analysis and NVivo, organising it according to categories of AT, focusing on how the members of the community, rules, goals, and division of labour of both university and school influenced the development of conceptual tools.

Findings: dumbing down as a conceptual tool
The analysis of the materials designed by the PSTs, together with data collected via the interviews and stimulated recalls suggests the pervasiveness of disparaging beliefs about the learners when making decisions about materials design in two broad domains: the learners’ capacities and their dispositions for language learning. The quotes below illustrate the reasons underpinning this behaviour. In the first sample, we can see Francisco’s justification for using celebrity-related topics in his material, arguing that a different type of thematic content would be beyond the learners’ capabilities. From a dispositional viewpoint, in the second extract, Emilia’s rationale for the inclusion of a written language explanation in her worksheet lies in her belief that the learners find writing boring.

It’s more complex than what they can actually handle. (Francisco, Stimulated Recall 2)

If I wanted them to write it on their notebooks, they would say, ‘How boring!’ The learners never want to write, you have to give them everything done. (Emilia, Stimulated Recall 2)

These rationales are then used to carry out three forms of dumbing down in the materials. Firstly, there is a tendency to simplify the complexity of the tasks the learners are asked to engage with. For example, a reduction of the choices in multiple choice items or questions with language identical to that used in the inputs tend to be used to avoid distressing the learners cognitively. Secondly, the PSTs tend to reduce considerably the amount of language production elicited in their materials. They do this by including tasks that require little use of speaking or writing on the basis that the learners will not be able to speak or write. Finally, the overall number of tasks in their materials tends to be reduced, in the interest of not overloading the learners.

These forms of dumbing down are strongly reinforced in the school context. The PSTs appear to be enculturated into disparaging practices by the schoolteachers’ discourses and models of ELT. For example, the quote below by a schoolteacher mentoring PSTs reflects disparaging beliefs about the learners’ disposition to learn, which result in the realisation of infantile materials.

The learners here have a constant laziness, they were born tired, and because of the age. I try that my material is as infantile as possible, with cartoons everywhere. (Schoolteacher 3)

Regarding the university setting, the Pedagogía en Inglés programme seems aware of the PSTs’ tendency to underplay the learners’ capacities. This notwithstanding, the lesson plan model required from the PSTs by the university appears to aggravate the lack of production mentioned earlier. During their work placement, the PSTs are expected to frame their lessons using a pre–while–post structure for reading and listening, which the PSTs perceive as having practical limitations. As can be seen below, Fernanda lacked the time to complete the implementation of the model. Consequently, she reduced the elicitation of language to a few sentences, which meant that the learners no longer had the opportunity to express themselves in English.

Generally there is little time to do that last activity, but I don’t request much. (Fernanda, Stimulated Recall 2)

The situations described above have a number of implications. Firstly, the dumbing down of ELT materials appears to be closely related to the lack of recognition of materials design as an important activity in teacher education and teachers in general. In light of this, I would argue that a greater focus on materials design can potentially prevent the instantiation of beliefs that undermine the learners’ cognitive and affective development. Secondly, the factors that contribute to the construction of such disparaging beliefs need to be first identified, and then addressed in the contexts where pre-service teachers learn to teach. Again, a greater focus on the materials designed by pre-service teachers by teacher educators can indeed help them raise the bar of the intellectual challenges they give their learners. Finally, from a methodological point of view, the use of research designs acknowledging the complexities of teacher education outside the ELT bubble can provide greater insights into the educational issues underlying materials development processes.

Díaz-Maggioli, G. (2017) ‘Ideologies and Discourses in the Standards for Language Teachers in South America: A Corpus-Based Analysis’, in Kamhi-Stein, L., Díaz Maggioli, G., & De Oliveira, Luciana (eds.) English Language Teaching in South America: Policy, Preparation and Practices. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. pp. 31–53.
Espinoza, O. & González, L. (2013) Accreditation in higher education in Chile: results and consequences. Quality Assurance in Education. 21 (1), 20–38.
Graves, K. & Garton, S. (2014) ‘Materials in ELT: Looking Ahead’, In Garton S., & Graves K. (eds.) International Perspectives on Materials in ELT. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 270–279.
Grossman, P. Smagorinsky, P. & Valencia, S. (1999) Appropriating Tools for Teaching English: A Theoretical Framework for Research on Learning to Teach. American Journal of Education. 108 (1), 1–29.

Luis Carabantes is a PhD student at the UCL Institute of Education in London, UK. After teaching English in Chile at different levels and contexts, and as teacher educator, he now researches the intersection between language teaching materials and teacher education.

4 thoughts on “Materials design in English teacher education: a neglected and dumbed-down craft

  1. Luis, thank you for sharing your research; it’s fascinating.

    I wonder…due to the fact that your interviews and stimulated recalls were self-reported, is it possible that the underlying reasons may also subliminally have something to do with the stress and workload that pre-service teachers are under? All three of the implications – a reduction in MC choices, a reduction in productive tasks, and a reduction in the number of tasks – relate to the amount of work that must be invested in developing the materials and checking student work.

    What do you think?

  2. Hi Randi,
    Thanks for your comment. =)
    That is a very sensible possibility, and I marginally tackle that issue in another chapter of my study, which deals with ‘borrowing’ inputs and tasks from coursebooks.
    However, I have not found robust evidence that this is related to their workload or stress.
    It may be the case that they didn’t mention it because of the face threatening potential that saying that would’ve meant. After all, they were being assessed for writing their material.
    Thanks for your comment, again!

  3. A very interesting, and necessary, study, indeed! Have you published some of the results? Would very much like to know more. Thanks, and good luck!

  4. Well-done! Material design in ELT is definitely an understudied, but quite necessary field. Keep up the good work!

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