The ‘What about …’ webinars Q&A: Brian Tomlinson

In this post, Brian Tomlinson follows up on some of the questions that participants asked during his recent webinar, What about principles in materials development? You can watch a recording of the webinar hereThe questions and answers are thought-provoking and relevant, even if you missed the webinar itself.
The full list of upcoming MaWSIG webinars is here.

How can we make the ‘same old’ topics still affectively engaging for learners when writing coursebooks, etc. (if controversial topics are often blocked by publishers)?

One way is to personalize the material by getting the learners to visualize and then share their experiences related to the topic before reading the text and then getting them to experience and respond to the text in relation to their experience.

Another way is to look for an affectively engaging narrative text related to the topic. In research I did for CUP, the number one requisite for a good coursebook, according to students in twelve different countries, was good stories. I’m currently advising a team in Shanghai, who are revising secondary-school coursebooks. The theme for one unit was food, so the writer used as her core text a story about a Chinese teenager living in the USA who took her new American boyfriend home for dinner and was horrified to find her parents were giving him fish cheeks and other Chinese specialities. The story was written by the girl, who assumed the boy was offended (especially by her father burping) and embarrassed. One of the unit tasks was to discuss different cultural attitudes towards food and then to rewrite the story as though it was written by the boy. A unit on travel could be driven by a science-fiction story, a unit on friendship by an extract from one of the many novels focused on a friendship (Anita and Me by Meera Syal comes to mind) and a unit on work by an extract, for example, from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Why is flooding a text with the present perfect wrong if the text is fun and emotionally engaging?

It’s not wrong, but, while it might usefully draw attention to the form of the present perfect, it can distort the authenticity of the input. The present perfect is a marked form, which isn’t typically used in clusters and is normally used in contrast to the simple past. Also, the focus on the present perfect might distract attention from the affectively engaging text and cause micro- rather than macro-processing of the text.

My main objection, though, is to materials writers who find a tedious text with four or five present perfects and who are so focused on the teaching point that they artificially flood the text with even more instances of them, presenting a distorted version of language use. Or, even worse, they construct their own tedious text with the prime purpose of focusing attention on the present perfect. If you make engagement the prime objective in text selection and you use a variety of genres and text types, the learners will encounter the present perfect in authentic use. After first experiencing the text, the learners can go back and focus on the use of the present perfect. They can also be referred to engaging texts they’ve already encountered in which the present perfect is used.

Are games a good approach to achieving an analytic syllabus?

I wouldn’t use games exclusively to achieve an analytic syllabus but they can be very useful. Selecting games that are very engaging can also result in a reflective focus on forms and lexis used in the instructions or in the output generated by the game. Examples of this might be: ‘if’ clauses in board games, clauses of reason in games requiring justification of responses, and the vocabulary used in word games (e.g. a version of Scrabble in which the learners have to give an example of their word in use in order to get points for it).

What I have found useful is to get learners to devise their own games and then to help them when they’re having problems explaining the game to other learners. This is what I call responsive teaching, i.e. teaching in response to a need rather than to a syllabus.

How would principled coursebooks be different from how they look now? 

There would be:

  • a lot more texts
  • longer texts
  • more extensive experience of the texts rather than intensive study
  • more narrative texts
  • more personal response activities
  • fewer exercises
  • more communicative tasks
  • greater choice of texts and tasks for the learners and for the teachers
  • more out-of-class activities
  • more creativity
  • more fun
  • more challenge
  • more emphasis on meaning and less on grammar
  • more open questions
  • a lot less testing
  • more aesthetic illustration
  • more recycling
  • more white space

What is cognitive engagement, and can you give an example of what it might look like?

To me, cognitive engagement has been achieved when learners are fully and willingly focused on responding to an issue, solving a problem, coming up with an idea, etc. They are thinking only about the issue, the problem or the idea.

I designed a unit of materials recently in which the core text is about a doctor who was so worried by research showing that doctors typically interrupt patients before they have fully articulated their problem that he decided to let his patients talk for as long as they wanted, without interruption. His next patient was an old lady who rambled on about her sister and the weather, not wanting to bother the doctor. The nurse came in to inform the doctor about the queue growing in the waiting room, but the doctor let the old lady continue. After 22 minutes the old lady stopped talking and the doctor was able to diagnose a lung problem from the persistent mention of coughing in the lady’s rambling. He referred her to a specialist, who discovered she had lung cancer. When the old lady returned to the doctor for antibiotics, he apologized to her for the terrible day she had had. She told him not to worry; she’d had a good life, but there was something she wanted him to know. ‘This is the best doctor visit I’ve ever had. You’re the first doctor who ever listened to me.’

The students were affectively engaged when they listened to me telling the story and then cognitively engaged when they worked together in groups of ‘medical students’ to write to their hospital’s administration with a suggestion for how doctors could give patients more time to talk about their problem without long queues developing in the waiting room.

Brian Tomlinson has worked as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum developer, film extra, football coach and university academic in Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman, Singapore, UK, Vanuatu and Zambia, as well as giving presentations in over 70 countries. He is Founder and President of MATSDA (the international Materials Development Association), an Honorary Visiting Professor at the University of Liverpool, a Professor at the Shanghai International Studies University and a TESOL Professor at Anaheim University. He has written over a hundred publications on materials development, language through literature, the teaching of reading, language awareness and teacher development.

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