What (SLA) principles are reflected in your classroom materials?

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, we shone our spotlight on eight fascinating talks. The first four were part of a Forum on Research informing materials writing, and the other four were materials-related talks that we simply really wanted to see. Today’s blog post is the first of eight write-ups by the speakers who gave talks at MaWSIG’s Showcase: Marina Bouckaert poses a question we should all be asking ourselves: where is Second Language Acquisition theory in our practice?

Teachers as materials developers

My workshop at the IATEFL 2019 conference in Liverpool was based on the premise that, despite the widespread availability of publications in the field of English as a foreign language (EFL) learning, many teachers choose to supplement the coursebook with their own materials. This premise is supported by a wide range of publications in the field of materials development; it has even been argued that every teacher is a materials developer, simply because no coursebook meets every learner’s needs (Tomlinson, 2003).

Typical motives for EFL teachers to engage in materials development are to personalise and contextualise materials to ‘reflect local content, issues, and concerns’ (Richards, 2001, p. 261), to develop support materials for different ability groups and to develop materials relating to current topics and pupils’ life experiences (Dutch Institute for Curriculum Development, SLO, 2016). This not only involves creating materials from scratch but also re-designing them, i.e. deleting, reducing, supplementing and modifying parts (Samuda, 2005; Maley, 2011).

Another premise of my doctoral research (Bouckaert, 2017) was a bit more controversial. It stated that the materials teachers develop reflect their personal pedagogic principles regarding EFL learning and teaching. I asked the participants at IATEFL to bear with me for a minute, as we addressed the following necessary questions:

  • What are pedagogic principles?
  • What are pedagogic principles in relation to EFL learning and teaching?
  • How can materials (as artefacts) reflect pedagogic principles?

Teachers’ pedagogic principles

First, we distinguished between teachers’ beliefs – which are deeply held, static, and largely context-independent – and their pedagogic principles (Breen et al., 2001). Such principles are not only reflexive and more context-bound; they are always related to specific content (in this case, EFL teaching and learning) and they are implied in, and can also be inferred from, a specific context. In other words, they can be examined ‘as they relate to the … participating teachers’ classroom practices’ (Li, 2013, p. 177).

Next, we discussed how teachers’ pedagogic principles regarding EFL learning and teaching are informed by Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research findings, because SLA and instructed language learning share many objectives. We talked about how such principles are described in both practical accounts of materials writing processes (Hadfield, 2014a, and Timmis, 2014, are recommended) and in guidelines for aspiring developers.

I then shared my handout with an overview of pedagogic principles based on Hadfield (2014b), which comprises fifteen focal points derived from Nation (1993), Tomlinson (2003) and Ellis (2005). The participants discussed which three principles they considered the most important, and how these principles could be observed in their practice. We also reflected on whether our principles are visible in the existing and newly created materials we use in our classrooms. Do they, or could they, be reflected in the contents of the materials, their layout and design, their quantity, or perhaps in a different way?

Individual approaches

Addressing the three questions allowed us to return to the second premise, namely that the materials which teachers develop reflect their personal pedagogic principles regarding EFL learning and teaching. The findings from my doctoral research support this claim, with an emphasis on ‘personal’: the materials created by each of the teachers who participated reflected their unique approach to language teaching, and what they felt was important about the role and function of materials in supporting their learners.

One major finding, however, was that teachers’ pedagogic principles are not all about EFL learning specifically, nor are they always informed by what is known about SLA. Although all the teachers wanted their materials to enhance their pupils’ affective engagement (principle 9 in my list) and to take account of learner differences, learner needs, and teaching conditions (principle 11), there were also many individual pedagogic considerations. Specifically, developing their own materials was a means for the Dutch EFL teachers in this research to collaborate with their colleagues, create a pleasant classroom atmosphere, express themselves creatively, meet national standards, etc. In sum, their materials also reflected practical, general pedagogic, and instrumental considerations.

Aligning classroom practices

In the final part of the workshop, I explained what I had done in the research to uncover how materials can embody and reflect pedagogic principles. My case study approach was grounded in Argyris and Schön’s (1974) work around theories of action, which consist of people’s espoused theories (in this case, the pedagogic principles that teachers are aware of and can articulate) and their theories-in-use – those pedagogic principles that actually govern behaviour and are observable in the classroom. It is through critical reflection that teachers can uncover the discrepancies between their espoused principles and their principles-in-use, as illustrated below:

The aim of reflective practice, then, is to align these theories and improve one’s teaching practice (cf. Savaya and Gardner, 2012). In order for you to align yours, my advice would be to have a critical look at your classroom materials with a colleague, to use them as artefacts to reflect on, and to discuss what you see. Be open to their critical questions regarding the contents and the design of your materials. Ultimately, this is how the practical act of materials development can help you grow as an education professional.

Argyris, C. & Schön, D. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco (CA): Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Bouckaert-den Draak, M. (2017). Teachers’ development of critically reflective practice through the creation of classroom materials. Unpublished doctoral thesis. London: University of Roehampton. Available via http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.720055
Breen, M., Hird, B., Milton, M., Oliver, R. & Thwaite, A. (2001). Making sense of language teaching: Teachers’ principles and classroom practices. Applied Linguistics, 22 (4), pp. 470-501.
Ellis, R. (2005). Principles of instructed language learning. Asian TEFL Journal, 7 (3), pp. 9-24.
Hadfield, J. (2014a). Chaosmos: Spontaneity and order in the materials design process. In: Harwood, N. (ed.), English language teaching textbooks: Content, consumption, production (pp. 320-359). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hadfield, J. (2014b). Materials writing principles and processes: What can we learn for teacher development? The European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL, 3 (2), pp. 71-88.
Li, L. (2013). The complexity of language teachers’ beliefs and practice: One EFL teacher’s theories. The Language Learning Journal, 41 (2), pp. 175-191.
Maley, A. (2011). Squaring the circle: Reconciling materials as constraint with materials as empowerment. In B. Tomlinson (ed.), Materials development in language teaching, 2nd ed., (pp. 379-403). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nation, I. (1993). Sixteen principles of language teaching. In: Bauer, L. & Franzen, C. (eds.), Of Pavlova, poetry and paradigms: Essays in honour of Harry Orsman (pp. 209-224). Wellington: Victoria University Press.
Richards, J. (2001). Curriculum development in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Samuda, V. (2005). Expertise in pedagogic task design. In: Johnson, K. (ed.), Expertise in second language learning and teaching (pp. 230-254). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Savaya, R. & Gardner, F. (2012). Critical reflection to identify gaps between espoused theory and theory-in-use. Social Work, 57 (2), pp. 145-154.
SLO, Stichting LeerplanOntwikkeling [Dutch Institute for Curriculum Development] (2016). Leermiddelenmonitor 15/16. Enschede: Nationaal Expertisecentrum Leerplanontwikkeling.
Tomlinson, B. (2003). Developing materials for language teaching (ed.). London: Continuum.

Marina Bouckaert is a teacher educator in the Netherlands with an MA in English language and culture. She completed her professional Doctorate of Education at Roehampton University, London, in 2017. Her publications include papers in Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, RELC Journal and the European Journal of Teacher Education. Her main research interests are the development of critically reflective practice, and the design, use and evaluation of teaching materials by teachers of English as a foreign language.


4 thoughts on “What (SLA) principles are reflected in your classroom materials?

  1. A very interesting post! With this in mind, I sometimes wonder if the best coursebooks are those which are very easily adaptable and allow the teacher to pick and choose what suits them and their learners best.

    To give an example, I am currently using English File, and though I sometimes find I can teach entire lessons without adapting the content much at all, sometimes the context is not appropriate for my learners. Quite regularly, the units follow a ‘story’ approach, with a reading to present the target language and the context, followed by a listening that links in to the content of the reading and may well mention specific names/places/events from the reading. Effectively, I am blocked from doing the listening practice without first doing the reading, as my students won’t understand the context/characters mentioned.

    On the other end of the scale, it is also difficult to teach an engaging lesson if the coursebook material provides no context at all!

    Another point I wanted to mention relates to applying pedagogic principles while adapting the coursebook (which presumably has been designed with SLA in mind). I wonder if many teachers see it is a ‘pedagogic principle’ to ‘bring the language off the page’, which may lead them to want to make adaptations and to not be tied to the coursebook. Sometimes I worry about doing an entire lesson which is too heavily coursebook-based, as though I have failed somehow in my creativity as a teacher! It is an interesting conundrum!

    1. Thank you for your response, Jenny! I couldn’t agree more when you write “I sometimes wonder if the best coursebooks are those which are very easily adaptable and allow the teacher to pick and choose what suits them and their learners best”. I have been thinking about this and it is actually one of the recommendations to publishers and materials writers in my thesis.
      I suppose the linear outline of a coursebook can force teachers to work their way from cover to cover, so in that sense, digital materials (provided that they are earmarked for a specific level and/or target group and easily personalised) may be the way forward. At the same time, however, I also feel teachers themselves should be proud of their expertise and experience and use both to adapt materials when they and their learners see fit.
      Thanks again!

  2. It’s a pity you didn’t tell us here about your handout with an overview of pedagogic principles based on Hadfield (2014b), which comprises fifteen focal points derived from Nation (1993), Tomlinson (2003) and Ellis (2005)

    1. Thank you, Geoff. I happily refer you to Jill Hadfield’s excellent publication for these principles (they are in the appendix)!

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