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Review of  Perspectives on Language Learning Materials Development


Reviewer: 'Eloy Juan Miguel Romero-Muñoz' ['Eloy Juan Miguel Romero-Muñoz'] Eloy Juan Miguel Romero-Muñoz
Book Title: Perspectives on Language Learning Materials Development
Book Author: Freda Mishan Angela Chambers
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Book Announcement: 22.738

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Review:
AUTHORS: Mishan, Freda; Chambers, Angela
TITLE: Perspectives on Language Learning Materials Development
SERIES: Intercultural Studies and Foreign Language Learning (Vol. 1)
PUBLISHER: Peter Lang AG
YEAR: 2010

Eloy JM Romero-Muñoz, English Unit, University of Namur (Belgium)

INTRODUCTION

Half of the papers in this volume are based on presentations given at the 2008
MATSDA (Materials Development Association) event on 'Developing materials to
meet needs and wants'. The scope of the volume, however, is much narrower; all
papers attempt to promote localized, teacher-generated solutions over
traditional, mass-produced teaching packages in language teaching. The book is
divided into three parts, comprising four, two and four papers respectively.
Section one (pp. 9-108) focuses on 'Naturally Occurring Discourse' and consists
in an appraisal of the potential (McCarten & McCarthy; Farr et al.; Timmis) but
also the limitations (Tomlinson) of Corpus Linguistics for materials
development. Section two (pp. 109-172) envisages technology as tool rather than
medium in materials development. More specifically, Information and
Communication Technology (ICT) is advocated either as a selection and parsing
tool for naturally occurring language in the media (Gilmore) or as a means to
create genuine, meaningful activities for effective Task-Based Language Learning
/ Teaching (Mishan). Section three (pp. 173-270) centers on needs analysis in
materials development. Two papers offer a more theoretical take on this topic
(Hughes on young learners and Hann et al. on adult ones) while the remaining two
adopt a more practical, case study format (Mason on '[u]sing ethnography to
promote intercultural competence' and St. Louis et al. on '[d]esigning materials
for a twelve-week remedial course for pre-university students in Venezuela').

SUMMARY

Part one: Materials development and naturally occurring discourse

In chapter one, McCarten & McCarthy discuss the caveats of developing
Touchstones, a conversation-based, corpus driven ESL textbook for adults.
Careful analysis of a North American spoken corpus allows them to identify and
teach high frequency language beyond word level, especially the distinction
between 'transactional' language (which carries content information) and
'functional' language (which is concerned with conversation management)
(O'Keeffe et al., 2007).

In chapter two, Farr et al. advocate the use of corpora in initial and
continuing Language Teacher Education (LTE). They start by outlining the
'underlying principles for the development of LTE material'. Their list, which
borrows heavily from Tomlinson's discussion of fundamentals in language learning
materials (1996), pinpoints factors such as cognitive development, input
selection and processing, and affective factors. They go on to suggest ways of
'[preparing] teachers for the use of corpora in more active and inductive ways
than simply by consulting published corpus-based materials' (38). Teachers are
encouraged to use freely accessible, mostly online resources to enhance their
everyday practice (for instance by providing a list of attested examples) as
much as to promote pedagogic awareness (for instance by illustrating typical
teacher and learner discourse).

In chapter three, Timmis takes up the challenge of implementing spoken language
research in the classroom. He starts by discussing the sociocultural dimension
of teaching spoken language features, especially in terms of relevance -- those
features are potentially of great value for learners (66), and ''appropriacy'' --
they can be taught in 'sociolinguistically appropriate ways' (66). Timmis then
addresses the two-fold methodological challenge posed by selection and task
design. Selection ought to ensure that texts are both relevant and accessible in
terms of form and content with motivation being a prerequisite.
Teacher-generated materials, he contends, offer just that. Designing appropriate
tasks then involves combining listening and noticing activities with a clear
Focus-on-Form feel that correlate form and function in a descriptive rather than
prescriptive way.

In chapter four, Tomlinson outlines the limitations of using corpus data for
educational purposes. Corpora, and even more the teaching materials they have
inspired, offer a partial and static representation that typically lacks the
contextual, pragmatic and dynamic dimensions of actual language use. Tomlinson
suggests we revisit everyday life media to go beyond these limitations. Using
footage from Saturday Kitchen, a culinary program, Tomlinson details how such
materials can be used to promote noticing and language acquisition.

Part two: Technology and materials development

In chapter five, Gilmore outlines a method for using audio-visual materials in
the classroom. Such materials, he contends, '[provide] learners with the
opportunity to make new linguistic, paralinguistic and pragmatic meanings in the
L2' (112). Gilmore mentions the pros -- especially 'accessibility' (115-7),
'authenticity' (117-9) and motivation (119-20), as well as the possible cons --
especially selection (121-2) and copyright issues (123-5). In the rest of the
paper (125-44), Gilmore provides a detailed, at times technical procedure for
turning rough audio-visual materials into readily usable language learning
materials (see figure 1 (127) for a synthetic overview).

In chapter six, Mishan revisits the notion of task in relation to Information
and Communication Technology (ICT), especially learners' growing electronic
literacy. Borrowing from SLA theory, she starts by identifying affective
engagement as 'arguably the most fundamental area of the SLA rationale for task'
(150), points to the oxymoronic nature of 'task authenticity' (151) and
considers ICT as a validation of the task paradigm. She then underscores the
importance of designing meaningful tasks at the classroom level that both
exploit and harness learners' de facto computer skills.

Part three: Tailoring materials for learner groups

In chapter seven, Hughes sets out to embed young learners' language learning
within more general developmental processes. Her discussion starts by outlining
a theoretical framework, which combines Piaget's theory about developmental
readiness with Vigotskyan insights about the values of interaction for cognitive
development. Hughes further endorses innatist views of language acquisition and
underscores the existence of multiple intelligences. Consonant with her
theoretical orientation, Hughes then reports on a few teaching activities that
place experience, interaction and authenticity at the center of the teaching
equation. Evaluation of learning outcomes, she contends, should be formative
rather than summative and should also rely on tasks that mirror the learning
approach used in the first place.

In chapter eight, Mason discusses the benefits of using ethnography in language
learning. The paper starts by defining ethnography (the science of describing a
culture) and intercultural competence (the ability to function across cultures)
and then reports on an ethnographic interview project in Tunisia that stimulated
fruitful intercultural exchange for interviewers and interviewees as well as
language practice. Mason further explains how to replicate such projects even in
seemingly unfavorable contexts (limited access to native speakers for instance).

In chapter nine, Hann et al. reflect on the challenges involved in teaching
English to adult immigrants in Britain -- the so-called learners of English for
Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) -- with a view to formulating a series of
recommendations for educators working with an ESOL crowd. This category of
learners is characterized by its extreme diversity, which means that careful
learner profiling and needs analysis ought to come first. Hann et al. further
advocate a skills-based, participative approach that '[caters] for learners'
real and immediate needs' (240) and also '[respects] and [exploits] the
diversity of ESOL learners' backgrounds' (241). Following up on Tomlinson
(2003), they view '[g]reater personalization and localisation of materials' as
essential.

In chapter ten, St. Louis et al. report on the development of materials for a
pre-college remedial course in Venezuela. This step-by-step process, synthesized
in table 1 (253), sees the authors reflect on their own beliefs (254-6), carry
out a needs analysis (256-7) that helps them formulate realistic objectives
(257) and finally create relevant activities (263-4). The central idea here is
that locally produced materials are better suited than internationally published
resources.

EVALUATION

'Think global, act local.' This catch phrase, borrowed from environmentalist
discourse, captures the essence of this volume. The editors indeed further a
view of foreign language pedagogy that aims at inclusion and intercultural
exchange by promoting teacher-driven and learner-centered practices. Central to
their project is a belief in the pedagogical potential of naturally occurring
spoken language corpora, especially teacher-generated ones. The main strength of
their discussion is thus that actual usage, teachers' input and learners' needs
finally come to occupy center stage, which has seldom been the case in ELT
pedagogy, let alone materials development (see for instance Tomlinson's
uncompromising content analysis of published ELT materials).

It comes as no surprise, then, that large portions of the volume should center
on the dos and don'ts of using corpora for pedagogical purposes. Although
contributors do not say as much, they mostly advocate a corpus-driven approach
in the sense that text selection precedes the identification of potentially
useful language structures (a corpus-based approach would make a priori claims
and look to validate those claims using a corpus). Teachers are not only
encouraged to create corpus materials; they also get practical advice on how to
do so. For instance, Gilmore's step-by-step guide for producing a corpus of
audio-visual materials is bound to benefit even the least technologically inclined.

One regret I have is that, for all the justified discussion of relevance,
appropriacy and affective engagement, some contributors (Tomlinson, Gilmore)
should settle for media whose content is inadequate for most types of English
language teaching. I am a huge fan of John Cleese, but I daresay that choosing
Fawlty Towers is unfortunate on at least two counts. The series dates back to
the mid-seventies and is heavily rooted in that decade both in terms of language
and life style. Add to this the highly idiosyncratic language use of the cast
and you would be hard pressed to say that Fawlty Towers is representative of
actual usage. The language used by Saturday Kitchen's chef is also very
idiosyncratic. I am not suggesting that broadcasts, which are more often than
not scripted or at least edited, can never qualify as a proxy for naturally
occurring spoken language. Nor am I advocating the kind of artificial language
that characterized teaching materials until recently. Perhaps opting for media
content that is both more current and less linguistically marked would be a
pedagogically acceptable compromise, however, especially considering the
affective incentives of such a choice.

Another programmatic statement is to be found at the beginning of the volume:
'[t]he field of materials development is concerned with strengthening the
language learning basis of language teaching materials of all types […]' (1).
This is a major paradigm shift in a field that is infamous for its over-reliance
on intuition. Contributors refer extensively and opportunely to theory and, to
the notable exception of research on usage-based models of language acquisition
(Barlow and Kemmer, 2002), major advances in SLA research are reported on.
Special attention is paid to the role of salience, language awareness and
scaffolding (see especially Hughes). Overall, the emphasis lies more on
applications of theory than on theory itself. Theoretical considerations are
systematically embedded in discussions of actual problems, which the authors
supplement with readily applicable solutions requiring limited technical skills
/ effort.

Resources in language learning materials development are scarce and this volume
is indeed, as the blurb claims, a 'much-needed' addition to the emerging
scholarship on this topic.

REFERENCES

Barlow, M. & Kemmer, S. (eds.). 2002. Usage based models of language. Stanford,
CA: CSLI.

O'Keeffe, A. McCarthy, M. J., & Carter, R. A. 2007. From corpus to classroom.
Cambridge: CUP.

Tomlinson, B. (ed.). 1996. Materials development in language teaching.
Cambridge: CUP.

---. 2003. 'Materials evaluation' in Tomlinson, B. (ed.). Developing materials
for language teaching. Cambridge: CUP. 15-36.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Eloy JM Romero-Muñoz is a PhD candidate in applied educational linguistics at the University of Namur (FUNDP) in Belgium. He is currently looking at the status of grammar instruction in Belgian FL classrooms. More specifically, his PhD project assesses the values and flaws of Cognitive Linguistics for language teaching, especially materials development. He teaches English at the BA level (proficiency, composition, translation).

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