Alice Savage

Finding or adapting just-right materials

While traveling for a sabbatical, Alice has had a chance to talk to students and teachers at various language programs across the U.S. This post was inspired by an encounter she had with a student at a community college program in the northeast.


Riata suddenly had hives. The itchy spots appeared on her face at five a.m., while she was trying to figure out the main idea of each paragraph in a lengthy text. Riata needed to finish this task before her twin boys woke up, but it was taking a long time, and she still had mountains of homework from other courses.

When asked for more information about her experience in a non-credit, community college ESL program, Riata said that many of her classmates were also under duress. Many were dropping out because the workload was too great. “The teacher is hardworking,” she said, “but it’s too much.”


Riata’s experience reveals a dilemma that many programs face. On the one hand, well-intentioned teachers select and use materials that set a high standard for students, and they rely on those materials to set the expectations and pace of the class. They believe these high expectations will help students work hard, learn a lot, and succeed in reaching their goals.

Many published course materials support this approach by providing multiple ancillary activities. This abundance of material provides instructors with choices, but it may also send a message that we can expect students to do it all.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a challenge. Many academic preparation books are a good fit in ESOL programs where students are linguistically and academically ready for the work. For example, many university-based programs admit students who have tested in with high TOEFL or TOIEC scores. They already know a lot of English and can perform at a high level. Often they do not have work or family responsibilities. They can focus on their studies.

However, there are also programs where the fit between academic prep materials and the students’ readiness is skewed. The materials may be very good, but they do not support learning at the students’ level. This is what is happening to Riata. Riata tested into her community college program, spent $485 dollars on course materials, and has attended every class on time. She sees a tutor and has visited her professor in her office, but Riata is still extremely stressed. For her three courses, she estimates that she spends more than 30 hours a week on homework alone.

It does not have to be this difficult. One possible solution is to find materials that are a better fit for a specific group such as community college students who have an uneven or interrupted education. In fact, one of the driving forces behind the development of the TRIO series we worked on for Oxford University Press was to create stepped out language work before the skills of writing, reading, and listening/speaking. However, this solution is only partial. Many teachers are not able to choose their own materials, or they may just want to use the materials they have in a different way.

Another solution, then, is to put learners at the forefront. In this case, the teacher investigates students’ learning experiences to identify what they know and can do with language. Then the teacher builds on that base in incremental ways. The book cannot know the state of the students’ language abilities, let alone their life circumstances, but the teacher can. The inquiring teacher takes on the challenge of adapting material to provide the right level of challenge in a way that reflects the students’ reality. Personalizing a course is an art, and it is extremely difficult sometimes, but if we truly want students to succeed, then we supplement, adapt, and revise.

Experimenting is always a risk, but when learning meets teaching at just the right intersection, lightbulbs go off and a kind of euphoria can take over. Real learning is a pleasure.

To create or adapt materials that enhance students’ progress, we can start by reflecting on our beliefs about the fit between learners and their materials. Try answering the following questions for yourself as a way to think about how you might initiate changes in a course that may or may not be working for you.

Do I believe…

  1. the book knows best?

The sequence of instruction and exercises tracks my students’ developing language brilliantly. Students maintain a high interest level, and comprehend the material well enough to participate in the class by making observations, hypothesizing about the language, and asking for clarification that relates to real-world usage. (A silent class may be an unhappy class.)

  1. the tests inform teaching and learning?

Information from assessments helps me identify and fill in gaps in students’ knowledge and skills. The test structure influences the course in a positive way so that in preparing for the test, my students are preparing for the real world. Finally, student scores present a good range of high, middle and struggling. (A range that trends downward can signal a disconnect between the materials, assessment practices, teachers’ assumptions and students real knowledge and skills.)

  1. the materials provide my students with a sense of accomplishment?

When they finish a module or unit, learners feel they have increased their ability to function in a communicative context. In feedback questionnaires or informal conversations, they report feeling they have achieved something meaningful. (Students have an internal sense of when they have really learned something. Then they like the book.)

It goes without saying that we can always do better, and trying new solutions is what keeps teaching exciting. Is there a more efficient way to do this? Is there a surefire approach to creating that magical feeling when students are engaged and curious? Materials writers (ourselves included) are forever trying to create conditions for a great class, but teachers’ interpretation of students’ needs is critical.

Sometimes course books need a little help. In bridging the gap between published materials and students’ abilities, teachers can remain a relevant component of the learning process. We can add extra support in vocabulary and language development. We can find a better balance between the cognitive demands of language elements and skills work. We can monitor homework so as not to cause undue hardship. And we can include fluency work so that students are able to become more proficient at the language and skills that they have been “taught,” so that the material is actually “learned.”

Becoming attentive to the relationship between learners’ and materials is one way we can help the Riatas in our programs, and in doing so, we ensure that we teachers will never be replaced by robots!

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