How to Improve Language Learning Materials
Having just watched the wonderful documentary Africa on Netflix, I realized it’s both worrying and marvelous to find out how little I know about my own planet. The good news is this means I will be learning until I die. No chance of running out of subjects. Besides, I don’t even need to be concerned about getting to quantum physics or the theory of relativity, which I’m sure would exert a brutal amount of effort on my limited brain: there’s much more basic stuff for me to absorb before crossing the great divide.
Limitless sources of learning
How wonderful learning is. Especially with the tools we have today: millions of video clips on YouTube, Khan Academy lessons , all the info available on Google, MOOCs, all the ebooks you can instantly download from the Internet for next to nothing, blogs on all kinds of topics, apps, podcasts, to say nothing of the huge amounts of info shared by your friends on social media sites (including the cute cat videos!).
It saddens me that today’s kids will take all this wealth of knowledge and its tools for granted, and many times will prefer to settle for the silliest and most irrelevant games on the Internet. I consider myself lucky to live in this exciting era where we have all this info at our fingertips. All this change has been happening in the past 25 years and it’s hard to believe how different life was in the 1980s. It’s a blessing that those who want to self-educate and choose their own paths through the intricate jungle of information are able to do so. Of course, guides (teachers, tutors, mentors, collaborators) will always be helpful, but it’s liberating to know you can discard them and plan your own journey of discovery if you wish to.
Considering all these tools available, I started thinking what it is that language learning materials are lacking and how these new tools could help us - publishers, materials writers and teachers - improve them. I have been in this field for more than 20 years now and it’s undeniable that books and other didactic materials evolved a lot throughout these years. However, they are progressively going in the same direction, looking more and more like one another, to the extent of becoming almost a commodity. You can’t find significant differences between them on the shelves of a bookstore.
Print books versus online materials
One of the main things that print course books cannot do is personalize the lesson to the extent it should to meet the different students’ needs, varied forms of intelligence, learning styles, and paces of language learning. A simple example is a student should be given the right to pick the genre of text he wants to read for the contextualization of the language point he’s been studying. A print course book cannot do that. It would make it clunky and extremely expensive to offer alternative choices for all the texts they should comprise. An ebook, on the other hand, could offer this variety of choices in a much simpler and affordable way.
A student, now and then, should also be able to choose how to practice the language of the lesson: does he want to follow up doing a writing exercise, a listening comprehension activity or a reading task? Does he want to translate a piece of work? Is he allowed to speak to someone from another country through Skype to practice? We can’t offer that range of choices yet in a coordinated and organized way.
Therefore personalization – or lack thereof – is the main problem of print course books or other more traditional materials for language learning. Some digital platforms are already dealing with this. A lot of personalization can be done as homework and be monitored by the teacher through a number of LMSs (learning managing systems) already available. But a lot more is needed. It would be necessary, for instance, to flip the classroom in a radical way, using the time in class for more relevant and interpersonal activities that would be done better involving a real teacher and a group of learners, while the students would deal with the information acquisition on their own time online, outside the classroom.
Moreover, despite the fact that we all agree that language is more effectively learned embedded in content (CLIL – content and language integrated learning), books for children and teenagers do not normally cover the important areas of personal finance, politics, or economy – a growing need in the diverse and complex society they’re entering. I haven’t seen any language books focusing on Emotional Intelligence as part of the curriculum either. If we all agree that teaching through content is the best way for the students to internalize a language, why not offer them this kind of very useful training: recognition of feelings, how to deal with anger, how to negotiate conflict with their classmates, strategies for incorporating diversity, how to delay or postpone gratification? We already teach social values, which is a great step forward, but we don’t focus on interpersonal relationships as content, an area that could be beautifully and effectively covered through language teaching materials.
Another ideal way of adapting course books would be to cater more intensely for the students’ different learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic. It would be amazing if the presentation of a language point and the activities following it could be personalized according to the strongest style of each student: do they wish to see a video explaining the point, do they want to read about it, would they rather engage in a hands-on discovery activity and find out the solution for themselves? The new tools of technology all make these options possible.
In summary, language learning materials need to provide a much more flexible structure and remain the backbone of a process that requires individualization.