Using Supplementary Materials Effectively

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Most of us suck at using supplementary materials effectively. From the teacher that staggers into class with a mountain of handouts, to the teacher that wanders in with nothing at all, I’ve seen (and done!) it all.

What I mostly see now is teachers using materials reactively, rather than proactively. What do I mean? I mean teachers see an activity in the coursebook and think, ‘Ah, I should really practice this. Quick, get a handout / worksheet / TV clip / whatever that has the same target language so learners can use it’. They respond to the requirements of the course, rather than plan ahead.

And that’s OK. But it could be so much better.

A pro-active approach means a teacher looks at a lesson’s aims, context, tasks, (and learner preferences), and then decides on (or creates) supplementary materials that are integrated into the whole lesson.

Supplementary materials are capable of so much more than we use them for. Instead of a band aid to prop up ailing attention, we can use them to inspire learners to new heights – as well as doing a solid job of supporting the class aims, of course.

How? Glad you asked…

Materials Should Support Learning Aims by Being:

  1. Engaging

  2. A language model

  3. Well designed

  4. Exploitable

  5. Differentiated

  6. Authentic or Natural

Let’s run through this list and talk about what each one really means.

  1. Engaging

Materials have got to be interesting! Yes, I know it’s easier to just use the textbook, or the video clips that came with the textbook, but if they send the learners to sleep, what’s the point?

To do that, you need to know what your learners find interesting, fascinating, stuff they love to talk about. You do know that, right? You’re their teacher, and once you know what motivates them, you can use that as leverage to personalise materials and ramp up engagement, which increases their performance (which lowers behaviour management issues if you’re teaching younger ones) and gives you a much more enjoyable time as a teacher.

Unless of course, your learners like talking about the Kardashians. No way. There are some lines I just cannot cross. J

2. A Language Model

It should go without saying that the materials you use or create need to have accurate English. It needs to serve as a model for your learners. Also if you exploit them properly [see point 4, below], then they can be a model for any ‘final activity’ you may have planned. This helps support the weaker learners in the class, who can use it as a reference throughout some of the more challenging activities.

3. Well-Designed

You don’t need to be up the design standards of Apple, but make sure there’s as little fluff as possible. Materials that need more than a couple of sentences of explanation are liable to confuse instead of help. The gold standard is to have your learners intuitively ‘get’ what they need to do.

4. Exploitable

This is actually a critical concept to get your head around. The idea of using a material in your class multiple times, to illustrate different points, was a revelation to me when I first heard it. It totally expanded the way I thought about using materials in class.

The idea is that you’re able to pull different aspects of language from the same material. I still remember the first time I saw this happen – learners were asked to notice new lexis in a handout, which was clarified, then it was used to kickstart a discussion, later on target grammatical structures were pulled from it, and finally it was referred back to it for an activity as a model for a dialogue.

Talk about using supplementary materials effectively. My mind was blown.

And my materials were never the same again.

5. Differentiated

Yup, a fancy term which just means to cater for different levels of student in your class. You might have a handout with two versions, one of which offers more support for weaker learners. You need to pre-plan before class which version to give to which students, but this can pay dividends.

You’ll have fewer ‘fast-finishers’ as stronger learners are stretched by the more challenging version. Here are more ideas on how to differentiate.

6. Authentic or Natural

It’s the eternal tug-o-war between authentic materials that learners struggle with vs inauthentic materials that learners understand.

The key is to be natural. If recording a listening, don’t sound like a robot. If writing a handout, don’t use the target grammar structure so much you sound like a weirdo. Try and keep it as natural as possible.

Just make sure that you use realistic sounding language, even if it has some natural oddities in there.

A Final Word on Coursebooks

I know that most of us have to follow a coursebook. Some poor teachers aren’t even allowed to deviate at all  from the book (leave your job now!). For most of us, we’re able to introduce supplementary materials that we create that we feel will add value.

A coursebook isn’t interesting for all students all the time. That’s just not possible. A coursebook’s job is to provide a base, a curriculum on which to base our lessons. To use supplementary materials effectively, it’s our job to personalise, improve and add value to the learning experience.

Good luck!