2: Over Their Heads

2: Over Their Heads

Designing and adapting materials and teaching English for specific purposes.

Kim had been working at a private language school in a small town in Spain for nearly 18 months now, and planned to continue for another six months before she went back to the UK to look for something more permanent. The school, like the town, was small, and nearly all the courses were for adolescents. Although Kim still enjoyed the classes full of vibrant teenagers, recently she had been growing a bit bored with the lack of variety and was on the lookout for a new challenge to revitalise her teaching. When David came to talk to her about a small hi-tech company which had contacted the school about in-company classes, she felt that this might be the challenge she needed.

David was the Director of Studies at the school and a long-term resident in the town. He was central to the management of the school and the owner relied on him a lot. He had set up all the courses, produced the materials and even written out suggested plans for all the lessons. Since his suggestions generally worked well, this made life easy for the teachers at the school.

David explained to Kim that the company wanted its white-collar staff to be able to use English in their work, and that this would involve teaching such skills as reading instruction manuals, understanding and writing business correspondence, and speaking on the telephone. Kim realised that content like this would be the refreshing change she was looking for, but was worried that she wouldn't be capable of preparing lessons on these topics. She was reassured when David went on to explain that, although he would be back in the UK when the course started, he would talk to the company about the course, design the syllabus and prepare the materials for her to use before he went. Kim readily accepted the responsibility of teaching the course.

Over the next three weeks, David was busy preparing the course which was to cover forty hours in two lessons a week over ten weeks. Occasionally, he would call Kim to his office and explain to her how the course and the materials would work, so that by the Saturday he left for his holiday, Kim felt well-prepared and confident about the course.

The next Tuesday was the first day of the course and the company sent a van to pick Kim up. Arriving at the factory, she was treated well and taken to a well-appointed room that was to be her classroom. The staff taking the course all trooped into the room in the next five minutes which suggested that the company was taking the course seriously. There were twelve learners in the class, evenly split into men and women, and all aged in their late twenties and early thirties. Kim felt happy and thought the situation looked promising.

For the first lesson, David had suggested an easy-going getting-to-know-you introductory lesson with no overt business focus to help Kim establish relationships with the learners before the 'real work' began. He had suggested an adaptation of the warm-up lesson for upper-intermediate learners at the school, which Kim was familiar with. This started with a small New Name activity which the learners at the school usually found easy and interesting. They would try to translate their name into English and find the nearest English equivalent to their name. Following this, there was a "Find a person who ..." questionnaire (with questions such as "Find a person whose favourite childhood toy was a teddy bear") which learners usually found amusing.

The lesson didn't go as well as Kim had expected. The learners showed little interest in the task, but instead dourly went through the procedure of asking their classmates for information. In addition, they had some surprisingly large gaps in their vocabulary and some of them had difficulty formulating questions to ask their classmates. Two of the men, Manuel and Juan, in particular, seemed to be having big problems coping with even the simplest English; one of the women, Sophia, resolutely refused to have anything to do with the task; and the rest of the learners appeared reluctant and unsure of what they were doing. Kim hoped that these were just teething problems for the course, perhaps because the company staff had not been in the role of learners for several years. She felt that the second lesson with more technical, business-oriented language probably familiar to the learners would be more of a success.

The lesson on the next Friday, however, was a disaster. Focusing on instruction manuals, the prepared lesson aimed to help the learners understand the organisation of instruction manuals and analyse the language used. From the beginning of the lesson, Kim found herself doing all the talking while the learners watched her with blank faces. When, after ten minutes of the lesson, Juan put his hand up and asked "What mean 'manual'?", Kim realised that she had been talking completely over their heads. The rest of the lesson was a nightmare. Kim vainly tried to follow the lesson plan that David had prepared, but it was all way beyond the learners' level. The lesson had changed from the joint exploration of the language of instruction manuals that David had intended into a desperate succession of teacher explanations of unknown vocabulary by Kim.

When the two hours were up, Kim felt released. The lesson had been her worst ever teaching experience. In the van home, however, it struck her that she would have to teach the learners again the next Tuesday. The materials she had available were obviously completely inappropriate. This weekend she would have to come up with something different. David wouldn't be back from his holiday for another two weeks, and the other teachers at the school had no experience of preparing materials or of business English. She was on her own. How on earth could she come up with any useful, appropriate, business-oriented materials by next Tuesday?


1. Kim's immediate preoccupation is that the materials are too difficult for the students. In a situation like this, there are three choices facing the teacher: to discard the existing materials and design new materials from scratch, to adapt the existing materials to make them more appropriate for the learners, and to find other ready-made materials as a replacement. Which of these choices do you think would be the most suitable for Kim? Why?

2. If Kim decides to design new materials, how should she do this? What are the stages in materials design? Do you think that these stages represent an idealised design process or can they be followed in practice?

3. If Kim decides to adapt the existing materials, on what bases should she decide what aspects of the materials to retain and what aspects to discard? Is there anything she should be particularly wary about when she adapts the materials?

4. If Kim decides to replace the existing materials, how can she find other ready-made materials? If she finds several possible alternative sets of materials, how can she decide between them? What criteria can guide her decision?

5. Another aspect of the case study that we can consider is why Kim sees the problems with the materials as so serious. This can be viewed as a longer-term problem of staff development. David, although presumably usually efficient, does not see staff development as part of his duties as Director of Studies. Rather than helping the teachers at the school become competent and independent at non-classroom aspects of teaching, such as materials design, David takes the whole of this work himself. How could David help the staff at the school develop?

6. The materials described in the case study are specifically aimed at business, focusing on the language used in business communication and revolving around business topics. David, in designing such materials, would presumably argue that business learners need English for business and that the best way to prepare such learners is to provide them with English used in business situations. An alternative viewpoint is that, by providing the learners with business English only, they are being limited to a specific area of English rather than being exposed to English in all its wide uses and so are missing out on a broad English education. Are there any other viable viewpoints? Which do you agree with? Why?

7. The case study talks about materials "way beyond the learners' level". As teachers we often use the word level as a term of convenience to descibe learners' competence. Although convenient, the term level has many problems. First, it is difficult to define. Does it refer to the students' ability in grammar, the size of their vocabulary, their fluency, some other aspect of language, or a combination of these? Second, comparing the levels of two learners is problematic, since all learners' interlanguage is idiosyncratic. Third, it is very difficult to describe a given level, so that we are usually at a loss if a colleague asks us, "What level is your class?" Do you think that the convenience of level outweighs these problems? If you believe that the term level is useful, how can you define it and how would you describe the level of one of your classes?

Further reading

In deciding whether to design, adapt or replace, Block (1991) argues the case for materials design, Nunan (1991) argues against adaptation, and Robinson (1991) looks at the pros and cons of design and replacement. Nunan (1991) also includes an 8-stage model for designing materials, which it is interesting to compare with the checklist in Dubin and Olshtain (1986) and the process of materials design given by Jolly and Bolitho (1998). Hutchinson and Waters (1987) suggest a different approach particularly applicable to ESP materials design such as the business English materials in the case study. Brown (1995) and Maley (1998) describe the process of materials adaptation with detailed examples. For evaluating materials as possible replacements, a whole book (Cunningsworth, 1995) is devoted to the subject, and Brown (1994), Ellis (1997) and Jordan (1997) also provide useful guidelines. Impey and Underhill (1994) and White et al. (1993) look at the responsibilities of people in management positions in ELT, such as David, including their responsibilities for staff development. The arguments for and against using materials for specific purposes are humorously presented in Widdowson (1984). Lastly, the problems in defining students' communicative competence are accessibly examined in Omaggio (1986).