Back in the eighties I taught at a large business English school where amongst other things, I was responsible for hiring and timetabling teachers and developing resources. Materials-lite lessons were often a good way to go in the context we were working in. (Our term for it then was ‘minimum input, maximum output’). Teachers were always hunting for ideas, so I shared some in filing cabinets and some of my colleagues did too. After a few years I sent a batch off to some publishers and they later turned into a book called In at the Deep End (Speaking Activities for Professional People)
The activities and frameworks had no texts or language content when we submitted them. We explained that the content would come from the students, and the teachers would then work with the language that came up. (We didn’t have a term for emergent language back then, either). The publishers insisted that a few functional phrases and grammary-looking boxes were inserted, but they didn’t require us to add texts, so there was no reading nor audio.
Looking back, that was very hard core line to follow and I’m grateful to Oxford University Press for letting us explore it. No dogme-ists today would suggest there should be no texts. It runs counter to an obvious truth: to learn new language, students need to be exposed to it somewhere, so either via listening or reading.
Do I still like to teach lessons that draw on the learners for content today? Heck yes. Obviously it has strong appeal for me, and in the contexts in which I’m working, it’s still often a good way to go. Are there times when I don’t? Why yes. For example, I sometimes prepare students for advanced management courses at the Wharton School where they will need to have read lots of lengthy business case studies and follow lectures. I don’t see how we’d be doing our jobs if we didn’t give those students ‘materials-heavy’ lessons. There’s a lot of specific vocabulary to learn very quickly, and there are features of discourse and genre that I can’t see a way to highlight without extensive listening and reading. Is materials-heavy as enjoyable and motivating for the students or us? Quite possibly not, but we all know it’s our job and get on with it. It sure beats the alternative.
And when you look around the diverse world of ESP, I don’t think this kind of situation is uncommon. Back in the eighties, I thought our student driven conversational approach would be best in all contexts. Twenty five years on, I feel like there are a lot of shades of grey and I’ve learnt more about successes achieved with genre-based approaches, lexical approaches, task based instruction, case studies, CLIL, and other methodologies.
I’ve also met a lot of different stakeholders involved in training. As teachers, I think we may tend to focus on our students’ needs because they are the people we have most contact with. But the students’ company (which is often footing the bill) may have its own rather different needs. I may not have always agreed with some of the other stakeholders, but many have been bright, caring people with legitimate concerns that I think we have to address too. Evan Frendo made a tongue in cheek blog post illustrating this point this week. You can read it here.