How to Teach Effectively Using Supplementary Materials
Using supplementary materials in the language-teaching classroom.
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, 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 practice this. Quickly, get handout/worksheet/video/whatever 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 class.
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 and do a solid job of supporting the class aims.
How? Glad you asked…
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Materials Should Support Learning Aims by Being:
A language model
Authentic or Natural
Let’s run through this list and discuss what each one means.
Materials have got to be interesting! Yes, I know it’s easier to use the coursebook or the videos 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 fascinating, stuff they love to talk about. You do know that, right? You’re their teacher, and once you understand what motivates them, you can use that as leverage to personalise materials and ramp up engagement. This increases their performance (and lowers behaviour management issues) 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 cannot cross.
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], 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.
You don’t need to be up to the design standards of Apple, but make sure there’s as little fluff as possible. Materials that require 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.
This is a critical concept to get your head around. The idea of using material in your class multiple times to illustrate different points was a revelation when I first heard it. It expanded the way I thought about using materials in class.
The idea is that you can 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, and then it was used to kickstart a discussion. Later, the target grammatical structures were pulled from it, and finally, it was referred back to it for an activity as a model for dialogue.
Talk about using supplementary materials effectively. My mind was blown.
And my materials were never the same again.
Yup, a fancy term just means catering to different levels of students in your class. You might have a handout with two versions, one offering more support for weaker learners. You need to pre-plan which version to give to which students before class, 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 that you sound like a weirdo. Try and keep it as natural as possible.
Just make sure you use realistic-sounding language, even if it has some natural oddities.
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 from the book (leave your job now!). Most of us can introduce supplementary materials we create that we feel will add value.
A coursebook isn’t interesting for all students all the time. That’s 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.
See you again in two weeks.
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