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Category Archives: materials design

R. Michael Medley, Ph.D. – Eastern Mennonite University

I have recently drafted a content-based textbook for English learners that teaches principles and skills for coping with difficult situations in life.  It is called resilience and is based on materials developed by my university’s program of Strategies in Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR).  The materials are premised on the idea that we need to appeal to and stimulate learners’ multiple intelligences.  To this end, I have included some music in almost every chapter of the book (there are 14 chapters).

In a content-based course like this one, it is important to use songs or instrumental music that are thematically related to the course content.  Some of the language may be beyond the range of students’ ability to (re)produce it, but in the context of the course, students can still work on comprehending the music and lyrics, taking them as matters for discussion.

For example, in a chapter that focuses on what trauma is, I have chosen to use a hopeful song, Ben King’s 1961 hit “Stand by Me.”   One interesting thing about this song is its longevity.  Not only was it a theme for the 1986 movie (Stand by Me), it has recently been recorded in bachata style by the US Latin pop singer Prince Royce (2010) and most  movingly by Playing for Change in a version performed by a team 35 musicians in about ten countries on their CD/DVD “Songs Around the World” (2009).

This way of using music seeks to insert several important effects into the classroom beside the fact that there is a simple chorus that is repeated many times, which even beginning level learners could reproduce (practicing the simple imperative “stand by me”).  These other effects include (1) the stimulation of positive, hopeful emotions, which is something language learners need in order to persevere in their long march to proficiency; (2) the theme of solidarity: we can accomplish these challenging tasks of language learning and surviving in a messy world if we stick together or stand by each other; (3) the realization that as language learners we are involved in a multi-cultural endeavor: no matter which cultures we belong to or attempt to bridge, we can harmonize and we can appreciate music in new and refreshing flavors.  As learners are encouraged to reflect on how the various musical styles convey the message, those class members who are already musically inclined will feel that they can make some important contributions to the class discussion.

Those whose musical sensibility is not so strongly developed will have a chance to develop their musical intelligence.

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By R. Michael Medley, Ph.D., Professor of English, Eastern Mennonite University

Two ways that I use the Academic Word List are as follows, the assumption being that this is some sort of English language development class for those who need English for academic purposes:

1. If the students are doing a reading which contains many unfamiliar words (but the reading is interesting to the students and helping them learn about something that they want to learn about), I might use the AWL to identify which words in the passage are more worth the students’ concentrated attention.  We all know that some words are of such low frequency that it is not worthwhile for learners to spend time working to incorporate those words into that active (or even passive) vocabulary.

But if some of the new words in the passage are on the AWL, then I can devise some kind of exercise or discussion that brings those words into focus and gives learners (a) additional multiple exposures to the words and (b) actual practice using them.

2. I am in the process of writing some ESOL materials based mainly on readings representing a unified content area.  I regularly use a vocabulary profiler, LexTutor,  to help me see the relative frequencies of the words that make up the passage.  This vocab profiler also identifies AWL words.  So if I am trying to simplify the text a little, I can simplify by changing the “off-list words” — that is those words of quite low frequency, which are not on the AWL.  I will certainly leave the AWL words in the text so that the students get exposed to them. Since most of the texts in my materials will be read by high intermediate or advanced students with instructor support (and not as extensive reading by the students independently) I feel that it is adequate if 90% of the vocabulary falls into the top 2000 words of English (usually that means about 80-85% of the words are in the top 1000).  The 10% of words not in the top 2000 will be AWL and low-frequency words.

A teacher who uses a lot of electronic texts with her/his learners, could easily use this vocabulary profiler to check on the presence of AWL words in the readings–in effect, guiding the choice of readings based on their vocabulary profiles and then guiding the teacher in choosing vocabulary to bring into focus either before or after the reading.

An interesting realization I’ve had in preparing these materials is that there is a lot of specialized vocabulary for the particular subject area with which I’m dealing. Now that I am working on chapter 12, it seems that the low-frequency vocabulary for one reading has grown very large. But when I look carefully at the words, I’ll see right away that many of these words have been introduced already and practiced many times through the previous 11 chapters.  This realization illustrates the value of doing extended reading (not exactly the same as extensive reading)–that is reading a lot in one subject area or becoming accustomed to the writing style (patterns of thought and expression) of one author.