Why you should use fewer materials in class

Originally published on the British Council’s Teaching English magazine on 28th May 2016

We’ve all been there.

You’ve worked through your lesson plan much faster than expected, you’re 70 minutes through your 90 minute class and have run out of material.
Avoiding this uncomfortable situation drives teachers to over-prepare. Many will print off several worksheets to ‘drop-in’ at the end of the class if necessary, or simply go on to the next activity in the textbook, kind of like a linguistic insurance policy or papery comfort blanket. I’m sometimes guilty of this form of ‘over-preparing’, often bringing reams of worksheets that never get used and go on to have a sedentary life, clogging up my pigeon hole in the teacher’s room.

But over-preparing is not the same as over-planning.

Over-planning is not necessarily a bad thing. Planning too many activities for a class doesn’t really affect anyone, except the teacher’s free time and bag space. In fact, it can be desirable to over-plan as you have a backup that enables you to alter your lesson ‘on the fly’. Teachers at the beginning of their career must do a certain amount of over-planning until they get more confident with timings.
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Over-prepping, on the other hand, is generally completely pointless. You print off several backup worksheets, but don’t think of a way to integrate them into the lesson. They’re there to kill the last few minutes. Starting the next exercise in your textbook (if you have one) ruins the flow of the class and without a justifiable objective, doesn’t add anything either. Finally, carrying around several trees-worth of copied worksheets in your bag is, of course, environmentally unfriendly and a waste of resources for schools.

What is ‘minimal or no resources’ teaching?

In a nutshell, forsaking textbooks and photocopied worksheets in favour of a materials-light conversational approach. Perhaps the most striking example (which also happens to have a catchy, memorable name) is that of Dogme, the minimalist methodology first outlined in an article in 2000 by Scott Thornbury and inspired by Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement of the mid-90’s.

The methodology of Dogme invites teachers to take a ‘vow of chastity’ with respect to materials, in other words to avoid the use of textbooks and focus instead on conversational activities and the language that develops from them.

It’s a neat concept. Many teachers instinctively reduce the resources they use as they gain experience, although few will want to relinquish use of the venerable textbook. Like so many aspects of life, the use of materials is a matter of compromise. Copied worksheets or textbooks (if you have them) are an essential part of any English course. That said, they must be used in moderation. Speaking from my experiences as a language student as well as a teacher, an endless chain of worksheets or textbook activities makes the class boring. That’s not to mention the individualistic nature of these activities, sucking communication out of the class.

Other reasons for using the minimalist approach

The ‘over-prepping’ situation covered above is just one reason for using minimal or no resources. Some others:

You can target your learner’s needs more effectively

Textbooks are written to suit the needs of the target audience, be they hyperactive 8 year-old or stern-faced investment banker. However, they can never be precisely targeted to your learner’s needs. Your conversational/materials-light classes can be.

More interesting

Ask a language student the area of their English they want to improve the most. The answer is almost always speaking. Focusing on communicative classes fulfils this need and is infinitely more interesting than trudging through endless worksheets.

Minimal/no resources is closely linked to limited/no planning

Of course, using this methodology still requires careful planning, but many student-driven activities can be used with reduced teacher planning time.

Practical considerations

Last minute cover classes. Technical problems. Sometimes simply forgetting your bag which contains your neatly collated documents. The materials-light approach can help.

What to do in a ‘minimal resources’ class

One of the key principals of the minimal resources approach is that of promoting a conversational environment. Therefore, you’ll want to encourage this in your classroom and make extensive use of pair work/small groups to maximise speaking time, although a whole class interaction pattern can also be appropriate with debates.
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A twist on using minimal materials is to take frequently published ideas and having your students prepare the activity. A good example of this is a memory game – textbooks frequently include these as additional resources to practice vocabulary. If you bring some cut up squares of paper with you, ask your students to write some words they have learnt and a corresponding explanation, and then play the game in pairs. This is usually better than the published activity as the words are tailored for your students needs.

Using conversation questions, especially those around controversial topics or those related to the students work or hobbies, is a good idea to get students talking. Of course, just giving a list of questions is not particularly inspirational, so there are a number of ways to sell this to your class. A pyramid discussion is a more interesting way to generate conversation, as is the regular changing of partners. You’ll also want to consider role plays for your materials-light lesson.

Any materials-light class will include a significant proportion of genuine materials to fill the textbook/worksheet shaped hole. Check out news websites like the BBC for videos and readings. You can, of course, argue that genuine materials are still materials, but at least you can pick out the most relevant content for your students.

Writing is often neglected in textbooks, and students generally prefer to avoid it and do it for homework (if at all). However, group writing activities like a dictogloss are much more communicative and fun, and don’t require any specific materials to set up.
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One potential problem is records, or lack there of. Without a nice neat textbook or worksheet, it’s up to the individual student to record the key points of the class and naturally, some are better than others at this. As the teacher, you can help by making a note of any new vocabulary in an easily visible place such as the whiteboard. Recording and correcting mistakes becomes even more important, so it’s a good idea to hold a structured error review at the end of the class with mistakes written on the board. If you have time, it’s worth typing up a summary with the key information from the lesson.

The top 5 no resource and limited planning activities

To finish off, here’s my absolute favourite ‘no materials’ activities (with links to instructions):

1. Alibi
2. Dictogloss
3. Back to the board / Run to the board
4. Running dictation
5. Question asking game

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