Supplementary Material in ELT: Is it really worth the trouble?

It is the first day of a new school year and your students have just unveiled their shiny new books. As they eagerly flip through the pages to familiarize themselves with the characters and feel of the book, you prompt them to turn to the first lesson and get things going. A few moments later, the enthusiasm on everyone’s faces slowly drifts away and is replaced with that of disappointment and an immediate loss of interest. What’s the matter you might ask? The students aren’t responding to the demands of the target material. Simply put… they find it too difficult. A couple of lessons are more than enough for a scholar to pinpoint what a student lacks, that which prevents him from comprehending and utilizing the elements of the language he will be exposed to throughout the grade. As educators, it falls upon us to deduce what proper support is required to make it feasible for our students to live up to the challenges set before them. The question though remains; is it worth investing our valuable time in extra educational material?

by Katherine Reilly - Author | Teacher Trainer

What Exactly do they Need?

Let’s take things one step at a time. When referring to supplementary material, this in no way implies we should resort to an endless pile of photocopies focusing on grammar or vocabulary exercises. Yes, they too play a role in the long term but must be done in a way which will inspire and motivate the learners, not inhibit their creativity or desire to learn. If our students are not encouraged or positively challenged, the ‘extra’ work they are assigned will be acknowledged as a form of punishment for not living up to the demands of the level being taught. The feeling of being reprimanded will diminish any interest they had in learning, not to mention the huge blow to their self-esteem.

It's All About the Presentation…

The key factor to supplementary material is none other than ‘inspiration’. Inspiration to learn, to be creative, to grasp the target material and effectively use it. When presenting additional material, every detail counts. The colour and style of the font, the content of the given text, the audio and visual material which will accompany it. Every factor matters as our main goal is to inspire and have our students genuinely invested. What cultural aspects have you included in the material? Does it stimulate critical thinking? Will it encourage your students to make an effort in expressing themselves both verbally and in written form? Compiling an activity sheet with but a few exercises albeit with exciting content can have a greater educational impact on our learners than simply offering them colourless sheets of endless activities to complete; ones which would mostly serve the purpose of solidifying language constructs with the ultimate goal of sitting for an exam.

What About the Students who ‘Don’t Need It’?

Mixed level classes will always be a reality we are called upon to handle. Striking a balance between so many conflicting levels is a challenge not to be taken lightly. One would ask himself, “Why should the bright students be obliged to complete extra work if they don’t really need it?” The logic of this mentality is flawed as the question one should ask himself is, “How can I further inspire my students to surpass their abilities?” There is no limit to learning as the human mind is constantly evolving. Students of all levels can be intrigued by stimulating content, motivating them to learn and utilize the language in original ways. Sparking their curiosity with a video, expressing their thoughts through targeted grammar and vocabulary, and broadening their mindsets through collaborative tasks or presentations is an educational approach not bound to the level of the student, rather their genuine desire to learn.

This All Sounds Intriguing but What About Preparation Time?

The secret to supplementary material is not to overdo it. Gaps in learning cannot be filled in a short period of time with an endless amount of supplementary material. This is also unfeasible due to the obligations we as teachers must adhere to concerning the teaching material that we are called upon to deliver within a specific timeframe. Supplementary material should be used in moderation and presented as an entertaining getaway from the main lesson delivery. If done correctly, it should serve as a reinforcement of the language structures presented in class while at the same time expanding them. Thus, the time need be dedicated to preparation will be limited, as a supplementary worksheet with a selection of a few key exercises, accompanied by visual or audio material can serve its intended purpose without it being extensive and time consuming to prepare.

What’s the Final Verdict?

Should we invest our time in preparing, presenting and assigning supplementary material in class? The answer is a wholehearted ‘yes’. We educators are resourceful and insightful individuals who are adamantly invested in our students’ educational prowess. If our efforts in class are to be received with enthusiasm and creative response, then devoting our precious time to supplementary material is a worthwhile endeavor to any educational cause.