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Review of  The Complete Guide to the Theory and Practice of Materials Development for Language Learning

Reviewer: Oksana Bomba
Book Title: The Complete Guide to the Theory and Practice of Materials Development for Language Learning
Book Author: Brian Tomlinson Hitomi Masuhara
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 30.2425

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“The Complete Guide to the Theory and Practice of Materials Development for Language Learning” by Brian Tomlinson and Hitomi Masuhara attempts to combine theoretical explanation with a practical approach to language learning materials. It aims “to help teachers, researchers, students, publishers and writers to know, understand and be constructively critical of what has been achieved to date” (p. viii). Consisting of 15 chapters, each devoted to a specific topic, the book provides an examination of issues in materials development as well as writing instructions for language learning activities – with a focus on materials development for English learning. The book’s chapters generally include a list of recommendations from the authors, a brief summary section, a list of discussion questions, and practical tasks. The authors begin the book by expressing desire for it to help readers take a stance based on their experience and bring more voices to the field of study. The final part of the book incorporates useful resources such as information on the materials development professional community, links to corpora, the names of relevant journals, and titles of recent publications. Importantly, the authors direct readers to internet resources including activities, texts, and images that may be practically applied by language teachers.

Materials development is defined in Chapter One as “all different processes in the development and use of materials for language learning and teaching” (p. 1). The first chapter provides an initial overview of the current state of affairs of commercial language learning materials (e.g. coursebooks, digital materials, supplementary materials, self-access materials), and existing materials development projects and publications. It is stressed that there is no one-size-fits-all approach and demand continues to grow for more research in the field of materials development.

In Chapter Two the authors outline the ongoing debate regarding the value of traditional textbooks and the desirable characteristics of language learning materials. The authors explain that while coursebooks are convenient commodified resources which organize the process of education and save time and money, they often do not meet the needs of every student. Since these so-called “global textbooks” lack engagement and adaptations, it is necessary for educators to make individualized decisions about what would work best with a particular class. At the same time, language learning is facilitated by humanistic materials, implementing authentic language, and emphasizing meaning over form. The authors favor a text-driven approach, in which a bank of potentially engaging and even controversial texts are employed, to engage learners and stimulate their interest while simultaneously allowing space for individual differences and self-expression. Overall, the authors note, priority in materials development goes to learner agency, task authenticity, as well as affective and cognitive engagement.

Chapter Three stresses out the importance of planning out the evaluation of materials in pre-, in- and post-stages. The authors state that, when evaluating materials, the team of materials writers should consider all stakeholders and set universal and local guiding criteria, predicting the effect of the materials for the users. Universal criteria should be applicable in a variety of contexts for different learners, while local criteria take into consideration specific context and learners. The teachers, in turn, are strongly encouraged to develop their own criteria rather than simply accept the externally imposed ones. The authors also provide specific examples for each type of criteria from their practical experience. Last but not least, the importance of conducting a retrospective evaluation via the collection of feedback both from learners and teachers is given attention.

Next, Chapter Four argues for materials adaptation as a way of bridging the gap between what is needed and what is available for the teacher. The authors highlight an unprecedented need for materials adaptation due to disconnects between those who create the materials and those who use them, especially in light of the increasing role of English as a lingua franca around the world. A range of empirical studies are explained to demonstrate that teachers adapt materials for various reasons, such as to engage learners and raise cultural awareness. This is followed by a listing of the major guiding principles for materials adaptation and a real-world example which employs these principles.

In Chapter Five the authors argue for establishing principles for materials development prior to writing that would go in hand with SLA research. The criteria and principles for materials development are discussed through the lens of existing literature. They stress that materials development requires collaboration and productive work and provide their own recommendations such as working in teams, including universal and local criteria, deciding on specific framework (e.g. text-driven framework), and sequencing out procedural steps recommended in the process of writing.

Chapter Six contains all aspects of publishing English language coursebooks/textbooks. The authors outline five stages in coursebook preparation: planning, establishing a writing team and principles, creating a draft, receiving feedback, and actual production/post-production. Further elaboration is provided by applying these stages to the development of global coursebooks. The chapter concludes with a personal reflection on a successful coursebook project and a list of the factors that should be considered in the process, starting with meeting the needs of stakeholders and ending with an accounting of production costs.

Chapter Seven considers strengths and weaknesses of using digital materials from a Second Language Acquisition (SLA) perspective. The authors select and analyze a few sources of digital materials and note their interesting rich content, authenticity and ability to have the learner focus on meaning. At the same time, they discuss potential pitfalls such as loss of focus or missing opportunities for spontaneous synchronous interactive feedback. For instance, they explain that computer games may be effectively employed if they prompt learners’ interaction in the target language. While teachers are encouraged to take advantage of new opportunities in the technological area, this should not be at the cost of face-to-face interaction or personalized teacher feedback. The conclusion of this chapter is that more research is needed to justify investment in the costly development of digital materials.

Chapter Eight discusses the ways in which coursebooks should address grammatical, lexical and pragmatic competences. For grammatical competence, the authors advocate a discovery approach where learners make sense of target structures through engagement with authentic texts. For lexical competence, the authors favor incidental learning through extensive reading and listening, activities facilitating deducing meaning from context in text-driven or task-based approaches. In addition, the researchers recognize the difficulty of teaching pragmatic competence explicitly and argue for providing multiple opportunities of authentic communication. The use of corpora is also discussed within the context of developing pragmatic competence.

Chapter Nine discusses materials development in terms of addressing the four language skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The authors claim that listening deserves more attention as this skill supports all the others. When analyzing six different global coursebooks, the authors note that they mostly focus on practicing language through isolated activities focused on separate skills and do not provide specific advice on skills development. They also observe that listening and speaking are not tested in many contexts, resulting in a negative washback effect on classroom materials. The chapter advocates an integrated approach in terms of four language skills and affective and cognitive engagement in “skills” activities.

Chapter Ten provides recommendations in terms of materials development for young learners, providing the empirical findings. It highlights the existing problem of overlooking age-specific factors, as well as the existing gap between what is provided in materials and what helps young learners acquire the target language. The authors argue for implementation of meaning-focused tasks often involving kinesthetics and a variety of genres such as games, stories, songs or drawing. In addition, they favor content and language integrated (CLIL) activities where learners make discoveries and begin noticing through exploring, as opposed to language drills. Therefore, such factors as motivation, engagement, developing positive attitude and raising self-esteem are given priority in materials development for the young learners’ age group.

Chapter Eleven analyzes materials development for teenagers and adults, claiming that materials should include achievable challenges, promote competitive spirit, provide opportunities for collaboration and potential social rewards, connect their learning to the outside world and provide individual support. Such tasks can become possible through implementing task-based and text-driven approaches. The authors note that adult learners tend to be interested in using language for professional purposes and materials should meet learner’s expectations in terms of relevance, time, needs and quality. They should also establish rapport and connect to the learners’ lives.

Chapter Twelve discusses materials development for different levels and different purposes and calls for employing underlying principles and pedagogical approaches where the content should be relevant, meaningful and interesting for learners with different L2 goals, varying from English for Specific Purposes (ESP) to English as an international language (EIL).

Chapter Thirteen calls for greater effort in ensuring that visuals fulfill an educational role and align with learning objectives. For instance, materials may effectively use visuals for sparking curiosity and inspiration, engaging learners, initiating discussion, providing explanation, illustrating/explaining specific instructional procedures, or provoking thoughts and reactions. The authors claim that global coursebooks are often visually appealing but do not always match the pedagogical goals due to lack of cooperation in the production stage between business professionals (e.g. graphic designers) and educators. Throughout the chapter, the teachers are encouraged to be active collaborators in the process of designing coursebook illustrations, ensuring that the latter effectively support instructions and assist learner’s understanding of the target language.

The focus of Chapter Fourteen is the importance of clear and effective instructions in language-learning activities. Material developers can ensure the effectiveness of instructions by piloting them with learners and observing whether the learners carry out the assignment as intended, or by having colleagues provide peer evaluation. This chapter provides a range of criteria for giving instructions, addressing sequencing, sufficiency, succinctness, and specificity, among other areas, and offers illustrations via several examples.

Chapter Fifteen concludes with a concise summary of the existing studies on materials development previously mentioned, placing the studies into specific categories. The authors express the hope for more research in terms of the actual effect of different types of materials on L2 ability to communicate. They also discuss other potential areas for future research, such as measuring the learning effect from typical coursebook activities, ways of implementing innovative materials and helping learners benefit from those implementations, and comparing the effects of various materials formats on a learner’s motivation. The authors rightfully state that the focus of the book is not materials themselves but skillful and effective ways of using them, as well as the existing areas for further work in order to meet needs of all stakeholders.


This thought-provoking and resourceful book will be of great help for teachers, publishers, and researchers interested in materials development. In addition to informing the reader about historical tradition, providing the results of the latest empirical findings, and summarizing the existing trends in materials development, the authors voice their own beliefs coming from their many years of personal and professional experience. The authors posit multiple questions for consideration, promoting an individual approach to materials development and pushing readers to adopt a critical stance and think for themselves what principles and recommendations are especially relevant in their classroom.

While the book is infused with references and recommendations, it relates its examples to outside sources such as other ESL/EFL coursebooks or units which may not necessarily be accessible to a wider audience (e.g. p. 109). It would also be helpful to find a way to incorporate more specific examples when trying to exemplify the various theoretical principles and criteria. This would facilitate an even better understanding of the terminology and allow for grasping all of the principles and recommendations covered in the book – especially when it comes to the novice materials developer. That being said, “The Complete Guide to the Theory and Practice of Materials Development for Language Learning” is undoubtedly an excellent source that offers a rich repository of knowledge for professionals who desire to develop their expertise in materials development for language learning.
Oksana Bomba is a doctorate student in Linguistics and Applied Language Studies (LALS) at the University of South Florida. Her research interests include second language acquisition, language teaching, and corpus linguistics. She has taught English and Russian in various contexts and to language learners from several age groups.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781119054764
Pages: 416
Prices: U.S. $ 94.95
Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781119054771
Pages: 416
Prices: U.S. $ 49.95