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Review of  Meaning-Focused Materials for Language Learning

Reviewer: Caroline Hutchinson
Book Title: Meaning-Focused Materials for Language Learning
Book Author: Marina Bouckaert Monique Konings Marjon van Winkelhof
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 30.4003

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Meaning-Focused Materials for Language Learning, edited by Marina Bouckaert, Monique Konings and Marjon van Winkelhof, is a collection of contributions arising from the 2017 conference of materials-development association MATSDA. The book is divided into four parts, considering materials creation, teaching interventions involving meaning-focused materials, the use of digital materials and multimedia, and critical perspectives on language learning materials and testing systems.

Part 1 (Co-)Creating Meaning-Focused Materials

In Chapter 1, Brian Tomlinson asks “What should meaning-focused mean?” He offers the definition that meaning-focused materials should provide “exposure to rich input and meaningful use of the L2 in context, which is intended to lead to incidental acquisition of the L2” (Norris & Ortega, 2001: 160). Although the validity of this approach is supported by second language acquisition theory and research, its lack of face validity with those who believe in explicit teaching means that it is rarely put into practice. Compromises include Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) approaches which orient students to linguistic features during otherwise meaning-focused lessons.

Tomlinson suggests that while we generally understand “meaning” in terms of denotative meaning - the definition in the dictionary - the word actually incorporates a far wider range. Other types of meaning include connotative (“slim” has a more positive connotation than “skinny”), meaning in a given context, and pragmatic meaning (“the grass is getting long” may be a criticism of the person who has yet to cut it, although its semantic meaning is a simple observation).

Students understand a complex range of meanings in their first language, but teachers and textbooks tend to confine themselves to form focus and semantic meaning, artificially sheltering students from authentic L2 language use. In response to this problem, Tomlinson suggests a number of possible solutions, including use of TV and soap operas, opportunities to interact naturally with the teacher and other proficient speakers, and the creation of a class ‘self-access center’ with materials reflecting authentic language use.

He then outlines a text-driven approach involving meaning-focused orientation and response to a text, further development of the text (for example, writing what happens next), a focus on the text’s pragmatic use of language, further research on this use of language outside the classroom, and finally a revision of the development activity based on what students have learned in their research. Example materials are included, which demonstrate how the materials aim to develop both linguistic and pragmatic competence.

In Chapter 2, Danny Norrington-Davies outlines a number of common objections to textbook use in the language classroom, in particular Jordan’s (2016) argument that course books are often designed in line with mistaken beliefs about how we learn second languages. He goes on to argue, however, that textbooks can provide a sense of structure and function as a time-saving device, if teachers can exploit and supplement them effectively. In order to do this, it is essential to engage learners cognitively and effectively, and incorporate opportunities to work with language and needs as they emerge.

The author presents deficiencies in three common textbook activities: comprehension questions, rule discovery activities and controlled practice activities. The first two activities involve little cognitive engagement, and direct students to notice and respond to only limited features of the text. Controlled practice activities may help to build confidence or put a grammar form in working memory, but involve manipulation of a single form rather than genuine communication. All three give the materials writer ultimate power over what is learned, thereby reducing student agency.

To avoid these issues, teachers can consider

- Incorporating personal response or evaluation questions, such as “What kind of groups would like to go on the trip? Justify your opinion.”)

- Looking for reasons rather than rules, for example “why does the writer use the superlative?” This helps learners understand that language is used to achieve a communicative goal.

- Replication tasks, rather than controlled practice. Here, students create the same kind of text, raising the cognitive demand and allowing students to include their own ideas.

In these ways, teachers can reduce the extent to which materials dictate lesson content, and challenge students to use language to create new content and meaning.

In Chapter 3, Roberta Amendola considers meaning-focused resource books for teachers. This chapter describes a research project focusing on the uses of student and teacher books in Spanish as a Foreign Language teaching in Brazil, with particular focus on the relevance to teachers of the teacher’s resources. Teacher’s books provide exercise keys and cultural notes, and aim to help teachers develop their role in the classroom, while teacher’s guides provide explanations of the methodology of the course book; in reality the author’s research indicated that they are rarely used. In response, a series of magazines was developed to accompany a new course book series, aiming to encourage teachers to access additional guidance that they felt to be attractive and relevant to their practice.

Chapter 4, by Isabella Seeger, considers possible remedies for a persistent gap between the aims of educators and interests of secondary students, which can result in a loss of learner motivation due to a perceived lack of relevance of institutional learning. One way around this issue is to involve students in choice in the classroom, so that the locus of control lies with learners (Benson, 2011). While it can be difficult to find topics which interest all learners, this can be achieved by having students generate sub-topics and having them choose democratically; students also seem more receptive to content when it is personalized by other students’ interest. While teachers may feel that some student-suggested materials are inappropriate, the writer suggests that the experience of semi-autonomy may make students more open to teacher-generated content in the future.

In Chapter 5, Marina Bouckaert explores the issue of how to incorporate meaning-focused materials - and thus encourage use of such materials by future teachers - in a teacher training course with a strong focus on form. She argues that modelling ideal teaching practices, while explaining their rationale, is a powerful tool for teacher educators. She then describes a range of activities which share a progression: first, students communicate in contexts that elicit target structures, and they then discuss form using their own student generated language examples. This enables students to create their own rules and develop pragmatic strategies. Finally, especially in teacher education, the author recommends incorporating feedback and reflection on the activities.

Part II Materials as meaningful interventions

In Chapter 6, Tony Waterman describes the materials development process he followed to create an English for Security course in Oman. The writer provides detailed examples of needs analysis, syllabus and materials design, and the creation of student and teacher book, all with a focus on meaningful communication. Of particular interest to me was the comprehensive needs analysis process, during which the author spoke with serving officers at all levels and expatriate employees; he also observed classes taught using the existing class materials. While the context is specific, the chapter should be of interest to anyone looking to design an ESP course with a meaning-focused approach, and sample materials are provided.

In Chapter 7, Sakae Onoda explores how linked skills tasks can promote L2 oral fluency. In linked skills tasks, a single subject matter is focused on for an extended period spanning different tasks, leading to recycling of language and deep processing, improving fluency and self-efficacy. In the Japanese context, this forms a useful counterpart to test-focused study of texts which are frequently above students’ level. The chapter discusses two classes, a control group and one following a more closely linked skills approach, with the latter demonstrating greater oral fluency development. Further, students’ perceptions that their fluency and accuracy had improved positively influenced their motivation and confidence.

In Chapter 8, Majid Elahi Shirvan describes an experiment using electronic corpora as meaning-focused materials, in which students first familiarized themselves with a word, accessed the concordance data and articulated how it engaged them, deepened their awareness of different aspects of meaning, then finally produced texts in groups based on what they had learned. Students demonstrated significant improvement in understanding in post-tests, and interview participants reported feeling engaged with the data and developing their ability to discover patterns by themselves.

In Chapter 9, Anne-Mette Korcyznski discusses the context of Danish teacher education in Greenland. She terms her teaching approach “Performance”, which aims to achieve an understanding of the world as it is formed by culture and history. For students to take part in Performance, the writer considers it important that they are aware of when they are in Flow, which Csikszentmihalyi (2005) defines as a state of mind in which learners’ consciousness is fully concentrated on a task. She describes one brainstorming and discussion activity in which materials are co-created and shared by participants.

Chapter 10 considers a task-based interactive approach used by author L. Junia Ngoepe with English language graduate students in South Africa. Students are assigned both oral and written presentations, and when they are not presenting are expected to participate actively as audience members. Questionnaire data is presented, along with student responses. Students felt that the task-based approach was motivating and encouraged interaction, and empowered them to take control of their own learning. The author concludes by calling for greater student-lecturer collaboration in delivering content in English to speakers of other languages.

Part III Creating Meaning through Digital Materials and Multimedia

In Chapter 11, Claudia Mewald and Sabine Waller introduce the PALM project (Promoting Authentic Language acquisition in Multilingual contexts), funded through ERASMUS. This project encourages learners to produce authentic texts for their peers in written, audio and video form, giving text production a meaningful outcome. The project aims to foster linguistic skills and intercultural competences through authentic input and tasks, scaffolding understanding, raising awareness of multilingual identities, fostering sensitivity to other cultures and individuals, learner autonomy, and awareness of learning strategies.

Chapter 12 considers a technology-enabled language learning (TELL) course in India, and is authored by Sujata Bhonsale, Jennifer Thomas, Ashwin Nagappa and Ling Hsiao. The CLIx English course aims to supplement traditional learning methods in under-served communities, using computers to provide materials, and opportunities to collaborate and use English. Each lesson centers on a story, which were designed to sound authentic and connected to the life experience of students. These stories are followed by interactive tasks, such as story-telling or role plays, which students complete in pairs.

In Chapter 13, Alessandra Belletti Figueira Mülling describes a meaning-focused extensive reading that was added to English distance learning materials created by the Ministry of Education in Brazil. With no evaluation or expected outcomes, the primary aims of the intervention, titled “Catching a Glimpse”, were to promote meaning-focused reading and cultural awareness. Many participants described the topics as interesting, and spontaneously referred to texts that they had read. Although the majority preferred to read for pleasure, several expressed the need for follow-up activities to compel students to complete the reading, illustrating how differences between learner perceptions and pedagogical aims can impact the learning process.

In Chapter 14, Rosa-Maria Cives-Enriquez describes how she makes use of poetry and storytelling to teach Spanish culture and language in the UK. Adopting a CLIL framework, she encourages students to become aware of their learning needs and styles. To exemplify her teaching approach, she describes in detail two lessons focusing on Picasso’s life and a poem about the Spanish civil war. She argues that the approach has benefits linguistically, culturally, and in engaging the emotions so language is experienced as a communication tool.

Chapter 15 focuses on author Julia Rickermann’s use of authentic English picture books in the primary foreign language context. She argues that since the foreign language syllabus at primary level is often topic-based, it is thus meaning-focused. In the study, eleven learners independently read six English picture books, and did not seem overtaxed as they finished the books and rated their comprehension reasonably highly. The author concludes that use of such books provides authentic, meaningful input, a dual focus on language and content, and can also support a focus on form.

Part IV Critical Perspectives on Meaning-focused Materials

In Chapter 16, Amir Hossein Sarkeshikian proposes a framework for meaning-focused materials development that is informed by a critical constructivist perspective. As meaning-focused instruction has come to the forefront of language education, practitioners have become more aware of the complexity of language learning, and the influence of personal histories and language ideologies on the learning process. To take this into account, the writer proposes a three-stage framework for developing meaning-focused materials: shared critical reflection on the political aspects of language use; discussion of problems and themes arising from real experience; designing lessons which incorporate problematized themes.

Chapter 17, by Nausica Marcos Miguel and Robert Hershberger, describes the development of meaning-focused intermediate Spanish teaching materials for the US university context. The project aimed to incorporate a greater focus on global issues by critically interrogating the idealized content presented in existing textbooks, which typically functioned as a vehicle for grammar and vocabulary rather than as meaningful content in its own right. The chapter presents some of the activities in detail, such as a thought-provoking vocabulary brainstorm in which students supplemented a largely positive vocabulary list about the Hispanic experience in the US with words they felt accurately described their experience, generating a great deal more negative ideas.

In Chapter 18, Iffat Subhani discusses the dilemma she encountered in preparing students for IELTS examinations while adopting an English as a Lingua Franca approach. She describes a “Carry Forward - Combine - Construct” approach (“3Cs”), in which students first give their own ideas, then assimilate new knowledge, and finally build their own knowledge and language relating to the topic. Learner feedback suggested that students became more aware of the features of general academic English, and gained an appreciation that English is more than a collection of discrete grammar forms leading to a high test score. A detailed lesson plan is included.

Chapter 19 sees Asma Aftab evaluate the extent to which certain course books, IELTS and Cambridge O level tests focus on meaning. She has developed a framework incorporating eight key concepts, such as attention to pragmatic meaning, communicative purpose, sense of audience, and relevance of tasks to student needs. Measured against this framework, none of the above scores more than 50%, and she evaluates the examination tasks in particular as highly controlled and lacking a focus on skills needed in real-life contexts.

In Chapter 20, Claudia Saraceni considers the gap between authentic language use, classroom pedagogy, and language assessment practices. While meaning-focused methodologies (and those combining meaning and form-focus, such as CLIL) have gained ground in pedagogical literature and research, the author argues that a form-focused approach often prevails in actual classroom practice. She believes that this is influenced by language testing practices which subordinate meaning to form and present simple, context-less texts which present language in terms of its basic semantic meaning.


This edited volume offers a global insight into current theory and practice relating to meaning-focused language-learning materials, offering practitioners a valuable opportunity to update their practice while glimpsing contexts beyond their own. Both theory and practice are addressed, and many contributors provide detailed examples of materials or teaching interventions. The final section on critical perspectives raises a number of important issues relating to the validity of language assessment practices, both local and international, and the relevance and authenticity of standardized learning materials

Given the breadth and importance of the issues raised, it is perhaps unfortunate that the book provides no overarching conclusion. A final word from the editors or conference conveners would go a long way to clarifying the current situation in meaning-focused materials development, potential avenues for future enquiry, and any recurring themes arising from the conference discussion. A conclusion could also have clarified the relation between theory and practice across the various contexts discussed, and suggested concrete next steps for practitioners.

Unfortunately, there are typographic and spelling errors in the book, most noticeably a missing reference in the first chapter to a recent publication on spoken corpora. In Chapter 10, the meaning of certain data points is not explained, requiring reference to the appendix. It is to be hoped that these errors can be corrected in a subsequent edition, as they do detract from the readability of the book. I would also question how accessible certain chapters are to newcomers, as the limited space available does not always allow for a thorough explanation of concepts.

These issues notwithstanding, the book provides a thought-provoking journey into issues at the crux of language education: how best to motivate and engage learners, encourage critical thinking and a global perspective, raise awareness of both pragmatic and semantic meaning while drawing attention to form, and how to prepare learners to use language in a world that may not be accurately reflected in language curricula and assessment practices. Its overall message is positive, encouraging small changes at the local level, such as supplementary materials, opportunities for student choice, or additional questions that encourage authentic personal response and pragmatic understanding.


Benson, P. (2011). Teaching and Researching: Autonomy in Language Learning (2nd ed.). Abingdon: United Kingdom: Routledge.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Abuhamdeh, S., & Nakamura, J. (2005). Flow. In A. J. Elliot & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 598-608). New York, NY, US: Guilford Publications.

Jordan, G. (2016). The case against coursebooks. Modern English Teacher, 25 (1), 50-52.

Norris, J., & Ortega, L. (2001). Does type of instruction make a difference? Substantive findings from a meta-analytic review. Language Learning, 51, Supplement 1, 157-213.
Caroline Hutchinson is an assistant professor at Nihon University College of Economics, Japan, and has worked in Japanese higher education since 2012. She has also taught in Vietnam, Hungary and the UK, where she is originally from. She has designed and taught several CLIL courses relating to Japanese Studies and Tourism. Other research interests include autonomy, motivation, and the psychology of language learning.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781527511798
Pages: 394
Prices: U.K. £ 64.99