From the very beginning, when I started Teaching English as a Second Language, I found published teaching materials wanting. I remember scouring the shelves of Maruzen department store in Kyoto looking for something, anything, to connect with my students. I didn’t have much luck. Let’s face it the publishing industry is out to maximize profits. As a consequence materials tend to be highly generalized in an attempt to appeal to the broadest possible market segment. But by stretching that appeal some effectiveness and appropriateness is lost. For instance, features that might be appropriate in North America or the Far East are sanitized out to appeal to the Middle Eastern market as well. That’s just one example. Regional idioms are purged as well. Narrowly-targeted, niche-style publications haven’t a hope of making it in these channels. The publishing industry does not take chances. The result is that many materials may be adequate but by no means are they exceptional.
Truth or Dare creator Brian Grover
As I said, I found most materials inadequate when I first started teaching in Japan. I was always looking for something that my students could relate to but I found most things on the market required a great deal of adaptation, so much so that gradually I was creating supplementary materials, then, primary materials in order to reach the students in a meaningful way. I had carte blanche to order hundreds of textbooks each year but couldn’t find anything that really resonated with my students. There are lots of okay offerings out there but nothing that really shines. Most coursebooks of the day involved these pretend scenarios based in some completely alien landscape and I felt guilty for foisting them off on university-aged students who, let’s face it, knew little beyond the shores of Japan. Gradually I stopped ordering textbooks altogether. That is the publishing industry’s loss. There were no budget limitations in those days just a void in the market.
By the time I had returned to Canada I was generating all of my classroom materials with great success but now I know even that had its limitations. I had it bass ackwards. It should’ve been the students who were creating the content.
One day I had a revelation in class. I had been thinking about ways to circumvent this maddening habit that students develop whereby everything has to pass through the filter of L1 before being expressed in L2. At the time I had a particularly voluble group but they were having a bad day and just couldn’t express themselves. Out of sheer exasperation I started doing some simple word association exercises to break the deadlock and try to speed things up a bit. Some of those exercises are included in the liner notes to Truth or Dare for English Language Learners. Anyway, the response was phenomenal. We limbered up for a few minutes with the word associations and then, suddenly, each association seemed to spark new avenues of conversation. As I’ve said this was a particularly vibrant, outgoing group but I’d never seen anything like this. Conversation was just bubbling out, everyone was joining in and each topic led on to numerous new topics. This was every teacher’s dream. After the class several of the students mentioned that they had had a lot of fun and hoped that they could do the same thing the next day.
With that I began developing a variety of exercises and activities designed to draw the content out of the students rather than the opposite and traditional approach of imposing content on them from the top down. That effort has been consolidated in a workbook which I call Catalyst: A Conversation Taskbook for English Language Learners. Catalyst is now complete and has spawned a number of side projects including two games, one called Chatterbox which is finished but not yet published and Truth or Dare which has been published, garnering a nomination for the British Council’s ELTon Award for Learner Resources. These games span certain elements of this whole Catalyst thing but can be easily integrated into any regular ESL/EFL learning situation. It’s very exciting stuff for me, of course, but more importantly it’s exciting for the students, many of whom have been tortured, and I don’t use the term lightly, for six or more years by the English language learning systems where they come from. Students respond to it profoundly.
Infographic depicting the relationship of Chatterbox and Truth or Dare for English Language Learners with Catalyst.
Catalyst has three discrete sections. The first one is aimed at acclimatizing students to a somewhat novel way of interacting in the classroom. The second phase focuses on oral output and is critical for consolidating all of the formal learning that students have had to endure to date. Students gain experience both deepening and broadening their responses. Building on that, the third phase incorporates a number of essential tactics into the output, stuff like how to start a conversation, how to end a conversation, how to join a conversation, how to change topics, how to control the ebb and flow, all of the stuff that native speakers take for granted. Every phase is built around student-generated content rather than some artificial, pretend scenario devoid of meaning to most participants. The game Truth or Dare for English Language Learners bridges the first two phases, focusing primarily on oral output in a game-like setting. Chatterbox takes that one step further, incorporating tactical activities into the communication stream.
Truth or Dare Gameplay Schematic