The paradox of re-usability in language materials

The title is adapted from a critique of learning objects (orginally defined as digital resources used to aid learning) in the field of instructional design by David Wiley. What follows is borrowed heavily/paraphrased from his writings.

Author Julie Moore raises intellectual rights and copyright issues with the idea of having editable materials from course books. However there is a deeper paradox in editable or re-usable material.

If we look at a typical unit in a coursebook it may have sections such as language focus and practice, input reading and/or listening and output speaking and/or writing all centered around the unit topic. We could describe this unit has having an internal context, that is the elements which make up the unit – instructions on how to use a language point, practice exercises on this language point, a picture that goes with the reading text, a role play that goes with a speaking activity etc. The more elements that are in the unit the larger the internal context of the unit.

External context would be the other units in the coursebook. A learning object is said to have no external context independent of its instructional use. That is external contexts exists for a learning object only for the purposes of some instructional procedure.

The number of external contexts in which a learning object will instructionally fit varies according to the internal context of the said object. An instructional fit is the effectiveness of the object.

A large object (i.e. one with many elements) has a greater internal context than a small object. Larger objects fit into fewer external contexts than smaller objects.

To restate this the fit of an object with other objects is a function of 1) its internal context and 2)its external context with other objects. The more internal context you have i.e. the more elements, the better will be the (pedagogical) effectiveness of the object. But the internal context is inversely related to the number of other objects in the external context. So the paradox is that the effectiveness of a learning object and its potential for reuse (i.e. to fit in with external context) are contradictory.

So you have a trade-off between effectiveness and re-usability. For editable materials the more you make it re-usable the less effective it will be pedagogically.

Now one could argue that learning objects is concerned with conceptual knowledge (e.g. teaching someone how to develop web pages) whereas language goes beyond the limits of such knowledge. Language avoids the re-usability paradox. It has both a lot of internal context (systems such as phonology, syntax) and a lot of external context (systems such as semantics, pragmatics).

However as the world of language course books currently exists it could be said to follow the path set by other books that deal with conceptual knowledge. If this is the case then the re-usability paradox applies.

Furthermore the paradox is due to the author rights issues covered by Julie Moore. In the copyright context “reuse” mean more or less “use as exactly as is”. So is there a way out of the re-usability paradox?

As David Wiley puts it:

The way to escape from the Reusability Paradox is simply by using an open license. If I publish my educational materials using an open license, I can produce something deeply contextualized and highly effective for my local context AND give you permission to revise and remix it until it is equally effective to reuse in your own local context. Poof! The paradox disappears. I’ve produced something with a strong internal context which you have permission to make fit into other external contexts.

How likely are we to see open content from commercial parties judging by the state of current play in the ELT publishing world? Happily individual teachers and grassroots organizations are already thinking and working on this.

Thanks for reading.


#IATEFL2017: How to shoehorn a talk

The subtitle to the talk “Infusing teaching materials and practices with new insights on learning” 1 on the Cambridge site was:
“What does the latest evidence tell us about how language is acquired? How might we apply these insights when course books seem to impose a predetermined way of teaching and assessing learners?”

When I read this subtitle I was pretty darn interested. Alas it seems the subtitle editor did not consult with the presenter (Dr. Gad Lim). For in the talk, the “pre-determined” approach of coursebooks (CB) is not addressed. Talk of CB is confined to the second half of the presentation and then only to shoehorn example pages from an unknown CB to illustrate some learning principles outlined in the first part of the talk.

Also as an unashamed Chomsky fan the unnecessary and mistaken needling comments against generative grammar theory was irksome. But I will let that lie in this post : )

What was more of an issue was the muddying of the research waters on language learning. In one of his final comments the presenter states:

“What you think about learning will make a difference in how you teach so I hope today you have learned a little bit about how language learning actually happens,..”

That is a fine sentiment yet I thought he gave a very partial account. It would have been great if references to the theories he talked about were given (maybe audience members got such refs included in a handout?). In the talk itself the names of the theories he alludes to are not stated. He mainly covers usage based theories but other things such as meta-cognitive strategies when he talked about self-assessment near the end are also used.

“’s not that black box. Our brains are actually quite good at processing frequency information, contextual information, recency information, a lot of automaticity but there is that other part of our brain that just needs things pointed out; okay that’s a more recent part of our brain that just needs things pointing out; it’s harder work but if you just put these two things together learning happens best; and if you can think about each one of these things and how you might actually apply them in the classroom in the materials you create then learning should happen much more efficiently for your learners”

The main meat of the first part of the talk was trying to convince the audience that information from stimuli in the environment such as frequency information are used by people to learn languages. Certainly a good case for frequency effects in language learning has been put forward by people such as Nick Ellis 2. However claiming that CBs that include highly frequent items are following the findings of “new insights” need to be put aside the counterclaim that CBs could also be said to be using the old insights of frequency principles as laid out by the progenitor of the audio-lingual method Robert Lado.

“so if you actually had materials where you repeat the same idea in several different ways then you get some practice repeatedly.”

The above statement comes along with the following screenshot of a page from an unknown CB:

Shoehorn 1

The claim is that it is enough to make some feature in the input salient enough such as “repeat the same idea in several different ways” where the example in the screenshot of the CB is of repeating connecting words in matching, gap fills and sentence completion exercises.

However theories such as Bill VanPatten’s processing input shows “just because something is made more salient or more frequent in the input does not mean that learners will process it correctly or even process it at all” 3. So if we take connectors what is it about processing input containing connectors such as and, but, so, because that causes issues for learners? Once such processing issues can be identified appropriate structured input activities can be written.

The following screenshot of a table of contents divided into themes is meant to illustrate the principal of context:

Shoehorn 2

In fact I say it shows a handy organizer for material writers rather than context effects for language learners.

In reference to the following two screenshots of signposting language in spoken and written registers:

Shoehorn 3
Shoehorn 4

the presenter says:
“If you put them close to one another they will learn to know that some of these signposting words go with spoken language and some of them go with written language.”

Highlighting spoken and written forms of language items can be as helpful as saying oh you use that in more informal contexts and that in more formal contexts. Again the same criticism VanPatten makes earlier applies, that is, the CB example ignores the problem of processing input.

Next he equates recency with recycling and makes the following statement without any seeming sense of self-awareness (with regard to course books):

“in fact quite often our students will not necessarily learn the thing at the exact point you first taught it, okay..”

This assumption “that learners learn what teachers teach when they teach it” is what Michael Long highlights all CBs implicitly adopt 4; further all CBs do not take into account the learner’s internal syllabus. Learners will only acquire language when they are good and ready.

The presenter does acknowledge the role of the learner somewhat in the following statement:
“..which would argue for, sadly , it means you need to observe your students and you need to go back and you need to do your lesson planning in an iterative fashion. Figuring out what they haven’t gotten or just expose them to the same thing several times throughout so that they have different opportunities to pick it up”

But then he goes and spoils it by another CB shoehorning attempt:

Shoehorn 5
Shoehorn 6

Either that or some Cambridge bod signaled, sotto voce, it was time for another CB screenshot “Gad, show em the adverbs of frequency that appears in more than one place in the book”

He goes on to mention spaced repetition in relation to recency but how does a coursebook space out learning items? This is not mentioned but another blatant attempt to rationalize the CB by linking it to a learning effect without any further comment.

It seems to me that the presenter had got excited about some psycho-linguistic evidence for usage based theories and wanted to give a talk on that. Unfortunately his employers insisted he tie that to coursebooks and that is where this talk went awry.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Infusing teaching materials and practices with new insights on learning

2. Ellis, N. C. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing. Studies in second language acquisition, 24(02), 143-188.

3. VanPatten, B. (2009). Processing matters in input enhancement. In Piske, T. & Young-Scholten, M. (eds.), Input matters in SLA (pp. 47-61). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

4. Long, M. H. (2009). Methodological principles for language teaching. In Long, M. H. & Doughty, C. J. (eds.), Handbook of language teaching (pp. 373-94). Oxford: Blackwell.