Applied Linguistics and Materials Development

Brian Tomlinson (Ed.), London/New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013. Pp. ix + 272.

Reviewed by Darío Luis Banegas
University of Warwick, UK, & Ministry of Education of Chubut, Argentina

Bridging the distance between theory and practice is a recurrent concern in foreign language teaching. The literature is rich in understanding the tensions between what applied linguists and ELT experts suggest and what teachers and learners do in the classroom. Applied Linguistics and Materials Development, edited by Brian Tomlinson, contributes to this issue by examining the gaps between theory and practice in relation to materials development in the market so as to provide learners with effective ways of learning. Thus, Tomlinson has teachers, researchers, and materials writers as the intended audience of this edited collection.

The book opens with a reflective introduction through which Tomlinson revisits the relationship between theory and practice and principled practices of materials development. The introduction is followed by four parts which contain between four and five chapters. All chapters follow a structure the authors usually term as what we know about a topic, what we think we know about it, and what we would like to know. At the end of each part, Tomlinson summarises the main discussions and offers further reflections on each area advanced by the contributors. With reference to contributors, there are 20 experts whose affiliations evidence the international spirit of this book. Authors are based in Australia, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Lebanon, Malaysia, the UK, and the USA. This multiplicity of settings also illustrates a widespread interest in effective materials development.

Part 1 “Learning and teaching languages” includes four chapters which deal with second language acquisition and materials, the role of semantics in the classroom, and an emphasis on viewing coursebooks, for example, as learning materials rather than teaching aids. In this respect, contributors in this part offer possible paths for developing materials targeted at teacher educators and young learners. Tomlinson examines principles of language learning and materials as found in the literature but he notes that future reports should be based on classroom research of language classes in order to move from principles of materials evaluation to principles of material use derived from teachers’ real practices. In so doing, we will narrow the distance between theories and principles proposed by applied linguistics and materials enactment led by teachers.

Part 2 “Aspects of language” contains five chapters focusing on spoken language research, vocabulary, pragmatics, discourse analysis, and intercultural competence. However, the authors of these chapters share their interest in the coursebook as a unit of analysis since their reports emerge from coursebook analysis through different discourse research tools. Tomlinson, in his comments to this part, highlights that coursebook publishers offer very little about the guiding principles behind their products. The editor wonders about the extent to which what we know about language learning and language use informs coursebooks and other learning materials. Nonetheless, he does acknowledge the fact that publishers usually pilot their materials and carry out market research, but the outcomes are not shared with a wider audience.

Part 3 “Language skills” comprises five chapters. While the first two chapters examine reading from a general stance (e.g. types of reading texts, types of reading, and strategies) and among young learners, the remaining chapters investigate materials development for listening, writing, and speaking. Unlike the previous parts, the outcomes reported in these chapters seem to indicate a stronger alignment between research and materials for skills development. Tomlinson observes that materials have started to include personalisation and engaging topics and sources of input. Yet, as the editor argues, reading is still mainly intensive and materials, although framed in skills development, are more concerned with language practice. Therefore, skills development continues to be treated differently from what learners do in their L1.

Part 4 “Curriculum development” contains four chapters which go beyond the classroom. Authors in this last part of the book discuss aspects such as language policy, perspectives on influential language pedagogies (e.g. task-based learning and problem-solving learning) and their impact on materials, modes of delivery of materials as seen in a continuum from teacher-talk to blended learning to self-access materials, and last the relationship between testing materials and language testing washback. Tomlinson suggests that the variety and innovations underlying the materials in Part 4 should be seen as signs of improvement as new technologies have become useful tools in the quest for effective materials. Nevertheless, the reports in this part also warn that commercial materials, even when they appear as digital tools and beyond the printed page, are still dominated by a focus on form at the expense of meaning.

In conclusion, Applied Linguistics and Materials Development provides materials writers, and researchers with principled frameworks, pedagogical tools, and issues to reflect and act on. However, those who approach this book should do it with a welcoming and critical eye since some may observe that its ambitious scope, given the number of areas covered, is a shortcoming. More importantly, this book should be seen by teachers as an invitation to become critical materials users and engage in professional development by designing or adapting their own materials under the light of informed decisions which integrate language learning theories and classroom practices in their contexts.

Author’s Bio Data:
Dr Darío Luis Banegas is an associate fellow at Warwick University (UK) and a teacher trainer and curriculum developer at the Ministry of Education of Chubut (Argentina). He is involved in online and face-to-face teacher education programmes and leads projects on action research and CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning). He is the current editor of the Argentinean Journal of Applied Linguistics. His main interests are: CLIL, materials development, action research, and pre-service teacher education.