Skip to main content

Duoethnography of Two EFL Teachers Developing Their Own Classroom Teaching Materials


Marc Jones, Department of English Communication, Tokyo Kasei University
Jon Steven, Department of English, Waseda Junior High and High School


The authors examine and reflect upon their thought processes, events and stimuli that led them from using materials to producing materials. This is conducted as a duoethnography in order to interrogate personal experiences as ‘data’ for analysis. Further discussion centres on the rewards and challenges involved in creating materials for one’s classroom. The development of classroom materials design skills is discussed as a journey from adapting (or ‘forking’) existing materials to inventing and developing novel materials. The authors’ motivations toward producing materials, in particular the production of materials as ‘busy work’ as opposed to the intrinsic motivation to produce context-appropriate materials, is discussed, as are the challenges in using existing commercial materials, particularly global coursebooks, for language teaching. Additionally, limitations for materials imposed by organisations and institutions are discussed, with regard to learners’ assumed abilities, as well as the need for materials that can go beyond limitations placed upon commercial materials designers. The authors hope that materials development in language teaching organisations is mentored by experienced developers and also that labour expended is paid rather than assumed to be an ancillary duty. Organisations should consider the time and level of skill required and take these into account.

KEYWORDS: duoethnography, English, materials, professional development

MJ: Materials development for English Language Teaching (ELT) appears to be led by a blend of superstition and science. Global coursebooks tend to be focused upon syllabi consisting of discrete linguistic items arranged around carrier topics. These linguistic items are the same in various coursebook series because ‘this is how it has always been done’, despite SLA research evidence showing that such discrete linear grammar learning is not how languages are learned (Doughty, 2003). An additional problem is highlighted by Masuhara and Tomlinson (2008):

“By trying to satisfy two different groups of learners, coursebooks seem to be unable to set clear objectives and to choose suitable approaches. As a result, neither GE nor EFL users seem to feel that their materials completely satisfy their needs and wants.” (p.35).

In this duoethnography, two teachers interrogate our journey as materials developers for our own classes. In particular, we examine our development of supplementary as well as primary teaching materials. While we do not review the literature systematically, as is standard in many scholarly publications, we seek to address the literature as we see it become relevant to our narratives. There is also a lack of scholarly study by teachers about their own classroom practices and journey into materials development, and we aim to provide an insight into our experience of this.

MJ: To identify how materials design can facilitate teacher development or become an obstacle toward it, a qualitative method is more likely to lead to a greater breadth of exploration of the issues. Ethnographies of particular groups tend to focus upon their feelings, beliefs and how these are expressed in their lives and in relation to their lived experiences. This becomes more deeply focused, almost becoming a case study of one individual in the case of autoethnography, although this form carries risks associated with rigour. According to Delamont (2009), “It is a reasonable position to argue that the main focus of social science should be analysis of social settings and actors to whom the researcher has had access, not the introspections of the researcher.” (p.58). Additionally, “autoethnography is antithetical to the progress of social science, because it violates the two basic tasks of the social sciences, which are: to study the social world and to move their discipline forward.” (p.60)

One of the strengths of duoethnography, therefore, is the advantage of the focus which autoethnography brings through using a limited number of participant researchers, while having a second party provide critical support and ensuring that the work does not degenerate into simple “me-search”, and that these roles switch within different sections of the work. In doing so, “Duoethnographers are encouraged not to place themselves as either heroes or victims but,... they are read as individuals trying to make sense out of past events and the stories of others.” (Norris and Sawyer, 2012, p.16).

This provides a clear way out of the potential trap of self-indulgence when talking about one’s own experiences, beliefs and approaches to life. However, that is not to say that what duoethnography produces is universal truth. As Norris and Sawyer (2012) go on to state, “Truth and validity are irrelevant. What exists is the rigor of the collaborative inquiry that is made explicit in the duoethnography itself”, (p.20) and additionally that “One does not impose her/his meanings onto the other; rather, one trusts in the nature of the storytelling process, recognizing that change will emerge as deemed relevant by the Other. Each will change but not in the same way. In so doing, duoethnographers escape the potential ‘tyranny of consensus.’” (p.22).

While assuming that we both intend to be rigorous in our enquiry, we shall not centre our enquiry around items of literature, the avoidance of which is espoused by Norris and Sawyer (2012), at the outset I had ideas about literature that I would probably end up looking at due to my familiarity with the field of materials development which had built up when I gained academic library access as part of my first Master’s degree study. Additionally, one of my coworkers is an author of duoethnographies in TESOL (Lowe and Kiczkowiak, 2016; Lowe and Lawrence, 2018). While he did not coerce me into undertaking a duoethnography, he has expressed enthusiasm for the medium. Although my primary academic research interest is largely quantitative research in listening, phonology and pronunciation, this duoethnography would provide a useful insight into teachers’ praxis of, reflection on, and reflection due to materials development for their classrooms, which I would hope triggers critical thoughts upon our stories as well as stimulates new stories, even those that directly contradict ours.

MJ: I think it is only fair to state that we have lived together in the same large shared house before, worked for the same language school company before, and I’ve worked together with you in two of my previous places of work up until just nine months ago. The bulk of my work has been in teaching business English through agencies, though with significant amounts of school and university work in there, as well as teaching young learners who have either lived overseas and acquired significant proficiency in English or who attended English immersion kindergarten. Is that significantly different to your employment background?

JS: Very similar. I have worked in a variety of contexts, which certainly is advantageous for building experience; language schools, on-site business English classes at companies, and teaching at private schools or colleges. I also spent a number of years working for a contracting company which sends teachers to public schools across Japan. Coming to Japan from a context of administrative work in the UK, in which one does not usually take one’s work home, it was a big shock for me to encounter employment practices which assume unpaid preparation time. In teaching, perhaps that is simply the nature of the beast.

MJ: Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn't. This is definitely one of the reasons that teachers can be deterred from developing their own materials: when they are already taking work home with them, whether marking or planning or both, perhaps there isn't adequate time in the day to create materials and critically evaluate them. It is certainly used as an argument for coursebooks, but I see it as an argument for reducing the teaching load of a teacher or a group of teachers in an organisation so they can create, trial, edit and reiterate on the design of materials that meet their contextual needs.

The reason I began to write my own materials was a dissatisfaction with the materials I was required to use with non-English-major undergraduates at a university in Tokyo. I was working as outsourced staff and therefore needed to use the assigned coursebook but I was also free to use supplementary materials. When I began to get more interested in what Willis and Willis (2008) describe as Task-Based Teaching but would probably be better represented as Task-Supported Language Teaching (TSLT) (Ellis, 2008), I started to create my own tasks and used the assigned coursebook for Focus on FormS (Long, 2014). This served the purpose of paying lip service to the assigned materials while providing more interesting and/or pedagogically relevant activities in lessons.

JS: What prompts own material design? I think for me, it is a need for extemporization-too much time and effort foreseen in teaching items or points that would be beyond the grasp of the learner group.

MJ: Personally, I am fine with having learners work with ungraded, potentially difficult texts, provided I have adequate time available to teach strategies for dealing with the difficulties within. I tend to see undemanding activities in coursebooks and I need materials that will provide adequate exposure to the language, facilitate adequate task completion by providing information required, or be an appropriate task model. I also believe that it is easier for me to understand my own learners' needs than it is for a materials writer located thousands of miles away, who may never have taught in my setting and, in spite of a probable understanding of how a foreign language is acquired, has commercial pressures from a publisher to produce saleable materials, usually worldwide and often in a format that is easy to follow for a novice teacher.

However, I’d like to turn this around and ask you what prompted you to start. What was the initial event that triggered the action of making classroom materials?

JS: well, as someone new to teaching, and indeed new to Japan, my first encounter with the term, ‘materials development’ was a negative one. The conversation school teacher or the Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) might be told to make materials to keep in stock, or for other teachers. For example, I was told to make colour flashcards or print cards for games which did not relate to anything I was teaching. I have to ask myself if the point of this task was to inspire teachers to make their own materials, or merely to have them do something, a strategy akin to a fast-food restaurant worker being told to grab a broom and sweep the floor when there are no customers. A number of teachers currently in such positions will see that the parallels do not stop there, where the hourly pay rates of fast-food workers are not dissimilar to their own. Whatever the motive, it certainly raised my awareness and gradually gave me greater agency with regard to material development. It is possible to see two ends of the scale here; the resentment which occurs from developing materials without agency, and the pride and joy of creation when creating materials for oneself.

JS: I think it might be relevant to define what we mean by original materials. Would you agree that in Japan, success is a result of continual development rather than individual creativity and originality? The culture of copying to achieve perfection. Most of my materials are exactly this, I have taken and developed ideas from other sources, so they are a continuation, and in some respects a ‘higher form’ of a technique (as it is more current than previous iterations).

MJ: I don't think it's easy to personalise originality. Nobody can copyright the present perfect form, nor can anyone copyright a prototypical food order conversation. I think, if I understand you, you seek to differentiate between more developed materials inspired by an original commercial source and novel materials that have completely unique tasks and approaches to using texts. I think there is a balance between building upon a copy and, to borrow a metaphor from software development ‘forking’ it along a new developmental path with more novel activities or situation-appropriate activities.

I had been quite comfortable making my own materials when I was working in primary schools in the UK. In fact, quite a lot of the time, the schools that I worked at had materials to work with but which were insufficient, given the need to differentiate lessons and keep up with government guidelines that felt as though they were in constant flux during this particular two-year period. However, upon returning to Japan and being employed at a language school, such skills were rarely needed and certainly rarely valued by my managers.

JS: How can you assess the effectiveness of your materials? Tomlinson (1998) advises looking into research findings in SLA. But if material creation gives a teacher a greater sense of efficacy, then it follows that the materials will be effective, at least indirectly.

MJ: It's worth assessing anything we plan to do in the classroom regarding intended outcomes, and SLA should be the main field informing this. Hunches regarding one's own efficacy may be just that. Sometimes teachers that are ineffective have unreasonable beliefs about themselves having high levels of efficacy in their practice (Wyatt, 2018). One thing that I wonder about regarding this is whether teachers with low-levels of efficacy are even aware of SLA research evidence. It is possible that such teachers are basing their ideas of efficacy upon observation of learner achievement that may occur in spite of poor efficacy and poor materials. Certainly I have seen materials produced by teachers for use with their classes that were inappropriate. However, I have also seen teachers use and administrators advocate the use of inappropriate published materials. The only difference, in my opinion, is that the latter are given a veneer of legitimacy by a publishing company’s brand name. This, in my opinion, only delegates the role of materials evaluator to a third party who doesn't know your learners. However, this is not to say that one’s own materials are not evaluated. Usually there’s a colleague to check things with, and learners will make it clear what is difficult to understand, or if the materials are just unappealing.

JS: I find difficulties in adjusting the extent of the designer schemata (the knowledge and belief systems the designer brings to the design activity) to suit superiors. Simply being told that supplementary materials can only have words which are in the students’ textbooks makes design frustrating and time-consuming.

MJ: I have thankfully never been in that position but I can only imagine the frustration it would bring. Did you have to stick to the same word class as well (e.g. if you used ‘fish’ as a noun, would ‘fish’ as a verb be acceptable?

JS: Same word class, yes. It is interesting how the superiors fixed such parameters. I had this experience when I was an ALT, effectively solo teaching but answering to the Japanese teacher. From what I gathered, they knew that this (using words not in the textbook) might make themselves vulnerable to criticism which would begin with, “we haven't studied that word yet”, but which would, more importantly give students or parents an opportunity to attack something else about their teaching. Teacher insecurities is a topic for another time, though. It also suggests that the teacher must make her way through the textbook at the pace of the least able student, and that there is very little confidence in students’ abilities to assist or collaborate to negotiate meaning.

Returning to materials, I can appreciate the fact that the nature of materials I developed and how I used them lay within the purview of my employer or client, but I definitely felt devalued (Ellis and Shintani, 2014). I believe this strategy strongly impacts negatively on teacher efficacy.

MJ: So it’s a negotiation of materials use. This is interesting in that the power is laid bare: the employer/client provides the materials but is not held responsible for how they are used. The teacher finds the materials wanting and then needs workable materials and is expected to supplement rather than replace them. However, materials are mediated by clients and employers; many of the people having a direct say in this are not educators, nor even knowledgeable about pedagogical principles.

At the junior high school I was a teacher at, when myself and the teacher I worked with decided to work on our own materials it was rooted in a mixture of motivations. On my part, I found the materials too basic and sometimes lacking a sense of logic and connection to the learners’ lives. My partner was trying to mitigate the circumstances of precarious employment in the overall teaching landscape by implementing his own materials which would make him more difficult to replace with a less-experienced teacher from a dispatch agency. The lack of connection and logic that motivated me provided him with an adequate excuse, or at least a sufficient additional reason, for his endeavour. When it was discovered that we were largely paying lip service to the book due to a lack of appropriacy, the school actually supported the idea of our use of materials, though not monetarily.

JS: Hopefully this was a win-win situation all round. The motivation of your partner is seen to different extents throughout the world of education, where materials are produced in-house, or lecturers are publishing books; naturally, vested interests come about. I don't want to come off as negative here, I think an attempt to disentangle education and finance from each other would be unrealistic and at this stage counter-productive.

MJ: I agree. Obviously one enters into an employment agreement to obtain monetary gain and it may be the case that a certain protectionism rears its head, given the rising precarity in teaching. Certainly in the Japanese context, with many educators on fixed-term contracts of one year, and often capped, the need to safeguard a livelihood is understandable. Additionally, I think that materials design could also be used as a failsafe, in that if one’s main mode of employment were to disappear, there would be tangible assets left over, which could be monetized. Unfortunately, I do not know how tenable this would be. A lot of materials simply reiterate what is already out there in terms of being grammar and lexis activities with a carrier text, either spoken or written. Therefore, the market may not support this, although seeing the number of coursebooks that are more or less identical, perhaps I am naive.

I am still unsure whether I started making my own materials because of precarious employment and I wanted something I perceived as worthwhile to invest my time in, or whether it was in spite of the precarious employment with several part-time jobs? I was rather nonplussed with the books I was required to use when I was in full-time employment, though skilled enough to turn them to most purposes I believed the classes needed. However, when I went part-time with the language school I had been teaching with, I decided to use more and more supplementary materials in on-site classes at companies until it reached the point that there were lessons when the books barely supplemented the supposed supplementary materials.

JS: It is encouraging to see awareness of materials development being raised. Bouckaert (2018) discusses the boons of the ‘emancipation from impulsive and routine practice’ (p.11), the creative process, professional development and client satisfaction as the fruits of teachers’ labors. At the same time, as materials development becomes accepted as the norm, I fear that in some contexts, it is having a severe impact on the workload of a vast number of teachers who are at the low end of the pay scale, where materials development and syllabus creation are not stipulated as job requirement criteria, but the teacher is expected to teach thirty to forty lessons per week. In an increasingly competitive market, with companies using loopholes such as eleven-month contracts and pay only actual classroom time, and where globalization means that companies from other countries are offering lower cost online lessons, many teachers are being pushed to deliver high quality lessons which their remuneration does not reflect. Such companies tend to already provide insufficient materials and support knowing that at the end of the day, the teacher will not want to look unprofessional nor undergo the intense stress of standing at the front of a class of forty students (with a Japanese teacher who feels that the presence of another teacher is undermining their presence), while using inadequate materials; instead, the teacher will make materials in their own time, the lesson will go smoothly, the client will be satisfied and the company will appear to be providing teachers of high quality. The weight of this workload deficit, however, will continue to be borne by the teacher alone.

MJ: My first materials for the English Language classroom with real purpose were tasks with which to use authentic listening texts and aid learners with developing listening skills in contrast to simplified English in the coursebook which was ostensibly for ‘Intermediate’ learners. One of my major irritations was the difference between natural English that could be encountered on the internet --or even naturally-delivered scripted English for television series and films-- and the book. As Ableeva and Stranks (2013) state, “The real purpose of many listening materials, then, appears quite clearly to be one or more of the following: topic extensions; exemplification of grammar; exemplification of functional or lexical items of language; lead-in to a learner speaking activity.” (p.206. Emphasis mine).

Many of my early tasks were judged too difficult by the learners but with the conviction that this was based upon sound pedagogical principles, I coerced them to persevere. In hindsight, this should have been done gradually, perhaps beginning with the warm-ups that my line manager advised to mitigate the lateness of students yet still providing a meaningful first 15 minutes of lesson time.

JS: Do you see your listening materials through the eyes of a positivist? Are there 'perfect' listening tasks 'out there'?

MJ: I don’t think I’ve ever thought about the ‘perfect’ activity. I think I have a perspective of gaining greater pedagogical appropriacy through trial and error. This might not always be something that learners want to do, but it is important to remember that they are not the only stakeholders involved in their education. I am moving on from what Field (2008) calls “the Comprehension Approach”, to a pedagogy of ensuring that students get listening skills development along with comprehension, not just practice with a handful of ill-thought out questions.

My rationale is to expose learners to phonological occurrences not present in their L1, raise awareness of these by making them more salient, and then hoping that with repeated practice and exposure along with use of metacognitive strategies (pace Vandergrift, 1997; Goh, 2008), this will lead to more effective listening.

JS: As ‘reflective practitioners’ (Schön, 2008), our professional identities are bound to our experience and technical expertise. If an individual is shaped by and shapes an environment by interacting with it (McGrath, 2016), then material creation shapes the students into individuals who can perform as directed by their teacher. They are being taught to replicate his or her approaches to problems, ideas of solutions. This causes me to wonder just how transferable or generalisable these skills are for students. Are they not simply learning teacher-specific skills and how to adapt and cater to any teacher’s idiosyncrasies?

MJ: I can see where you are coming from here, in that learners learn to deal with teachers’ explicit as well as implicit objectives (cf. notions of the hidden curriculum, in Friere, 2000). However, I think this happens at different levels, the micro level being the lesson objective and its base unit (linguistic form, notion/function, task), moving up to the teacher's objective, the syllabus and curriculum designers’ objectives and the macro level of language policy.

Going back to the teachers’ explicit and implicit objectives, I think that my own materials implicitly promote my own views of what should happen in the classroom, in that learners should be exercising as much autonomy and/or responsibility for their own language learning as possible. There are minimal rubrics, occasional exemplar answers to questions and usually tasks that require learners to discuss ideas or answers with their classmates, which should lead to an increased focus on meaning and, implicitly, form. However, I would say that by providing an affordance for autonomous use of English, and learner-led focus on form, that this provides less in the way of catering to my own personal whims but more in the way of catering toward helping themselves learn the language, regardless of which teacher is present.

JS: Are your materials suited to the socio-cultural context (in Japan, for example, the interlocutors are talking in a ramen restaurant rather than a taco joint)? But more interestingly, and remaining in the Japanese context here, do you try to bring in Japanese English speakers when you create them? And going further, do you think their level or ability is important?

MJ: I’m quite conscious that a lot of my learners have little intention of using English very much at all, and that if they do, it will be in Japan with both non-Japanese and Japanese speakers of English. I try to provide a range of speakers in the texts that I source and I am particularly conscious of what best simulates likely situations beyond the classroom. Therefore, static texts such as dramas from North America, which are popular for both entertainment and education, and authentic conversations between international interlocutors play a large part in the materials I curate and supplement for the classroom.

As for ‘level’, I must say that I am sceptical of the term. I think it has lost its meaning, and I am much more likely to focus upon the ability to complete a given task. That being said, when one knows one’s learners, it becomes easier to select tasks based upon complexity and likelihood of satisfactory completion. When asking learners to process texts that require attending to large amounts of information and processing unfamiliar phonological information (e.g. unfamiliar phonemic qualities, novel phonotactic sequences, elements of connected speech, prosody, etc.) I tend to edit the text for length.

MJ: The motivations for producing materials of one’s own may be complex. It can be a resented task if seen merely as busy work but can be intrinsically rewarding when evaluated as a useful, even as an additional task, due to the improvements in the materials available for use. Materials production for ‘busy work’ is unprincipled production of materials for a lesson activity that may never arise, whereas the rewarding production of materials is situationally relevant, with a specific group, community or type of learner in mind, and most importantly the materials are planned to be used.

Further to the motivational aspect of materials development, while creativity in materials development may be an intrinsic reward for some people, it is also work and teachers should be compensated fairly for doing it. It is advisable to provide experienced teachers time within their schedules to develop, trial and edit materials, and to provide mentoring to inexperienced teachers who are beginning to develop their own materials.

Bearing this in mind, it would be useful for teachers to produce materials for their own classes if it is prudent to do so, for their organisation where such labour is fairly compensated rather than exploited by means of token internal recognition, and for the wider ELT community at large if they seek to make connections with other practitioners for collegiate dialogue, which may be particularly welcome for those who feel isolated in smaller organisations.

Address for correspondence: Marc Jones / Twitter: @marcjonestyo

Ableeva, R. and Stranks, J. 2013. Listening in another language: research and materials. In: B. Tomlinson ed., Applied Linguistics and Materials Development. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 199–211.

Delamont, S. 2009. The only honest thing: autoethnography, reflexivity and small crises in fieldwork. Ethnography and Education, 4(1), 51-63.

Doughty, C.J. 2003 Instructed SLA: constraints, compensation, and enhancement. In: Long, M. J. and Doughty, C.J. eds. The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 256-310.

Ellis, R. and Shintani, N. 2014 Exploring language pedagogy through second language acquisition research. Abingdon: Routledge.

Freire, P. 2000. Pedagogy of the oppressed. 30th anniversary edition. New York: Continuum.

Goh, C. 2008. Metacognitive instruction for second language listening development: theory, practice and research implications. RELC Journal. 39(2), pp.188-213.

Johnson, K. 2000. What task designers do. Language Teaching Research 4(3), pp. 301-21.

Lowe, R. J. and Kiczkowiak, M. 2016. Native-speakerism and the complexity of personal experience: A duoethnographic study. Cogent Education. 3(1), article no: 164171 [no pagination].

Lowe, R. J. and Lawrence, L. 2018. Native-speakerism and ‘hidden curricula’ in ELT training. Journal of Language and Discrimination, 2(2), pp.162–187. .

Masuhara, H. and Tomlinson, B. 2008. Materials for General English. In: Tomlinson, B. ed. English Language Learning Materials: A Critical Review. New York: Continuum, pp. 17–37.

McGrath, I. 2016. Materials evaluation and design for language teaching. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Norris, J. and Sawyer, R. 2012. Toward a dialogic methodology. In: Norris, J., Sawyer, R. and Lund, D. E. eds. Duoethnography: Dialogic methods for social, health, and educational research. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, pp. 9–40.

Richards, J.C. 2001. Curriculum development in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schön, D.A. 2008. The reflective practitioner: how professionals think. [Kindle e-book]. New York: Routledge.

Tomlinson, B. 1998. Introduction. In: Tomlinson, B. ed. Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.1-31.

Vandergrift, L. 1999. Facilitating second language listening comprehension: acquiring successful strategies. ELT Journal, 53(3), pp.168–176.

Vandergrift, L. and Goh, C. C. M. 2012. Teaching and learning second language listening: metacognition in action. Abingdon: Routledge.

Willis, D. and Willis, J. 2008. Doing task-based teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wyatt, M. 2018. Teacher efficacy beliefs. In: Mercer, S. and Kostoulas, A. eds. Language Teacher Psychology. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, pp.92-120.