Principles and Procedures for Self-Access Materials

Brian Tomlinson (Leeds Metropolitan University)

Tomlinson, B. (2010). Principles and procedures for self-access materials. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 1(2), 72-86.

Paginated PDF version


Like all language learning materials, self-access materials need to be developed from principles driven by what is known about the needs and wants of the target users. In my view, there should be a specification of universal principles, delivery specific principles, and local principles before deciding what self-access materials to develop and how to develop them. Universal principles are principles of language acquisition and development (Tomlinson, 2007a) which are applicable to all learners everywhere regardless of their age, level, objectives, and context of learning. Delivery specific principles are those which are peculiar to the means of delivering the materials (i.e. through self-access). Local principles are those which are peculiar to the specified target learners.

Universal Principles

It is important to start the materials development process by developing universal principles. Otherwise, obvious local needs and wants dictate decisions and important learning principles are forgotten.

Ideally the universal principles should derive from the beliefs about language acquisition and development shared by the materials developers and agreement should be reached before the materials design process starts (Tomlinson, 2003a). The best way of doing this is for each developer to write down the basic beliefs they hold about how language is best acquired and developed. The team then discusses each other’s beliefs and decide on those that they all agree with. These beliefs are then converted into criteria which are used both to drive and to evaluate the materials which are subsequently produced. For example:

Statement: Learners need rich exposure to the language in use.

Criterion: To what extent are the materials likely to provide rich exposure to English in use?

To be really useful for development and evaluation purposes, the criteria should be unambiguous, answerable, specific, and valid (Tomlinson & Masuhara, 2004).

Before continuing to the development of delivery specific criteria, it is useful to list for each universal criterion procedures for self-access materials that match the principle. For example, extensive reading, extensive listening and extensive viewing are self-access procedure which match the principle of rich exposure to language in use (see Principle of Language Acquisition 1 below).

Obviously the actual principles used will depend on the beliefs of the developers. Here is a sample of some of the universal principles which I have made use of in materials development and evaluation.

Principle of Language Acquisition 1

A pre-requisite for language acquisition is that the learners are exposed to a rich, meaningful, and comprehensible input of language in use (Krashen, 1999; Long, 1985).

In order to acquire the ability to use the language effectively the learners need a lot of experience of the language being used in a variety of different ways for a variety of purposes. They need to be able to understand enough of this input to gain positive access to it and it needs to be meaningful to them. (Tomlinson, 2010a, p. 87)

Principles of Self-Access Materials Development 1

1.     Provide extensive reading, extensive listening, and extensive viewing materials which provide experience of language being used in a variety of text types and genres in relation to topics, themes, events, locations, and so on, likely to be meaningful to the target learners. One way of doing this is to timetable teachers to provide live ‘performances’ of stories, jokes, extracts from novels and plays, anecdotes, newspaper articles etc in a closed off area of a self-access centre. Copies of the texts could be made available for interested learners to take away and file in their Anthology of Interesting English.

2.     Encourage the learners to experience the extensive materials holistically and enjoyably, but also provide opportunities to revisit the materials to discover more about how the language is used. For ideas for creative follow up activities for extensive reading see Fenton-Smith (forthcoming 2011) and for ideas for noticing activities after video clip viewing see Stillwell, McMillan, Gillies, and Waller (forthcoming 2011).

3.     Make sure that the language the learners are exposed to in all their self-access materials is authentic in the sense that it represents how the language is typically used. If many of their texts are inauthentic because they been written or reduced to exemplify a particular language feature then the learners are unlikely to acquire the ability to use the language typically or effectively.

For discussion of the value of authentic materials see Day (2003), Gilmore (2007), and Mishan (2005).

Principle of Language Acquisition 2

In order for the learners to maximise their exposure to language in use they need to be engaged both affectively and cognitively in the language experience (Arnold, 1999; Tomlinson, 1998a, 1998c, forthcoming 2010, forthcoming 2011a).

If the learners do not think and feel whilst experiencing the language, they are unlikely to achieve language acquisition and development. Thinking whilst experiencing language in use helps to achieve the deep processing required for effective and durable learning (Craik & Lockhart, 1972) and it also helps learners to transfer high level skills such as predicting, connecting, interpreting and evaluating (Tomlinson, 2007a). “Feeling enjoyment, pleasure and happiness, feeling empathy, being amused, being excited and being stimulated are most likely to influence acquisition positively but feeling annoyance, anger, fear, opposition and sadness is more useful than feeling nothing at all” (Tomlinson, 2010a, p. 89). This is true of learners’ responses to the content of what they are reading, writing, listening to or saying but the emotions stimulated by the self-access learning experience need to be positive and pleasurable (Hurd, 2008).

Principles of Self-Access Materials Development 2

1.     Prioritise the potential for engagement by, for example, basing a unit of self-access materials on a text or a task which is likely to achieve affective and cognitive engagement rather than on a teaching point selected from a syllabus. One way of doing this is to make use of controversial texts which are likely to provoke a reaction. Another way is to encourage learners who have read, listened to or viewed the same text to get together and discuss it. Yet another way is to set tasks for the learners to complete which have non-linguistic outcomes which can only be achieved through thinking about the task and developing strategies for its completion (van den Branden, 2000). Problem solving tasks are particularly useful for stimulating engagement, especially if you get the learners to record their thinking process as well as their solution (Mishan, forthcoming 2010).

2.     Make use of activities which get learners to think and feel before, during, and after using the target language for communication. One way of getting learners to do this is to get them to record their views on a topic before, whilst, and after viewing a video clip which focuses on different attitudes towards this topic (e.g. the giving of aid to African countries).

3.     Develop materials in which the learners select or find their own text to use with a set of generic activities and materials which provide a choice of routes and activities for the learners to select from (Maley, 2003, forthcoming 2011; Tomlinson, 2003b).

Principle of Language Acquisition 3

Language learners who achieve positive affect are much more likely to achieve communicative competence than those who do not (Arnold, 1999; Tomlinson, 1998c).

Language learners need to be positive about the target language, their learning environment, and their learning materials. They also need to achieve positive self-esteem and to feel that they are achieving something worthwhile (de Andres, 1999).

Principles of Self-Access Materials Development 3

1.     “Make sure the texts and tasks are as interesting, relevant, and enjoyable as possible so as to exert a positive influence on the learners’ attitudes to the language and to the process of learning it” (Tomlinson, 2010a, p. 90).

2.     Set achievable challenges which help to raise the learners’ self-esteem when success is accomplished. Then provide the learners with a means of recording their success (e.g. encourage the learners to put together spoken and written compilations of “performances” they are happy with in the self-access centre).

Principle of Language Acquisition 4

Language learners can benefit from noticing salient features of the input.

If learners notice for themselves how a particular language item or feature is used (Schmidt & Frota, 1986; Tomlinson, 2007b) they are more likely to develop their language awareness (Tomlinson, 1994; Bolitho et al., 2003). They are also more likely to achieve readiness for acquisition (Pienemann, 1985). Such noticing is most salient when a learner has been engaged in a text and then returns to it to make discoveries about its language use. This is likely to lead to the learner paying attention to similar uses in subsequent inputs and to increase the potential for eventual acquisition.

Principles of Self-Access Materials Development 4

1.     Develop self-access materials which make use of a text-driven approach (Tomlinson, 2003b) in which the learners are first of all provided with an experience which engages them holistically (e.g. listening to a song), then encouraged to articulate personal responses to the experience, and are finally invited to return to the experience in order to focus on a specific linguistic or pragmatic feature of it (Tomlinson, 1994). Learner access to these materials should be from their selection of a text to experience.

2.     Develop experiential and analytic activities which focus on problematic features of the language (e.g. the English article system). Learner access to these materials should be from their selection of a problematic feature.

3.     Provide starter materials and a guide for research projects which involve the learners in a search for extra authentic materials to help them make discoveries about a specific feature of language use (Tomlinson, 2010b).

Principle of Language Acquisition 5

Learners need opportunities to use language to try to achieve communicative purposes.

Communicating in the target language allows learners to gain feedback on the hypotheses they have developed and on their ability to make use of their hypotheses effectively. If they are interacting, they are also being pushed to clarify and elaborate (Swain, 2005) and they are also likely to elicit meaningful and comprehensible input from their interlocutors.

Principles of Self-Access Materials Development 5

1.     Provide many opportunities for the learners to produce language in order to achieve intended outcomes rather than to just practise specified features of the language.

2.     Make sure that the output activities are fully contextualised in that the learners are responding to an authentic stimulus (e.g. a text, a need, a viewpoint, an event), that they have specific addressees, and that they have a clear intended outcome in mind (e.g. to persuade somebody to change their mind or to suggest improvements to the self-access centre).

3.     Provide as many opportunities as possible for real communication with real people (e.g. letters to the press, phone calls to companies, or discussion groups in the self-access centre).

4.     Try to ensure that opportunities for feedback are built into output activities and that as much of this feedback as possible is real (e.g. answers to letters and phone calls or responses to requests).

For more detailed discussion of these and other language acquisition principles see Tomlinson (2010a). Gardner and Miller (1999) advocate the use of authentic materials, providing a variety of types of materials to cater for different learning styles, guiding learners to contribute to the development of their own self-access materials, and making use of activities in self-access centres which promote learner enjoyment. McGrath (2002) considers ways of making use of authentic materials in self-access centres, making use of technological advances, and developing materials which “go beyond familiar closed formats” (p. 149). McDonough and Shaw (2003) point out the “danger in providing too much that is related to classroom work [is that]: the materials become ‘further practice’ or ‘follow up activities’ rather than allowing the students to explore and learn new things by themselves” (p. 216). Mishan (2005) focuses on the importance of helping self-access learners respond to authentic texts and Cooker (2008) draws attention to the widening role that authentic materials, graded readers, and drama-based language learning materials can play in a self-access centre.

Delivery Specific Principles

Developers of self-access materials must be driven by universal language acquisition principles but must obviously also consider those principles which are specific to the delivery of materials to self-access learners. The following are some principles which I consider to be important for all self-access materials.

1. The materials should aim to offer learners more than they could get from a taught course or from unsupported immersion.

The materials should offer more learning time, more experience of the language, more variety of experience of the language, more individual support, and more feedback.

Barker (2010) states that no university course in Japan can give students sufficient learning time for them to develop communicative competence. His suggestion is to encourage ULI (unstructured learner interaction) outside the classroom through, for example, social clubs in which the medium of interaction is always English. His research demonstrates the value of such encouragement but even that is not enough. If we want our students to acquire more language and to develop their ability to use it effectively in a variety of contexts, modes, and genres (Tomlinson, 2007a), then we need to offer access to materials which offer them a lot more learning time.

Many learners doing language courses spend much of their time focusing on examples of the language and insufficient time experiencing language in use. Self-access materials should not offer them even more examples of the language but should offer more experience of the language in use instead (Tomlinson, 1998b, forthcoming 2011b). Language courses also tend to focus on a narrow range of genres and text types and to provide few opportunities for the teacher to find time to provide individual support and feedback in relation to the learner’s needs and wants. Self-access materials can and should provide more variety, support, and feedback, especially if they help learners to contribute to the development of materials likely to cater for their needs and wants (Cooker, 2010).

2. The materials should aim to help the students to become truly independent so that they can continue to learn the language forever by seeking further contact with it.

Ideally self-access materials should be training learners to become less and less dependent on self-access materials and more capable of gaining from any exposure to the language in use that they experience. One way of doing this is to add a final activity to self-access materials which encourages the learners to seek extra authentic texts and to try to make discoveries from them (Tomlinson, 2010b). Another way is to actually advise the learners how to become more independent (Cooker & Torpey, 2004).

3. The materials should aim to be access-self and not just self-access materials.

Access-self activities should:

1.     Be self-access in the conventional sense of providing opportunities for learners to choose what to work on and to do so in their own time and at their own pace.

2.     Be open-ended in the sense that they do not have correct and incorrect answers but rather permit a variety of acceptable responses.

3.     Engage the learners’ individuality in the activities in such a way as to exploit their prior experience and to provide opportunities for personal development.

4.     Involve the learners as human beings rather than just as language learners.

5.     Require a personal investment of energy and attention in order for learner discoveries to be made (as recommended in Tomlinson, 1994, 2007b, and as exemplified in Bolitho and Tomlinson, 2005).

6.     Stimulate various left and right brain activities at the same time and thus maximise the brain’s potential for learning and development (as recommended in Lozanov, 1978, and by Hooper Hansen, 1999, forthcoming 2011).

7.     Provide rich, varied, and comprehensible input in order to facilitate informal acquisition (as recommended, for example, in Krashen, 1999) and to provide opportunities for selective attention to linguistic or pragmatic features of the discourse (as suggested by Schmidt & Frota, 1986; Tomlinson, 1994; Bolitho et al., 2003).

(adapted from Tomlinson, forthcoming 2011b)

As can be seen from the principles outlined above, I am recommending a more humanistic approach to self-access activities which aims to develop both the declarative and the procedural knowledge of the learners, whilst at the same time making a positive and broadening contribution to their personal and linguistic development. For recommendations for humanizing language learning see Tomlinson (2003c).

4. Feedback should be available on all activities and should be focused on acknowledging achievement and facilitating improvement.

Often self-access materials provide answer keys. I would argue though that they need to provide a lot more. They need to acknowledge the achievements of the learners whilst at the same time providing information, references, suggestions, and further activities which will help them to improve even more. This is not easy with self-access materials but it can be done, for example, by:

  • having a monitor available in the self-access centre, on the phone, or on e-mail;
  • providing samples of other learner work to compare with (Tomlinson, forthcoming 2011b);
  • providing samples of proficient users’ performance on the same tasks;
  • providing authentic samples of proficient “performance” in real life; or
  • providing continuation tasks linked to self-evaluation of performance on a task.

See Cooker (2008, p. 129) for useful suggestions for what she calls creative feedback (i.e. feedback designed to help learners to “monitor their own progress and gain a sense of achievement”).

5. The tasks offered to the students should be as realistic as possible.

Many classroom activities are dissimilar to the authentic communication situations of real life (especially in exam preparation classes). Ideally self-access materials should include tasks which are life-like and should even include tasks which are real (e.g. writing letters to newspapers, writing to celebrities, writing to companies for information about products, phoning agencies for information, writing magazine reviews of films and/or restaurants).

6. The students need to know what is on offer to them.

Students need to know what is available to them, what it can offer them, and what it requires from them. This can be achieved through catalogues, poster promotion of materials, text messages, providing access to informants to answer questions, and students being encouraged to spread the word.

7. The students need easy and reliable access to the materials they want to use.

This is a very obvious point but it needs to be stressed as much as possible that you can have the best self-access materials in the world but they will not be valued or even used if it is difficult (or even inconvenient) for the students to gain access to them and to use them.

Other principles of self-access learning have been proposed by Cooker. See Cooker (2010) for discussion of the following principles for setting up a self-access centre:

  1. Self-access learning should be truly self-access.
  2. Students should have an integral role in the running of the centre.
  3. Language learning should be fun.
  4. The learning environment is important.

Local Principles

Local principles are those which are specific to the context of learning which the students are located in. They will therefore differ from institution to institution.

The most effective way to develop local principles is to start by writing a profile of typical users of the self-access materials. Such a profile could include the following variables:

  • age
  • gender
  • levels
  • purposes for learning the language
  • amount of class learning time
  • estimated time available for self-access
  • previous experience of using self-access materials
  • attitudes to self-access
  • learning style preferences
  • learner needs
  • learner wants

Information about some of these variables can be gained from records (e.g. age, gender, levels), but interviews, questionnaires, and focus group discussions might be needed to gain some of the other information required. The big mistake would be to rely on what teachers think the answers are. I well remember a materials development project in which the teachers said their teenage students were only interested in such topics as pop music, fashion, dancing, and sport, but the students said they wanted to focus on such topics as teenage pregnancy, marital violence, drug abuse, pollution, and corruption.

Here is an example of making use of a questionnaire. A questionnaire was designed to find out about learner preferences and then administered to the target learners. It was discovered that many of the learners were experiential, auditory, and dependent and yet “the prevailing learning styles for many of the materials are analytical, visual and independent” (Tomlinson, forthcoming 2011b). It was decided to add more extensive readers, more extensive listening material, more text-driven activities, and more opportunities for interaction with fellow learners and with tutors. These additional materials were promoted to the target learners and then a questionnaire eliciting responses to the new additions was administered. Finally modifications were made to the additional material.


There are many very successful self-access centres and self-access courses already developed. These, however, could still gain from developing principles as suggested above and then using them to evaluate their current practice and materials. New centres and courses could gain a lot from developing their principles and then using them to drive the development (and subsequent evaluation) of their practice and materials. What is really important is to remember that self-access materials should be informed by Delivery Specific Principles and by Local Principles but should be driven by Universal Principles. Cooker (2008) stresses this point when she criticises Reinders and Lewis (2006) for listing surface level criteria for self-access materials which “do not address real learning issues.” She quite rightly insists that criteria for evaluating self-access materials should be based on such core principles as “the ability to interest and engage learners, to be meaningful and challenging and to have a sustained positive impact” (Cooker, 2008, pp. 128-129).

Notes on the contributor

Brian Tomlinson is Visiting Professor at Leeds Metropolitan University. He has worked in Japan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Oman, Singapore, UK, Vanuatu and Zambia and has given presentations in over sixty countries. He is Founder and President of MATSDA (the international Materials Development Association) and has published many articles and books (e.g. Discover English, Openings, Materials Development in Language Teaching, Developing Materials for Language Teaching, Developing Language Course Materials, Language Acquisition and Development: Studies of Learners of First And Other Languages and English Language Learning Materials). His most recent publication is a book with Hitomi Masuhara which reports the results of longitudinal research into materials development (Research for Materials Development in Language Learning). He now works freelance from his home in Birkdale, Merseyside.


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