Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Month: November 2021

The C word: (censorship) … and the Z word

This blog post is going to be controversial. I know this before I even begin writing it. This is a short post about some of my recent experience of censorship while writing primary materials. It was prompted by having a Z word struck out. Last week I was told that I couldn’t include a zebra in a story. I’ll come back to this at the end of this post. In the meantime, here’s a nice colourful photo of a zebra. It’s my quiet protest.

(Don’t) write anything you want

All ELT writers understand that we can’t just write anything that occurs to us. That would be daft. When we write for a publisher or a Ministry of Education, we have to follow a curriculum and use specific language in a specific order. This language usually comes in the form of a scope and sequence document. I hadn’t really thought much about the name of this of document until now but it is exactly what it says on the box, a document in which the language that needs to be taught is scoped out into units and lessons, following a logical sequence.

Having to follow such a document is fine. In fact, it’s more than fine, it’s good because ultimately the materials we create need to provide the target learners with the language they need to do one or both of these things: (a) to successfully graduate from their school year and move up to the next level or (b) to pass an official external exam. Having everything neatly planned makes it less likely that we’ll miss something important, like the preposition of place, next to, a key grammatical structure in the Starters exam, or circus, a vocabulary item that examinees are expected to recognise in the Flyers exam. Yes, these S&S documents are useful.

Up to here, everything’s fine.

But sometimes a writer is asked to change something they’ve written because it is too sensitive for a particular market. Lots of markets have restrictions and typical examples are things like, no references to hamburgers or anything pig-related, please. Incidentally sausage is in the Cambridge YLE list, but pig isn’t.

It can sometimes be difficult to navigate the do’s and don’ts because, depending on the end-users’ location, they might change or even be contradictory. I’ve been asked not to write about the Hindu festival Holi and I’ve been asked to specifically write about it. I’ve been asked to change names because they were too Christian (David) or not Christian enough (Jasmine). Sometimes a name is just deemed to be too unusual. This happened with Adele. Adele? Really?

A couple of questions

So I’d like to pose a couple of questions with primary learners in mind:

What happens when you aren’t allowed to use a key item of vocabulary that appears in a YL exam which the learners might be sitting? How will learners be able to recognize these words if they don’t come across them in a classroom?

You can see a list of these words in the The Cambridge English Young Learners Handbook for Teachers (available to download freely here as a pdf).

Who is saying ‘no’?

And does all of this extreme caution always come from Ministries? Or might some publishers be proactively censoring things they suspect might cause problems later down the line?

Diversity? I don’t think so

And last, but certainly not least, the most pressing question of all. How can we possibly have more Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity in our materials if we aren’t even allowed a range of names?

And the zebra?

What’s all that about? you’ll be asking yourselves. Well, it begins with Z. And I was recently told that no words that begin with a Z are welcome in Arab countries because they all sound very rude. Other ELT writers have been told the same. But zoo and zero are in the Cambridge English YL handbook. It’s just as well that nobody is writing a story about a zoo or a CLIL maths book for primary. Oh, hang on a minute …

On a final note, if any commissioning editor is reading this and thinking I might spell trouble, it’s OK, I usually do what needs to be done. I also don’t do what mustn’t be done. At the end of the day if I accept a work offer, I have to accept the client’s brief. I just think it’s important to raise these issues from time to time.

ELT script writing: new trends, new skills, (some of) the same inequalities

Part of a film script

When you think about ELT content writing you might not immediately think of script writing, but it’s actually becoming a vital skill to have. The other day I was thinking about the work I’d been doing recently and the work I’ve got lined up for the months ahead. I realized that a lot of it is scriptwriting, either for audio or video. It occurred to me that while I’d been writing scripts for decades, script writing for ELT is different these days. Things have changed. So I reflected a bit more and that’s where this blog post came from

Script writing for ESP

It started with a series of online courses, for the British Council, BBC English and Di’Agostini.  These were all for adult learners, were mainly for people working in different sectors, and titles included:

  • English for Taxi Drivers
  • English for Oil and Gas
  • English for Catering
  • English for The Police Force
  • English for Journalists
  • English for Hotel Staff

You get the picture. We always learn when we write and through this work I learnt a lot about things like the hierarchy of staff in various working environments and the safety precautions which need to be in place to store and transport fossil fuels.

Primary script writing

I then started developing scripts for primary learners. One of my favourites was a series of children’s plays I wrote as a resource for my book, ‘Dream Box’. It made me happy to think of children all over Spain, performing those plays and saying ‘my words’.

Changing trends in ELT script writing

Recently the focus of my script writing has changed a bit, and maybe some of the skills I am using too. I can trace these changes directly to more global changes, in education in general and in the big wide world.

Advances in technology mean that a lot of my recent work has been writing scripts for amazing animations sometimes with a cool blend of real footage and animation.  I can specifically mention a couple of things I’ve worked on, the stuff that is already out there (meaning I won’t get into trouble for breaching my contract). My favourite are ELT Songs’ Planet Pop videos with scripts that link to Young Learner exams but with a modern, non-schooly feel about them. It comes as no surprise to me that the company has won several Educational awards and prizes over the last year or two.

Equality, Diversion, Inclusion

Another noticeable change is in the increased focus on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. This was the case with Planet Pop but it was also true for work I did for Digital Language Associates (DLA), worthy winner of a Judges Commendation for EDI at this year’s ELTON Awards.  Part of my remit as a writer was to write narration at three different levels for existing documentary-style shorts. Grading language is another valuable skill and something I’ve had to do more and more as Publishers often decide to use the same content, for which they’ve paid highly, for different levels. It makes sense.

The writing process

Much of the writing process is the same now as it was twenty years ago. But now I have to consider a lot more issues. I love that I can include more diversity and invent characters that would have been a no-no not that long ago. I also have to use my child-like imagination more than ever. For scripts that are going to be turned into animations, I need to consider things that the tech wizards can make happen on the screen. Because if I don’t ask for it, it won’t happen. But if I do ask for it, Boom! It’s mind-blowing. Almost anything is possible (and I haven’t even mentioned VR yet).

The continuing digital divide

But it isn’t all state-of-the-art tech and wacky animations. For another recent project, I wrote a series of 45 radio show scripts for secondary aged children in low resource countries. Many of these children don’t have access to computers, let alone the internet. My English ‘lessons’ are delivered via radio and the interaction I built into my scripts involved very traditional things like ‘Listen and repeat’ or ‘Write five animals on a piece of paper’. It’s a piece of paper because I can’t even assume every child will have a notebook.

As a writer I need a different set of skills here. I need to keep asking myself, ‘How can I make this engaging and fun without any flashing lights and tech trickery?’ Different skills but equally valuable.

What the future holds

In 2022 I’ll be working on two exciting new projects, one huge, the other more modest. One I predict to be the most ambitious I’ve seen yet in terms of technology and creativity, the other reliant on paper and pencils if we’re lucky. I’m looking forward to the challenges of both and will keep a note of all the new skills I learn along the way. I think I might be in for some surprises.