Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Month: March 2022

How many (fonts, etc.)?

numbers

Hidden in plain sight

I was reading a book the other day and that famous cliché popped up about the best place for hiding something being ‘in plain sight’, in a place where nobody would think of looking because it’s so obvious. A murdered body in a graveyard, a forbidden book on a library shelf. You get the picture. It got me to thinking that we often spend time looking for things in the wrong places instead of pausing to consider the obvious. Pinning this whole thought process onto an ELT-materials writing context, it occurred to me that the obvious place to find ways to make your classroom materials excellent, is to look at the tips and advice that are staring us in the face in existing published materials. Good course books are a great place to start. In fact, not-so-good course books are handy too. Because it’s as useful to consider what not to do, as it is to consider good practice. I’m going to write three or four blog posts on what we can learn by looking carefully at existing materials. In this first one, I talk about the number of certain things. In most cases, less is definitely more. Let’s look at a few examples.

Fonts

How many different fonts do we need to use? One? Two? And after choosing fonts, how many different sizes do we need? This will mainly depend on things like headings and subheadings. If you use ‘styles’ you don’t even need to think about it as the donkey’s work has been done for you. Too many fonts and too many sizes can result in materials looking a bit messy, so proceed with caution. Whatever you decide to go with, it’s a good idea to at least give it some thought and try out a few different looks.

Highlighting features

If you need to highlight words in a sentence or sections in a text, there are plenty of options at your disposal. The best are italics, bold, underline, inverted commas or a different colour. In most cases one of these is plenty. Occasionally we might need two, but only if we are trying to make learners aware of two different concepts being highlighted in a single word or phrase. It might be worth mentioning here that the BDA (British Dyslexia Association) advises against underlining or using italics and suggest sticking to bold. Click [here] to see the BDA’s style guide.

Columns

Most teachers’ worksheets I see have a single column, but lots of published materials have two columns. There are all kinds of reasons for doing one or the other, but most writers will agree that more than two is a bad idea. Again, advice from the BDA suggests using a single column with left-alignment for accessibility. It’s probably worth following guidelines for people with Dyslexia because everyone benefits from clarity and simplicity.

Items in an exercise

Published materials almost always have one of the following:

  • An even number of items that can, if necessary, be spread out neatly in two columns. Eight, ten or twelve are common.
  • An odd number of items plus an example (numbered 0) for the same reason.
  • The number of items necessary to mimic a specific exam-style question.

But the beauty of creating your own materials is that you can be the one to decide the number of items. As a guide, think about your objectives here. If you want to check that learners understand the meaning of a lexical set of twelve items, you’ll obviously need twelve items – unless, as sometimes happens in primary materials, there will be a second activity. In this case, you can split them into six and six. The important point is to think about how many items are really necessary.

Images

The first thing to consider is to whether an image is going to be used as part of an activity. If so, this should dictate the number. A ‘spot-the-difference’ task with just one picture wouldn’t be very successful.  A vocabulary matching activity might need eight to twelve images. Other activities might need none. Think carefully about using an image purely for decoration. Some learners might (understandably) think it’s important and waste time trying to figure out how it connects to a text, for example. A rule of thumb I find handy when it comes to a decorative text is ‘If in doubt, leave it out’. Though you could always use it in a warmer activity, of course. Again, you’re the boss.

Write-on lines

The answer to this will differ greatly depending on the context. In some cases, no lines are necessary because learners will write in a notebook or, for some digital materials, in a chat box or on a shared document. Lots of primary materials have lines on the page so that learners don’t just know that they have to write answers but also have an idea of how much they are expected to write.

To finish, I’d like to suggest, as a professional development task, that you to open the first course book you can lay your hands on and have a quick look at how many fonts, highlighting features, columns, images, items, images and write-on lines there are. Then have a think about whether that works and why? Or why not? At the very least it will help you become aware of such aspects when you create your next set of materials.

F on or F off? Should ELT materials teach swear words?

Swear words as content

I’ve never been asked to include swear words in published ELT materials. There are obvious reasons for this of course and as many of the materials I’ve written have been for children, the omission is hardly surprising. But a conversation the other day got me thinking about how and when it might be useful to include swear words and how the only likely place to find any meaningful reference to them will be in materials that teachers create for their own learners.

Swearing in another language

One of the arguments that is often put forward for teaching swear words in class is that learners should be able to recognise them when they hear them, especially if they are on the receiving end of an insult. While there is a logic to this, my feeling is that there is a more pressing reason to teach them: to make sure that anyone choosing to use them, does so correctly. Not just in terms of pronunciation, which is usually less of a problem, but in terms of usage, and in particular appropriateness and register.

Put your hands up if you’ve ever heard an L2 English speaker trying to impress with a colloquial use of swear words but coming across as sounding ridiculous? This happens to all learners of all languages of course and is probably a good reason not to even attempt to use vulgarities until you have a certain command of the language. In my experience, even at that point you stand a fifty-fifty chance of sounding daft. I’m speaking from experience here. I’ve been that daft one. What about you? Have you used a swear word in a foreign language and been told it just sounds wrong?

Dive in or steer clear?

Some of the authentic content around which we create our classroom materials is littered with colourful language, so it might be an idea to highlight it in some way, especially if learners are likely to ask about it. Film and video will help learners with pronunciation but how do we tackle usage and register without addressing it explicitly through materials? Or should we just steer clear? I don’t have the answers, but it’s something that might be interesting to discuss.

C words

Part of the problem is, of course, that there are swear words and swear words. Some, like like the ‘c’ word being the most offensive in my opinion. Sorry, I can’t even bring myself to write it, let alone say it. So if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll need to do an internet search. And then there are more anodyne words, like cockwomble*, one of my all-time favourites, nearer the bottom in terms of strength of insult (but extremely rewarding to slip into a conversation).

Context is everything

At the end of the day we should probably treat swear words like any other potentially risky content. We should consider the context of those who will be using the materials, learners and maybe other teachers. We usually know what will work and what won’t. If you aren’t sure, I tend to think, ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ is a good maxim.

What do YOU think?

I’d love to know whether any of you have ever created teaching materials which highlight swear words and especially, how well it was received by your learners … and whether you’d do it again. I’d also like to know any other thoughts you have on the subject.

*I feel a small sense of accomplishment for having slipped this word into a blog post. It’s the small things, eh?

How many projects should we work on at the same time? Which is better, one big one or lots of small ones?

One big dog and lots of small dogs

One

For the first time in years, possibly decades, I’m only working on one project for one client. It’s a big one, but it’s just one. There’s a small ‘but’ here which I’ll add to the end of my post. For now I’ll just focus on the rarity of working on a single project. This might seem perfectly normal for some freelancers, but it certainly isn’t typical for me. For as long as I can remember I’ve been juggling writing jobs, sometimes enjoying the variety but often feeling overwhelmed by trying to keep too many things afloat. The main reason for taking on lots of work is that as a freelancer I’ve been afraid to turn down a work offer in case I don’t get asked again and my income dries up. Freelancing can be tough because you just don’t know what’s around the corner and you can never be 100% sure when you’ll get your next work.

I primarily classify projects that I work on into two kinds, big ones, and small ones. Both have their pros and cons.

Big projects

Big projects give me a chance to get stuck into something meaty and to have work planned out for months or years ahead. This offers peace of mind in terms of financial security. Another benefit is that the work becomes more systematic. By the time you get to unit three of a fifteen-unit course book, for example, you’ve worked out the best way of approaching everything, you’ve got your head around communication systems with editors and, all being well, the work just flows. The flip side of this is that there might be a danger of boredom setting in. But with the right kind of work this shouldn’t be an issue.

Small projects

Small projects can be very rewarding in that the work often feels more dynamic and if you take on several small projects the variety can spice up your working life. Small projects can take many forms. I just spent a moment brainstorming some of those I’ve been involved with over the past few years. I came up with this list but I could probably have made it twice as long with a bit more thinking time.

  • lesson plans
  • worksheets
  • guest blog posts
  • multiple choice questions for a digital product
  • differentiated activities to go with some existing video resources
  • scope and sequence documents
  • ‘How to’ pages for teachers
  • sample project pages for a primary course
  • a sample animation brief for a new course component  
  • crosswords for a Publisher’s puzzle page
  • tips for a Publisher’s website

Looking for a change

About a year ago, it occurred to me that I’d quite like to dedicate my time to doing fewer big projects and more small projects, and especially small-but-regular work. I decided to let people know by announcing my availability for such work on social media. I was blown away by the response and within a short time I’d taken on all kinds of interesting work. Some things were one-offs. Others were monthly or, in a couple of cases, a series of three or four.

Be careful what you wish for

At first it was exciting but then two things happened. First, I was offered work on a new, big project that was going to gobble up a large chunk of my available time. And second, I realised I’d miscalculated the amount of time I’d need to spend on doing several of the smaller jobs I’d taken on. I concluded that while variety was stimulating, it also meant spending a lot more time working. Not just writing but doing all the other jobs that being a freelancer involves. This is probably a post for another day but I’m talking about things like writing emails, organising and sharing folders, preparing invoices, etc.

Oops!

I have to admit that this miscalculation sent me into a bit of a turmoil. After all, I’d got exactly what I’d wished for. Yet here I was wondering how to turn the clocks back. In the end I completed all of the work I’d undertaken but sent apologetic emails explaining that my circumstances had changed and I would no longer be able to continue on those projects that were on-going. I suggested replacement writers where appropriate and felt good that at least I was helping colleagues find work.

Lessons learnt

On reflection, I should have known what was going to happen. Instead I let my rather naïve daydream of seeing myself as some kind of assignment-driven journalist flitting from scoop to scoop, detract from common sense. I won’t do that again in a hurry.

Busy bod

I said I’d come back to a small ‘but’ at the end of my post and here it is. While I’m only working on one project right now, I am engaged in other stuff. I’ve started writing some books which I plan to self-publish. They’ve been on the back burner for ages so if not now, when? This has been a dream for several years and would have remained a dream if I’d carried on doing all those small projects. I’ll be writing more about this soon as I’m trying to keep a journal of the process. I’m also doing other bits and bobs, preparing webinars and training, doing some volunteer work and doing a lot of professional development in various shapes and forms. So while I’m still a busy bod, a lot of what I’m doing feels more rewarding than ever. Oh, and if any commissioning editors are reading this, I’m always interested in new projects, big or small!

What about you?

The whole experience has got me thinking about a question: do you prefer to work on one big project or lots of smaller ones? And why? So I think I’ll do a survey and find out what other ELT freelancers think. It’s always interesting to share experiences about the way we work and why we make the choices we make.

I’d love to hear what you think about this, so please drop me a line.