Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Month: April 2022

Find a writing buddy!

Collaboration isn’t just for our learners

As teachers we recognise the importance of developing collaboration skills in our learners. As materials writers we create activities that involve working together to successfully complete a task. So if we take this one step further, surely a good way to make our materials really good, is by working with others, or just one other. There are a number of ways you could do this. I’ll mention them later. First, here are five reasons why I think it’s a good idea, especially (but not solely) for less experienced materials writers.

1. Someone to spot your flaws

When you have a co-worker, you have someone to throw around ideas with. Sometimes a great idea has a flaw that isn’t immediately visible to you. This isn’t something to get upset about. All great creators have first drafts in their waste-paper baskets. As Julie Andrews said, “Perseverance is failing nineteen times and succeeding the twentieth.” We don’t usually spot our own flaws as easily as someone else might. A good example is the way that we all (yes, all) are blissfully aware of the fact that we have been misspelling or mispronouncing a word forever. We are convinced we know the right way and sometimes even argue the fact. I once corrected my mother’s pronunciation of ‘gazebo’ – not a word I’d ever actually heard spoken, I realised later, having looked it up to prove her wrong, only to find that she was right, and I had to eat humble pie. Incidentally, my spell check just notified me that I’d been misspelling ‘perseverance’ too.

2. Someone to show us another way of seeing

We all have a unique life experience which informs our belief systems and our sensitivities. Despite being convinced of our integrity and fairness, we regularly get it wrong because we simply don’t consider another angle that is outside our usual sphere of experience. This is especially true of issues related to diversity, inclusion and equity. Thinking of where this has happened in my own experience, numerous examples come to mind. We are all constantly learning, and we shouldn’t be complacent. Obviously, if we are writing materials with an inclusive label, we can speak to people who belong to the group we are hoping to represent. But even when this isn’t our main focus, we can still benefit from another person’s perspective.

3. Someone to help us with one of the publishing tasks

When traditional publishers make classroom materials, they rely on a large team of collaborators who work together, each with their distinct role within the project. These days it’s common to have author teams working on a coursebook, with each writer specializing in a particular aspect. Besides the writers are project managers, copy editors, proof-readers and the like, all briefed to notice different things that might be wrong, and to make sure they are flagged to get righted. We don’t all have access to such teams, of course, but it’s a good idea to try to mimic some of this practice. The only way to do this is to get the help of another person.

4. Someone to keep your ego from inflating

Talking about materials is the best way to generate new, fresh ideas as we make connections. In fact, making connections is a key aspect of creativity. I’ve recently been reading about the ecosystem vs the egosystem, albeit in a different context, but I think it’s valid here too. In an egosystem, the individual places value on their own desired creation above all else. In an ecosystem, they work with others, in supportive and constructive ways in order to achieve the best possible outcome – the outcome, in this case being materials. It’s common sense really.

5. Someone to keep us company

Creating ELT materials is usually a solitary pastime and many of us enjoy this aspect. But joining in with someone else to work on a project jointly, in some way, can be very rewarding too, and can make a pleasant change. Long-lasting work relationships and even friendships can be formed. And sometimes, what begins as a mini collaboration can lead to bigger, more exciting projects.

All shapes and sizes

I could probably think of more reasons too, but five is a good round number.

Collaborations come in all shapes and sizes and don’t need to be fifty-fifty authoring. I do most of my paid authoring work with my co-author partner and husband. We either divide the work according to our strengths and weaknesses or we see who has more available time. The way we work things out is very fluid but after collaborating for thirty years, it mostly works itself out.

I’ve also worked with teams of co-authors, sometimes working closely together, sometimes never communicating directly, except through a manager. Recently, I’ve done a lot of joint projects related with ELT Footprint [click here if you aren’t yet a member] with Ceri Jones. We’ve even drawn up a joint ‘to do’ list in Google docs. Ceri and I have co-written articles and blog posts and prepared several joint presentations. But there are lots of ways that two (or more) teachers creating ELT materials could collaborate.

Here are nine suggestions

  • Co-write a lesson plan, a series of plans or a book..
  • Find a writing buddy, to proof-read each other’s work.
  • Share each other’s work with your communities.
  • Schedule a 30-minute meeting to discuss your ideas informally. Sometimes just talking them through will be helpful.
  • Set up a Google doc, a Padlet, or similar, to share useful tools and resources.
  • Pilot each other’s materials with your learners and then offer feedback.
  • Do a joint presentation on a subject you are both interested in.
  • Start a joint blog or space to share materials.
  • Make a Venn diagram together of your material writing skills. See where they overlap, but, more importantly, where they don’t. This is where you can help each other most.

A final word

Don’t be afraid to send a message to someone suggesting a collaboration. But don’t get stressed if they say no. Some people might be too busy right now or they might have other valid reasons not to join in with something new. Finding the right person is key. If you’ve connected (online or in the real world) with someone already, and have similar professional interests, a collaboration is a logical next step. And if you have already been involved in interesting collaborations, I’d love to hear about them.

Talking about writing

What I talk about when I talk about (ELT) writing

Last week I was going to write a writing about writing post. But then I found myself a bit busy talking about writing. So I thought I’d write about that instead.

The British Council invited me to do two Facebook Live events in one week, a mini-series, if you like. The first one was called Creating ELT materials: how to create the perfect materials for your learners. You can watch a recording [here]. The second one, a couple of days later was called Moving from teaching to writing ELT materials. You can watch a recording [here].

The great thing about a live event is that I get to connect with teachers in real time and they get to ask some questions. At first I thought that might be a bit scary. But then I reminded myself that I am a teacher and as such I am used to being asked questions. We shouldn’t feel we need to have all the answers. But it’s handy if we can suggest places where those asking can find the information they need. I think I managed OK.

My main five take-aways from doing these two events.

  • Context is everything

Doing stuff like this is a good idea. There really is nothing quite like connecting with teachers from all around the world. It gives me a big buzz and reminds me of why I do what I do. It also reminds me of the millions of different contexts that teachers are working in. Yes, millions.

  • Nerves are normal

I felt nervous beforehand, hyped up and excited during, and mentally exhausted afterwards. I realise this is the way I always feel before public speaking of any kind. I’ve stopped fighting the nerves because one thing I’ve learnt above anything else and that’s: teachers are really nice people and they’re always rooting for you.

  • Teachers want to write good materials

I learnt that I have plenty to say on the subject of materials-writing and, more importantly, I learnt that there are thousands of teachers who are interested in learning more about writing materials, for their own classes, to share with others or to sell so I have a raison d’être … and so does this blog.

  • Selling materials

Lots of teachers are anxious to sell their materials and they need help and advice about how and where to do this. Self-publishing is becoming easier and more common and there are lots of ways of doing things. This is a blog post for another day.

  • Questions need answers

Teachers ask really good questions but probably get frustrated if they don’t receive an answer. Although I had an opportunity to respond to some questions in the live events, others slipped under the radar. I haven’t forgotten them though.  I’ll go and find them and consider the best way of responding to them all.

A final thought

I partly wrote this post as an exercise in self-reflection. Unless you make time to sit down and think back over a ‘live’, a webinar or any other kind of presentation or training event, the important lessons you learn in the process aren’t as likely to stick.  Another thing I learnt as I was writing this blog post is that I need categorise my blog posts in a simpler way so that the blog is more user-friendly. I’ve added that to this week’s ‘to do’ list. I feel quite excited at the prospect of helping more and more teachers develop the skills they need to write excellent materials for their learners. I think I’ve found my ikigai.