Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Month: August 2022

K is for … (answer) key

This is a new series of short blog posts, ‘An A-Z of ELT materials writing’. I’ll be writing about important aspects that we need to keep in mind when we create materials, whether for our own classes or to be used by others.

K is for … (answer) key

If you’re wondering why this is ‘K’ and not ‘A’, it’s for practical reasons. There are lots of As to write about (in good time) but I figured I might be low on Ks.

Answer keys are important, regardless of the level and age of the target learners and how ‘obvious’ an answer might be. Teachers can get it wrong for any number of reasons. It’s also worth noting that even if you are writing materials for your own learners and feel you know the answers, it’s still a good idea to write them down. You might decide to re-use the materials in a year’s time so could forget details. Or you might share the materials with another teacher who is less familiar with the content.

Write it now, not later

The first thing to say about an answer key is that it’s almost always a good idea to write it at the same time as you write the activity to which it belongs. That’s because sometimes it isn’t until we write the answers that we notice a flaw in the activity. Better sooner than later so that we can rewrite and correct things while they are fresh in our mind. I’ve said ‘almost always’ because there are times you might choose to wait. For example, if you are writing an activity that is likely to change significantly after feedback from an editor. Though personally, I’d prefer to keep a record of the answers, even if I need to change them later.

Another reason for writing the key at the same time, is that if you are writing a lot of activities (and a lot of answers), then leaving the key until the end will feel more like a chore. Breaking up the task makes it less so.

What constitutes an answer key?

For published materials, a writer usually receives a brief to explain what a key should include as well as other information such as layout and style details. For materials that you create for your own learners, you can decide on these details. For example: do you reproduce the questions with the answers (we often see this in Teacher Guides for children’s materials where the whole page is reproduced complete with answers). Do you write a horizontal list or a vertical list? Vertical would use up less paper if you are going to print them. And if you do choose vertical, do you separate the items with commas? All small details but a glance at a few different answer keys will show that people have taken the time to consider such things.

Sample answers

One thing to consider is whether to include sample answers in a key. These are especially useful for less experienced teachers or for teachers whose level of English might not be very high. Writing a sample answer is also a good way for you to check that the activity is do-able and doesn’t need to be tweaked in any way. For example, a bigger word count for a writing activity so as to be able to fit in all of the information required.

More than one answer

Most exercises have items with one possible answer but sometimes more than one answer might be correct. It goes without saying that all possible answers need to be included in a key.

Extra information

An answer key is a good place to include some extra information for the teacher. This might be some factual details about a topic in a reading text, for example. It might also include information about why an answer in a multiple choice question is correct and the other options aren’t. It’s always a good idea to wear your teacher’s cap when you are writing the answers, and imagine the kind of questions your learners might ask you. ‘Why isn’t X correct?’ isa common one.

Tip: Have a look at the answer keys in a couple of course books. How are they laid out? How brief or extensive are they? Can you learn anything else from them?

N is for … numbering

N is for numbering

This is a new series of short blog posts, ‘An A-Z of ELT materials writing’. I’ll be writing about important aspects that we need to keep in mind when we create materials, whether for our own classes or to be used by others.

N is for … numbering

Numbering is important. In materials, we use numbering in different ways and for different things: the number of a book or a level within a series, the number of a chapter or a unit in a course, slide numbers in a presentation, numbers of activities, numbers of items within an activity and sometimes other numbers to show staging in a single item. Crumbs! That’s a lot of numbering.

While giving teachers and writers feedback on their materials, I’ve noticed two recurring problems with numbering

1. A numbering system which is illogical or inconsistent.

2. (This never fails to surprise me) A numbering system which isn’t there. There are no numbers, none at all … not a single one.

The reason for #2 above is that in most cases, teachers have created their materials for their own students with the intention of delivering them in their own classrooms or online, and they haven’t felt the need for numbering as their plan is to just move through the sequence of activities in order, thereby believing the need for numbers to be redundant.

But numbering is good.

Besides helping you, numbers help any other potential teachers and learners to navigate the materials. Imagine the end of a numberless lesson, when a learner wants to ask a question about something they did earlier. Everything is easier if they can say, “Can I ask you about activity two, number three?”

Numbers are important to navigate different resources that can be used together in a lesson. For example, in a Teacher Guide you might see something like:

When learners finish Activity 6 use photocopiables 3.1 and 3.2.

You can also use numbering in differentiation techniques [More on Differentiation in a future post]. For example, in a Teacher Guide you might write:

Learners who need more support can do items 1 to 6.

Stronger learners can do items 1 to 8.

Now that we’ve established that numbers are a good idea, here are some considerations for how you actually use them and style them.

Choose a style of numbering and be consistent [for more about consistency click here]. Think about whether or not to add a full stop or whether letters might be better, for example when the list of items begin with a number like this:

1. Look and write. Which child has got:

a. 4 pencils and 2 pens?        

b. 3 crayons and 5 pencils?    

Think about how you use layers of numbering, for example:

1 Read the text and answer the questions.

1 How does the writer feel about:

(a) his sister’s news?

(b) his brother-in-law’s reaction to the news?

(c) his parents’ decision on hearing the news?

Or

1 Follow the steps to play the game in groups of four.

i Read the rules.

ii Share out the cards equally.

iii Take turns to throw the dice and move your counter.

Etc.

Tip: Compare the numbering in two or more coursebooks*. Which elements are the same? What differences do you notice? Which styles look the best?

*Evaluating features of existing materials to identify good practice is a great way to develop your own writing skills.

C is for … consistency

Consistency

This is a new series of short blog posts, ‘An A-Z of ELT materials writing’. I’ll be writing about important aspects that we need to keep in mind when we create materials, whether for our own classes or to be used by others.

C is for … consistency

Consistency is important. I know this because I’ve learnt the hard way, by having editors point out a lack of consistency in manuscripts I’ve submitted. More recently, as I’ve been giving teachers and writers feedback on their materials, it’s something I find myself picking up on again and again. To some of you, it might seem petty and unimportant, but it’s the kind of thing a commissioning editor out looking for new writers would spot in a second.

Here are some places where we need to consider consistency:

Instructions

If you write lots of materials, you are likely to use the same activities more than once, things like a matching exercise, a True or false, or a multiple choice for example. It’s a good idea to use the same wording for an instruction you use repeatedly. You could even build up a bank of instructions which you could cut and paste from. That way, you’ll be consistent without any effort.

Spelling

Some words can be spelled in two ways, for example, when there is a US English spelling and a British spelling (theatre, theater). Choose either one but be consistent. Another good rule of thumb is to be consistent in your use of US or British English. This is increasingly difficult as these days we often see examples of one in texts from the other.

Style conventions

When it comes to font variations ‘less’ is definitely ‘more’. But if you do decide to use different fonts for different sections of text on a page, again, be consistent. This refers to the font(s) you choose to use in the first place, size and colour, and use of bold, italics and underline for highlighting text.

The same thing goes for things like bullet points in lists, numbering and lettering in instructions, etc. Choice is a good thing but when we make choices it’s important to remember what they are.

Terminology

Most of the inconsistencies I’ve seen in terminology have been in Teacher Guides and one of the most common is in the word to describe the end-users of the material: Student, pupil, child, learner … all of these are fine, with some depending on age and context. But it is better to stick to one within a project. I tend to use ‘learner’ these days as it fits all contexts. But sometimes a publisher asks me to use a different word. That’s fine. If you are writing materials for a publisher, you have to follow their style guides and conventions.

Tip: A good way to remember these points is to use a checklist. Write your own with the inconsistency pain points that are uniquely yours.

What’s a ‘new edition’ all about?

The other day someone asked me what I was working on, and I told them it was a new edition of an existing book. But not my book, somebody else’s. They were surprised to hear this and asked me more questions about new editions and versions. I thought I’d write a blog post about the topic. It’s the first in a series on ‘Questions I get asked when I’m talking about writing’. Don’t forget to subscribe to my blog if you’re interested in this kind of post.

The rise and rise of new editions and new versions

In recent years I’ve seen more and more new or revised editions of existing course books appear. One reason might be because it’s cheaper and quicker for a publisher to make a new or revised version of an existing book than it is to produce a brand new book from scratch. Another reason might be that an existing book is almost perfect for a new market but tweaks are needed to bring it in line with a national curriculum or other Ministry dictates. Sometimes a book just gets a bit outdated so a new edition might modernise texts or build in an extra pedagogical layer that might not have been considered important when the original was being written. When we write new course books we are usually briefed about not including references to anyone or anything that could become outdated. These days, more and more frequently, a publisher recognises the need for more references to sustainability or for increased and more visible EDI.

What new editions or versions have I been working on recently?

I thought I’d mention some of the writing work that I’ve been involved in recently that falls into this category as an example of the kind of work that might be available.

A new edition of an IGCSE ESL course book.

Changes were made to the IGCSE on which the whole course is based. They were minor changes, but they needed to be reflected in the exam practice sections of the book. When the publisher realized they had to bring out a new edition, they decided to add some extra resources that were missing in the original. These were a series of video animations and supporting worksheets linking to key language which had previously been presented through audios. Now the publisher can say the course is ‘new and improved’. My task was to bring the exam practice sections in line with the new IGCSE and to write the video scripts, which was great fun.

A new ‘localised’ version of an existing primary course book for a new market.

The Ministry of Education in the new target market have a policy that all course books should include a percentage of the region’s culture in reading texts, listenings, etc. The existing book had a more global approach, so my task was to rewrite some of the readings, keeping the main topic but giving it a local flavour. It presented a few minor challenges but was an interesting project as I learnt a lot about the target region.

A new ‘lower level’ version of an existing course book for a new sector within the current market.

After market feedback the publisher discovered that some schools might not adopt the course book because the level was a bit too high. They decided to simplify things by reducing the number of units in the book, having fewer vocabulary items in each unit and providing more support for teachers and learners. My task was to rewrite stories, texts and audio scripts, and to identify and write the support sections which included things like a glossary and tip boxes.

An updated version of an existing course book to freshen it and make it a bit more modern.

I haven’t actually started this yet but I’m about to. I’ve been told that I’ll need to rewrite about 40% of the content. This percentage is important. I’m not sure if it’s the same in every region but for a book to be considered ‘new’ it needs to have a fixed percentage of ‘new stuff’. On the books I’ve worked on, this is usually around 35% to 40%. I wrote the original stories in this course and I’m hoping they won’t need changing. I don’t think they will because they are quite good (if I say so myself) but, more importantly, the illustrations are brilliant and new illustrations would increase production costs significantly.

Who writes new editions or versions of existing books?

In my experience, if I am receiving Royalties for a course book, I’ve been keen to write the new version too so that these Royalties won’t go down. But sometimes the original author is either unavailable to write, or they simply don’t wish to. Then the publisher can ask another author – perhaps someone who wrote a different level of the same course so will be familiar with the project, or just a new writer who will be briefed on the original book and the new sections. Of the books I mentioned above, I was the original author on three of them but not on the third. The three I’d already worked on were infinitely easier to get my head around. Two were Royalty-based and two were fee-based.

Is a new edition or a new version a good thing?

Usually, yes. On the one hand it usually means the original course book has had good reviews, so the new version is likely to sell well. Teachers often like new editions of books they are familiar with too – when given the choice of this or a completely new course book which they need to spend time navigating. It also means that most of the extra resource materials teachers might have made to supplement a book can still be used, as can things like flash cards etc. On the other hand, it means more work opportunities for freelance writers, editors, illustrators, etc.

Is a new version always a new version?

Ehm, yes and no.

Sometimes a course book is given a new title and a new front cover, and no other changes are made. There are a number of reasons for this, but most are to do with marketing. I’ve had this happen with a few of the course books that I’ve written over the years. In one case, I was told it was because in a particular region there was already a course book with the name we had chosen for the book, so we needed to come up with a new one. In another case, the original name was virtually impossible to pronounce in a particular region, so we renamed it. And in a third case, the original name had just been used for a brand on a completely unrelated product, something that the publisher had no desire to be associated with.

Can anyone write a new edition?

Yes! If you can write, of course. For every new course book that gets written, there are a heap of other resources and elements which need changing to bring them in line: Teacher Guides, activity books, revision booklets … anything you can imagine that accompanies a course book. Sometimes some of this work is done in-house at the publisher’s, but more often freelance writers do the work.

If you’re interested in working on such a project, why not get in touch with a publisher you’ve worked with before, or one you’d like to work with, and ask if they have plans to bring out a new edition or version of an existing book. Ask them to keep you in mind for some of the writing work. It could be a good way to get started.

And please let me know how you get on, if you do!