U is for user
Who is the user?
When we create materials, we should keep the end users in mind throughout the whole process. First and foremost, this means the learner or learners, but it can also mean another teacher or other teachers.
Traditional published materials: restrictions
In traditional publishing, the company does market research to find out as much as possible about who will be using the materials. They then summarise their findings in a detailed report which might be provided as part of a brief for the author. Information will vary but key information includes details about age, level, context, and other aspects that influence the content and design of the materials. If the product is for a global market, everything needs to work in multiple contexts. The publisher needs to consider how a reader in one country might react to content featuring information about another country. Historically, lots of course books featured content focusing on English-speaking countries, and predominantly the UK, with texts about things like London transport, Shakespeare or British food. Fortunately, this is no longer the case and there has been a welcome shift to more global culture. After all, English is no longer considered to be a language ‘owned’ by L1 speakers. If materials are being written for a specific country, or group of countries, the publisher might provide information about important cultural considerations that should be taken into account. This is basically a list of do’s and don’ts, drawn up to keep all the different stakeholders happy.
#1 Users: the learners
Teachers as materials writers: freedom and responsibility
Teachers creating materials for their own classes need to consider the issues outlined above for themselves. Nobody else is going to provide you with a ready-made brief. One huge bonus that teacher-writers have is that you already know your learners at a personal level. Those giving face-to-face classes often live in the same area. You have valuable knowledge about the kind of environment in which your learners live and the context within which they learn English. You know about issues of accessibility, about which technology learners might or might not have, about sensitivities which might affect learning, about a whole range of things. All of this information is invaluable as you craft the materials to suit your learners’ needs, preferences and restrictions.
Some questions to keep in mind about the learner-users – these are just a few suggestions that can be tweaked to suit.
- Will my learners be interested in this topic?
- What kind of attention span do they have?
- Are the images appropriate?
- Is there enough support for those who need it?
- Could I add another task which helps develop another skill?
#2 Users: the teachers
One piece of advice I always give teachers who are writing materials for their own classes, is to write them as if they were going to be used by another teacher. Why? Because in doing so we add a layer of rigour that might otherwise be left out, and which can be a life-saver. If, after creating some materials, we consider how another teacher would use them in a classroom, we notice things that might not have been obvious initially. For example, while we might know the answers to an exercise, it’s still a good idea to write them somewhere. What happens if we don’t use the materials immediately for some reason, but we come back to them in six months’ time. It’s doubtful that things will be fresh in our mind. We aren’t guaranteed to remember everything. It’s a good idea to write accompanying Teacher Notes for all materials we create. After all … why wouldn’t we? Once again, it’s a good idea to replicate the ways in which published materials are developed when we create materials for our own classes. No published materials come without a Teacher Guide.
Some questions to keep in mind about the teacher-users. Again, these are just a few suggestions. You could write your own checklist.
- Are the teaching objectives clear?
- Is the pathway through the materials clear?
- Are the answers available?
- Do I need to add some suggested answers?
- Do I need to include information about timing?
And last but not least
Above I’ve suggested writing materials as if they were going to be used by someone else. But that doesn’t mean you neglect your own needs and preferences. You should create materials which align with your personal beliefs and values. Sometimes when we write for a third party, this isn’t possible. But when you are calling the shots, you can make it key.