Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Katherine Bilsborough

I’m moving! Please come with me


First of all I’d like to take the opportunity to say thank you for subscribing to my blog. You might have noticed that I haven’t been very active lately. That’s because I’ve been busy starting up a new business called ‘Writing ELT Materials’, offering training, online courses and … coming shortly … a brand new blog.

The new business is a joint venture with my friend and colleague John Hughes. Some of you already know about this and some of you are doing one of our online courses at the moment!

Please visit us at: www.writingELTmaterials.com 

Feel free to email us at: info@writingELTmaterials.com

You can also follow us on LinkedIn and on our YouTube channel.

I will be contacting some of you personally over the next few weeks. But once again: a BIG thank you!

Bye for now,


P is for packager

P is for packager

WTF is a packager? (Excuse the French)

When I started writing this blog post a few months ago, I realised that while I had first hand experience of working with packagers, I’d need to reach out and do some crowd sourcing if I was to present a more comprehensive and balanced view of what packagers are all about. So I asked my freelance writer and editor friends and colleagues to chip in and share their stories with me.

On LinkedIn, I asked:

1. Do some packagers prefer to call themselves something else, because the term ‘packager’ is tainted?
2. Do some packagers put in a low bid for a contract, knowing that they’ll have to find inexperienced freelancers who will accept lower fees?
3. Do publishers know that sometimes the editors and writers who have been working for them for years, are now being offered substantially lower rates?
4. What positive packager experiences have you had?
5. What negative packager stories have you had?

Then I said:

If you’d like to answer any of these questions or have anything else to say on the subject, please comment.
If you’d prefer to remain anonymous, please feel free to send me a message.
If you know a packager, please tag them.
If you know a freelancer who has might have something to say, please tag them.
If you know a publisher who uses packagers, please tag them.
Let’s try and hear from ALL sides!

So … WTF is a packager?

This is a real question I got asked by a few teachers and surprisingly, by a few writers. I realised the term wasn’t widely-known and it made me think about the answer. In the end I said something like:

Sometimes, instead of contracting a freelance writing team to produce a course book series, a publisher contracts a ‘packager’ to do everything. So they put the project up for tender, different ‘packagers’ put in a bid for the work, and then the publisher chooses the one they want to go with. Then the packager finds writers, editors, etc. Like a sub-contractor, I suppose.

Then I realised that most packagers (or even ‘all’) don’t actually call themselves packagers, and freelancers are probably working for them but know them by another name. Some variations I’ve heard are:

  • Product provider
  • Vendor
  • Trusted partner
  • Educational provider
  • Publishing services company
  • Service partner
  • Publishing supplier
  • Publishing provider

I also learnt that there are ‘offshore packagers’ (or offshore product providers, vendors, trusted partners, etc.) but I haven’t been able to pin down what is different about these, except that they don’t operate from within the UK. I suspect the term ‘offshore’ might sound a bit dodgier than it actually is but for UK based freelancers the information might be of value for tax purposes.

My own experience of packagers is mixed and on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 ‘being beyond shockingly bad’ and 10 being ‘excellent’, I’ve had scores of 0, 10, and several in between. Comparing this with my experience of working directly with publishers, the points are probably similar but with publishers they start at around 2.

Here are four things I’ve learnt about working for packagers

1 No two packagers are the same so we can’t really make sweeping statements. However, some packagers do have a terrible reputation and unless they buck up, they should be avoided. One way of knowing which ones to avoid is to speak to other freelance writers and editors in confidence. Most are happy to share their experiences. We do look after each other as a general rule. Another way is to look up the company on a site like Glassdoor or Trustpilot (Google them). I didn’t even know this existed until recently. You’ll find stories to make your hair curl. But as with all review sites, it’s probably worth double checking everything.

2 Sometimes you only learn that you’ve been working for a packager in retrospect. This has happened to me twice. I’d assumed the company that had contacted me was a publisher I hadn’t heard of. But in actual fact the materials I wrote were for a very well known publisher who I’d written for before. I don’t know if this is good or bad but not telling me seems a bit unnecessary and makes me a bit suspicious.

3 Some packagers allow you to have contact with your co-workers and some don’t. This means that you might find yourself working in an author-editor partnership with a go-between in the middle. On the one occasion this has happened to me, as might be expected, it slowed everything down no end and added an unnecessary (in my opinion) cog in an already complicated process. The only reason I can think of for this practice is to prevent two freelancers from ‘talking’. I’ll invite you to reach your own conclusions as to why this might be the case.

4 The most common complaints about packagers is the low pay. I’ve heard hundreds of stories of writers and editors being offered a tiny fraction of their usual fees, even when the end product is for a publisher they’ve been working for for decades. Several reasons have been put forward for this, with the most common one being that the packager has been successful in the bid for a project because of their low price, so they inevitably have to save money where they can. It might be worth mentioning here that on a personal note, the lowest fee I’ve ever been offered for writing work was from a national group of a large well-known international publisher, not a packager. I suppose it’s all relative and the important thing is to know what your work is worth when you enter into negotiations.

Here are three bad experiences from freelance writers I have permission to share

1 I worked for a year on a project and I never got paid. I’m owed more than 10,000 US dollars and I’m still undecided about whether or not to take the company to court. The experience has taken its toll on my mental health and made me consider a change of career. I found out later that the same thing had happened to two other writers working on the same project. One is suing and the other just walked away.

2 I turned down a medium-sized project to work on a big one for a packager. In the end I wish I hadn’t. I did get paid eventually but 16 months late and with lots of problems. I’d been buying a house at the time and needed the first payment from the packager to pay part of the deposit. When it didn’t arrive, the sale fell through and everything was a nightmare.

3 The project was disastrous from beginning to end. It was obvious they were trying to cut corners by having no project manager and it was a BIG project. Lots of people started, then left. The turnover was ridiculous. We had conflicting information in briefs, my co-author was inexperienced so needed support (which wasn’t forthcoming), we ended up doing about 6 or 7 drafts, so a lot more work than we’d expected and the worse thing was the bad feeling and negativity we all experienced. In the end the publisher took the project off the packager and gave it to another packager. That’s when I jumped ship. Oh, and I was paid 50% of my fee, which was pretty bad to start with.

Here are three positive experiences from freelance writers, just to balance things out

1 The packager was very organised and my brief was clear. I was given plenty of opportunities to ask questions and ask for support. My editor (also freelance) was great and we did the work in the expected timeframe and got paid promptly after invoicing. When I finished the project I got a message from the company thanking me for all of our hard work and saying they’d get in touch again when they needed a writer for this kind of work.

2 I regularly work for one of the new packagers. They take great measures to make sure we have everything we need to do the work, that we have enough time and that we are OK with the fee. The people behind this packager were freelancers themselves so I think they have a good idea of how to keep us happy.

3 One of my favourite client is a packager. They don’t pay as much as some publishers pay but they are low maintenance. I’ve noticed that some of the big publishers are getting more and more bureaucratic and getting paid sometimes involves all kinds of form-filling, digital uploads, talking to bots and then not having access to a real person when things go wrong or a payment is late.

Let’s keep on talking!

It’s good to be talking about packagers because this is how things are going to be now. Whatever we might call them, they are here to stay. Hopefully the bad ones will improve their work practices or disappear and the good ones will flourish as freelancer testimonials reach the eyes of the publishers who are outsourcing their projects. From what I can see this is most ELT publishers these days and might soon be ‘all’ as it is significantly cheaper to write materials in this way.

10 tips for anyone about to sign a contract with a packager

  1. Negotiate a fair fee in the same way as you would do so directly with a publisher.
  2. Ask about the work flow practices. Will you have direct contact with your author/editor?
  3. Ask other freelancers about their experience working with this company. People sign non-disclosure clauses but you could ask how an experience scores on a grid from 1 to 10.
  4. Check the company on the employer review sites mentioned in the post above.
  5. Read your contract carefully and if you are a member of the Society of Authors, ask them to check it for you.
  6. Pay attention to any red flags. Sometimes we need to trust our instincts. If you aren’t 100% sure about a project, you could try signing up for one part of the work first, see how it goes and then, if you’re happy, go ahead with the rest.
  7. Ask if you will be told who the materials are for. I always like to know who the publisher is. If everything is above board, there should be no harm in knowing.
  8. If anything goes wrong, don’t let things drag on for too long. Tell your commissioning editor straight away. Be polite and respectful, of course. It might just be an easily resolvable ‘blip’. If it isn’t, seek advice.
  9. If it’s a big project, ask to be paid your fee in instalments, and not all at the end. This might seem obvious but it’s my understanding that while editors often invoice monthly, writers send in one invoice at the end of a project.
  10. Don’t be afraid of working for a packager! It’s my guess that most of them are run by very decent people who want to run a fair, professional and successful company. Many are run by people who used to work in-house for reputable publishers or have been freelancers themselves … and want to do things better.

If anyone reading this was hoping for a list of packagers to avoid and another list of packagers to trust, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I did consider this but then I saw that different people had different experiences with the same companies so it didn’t seem fair. I will, however, happily tell anyone about my own experience (if I have one) with any particular packager. Just send me an email: info@creatingeltmaterials.com

How can you possibly write materials if you don’t teach?

4 people asking questions

Do materials writers need to teach? Can they write good materials if they don’t? How can they know what’s going on? How can they keep up to date?

These are questions I get asked all the time. So I decided to write a short blog post with my thoughts.

First of all, a couple of facts.

Teachers who write materials for their learners are in an ideal place because they know their contexts better than anyone. They can tailor a worksheet to engage the whole class because they know what the class will find motivating. And they can make multiple versions of a worksheet to meet the needs of individuals within a group. If the materials are well-designed then these learners are very lucky indeed.

A lot of very good ELT materials are written by people who haven’t been teaching for years, in some cases for decades.

So how do these writers know what to write? How do they know what kind of things the learners will find engaging, or which tasks they’ll find motivating?

I recently asked a group of such writers these questions and other similar ones. I’ve collated their answers and added them to my own experience. Basically, it’s all about ‘keeping in touch’: in touch with the classroom, in touch with the target learners, in touch with the teachers, in touch with latest research and trends …

So, here are seven ways we can keep in touch. Can you think of any more?

Do some teaching! Get in touch with a school or a teacher and ask whether you can give a lesson or a part of a lesson. This can be face to face or online. I know several writers who do this regularly, sometimes as a paid job and sometimes as a volunteer. I’ve done this successfully myself. The last time was with a primary class in Brazil where I zoomed in and was interviewed by a group of nine-year-olds. It was terrifying! Only joking. It was great fun – hopefully for them too.

Mingle with teachers, especially those who work in the context of the target users of the materials you are writing. This might be a geographical area, an age group, or perhaps teachers focusing on a specific exam like IELTS. These days most mingling happens in social media groups. If the perfect group doesn’t exist, set one up yourself. When you have access to these teachers, you can crowd source information, ask questions, start discussions, share surveys … create a shared learning space.

Read, read, read! There has never been such an abundance of material with a focus on education from every angle imaginable. I like to read about general trends and news in education, and also more specialized focuses, depending on the materials I’m writing at any given moment. Recently I’ve been reading about the rise and rise of AI in education. It’s fascinating. But I’ve also been reading about changes to the Cambridge IGCSE ESL exam and the new SEL (social and emotional learning) competences that have been added to the Spanish curriculum – not nearly as exciting but probably more immediately useful for the work I’ve been doing. Find journals, articles and blog posts on topics of interest. If you don’t know where to look, ask! If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Write an article or blog post. If you don’t have your own blog, approach someone who does, and offer to write a guest post. Lots of Teacher Associations, special interest groups and institutions are actively looking for contributors. Get in touch with me if you’d like more tailored advice on this. I might be able to help or to put you in touch with someone else who can offer some guidance. When we agree to write about a topic, we inevitably have to spend time researching and checking things. It’s a great way to force ourselves to be on top of things.

Be active in the ELT community. This is the best way to meet people, hear about what’s going on, share ideas, advice, recommendations. There are lots of ways to be active. Volunteering for a Teachers’ Association suits some people. It can be time-consuming but is time well-spent. Organise a meet-up, face-to-face if that’s appropriate or online if it isn’t. Or try a hybrid meet-up. You don’t need to be a big institution to do this. Individuals have been organizing such social events for family and friends since the COVID pandemic when people were confined to their homes.

Hang out with the right people – people who belong to the same kind of communities as your target users. If you are writing Business English materials, join Business forums. If you write materials for children, offer to babysit for your sister’s children. You get the picture. Being in close proximity offers great opportunities for observation. You’ll notice what kind of things they are talking about, what they are listening to, watching, reading.

Learn from the publishers. Sometimes we can get valuable information from others who have been in classrooms and observed what’s going on: the publishers. Check out current materials on their websites. Read their catalogues. See which kinds of things they are highlighting. Are they suggesting any unique selling points (USPs)? If so, then this is likely to be something they’ve done extensive market research on and worth taking note of. If you can get to a book shop, browse ‘real’ materials. Have a look at things like text lengths and recurring themes or topics and trends.

So, as you can see, there are plenty of ways to find out the things you need to know to inform your materials writing. If you can think of anything else, please get in touch and let me know. I’ll edit your ideas in (and credit you, of course).

Happy writing!

U is for user

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.

A new online course!

Writing ELT materials: an exciting new online course for teachers and writers

I’ve been planning to create and deliver an online course in materials writing for some time. But things kept getting in my way and it wasn’t happening. Meanwhile, my friend and colleague John Hughes was doing (and not doing) exactly the same as me.  So we’ve done something very sensible and joined forces to create a brand new online course. We hope you share in our excitement.

Why do a course with us?

John and I have been around for a long time! We have extensive experience in writing materials, and in helping others create materials. We have some shared experience, but we also have different areas of experience too. Between us we are confident that we can help people write materials for a large range of contexts … because we’ve done it ourselves and we’ve identified the skills that we know are key to success.

Who is the course for?

The course of for anyone who is interested in developing their skills in materials writing, including:

  • English teachers
  • Teacher trainers
  • Materials writers
  • ELT editors who want to move into writing
  • Other ELT professionals with an interest in materials writing

How long is the course?

It’s a 10-week course with a break in the middle and extra time to complete assignments and receive feedback.

Where is the course being delivered?

The live input sessions will take place on Zoom. There will also be a community space for participants in a closed Facebook group.

What will be covered on the course?

The course covers key principles and technical skills of writing as well as aspects of creativity and specific contexts. You can read more about the content on the course website (link at the end).

Will participants get personalized feedback on their materials?

Yes! Participants will have two materials writing assignments. They will receive personalized feedback on both, in the same way that established Publishing companies give their authors feedback on manuscripts.

Thank you for reading this post! I’ll be continuing with my ‘A to Z of materials writing’ posts very soon!

V is for … visibility

This is a newish 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. I’m going through the alphabet in no particular order.

V is for … visibility

One of the most frequent questions I get asked by teachers is ‘How can I sell my materials?’ While there is no easy answer to this question, there is one obvious consideration: visibility. If nobody sees your materials, how can they know they are worth buying when you sell them? How can they see what kind of thing you do if they aren’t ‘out there’. Visibility is also important for those who wish to get paid work writing ELT materials. How are publishers supposed to know that you can write if they haven’t seen your work?

Let’s have a look at these two things a bit more closely.

Visibility for teachers who want to sell their material – marketing

More and more teachers are selling their materials, either through sites like Teachers Pay Teachers or through their own websites and platforms. Creating the materials is the easy part as many teachers have been doing this for years anyway, as part of their own teaching practice. But marketing them is a whole different story, and one which most of us have little, if any, experience in. So, how can you market yourself as a materials writer?

Here are five suggestions:

  1. Build a website or blog and share your materials there.
  2. Build up a presence on social media. Do a bit of research to find the right platform for you. Where do your ideal clients hang out? Instagram? TikTok? LinkedIn? You don’t need to be present everywhere, but it is worthwhile spending tie on choosing the best place(s) to be.
  3. Offer to write guest blog posts for people who have a widely read blog. Again, it’s worth thinking about the readership. For example, if you write Business English materials, a YL-focused blog isn’t for you.
  4. Do a ‘live’ event on social media to tell people about your products or to invite people to ask questions. There are several ways of doing this and it might be scary but it’s an increasingly popular way of reaching people.
  5. Take part in a conference, giving a presentation that links to the area or context of your materials. You can tell people about your products at the end of your session or add a slide with contact details.

Visibility for teachers who want to write materials for a publisher – making connections

If you ask a group of freelance ELT writers how they managed to get a foot in the door with a publisher, the answers will be as varied as the people you ask. Some start working in-house at publishers, as editors or project managers. Some find opportunities through their teaching institutions when a publisher gets in touch to ask for help in trialling materials or giving feedback on new products. Others are head hunted at conferences or Teacher Events, usually after giving a presentation or taking part in a forum or debate. Publishers are always more likely to give you work if they already know that you have something to offer. However, this does not need to be need not be directly linked to writing. Things like classroom experience, teacher training, having expertise in a particular area or context are all key skills that publishers consider of value. So, how can you get noticed by a publisher?

Here are five suggestions:

  1. Get in touch with publishers in the real world. Visit them at their offices or find out which people work in the departments you are interested in and send them an email asking them to add your details to their database of freelancers.
  2. Offer to trial materials with your learners and to give feedback. In the feedback you have an opportunity to demonstrate an understanding of how materials work and which elements are key to classroom success.
  3. Join ELT publishing groups and mingle with other writers and editors. This is a great way of getting to know more about how publishing works and where new opportunities might lie.
  4. Offer to write a review of a new coursebook or resource. Many teaching journals and institutions such as IATEFL or TESOL are on the lookout for potential reviewers and the book’s publishers will notice you.
  5. Speak to other ELT writers directly to ask for advice. We don’t bite!

Tip: Take some time to think about the area of ELT writing you’d like to get involved with. Most writers focus on materials for a specific context. This could be related to age, level, an exam focus, or a niche such as EAL (English as an Additional Language) or BE (Business English).

B is for … brief

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.

B is for … brief

In publishing, a brief is a set of instructions and information explaining what is expected in a manuscript. Briefs come in many shapes and sizes, from a sparse paragraph outlining a topic and one or two key points, to a multi-page document with very precise details about every single aspect of a project.

You might wonder why I’m talking about a brief in this ‘A to Z’ series when many of my subscribers are teachers who write materials for their own learners, and not writing for a publisher. But two things occurred to me.

  • Firstly, that some of you might want to start writing for a publisher or another organization producing materials.
  • Secondly, that a brief is such a useful document that you might like to write your own as a preliminary stage before getting stuck in to writing. Think of it as a framework, something to hang your materials on. I think it could be a good way to make sure you aren’t forgetting something important.

Here is some typical information to be found in a brief:

  • A page plan for each lesson in a unit, or each section in a module, etc.
  • Information about the target users, such as level, age, context-specific details, etc.
  • Methodology which should be used
  • Conventions about cultural aspects, such as names, topics to avoid, etc.
  • Information about use of images, where they can be sourced, etc.
  • Information about file-naming
  • A proposed schedule for writing

But no two briefs are the same! Some really are brief (my shortest was a paragraph), others can be lengthy, containing lots more information and (between you and me) sometimes over complicated.

What to do if you receive a brief

If you receive a brief from a publisher, congratulations! This means you are being offered some work. Make sure you:

1 Acknowledge receipt and say you’ll get in touch if you have any questions.

2 Read it carefully, making a note of anything that isn’t clear.

3 Ask for clarification about anything that is either unclear or ambiguous. Don’t worry about sounding silly. It’s much better to start writing when everything is 100% clear. Sometimes a good way of doing this is by rephrasing using your own words. E.g. I assume this means ….

4 Use the brief as a reference throughout the writing process, as a framework, a reminder, and a checklist.

What if you don’t receive a brief?

If you take on a materials writing job for which you haven’t been provided a brief, you can ask for one. Or, alternatively, you could gather all the information you have about the project and write your own. I’ve done this a number of times and although it isn’t ideal, it’s a good way of getting the commissioning editor to say ‘Yes, that’s what we want’ in writing.

Tip: Look at a course book that you are familiar with and think about what the author brief would have included. Make some notes. Then consider the importance of each point. If you were writing a course book for the same target users, is there anything you’d change in the brief?

This kind of reflection is useful to gain a better understanding of why publishers do what they do regardless of whether you agree with those decisions.

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?


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.


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


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:


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.


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.


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.