Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Katherine Bilsborough

Please don’t assume you know what I mean by ‘diversity’.

Next month I’m giving a plenary at the 45th TESOL Spain Convention [Register here]. When I was invited to speak, I decided to combine my area of expertise (creating ELT materials) with the theme of the convention ‘Innovating changes: a world of Diversity’. So I came up with the title:

Creating ELT Materials to promote Diversity: Why? How? (and How not?)

and the blurb:

Creating our own materials is a great way to bring diversity into our lessons. But it can feel like a challenge. How can we be sure that the materials we produce are appropriate, use acceptable terminology and help to cultivate harmony and respect in the classroom? In this plenary I’ll share some advice about what to do, and what not to do.

How to frame things

Over the past few weeks I’ve been planning the presentation, thinking about how I’ll frame the information I want to share and how to make it as useful as possible for participants.

The audience

A plenary is always a bit trickier than a regular session because the audience covers a broader spectrum. Instead of speaking to, for example, all primary teachers, I could be speaking to Business English teachers, infant school teachers, IELTS preparation teachers, university students, language school owners, all levels of management, and everything in between. So I need to make things relevant in every possible context.

This isn’t difficult because many of the principles of writing materials are universal. Those that aren’t can be modified to suit different scenarios. The same is true of diversity. In fact, the whole point about diversity is that it is relevant to absolutely everyone, because each and every one of us is unique and everyone we encounter in our professional capacity is unique too. So we are all interested in learning more about this diversity, right?

Wrong!

No place in the classroom

Recent discussions and observations on social media have highlighted the fact that some people firmly believe that diversity, equality and inclusion have no place in an English classroom.  When TESOL Spain shared a link to advertise my talk, I was surprised by the number of people who made (wrong) assumptions about what it was going to be about. Some posted comments. One sent me some messages. Ironically these people had in their head that I was going to talk about a single theme. Gay rights, gender politics and race were suggested. I pointed out that a plenary talk about diversity which only focused on one group of under-represented people wouldn’t be very diverse. The man who sent me the messages asked me if I was a ‘closet lipstick lesbian’. All I could think of were his poor students. Other comments I had were:

We are language teachers, not social workers.

Just focus on the language and forget pushing your agenda. It isn’t difficult.

Who do you think you are, trying to brainwash kids?

There have been other comments too. Some very disrespectful as conversations have got heated. But there’s no need to reproduce them here. You get the picture.

So while I’ve been planning my plenary, thinking about the usual things like how to start, how to end, what to include, what to leave out, which images might be good on which slide and how best to present certain ideas, I’ve been forced to rethink a lot of my own preconceived assumptions. I’ve had to step outside my bubble and listen to colleagues who have diametrically opposed views to my own. It hasn’t been easy because some of these people have views that upset or offend me. But the good thing is that most people who are reluctant to think about diversity in the context of the classroom are simply afraid of ‘going there’ and say things like:

I’m afraid of getting it wrong.

I don’t know enough about [insert any unrepresented group].

What if I try and make it worse by triggering someone?

These are the people I want to reach. Because these are the people who care enough about their learners to pause before jumping right in and possibly [probably?] getting it wrong, of doing things in a ‘willy nilly’ way – a term that Brian Tomlinson has often made in relation to materials writing, and one which I regularly borrow.

I’m learning heaps as I plan my presentation. It’s time-consuming because like the teachers I’ve mentioned, I want to feel confident that I’m getting it right. In my experience as a teacher and as a materials writer there have, of course, been occasions when I’ve got it wrong. I’m only human, after all. I’m hoping I’ll have the courage to share those examples with my audience. And perhaps after the event I’ll come back and write a follow-up here too.

Three thoughts

In the meantime, I’m thinking about how we embrace diversity, inclusion and equality in the materials we create and how we can work together to make sure we do a good job. For now, I’ll leave you with three thoughts on the topic of more diversity as we create ELT materials.

1. Nobody is expected to know about everything. So we need to ask for help and get advice about things we aren’t sure of.

2. We need to develop our own empathy and this means listening more. Only by putting ourselves in the shoes of those who will use our materials (teachers and learners) can we be sure that we’re on the right track. 

3. Just because we focus on diversity, it doesn’t mean we can forget about other principles of materials writing. We are language teachers, so language and must underpin everything we do.

Thank you for reading.

35 ways to improve your life without really trying

In my last blog post [here] I wrote about four possibly life-changing intentions I have for the year ahead. They involved time, money and the work I choose to accept. I mentioned a fifth intention and that’s what this post is all about. I thought it deserved an entry of its own.

Self care as a freelancer

On the face of it, it isn’t work-related and has little to do with creating ELT materials but in actual fact it’s got everything to do with those things. Because it’s all about the practices I’ve chosen to adopt for my own well being which will have a knock on effect on everything I do, including, and perhaps especially, my work.

Keeping it real

I recently read an inspiring article, put together by a team of writers, called ‘100 ways to improve your life without really trying’. I loved it for its simple, common sense and, more importantly, do-able ideas. I shared this link with friends on social media and in the course of the discussions that followed I said I’d write my own version. You can read the article I refer to here.

Do It Yourself

Just as I found reading the original article uplifting and motivating, I also found planning my own version, thinking about realistic and do-able small changes, therapeutic and inspiring. So I’d urge anyone who might be contemplating writing their own, to do just that. You don’t have to write 100 or even 50, any number will do. How about choosing your age as I did (or didn’t) and going with that as a number?

My list: not in order of importance

1. Drink a glass of water before doing anything else in the morning. You could pour it the night before to and leave it on your bedside table, covered, so it’s the first thing you see when you wake up. Drinking water is good for lots of reasons. I’ve also recently found out that it’s better to sip and not gulp it down, so that’s worth noting, I think.

2. Set an alarm when you start working at your computer, that can act as a stretch notifier.  When the alarm goes off, stretch as many muscles as possible, including facial muscles.

3. Focus your eyesight on something that isn’t a screen every now and then. It doesn’t need to be for long, but it’s definitely good for your eyes. An outdoor scene is ideal, especial if you’ve got something nice view to contemplate.

4. Have a plant in a place where you can see it while you work. It doesn’t need to be big or fancy and you don’t need to be green-fingered. If the plant doesn’t survive, chuck it out and replace it with a new one. Nobody’s judging you.  A cactus is an easy plant to care for though.

5. Keep a notebook handy where you can make a note of any minor achievements each day, as they occur. This can be anything from managing not to get angry at the news or meeting a deadline. Acknowledging these things is what it’s all about. We’re usually much better at acknowledging the cock-ups.

6. Find a podcast that suits you – there really is something for everyone. Take some time out to relax listen to it. You could do this with your eyes closed, just to rest them or you could do it while you potter. I find a podcast helps distract me from work so that when I return to it, I see things with fresh eyes. And I usually flip between crime, science and literature – whatever floats your boat.

7. Make yourself a happy place in your home. Do whatever needs to be done for it to be a place you feel good in. Things that might help are a scented candle, a comfy blanket, a nice view, a favourite picture, a photo album, a lamp – anything that gives you comfort. Then make an effort to hang out in your happy place at least a couple of times a day.

8. Read! Books can be used as all kinds of therapy. They can take you to new worlds that make you forget the one you’re in for a while, if that’s what you need. They can inspire you with new ideas, teach you new things, help you understand couldn’t get your head around. And of course lots more.

9. Declutter your real desktop and your virtual desktop. You’ll benefit from the practical effects and the mental effects.

10. Unsubscribe from annoying emails that you keep getting. Set aside a block of time specifically for this. It will be time well-invested.

11. Go outside whatever the weather. Really. Invest in some waterproofs, a woolly hat or whatever else is appropriate. Even if you don’t feel like going out, you’ll be glad you went when you get back. Even a walk around the block will have its benefits.

12. Doodle! Get a sketchpad and some coloured pens. Don’t put them away in a drawer. Keep them somewhere handy, maybe in your happy place. Everyone can be an artist. And nobody needs to see your creations. Unless you want to share them of course.

13. Learn how to do something new now and then. I don’t mean big things like learning how to speak a brand new foreign language. Find something that’s useful or interesting for you. I’m thinking of learning a bit of sign language, for example.

14. Watch some daytime telly! Seriously. That whole idea that says watching Netflix at night is fine but watching it during the day isn’t, is just plain wrong. As long as you meet your commitments, you should be able to do relaxing stuff whenever you like.

15. Get hold of some children’s drawings and frame them. There’s always something uplifting about children’s art. If you don’t have children of your own, ask the child of a friend or neighbour to do you a picture. It’s my bet they’d be more than happy to comply.

16. Try a new tea or influsion blend, even if you’ve already got your favourites. I mean, you could find a new favourite and we can’t have too much of a good thing. Especially if it’s a healthy thing.

17. Take some time to think about where you’d like to be in a few years’ time. Not just geographically of course. How can we follow our dreams if we don’t first consider what they might be? And while we’re on the subject, dream big. Be bold.

18. If there’s a club or group you’d like to join but it doesn’t exist, start one up! This can be F2F or online and could be anything work-related, health-related, educational or just fun. It’s a good way to meet like-minded people.

19. Most of us get a buzz when we do some home improvements or even move home. But we can replicate that in small ways by giving a single space in a room a makeover. I recently discovered you can get some really amazing wallpaper these days and you don’t even have to use paste because it’s self-adhesive. I’m in love with some verdigris oxidized copper paper. Google it!

20. Make (and then share) a cake! If you don’t think you can, you’re wrong. Anybody can. Just add ‘easy’ to a recipe search. If you’re afraid you’ll eat the whole cake, avoid that by sharing it with a neighbour. I’ve done that several times and the reaction has been nice. I mean, how would you react if someone came around with cake?

21. Find an internet page with jokes and fall down the rabbit hole for ten minutes. You’ll need to find the right one, of course. I love dark or absurd humour like Steve Wright’s. His one-liners make me laugh out loud and laughter is good for the soul.  

22. When you’ve enjoyed working with someone on a project, send them a message to tell them just that. When I’ve received such an email, it’s made my day and it really is a small thing.

23. Have a picnic lunch outside even if it’s a workday.  Or it could be a breakfast or dinner. This is something I do regularly and it makes me feel like I’m on holiday, even if I have to get back to my desk afterwards. If it’s cold, just wrap up warm, and take a thermos of tea or coffee.

24. Organise a weekly, or fortnightly trip to see something cultural. If you can get to a real museum or art gallery, great! If you can’t, visit one of the online museums or galleries, either from the comfort of your home or a café or bar. Take notes!

25. Watch an obscure or not-well-known film you wouldn’t normally watch, maybe a foreign film or an old film. There are lots of ways of doing this and thousands of films to choose from.. You could do an internet search with ‘award winning films + [country]. If it turns out you don’t like the film, you can stop watching. But chances are you might getting drawn in and discover a whole new back catalogue to watch. If you don’t know where to start, reach out and ask, especially if you have friends from other countries.

26. Think of something new to learn that seems big but can be broken down into smaller bits. Then practise or learn one bit until you feel you’ve nailed it. After that you can decide whether to move on to the next bit or just abandon it for something else. This can be something cerebral like learning a foreign alphabet or something science-based like the Periodic Table. Or it could be more physical, like Yoga asanas or dance moves.

27. If you work in ELT (or if you don’t), find out more about EDI issues (Equality, Diversity, Inclusion). Find reputable sites with key information and make a note of anything you learn that you didn’t know before. Maybe share that information with somebody else.

28. Find four or five keyboard shortcuts or hacks that could make your life easier. Then make yourself a little card and place it near your computer so that you remember them … until they become second nature.

29. If you live in a place where the night sky is visible, go outside when it’s dark and see what you can see. Check out with a website what’s going to be visible in your area on a particular date. You can even sign up for notifications so you know in advance when something special might be happening. You can do this with the naked eye but you might also like to invest in binoculars or a telescope.

30. Make your own luxury chocolates using the best base chocolate you can afford and your favourite ingredients. Invent new flavours and combinations. I’ve tried this with dark chocolate doing combinations of fresh cherries and sea salt and small chunks of figs with chili pepper. I’m going to try slivers of ripe pear next.

32. Find a local radio station and check out their programme schedule. Then listen in and find out what’s going on in your area. Even the most remote corners of the world have their own radio stations and it’s a brilliant way of finding out all kinds of useful information. I started listening to Radio Valdivielso [here] a few years ago and I’ve even formed a friendship with the presenter and made spot appearances to talk about things as disparate as fracking, growing your own vegetables and Tom Jones. But more importantly I’ve had great advice on the best internet providers, where to buy local produce and all kinds of local laws and social matters.

https://radiovaldivielso.es/

33. Find out about ergonomics and how you should be sitting at your desk. Most of us get into bad, slouchy habits and while that might not matter right now, It could cause health problems in the future. My friend and fellow ELT freelancer, Julie Moore wrote an excellent blog post [here] about laptop ergonomics. It includes a really useful image, explaining how to position yourself for pain-free posture.

https://lexicoblog.blogspot.com/search?q=WFH+laptop+ergonomics

34. Write a ‘to do’ list with some things you want to do, rather than chores or work tasks. This could be a shorter daily list or a longer weekly one. See what works best and keep it realistic.

35. Offer to do something spontaneous for a friend, neighbour or family member. Many of us jump to help when asked but fewer of us actually offer without being prompted. This could be anything from babysitting, walking a dog, helping with some gardening, running an errand, driving them somewhere. Obviously everything depends on the person and what you feel comfortable with (and authorised to do). A nice way of doing this is to make and give the receiver a token stating what you are offering to do.

Over to you!

It would make me happy to think that at least one person reading this blog decides to try one of the things I’ve highlighted for myself in this list. But as I mentioned at the start, writing your own list is a really good thing to do. I’d love to hear from anyone who does this. Happy pondering!

Looking ahead: small changes, big impact

woman with binoculars

It was recently ‘that time of year’, when everyone was looking back at the year that was drawing to a close. It was the perfect time to reflect on achievements or on lessons learnt. I’d intended to do the same but holidays got the better of me, so now, instead of looking back at the past year of ELT writing, I’m looking ahead. I can’t know exactly what I’ll be doing, of course but I do have ‘intentions’. And I think they might be life-changing – in a good way of course. Here are four of them. There’s a fifth, but I’ll save that for another day.

  1. Fewer freebies

In 2022 I’m going to think long and hard before saying ‘Yes’ to free writing work. This might sound mean because it’s good to give back, right? But I already ‘give back’ in a number of ways and over the past few years I’ve had several official voluntary roles that have taken up a lot of my time, and in some cases, prevented me from doing paid work during my work time so subsequently taking away what was supposed to be my free time.

Notice I didn’t say I wouldn’t do any unpaid work. Some things are worth considering because they are for a good cause or because they provide me with an opportunity to connect with teachers and talk about things I feel passionate about.  My work with the ELT Footprint community ticks both of those boxes. [Join us on Facebook here or check out the website here.] I am of the firm belief that everyone should do some voluntary work, at some point. It’s a great way to make connections, try new things and sometimes get a sense of what’s really important and what isn’t.

2a. Fewer working hours

In 2022 I’m going to work fewer hours. I’ve considered how this might work in reality because there are lots of possible set-ups, from regular three- or four-day weeks to taking whole weeks off. I’m keeping my options open for now because as any freelance writer will tell you, we can’t control everything. In fact, we control very little.

For now, in January, I’m working fewer hours each day and taking whole afternoons or mornings off. It’s great because it gives me an opportunity to do other things or just to laze around, watching a series or reading a good book. We should never feel guilty (as I used to) for doing ‘nothing’. As Winnie the Pooh said, “Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.” And he knew a thing or two.

2b. More income

While I plan to cut back on my hours, my idea is also to increase my earnings. While that might sound like an impossible task, it really isn’t. I learnt a lot about working smarter last year. I read some useful books – more on those in a future blog post. And I did Rachael Roberts’ course ‘Switch off stress. Switch on success.’ which I recommend to anyone thinking about going freelance or starting their own business. You can find out more about Rachael’s course and other services here.

3. Acceptable pay and conditions

Everyone deserves to be paid fairly for the work they do, whatever line of work they are in. When it comes to the kind of specialist work many freelance ELT writers and editors do, a fee needs to take into account not just ‘time spent on the job’ but the unique skill set, expertise, experience and knowledge we bring to the table. This is sometimes more obvious for other sectors.

The Engineer Joke

The best analogy for this concept is the engineer joke, a story that has been going around for decades, probably centuries, in various forms. In brief, an engineer is called to look at a machine that has broken down in a big factory. The owners want it fixed urgently as production has stopped. The engineer looks at the machine and soon sees what the problem is. A few minutes later he returns with a hammer and gives the machine an almighty wack, fixing the problem and putting the machine back in action. He hands over a bill for $5,000 and the factory owner, shocked, asks for an itemized bill. So the engineer gives him a new bill which says:

  • Hammer $5
  • Knowing where to hit the machine with the hammer: $4,995

It isn’t rocket science. Except that sometimes, it is. Never forget that you know where to hit the machine with the hammer.

4. Only fulfilling writing work, please

The other day as I was gathering documents to do my three-monthly, tax return I was reminded of some of the projects I’d been working on. The best ones were ones where I felt fulfilled, engaged, got into the whole ‘flow’ vibe, and actually looked forward to turning my computer on and getting down to work. This wasn’t the case with all of the work though. A couple of projects weren’t right for me.

On example is ‘assessment materials’. I just can’t get excited about them. Others can though, and that’s good. But even though I know this, I haven’t always borne it in mind.

[Note: I just fell into a Google rabbit hole while checking it was ‘borne’ and not ‘born’.]

I’ve sometimes accepted work offers that I really should have turned down. While there are obvious reasons for this, such as those nagging thoughts that if I don’t say yes to this particular work, I might find myself without any work. But in my experience something always comes along. And if it doesn’t, I shout out that I need some work, and someone usually hears me.

Doing work you find boring can be soul destroying. Obviously there are elements of all projects that can be monotonous and distinctly unexciting, but I’ve decided to take a Marie Kondo approach for the foreseeable future. If the job description doesn’t spark joy, or at least interest, curiosity and a tiny bit of excitement, I’ll quietly retreat. Even the thought of only working on projects that I love makes me feel positive. I mean, what’s the point of being self-employed if we can’t cherry pick?

So that’s it. Do you plan to make any changes to your work life in 2022? If so, I’d love to hear what they are. Oh and the photo? That’s me looking to the future in my curlers.

ELT teachers as materials writers: lessons from the masters

Typewriter

Previously published as keynote article in IATEFL ‘Voices’ Issue 28 (Nov / Dec 2021)

Connections and inspiration

According to the anthropologist Arthur Aufderheide, ‘All knowledge is connected to all other knowledge. The fun is in making the connections.’ I love this idea, and I’ve often reflected on how, in my personal life, something I’ve observed in one context has been the source of an important lesson in my professional life. This might not happen immediately, but it happens frequently. At the joint MaWSIG and LitSIG Pre-Conference Event in 2019, my friend and sometimes co-author Cheryl Palin gave a wonderful presentation called ‘Taking a leaf out of the books of great writers’. She shared some thought-provoking quotes from famous literary figures, all about the act of writing. The anticipation in the room just before each click to reveal the quote on the next slide was palpable. This isn’t surprising as the room was filled with writers and readers, all of whom love a literary quote, especially when it resonates in such a personal way. Since then, whenever I’ve come across a quote about writing, I consider how it relates to my work creating ELT materials, and whether I might learn a valuable lesson from it, how I can make connections.

All teachers are materials writers

All teachers are, I believe, materials writers, whether designing a worksheet for a business English class, an interactive game for an online lesson with primary children, or anything in between. With this in mind, I’m sharing ten of my favourite writers’ quotes, each with some personal thoughts about how it relates to the teaching materials we create. With the exception of the last one, they are different from Cheryl’s selection—perhaps unsurprisingly, as there are thousands of writers’ quotes out there. As you read, I invite you to make your own connections and find your own meanings. This is where the magic lies, and unexpected learning takes place.

Ten quotes

‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’

Toni Morrison

A great deal of hard work and effort is currently being made by many ELT professionals who wish to make materials more inclusive and diverse. Traditionally many publisher-led products have shown a narrow range of people-types, mainly white, middle-class, heteronormative, from traditional two-parent, one- or two-children families, living in well-to-do neighbourhoods in developed countries. Sound familiar? But these days, issues such as Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and eco-literacy are on our radar more and more. It is, therefore, only natural that we should ask ourselves how these issues can be addressed in our world, whether that be in a classroom, a Teacher Association, a publishing company or any other ELT corner. As teacher-writers, we have an opportunity to write the materials that we, and our learners, want to see, but which haven’t yet been written. Some of us have already started doing just this, and it is my belief that before long, it will be easier to find a broader range of materials in which our learners can see their own realities reflected.

‘Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.’

Lisa See

To write well, it’s crucial to read the works of others. This is true of every art form. Musicians listen to music, directors and scriptwriters watch films, and artists go to exhibitions. We learn good practice from observing the work of others. We learn what works and what doesn’t work. This holds true for ELT writers, too. To write good materials, we first need to understand the essence of what good materials are, and the best way to do this is by evaluating existing materials according to a set of criteria. These criteria can be different for each of us, but a good starting point might be to think about general principles in material design and then move on to your learners’ contexts and what they specifically need. Armed with a list, you can browse course books, resource packs or digital materials and see how they hold up. Make a note of the positive aspects you’d like to include in your own materials and the negative aspects you want to avoid. Keeping a journal for such evaluation could prove a useful reminder. You might look back at earlier entries and decide that your criteria should be changed. No two contexts are ever identical.

‘Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should finish in the reader’s.’

Stephen King

The first thing to consider and to keep in mind as we create materials for our own learners is the reader, or the end user. We usually start by tailoring a worksheet to meet the language needs of the learners, but we can do much more when we know our learners personally. The better we get to know them, the easier it is to choose themes and issues that are of personal interest, thereby going one step further to ensuring their curiosity and engagement. We can do this through informal dialogues or in more structured ways, such as through questionnaires or class journals. The important thing is to notice. Noticing is, in my opinion, one of the most important skills that a teacher should develop.

            We should also keep in mind a potential second user too, another teacher. While you might be creating your materials for your own use, it is a good idea to write them as if another teacher was going to use them, whether substituting a lesson for you or with a class of their own. This approach will force you to make the materials clearer, avoiding ambiguity and probably doing a better job. It also means that one day, should you wish to share your materials or publish them, they will already be more polished. One easy way to keep this second user in mind, rather than second guessing, is to share the materials with a colleague with a request for feedback. You could provide them with a simple checklist. Questions work well: Are the instructions clear? Is the level of challenge accurate? Should I include a space for writing the answers?

‘Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long time to make it short.’

Henry David Thoreau

These words of wisdom resonate with me. I loved writing stories as a child but tended to jump into a composition without any planning at all. I would waffle on for page upon page, and of course, disregard the editing process entirely. As a teacher I’ve observed a similar approach in many of my learners, of course. There seems to be a general blindness to the value of time spent re-working a text to make it the best it can be. As materials writers we should be spending as much time on planning and editing as we do on writing. The three activities are key to success. A teacher creating their own materials doesn’t usually have the luxury of an editor, so they need to put on their editor’s cap and go through their work meticulously, cutting, changing, moving things around, and simplifying. Making materials shorter takes some time. Making them excellent, takes even longer.

‘The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.’

Joyce Carol Oates

Materials writing is never linear. We don’t start at the beginning and move in a straight line towards the end. There is also no one rule about where to start. Sometimes, we conduct a needs analysis to find out exactly what our learners need. Other times, we come across some engaging content, such as a text, an image or a video, and this automatically becomes the starting point. Sometimes we do both things semi-simultaneously. While there is not one right way, there are probably quite a few wrong ways. You need to find the way that works best for you, making sure the language focus is aligned to your syllabus and that you don’t miss a golden opportunity to develop a skill or have an interesting discussion. One good way to do this is to look over the materials when they are in a rough shape and ask yourself a few questions, such as the following:

  • Are there several examples of a particular kind of language which I could exploit, such as the use of a verb tense, a word-building convention, the use of relative pronouns or adverbs?
  • Is there an obvious theme which could be addressed in a guided discussion?
  • Are there any interesting pronunciation features which could be highlighted?
  • Would it be a good idea to add a new task between two existing tasks?
  • Is it better to have a reading text on the same page as the exercises or on a separate page, and then create differentiated exercises for the same content?

‘Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.’

E. B. White

Young learner teachers and writers will understand the importance of this quote. Nowhere does age appropriacy matter more than in materials for the youngest learners, and it isn’t as simple to get right as it might appear. Every choice we make in terms of theme, image, text length or activity type should be seen through the eyes of the child who will be using the materials. There is nothing that kills a child’s motivation more quickly that the suspicion that they are being treated like a younger child. Most children these days are used to seeing real world images and hearing about news stories from around the world. While we must never forget that they are first and foremost children, we should also encourage them to articulate and share their own ideas and opinions about the things that affect them directly. Article 12 of the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of the Child states: ‘Children have the right to give their opinion freely on issues that affect them. Adults should listen and take children seriously.’ We are those adults, and listening to the children will have a positive impact on the materials we create for them.

‘Words can inspire. And words can destroy. Choose yours well.’

Robin Sharma

Have you ever come across a text in a course book and thought, ‘Oh dear; that is most inappropriate for Student X or Class Y’? There is a simple way to avoid this in your own materials: Get to know your learners! The more you know about them the better you can edit materials so that nothing is likely to trigger an adverse reaction. Also, always read or re-read a text before you use it in a classroom. The same goes for an audio script too, of course. I have observed many teachers who have been surprised at the content of an audio while using it for the first time in a classroom. Not reading an audio script before pressing the ‘Play’ button seems to be a common, but potentially disastrous, shortcut. But if we are writing the script, we can pay attention. A good rule of thumb is to first think of the class as a whole and how they will react to your materials. And then to consider each individual learner and ask the same question. If you have any doubt, then you probably need to change something.

‘A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.’

Richard Bach

One of the questions I most frequently get asked by teachers is how to become a professional ELT writer. There is no single answer, of course, but I do point out that most, probably all, professional ELT writers started their careers as teachers. So, whoever is asking the question is in a good starting position. Here are some common sense tips:

  • Write materials for your own classes.
  • Make them as good as you possibly can.
  • Share your materials with other teachers and ask for feedback.
  • Get yourself known by giving a presentation or a webinar. If you’ve haven’t done this before, consider doing a joint presentation with a friend or colleague.
  • Send in a lesson plan to a materials competition. They do exist. Check publishers’ websites and blogs.
  • Attend conferences where you can meet writers and ask them questions.
  • Get in touch with publishers and ask if you can review materials or try your hand at writing one of the extra components that they often publish to go with a course.
  • Don’t give up.

‘A writer never has a vacation. For a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.’

Eugene Ionesco

I think this is true for teachers and writers. We are hard-wired to notice things that might be useful for our learners. When we hear a song, we zoom in on a tense being used in the chorus. We can’t read a news article without thinking how nicely it ties in with a unit we are teaching on a related theme. This can be problematic when we are trying to switch off from work, of course. But it’s my belief that all creative thinkers do this to some degree so it might be best to embrace it and keep a notebook handy. In his book The Art of Noticing, Rob Walker suggests that creativity is sparked by training yourself to notice things in everyday life and that this, ultimately, is a good thing.

‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.’

William Somerset Maugham

This was my favourite quote at Cheryl’s presentation which I mentioned in my introduction.  I like it because it’s provocative, amusing and very true for teacher-writers who each come from a unique starting point. But unlike novelists, who, in most cases, are unlikely to get together to collaborate on a book, teachers can work together in teams to create excellent resources. Some of the best teacher-created resources seen are the result of joint efforts. We all have a unique set of skills and experience, and by working together in different ways we can write our own rules, break them, rewrite them and so on, ad infinitum. Don’t wait to be invited to enjoy such a teacher-writer team. Set one up yourself.

In closing 

There are many more writers’ quotes, of course, and we can probably make meaningful connections with all of them. As Arthur Aufderheide said, that’s where the fun lies. I think it’s also likely that this is where personal professional development lies, as we join the dots, discovering new ways to provide our learners with the excellent materials they deserve.

References

UNICEF. (n.d.). The Convention on the Rights of the Child: The child-friendly version. https://www.unicef.org/sop/convention-rights-child-child-friendly-version

Walker, R. (2019). The art of noticing. Knopf.

The C word: (censorship) … and the Z word

This blog post is going to be controversial. I know this before I even begin writing it. This is a short post about some of my recent experience of censorship while writing primary materials. It was prompted by having a Z word struck out. Last week I was told that I couldn’t include a zebra in a story. I’ll come back to this at the end of this post. In the meantime, here’s a nice colourful photo of a zebra. It’s my quiet protest.

(Don’t) write anything you want

All ELT writers understand that we can’t just write anything that occurs to us. That would be daft. When we write for a publisher or a Ministry of Education, we have to follow a curriculum and use specific language in a specific order. This language usually comes in the form of a scope and sequence document. I hadn’t really thought much about the name of this of document until now but it is exactly what it says on the box, a document in which the language that needs to be taught is scoped out into units and lessons, following a logical sequence.

Having to follow such a document is fine. In fact, it’s more than fine, it’s good because ultimately the materials we create need to provide the target learners with the language they need to do one or both of these things: (a) to successfully graduate from their school year and move up to the next level or (b) to pass an official external exam. Having everything neatly planned makes it less likely that we’ll miss something important, like the preposition of place, next to, a key grammatical structure in the Starters exam, or circus, a vocabulary item that examinees are expected to recognise in the Flyers exam. Yes, these S&S documents are useful.

Up to here, everything’s fine.

But sometimes a writer is asked to change something they’ve written because it is too sensitive for a particular market. Lots of markets have restrictions and typical examples are things like, no references to hamburgers or anything pig-related, please. Incidentally sausage is in the Cambridge YLE list, but pig isn’t.

It can sometimes be difficult to navigate the do’s and don’ts because, depending on the end-users’ location, they might change or even be contradictory. I’ve been asked not to write about the Hindu festival Holi and I’ve been asked to specifically write about it. I’ve been asked to change names because they were too Christian (David) or not Christian enough (Jasmine). Sometimes a name is just deemed to be too unusual. This happened with Adele. Adele? Really?

A couple of questions

So I’d like to pose a couple of questions with primary learners in mind:

What happens when you aren’t allowed to use a key item of vocabulary that appears in a YL exam which the learners might be sitting? How will learners be able to recognize these words if they don’t come across them in a classroom?

You can see a list of these words in the The Cambridge English Young Learners Handbook for Teachers (available to download freely here as a pdf).

Who is saying ‘no’?

And does all of this extreme caution always come from Ministries? Or might some publishers be proactively censoring things they suspect might cause problems later down the line?

Diversity? I don’t think so

And last, but certainly not least, the most pressing question of all. How can we possibly have more Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity in our materials if we aren’t even allowed a range of names?

And the zebra?

What’s all that about? you’ll be asking yourselves. Well, it begins with Z. And I was recently told that no words that begin with a Z are welcome in Arab countries because they all sound very rude. Other ELT writers have been told the same. But zoo and zero are in the Cambridge English YL handbook. It’s just as well that nobody is writing a story about a zoo or a CLIL maths book for primary. Oh, hang on a minute …

On a final note, if any commissioning editor is reading this and thinking I might spell trouble, it’s OK, I usually do what needs to be done. I also don’t do what mustn’t be done. At the end of the day if I accept a work offer, I have to accept the client’s brief. I just think it’s important to raise these issues from time to time.

ELT script writing: new trends, new skills, (some of) the same inequalities

Part of a film script

When you think about ELT content writing you might not immediately think of script writing, but it’s actually becoming a vital skill to have. The other day I was thinking about the work I’d been doing recently and the work I’ve got lined up for the months ahead. I realized that a lot of it is scriptwriting, either for audio or video. It occurred to me that while I’d been writing scripts for decades, script writing for ELT is different these days. Things have changed. So I reflected a bit more and that’s where this blog post came from

Script writing for ESP

It started with a series of online courses, for the British Council, BBC English and Di’Agostini.  These were all for adult learners, were mainly for people working in different sectors, and titles included:

  • English for Taxi Drivers
  • English for Oil and Gas
  • English for Catering
  • English for The Police Force
  • English for Journalists
  • English for Hotel Staff

You get the picture. We always learn when we write and through this work I learnt a lot about things like the hierarchy of staff in various working environments and the safety precautions which need to be in place to store and transport fossil fuels.

Primary script writing

I then started developing scripts for primary learners. One of my favourites was a series of children’s plays I wrote as a resource for my book, ‘Dream Box’. It made me happy to think of children all over Spain, performing those plays and saying ‘my words’.

Changing trends in ELT script writing

Recently the focus of my script writing has changed a bit, and maybe some of the skills I am using too. I can trace these changes directly to more global changes, in education in general and in the big wide world.

Advances in technology mean that a lot of my recent work has been writing scripts for amazing animations sometimes with a cool blend of real footage and animation.  I can specifically mention a couple of things I’ve worked on, the stuff that is already out there (meaning I won’t get into trouble for breaching my contract). My favourite are ELT Songs’ Planet Pop videos with scripts that link to Young Learner exams but with a modern, non-schooly feel about them. It comes as no surprise to me that the company has won several Educational awards and prizes over the last year or two.

Equality, Diversion, Inclusion

Another noticeable change is in the increased focus on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. This was the case with Planet Pop but it was also true for work I did for Digital Language Associates (DLA), worthy winner of a Judges Commendation for EDI at this year’s ELTON Awards.  Part of my remit as a writer was to write narration at three different levels for existing documentary-style shorts. Grading language is another valuable skill and something I’ve had to do more and more as Publishers often decide to use the same content, for which they’ve paid highly, for different levels. It makes sense.

The writing process

Much of the writing process is the same now as it was twenty years ago. But now I have to consider a lot more issues. I love that I can include more diversity and invent characters that would have been a no-no not that long ago. I also have to use my child-like imagination more than ever. For scripts that are going to be turned into animations, I need to consider things that the tech wizards can make happen on the screen. Because if I don’t ask for it, it won’t happen. But if I do ask for it, Boom! It’s mind-blowing. Almost anything is possible (and I haven’t even mentioned VR yet).

The continuing digital divide

But it isn’t all state-of-the-art tech and wacky animations. For another recent project, I wrote a series of 45 radio show scripts for secondary aged children in low resource countries. Many of these children don’t have access to computers, let alone the internet. My English ‘lessons’ are delivered via radio and the interaction I built into my scripts involved very traditional things like ‘Listen and repeat’ or ‘Write five animals on a piece of paper’. It’s a piece of paper because I can’t even assume every child will have a notebook.

As a writer I need a different set of skills here. I need to keep asking myself, ‘How can I make this engaging and fun without any flashing lights and tech trickery?’ Different skills but equally valuable.

What the future holds

In 2022 I’ll be working on two exciting new projects, one huge, the other more modest. One I predict to be the most ambitious I’ve seen yet in terms of technology and creativity, the other reliant on paper and pencils if we’re lucky. I’m looking forward to the challenges of both and will keep a note of all the new skills I learn along the way. I think I might be in for some surprises.

Keeping up to date with digital: Part 1

We have a problem

How can freelance ELT writers and editors keep up to date with digital writing tools and platforms, so that when a job opportunity comes up and the publisher needs someone with experience in a specific authoring tool more of us can apply?

Unique skills, unique gaps

The thing about technology is that we all have a very personal skills set of what we can use with confidence and other areas where our knowledge is left wanting. This isn’t just true for ELT writers and editors. It’s the case for everyone. Because usually we learn how to use something when we discover we have a need for it. And if you are like me, the way we learn best is by playing around with whatever it is we’re trying to master, until things fall into place, maybe referring to How to videos or articles and maybe signing up for a short course. Courses aren’t usually effective for me unless I can revisit things and spend time practicing, but a course is handy if you have a tutor who is available to answer questions.

Access denied

I started writing digital materials for ELT soon after I started writing print materials. The first authoring tool I used was Moodle. I’m not naturally tech-minded, so I found it a challenge (to say the least). But I had the opportunity to attend a face-to-face course with an extremely patient tutor. The best thing about the course was that I was given access to a Moodle sand pit where I could play at my heart’s content until I mastered each aspect of the platform. Later I learnt how to use new authoring tools, each one very similar to the last but with the usual range of activity types and improvements that came about as technology itself got better and better. But always within a Publisher’s domain and with access denied the minute the product was complete.

Please let us in!

Wouldn’t it be great if we could have access to all of the Publishers’ authoring tools with their sand pits so that we could learn the special features of each one and teach ourselves how to use them. Right now this isn’t possible but wouldn’t it be in the Publishers’ interest to offer such access to freelancers? Then, when they put out an advert for a new job opportunity, they’d have a larger pool of experienced digital writers and editors to choose from.How can we make this happen? Could it be as simple as asking a Publisher to let us in? Do we need to work together to ask for this? Can we share our communal knowledge? I’ve called this blog post Part 1 in the hope that I can come back at some point in the not-too-distant future with some answers. I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. And I’d especially love to hear from Publishers.

10 Oct: My week in writing – or ‘not’ writing!

A beach scene

This week’s ‘My week in writing’, is different to previous posts because I didn’t do any of my usual ELT writing. I wasn’t even at my desk. I took the week off to recharge the batteries and have a little holiday. When a freelancer takes time off for a holiday it’s a big thing. We don’t get holiday pay, so it can feel reckless to not work.

I used to feel anxious at even taking one day off work but over the past year or so I’ve started to change my way of thinking and now I make sure I don’t work every day, and that from time to time I take a longer break. I think this can actually have a positive impact on productivity and I’ve certainly found that I get my best ideas in terms of creativity when I’m not working, and my mind is focused on something completely different.

I decided to write this post anyway because even though I didn’t take my laptop away to the beach with me, I did take my notebooks.

They come everywhere with me. And a quick look back over the past seven days or so reminded me that while I might not have been engaged in writing something meaty like a coursebook, I was still in thinking like a writer mode.

These are three things I’ve been writing this week:

One

A spider graph with my ideas for the contents of a book I’m planning to self-publish. It’s going to be for teachers writing their own ELT materials but I’m still figuring out whether it’s best to have a broad focus or to narrow things down to something more niche, and then write a series of books.

Right now, it’s just a pile of ideas, but at least it’s in pen and ink at last and not flitting around in my brain. I’ve also mentioned it here so that’s added some accountability pressure – not always a bad thing. Self-publishing is a relatively new territory for me but it’s something I’m keen to explore. 

Two

The main points for a plenary I am giving on October 17th for the ELTAM conference. I quite enjoy planning a presentation if it’s about something I feel passionate about. The theme of this conference is Teacher Tales and the title of my presentation is My story: lessons learnt from Teacher-Writers. 

It’s right up my street so the task ahead is an enjoyable one. As I was making notes about what to include and what to leave out, I was reminded that recently a couple of freelance colleagues suggested that I give a presentation on how to prepare for a presentation. I like this idea.

While there are clearly plenty of helpful blog posts and videos out there about how to give a presentation, I haven’t come across anything which focuses on how to prepare for a presentation, what to do first, second, third, etc. So, this is on my mind too and will no doubt feature in a future blog post in this series. 

I’ve just noticed that I have exactly a week before this plenary, so I need to get my skates on. But I’m reminded of Parkinson’s Law which says, ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. This is very true. And never is it truer than when you are preparing presentation. Here’s an interesting blog post on how to use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage.

Three

I have some Ideas sections in my notebook. One is for possible blog post topics. While I was on holiday, I came across a review of a book by the American playwright, Sarah Ruhl, called 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write. You can read about it here.  I don’t know if it’s any good, but the title made me smile and I considered borrowing it and tweaking it for my own purposes at some point. It also got me thinking about how easy it is to find excuses to not do things because of time constraints but how we can often, if we put our mind to it, find the time after all.

I suppose the important thing is figuring out which things are worth spending our time on and which things aren’t. It seems that learning to say no is something quite a few of my freelance colleagues are engaged in at the moment, including me.

Did anything I’ve written here, resonate with you? Please let me know in the comments.

23 September: My week in writing

Depending on whether you’re a person who sees the glass half full or half empty, this week has been either wonderful or a bit disappointing. I’m choosing the first option. I was supposed to be on holiday this week, but a couple of things needed doing and I decided to just do them. I’m not sure if that was the right thing, but in my mind, I haven’t yet had the full holiday I promised myself so I can still schedule that in at a later date.

Teams of writers

I’ve been writing a few different things this week. The first was some revisions to a scope and sequence document. This didn’t take long and it’s a good job done because now the document is with the publisher and when it gets approval, we can all kick off with the writing. I say ‘all’ because, as with most projects these days, there are a team of us writing each book. This team is quite small. I’m the lead author. That sounds a bit grand but it’s actually the role or title I’ve been designated. I’m writing the vocabulary and grammar spreads, the stories and the songs. Then other authors are writing CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) sections, Phonics sections, Project sections and Culture sections. On other projects I’ve written these sections too but this particular publisher likes to share out the work between different authors so that everything gets done much quicker. This is a gripe of mine, not so much the sharing of the work but the crazy schedules we now have to adhere to. Years ago we had much more time and sometimes a course might take four years or more from start to finish.

Blog posts

The second thing I’ve been writing is a series of blog posts for NGL’s In focus blog. I was originally commissioned to write a series of three for this particular series, but I had an idea for a fourth post that would link nicely to the others, so I ran it by the publisher and luckily, they agreed. I don’t usually have a strict schedule for blog posts which is great. But I do like to get them done sooner rather than later so that I can send in my invoice and get paid!

The third thing I’ve been working on this week are scripts for ELT Songs. This level is finished now. Steve, my co-author and husband, writes the songs and I write the scripts. It’s a joy working with Jake Carter and his team. The company has been nominated, and has won, a number of industry awards over the past few months and while I don’t claim to have anything to do with their vision and their incredible animations, I do feel that in a small way I am part of a winning team.

Presentation slides

The fourth thing I’ve been working on are some presentation slides. I have five presentations coming up, and as my dad might have said, they aren’t going to write themselves. Luckily three of the five are joint presentations with Ceri Jones. We work so well together that we often read each other’s minds and send each other almost identical messages simultaneously. It’s creepy but in a good way. We’ve even got a joint ‘To do’ list which works well as it has that added ‘accountability’ angle.

The joint presentations are for:

Innovate ELT 2021 on 1st and 2nd October 2021

The World Teachers’ Day conference on 5th to 8th October 2021

TESOL Italy convention on 19th and 20th November 2021

We’ll be talking about eco-literacy and how to be greener as a profession.

Writing samples

The other thing I’ve been working on is a sample. Sometimes freelance writers are asked to write a sample, especially for a new publisher who we haven’t worked for before. I’ve been asked to write two samples recently and this week I’ve been focusing on one of them: reading through the brief, making notes, and thinking. Thinking is a big part of my daily routine when I’m working, especially with a new project. Sometimes it takes time to get my head around things, work out how different components of a course fit together, the best order to do things in and a whole load of other things. I used to feel guilty about spending time thinking. Anyone observing me would have assumed I was just lying around gazing into space. Is it only British people who have that ‘Someone’s coming. Quick! look busy!’ attitude?

I decided not to write the second sample. I sent an email, explaining some changes in my schedule and asking if they’d like me to recommend another writer. It felt quite good because a few years ago I used to just say yes to most offers of work, often regretting doing so shortly afterwards. When you start working as a full time freelancer, you always worry that there will be no more work after your project finishes. But if you do a good job, and maintain a good working relationship with editors and teams, they get in touch again … and again. Because new course books, digital materials and and resources are getting published all the time.

19 Sept: My week in writing

Variety is the spice of life: learning how to juggle

This week variety is the name of the game. I have been writing a lot of bits and bobs, rushing to finish off a couple of projects which have been dragging on longer than I’d have liked. I recently took Rachael Roberts’ Switch off stress. Switch on success course, which I highly recommend. One of the topics we looked at was productivity, not so much how to increase productivity, but more how to work smarter so that the time we spend at our desks is time well spent, thus freeing up time for other things. I have to admit that this is something that I’m still experimenting with and if I were back at primary school, my teacher would probably write something like ‘making progress but needs to get her act together’ on my end of term report. This week I’ve used two techniques that seem to have worked well for the kind of work I’ve needed to do. The first is the Pomodoro Technique, which I’ve been using on and off for a few years and the second is ‘blocking out time’, a common sense approach that is ideal when you are juggling numerous projects.

Reward yourself! Nobody else if going to do it.

I’ve been writing exam practice resource pages for a primary course book. Each page is aligned to a specific paper on a Young Learners exam. There is enough space for a sequence of activities leading up to the main task which replicates the real thing. This kind of work is easy in some ways. I am familiar with YL exams and the levels. But restrictions imposed by the publisher in terms of how many stock photos I’m allowed to brief or how much new illustrations we can commission, have thrown up a few challenges. There were 20 pages in all so I made myself a nice little table to tick off each component as soon as I’d finished it. I decided to give myself a small reward after finishing 50% of the work and then another, bigger reward after finishing everything.

Reward yourself!

A second opinion

I’ve also been working on an article for IATEFL’s Voices magazine for teachers who are writing materials. I sent in the first draft last night so that felt good. When I send in an article to a teaching journal or magazine, I usually say something along the lines of, I’m happy to make any changes’ because editors usually have a good idea of what works best for their publication. Usually requested changes are few and far between and consist of things like a request to increase or decrease the number of words (it’s always a good idea to ask what the word count is and then stick to it), a request for a reference I might have forgotten to include or a photo to accompany a piece. I’ve only once got into a discussion (argument is too strong a word) about edits that were made to a piece I’d written. That was because I felt my voice had been removed and replaced with another, posher voice. It grated on me, so I asked for a second opinion before writing back and asking for my voice to be reinstated. Second opinions aren’t just a good idea for patients getting medical advice. I suggest getting one whenever you feel uncomfortable about something that is going on in a work environment.

Identify your unique set of skills

The last thing I’ve been working on this week is an S&S (Scope and Sequence) for an upcoming course. This was for the third level of a primary course which follows on from two that are already done and dusted.  It wasn’t until quite recently that I discovered I’d developed the skills need to write a good S&S. I’d been writing them for years but seeing them as the first step in writing a book rather than something which could, in theory, be a standalone project. One day, out of the blue, I was asked how much I charged to write a six-level S&S in line with a country-specific curriculum and aligned to a specific set of key learning skills and competencies. This was when I realised that it was something I could itemise in a list of skills on my CV.

It made me wonder about other skills that I might possess, unknowingly. An interesting self-reflection task might be to have a discussion with yourself, describing what you actually do when you do a particular job, pausing after each step to ask: Is this a skill that I could highlight as I look for work?

Thank you for reading my blog post.