Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Katherine Bilsborough

9 Sept: My week in writing – articles, blog posts and reflections

This week I’m writing about writing. It’s possibly one of my favourite things because it’s something I feel confident and comfortable with and it’s an opportunity for me to reflect on the process of writing, an act which always ends up with an Aha! moment of realization.

Parkinson’s First Law

Parkinson’s First Law states that “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” This is something I’ve found to be true time and time again. With this in mind, and with four articles to write, I made a conscious decision to leave them all to this week because, with deadlines looming (a couple self-imposed), I’d be forced into action.

Teachers as materials writers

Article one is the second in the series, Teachers as materials writers, for Modern English Teacher. The first was Part one: Why write your own materials? The second was Part two: What should teachers keep in mind when they write materials? I find it useful when writing a series of articles or blog posts to find a structure that will work across all components. This time I’ve chosen a Why? What? How? and Whose? Framework. Questions like this are a great way to help me stay focused and not go off on a tangent. They are especially useful when presenting ideas for potential publication, as they show the commissioning editor that a sequence of scripts do actually connect to each other in some meaningful way.

Practical blog posts for teachers

Article two is also the second in a series. This time for National Geographic Learning’s In Focus blog. I am one of the authors of the new Primary course, Imagine. The idea for the blog posts is to share some practical ideas with primary teachers, drawing on some of the key features and methodology in the book, so as to showcase the materials whilst offering teachers something useful that they can try out with their classes. I’ve never felt naturally comfortable promoting my own books, but authors often have a clause in their contracts which includes things like presentations, webinars or teacher talks for this very purpose. My way around this is to always make sure first and foremost that the information I share with teachers is useful for them in their day-to-day teaching. Everything else comes second. This is the approach I’ve used for these blog posts. The one I’ve just finished is all about how to teach grammar and is hopefully useful for those teachers who shy away from it because of inexperience or a perceived lack of grammar understanding. I’m waiting to hear from my editor that the post is OK as it is or might need changing. I tell myself that ‘no news is good news’.

Co-writing an academic article

Article three is a bit different. It’s an introduction to a journal article that I’m co-writing with my friend, colleague and fellow ELT Footprint co-founder, Ceri Jones. I’ve just realised that that sentence is a bit ambiguous. Ceri and I aren’t writing the whole article, we’re just writing the introduction. I’ve also just realised that I can’t say too much about it right now because as with many things in academia, it’s all still a bit hush hush. This is frustrating because I feel proud of this article and the research it will present. But you’ll hear me shouting about it when it’s finished and published. I’ll come back and write a bit more about the process of collaborating on something of this kind. Keeping quiet about a project that is in progress is quite normal for ELT writers. Sometimes we are asked to sign a non-disclosure clause (NDC) which can be a bit scary the first time it happens. ELT writers become souls of discretion and experts at keeping a secret, an unexpected skill we develop while we’re getting on with the job.

Reflecting on materials (and other) writing

If you are reading this, then you’re already reading article four. I’ve decided to start a regular, weekly blog post about what I’m working on at the moment. It will serve two purposes. Firstly to give any would-be ELT writers an idea of what is involved in the daily life of a freelance writer (I get asked this a lot). Secondly, it will prompt me to stop and reflect on my work, to make sure I’m doing the right amount of it, working in an efficient way, and still enjoying what I do.

To conclude

Incidentally, for anyone interested in the Parkinson after whom this law is named, the quote appeared originally as the first line of an essay that Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote for The Economist in 1955. He based his evidence on his experience working for the British Civil Service. My first years of full time employment were for the Civil Service too. It wasn’t difficult for me to concur with Parkinson’s findings. But that’s a story for another day.

Two heads are better than one. Or ‘Who am I writing for?’

A good way to check that you have a clear understanding of something you’ve learnt is to teach it to somebody else. This works for just about anything. There is no evidence to support that either Benjamin Franklin or Confucius said these wise words:

‘Tell me and I forget,
teach me and I remember,
Involve me and I learn.’

But this doesn’t matter because, as with most profound quotes that might or might not have a real source, it’s basic common sense. Teachers use this ‘involve me’ approach successfully in the classroom when they ask one student to explain what they have learnt to another student. It is through the act of explaining that deeper thinking takes place and gaps in learning might appear.

As materials writers we can develop our skills by using this approach too. I recently read a comment from ELT writer and trainer John Hughes in which he pointed out that it’s one thing to create materials for our own students, but we need an extra set of skills to create them for other teachers. I couldn’t agree more. Anyone thinking they might like to explore a career in materials writing might find it especially useful to consider writing their materials as if they were going to be used by another teacher, even if they aren’t. Also (and this is key for me), it would be especially useful to think that this other teacher might be new to teaching and might not be proficient in English. Because, after all, the vast majority of English teachers around the world are L2 speakers and because new teachers are qualifying every week.

If you write your materials with this in mind, you are far more likely to:

  • write clear instructions
  • include answer keys and/or suggested answers or model answers
  • think carefully about the flow of activities
  • think about and make explicit suggestions for interaction (pair work, small groups, etc.)
  • think about and make explicit recommended timings
  • get your materials proof-read or edited.

And you are far less likely to:

  • make assumptions that users can read your mind
  • leave out an important stage
  • make an error in an answer key
  • underestimate or overestimate the timing of each stage.

A useful task is to scrutinize a worksheet or any other materials that you’ve created to use with your own learners and to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Would another teacher have access to the answers?
  2. Would another teacher know how much time to spend on each stage or activity?
  3. Would another teacher know what to do between each stage or activity?
  4. Would another teacher understand the aims and objectives of the materials?
  5.  Is there anything in the materials that could potentially confuse another teacher?

Better still, an ideal approach would be to ask a colleague to read through your materials or to try them out with learners and make suggestions for improvements. I’ve often suggested how useful an ‘ELT writing buddy’ could be. Why not reach out to someone. As someone might or might not have said,

‘Two heads are better than one’.

Evaluating ELT materials

This is the first in a series of blog posts called Just one (ELT materials) thing. I got the idea from a recent BBC podcast series on the BBC Sounds site in which Michael Moseley asks, ‘If time is tight, what’s the one thing that you should be doing to improve your health and wellbeing?’ Each brief episode focuses on one idea that could, in theory, change your life for the better. I don’t expect my blog posts to be life-changing but I’m going to borrow his idea, keep things brief and share just one thing that readers might find helpful to improve the materials they are making. I’m going to try to keep my language clear and simple because many of my intended readers won’t be English L1 speakers, and because I’m a firm believer in the importance of clarity in every context. The focus will be on the practical so I will mostly avoid academic and theoretical references unless something is especially relevant.

You can’t be a good writer if you aren’t a reader.

This is what they say to aspiring writers and it is basic common sense which applies to all art forms. Directors watch films, musicians listen to music … and ELT writers hone their craft by analysing and evaluating existing published materials. Or do they? I certainly didn’t when I started making my own materials. I never even considered the value of spending time constructively scrutinising features of a course book. But what better way to develop writing skills?

You don’t need to look at absolutely everything in a book. Just choose those features which you think you need to improve in your own materials. This is called micro-evaluation (as opposed to macro-evaluation which involves a much broader and general approach to materials). Try to choose a book with a similar target user as those using your materials in terms of age and level. Then choose one or more areas to focus on and consider writing a checklist of criteria to consider while you reflect on the materials.

Here are some suggestions of areas you could focus on:

  • Page layout
  • Use of images
  • Length of texts
  • Use of headings and sub-headings
  • Number of exercises
  • Number of items in an exercise
  • Balance of skills
  • Number of new vocabulary items presented
  • Sequence of tasks
  • Exercise types
  • Wording of instructions
  • Sequence of sections within a unit

I’m sure you could think of more, depending on your particular values, interests and needs. I will be writing more about evaluating materials but hopefully this initial suggestion for a practical checklist approach will help some teachers and writers discover features of good (and bad) practice which will impact positively on their own work.

Thank you for reading my first blog post and please get in touch if you have any suggestions of other aspects of creating ELT materials that you’d like me to write about in future posts.