Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Katherine Bilsborough

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.