Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

An A to Z of ELT Materials Writing

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?

Or

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.

Etc.

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

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:

Instructions

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.

Spelling

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.

Terminology

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.