Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

EDI

How many (fonts, etc.)?

numbers

Hidden in plain sight

I was reading a book the other day and that famous cliché popped up about the best place for hiding something being ‘in plain sight’, in a place where nobody would think of looking because it’s so obvious. A murdered body in a graveyard, a forbidden book on a library shelf. You get the picture. It got me to thinking that we often spend time looking for things in the wrong places instead of pausing to consider the obvious. Pinning this whole thought process onto an ELT-materials writing context, it occurred to me that the obvious place to find ways to make your classroom materials excellent, is to look at the tips and advice that are staring us in the face in existing published materials. Good course books are a great place to start. In fact, not-so-good course books are handy too. Because it’s as useful to consider what not to do, as it is to consider good practice. I’m going to write three or four blog posts on what we can learn by looking carefully at existing materials. In this first one, I talk about the number of certain things. In most cases, less is definitely more. Let’s look at a few examples.

Fonts

How many different fonts do we need to use? One? Two? And after choosing fonts, how many different sizes do we need? This will mainly depend on things like headings and subheadings. If you use ‘styles’ you don’t even need to think about it as the donkey’s work has been done for you. Too many fonts and too many sizes can result in materials looking a bit messy, so proceed with caution. Whatever you decide to go with, it’s a good idea to at least give it some thought and try out a few different looks.

Highlighting features

If you need to highlight words in a sentence or sections in a text, there are plenty of options at your disposal. The best are italics, bold, underline, inverted commas or a different colour. In most cases one of these is plenty. Occasionally we might need two, but only if we are trying to make learners aware of two different concepts being highlighted in a single word or phrase. It might be worth mentioning here that the BDA (British Dyslexia Association) advises against underlining or using italics and suggest sticking to bold. Click [here] to see the BDA’s style guide.

Columns

Most teachers’ worksheets I see have a single column, but lots of published materials have two columns. There are all kinds of reasons for doing one or the other, but most writers will agree that more than two is a bad idea. Again, advice from the BDA suggests using a single column with left-alignment for accessibility. It’s probably worth following guidelines for people with Dyslexia because everyone benefits from clarity and simplicity.

Items in an exercise

Published materials almost always have one of the following:

  • An even number of items that can, if necessary, be spread out neatly in two columns. Eight, ten or twelve are common.
  • An odd number of items plus an example (numbered 0) for the same reason.
  • The number of items necessary to mimic a specific exam-style question.

But the beauty of creating your own materials is that you can be the one to decide the number of items. As a guide, think about your objectives here. If you want to check that learners understand the meaning of a lexical set of twelve items, you’ll obviously need twelve items – unless, as sometimes happens in primary materials, there will be a second activity. In this case, you can split them into six and six. The important point is to think about how many items are really necessary.

Images

The first thing to consider is to whether an image is going to be used as part of an activity. If so, this should dictate the number. A ‘spot-the-difference’ task with just one picture wouldn’t be very successful.  A vocabulary matching activity might need eight to twelve images. Other activities might need none. Think carefully about using an image purely for decoration. Some learners might (understandably) think it’s important and waste time trying to figure out how it connects to a text, for example. A rule of thumb I find handy when it comes to a decorative text is ‘If in doubt, leave it out’. Though you could always use it in a warmer activity, of course. Again, you’re the boss.

Write-on lines

The answer to this will differ greatly depending on the context. In some cases, no lines are necessary because learners will write in a notebook or, for some digital materials, in a chat box or on a shared document. Lots of primary materials have lines on the page so that learners don’t just know that they have to write answers but also have an idea of how much they are expected to write.

To finish, I’d like to suggest, as a professional development task, that you to open the first course book you can lay your hands on and have a quick look at how many fonts, highlighting features, columns, images, items, images and write-on lines there are. Then have a think about whether that works and why? Or why not? At the very least it will help you become aware of such aspects when you create your next set of materials.

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.