Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

ELT materials

P is for packager

P is for packager

WTF is a packager? (Excuse the French)

When I started writing this blog post a few months ago, I realised that while I had first hand experience of working with packagers, I’d need to reach out and do some crowd sourcing if I was to present a more comprehensive and balanced view of what packagers are all about. So I asked my freelance writer and editor friends and colleagues to chip in and share their stories with me.

On LinkedIn, I asked:

1. Do some packagers prefer to call themselves something else, because the term ‘packager’ is tainted?
2. Do some packagers put in a low bid for a contract, knowing that they’ll have to find inexperienced freelancers who will accept lower fees?
3. Do publishers know that sometimes the editors and writers who have been working for them for years, are now being offered substantially lower rates?
4. What positive packager experiences have you had?
5. What negative packager stories have you had?

Then I said:

If you’d like to answer any of these questions or have anything else to say on the subject, please comment.
If you’d prefer to remain anonymous, please feel free to send me a message.
If you know a packager, please tag them.
If you know a freelancer who has might have something to say, please tag them.
If you know a publisher who uses packagers, please tag them.
Let’s try and hear from ALL sides!

So … WTF is a packager?

This is a real question I got asked by a few teachers and surprisingly, by a few writers. I realised the term wasn’t widely-known and it made me think about the answer. In the end I said something like:

Sometimes, instead of contracting a freelance writing team to produce a course book series, a publisher contracts a ‘packager’ to do everything. So they put the project up for tender, different ‘packagers’ put in a bid for the work, and then the publisher chooses the one they want to go with. Then the packager finds writers, editors, etc. Like a sub-contractor, I suppose.

Then I realised that most packagers (or even ‘all’) don’t actually call themselves packagers, and freelancers are probably working for them but know them by another name. Some variations I’ve heard are:

  • Product provider
  • Vendor
  • Trusted partner
  • Educational provider
  • Publishing services company
  • Service partner
  • Publishing supplier
  • Publishing provider

I also learnt that there are ‘offshore packagers’ (or offshore product providers, vendors, trusted partners, etc.) but I haven’t been able to pin down what is different about these, except that they don’t operate from within the UK. I suspect the term ‘offshore’ might sound a bit dodgier than it actually is but for UK based freelancers the information might be of value for tax purposes.

My own experience of packagers is mixed and on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 ‘being beyond shockingly bad’ and 10 being ‘excellent’, I’ve had scores of 0, 10, and several in between. Comparing this with my experience of working directly with publishers, the points are probably similar but with publishers they start at around 2.

Here are four things I’ve learnt about working for packagers

1 No two packagers are the same so we can’t really make sweeping statements. However, some packagers do have a terrible reputation and unless they buck up, they should be avoided. One way of knowing which ones to avoid is to speak to other freelance writers and editors in confidence. Most are happy to share their experiences. We do look after each other as a general rule. Another way is to look up the company on a site like Glassdoor or Trustpilot (Google them). I didn’t even know this existed until recently. You’ll find stories to make your hair curl. But as with all review sites, it’s probably worth double checking everything.

2 Sometimes you only learn that you’ve been working for a packager in retrospect. This has happened to me twice. I’d assumed the company that had contacted me was a publisher I hadn’t heard of. But in actual fact the materials I wrote were for a very well known publisher who I’d written for before. I don’t know if this is good or bad but not telling me seems a bit unnecessary and makes me a bit suspicious.

3 Some packagers allow you to have contact with your co-workers and some don’t. This means that you might find yourself working in an author-editor partnership with a go-between in the middle. On the one occasion this has happened to me, as might be expected, it slowed everything down no end and added an unnecessary (in my opinion) cog in an already complicated process. The only reason I can think of for this practice is to prevent two freelancers from ‘talking’. I’ll invite you to reach your own conclusions as to why this might be the case.

4 The most common complaints about packagers is the low pay. I’ve heard hundreds of stories of writers and editors being offered a tiny fraction of their usual fees, even when the end product is for a publisher they’ve been working for for decades. Several reasons have been put forward for this, with the most common one being that the packager has been successful in the bid for a project because of their low price, so they inevitably have to save money where they can. It might be worth mentioning here that on a personal note, the lowest fee I’ve ever been offered for writing work was from a national group of a large well-known international publisher, not a packager. I suppose it’s all relative and the important thing is to know what your work is worth when you enter into negotiations.

Here are three bad experiences from freelance writers I have permission to share

1 I worked for a year on a project and I never got paid. I’m owed more than 10,000 US dollars and I’m still undecided about whether or not to take the company to court. The experience has taken its toll on my mental health and made me consider a change of career. I found out later that the same thing had happened to two other writers working on the same project. One is suing and the other just walked away.

2 I turned down a medium-sized project to work on a big one for a packager. In the end I wish I hadn’t. I did get paid eventually but 16 months late and with lots of problems. I’d been buying a house at the time and needed the first payment from the packager to pay part of the deposit. When it didn’t arrive, the sale fell through and everything was a nightmare.

3 The project was disastrous from beginning to end. It was obvious they were trying to cut corners by having no project manager and it was a BIG project. Lots of people started, then left. The turnover was ridiculous. We had conflicting information in briefs, my co-author was inexperienced so needed support (which wasn’t forthcoming), we ended up doing about 6 or 7 drafts, so a lot more work than we’d expected and the worse thing was the bad feeling and negativity we all experienced. In the end the publisher took the project off the packager and gave it to another packager. That’s when I jumped ship. Oh, and I was paid 50% of my fee, which was pretty bad to start with.

Here are three positive experiences from freelance writers, just to balance things out

1 The packager was very organised and my brief was clear. I was given plenty of opportunities to ask questions and ask for support. My editor (also freelance) was great and we did the work in the expected timeframe and got paid promptly after invoicing. When I finished the project I got a message from the company thanking me for all of our hard work and saying they’d get in touch again when they needed a writer for this kind of work.

2 I regularly work for one of the new packagers. They take great measures to make sure we have everything we need to do the work, that we have enough time and that we are OK with the fee. The people behind this packager were freelancers themselves so I think they have a good idea of how to keep us happy.

3 One of my favourite client is a packager. They don’t pay as much as some publishers pay but they are low maintenance. I’ve noticed that some of the big publishers are getting more and more bureaucratic and getting paid sometimes involves all kinds of form-filling, digital uploads, talking to bots and then not having access to a real person when things go wrong or a payment is late.

Let’s keep on talking!

It’s good to be talking about packagers because this is how things are going to be now. Whatever we might call them, they are here to stay. Hopefully the bad ones will improve their work practices or disappear and the good ones will flourish as freelancer testimonials reach the eyes of the publishers who are outsourcing their projects. From what I can see this is most ELT publishers these days and might soon be ‘all’ as it is significantly cheaper to write materials in this way.

10 tips for anyone about to sign a contract with a packager

  1. Negotiate a fair fee in the same way as you would do so directly with a publisher.
  2. Ask about the work flow practices. Will you have direct contact with your author/editor?
  3. Ask other freelancers about their experience working with this company. People sign non-disclosure clauses but you could ask how an experience scores on a grid from 1 to 10.
  4. Check the company on the employer review sites mentioned in the post above.
  5. Read your contract carefully and if you are a member of the Society of Authors, ask them to check it for you.
  6. Pay attention to any red flags. Sometimes we need to trust our instincts. If you aren’t 100% sure about a project, you could try signing up for one part of the work first, see how it goes and then, if you’re happy, go ahead with the rest.
  7. Ask if you will be told who the materials are for. I always like to know who the publisher is. If everything is above board, there should be no harm in knowing.
  8. If anything goes wrong, don’t let things drag on for too long. Tell your commissioning editor straight away. Be polite and respectful, of course. It might just be an easily resolvable ‘blip’. If it isn’t, seek advice.
  9. If it’s a big project, ask to be paid your fee in instalments, and not all at the end. This might seem obvious but it’s my understanding that while editors often invoice monthly, writers send in one invoice at the end of a project.
  10. Don’t be afraid of working for a packager! It’s my guess that most of them are run by very decent people who want to run a fair, professional and successful company. Many are run by people who used to work in-house for reputable publishers or have been freelancers themselves … and want to do things better.

If anyone reading this was hoping for a list of packagers to avoid and another list of packagers to trust, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I did consider this but then I saw that different people had different experiences with the same companies so it didn’t seem fair. I will, however, happily tell anyone about my own experience (if I have one) with any particular packager. Just send me an email: info@creatingeltmaterials.com

How can you possibly write materials if you don’t teach?

4 people asking questions

Do materials writers need to teach? Can they write good materials if they don’t? How can they know what’s going on? How can they keep up to date?

These are questions I get asked all the time. So I decided to write a short blog post with my thoughts.

First of all, a couple of facts.

Teachers who write materials for their learners are in an ideal place because they know their contexts better than anyone. They can tailor a worksheet to engage the whole class because they know what the class will find motivating. And they can make multiple versions of a worksheet to meet the needs of individuals within a group. If the materials are well-designed then these learners are very lucky indeed.

A lot of very good ELT materials are written by people who haven’t been teaching for years, in some cases for decades.

So how do these writers know what to write? How do they know what kind of things the learners will find engaging, or which tasks they’ll find motivating?

I recently asked a group of such writers these questions and other similar ones. I’ve collated their answers and added them to my own experience. Basically, it’s all about ‘keeping in touch’: in touch with the classroom, in touch with the target learners, in touch with the teachers, in touch with latest research and trends …

So, here are seven ways we can keep in touch. Can you think of any more?

Do some teaching! Get in touch with a school or a teacher and ask whether you can give a lesson or a part of a lesson. This can be face to face or online. I know several writers who do this regularly, sometimes as a paid job and sometimes as a volunteer. I’ve done this successfully myself. The last time was with a primary class in Brazil where I zoomed in and was interviewed by a group of nine-year-olds. It was terrifying! Only joking. It was great fun – hopefully for them too.

Mingle with teachers, especially those who work in the context of the target users of the materials you are writing. This might be a geographical area, an age group, or perhaps teachers focusing on a specific exam like IELTS. These days most mingling happens in social media groups. If the perfect group doesn’t exist, set one up yourself. When you have access to these teachers, you can crowd source information, ask questions, start discussions, share surveys … create a shared learning space.

Read, read, read! There has never been such an abundance of material with a focus on education from every angle imaginable. I like to read about general trends and news in education, and also more specialized focuses, depending on the materials I’m writing at any given moment. Recently I’ve been reading about the rise and rise of AI in education. It’s fascinating. But I’ve also been reading about changes to the Cambridge IGCSE ESL exam and the new SEL (social and emotional learning) competences that have been added to the Spanish curriculum – not nearly as exciting but probably more immediately useful for the work I’ve been doing. Find journals, articles and blog posts on topics of interest. If you don’t know where to look, ask! If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Write an article or blog post. If you don’t have your own blog, approach someone who does, and offer to write a guest post. Lots of Teacher Associations, special interest groups and institutions are actively looking for contributors. Get in touch with me if you’d like more tailored advice on this. I might be able to help or to put you in touch with someone else who can offer some guidance. When we agree to write about a topic, we inevitably have to spend time researching and checking things. It’s a great way to force ourselves to be on top of things.

Be active in the ELT community. This is the best way to meet people, hear about what’s going on, share ideas, advice, recommendations. There are lots of ways to be active. Volunteering for a Teachers’ Association suits some people. It can be time-consuming but is time well-spent. Organise a meet-up, face-to-face if that’s appropriate or online if it isn’t. Or try a hybrid meet-up. You don’t need to be a big institution to do this. Individuals have been organizing such social events for family and friends since the COVID pandemic when people were confined to their homes.

Hang out with the right people – people who belong to the same kind of communities as your target users. If you are writing Business English materials, join Business forums. If you write materials for children, offer to babysit for your sister’s children. You get the picture. Being in close proximity offers great opportunities for observation. You’ll notice what kind of things they are talking about, what they are listening to, watching, reading.

Learn from the publishers. Sometimes we can get valuable information from others who have been in classrooms and observed what’s going on: the publishers. Check out current materials on their websites. Read their catalogues. See which kinds of things they are highlighting. Are they suggesting any unique selling points (USPs)? If so, then this is likely to be something they’ve done extensive market research on and worth taking note of. If you can get to a book shop, browse ‘real’ materials. Have a look at things like text lengths and recurring themes or topics and trends.

So, as you can see, there are plenty of ways to find out the things you need to know to inform your materials writing. If you can think of anything else, please get in touch and let me know. I’ll edit your ideas in (and credit you, of course).

Happy writing!

U is for user

U is for user

Who is the user?

When we create materials, we should keep the end users in mind throughout the whole process. First and foremost, this means the learner or learners, but it can also mean another teacher or other teachers.

Traditional published materials: restrictions

In traditional publishing, the company does market research to find out as much as possible about who will be using the materials. They then summarise their findings in a detailed report which might be provided as part of a brief for the author. Information will vary but key information includes details about age, level, context, and other aspects that influence the content and design of the materials. If the product is for a global market, everything needs to work in multiple contexts. The publisher needs to consider how a reader in one country might react to content featuring information about another country. Historically, lots of course books featured content focusing on English-speaking countries, and predominantly the UK, with texts about things like London transport, Shakespeare or British food. Fortunately, this is no longer the case and there has been a welcome shift to more global culture. After all, English is no longer considered to be a language ‘owned’ by L1 speakers. If materials are being written for a specific country, or group of countries, the publisher might provide information about important cultural considerations that should be taken into account. This is basically a list of do’s and don’ts, drawn up to keep all the different stakeholders happy.

#1 Users: the learners

Teachers as materials writers: freedom and responsibility

Teachers creating materials for their own classes need to consider the issues outlined above for themselves. Nobody else is going to provide you with a ready-made brief. One huge bonus that teacher-writers have is that you already know your learners at a personal level. Those giving face-to-face classes often live in the same area. You have valuable knowledge about the kind of environment in which your learners live and the context within which they learn English. You know about issues of accessibility, about which technology learners might or might not have, about sensitivities which might affect learning, about a whole range of things. All of this information is invaluable as you craft the materials to suit your learners’ needs, preferences and restrictions.

Some questions to keep in mind about the learner-users – these are just a few suggestions that can be tweaked to suit.

  • Will my learners be interested in this topic?
  • What kind of attention span do they have?
  • Are the images appropriate?
  • Is there enough support for those who need it?
  • Could I add another task which helps develop another skill?

#2 Users: the teachers

One piece of advice I always give teachers who are writing materials for their own classes, is to write them as if they were going to be used by another teacher. Why? Because in doing so we add a layer of rigour that might otherwise be left out, and which can be a life-saver. If, after creating some materials, we consider how another teacher would use them in a classroom, we notice things that might not have been obvious initially. For example, while we might know the answers to an exercise, it’s still a good idea to write them somewhere. What happens if we don’t use the materials immediately for some reason, but we come back to them in six months’ time. It’s doubtful that things will be fresh in our mind. We aren’t guaranteed to remember everything. It’s a good idea to write accompanying Teacher Notes for all materials we create. After all … why wouldn’t we?  Once again, it’s a good idea to replicate the ways in which published materials are developed when we create materials for our own classes. No published materials come without a Teacher Guide.

Some questions to keep in mind about the teacher-users. Again, these are just a few suggestions. You could write your own checklist.

  • Are the teaching objectives clear?
  • Is the pathway through the materials clear?
  • Are the answers available?
  • Do I need to add some suggested answers?
  • Do I need to include information about timing?

And last but not least

Above I’ve suggested writing materials as if they were going to be used by someone else. But that doesn’t mean you neglect your own needs and preferences. You should create materials which align with your personal beliefs and values. Sometimes when we write for a third party, this isn’t possible. But when you are calling the shots, you can make it key.

A new online course!

Writing ELT materials: an exciting new online course for teachers and writers

I’ve been planning to create and deliver an online course in materials writing for some time. But things kept getting in my way and it wasn’t happening. Meanwhile, my friend and colleague John Hughes was doing (and not doing) exactly the same as me.  So we’ve done something very sensible and joined forces to create a brand new online course. We hope you share in our excitement.

Why do a course with us?

John and I have been around for a long time! We have extensive experience in writing materials, and in helping others create materials. We have some shared experience, but we also have different areas of experience too. Between us we are confident that we can help people write materials for a large range of contexts … because we’ve done it ourselves and we’ve identified the skills that we know are key to success.

Who is the course for?

The course of for anyone who is interested in developing their skills in materials writing, including:

  • English teachers
  • Teacher trainers
  • Materials writers
  • ELT editors who want to move into writing
  • Other ELT professionals with an interest in materials writing

How long is the course?

It’s a 10-week course with a break in the middle and extra time to complete assignments and receive feedback.

Where is the course being delivered?

The live input sessions will take place on Zoom. There will also be a community space for participants in a closed Facebook group.

What will be covered on the course?

The course covers key principles and technical skills of writing as well as aspects of creativity and specific contexts. You can read more about the content on the course website (link at the end).

Will participants get personalized feedback on their materials?

Yes! Participants will have two materials writing assignments. They will receive personalized feedback on both, in the same way that established Publishing companies give their authors feedback on manuscripts.

Thank you for reading this post! I’ll be continuing with my ‘A to Z of materials writing’ posts very soon!

V is for … visibility

This is a newish 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. I’m going through the alphabet in no particular order.

V is for … visibility

One of the most frequent questions I get asked by teachers is ‘How can I sell my materials?’ While there is no easy answer to this question, there is one obvious consideration: visibility. If nobody sees your materials, how can they know they are worth buying when you sell them? How can they see what kind of thing you do if they aren’t ‘out there’. Visibility is also important for those who wish to get paid work writing ELT materials. How are publishers supposed to know that you can write if they haven’t seen your work?

Let’s have a look at these two things a bit more closely.

Visibility for teachers who want to sell their material – marketing

More and more teachers are selling their materials, either through sites like Teachers Pay Teachers or through their own websites and platforms. Creating the materials is the easy part as many teachers have been doing this for years anyway, as part of their own teaching practice. But marketing them is a whole different story, and one which most of us have little, if any, experience in. So, how can you market yourself as a materials writer?

Here are five suggestions:

  1. Build a website or blog and share your materials there.
  2. Build up a presence on social media. Do a bit of research to find the right platform for you. Where do your ideal clients hang out? Instagram? TikTok? LinkedIn? You don’t need to be present everywhere, but it is worthwhile spending tie on choosing the best place(s) to be.
  3. Offer to write guest blog posts for people who have a widely read blog. Again, it’s worth thinking about the readership. For example, if you write Business English materials, a YL-focused blog isn’t for you.
  4. Do a ‘live’ event on social media to tell people about your products or to invite people to ask questions. There are several ways of doing this and it might be scary but it’s an increasingly popular way of reaching people.
  5. Take part in a conference, giving a presentation that links to the area or context of your materials. You can tell people about your products at the end of your session or add a slide with contact details.

Visibility for teachers who want to write materials for a publisher – making connections

If you ask a group of freelance ELT writers how they managed to get a foot in the door with a publisher, the answers will be as varied as the people you ask. Some start working in-house at publishers, as editors or project managers. Some find opportunities through their teaching institutions when a publisher gets in touch to ask for help in trialling materials or giving feedback on new products. Others are head hunted at conferences or Teacher Events, usually after giving a presentation or taking part in a forum or debate. Publishers are always more likely to give you work if they already know that you have something to offer. However, this does not need to be need not be directly linked to writing. Things like classroom experience, teacher training, having expertise in a particular area or context are all key skills that publishers consider of value. So, how can you get noticed by a publisher?

Here are five suggestions:

  1. Get in touch with publishers in the real world. Visit them at their offices or find out which people work in the departments you are interested in and send them an email asking them to add your details to their database of freelancers.
  2. Offer to trial materials with your learners and to give feedback. In the feedback you have an opportunity to demonstrate an understanding of how materials work and which elements are key to classroom success.
  3. Join ELT publishing groups and mingle with other writers and editors. This is a great way of getting to know more about how publishing works and where new opportunities might lie.
  4. Offer to write a review of a new coursebook or resource. Many teaching journals and institutions such as IATEFL or TESOL are on the lookout for potential reviewers and the book’s publishers will notice you.
  5. Speak to other ELT writers directly to ask for advice. We don’t bite!

Tip: Take some time to think about the area of ELT writing you’d like to get involved with. Most writers focus on materials for a specific context. This could be related to age, level, an exam focus, or a niche such as EAL (English as an Additional Language) or BE (Business English).

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?

What’s a ‘new edition’ all about?

The other day someone asked me what I was working on, and I told them it was a new edition of an existing book. But not my book, somebody else’s. They were surprised to hear this and asked me more questions about new editions and versions. I thought I’d write a blog post about the topic. It’s the first in a series on ‘Questions I get asked when I’m talking about writing’. Don’t forget to subscribe to my blog if you’re interested in this kind of post.

The rise and rise of new editions and new versions

In recent years I’ve seen more and more new or revised editions of existing course books appear. One reason might be because it’s cheaper and quicker for a publisher to make a new or revised version of an existing book than it is to produce a brand new book from scratch. Another reason might be that an existing book is almost perfect for a new market but tweaks are needed to bring it in line with a national curriculum or other Ministry dictates. Sometimes a book just gets a bit outdated so a new edition might modernise texts or build in an extra pedagogical layer that might not have been considered important when the original was being written. When we write new course books we are usually briefed about not including references to anyone or anything that could become outdated. These days, more and more frequently, a publisher recognises the need for more references to sustainability or for increased and more visible EDI.

What new editions or versions have I been working on recently?

I thought I’d mention some of the writing work that I’ve been involved in recently that falls into this category as an example of the kind of work that might be available.

A new edition of an IGCSE ESL course book.

Changes were made to the IGCSE on which the whole course is based. They were minor changes, but they needed to be reflected in the exam practice sections of the book. When the publisher realized they had to bring out a new edition, they decided to add some extra resources that were missing in the original. These were a series of video animations and supporting worksheets linking to key language which had previously been presented through audios. Now the publisher can say the course is ‘new and improved’. My task was to bring the exam practice sections in line with the new IGCSE and to write the video scripts, which was great fun.

A new ‘localised’ version of an existing primary course book for a new market.

The Ministry of Education in the new target market have a policy that all course books should include a percentage of the region’s culture in reading texts, listenings, etc. The existing book had a more global approach, so my task was to rewrite some of the readings, keeping the main topic but giving it a local flavour. It presented a few minor challenges but was an interesting project as I learnt a lot about the target region.

A new ‘lower level’ version of an existing course book for a new sector within the current market.

After market feedback the publisher discovered that some schools might not adopt the course book because the level was a bit too high. They decided to simplify things by reducing the number of units in the book, having fewer vocabulary items in each unit and providing more support for teachers and learners. My task was to rewrite stories, texts and audio scripts, and to identify and write the support sections which included things like a glossary and tip boxes.

An updated version of an existing course book to freshen it and make it a bit more modern.

I haven’t actually started this yet but I’m about to. I’ve been told that I’ll need to rewrite about 40% of the content. This percentage is important. I’m not sure if it’s the same in every region but for a book to be considered ‘new’ it needs to have a fixed percentage of ‘new stuff’. On the books I’ve worked on, this is usually around 35% to 40%. I wrote the original stories in this course and I’m hoping they won’t need changing. I don’t think they will because they are quite good (if I say so myself) but, more importantly, the illustrations are brilliant and new illustrations would increase production costs significantly.

Who writes new editions or versions of existing books?

In my experience, if I am receiving Royalties for a course book, I’ve been keen to write the new version too so that these Royalties won’t go down. But sometimes the original author is either unavailable to write, or they simply don’t wish to. Then the publisher can ask another author – perhaps someone who wrote a different level of the same course so will be familiar with the project, or just a new writer who will be briefed on the original book and the new sections. Of the books I mentioned above, I was the original author on three of them but not on the third. The three I’d already worked on were infinitely easier to get my head around. Two were Royalty-based and two were fee-based.

Is a new edition or a new version a good thing?

Usually, yes. On the one hand it usually means the original course book has had good reviews, so the new version is likely to sell well. Teachers often like new editions of books they are familiar with too – when given the choice of this or a completely new course book which they need to spend time navigating. It also means that most of the extra resource materials teachers might have made to supplement a book can still be used, as can things like flash cards etc. On the other hand, it means more work opportunities for freelance writers, editors, illustrators, etc.

Is a new version always a new version?

Ehm, yes and no.

Sometimes a course book is given a new title and a new front cover, and no other changes are made. There are a number of reasons for this, but most are to do with marketing. I’ve had this happen with a few of the course books that I’ve written over the years. In one case, I was told it was because in a particular region there was already a course book with the name we had chosen for the book, so we needed to come up with a new one. In another case, the original name was virtually impossible to pronounce in a particular region, so we renamed it. And in a third case, the original name had just been used for a brand on a completely unrelated product, something that the publisher had no desire to be associated with.

Can anyone write a new edition?

Yes! If you can write, of course. For every new course book that gets written, there are a heap of other resources and elements which need changing to bring them in line: Teacher Guides, activity books, revision booklets … anything you can imagine that accompanies a course book. Sometimes some of this work is done in-house at the publisher’s, but more often freelance writers do the work.

If you’re interested in working on such a project, why not get in touch with a publisher you’ve worked with before, or one you’d like to work with, and ask if they have plans to bring out a new edition or version of an existing book. Ask them to keep you in mind for some of the writing work. It could be a good way to get started.

And please let me know how you get on, if you do!

ELT materials: topics that are coming soon

I’ve been a bit absent of late

I’ve been away … from my blog and social media. That’s due to a few factors, some good, some less so. It started with a bout of COVID. I’m fully recovered now and thankfully my symptoms were manageable and the enforced inaction probably did me some good. Then we had a family visit which kept me away from my computer for the best part of two weeks. Fortunately, being a freelance author meant that I could negotiate some date changes for deadlines so as to be fully present and have a holiday too. Then, last week was busy playing catch up with everything. I’m still doing a bit of that this weekend but I’ve interrupted my work flow to compile a list of things I’m going to be blogging about in the coming weeks. Because I’ve had plenty of time for thinking, and there is a lot I’d like to share. Here are nine ideas so far but I’m sure I’ll come up with more …

1. Principles of ELT materials

I’ve written several articles and blog posts on this subject and spoken at conferences about it too. It’s time to pick the subject up again and add new thoughts, my own and others.

2. How to find work as an ELT author

This is something I get asked about a lot. I thought I’d do a bit of homework, speak to people who are great at finding work offers and share some ideas and tips.

3. How to sell existing materials that you have created for your own classes.

This is something else I often get asked about, so I’ll gather information and hopefully come up with a few good pointers.

4. Copyright

I have a theory that this is actually a subject lots of people tend to hide away from and ignore. But it’s important, so I’ll continue to nag on about it, but hopefully make it all a bit easier to understand.

5. My week in writing

I love writing about writing and I’ve had some positive feedback about these posts, mainly from people considering moving into freelance writing and wondering what a typical week might look like.

6. Useful resources for ELT writers

We all turn to our preferred resources again and again when we write materials, but we all use different ones. So I’m going to reach out and ask for people’s favourites and write a couple of posts summarising how they can be used.

7. News and gossip from the ELT writing world

Lots of things are going on. They always are. But recently it occurred to me that conversations about what’s happening often don’t leave the confines of closed social media groups or private forums. So I thought I’d summarise some of the things I consider important.

8. Guest interviews with other ELT freelancers (writers and editors, illustrators, designers, indie publishers, etc.)

I think this could be popular. There are lots of us and our experiences are varied and often completely different from one another. If you are involved in creating ELT materials in any way and would be happy to be interviewed, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you! I’ll also share links to the fantastic interviews that some of my friends and colleagues have already done.

9. The rise and rise of packagers

I’ve already started some conversations about this on social media and it’s become apparent that this is a new term for lots of people. I’m going to reach out to individuals and organisations for their views and experiences of working as part of a freelancer-packager-publisher team. I think it’s fascinating and hopefully subscribers to my blog will too.

And talking of subscribers …

If you haven’t yet subscribed to this blog, you might like to, to be sure of not missing any of the above and more. If you have suggestions for other focus points for posts, send me an email or write a comment! I’m all about sharing ideas and I’d love to hear from you.

Have a great day!


Making connections: from whatever book you’re reading … to your own professional development

Brain in overdrive

Last week a lot of my Friends and colleagues attended the IATEFL conference in Belfast. Judging by the photos they had a great time, socialising after a couple of years of not getting out and at the many and varied presentations. I decided not to attend this year, but I enjoyed watching the plenaries online and reading people’s posts and summaries. I always come away from a good conference with a head bursting with ideas, my brain in overdrive and a restlessness to do new things or find out more. This is one of the things I missed this year, and it got me to thinking about how we can replicate this sensation, at least in part, especially, for this blog, when it comes to the work we do as materials writers.

Join up the dots

I think what is key is that when we read things, watch things or listen to things, we need to make connections, join up the dots and reflect on how something relates to, or impacts on, our work. Making connections is everything really. It’s what creativity is all about and it’s how we grow and develop.

A (very) simple framework

In this blog post I decided to look at one thing I read this week and to make connections between what I read and my professional life. I came up with a (very) simple framework for this, just to keep me focused and stop me from meandering all over the place – something I have a tendency to do. The exercise has proved useful and given me food for thought, so I’ll definitely do it again and I might build it into a workshop myself one of these days.

  • Read something
  • Underline some interesting bits
  • Think about those bits in the context of the author
  • Think about those bits in a more general context
  • Think about how those bits relate to my own work
  • Make some notes about them in a place where I will re-read them

The book

I had my copy of ‘The Art of noticing’ [See here] by Rob Walker out on my table this week, because I’d lent it to a friend who had returned it and I hadn’t yet replaced it on my bookshelf. It’s a great book to dip into. It’s the kind of book I like to have in print because I want to write in the margins and highlight sections. [Note to self: write a blog post about this habit] I’ve just flicked through and found three bits I’ve highlighted as being relevant to my own work as an ELT writer. I think this would work with any book. That’s something I’ll need to put to the test. In the meantime here’s a bit more about my three highlighted bits:

1. The Short, Collective, Biography Experiment

The author mentions an idea that he read in a book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a children’s author [see more here]. She called the idea ‘’The Short, Collective, Biography Experiment” and in her version it consists of a fun activity to do during a dinner party. Throughout the meal guests are asked to find thirty things that they all have in common, or, as she says more eloquently, “Through conversation endeavour to find a collection of autobiographical statements that are equally true for each and every member of the group.” When I thought about this idea, I realised that this is the kind of thing we do naturally anyway, when we are thrown together in random groups, as often happens at a face-to-face conference. But it’s also something that we could write up as a simple lesson plan, adjusting accordingly. By getting learners to actively seek out and find similarities, we can, at the same time, learn about each other and celebrate differences. If I made materials based on this idea, I’d probably include a section in which learners note things of interest that they’d like to know more about, about the other members in their group.

2. Change your route

The author mentions an idea he got from Jim Coudal, who works in creative design and is famous, amongst other things, for the Field Notes notebooks. Coudal suggests that by changing the route you normally take every day to get from A to B, you will notice new things which will trigger creative ideas. He also points out that the idea is appropriate in a metaphorical sense too and says, “Maybe you know what works – and that’s exactly why you should try something different.” I’ve given this some thought and while I like it, and I think it makes sense, it’s a bit scary too in a way. It goes against the ‘why change it if it isn’t broken?’ idea. But I’ve made a note to myself to try it out in some way, professionally. I thought I’d give it a go the next time I’m creating a presentation. The steps I usually follow to make slides and come up with a narrative usually work, but I do think I could do things differently. I’m usually in a hurry so just do what I’m used to doing, rather than consider new ways. So I’ve decided to do a bit of research first and then, when I have some spare time, have a go creating a presentation a different way. It’s occurred to me that I am very interested in the process of creating presentations, making nice slides, etc. so I suspect the exercise will be enjoyable, and hopefully I’ll get better at that side of my work.

3. Make an appointment with yourself

In another section of the book the author refers to something the film maker Mike Birbiglia had done he realized that as his schedule became fuller and fuller, he was neglecting himself more and more. Birbiglia wrote a note to himself and left it by the side of his bed. It said, “Mike you have an appointment at Café Pedlar at 7:00 AM … with your mind”. Blocking out time is nothing new and these days we come across it a lot in books or podcasts about productivity. Rachael Roberts [website here] talks about it a lot in her work and she’s one of the most productive and grounded people I know. She also believes that besides blocking out time for work-related activities, it’s also a good idea to block out time for self-care, for thinking, for reflecting on things, or just for sitting and doing nothing more than enjoying the here and now. I tend to time block when I am very busy. But I’m going to have a go at blocking out an hour or so here and there in the week ahead for meetings with myself. And how is this related to my work? Well, if I am not as healthy in my mind and body as I can be, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to do my absolute best.

So that’s it.

One book.

Three highlights.

A few things to try out.

I’ve enjoyed writing this and think I might do more in the same vein. I’d love to hear about any ‘connections’ you’ve made recently that will have an impact on your work.

Thank you for reading.