Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Just one (ELT materials) thing

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!


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.