Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Writing digital materials

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.

Writing a good worksheet: Shakespeare or Dolly Parton?

Dolly Parton

Cramming stuff in

When I started teaching in 1987 I used to make most of my own materials because I was teaching private classes in a wide range of contexts and couldn’t afford to buy a lot of books. Also, in those days there wasn’t such a variety of resources available as there are today. In order to save money on photocopying, I used to try and cram as much as possible on an A4 page without really thinking about overall page design, accessibility or user-experience. I’m embarrassed to say that at the time I thought some of those photocopies were brilliant. But now, looking back, I realize they were horrendous. My only regret is that I didn’t keep a few. They’d be a great example of how not to do things.

Learning from the mistakes of others

As I began to learn more about materials writing I started to consider things like page design and layout. Before working for publishers much of what I learnt was from evaluating course books and materials that other writers had created. Some were great. Others were awful – and they are probably the ones I learnt most from. Especially the ones that had me thinking things like, ‘But why did they choose to do X over Y?’

A critic’s eye

A useful practice is to find some materials you think are good, and look at some pages with a critic’s eye. Ask yourself:

  • What is it about the page that works?
  • How much text is on the page?
  • How is it organised?
  • How much white space is there?
  • What is the purpose of each block of white space?
  • What is the purpose of each element on the page?

Put yourself in your learners’ shoes

When you make materials for your classes, put yourself in your learners’ shoes and ask yourself how you’d feel if you were given this worksheet. Then do whatever is necessary to avoid any potential ‘Oh no!’ reactions.

Shakespeare said ‘less is more’ and I’m sure we’re all familiar with this way of thinking. It’s particularly useful when it comes to a worksheet. Frank Lloyd Wright tweaked Shakespeare and said, ‘Less is more only when more is too much’ but how much is too much?

How much is too much?

When it comes to text on a worksheet, more can often be too much. But ‘less’ doesn’t have to mean losing something. We just need to be thoughtful in our work: A provocative discussion question can be a springboard for a lengthy speaking stage in a lesson. A carefully chosen image can be all that is needed to get learners writing a detailed composition. What’s important is that you keep a few things in mind as you choose each element of what’s going to be on the worksheet. Ask yourself these questions as you prepare to write.

  • Is there anything I can leave out of the worksheet but keep in the Teacher’s notes?
  • Where shall I put the reading text: on the worksheet or as a separate document or slide?
  • Is this image necessary or is it merely decorative?
  • Will headings and subheadings help learners navigate the page?
  • Would it be useful to add an example before an exercise?
  • How many items do I need to include in an exercise if I want to practise all forms of a grammar structure? Or all the new vocabulary items?
  • Is a word box with some useful language helpful for a speaking task?
  • Is it a good idea to add a small glossary for key vocabulary that might be unfamiliar?
  • What size font should I use? And what about the spacing?
  • Do I need to include space for answers on the page?

The final word

Of course, as with all aspects of materials writing, context is everything. You know your learners better than anyone. In fact, you could do some simple classroom research. Prepare two versions of a worksheet, trying out different layouts and designs. Then, before the end of the lesson, ask your learners for some feedback on the two versions, saying which one they prefer, and why.  After all, your learners are your most important critics. And who knows? They might agree with Dolly Parton, who said,

‘Some people say that less is more. But I think more is more.’

Photo by Eva Rinaldi – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

ELT script writing: new trends, new skills, (some of) the same inequalities

Part of a film script

When you think about ELT content writing you might not immediately think of script writing, but it’s actually becoming a vital skill to have. The other day I was thinking about the work I’d been doing recently and the work I’ve got lined up for the months ahead. I realized that a lot of it is scriptwriting, either for audio or video. It occurred to me that while I’d been writing scripts for decades, script writing for ELT is different these days. Things have changed. So I reflected a bit more and that’s where this blog post came from

Script writing for ESP

It started with a series of online courses, for the British Council, BBC English and Di’Agostini.  These were all for adult learners, were mainly for people working in different sectors, and titles included:

  • English for Taxi Drivers
  • English for Oil and Gas
  • English for Catering
  • English for The Police Force
  • English for Journalists
  • English for Hotel Staff

You get the picture. We always learn when we write and through this work I learnt a lot about things like the hierarchy of staff in various working environments and the safety precautions which need to be in place to store and transport fossil fuels.

Primary script writing

I then started developing scripts for primary learners. One of my favourites was a series of children’s plays I wrote as a resource for my book, ‘Dream Box’. It made me happy to think of children all over Spain, performing those plays and saying ‘my words’.

Changing trends in ELT script writing

Recently the focus of my script writing has changed a bit, and maybe some of the skills I am using too. I can trace these changes directly to more global changes, in education in general and in the big wide world.

Advances in technology mean that a lot of my recent work has been writing scripts for amazing animations sometimes with a cool blend of real footage and animation.  I can specifically mention a couple of things I’ve worked on, the stuff that is already out there (meaning I won’t get into trouble for breaching my contract). My favourite are ELT Songs’ Planet Pop videos with scripts that link to Young Learner exams but with a modern, non-schooly feel about them. It comes as no surprise to me that the company has won several Educational awards and prizes over the last year or two.

Equality, Diversion, Inclusion

Another noticeable change is in the increased focus on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. This was the case with Planet Pop but it was also true for work I did for Digital Language Associates (DLA), worthy winner of a Judges Commendation for EDI at this year’s ELTON Awards.  Part of my remit as a writer was to write narration at three different levels for existing documentary-style shorts. Grading language is another valuable skill and something I’ve had to do more and more as Publishers often decide to use the same content, for which they’ve paid highly, for different levels. It makes sense.

The writing process

Much of the writing process is the same now as it was twenty years ago. But now I have to consider a lot more issues. I love that I can include more diversity and invent characters that would have been a no-no not that long ago. I also have to use my child-like imagination more than ever. For scripts that are going to be turned into animations, I need to consider things that the tech wizards can make happen on the screen. Because if I don’t ask for it, it won’t happen. But if I do ask for it, Boom! It’s mind-blowing. Almost anything is possible (and I haven’t even mentioned VR yet).

The continuing digital divide

But it isn’t all state-of-the-art tech and wacky animations. For another recent project, I wrote a series of 45 radio show scripts for secondary aged children in low resource countries. Many of these children don’t have access to computers, let alone the internet. My English ‘lessons’ are delivered via radio and the interaction I built into my scripts involved very traditional things like ‘Listen and repeat’ or ‘Write five animals on a piece of paper’. It’s a piece of paper because I can’t even assume every child will have a notebook.

As a writer I need a different set of skills here. I need to keep asking myself, ‘How can I make this engaging and fun without any flashing lights and tech trickery?’ Different skills but equally valuable.

What the future holds

In 2022 I’ll be working on two exciting new projects, one huge, the other more modest. One I predict to be the most ambitious I’ve seen yet in terms of technology and creativity, the other reliant on paper and pencils if we’re lucky. I’m looking forward to the challenges of both and will keep a note of all the new skills I learn along the way. I think I might be in for some surprises.

Keeping up to date with digital: Part 1

We have a problem

How can freelance ELT writers and editors keep up to date with digital writing tools and platforms, so that when a job opportunity comes up and the publisher needs someone with experience in a specific authoring tool more of us can apply?

Unique skills, unique gaps

The thing about technology is that we all have a very personal skills set of what we can use with confidence and other areas where our knowledge is left wanting. This isn’t just true for ELT writers and editors. It’s the case for everyone. Because usually we learn how to use something when we discover we have a need for it. And if you are like me, the way we learn best is by playing around with whatever it is we’re trying to master, until things fall into place, maybe referring to How to videos or articles and maybe signing up for a short course. Courses aren’t usually effective for me unless I can revisit things and spend time practicing, but a course is handy if you have a tutor who is available to answer questions.

Access denied

I started writing digital materials for ELT soon after I started writing print materials. The first authoring tool I used was Moodle. I’m not naturally tech-minded, so I found it a challenge (to say the least). But I had the opportunity to attend a face-to-face course with an extremely patient tutor. The best thing about the course was that I was given access to a Moodle sand pit where I could play at my heart’s content until I mastered each aspect of the platform. Later I learnt how to use new authoring tools, each one very similar to the last but with the usual range of activity types and improvements that came about as technology itself got better and better. But always within a Publisher’s domain and with access denied the minute the product was complete.

Please let us in!

Wouldn’t it be great if we could have access to all of the Publishers’ authoring tools with their sand pits so that we could learn the special features of each one and teach ourselves how to use them. Right now this isn’t possible but wouldn’t it be in the Publishers’ interest to offer such access to freelancers? Then, when they put out an advert for a new job opportunity, they’d have a larger pool of experienced digital writers and editors to choose from.How can we make this happen? Could it be as simple as asking a Publisher to let us in? Do we need to work together to ask for this? Can we share our communal knowledge? I’ve called this blog post Part 1 in the hope that I can come back at some point in the not-too-distant future with some answers. I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. And I’d especially love to hear from Publishers.