Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Writing for different markets

F on or F off? Should ELT materials teach swear words?

Swear words as content

I’ve never been asked to include swear words in published ELT materials. There are obvious reasons for this of course and as many of the materials I’ve written have been for children, the omission is hardly surprising. But a conversation the other day got me thinking about how and when it might be useful to include swear words and how the only likely place to find any meaningful reference to them will be in materials that teachers create for their own learners.

Swearing in another language

One of the arguments that is often put forward for teaching swear words in class is that learners should be able to recognise them when they hear them, especially if they are on the receiving end of an insult. While there is a logic to this, my feeling is that there is a more pressing reason to teach them: to make sure that anyone choosing to use them, does so correctly. Not just in terms of pronunciation, which is usually less of a problem, but in terms of usage, and in particular appropriateness and register.

Put your hands up if you’ve ever heard an L2 English speaker trying to impress with a colloquial use of swear words but coming across as sounding ridiculous? This happens to all learners of all languages of course and is probably a good reason not to even attempt to use vulgarities until you have a certain command of the language. In my experience, even at that point you stand a fifty-fifty chance of sounding daft. I’m speaking from experience here. I’ve been that daft one. What about you? Have you used a swear word in a foreign language and been told it just sounds wrong?

Dive in or steer clear?

Some of the authentic content around which we create our classroom materials is littered with colourful language, so it might be an idea to highlight it in some way, especially if learners are likely to ask about it. Film and video will help learners with pronunciation but how do we tackle usage and register without addressing it explicitly through materials? Or should we just steer clear? I don’t have the answers, but it’s something that might be interesting to discuss.

C words

Part of the problem is, of course, that there are swear words and swear words. Some, like like the ‘c’ word being the most offensive in my opinion. Sorry, I can’t even bring myself to write it, let alone say it. So if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll need to do an internet search. And then there are more anodyne words, like cockwomble*, one of my all-time favourites, nearer the bottom in terms of strength of insult (but extremely rewarding to slip into a conversation).

Context is everything

At the end of the day we should probably treat swear words like any other potentially risky content. We should consider the context of those who will be using the materials, learners and maybe other teachers. We usually know what will work and what won’t. If you aren’t sure, I tend to think, ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ is a good maxim.

What do YOU think?

I’d love to know whether any of you have ever created teaching materials which highlight swear words and especially, how well it was received by your learners … and whether you’d do it again. I’d also like to know any other thoughts you have on the subject.

*I feel a small sense of accomplishment for having slipped this word into a blog post. It’s the small things, eh?

Should we be talking about war with our students?

Uncomfortable topics

Unsurprisingly, as we watch events unfold in Ukraine, this is a question being discussed in several forums over the past few days and, again unsurprisingly, people are sharing a wide range of opinions. It got me to thinking about the matter specifically from a materials writer’s perspective and to writing this blog post. It’s based on my observations and the conclusions I’ve drawn from them, but it probably holds true for how I feel about any provocative or uncomfortable topic and its place in the classroom.

One such discussion took place in a global institution’s Teacher Community in a Facebook group. A teacher asked for advice about dealing with questions from students about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Things got heated as opinions were so divided and after about six hours the moderators decided to close down the comments. I’m not saying this was right or wrong but it illustrates the sensitivity of the topic.

Clashing opinions

Here are five comments I’ve seen on social media in response to the question in my title. I’ve had permission to use them but I’ve chosen not to attribute them.

  • Politics has no place in the English classroom. We should be teaching language.
  • I think it could be useful but I’m worried my students will get upset.
  • My students are talking about nothing else. How can I not teach it?
  • We should make lessons around news reports but we shouldn’t share our own opinions. That isn’t necessary.
  • We should leave this topic for the students to read about themselves.
  • We are teachers. We can change the world. Yes, of course we must talk about this war.

It comes as no surprise that opinions are divided. Thinking back to the last staff room I used to frequent, I can easily imagine different friends and colleagues saying each of the comments above.

So what do I think?

Ultimately, as always, everything depends on context. A one-to-one Business English lesson with someone keen to talk politics isn’t the same as a class of eight-year-old primary children. And then there is every imaginable class-type in between. Most teachers know their students and they will decide for themselves whether to ‘go there’ or not. 

A few things are clear to me

  • Some teachers and some students want to talk about this.
  • Some teachers are actively looking for appropriate materials they can use.
  • Some teachers are finding these materials but some aren’t.
  • Some of those teachers who aren’t finding what they need are creating their own materials.

If you are one of those teachers, here are a few suggestions.

Remember to care!

Caring should be at the heart of everything as you write your materials. Think about how your learners will respond, as a group and as individuals. Can you be sure that no-one will be triggered by something they read or a photo they might be forced to examine? If you can’t be sure, then maybe you shouldn’t proceed.

Have clear objectives

This should be at the heart of all materials of course. But sometimes when we feel an urgent need to write something quickly, objectives get forgotten. Ask yourself things like

Do I want to provide my students with language so that they are equipped to take part in discussions?

Do I want to help my students understand news reports?

Do I want my students to develop their debating skills?

Answers to these and similar questions should inform the direction of your materials and help you choose the kind of tasks you need to design and the support you need to offer.

Consider your sources for the content of your materials

Use a reputable source. This isn’t always easy in a world where fake news is so widespread. One approach could be to tap into this and encourage critical thinking by actively using articles or photos that have been fact-checked and found to be false, like these here from the BBC, and providing a few discussion questions such as:

Who benefits from this fake news?

What are the consequences of sharing fake news?

Another idea could be to find news reports from different countries and ask students to analyse them and make comparisons.

Keep the language in mind

That person who posted on Facebook was right – we are language teachers first and foremost. If you are using a text, spend some time analyzing it carefully first. Can you extract a useful lexical set? Are there examples of register you could draw attention to?  What language do you want your learners to produce?

Don’t forget about levels

It’s easy to get carried away when you come across a great video or article that seems to be perfect for your materials. But don’t forget the level. Run the text through a language profiler such as Vocabkitchen [here] to get an analysis based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages [CEFR] or the Academic Word List [AWL]. Then, if necessary, you can adjust the text, pre-teach some vocabulary or provide a glossary.

A second pair of eyes

Always get a second pair of eyes to look over your materials. They can check for appropriateness, as well as things like typos or other common errors. If possible, for something like this, which could be controversial, ask someone who might not share your views too closely. As psychologist and educationalist Kenneth Kaye said, ‘Two heads are better than one only if they contain different opinions’.

A note about copyright

Don’t forget to uphold and respect the rules of copyright. Lots of teachers mistakenly believe they can use any article or image they find on the internet if it’s for educational purposes. This isn’t true. Copyright infringement is a kind of theft and as teachers we should model ethical behaviour for our students, so we can’t ignore these rules . Make sure you do the following:

  • Check which Creative Commons license the article or image has to see whether you can use it [read more about licenses here].
  • Always attribute your sources.
  • If you aren’t sure whether you have permission to use something, don’t use it!
  • Don’t be afraid of writing to the author to ask for permission to use a piece of work. In my experience they’ll be happy to say yes.

Tip! One way to avoid potential copyright issues is to include a link to the content so that your learners can access it at its original location, instead of cutting and pasting it into your materials.

Finally …

… let’s all hope and pray that this bloody war in Ukraine is short-lived.

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

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.

The C word: (censorship) … and the Z word

This blog post is going to be controversial. I know this before I even begin writing it. This is a short post about some of my recent experience of censorship while writing primary materials. It was prompted by having a Z word struck out. Last week I was told that I couldn’t include a zebra in a story. I’ll come back to this at the end of this post. In the meantime, here’s a nice colourful photo of a zebra. It’s my quiet protest.

(Don’t) write anything you want

All ELT writers understand that we can’t just write anything that occurs to us. That would be daft. When we write for a publisher or a Ministry of Education, we have to follow a curriculum and use specific language in a specific order. This language usually comes in the form of a scope and sequence document. I hadn’t really thought much about the name of this of document until now but it is exactly what it says on the box, a document in which the language that needs to be taught is scoped out into units and lessons, following a logical sequence.

Having to follow such a document is fine. In fact, it’s more than fine, it’s good because ultimately the materials we create need to provide the target learners with the language they need to do one or both of these things: (a) to successfully graduate from their school year and move up to the next level or (b) to pass an official external exam. Having everything neatly planned makes it less likely that we’ll miss something important, like the preposition of place, next to, a key grammatical structure in the Starters exam, or circus, a vocabulary item that examinees are expected to recognise in the Flyers exam. Yes, these S&S documents are useful.

Up to here, everything’s fine.

But sometimes a writer is asked to change something they’ve written because it is too sensitive for a particular market. Lots of markets have restrictions and typical examples are things like, no references to hamburgers or anything pig-related, please. Incidentally sausage is in the Cambridge YLE list, but pig isn’t.

It can sometimes be difficult to navigate the do’s and don’ts because, depending on the end-users’ location, they might change or even be contradictory. I’ve been asked not to write about the Hindu festival Holi and I’ve been asked to specifically write about it. I’ve been asked to change names because they were too Christian (David) or not Christian enough (Jasmine). Sometimes a name is just deemed to be too unusual. This happened with Adele. Adele? Really?

A couple of questions

So I’d like to pose a couple of questions with primary learners in mind:

What happens when you aren’t allowed to use a key item of vocabulary that appears in a YL exam which the learners might be sitting? How will learners be able to recognize these words if they don’t come across them in a classroom?

You can see a list of these words in the The Cambridge English Young Learners Handbook for Teachers (available to download freely here as a pdf).

Who is saying ‘no’?

And does all of this extreme caution always come from Ministries? Or might some publishers be proactively censoring things they suspect might cause problems later down the line?

Diversity? I don’t think so

And last, but certainly not least, the most pressing question of all. How can we possibly have more Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity in our materials if we aren’t even allowed a range of names?

And the zebra?

What’s all that about? you’ll be asking yourselves. Well, it begins with Z. And I was recently told that no words that begin with a Z are welcome in Arab countries because they all sound very rude. Other ELT writers have been told the same. But zoo and zero are in the Cambridge English YL handbook. It’s just as well that nobody is writing a story about a zoo or a CLIL maths book for primary. Oh, hang on a minute …

On a final note, if any commissioning editor is reading this and thinking I might spell trouble, it’s OK, I usually do what needs to be done. I also don’t do what mustn’t be done. At the end of the day if I accept a work offer, I have to accept the client’s brief. I just think it’s important to raise these issues from time to time.