Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Writing for Primary

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.

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.

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.