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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.