Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

ELT teachers as materials writers: lessons from the masters

Typewriter

Previously published as keynote article in IATEFL ‘Voices’ Issue 28 (Nov / Dec 2021)

Connections and inspiration

According to the anthropologist Arthur Aufderheide, ‘All knowledge is connected to all other knowledge. The fun is in making the connections.’ I love this idea, and I’ve often reflected on how, in my personal life, something I’ve observed in one context has been the source of an important lesson in my professional life. This might not happen immediately, but it happens frequently. At the joint MaWSIG and LitSIG Pre-Conference Event in 2019, my friend and sometimes co-author Cheryl Palin gave a wonderful presentation called ‘Taking a leaf out of the books of great writers’. She shared some thought-provoking quotes from famous literary figures, all about the act of writing. The anticipation in the room just before each click to reveal the quote on the next slide was palpable. This isn’t surprising as the room was filled with writers and readers, all of whom love a literary quote, especially when it resonates in such a personal way. Since then, whenever I’ve come across a quote about writing, I consider how it relates to my work creating ELT materials, and whether I might learn a valuable lesson from it, how I can make connections.

All teachers are materials writers

All teachers are, I believe, materials writers, whether designing a worksheet for a business English class, an interactive game for an online lesson with primary children, or anything in between. With this in mind, I’m sharing ten of my favourite writers’ quotes, each with some personal thoughts about how it relates to the teaching materials we create. With the exception of the last one, they are different from Cheryl’s selection—perhaps unsurprisingly, as there are thousands of writers’ quotes out there. As you read, I invite you to make your own connections and find your own meanings. This is where the magic lies, and unexpected learning takes place.

Ten quotes

‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’

Toni Morrison

A great deal of hard work and effort is currently being made by many ELT professionals who wish to make materials more inclusive and diverse. Traditionally many publisher-led products have shown a narrow range of people-types, mainly white, middle-class, heteronormative, from traditional two-parent, one- or two-children families, living in well-to-do neighbourhoods in developed countries. Sound familiar? But these days, issues such as Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and eco-literacy are on our radar more and more. It is, therefore, only natural that we should ask ourselves how these issues can be addressed in our world, whether that be in a classroom, a Teacher Association, a publishing company or any other ELT corner. As teacher-writers, we have an opportunity to write the materials that we, and our learners, want to see, but which haven’t yet been written. Some of us have already started doing just this, and it is my belief that before long, it will be easier to find a broader range of materials in which our learners can see their own realities reflected.

‘Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.’

Lisa See

To write well, it’s crucial to read the works of others. This is true of every art form. Musicians listen to music, directors and scriptwriters watch films, and artists go to exhibitions. We learn good practice from observing the work of others. We learn what works and what doesn’t work. This holds true for ELT writers, too. To write good materials, we first need to understand the essence of what good materials are, and the best way to do this is by evaluating existing materials according to a set of criteria. These criteria can be different for each of us, but a good starting point might be to think about general principles in material design and then move on to your learners’ contexts and what they specifically need. Armed with a list, you can browse course books, resource packs or digital materials and see how they hold up. Make a note of the positive aspects you’d like to include in your own materials and the negative aspects you want to avoid. Keeping a journal for such evaluation could prove a useful reminder. You might look back at earlier entries and decide that your criteria should be changed. No two contexts are ever identical.

‘Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should finish in the reader’s.’

Stephen King

The first thing to consider and to keep in mind as we create materials for our own learners is the reader, or the end user. We usually start by tailoring a worksheet to meet the language needs of the learners, but we can do much more when we know our learners personally. The better we get to know them, the easier it is to choose themes and issues that are of personal interest, thereby going one step further to ensuring their curiosity and engagement. We can do this through informal dialogues or in more structured ways, such as through questionnaires or class journals. The important thing is to notice. Noticing is, in my opinion, one of the most important skills that a teacher should develop.

            We should also keep in mind a potential second user too, another teacher. While you might be creating your materials for your own use, it is a good idea to write them as if another teacher was going to use them, whether substituting a lesson for you or with a class of their own. This approach will force you to make the materials clearer, avoiding ambiguity and probably doing a better job. It also means that one day, should you wish to share your materials or publish them, they will already be more polished. One easy way to keep this second user in mind, rather than second guessing, is to share the materials with a colleague with a request for feedback. You could provide them with a simple checklist. Questions work well: Are the instructions clear? Is the level of challenge accurate? Should I include a space for writing the answers?

‘Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long time to make it short.’

Henry David Thoreau

These words of wisdom resonate with me. I loved writing stories as a child but tended to jump into a composition without any planning at all. I would waffle on for page upon page, and of course, disregard the editing process entirely. As a teacher I’ve observed a similar approach in many of my learners, of course. There seems to be a general blindness to the value of time spent re-working a text to make it the best it can be. As materials writers we should be spending as much time on planning and editing as we do on writing. The three activities are key to success. A teacher creating their own materials doesn’t usually have the luxury of an editor, so they need to put on their editor’s cap and go through their work meticulously, cutting, changing, moving things around, and simplifying. Making materials shorter takes some time. Making them excellent, takes even longer.

‘The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.’

Joyce Carol Oates

Materials writing is never linear. We don’t start at the beginning and move in a straight line towards the end. There is also no one rule about where to start. Sometimes, we conduct a needs analysis to find out exactly what our learners need. Other times, we come across some engaging content, such as a text, an image or a video, and this automatically becomes the starting point. Sometimes we do both things semi-simultaneously. While there is not one right way, there are probably quite a few wrong ways. You need to find the way that works best for you, making sure the language focus is aligned to your syllabus and that you don’t miss a golden opportunity to develop a skill or have an interesting discussion. One good way to do this is to look over the materials when they are in a rough shape and ask yourself a few questions, such as the following:

  • Are there several examples of a particular kind of language which I could exploit, such as the use of a verb tense, a word-building convention, the use of relative pronouns or adverbs?
  • Is there an obvious theme which could be addressed in a guided discussion?
  • Are there any interesting pronunciation features which could be highlighted?
  • Would it be a good idea to add a new task between two existing tasks?
  • Is it better to have a reading text on the same page as the exercises or on a separate page, and then create differentiated exercises for the same content?

‘Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.’

E. B. White

Young learner teachers and writers will understand the importance of this quote. Nowhere does age appropriacy matter more than in materials for the youngest learners, and it isn’t as simple to get right as it might appear. Every choice we make in terms of theme, image, text length or activity type should be seen through the eyes of the child who will be using the materials. There is nothing that kills a child’s motivation more quickly that the suspicion that they are being treated like a younger child. Most children these days are used to seeing real world images and hearing about news stories from around the world. While we must never forget that they are first and foremost children, we should also encourage them to articulate and share their own ideas and opinions about the things that affect them directly. Article 12 of the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of the Child states: ‘Children have the right to give their opinion freely on issues that affect them. Adults should listen and take children seriously.’ We are those adults, and listening to the children will have a positive impact on the materials we create for them.

‘Words can inspire. And words can destroy. Choose yours well.’

Robin Sharma

Have you ever come across a text in a course book and thought, ‘Oh dear; that is most inappropriate for Student X or Class Y’? There is a simple way to avoid this in your own materials: Get to know your learners! The more you know about them the better you can edit materials so that nothing is likely to trigger an adverse reaction. Also, always read or re-read a text before you use it in a classroom. The same goes for an audio script too, of course. I have observed many teachers who have been surprised at the content of an audio while using it for the first time in a classroom. Not reading an audio script before pressing the ‘Play’ button seems to be a common, but potentially disastrous, shortcut. But if we are writing the script, we can pay attention. A good rule of thumb is to first think of the class as a whole and how they will react to your materials. And then to consider each individual learner and ask the same question. If you have any doubt, then you probably need to change something.

‘A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.’

Richard Bach

One of the questions I most frequently get asked by teachers is how to become a professional ELT writer. There is no single answer, of course, but I do point out that most, probably all, professional ELT writers started their careers as teachers. So, whoever is asking the question is in a good starting position. Here are some common sense tips:

  • Write materials for your own classes.
  • Make them as good as you possibly can.
  • Share your materials with other teachers and ask for feedback.
  • Get yourself known by giving a presentation or a webinar. If you’ve haven’t done this before, consider doing a joint presentation with a friend or colleague.
  • Send in a lesson plan to a materials competition. They do exist. Check publishers’ websites and blogs.
  • Attend conferences where you can meet writers and ask them questions.
  • Get in touch with publishers and ask if you can review materials or try your hand at writing one of the extra components that they often publish to go with a course.
  • Don’t give up.

‘A writer never has a vacation. For a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.’

Eugene Ionesco

I think this is true for teachers and writers. We are hard-wired to notice things that might be useful for our learners. When we hear a song, we zoom in on a tense being used in the chorus. We can’t read a news article without thinking how nicely it ties in with a unit we are teaching on a related theme. This can be problematic when we are trying to switch off from work, of course. But it’s my belief that all creative thinkers do this to some degree so it might be best to embrace it and keep a notebook handy. In his book The Art of Noticing, Rob Walker suggests that creativity is sparked by training yourself to notice things in everyday life and that this, ultimately, is a good thing.

‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.’

William Somerset Maugham

This was my favourite quote at Cheryl’s presentation which I mentioned in my introduction.  I like it because it’s provocative, amusing and very true for teacher-writers who each come from a unique starting point. But unlike novelists, who, in most cases, are unlikely to get together to collaborate on a book, teachers can work together in teams to create excellent resources. Some of the best teacher-created resources seen are the result of joint efforts. We all have a unique set of skills and experience, and by working together in different ways we can write our own rules, break them, rewrite them and so on, ad infinitum. Don’t wait to be invited to enjoy such a teacher-writer team. Set one up yourself.

In closing 

There are many more writers’ quotes, of course, and we can probably make meaningful connections with all of them. As Arthur Aufderheide said, that’s where the fun lies. I think it’s also likely that this is where personal professional development lies, as we join the dots, discovering new ways to provide our learners with the excellent materials they deserve.

References

UNICEF. (n.d.). The Convention on the Rights of the Child: The child-friendly version. https://www.unicef.org/sop/convention-rights-child-child-friendly-version

Walker, R. (2019). The art of noticing. Knopf.

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