Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

How can you possibly write materials if you don’t teach?

4 people asking questions

Do materials writers need to teach? Can they write good materials if they don’t? How can they know what’s going on? How can they keep up to date?

These are questions I get asked all the time. So I decided to write a short blog post with my thoughts.

First of all, a couple of facts.

Teachers who write materials for their learners are in an ideal place because they know their contexts better than anyone. They can tailor a worksheet to engage the whole class because they know what the class will find motivating. And they can make multiple versions of a worksheet to meet the needs of individuals within a group. If the materials are well-designed then these learners are very lucky indeed.

A lot of very good ELT materials are written by people who haven’t been teaching for years, in some cases for decades.

So how do these writers know what to write? How do they know what kind of things the learners will find engaging, or which tasks they’ll find motivating?

I recently asked a group of such writers these questions and other similar ones. I’ve collated their answers and added them to my own experience. Basically, it’s all about ‘keeping in touch’: in touch with the classroom, in touch with the target learners, in touch with the teachers, in touch with latest research and trends …

So, here are seven ways we can keep in touch. Can you think of any more?

Do some teaching! Get in touch with a school or a teacher and ask whether you can give a lesson or a part of a lesson. This can be face to face or online. I know several writers who do this regularly, sometimes as a paid job and sometimes as a volunteer. I’ve done this successfully myself. The last time was with a primary class in Brazil where I zoomed in and was interviewed by a group of nine-year-olds. It was terrifying! Only joking. It was great fun – hopefully for them too.

Mingle with teachers, especially those who work in the context of the target users of the materials you are writing. This might be a geographical area, an age group, or perhaps teachers focusing on a specific exam like IELTS. These days most mingling happens in social media groups. If the perfect group doesn’t exist, set one up yourself. When you have access to these teachers, you can crowd source information, ask questions, start discussions, share surveys … create a shared learning space.

Read, read, read! There has never been such an abundance of material with a focus on education from every angle imaginable. I like to read about general trends and news in education, and also more specialized focuses, depending on the materials I’m writing at any given moment. Recently I’ve been reading about the rise and rise of AI in education. It’s fascinating. But I’ve also been reading about changes to the Cambridge IGCSE ESL exam and the new SEL (social and emotional learning) competences that have been added to the Spanish curriculum – not nearly as exciting but probably more immediately useful for the work I’ve been doing. Find journals, articles and blog posts on topics of interest. If you don’t know where to look, ask! If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Write an article or blog post. If you don’t have your own blog, approach someone who does, and offer to write a guest post. Lots of Teacher Associations, special interest groups and institutions are actively looking for contributors. Get in touch with me if you’d like more tailored advice on this. I might be able to help or to put you in touch with someone else who can offer some guidance. When we agree to write about a topic, we inevitably have to spend time researching and checking things. It’s a great way to force ourselves to be on top of things.

Be active in the ELT community. This is the best way to meet people, hear about what’s going on, share ideas, advice, recommendations. There are lots of ways to be active. Volunteering for a Teachers’ Association suits some people. It can be time-consuming but is time well-spent. Organise a meet-up, face-to-face if that’s appropriate or online if it isn’t. Or try a hybrid meet-up. You don’t need to be a big institution to do this. Individuals have been organizing such social events for family and friends since the COVID pandemic when people were confined to their homes.

Hang out with the right people – people who belong to the same kind of communities as your target users. If you are writing Business English materials, join Business forums. If you write materials for children, offer to babysit for your sister’s children. You get the picture. Being in close proximity offers great opportunities for observation. You’ll notice what kind of things they are talking about, what they are listening to, watching, reading.

Learn from the publishers. Sometimes we can get valuable information from others who have been in classrooms and observed what’s going on: the publishers. Check out current materials on their websites. Read their catalogues. See which kinds of things they are highlighting. Are they suggesting any unique selling points (USPs)? If so, then this is likely to be something they’ve done extensive market research on and worth taking note of. If you can get to a book shop, browse ‘real’ materials. Have a look at things like text lengths and recurring themes or topics and trends.

So, as you can see, there are plenty of ways to find out the things you need to know to inform your materials writing. If you can think of anything else, please get in touch and let me know. I’ll edit your ideas in (and credit you, of course).

Happy writing!

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