Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

K is for … (answer) key

This is a new series of short blog posts, ‘An A-Z of ELT materials writing’. I’ll be writing about important aspects that we need to keep in mind when we create materials, whether for our own classes or to be used by others.

K is for … (answer) key

If you’re wondering why this is ‘K’ and not ‘A’, it’s for practical reasons. There are lots of As to write about (in good time) but I figured I might be low on Ks.

Answer keys are important, regardless of the level and age of the target learners and how ‘obvious’ an answer might be. Teachers can get it wrong for any number of reasons. It’s also worth noting that even if you are writing materials for your own learners and feel you know the answers, it’s still a good idea to write them down. You might decide to re-use the materials in a year’s time so could forget details. Or you might share the materials with another teacher who is less familiar with the content.

Write it now, not later

The first thing to say about an answer key is that it’s almost always a good idea to write it at the same time as you write the activity to which it belongs. That’s because sometimes it isn’t until we write the answers that we notice a flaw in the activity. Better sooner than later so that we can rewrite and correct things while they are fresh in our mind. I’ve said ‘almost always’ because there are times you might choose to wait. For example, if you are writing an activity that is likely to change significantly after feedback from an editor. Though personally, I’d prefer to keep a record of the answers, even if I need to change them later.

Another reason for writing the key at the same time, is that if you are writing a lot of activities (and a lot of answers), then leaving the key until the end will feel more like a chore. Breaking up the task makes it less so.

What constitutes an answer key?

For published materials, a writer usually receives a brief to explain what a key should include as well as other information such as layout and style details. For materials that you create for your own learners, you can decide on these details. For example: do you reproduce the questions with the answers (we often see this in Teacher Guides for children’s materials where the whole page is reproduced complete with answers). Do you write a horizontal list or a vertical list? Vertical would use up less paper if you are going to print them. And if you do choose vertical, do you separate the items with commas? All small details but a glance at a few different answer keys will show that people have taken the time to consider such things.

Sample answers

One thing to consider is whether to include sample answers in a key. These are especially useful for less experienced teachers or for teachers whose level of English might not be very high. Writing a sample answer is also a good way for you to check that the activity is do-able and doesn’t need to be tweaked in any way. For example, a bigger word count for a writing activity so as to be able to fit in all of the information required.

More than one answer

Most exercises have items with one possible answer but sometimes more than one answer might be correct. It goes without saying that all possible answers need to be included in a key.

Extra information

An answer key is a good place to include some extra information for the teacher. This might be some factual details about a topic in a reading text, for example. It might also include information about why an answer in a multiple choice question is correct and the other options aren’t. It’s always a good idea to wear your teacher’s cap when you are writing the answers, and imagine the kind of questions your learners might ask you. ‘Why isn’t X correct?’ isa common one.

Tip: Have a look at the answer keys in a couple of course books. How are they laid out? How brief or extensive are they? Can you learn anything else from them?

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