Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

creating materials

B is for … brief

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.

B is for … brief

In publishing, a brief is a set of instructions and information explaining what is expected in a manuscript. Briefs come in many shapes and sizes, from a sparse paragraph outlining a topic and one or two key points, to a multi-page document with very precise details about every single aspect of a project.

You might wonder why I’m talking about a brief in this ‘A to Z’ series when many of my subscribers are teachers who write materials for their own learners, and not writing for a publisher. But two things occurred to me.

  • Firstly, that some of you might want to start writing for a publisher or another organization producing materials.
  • Secondly, that a brief is such a useful document that you might like to write your own as a preliminary stage before getting stuck in to writing. Think of it as a framework, something to hang your materials on. I think it could be a good way to make sure you aren’t forgetting something important.

Here is some typical information to be found in a brief:

  • A page plan for each lesson in a unit, or each section in a module, etc.
  • Information about the target users, such as level, age, context-specific details, etc.
  • Methodology which should be used
  • Conventions about cultural aspects, such as names, topics to avoid, etc.
  • Information about use of images, where they can be sourced, etc.
  • Information about file-naming
  • A proposed schedule for writing

But no two briefs are the same! Some really are brief (my shortest was a paragraph), others can be lengthy, containing lots more information and (between you and me) sometimes over complicated.

What to do if you receive a brief

If you receive a brief from a publisher, congratulations! This means you are being offered some work. Make sure you:

1 Acknowledge receipt and say you’ll get in touch if you have any questions.

2 Read it carefully, making a note of anything that isn’t clear.

3 Ask for clarification about anything that is either unclear or ambiguous. Don’t worry about sounding silly. It’s much better to start writing when everything is 100% clear. Sometimes a good way of doing this is by rephrasing using your own words. E.g. I assume this means ….

4 Use the brief as a reference throughout the writing process, as a framework, a reminder, and a checklist.

What if you don’t receive a brief?

If you take on a materials writing job for which you haven’t been provided a brief, you can ask for one. Or, alternatively, you could gather all the information you have about the project and write your own. I’ve done this a number of times and although it isn’t ideal, it’s a good way of getting the commissioning editor to say ‘Yes, that’s what we want’ in writing.

Tip: Look at a course book that you are familiar with and think about what the author brief would have included. Make some notes. Then consider the importance of each point. If you were writing a course book for the same target users, is there anything you’d change in the brief?

This kind of reflection is useful to gain a better understanding of why publishers do what they do regardless of whether you agree with those decisions.

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?

N is for … numbering

N is for numbering

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.

N is for … numbering

Numbering is important. In materials, we use numbering in different ways and for different things: the number of a book or a level within a series, the number of a chapter or a unit in a course, slide numbers in a presentation, numbers of activities, numbers of items within an activity and sometimes other numbers to show staging in a single item. Crumbs! That’s a lot of numbering.

While giving teachers and writers feedback on their materials, I’ve noticed two recurring problems with numbering

1. A numbering system which is illogical or inconsistent.

2. (This never fails to surprise me) A numbering system which isn’t there. There are no numbers, none at all … not a single one.

The reason for #2 above is that in most cases, teachers have created their materials for their own students with the intention of delivering them in their own classrooms or online, and they haven’t felt the need for numbering as their plan is to just move through the sequence of activities in order, thereby believing the need for numbers to be redundant.

But numbering is good.

Besides helping you, numbers help any other potential teachers and learners to navigate the materials. Imagine the end of a numberless lesson, when a learner wants to ask a question about something they did earlier. Everything is easier if they can say, “Can I ask you about activity two, number three?”

Numbers are important to navigate different resources that can be used together in a lesson. For example, in a Teacher Guide you might see something like:

When learners finish Activity 6 use photocopiables 3.1 and 3.2.

You can also use numbering in differentiation techniques [More on Differentiation in a future post]. For example, in a Teacher Guide you might write:

Learners who need more support can do items 1 to 6.

Stronger learners can do items 1 to 8.

Now that we’ve established that numbers are a good idea, here are some considerations for how you actually use them and style them.

Choose a style of numbering and be consistent [for more about consistency click here]. Think about whether or not to add a full stop or whether letters might be better, for example when the list of items begin with a number like this:

1. Look and write. Which child has got:

a. 4 pencils and 2 pens?        

b. 3 crayons and 5 pencils?    

Think about how you use layers of numbering, for example:

1 Read the text and answer the questions.

1 How does the writer feel about:

(a) his sister’s news?

(b) his brother-in-law’s reaction to the news?

(c) his parents’ decision on hearing the news?

Or

1 Follow the steps to play the game in groups of four.

i Read the rules.

ii Share out the cards equally.

iii Take turns to throw the dice and move your counter.

Etc.

Tip: Compare the numbering in two or more coursebooks*. Which elements are the same? What differences do you notice? Which styles look the best?

*Evaluating features of existing materials to identify good practice is a great way to develop your own writing skills.

What’s a ‘new edition’ all about?

The other day someone asked me what I was working on, and I told them it was a new edition of an existing book. But not my book, somebody else’s. They were surprised to hear this and asked me more questions about new editions and versions. I thought I’d write a blog post about the topic. It’s the first in a series on ‘Questions I get asked when I’m talking about writing’. Don’t forget to subscribe to my blog if you’re interested in this kind of post.

The rise and rise of new editions and new versions

In recent years I’ve seen more and more new or revised editions of existing course books appear. One reason might be because it’s cheaper and quicker for a publisher to make a new or revised version of an existing book than it is to produce a brand new book from scratch. Another reason might be that an existing book is almost perfect for a new market but tweaks are needed to bring it in line with a national curriculum or other Ministry dictates. Sometimes a book just gets a bit outdated so a new edition might modernise texts or build in an extra pedagogical layer that might not have been considered important when the original was being written. When we write new course books we are usually briefed about not including references to anyone or anything that could become outdated. These days, more and more frequently, a publisher recognises the need for more references to sustainability or for increased and more visible EDI.

What new editions or versions have I been working on recently?

I thought I’d mention some of the writing work that I’ve been involved in recently that falls into this category as an example of the kind of work that might be available.

A new edition of an IGCSE ESL course book.

Changes were made to the IGCSE on which the whole course is based. They were minor changes, but they needed to be reflected in the exam practice sections of the book. When the publisher realized they had to bring out a new edition, they decided to add some extra resources that were missing in the original. These were a series of video animations and supporting worksheets linking to key language which had previously been presented through audios. Now the publisher can say the course is ‘new and improved’. My task was to bring the exam practice sections in line with the new IGCSE and to write the video scripts, which was great fun.

A new ‘localised’ version of an existing primary course book for a new market.

The Ministry of Education in the new target market have a policy that all course books should include a percentage of the region’s culture in reading texts, listenings, etc. The existing book had a more global approach, so my task was to rewrite some of the readings, keeping the main topic but giving it a local flavour. It presented a few minor challenges but was an interesting project as I learnt a lot about the target region.

A new ‘lower level’ version of an existing course book for a new sector within the current market.

After market feedback the publisher discovered that some schools might not adopt the course book because the level was a bit too high. They decided to simplify things by reducing the number of units in the book, having fewer vocabulary items in each unit and providing more support for teachers and learners. My task was to rewrite stories, texts and audio scripts, and to identify and write the support sections which included things like a glossary and tip boxes.

An updated version of an existing course book to freshen it and make it a bit more modern.

I haven’t actually started this yet but I’m about to. I’ve been told that I’ll need to rewrite about 40% of the content. This percentage is important. I’m not sure if it’s the same in every region but for a book to be considered ‘new’ it needs to have a fixed percentage of ‘new stuff’. On the books I’ve worked on, this is usually around 35% to 40%. I wrote the original stories in this course and I’m hoping they won’t need changing. I don’t think they will because they are quite good (if I say so myself) but, more importantly, the illustrations are brilliant and new illustrations would increase production costs significantly.

Who writes new editions or versions of existing books?

In my experience, if I am receiving Royalties for a course book, I’ve been keen to write the new version too so that these Royalties won’t go down. But sometimes the original author is either unavailable to write, or they simply don’t wish to. Then the publisher can ask another author – perhaps someone who wrote a different level of the same course so will be familiar with the project, or just a new writer who will be briefed on the original book and the new sections. Of the books I mentioned above, I was the original author on three of them but not on the third. The three I’d already worked on were infinitely easier to get my head around. Two were Royalty-based and two were fee-based.

Is a new edition or a new version a good thing?

Usually, yes. On the one hand it usually means the original course book has had good reviews, so the new version is likely to sell well. Teachers often like new editions of books they are familiar with too – when given the choice of this or a completely new course book which they need to spend time navigating. It also means that most of the extra resource materials teachers might have made to supplement a book can still be used, as can things like flash cards etc. On the other hand, it means more work opportunities for freelance writers, editors, illustrators, etc.

Is a new version always a new version?

Ehm, yes and no.

Sometimes a course book is given a new title and a new front cover, and no other changes are made. There are a number of reasons for this, but most are to do with marketing. I’ve had this happen with a few of the course books that I’ve written over the years. In one case, I was told it was because in a particular region there was already a course book with the name we had chosen for the book, so we needed to come up with a new one. In another case, the original name was virtually impossible to pronounce in a particular region, so we renamed it. And in a third case, the original name had just been used for a brand on a completely unrelated product, something that the publisher had no desire to be associated with.

Can anyone write a new edition?

Yes! If you can write, of course. For every new course book that gets written, there are a heap of other resources and elements which need changing to bring them in line: Teacher Guides, activity books, revision booklets … anything you can imagine that accompanies a course book. Sometimes some of this work is done in-house at the publisher’s, but more often freelance writers do the work.

If you’re interested in working on such a project, why not get in touch with a publisher you’ve worked with before, or one you’d like to work with, and ask if they have plans to bring out a new edition or version of an existing book. Ask them to keep you in mind for some of the writing work. It could be a good way to get started.

And please let me know how you get on, if you do!

ELT materials: topics that are coming soon

I’ve been a bit absent of late

I’ve been away … from my blog and social media. That’s due to a few factors, some good, some less so. It started with a bout of COVID. I’m fully recovered now and thankfully my symptoms were manageable and the enforced inaction probably did me some good. Then we had a family visit which kept me away from my computer for the best part of two weeks. Fortunately, being a freelance author meant that I could negotiate some date changes for deadlines so as to be fully present and have a holiday too. Then, last week was busy playing catch up with everything. I’m still doing a bit of that this weekend but I’ve interrupted my work flow to compile a list of things I’m going to be blogging about in the coming weeks. Because I’ve had plenty of time for thinking, and there is a lot I’d like to share. Here are nine ideas so far but I’m sure I’ll come up with more …

1. Principles of ELT materials

I’ve written several articles and blog posts on this subject and spoken at conferences about it too. It’s time to pick the subject up again and add new thoughts, my own and others.

2. How to find work as an ELT author

This is something I get asked about a lot. I thought I’d do a bit of homework, speak to people who are great at finding work offers and share some ideas and tips.

3. How to sell existing materials that you have created for your own classes.

This is something else I often get asked about, so I’ll gather information and hopefully come up with a few good pointers.

4. Copyright

I have a theory that this is actually a subject lots of people tend to hide away from and ignore. But it’s important, so I’ll continue to nag on about it, but hopefully make it all a bit easier to understand.

5. My week in writing

I love writing about writing and I’ve had some positive feedback about these posts, mainly from people considering moving into freelance writing and wondering what a typical week might look like.

6. Useful resources for ELT writers

We all turn to our preferred resources again and again when we write materials, but we all use different ones. So I’m going to reach out and ask for people’s favourites and write a couple of posts summarising how they can be used.

7. News and gossip from the ELT writing world

Lots of things are going on. They always are. But recently it occurred to me that conversations about what’s happening often don’t leave the confines of closed social media groups or private forums. So I thought I’d summarise some of the things I consider important.

8. Guest interviews with other ELT freelancers (writers and editors, illustrators, designers, indie publishers, etc.)

I think this could be popular. There are lots of us and our experiences are varied and often completely different from one another. If you are involved in creating ELT materials in any way and would be happy to be interviewed, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you! I’ll also share links to the fantastic interviews that some of my friends and colleagues have already done.

9. The rise and rise of packagers

I’ve already started some conversations about this on social media and it’s become apparent that this is a new term for lots of people. I’m going to reach out to individuals and organisations for their views and experiences of working as part of a freelancer-packager-publisher team. I think it’s fascinating and hopefully subscribers to my blog will too.

And talking of subscribers …

If you haven’t yet subscribed to this blog, you might like to, to be sure of not missing any of the above and more. If you have suggestions for other focus points for posts, send me an email or write a comment! I’m all about sharing ideas and I’d love to hear from you.

Have a great day!

Katherine

Making connections: from whatever book you’re reading … to your own professional development

Brain in overdrive

Last week a lot of my Friends and colleagues attended the IATEFL conference in Belfast. Judging by the photos they had a great time, socialising after a couple of years of not getting out and at the many and varied presentations. I decided not to attend this year, but I enjoyed watching the plenaries online and reading people’s posts and summaries. I always come away from a good conference with a head bursting with ideas, my brain in overdrive and a restlessness to do new things or find out more. This is one of the things I missed this year, and it got me to thinking about how we can replicate this sensation, at least in part, especially, for this blog, when it comes to the work we do as materials writers.

Join up the dots

I think what is key is that when we read things, watch things or listen to things, we need to make connections, join up the dots and reflect on how something relates to, or impacts on, our work. Making connections is everything really. It’s what creativity is all about and it’s how we grow and develop.

A (very) simple framework

In this blog post I decided to look at one thing I read this week and to make connections between what I read and my professional life. I came up with a (very) simple framework for this, just to keep me focused and stop me from meandering all over the place – something I have a tendency to do. The exercise has proved useful and given me food for thought, so I’ll definitely do it again and I might build it into a workshop myself one of these days.

  • Read something
  • Underline some interesting bits
  • Think about those bits in the context of the author
  • Think about those bits in a more general context
  • Think about how those bits relate to my own work
  • Make some notes about them in a place where I will re-read them

The book

I had my copy of ‘The Art of noticing’ [See here] by Rob Walker out on my table this week, because I’d lent it to a friend who had returned it and I hadn’t yet replaced it on my bookshelf. It’s a great book to dip into. It’s the kind of book I like to have in print because I want to write in the margins and highlight sections. [Note to self: write a blog post about this habit] I’ve just flicked through and found three bits I’ve highlighted as being relevant to my own work as an ELT writer. I think this would work with any book. That’s something I’ll need to put to the test. In the meantime here’s a bit more about my three highlighted bits:

1. The Short, Collective, Biography Experiment

The author mentions an idea that he read in a book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a children’s author [see more here]. She called the idea ‘’The Short, Collective, Biography Experiment” and in her version it consists of a fun activity to do during a dinner party. Throughout the meal guests are asked to find thirty things that they all have in common, or, as she says more eloquently, “Through conversation endeavour to find a collection of autobiographical statements that are equally true for each and every member of the group.” When I thought about this idea, I realised that this is the kind of thing we do naturally anyway, when we are thrown together in random groups, as often happens at a face-to-face conference. But it’s also something that we could write up as a simple lesson plan, adjusting accordingly. By getting learners to actively seek out and find similarities, we can, at the same time, learn about each other and celebrate differences. If I made materials based on this idea, I’d probably include a section in which learners note things of interest that they’d like to know more about, about the other members in their group.

2. Change your route

The author mentions an idea he got from Jim Coudal, who works in creative design and is famous, amongst other things, for the Field Notes notebooks. Coudal suggests that by changing the route you normally take every day to get from A to B, you will notice new things which will trigger creative ideas. He also points out that the idea is appropriate in a metaphorical sense too and says, “Maybe you know what works – and that’s exactly why you should try something different.” I’ve given this some thought and while I like it, and I think it makes sense, it’s a bit scary too in a way. It goes against the ‘why change it if it isn’t broken?’ idea. But I’ve made a note to myself to try it out in some way, professionally. I thought I’d give it a go the next time I’m creating a presentation. The steps I usually follow to make slides and come up with a narrative usually work, but I do think I could do things differently. I’m usually in a hurry so just do what I’m used to doing, rather than consider new ways. So I’ve decided to do a bit of research first and then, when I have some spare time, have a go creating a presentation a different way. It’s occurred to me that I am very interested in the process of creating presentations, making nice slides, etc. so I suspect the exercise will be enjoyable, and hopefully I’ll get better at that side of my work.

3. Make an appointment with yourself

In another section of the book the author refers to something the film maker Mike Birbiglia had done he realized that as his schedule became fuller and fuller, he was neglecting himself more and more. Birbiglia wrote a note to himself and left it by the side of his bed. It said, “Mike you have an appointment at Café Pedlar at 7:00 AM … with your mind”. Blocking out time is nothing new and these days we come across it a lot in books or podcasts about productivity. Rachael Roberts [website here] talks about it a lot in her work and she’s one of the most productive and grounded people I know. She also believes that besides blocking out time for work-related activities, it’s also a good idea to block out time for self-care, for thinking, for reflecting on things, or just for sitting and doing nothing more than enjoying the here and now. I tend to time block when I am very busy. But I’m going to have a go at blocking out an hour or so here and there in the week ahead for meetings with myself. And how is this related to my work? Well, if I am not as healthy in my mind and body as I can be, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to do my absolute best.

So that’s it.

One book.

Three highlights.

A few things to try out.

I’ve enjoyed writing this and think I might do more in the same vein. I’d love to hear about any ‘connections’ you’ve made recently that will have an impact on your work.

Thank you for reading.

Talking to my screen

The dictate function

This is a bit of an experiment because I’m using the dictate function in Word to write this. I’ve used it several times recently for work, and I’ve had mostly good results. It seems to have improved a lot since I last used it a year or so ago. I haven’t used other voice recognition software before, so I don’t really have anything to compare it with. But it’s certainly an interesting tool with lots of potential. I think.

Using it for work

I’m writing some culture pages for an Extra Resource Pack for secondary students. For one of the levels, I asked my co-author and husband to give me a hand. I asked him to write two texts, a reading, and an audio script. He wrote them for me using a pen and paper. That’s the way he does most of his work, later transferring it into a digital form. I do the same sometimes, especially if I’m writing primary materials, things like stories or short texts. I like being able to write on paper, moving around and getting away from a screen.

There you go

When Steve finished the texts, he handed me the paper and said ‘there you go’. So I decided to use the dictate function to write them up. What could possibly go wrong? In the event, when I reread the texts, I only had to make a few tweaks. Word seems to mostly accept my accent. I probably saved time and did a little less typing, which might be a good thing.

Rabbitting on

So, this blog post is a bit of a stream of consciousness about that process. I am wndering whether talking is still writing, in the same way that I wonder sometimes whether listening to an audio book is the same as reading. And about when voice recognition software might be useful.

Other people

For some people, software of this kind must be a huge help. I’m thinking about those who are unable to use a conventional keyboard, people who are visually impaired, or restricted because of wrist problems, arthritis or hand tremors. But it’s my understanding that a lot of people use the dictate function for other reasons. And I wonder what they might be. Having a break from typing seems like one good reason. In theory you could also multi-task, though I’m not sure how good I’d be at that. I really can’t imagine myself dictating a text and doing anything else at the same time.

I think I’ll use the dictate function more often, for things like blog posts, emails and other admin stuff. We’ll see.

I’m very interested in hearing from people who use this dictate function regularly, whether professionally or for other things. Please get in touch if that’s you.

How to get paid to read

In my blog posts I mostly write about writing. But in a recent post I wrote about ‘talking about writing’, which is something I do frequently in my teacher training role. In this blog post I’m writing about ‘reading about writing’. And in particular, I’m writing about ‘getting paid for reading about writing’. Yes, it’s possible and I’ve been doing it this week.

A new challenge

I’ve been commissioned by a publisher to write a white paper. I’ve never written one before, but they deemed me to be the right person for the job, so I decided to say yes. I can’t write about the focus of the paper yet, but I’m sure I’ll be shouting about it when it’s published. What I can write about is how privileged I feel to be in a position where I get paid to read. I have to write too, of course, quite a lot as it happens. But mostly it’s been reading; articles, blog posts, podcast transcripts, reports, and other such things.

Something fun

This week too, fellow ELT writer and friend, Ken Wilson got in touch to ask me if I’d be a judge on a writing competition he has set up. I said yes to that too, even though it is unpaid. It’s a nice thing to do for a few reasons, one being to connect with teachers around the world and see their creativity in action.

This got me thinking about other times when I’ve been paid to read, in my capacity as an English Teacher, a teacher trainer, a consultant or a materials writer. And I realised it’s something that others might be interested in too. Because sometimes it’s a good way to break into materials writing as a profession, to get a foot in the door. Here are a few examples.

Four ways to get paid to read

Read. Then write a report

Publishers pay teachers and other professionals to write reports about materials that are in the process of being prepared for publication. They usually provide a specific brief with a checklist of things to look out for. This is a bit like writing a review. You read the materials and you evaluate them according to a set of criteria. You might be asked to try them out with a class, but not always. If you have experience teaching learners of a specific age or level, or with a specific exam focus, for example, it could be a good idea to get in touch with publishers who produce materials with the same focus and offer your services as a reviewer.

Be a materials competition judge

If you know of a publisher or an institution that is running a lesson plan competition, get in touch and offer your services as a judge. This might not always be a paid role, but it is a good way of getting your name out there and you might be able to negotiate an alternative to a fee, such as a dictionary, a resource book, or an online course.

Read an old edition and give feedback for a new edition

Sometimes publishers decide to bring out a new edition of a course book. When this happens, they often contact teachers to ask them for help in identifying sections of the book that could benefit from being updating or changing. If you are familiar with the original course book you are ideally placed to do this work. It’s similar to writing a report for unpublished materials but the criteria-focus will be different.

Read a new book and write a review

When a publisher brings out a new book, they use reviews to get the book noticed. They can be written for all kinds of journals, websites, and other media. While reviews are unpaid, you will receive a copy of the book in question and, again, your name will start to be noticed. Don’t wait for a publisher to get in touch about this. It’s unlikely to happen that way. Take the initiative to contact publishers and journals to offer your services, perhaps stating some areas of interest or expertise.

So, a few ideas of how you could get paid to read. And if you need a reason to read, remember what someone famous once said:

‘The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.’

Dr Seuss

Find a writing buddy!

Collaboration isn’t just for our learners

As teachers we recognise the importance of developing collaboration skills in our learners. As materials writers we create activities that involve working together to successfully complete a task. So if we take this one step further, surely a good way to make our materials really good, is by working with others, or just one other. There are a number of ways you could do this. I’ll mention them later. First, here are five reasons why I think it’s a good idea, especially (but not solely) for less experienced materials writers.

1. Someone to spot your flaws

When you have a co-worker, you have someone to throw around ideas with. Sometimes a great idea has a flaw that isn’t immediately visible to you. This isn’t something to get upset about. All great creators have first drafts in their waste-paper baskets. As Julie Andrews said, “Perseverance is failing nineteen times and succeeding the twentieth.” We don’t usually spot our own flaws as easily as someone else might. A good example is the way that we all (yes, all) are blissfully aware of the fact that we have been misspelling or mispronouncing a word forever. We are convinced we know the right way and sometimes even argue the fact. I once corrected my mother’s pronunciation of ‘gazebo’ – not a word I’d ever actually heard spoken, I realised later, having looked it up to prove her wrong, only to find that she was right, and I had to eat humble pie. Incidentally, my spell check just notified me that I’d been misspelling ‘perseverance’ too.

2. Someone to show us another way of seeing

We all have a unique life experience which informs our belief systems and our sensitivities. Despite being convinced of our integrity and fairness, we regularly get it wrong because we simply don’t consider another angle that is outside our usual sphere of experience. This is especially true of issues related to diversity, inclusion and equity. Thinking of where this has happened in my own experience, numerous examples come to mind. We are all constantly learning, and we shouldn’t be complacent. Obviously, if we are writing materials with an inclusive label, we can speak to people who belong to the group we are hoping to represent. But even when this isn’t our main focus, we can still benefit from another person’s perspective.

3. Someone to help us with one of the publishing tasks

When traditional publishers make classroom materials, they rely on a large team of collaborators who work together, each with their distinct role within the project. These days it’s common to have author teams working on a coursebook, with each writer specializing in a particular aspect. Besides the writers are project managers, copy editors, proof-readers and the like, all briefed to notice different things that might be wrong, and to make sure they are flagged to get righted. We don’t all have access to such teams, of course, but it’s a good idea to try to mimic some of this practice. The only way to do this is to get the help of another person.

4. Someone to keep your ego from inflating

Talking about materials is the best way to generate new, fresh ideas as we make connections. In fact, making connections is a key aspect of creativity. I’ve recently been reading about the ecosystem vs the egosystem, albeit in a different context, but I think it’s valid here too. In an egosystem, the individual places value on their own desired creation above all else. In an ecosystem, they work with others, in supportive and constructive ways in order to achieve the best possible outcome – the outcome, in this case being materials. It’s common sense really.

5. Someone to keep us company

Creating ELT materials is usually a solitary pastime and many of us enjoy this aspect. But joining in with someone else to work on a project jointly, in some way, can be very rewarding too, and can make a pleasant change. Long-lasting work relationships and even friendships can be formed. And sometimes, what begins as a mini collaboration can lead to bigger, more exciting projects.

All shapes and sizes

I could probably think of more reasons too, but five is a good round number.

Collaborations come in all shapes and sizes and don’t need to be fifty-fifty authoring. I do most of my paid authoring work with my co-author partner and husband. We either divide the work according to our strengths and weaknesses or we see who has more available time. The way we work things out is very fluid but after collaborating for thirty years, it mostly works itself out.

I’ve also worked with teams of co-authors, sometimes working closely together, sometimes never communicating directly, except through a manager. Recently, I’ve done a lot of joint projects related with ELT Footprint [click here if you aren’t yet a member] with Ceri Jones. We’ve even drawn up a joint ‘to do’ list in Google docs. Ceri and I have co-written articles and blog posts and prepared several joint presentations. But there are lots of ways that two (or more) teachers creating ELT materials could collaborate.

Here are nine suggestions

  • Co-write a lesson plan, a series of plans or a book..
  • Find a writing buddy, to proof-read each other’s work.
  • Share each other’s work with your communities.
  • Schedule a 30-minute meeting to discuss your ideas informally. Sometimes just talking them through will be helpful.
  • Set up a Google doc, a Padlet, or similar, to share useful tools and resources.
  • Pilot each other’s materials with your learners and then offer feedback.
  • Do a joint presentation on a subject you are both interested in.
  • Start a joint blog or space to share materials.
  • Make a Venn diagram together of your material writing skills. See where they overlap, but, more importantly, where they don’t. This is where you can help each other most.

A final word

Don’t be afraid to send a message to someone suggesting a collaboration. But don’t get stressed if they say no. Some people might be too busy right now or they might have other valid reasons not to join in with something new. Finding the right person is key. If you’ve connected (online or in the real world) with someone already, and have similar professional interests, a collaboration is a logical next step. And if you have already been involved in interesting collaborations, I’d love to hear about them.

Talking about writing

What I talk about when I talk about (ELT) writing

Last week I was going to write a writing about writing post. But then I found myself a bit busy talking about writing. So I thought I’d write about that instead.

The British Council invited me to do two Facebook Live events in one week, a mini-series, if you like. The first one was called Creating ELT materials: how to create the perfect materials for your learners. You can watch a recording [here]. The second one, a couple of days later was called Moving from teaching to writing ELT materials. You can watch a recording [here].

The great thing about a live event is that I get to connect with teachers in real time and they get to ask some questions. At first I thought that might be a bit scary. But then I reminded myself that I am a teacher and as such I am used to being asked questions. We shouldn’t feel we need to have all the answers. But it’s handy if we can suggest places where those asking can find the information they need. I think I managed OK.

My main five take-aways from doing these two events.

  • Context is everything

Doing stuff like this is a good idea. There really is nothing quite like connecting with teachers from all around the world. It gives me a big buzz and reminds me of why I do what I do. It also reminds me of the millions of different contexts that teachers are working in. Yes, millions.

  • Nerves are normal

I felt nervous beforehand, hyped up and excited during, and mentally exhausted afterwards. I realise this is the way I always feel before public speaking of any kind. I’ve stopped fighting the nerves because one thing I’ve learnt above anything else and that’s: teachers are really nice people and they’re always rooting for you.

  • Teachers want to write good materials

I learnt that I have plenty to say on the subject of materials-writing and, more importantly, I learnt that there are thousands of teachers who are interested in learning more about writing materials, for their own classes, to share with others or to sell so I have a raison d’être … and so does this blog.

  • Selling materials

Lots of teachers are anxious to sell their materials and they need help and advice about how and where to do this. Self-publishing is becoming easier and more common and there are lots of ways of doing things. This is a blog post for another day.

  • Questions need answers

Teachers ask really good questions but probably get frustrated if they don’t receive an answer. Although I had an opportunity to respond to some questions in the live events, others slipped under the radar. I haven’t forgotten them though.  I’ll go and find them and consider the best way of responding to them all.

A final thought

I partly wrote this post as an exercise in self-reflection. Unless you make time to sit down and think back over a ‘live’, a webinar or any other kind of presentation or training event, the important lessons you learn in the process aren’t as likely to stick.  Another thing I learnt as I was writing this blog post is that I need categorise my blog posts in a simpler way so that the blog is more user-friendly. I’ve added that to this week’s ‘to do’ list. I feel quite excited at the prospect of helping more and more teachers develop the skills they need to write excellent materials for their learners. I think I’ve found my ikigai.