Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

creating materials

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.

How many (fonts, etc.)?

numbers

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.

Fonts

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.

Highlighting features

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.

Columns

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.

Images

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.

Write-on lines

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.

F on or F off? Should ELT materials teach swear words?

Swear words as content

I’ve never been asked to include swear words in published ELT materials. There are obvious reasons for this of course and as many of the materials I’ve written have been for children, the omission is hardly surprising. But a conversation the other day got me thinking about how and when it might be useful to include swear words and how the only likely place to find any meaningful reference to them will be in materials that teachers create for their own learners.

Swearing in another language

One of the arguments that is often put forward for teaching swear words in class is that learners should be able to recognise them when they hear them, especially if they are on the receiving end of an insult. While there is a logic to this, my feeling is that there is a more pressing reason to teach them: to make sure that anyone choosing to use them, does so correctly. Not just in terms of pronunciation, which is usually less of a problem, but in terms of usage, and in particular appropriateness and register.

Put your hands up if you’ve ever heard an L2 English speaker trying to impress with a colloquial use of swear words but coming across as sounding ridiculous? This happens to all learners of all languages of course and is probably a good reason not to even attempt to use vulgarities until you have a certain command of the language. In my experience, even at that point you stand a fifty-fifty chance of sounding daft. I’m speaking from experience here. I’ve been that daft one. What about you? Have you used a swear word in a foreign language and been told it just sounds wrong?

Dive in or steer clear?

Some of the authentic content around which we create our classroom materials is littered with colourful language, so it might be an idea to highlight it in some way, especially if learners are likely to ask about it. Film and video will help learners with pronunciation but how do we tackle usage and register without addressing it explicitly through materials? Or should we just steer clear? I don’t have the answers, but it’s something that might be interesting to discuss.

C words

Part of the problem is, of course, that there are swear words and swear words. Some, like like the ‘c’ word being the most offensive in my opinion. Sorry, I can’t even bring myself to write it, let alone say it. So if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll need to do an internet search. And then there are more anodyne words, like cockwomble*, one of my all-time favourites, nearer the bottom in terms of strength of insult (but extremely rewarding to slip into a conversation).

Context is everything

At the end of the day we should probably treat swear words like any other potentially risky content. We should consider the context of those who will be using the materials, learners and maybe other teachers. We usually know what will work and what won’t. If you aren’t sure, I tend to think, ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ is a good maxim.

What do YOU think?

I’d love to know whether any of you have ever created teaching materials which highlight swear words and especially, how well it was received by your learners … and whether you’d do it again. I’d also like to know any other thoughts you have on the subject.

*I feel a small sense of accomplishment for having slipped this word into a blog post. It’s the small things, eh?

How many projects should we work on at the same time? Which is better, one big one or lots of small ones?

One big dog and lots of small dogs

One

For the first time in years, possibly decades, I’m only working on one project for one client. It’s a big one, but it’s just one. There’s a small ‘but’ here which I’ll add to the end of my post. For now I’ll just focus on the rarity of working on a single project. This might seem perfectly normal for some freelancers, but it certainly isn’t typical for me. For as long as I can remember I’ve been juggling writing jobs, sometimes enjoying the variety but often feeling overwhelmed by trying to keep too many things afloat. The main reason for taking on lots of work is that as a freelancer I’ve been afraid to turn down a work offer in case I don’t get asked again and my income dries up. Freelancing can be tough because you just don’t know what’s around the corner and you can never be 100% sure when you’ll get your next work.

I primarily classify projects that I work on into two kinds, big ones, and small ones. Both have their pros and cons.

Big projects

Big projects give me a chance to get stuck into something meaty and to have work planned out for months or years ahead. This offers peace of mind in terms of financial security. Another benefit is that the work becomes more systematic. By the time you get to unit three of a fifteen-unit course book, for example, you’ve worked out the best way of approaching everything, you’ve got your head around communication systems with editors and, all being well, the work just flows. The flip side of this is that there might be a danger of boredom setting in. But with the right kind of work this shouldn’t be an issue.

Small projects

Small projects can be very rewarding in that the work often feels more dynamic and if you take on several small projects the variety can spice up your working life. Small projects can take many forms. I just spent a moment brainstorming some of those I’ve been involved with over the past few years. I came up with this list but I could probably have made it twice as long with a bit more thinking time.

  • lesson plans
  • worksheets
  • guest blog posts
  • multiple choice questions for a digital product
  • differentiated activities to go with some existing video resources
  • scope and sequence documents
  • ‘How to’ pages for teachers
  • sample project pages for a primary course
  • a sample animation brief for a new course component  
  • crosswords for a Publisher’s puzzle page
  • tips for a Publisher’s website

Looking for a change

About a year ago, it occurred to me that I’d quite like to dedicate my time to doing fewer big projects and more small projects, and especially small-but-regular work. I decided to let people know by announcing my availability for such work on social media. I was blown away by the response and within a short time I’d taken on all kinds of interesting work. Some things were one-offs. Others were monthly or, in a couple of cases, a series of three or four.

Be careful what you wish for

At first it was exciting but then two things happened. First, I was offered work on a new, big project that was going to gobble up a large chunk of my available time. And second, I realised I’d miscalculated the amount of time I’d need to spend on doing several of the smaller jobs I’d taken on. I concluded that while variety was stimulating, it also meant spending a lot more time working. Not just writing but doing all the other jobs that being a freelancer involves. This is probably a post for another day but I’m talking about things like writing emails, organising and sharing folders, preparing invoices, etc.

Oops!

I have to admit that this miscalculation sent me into a bit of a turmoil. After all, I’d got exactly what I’d wished for. Yet here I was wondering how to turn the clocks back. In the end I completed all of the work I’d undertaken but sent apologetic emails explaining that my circumstances had changed and I would no longer be able to continue on those projects that were on-going. I suggested replacement writers where appropriate and felt good that at least I was helping colleagues find work.

Lessons learnt

On reflection, I should have known what was going to happen. Instead I let my rather naïve daydream of seeing myself as some kind of assignment-driven journalist flitting from scoop to scoop, detract from common sense. I won’t do that again in a hurry.

Busy bod

I said I’d come back to a small ‘but’ at the end of my post and here it is. While I’m only working on one project right now, I am engaged in other stuff. I’ve started writing some books which I plan to self-publish. They’ve been on the back burner for ages so if not now, when? This has been a dream for several years and would have remained a dream if I’d carried on doing all those small projects. I’ll be writing more about this soon as I’m trying to keep a journal of the process. I’m also doing other bits and bobs, preparing webinars and training, doing some volunteer work and doing a lot of professional development in various shapes and forms. So while I’m still a busy bod, a lot of what I’m doing feels more rewarding than ever. Oh, and if any commissioning editors are reading this, I’m always interested in new projects, big or small!

What about you?

The whole experience has got me thinking about a question: do you prefer to work on one big project or lots of smaller ones? And why? So I think I’ll do a survey and find out what other ELT freelancers think. It’s always interesting to share experiences about the way we work and why we make the choices we make.

I’d love to hear what you think about this, so please drop me a line.

Should we be talking about war with our students?

Uncomfortable topics

Unsurprisingly, as we watch events unfold in Ukraine, this is a question being discussed in several forums over the past few days and, again unsurprisingly, people are sharing a wide range of opinions. It got me to thinking about the matter specifically from a materials writer’s perspective and to writing this blog post. It’s based on my observations and the conclusions I’ve drawn from them, but it probably holds true for how I feel about any provocative or uncomfortable topic and its place in the classroom.

One such discussion took place in a global institution’s Teacher Community in a Facebook group. A teacher asked for advice about dealing with questions from students about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Things got heated as opinions were so divided and after about six hours the moderators decided to close down the comments. I’m not saying this was right or wrong but it illustrates the sensitivity of the topic.

Clashing opinions

Here are five comments I’ve seen on social media in response to the question in my title. I’ve had permission to use them but I’ve chosen not to attribute them.

  • Politics has no place in the English classroom. We should be teaching language.
  • I think it could be useful but I’m worried my students will get upset.
  • My students are talking about nothing else. How can I not teach it?
  • We should make lessons around news reports but we shouldn’t share our own opinions. That isn’t necessary.
  • We should leave this topic for the students to read about themselves.
  • We are teachers. We can change the world. Yes, of course we must talk about this war.

It comes as no surprise that opinions are divided. Thinking back to the last staff room I used to frequent, I can easily imagine different friends and colleagues saying each of the comments above.

So what do I think?

Ultimately, as always, everything depends on context. A one-to-one Business English lesson with someone keen to talk politics isn’t the same as a class of eight-year-old primary children. And then there is every imaginable class-type in between. Most teachers know their students and they will decide for themselves whether to ‘go there’ or not. 

A few things are clear to me

  • Some teachers and some students want to talk about this.
  • Some teachers are actively looking for appropriate materials they can use.
  • Some teachers are finding these materials but some aren’t.
  • Some of those teachers who aren’t finding what they need are creating their own materials.

If you are one of those teachers, here are a few suggestions.

Remember to care!

Caring should be at the heart of everything as you write your materials. Think about how your learners will respond, as a group and as individuals. Can you be sure that no-one will be triggered by something they read or a photo they might be forced to examine? If you can’t be sure, then maybe you shouldn’t proceed.

Have clear objectives

This should be at the heart of all materials of course. But sometimes when we feel an urgent need to write something quickly, objectives get forgotten. Ask yourself things like

Do I want to provide my students with language so that they are equipped to take part in discussions?

Do I want to help my students understand news reports?

Do I want my students to develop their debating skills?

Answers to these and similar questions should inform the direction of your materials and help you choose the kind of tasks you need to design and the support you need to offer.

Consider your sources for the content of your materials

Use a reputable source. This isn’t always easy in a world where fake news is so widespread. One approach could be to tap into this and encourage critical thinking by actively using articles or photos that have been fact-checked and found to be false, like these here from the BBC, and providing a few discussion questions such as:

Who benefits from this fake news?

What are the consequences of sharing fake news?

Another idea could be to find news reports from different countries and ask students to analyse them and make comparisons.

Keep the language in mind

That person who posted on Facebook was right – we are language teachers first and foremost. If you are using a text, spend some time analyzing it carefully first. Can you extract a useful lexical set? Are there examples of register you could draw attention to?  What language do you want your learners to produce?

Don’t forget about levels

It’s easy to get carried away when you come across a great video or article that seems to be perfect for your materials. But don’t forget the level. Run the text through a language profiler such as Vocabkitchen [here] to get an analysis based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages [CEFR] or the Academic Word List [AWL]. Then, if necessary, you can adjust the text, pre-teach some vocabulary or provide a glossary.

A second pair of eyes

Always get a second pair of eyes to look over your materials. They can check for appropriateness, as well as things like typos or other common errors. If possible, for something like this, which could be controversial, ask someone who might not share your views too closely. As psychologist and educationalist Kenneth Kaye said, ‘Two heads are better than one only if they contain different opinions’.

A note about copyright

Don’t forget to uphold and respect the rules of copyright. Lots of teachers mistakenly believe they can use any article or image they find on the internet if it’s for educational purposes. This isn’t true. Copyright infringement is a kind of theft and as teachers we should model ethical behaviour for our students, so we can’t ignore these rules . Make sure you do the following:

  • Check which Creative Commons license the article or image has to see whether you can use it [read more about licenses here].
  • Always attribute your sources.
  • If you aren’t sure whether you have permission to use something, don’t use it!
  • Don’t be afraid of writing to the author to ask for permission to use a piece of work. In my experience they’ll be happy to say yes.

Tip! One way to avoid potential copyright issues is to include a link to the content so that your learners can access it at its original location, instead of cutting and pasting it into your materials.

Finally …

… let’s all hope and pray that this bloody war in Ukraine is short-lived.

Writing a good worksheet: Shakespeare or Dolly Parton?

Dolly Parton

Cramming stuff in

When I started teaching in 1987 I used to make most of my own materials because I was teaching private classes in a wide range of contexts and couldn’t afford to buy a lot of books. Also, in those days there wasn’t such a variety of resources available as there are today. In order to save money on photocopying, I used to try and cram as much as possible on an A4 page without really thinking about overall page design, accessibility or user-experience. I’m embarrassed to say that at the time I thought some of those photocopies were brilliant. But now, looking back, I realize they were horrendous. My only regret is that I didn’t keep a few. They’d be a great example of how not to do things.

Learning from the mistakes of others

As I began to learn more about materials writing I started to consider things like page design and layout. Before working for publishers much of what I learnt was from evaluating course books and materials that other writers had created. Some were great. Others were awful – and they are probably the ones I learnt most from. Especially the ones that had me thinking things like, ‘But why did they choose to do X over Y?’

A critic’s eye

A useful practice is to find some materials you think are good, and look at some pages with a critic’s eye. Ask yourself:

  • What is it about the page that works?
  • How much text is on the page?
  • How is it organised?
  • How much white space is there?
  • What is the purpose of each block of white space?
  • What is the purpose of each element on the page?

Put yourself in your learners’ shoes

When you make materials for your classes, put yourself in your learners’ shoes and ask yourself how you’d feel if you were given this worksheet. Then do whatever is necessary to avoid any potential ‘Oh no!’ reactions.

Shakespeare said ‘less is more’ and I’m sure we’re all familiar with this way of thinking. It’s particularly useful when it comes to a worksheet. Frank Lloyd Wright tweaked Shakespeare and said, ‘Less is more only when more is too much’ but how much is too much?

How much is too much?

When it comes to text on a worksheet, more can often be too much. But ‘less’ doesn’t have to mean losing something. We just need to be thoughtful in our work: A provocative discussion question can be a springboard for a lengthy speaking stage in a lesson. A carefully chosen image can be all that is needed to get learners writing a detailed composition. What’s important is that you keep a few things in mind as you choose each element of what’s going to be on the worksheet. Ask yourself these questions as you prepare to write.

  • Is there anything I can leave out of the worksheet but keep in the Teacher’s notes?
  • Where shall I put the reading text: on the worksheet or as a separate document or slide?
  • Is this image necessary or is it merely decorative?
  • Will headings and subheadings help learners navigate the page?
  • Would it be useful to add an example before an exercise?
  • How many items do I need to include in an exercise if I want to practise all forms of a grammar structure? Or all the new vocabulary items?
  • Is a word box with some useful language helpful for a speaking task?
  • Is it a good idea to add a small glossary for key vocabulary that might be unfamiliar?
  • What size font should I use? And what about the spacing?
  • Do I need to include space for answers on the page?

The final word

Of course, as with all aspects of materials writing, context is everything. You know your learners better than anyone. In fact, you could do some simple classroom research. Prepare two versions of a worksheet, trying out different layouts and designs. Then, before the end of the lesson, ask your learners for some feedback on the two versions, saying which one they prefer, and why.  After all, your learners are your most important critics. And who knows? They might agree with Dolly Parton, who said,

‘Some people say that less is more. But I think more is more.’

Photo by Eva Rinaldi – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0