Writing ELT materials: an exciting new online course for teachers and writers
I’ve been planning to create and deliver an online course in materials writing for some time. But things kept getting in my way and it wasn’t happening. Meanwhile, my friend and colleague John Hughes was doing (and not doing) exactly the same as me. So we’ve done something very sensible and joined forces to create a brand new online course. We hope you share in our excitement.
Why do a course with us?
John and I have been around for a long time! We have extensive experience in writing materials, and in helping others create materials. We have some shared experience, but we also have different areas of experience too. Between us we are confident that we can help people write materials for a large range of contexts … because we’ve done it ourselves and we’ve identified the skills that we know are key to success.
Who is the course for?
The course of for anyone who is interested in developing their skills in materials writing, including:
ELT editors who want to move into writing
Other ELT professionals with an interest in materials writing
How long is the course?
It’s a 10-week course with a break in the middle and extra time to complete assignments and receive feedback.
Where is the course being delivered?
The live input sessions will take place on Zoom. There will also be a community space for participants in a closed Facebook group.
What will be covered on the course?
The course covers key principles and technical skills of writing as well as aspects of creativity and specific contexts. You can read more about the content on the course website (link at the end).
Will participants get personalized feedback on their materials?
Yes! Participants will have two materials writing assignments. They will receive personalized feedback on both, in the same way that established Publishing companies give their authors feedback on manuscripts.
If you’re interested in finding out more, please visit the course website: www.writingeltmaterials.com where you can complete a registration form or use the contact form to send us any questions.
You can also subscribe to our new YouTube channel and find our company page on LinkedIn.
Thank you for reading this post! I’ll be continuing with my ‘A to Z of materials writing’ posts very soon!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
… let’s all hope and pray that this bloody war in Ukraine is short-lived.
In my last blog post [here] I wrote about four possibly life-changing intentions I have for the year ahead. They involved time, money and the work I choose to accept. I mentioned a fifth intention and that’s what this post is all about. I thought it deserved an entry of its own.
Self care as a freelancer
On the face of it, it isn’t work-related and has little to do with creating ELT materials but in actual fact it’s got everything to do with those things. Because it’s all about the practices I’ve chosen to adopt for my own well being which will have a knock on effect on everything I do, including, and perhaps especially, my work.
Keeping it real
I recently read an inspiring article, put together by a team of writers, called ‘100 ways to improve your life without really trying’. I loved it for its simple, common sense and, more importantly, do-able ideas. I shared this link with friends on social media and in the course of the discussions that followed I said I’d write my own version. You can read the article I refer to here.
Do It Yourself
Just as I found reading the original article uplifting and motivating, I also found planning my own version, thinking about realistic and do-able small changes, therapeutic and inspiring. So I’d urge anyone who might be contemplating writing their own, to do just that. You don’t have to write 100 or even 50, any number will do. How about choosing your age as I did (or didn’t) and going with that as a number?
My list: not in order of importance
1. Drink a glass of water before doing anything else in the morning. You could pour it the night before to and leave it on your bedside table, covered, so it’s the first thing you see when you wake up. Drinking water is good for lots of reasons. I’ve also recently found out that it’s better to sip and not gulp it down, so that’s worth noting, I think.
2. Set an alarm when you start working at your computer, that can act as a stretch notifier. When the alarm goes off, stretch as many muscles as possible, including facial muscles.
3. Focus your eyesight on something that isn’t a screen every now and then. It doesn’t need to be for long, but it’s definitely good for your eyes. An outdoor scene is ideal, especial if you’ve got something nice view to contemplate.
4. Have a plant in a place where you can see it while you work. It doesn’t need to be big or fancy and you don’t need to be green-fingered. If the plant doesn’t survive, chuck it out and replace it with a new one. Nobody’s judging you. A cactus is an easy plant to care for though.
5. Keep a notebook handy where you can make a note of any minor achievements each day, as they occur. This can be anything from managing not to get angry at the news or meeting a deadline. Acknowledging these things is what it’s all about. We’re usually much better at acknowledging the cock-ups.
6. Find a podcast that suits you – there really is something for everyone. Take some time out to relax listen to it. You could do this with your eyes closed, just to rest them or you could do it while you potter. I find a podcast helps distract me from work so that when I return to it, I see things with fresh eyes. And I usually flip between crime, science and literature – whatever floats your boat.
7. Make yourself a happy place in your home. Do whatever needs to be done for it to be a place you feel good in. Things that might help are a scented candle, a comfy blanket, a nice view, a favourite picture, a photo album, a lamp – anything that gives you comfort. Then make an effort to hang out in your happy place at least a couple of times a day.
8. Read! Books can be used as all kinds of therapy. They can take you to new worlds that make you forget the one you’re in for a while, if that’s what you need. They can inspire you with new ideas, teach you new things, help you understand couldn’t get your head around. And of course lots more.
9. Declutter your real desktop and your virtual desktop. You’ll benefit from the practical effects and the mental effects.
10. Unsubscribe from annoying emails that you keep getting. Set aside a block of time specifically for this. It will be time well-invested.
11. Go outside whatever the weather. Really. Invest in some waterproofs, a woolly hat or whatever else is appropriate. Even if you don’t feel like going out, you’ll be glad you went when you get back. Even a walk around the block will have its benefits.
12. Doodle! Get a sketchpad and some coloured pens. Don’t put them away in a drawer. Keep them somewhere handy, maybe in your happy place. Everyone can be an artist. And nobody needs to see your creations. Unless you want to share them of course.
13. Learn how to do something new now and then. I don’t mean big things like learning how to speak a brand new foreign language. Find something that’s useful or interesting for you. I’m thinking of learning a bit of sign language, for example.
14. Watch some daytime telly! Seriously. That whole idea that says watching Netflix at night is fine but watching it during the day isn’t, is just plain wrong. As long as you meet your commitments, you should be able to do relaxing stuff whenever you like.
15. Get hold of some children’s drawings and frame them. There’s always something uplifting about children’s art. If you don’t have children of your own, ask the child of a friend or neighbour to do you a picture. It’s my bet they’d be more than happy to comply.
16. Try a new tea or influsion blend, even if you’ve already got your favourites. I mean, you could find a new favourite and we can’t have too much of a good thing. Especially if it’s a healthy thing.
17. Take some time to think about where you’d like to be in a few years’ time. Not just geographically of course. How can we follow our dreams if we don’t first consider what they might be? And while we’re on the subject, dream big. Be bold.
18. If there’s a club or group you’d like to join but it doesn’t exist, start one up! This can be F2F or online and could be anything work-related, health-related, educational or just fun. It’s a good way to meet like-minded people.
19. Most of us get a buzz when we do some home improvements or even move home. But we can replicate that in small ways by giving a single space in a room a makeover. I recently discovered you can get some really amazing wallpaper these days and you don’t even have to use paste because it’s self-adhesive. I’m in love with some verdigris oxidized copper paper. Google it!
20. Make (and then share) a cake! If you don’t think you can, you’re wrong. Anybody can. Just add ‘easy’ to a recipe search. If you’re afraid you’ll eat the whole cake, avoid that by sharing it with a neighbour. I’ve done that several times and the reaction has been nice. I mean, how would you react if someone came around with cake?
21. Find an internet page with jokes and fall down the rabbit hole for ten minutes. You’ll need to find the right one, of course. I love dark or absurd humour like Steve Wright’s. His one-liners make me laugh out loud and laughter is good for the soul.
22. When you’ve enjoyed working with someone on a project, send them a message to tell them just that. When I’ve received such an email, it’s made my day and it really is a small thing.
23. Have a picnic lunch outside even if it’s a workday. Or it could be a breakfast or dinner. This is something I do regularly and it makes me feel like I’m on holiday, even if I have to get back to my desk afterwards. If it’s cold, just wrap up warm, and take a thermos of tea or coffee.
24. Organise a weekly, or fortnightly trip to see something cultural. If you can get to a real museum or art gallery, great! If you can’t, visit one of the online museums or galleries, either from the comfort of your home or a café or bar. Take notes!
25. Watch an obscure or not-well-known film you wouldn’t normally watch, maybe a foreign film or an old film. There are lots of ways of doing this and thousands of films to choose from.. You could do an internet search with ‘award winning films + [country]. If it turns out you don’t like the film, you can stop watching. But chances are you might getting drawn in and discover a whole new back catalogue to watch. If you don’t know where to start, reach out and ask, especially if you have friends from other countries.
26. Think of something new to learn that seems big but can be broken down into smaller bits. Then practise or learn one bit until you feel you’ve nailed it. After that you can decide whether to move on to the next bit or just abandon it for something else. This can be something cerebral like learning a foreign alphabet or something science-based like the Periodic Table. Or it could be more physical, like Yoga asanas or dance moves.
27. If you work in ELT (or if you don’t), find out more about EDI issues (Equality, Diversity, Inclusion). Find reputable sites with key information and make a note of anything you learn that you didn’t know before. Maybe share that information with somebody else.
28. Find four or five keyboard shortcuts or hacks that could make your life easier. Then make yourself a little card and place it near your computer so that you remember them … until they become second nature.
29. If you live in a place where the night sky is visible, go outside when it’s dark and see what you can see. Check out with a website what’s going to be visible in your area on a particular date. You can even sign up for notifications so you know in advance when something special might be happening. You can do this with the naked eye but you might also like to invest in binoculars or a telescope.
30. Make your own luxury chocolates using the best base chocolate you can afford and your favourite ingredients. Invent new flavours and combinations. I’ve tried this with dark chocolate doing combinations of fresh cherries and sea salt and small chunks of figs with chili pepper. I’m going to try slivers of ripe pear next.
32. Find a local radio station and check out their programme schedule. Then listen in and find out what’s going on in your area. Even the most remote corners of the world have their own radio stations and it’s a brilliant way of finding out all kinds of useful information. I started listening to Radio Valdivielso [here] a few years ago and I’ve even formed a friendship with the presenter and made spot appearances to talk about things as disparate as fracking, growing your own vegetables and Tom Jones. But more importantly I’ve had great advice on the best internet providers, where to buy local produce and all kinds of local laws and social matters.
33. Find out about ergonomics and how you should be sitting at your desk. Most of us get into bad, slouchy habits and while that might not matter right now, It could cause health problems in the future. My friend and fellow ELT freelancer, Julie Moore wrote an excellent blog post [here] about laptop ergonomics. It includes a really useful image, explaining how to position yourself for pain-free posture.
34. Write a ‘to do’ list with some things you want to do, rather than chores or work tasks. This could be a shorter daily list or a longer weekly one. See what works best and keep it realistic.
35. Offer to do something spontaneous for a friend, neighbour or family member. Many of us jump to help when asked but fewer of us actually offer without being prompted. This could be anything from babysitting, walking a dog, helping with some gardening, running an errand, driving them somewhere. Obviously everything depends on the person and what you feel comfortable with (and authorised to do). A nice way of doing this is to make and give the receiver a token stating what you are offering to do.
Over to you!
It would make me happy to think that at least one person reading this blog decides to try one of the things I’ve highlighted for myself in this list. But as I mentioned at the start, writing your own list is a really good thing to do. I’d love to hear from anyone who does this. Happy pondering!