Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Two heads are better than one. Or ‘Who am I writing for?’

A good way to check that you have a clear understanding of something you’ve learnt is to teach it to somebody else. This works for just about anything. There is no evidence to support that either Benjamin Franklin or Confucius said these wise words:

‘Tell me and I forget,
teach me and I remember,
Involve me and I learn.’

But this doesn’t matter because, as with most profound quotes that might or might not have a real source, it’s basic common sense. Teachers use this ‘involve me’ approach successfully in the classroom when they ask one student to explain what they have learnt to another student. It is through the act of explaining that deeper thinking takes place and gaps in learning might appear.

As materials writers we can develop our skills by using this approach too. I recently read a comment from ELT writer and trainer John Hughes in which he pointed out that it’s one thing to create materials for our own students, but we need an extra set of skills to create them for other teachers. I couldn’t agree more. Anyone thinking they might like to explore a career in materials writing might find it especially useful to consider writing their materials as if they were going to be used by another teacher, even if they aren’t. Also (and this is key for me), it would be especially useful to think that this other teacher might be new to teaching and might not be proficient in English. Because, after all, the vast majority of English teachers around the world are L2 speakers and because new teachers are qualifying every week.

If you write your materials with this in mind, you are far more likely to:

  • write clear instructions
  • include answer keys and/or suggested answers or model answers
  • think carefully about the flow of activities
  • think about and make explicit suggestions for interaction (pair work, small groups, etc.)
  • think about and make explicit recommended timings
  • get your materials proof-read or edited.

And you are far less likely to:

  • make assumptions that users can read your mind
  • leave out an important stage
  • make an error in an answer key
  • underestimate or overestimate the timing of each stage.

A useful task is to scrutinize a worksheet or any other materials that you’ve created to use with your own learners and to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Would another teacher have access to the answers?
  2. Would another teacher know how much time to spend on each stage or activity?
  3. Would another teacher know what to do between each stage or activity?
  4. Would another teacher understand the aims and objectives of the materials?
  5.  Is there anything in the materials that could potentially confuse another teacher?

Better still, an ideal approach would be to ask a colleague to read through your materials or to try them out with learners and make suggestions for improvements. I’ve often suggested how useful an ‘ELT writing buddy’ could be. Why not reach out to someone. As someone might or might not have said,

‘Two heads are better than one’.

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