materials writing

Webinar notes: What about principles for materials development? (Brian Tomlinson)

Here is Brian Tomlinson’s recent webinar in written form: ‘What about principles for materials development?’ The session was delivered as part of the MaWSIG ‘What about…? Webinar series. It was full of take home points so this post is pretty long!

Tomlinson started by stressing that materials development of any kind (writing, editing, teacher-created resources, etc) should be principled. He defined ‘principled’ as the following:

‘they should match criteria related to second language acquisition research, classroom research, materials development research, and also from [teacher] experience of adapting and using materials’

He moved on to outline a series of key principles for materials development, based on SLA research findings. He didn’t make specific references to those research findings during the talk, but implies that these are general tenets of SLA backed up by research. He supported his ideas with brief example activities/tasks/procedures to help include these principles in ELT materials.

Learners must be exposed to language in use which is… (more…)

Tech tips for new materials writers

These tips may sound simple to some, but useful to others! As a new writer I reckon you’ll have to do some of the things below, so this primer could help you hit the ground running…

note: instructions for Word based on Office 365

Tips for using Word… because we are all lazy until we actually need most of the cool functions!

Applying a template to a Word document

A publisher might send you a Word template to use and you need to upload it. Google how to do this if you don’t know, but it’s fairly straightforward (for me: Developer tab – Document template – Attach… that’s it really).

Changing the author name

Sometimes a publisher, or particularly an agent outsourcing work for a publisher, will ask you to alter author names in a document. That’s actually quite easy: File – Options – Personalise your copy… and you’ll see the options there.

Styles and the navigation pane

How often do you use Styles in Word? I’m lazy, I never used to bother….

Most materials writing I’ve done has been on Word using templates. These templates range in complexity, but the basic premise is the same as the Word Styles – it’s just applying a particular format to a body of text. Give yourself a refresher on using/changing these. Press Ctrl+F to open the navigation pane in Word. This will show you how easy it is to find your way around a document that uses Styles formatting. (more…)

Developing into a materials writer

Here are a few general tips for skills to develop if you’d like to write for publishers or big teaching organisations.

This is not a ‘How to become….’ post. You can find good tips about how to actually get into materials writing here and here. Also there are more general tips here.

Making the transition…

Going from teaching to materials writing is just a mindset thing really. Teaching and writing require a lot of the same skills anyway (see below). If you write your own materials for class now and then, well that makes you a materials writer.

‘Yeah, but I’m not… you know… paid to… or a professional materials wri-‘

Ah come on! Let publishers be the judge of that. What’s the worst they’ll do? Tell you that you don’t have the right experience? You might get lucky – they might ask you to write a sample of work for them… who’s gonna feel like a writer then, hey? Hey?!

Dealing with feedback

You go all out to write an awesome, engaging text only to receive tonnes of negative feedback. Sometimes feedback is constructive, sometimes it’s really blunt. You certainly need to develop a thick skin. Also, don’t assume that feedback is always scathing. Once, I received feedback on a grammar task that simply read ‘Why have you chosen this task?’ You can take that a few ways:

  • What on Earth are you doing?
  • This is the wrong task, you should choose something else
  • What is your logic here? I’m genuinely interested… If you explain it I might see the value…

Some inferences are more positive than others. Go with the positive spin – not everyone is out to put you down!

Incidentally, some of the best feedback I’ve had on materials has also led to changes to my own lesson planning/teaching practice. Just because an editor is sitting in an office all day doesn’t mean they’re not a practitioner too. (more…)

I clearly love coursebooks

I always feel embarrassed when I speak up for coursebooks. I think I’m supposed to hate them. Everybody else seems to, so I guess that’s the right thing to do. According to Steve Brown’s latest post (well worth a read), even coursebook writers themselves are getting bold enough to criticise the practices of big publishers. Steve reckons that, in the grand scheme of things, such criticism is pointless. I say that the writers should keep doing it. The more they bite the hand that feeds, the more likely that publishers get annoyed and look for writers elsewhere. I’d love to get a message in my LinkedIn mailbox one day that reads: (more…)

The 8 stages of teaching my own materials

I sat down to plan a General English class for our adult learners to the other day. I say plan, more like adapt. We have an in-house set of lessons so there’s already a plan in place, but the lesson needs tweaking to suit the learners. Anyway, I opened up my lesson schedule and there it was – ‘Lesson 93 – English around the World’. Just another lesson for other teachers, but really significant for me. It was the first time ever I’d taught published materials that I’d actually wrote!

I’m teaching my own materials week in, week out. Sometimes a coursebook or other materials are dry so I either just adapt them or scrap them and write something else. Most of my colleagues do the same, it’s standard procedure. I’m happy to share the resources I make with other teachers, if they turn out to be any good that is! But this time it’s different. I was actually paid to write these materials, they are formally published as part of a regional syllabus across 15 countries, and teachers across the region are using them daily.

My first thought – pride. It’s so cool. It’s a real sense of achievement to see something you wrote looking all organised on a handout. It’s funny to read teachers notes with your inner voice and remember the actual voice who wrote it was you…! Sure, it’s also a bit of an ego boost I guess, but that happens.

My second thought – relief. Phew! It’s Lesson 93! It’s one of the 50 or so lessons I wrote that I was fairly pleased with.

Third – confusion. Man, what are all these documents?! There’s like a handout and teachers notes, that’s standard, plus a few cut-ups. Then there’s a sort of jigsaw reading task, a running dictation, some more cut ups or something. Blimey. I went overboard for sure. A lot of this must be optional. I better read my own notes. (more…)

Funny ELT illustrations

I picked up some interesting throw-outs from the British Council library here in Thailand. I’ve been flicking through Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language by Christine Nuttall (1996) this week. It’s clear, well-organised and has lots of practical activities for teachers to help them understand the skills or strategies they are teaching learners. But there’s something else you can’t miss in the book, especially in Chapter 1 – the illustrations.

This is a great illustration of a passive reader (see paragraph below image). For some reason it seems to induce post-nasal drip whenever I see it… (more…)

Problems with images in ELT materials

Images in ELT coursebooks are often ambiguous. What might seem a fairly obvious depiction of an act or concept to us may be perceived as something completely different to our learners.

In an interesting, small-scale study, Hewings (1991) asked a group of Vietnamese learners in England to interpret various illustrations found in Elementary level coursebooks. For most of the images correct interpretation would require some culturally-specific knowledge, and written text around the images was removed so the learners weren’t given any support.

Hewings found many types of image were interpreted differently from what was intended. One example was with illustrations portraying people in certain roles, where learners failed to recognise certain stereotypes (e.g. rich/poor). He found, understandably, that culturally-specific job roles (e.g. a priest) were misinterpreted, as were situational images.

Maps like this room plan were also confused…

taken from Hewings (1991)

Some learners thought this was a view of a house from top to bottom rather than a floor plan from above. Symbolic representations like thought bubbles were also misinterpreted, and images like the ones below were seen as something different – the first image being a children’s slide, a reception desk, and ‘information’.

taken from Hewings (1991)

Interpretation of graphs also seemed an issue, particularly dealing with keys.

Hewings made some clear points in conclusion (mostly quotes here):

  • ‘we inevitably see illustrations from a culturally based viewpoint…’
  • We assume that everyone perceives images in the same way
  • ‘We assume that students have the necessary skills to make sense of information presented in the form other than a text’
  • Interpretations are unpredictable
  • Images are a chance to make learners aware of visual representations of a cultural group/target language

(more…)