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Do you have to be a native speaker to be a good materials writer?

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Erika Osváth, an educator, English teacher and materials writer from Hungary, talks about how the ELT world is changing, and how the supremacy of the native speaker may soon be over.

I was recently asked if you need to be a native speaker to be a good materials writer.

Interestingly enough, I had been thinking about it myself quite a lot lately. My first instinctive answer to this question is: “Of course, not!” But then, I doubt myself almost immediately and think: “Of course, you do! How else could you write English language teaching materials?” So what is the right answer? And why can’t I decide? Instead of following this thread, I decided to draw up a shortlist of criteria of what I believe makes a good materials writer.

Well, first of all one has to be creative and innovative, able to  produce materials that are not only engaging and interesting, but also offering fresh approaches and ideas. At the same time a good materials writer has to have a good knowledge of the type of teachers who are going to use them. In my experience this is crucial, as teachers have very little time and energy wherever you look in the world to tune into new teaching approaches, really understand them and put them into practice. So a great deal of empathy is required from a good writer towards teachers, the way they teach and their attitudes, to keep a fine balance between old and new approaches. (Though I always feel there’s nothing new under the sun.)

Of course the same applies to learners: considering the type of learner, their age-specific learning styles influenced by cultural background and social context, possible interests, difficulties with the language is necessary. In case of children it is also crucial to be aware of the different developmental stages (which have shifted somewhat compared to, say 15-20 years ago, due to hormonal changes – in many respects an 8-year-old today is more like a 10-year-old a good decade ago). All these factors determine the channels through which they acquire and learn a language.

The next thing a good materials writer possesses is the ability to match the right methodology to the specific learner group. So they need to be well-informed about the different types of engaging activities, the way they flow from one another to match the aims of lessons and the necessary teaching framework.

Now, if I look back at the criteria listed above, none of them strike me as being characteristics natives any more than non-natives. So up to this point, my answer to the initial question is “No, you don’t.”

But then I wonder again.  A good materials writer has to be well-informed about the language and how it works, including being up-to-date with the changes that take place in the language. The latter point is inarguably one where native speakers have a convincing advantage over non-natives. Having said that, in today’s online world a lot of information about the language can be found almost at an instant. The process requires more effort on the part of a non-native writer if they want to keep themselves up-to-date with all these changes, unless they live in a native environment. In addition, finding information about the language on the internet may not be enough.

In general, however, I find that the language level of non-native teachers has improved enormously over the past two decades, which makes them more competent in the area of materials development for higher levels, too.

Another argument that should not be overlooked is that in general the aim of English courses is not to speak the language at a native level, but to be able to function in English in an environment where the language is spoken mostly with other non-natives.

And then I stop to think again about my own teaching, and realise that I write at least half of the teaching materials I’m using with my classes myself from beginner to advanced level, they seem to work well, the progress of my students is good and I’m a non-native. So why would I think twice about this question?

I believe that the way we think about who makes a good materials writer needs to be revisited and we have to make a conscious effort to not fall into the trap of our beliefs based on old perceptions and impressions.

Times have changed.

Are you a non-native English speaker? Would you like the chance to write teaching materials for Oxford University Press? Then take a look at our new ELT authors page.

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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16 thoughts on “Do you have to be a native speaker to be a good materials writer?

  1. An interesting posting. I don’t think you need to be a native speaker. It seems to me that the following are important:

    – a good knowledge of the language contexts where the language shown in the book is being taught
    – access to good examples
    – an ability to analyse the examples
    – an ability to turn this into motivating materials that allow learners to make use of the examples
    – an ability to accept cirticism from readers
    – energy to make the necessary revisions.

    • Absolutely! There are so many more things that are important to be a good materials writer.
      Some others that were left out from the post were the ability to make rational compromises with the publisher, the ability to work closely in a team and take into account things that go beyond the methodology that works for you as a teacher.
      Cheers, Patrick, for the additional ideas.

  2. This is a really interesting post and an issue that I’ve wondered about in different contexts too, especially when I catch myself being subconsciously uneasy about non-native speakers in ELT.

    Having experienced several settings in which students have been taught by non-native speaker teachers and using largely non-native written materials, the only issue is that they can pick up awkward non-native expressions and phrasings which then become fixed. For example, you’ll find a whole generation of Chinese speakers who love using the ‘idiom’ “Every coin has two sides”, picked up from a coursebook. There is an English idiom, “There are two sides to every coin”, but even that’s not terribly common. I have an incredible job persuading my EAP students who’ve come to the UK to study that they shouldn’t be using it in their essays!

    Having said all that though, I think that just points to the need for a good native-speaker editor. If language issues are minor and can be ironed out in the edit, then I agree that non-native writers do have huge advantages in understanding their audience and in many ways are much better suited to writing materials than their native-speaker counterparts.

  3. Awesome read.

  4. I guess what is important is to be able to combine ELT methodology, knowledge of language and pedagogy, in which natives do not have much superiority to those non natives. Actually, for producing Locally pulished materials within a pragmatics perspective, non natives seem to be in a better poisition since it also requires cultural modifications. Today, research has shown that globally imported materials are no longer good at integrating culture and language teaching. Although, locally produced materials are not economic, they can be better at promoting cultural awareness, of course those materials produced by material writers with a fresh perspective.

    • True, Nazlinur. I think incorporating cultural awareness lessons is essential, and I have found myself writing my own materials for my classes. The trouble is that are so many different types of classes, some multi-cultural, others monolingual and it is difficult for a coursbook to cater for all.
      There was a coursebook produced for teenagers by local teachers in Hungary focusing mainly on cultural aspects many years ago, and I still find it modern and relevant. So that proves your point :)

  5. By the way Julie, I liked your suggestion:) Yeah, it can be reasonable to hire a native editor or to work in collobaration with a native Elt specialist

  6. I always find this type of piece somehow loaded. I almost feel obliged to be supportive and modern and agree.

    Well, I’m sorry, in my opinion the author is simply an exception that proves the rule. As a NET in Hong Kong I can tell you that for every piece of well written material I see from non-native speakers I see endless examples of utter rubbish.

    No, you don’t need to be a native speaker to produce good material, of course not…….. Steve Jobs became incredibly successful even though he dropped out of college, it doesn’t mean I’m goint to start prattling on about how the supremacy of the college graduate may soon be over.

  7. I’ve been editing ELT materials for a long time, and have to (of course ;-)) agree with Julie, that a native-speaker editor is what’s needed to iron out any creases. I thought I’d mention, too, though, that I’ve edited a lot of materials written by native-speaker teachers who’ve been living abroad for a very long time – in that case you get a lot of language interference, with ‘Spanglish’ and ‘Franglais’ leaking into course materials. A native speaker who’s been immersed in another language for a long time or exposed for years to non-native English can have as many problems as a non-native speaker, or more. Nothing a good editor can’t sort out, of course!

  8. Actually, English is becoming so commonly spoken and taught in different countries, places and peoples that the essence of the language (origin) is getting left for behind. Why? It’s a language which everyone in the world wants to speak, to be fluent and to express feeling, thoughts and sights in this language. The context for each country, each place is, now, being made in order to have good results. In other words, be a native speaker doesn’t mean you’re the owner of the language.

  9. This is a very interesting article, and leads me to a question I struggled with during my Masters. Is there really such a thing as a Native Speaker of English, and if it is thought so, how is such a speaker defined?

    • Well, I often asked myself the same question, Robert. So many of my colleagues come from completely different backgrounds, say one was born in a Hungarian family in the UK and grew up there, while the other one was born into an English family in Hungary, to just take a couple of examples. Now which one of them is a NSE? And then I came to think that I’m asking myself the wrong question. I think the question should be: “What can one do with who they are, their capabilities, their desires, their knowledge?”
      Chuck Sandy, whom I got to know through social media put it so well, I cannot agree more, so I’m going to quote him: “It’s about insights, ideas, and the vision needed to transform all that into writing that’s well designed, learner friendly, and transformative. As for the NSE / NNSE distinction, I’m working towards the day when really we stop talking about it and get on with it.” I really wish for that day to come.

  10. Very interesting article indeed. Let’s not forget that the non-native teacher has the huge advantage of understanding the learning process perfectly, having been a learner of English themeselves at one point.

  11. Pingback: mindful language, propaganda, lying, redistribution, conscious competence, and neuro-physiology | power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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