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How to write your own EFL materials: Part Two – Thinking about context and flow

EFL coursebook writingJohn Hughes has co-authored a number of titles for OUP including three levels in the Business Result series, Successful Meetings, and Successful Presentations. He will be giving a practical workshop on how to write materials at the upcoming BESIG conference in Bonn on 15th November. This is the second of two blog posts in which John explores three key areas which he believes underpin effective materials writing.

In part one of my blog on this subject, I wrote about the importance of writing materials at the correct language level and cognitive level, as well as writing exercises and tasks at an achievable level. In this next post I want to consider the importance of context and flow in the writing process.

Creating context

Context is the second area of EFL materials writing that affects how and what you write. By ‘context’ I’m referring to a number of different elements: First of all, the writer needs to understand the classroom context in which the material will be used. In other words, if you are writing material for General English adult student’s books that could be used anywhere in the world, then your material must appeal to a broad spectrum of people. Similarly, you have to remember that an exercise must be able to work with a class of fifty as well as with a class of five.

Something else to consider is the cultural context; a choice of photograph or text that will appeal to students in South American countries may not work for students in Middle East countries. And culture doesn’t just refer to national cultures; the culture and interests of younger students will be different to those for older students. Gender is also an issue; male writers have to consider whether their choice of contexts and materials will also appeal to female students and vice versa (which is possibly why so many successful course books are co-authored by a man and a woman.)

One more context which affects published materials in particular is time. If you are using a course book which is over five years old, for example, you may notice that photographs of technology look old-fashioned, reading texts are out-of-date, or perhaps some so-called famous people are no longer famous. So if you want your materials to have longevity, then topics such as technology and popular culture are often worth avoiding or treating in a way that will mean they don’t date too quickly.

Make your material flow

Having selected appropriate images, texts and exercises that are at the correct level and are appropriate for the various contexts in which the material will be used, you need to make sure they fit together in a logical order. In practical terms, this means that if you have six exercises or stages on a worksheet, then any teacher should be able to pick up that worksheet, take it into class, start at exercise 1 and finish at exercise 6. Yes it’s important that the material is also flexible enough for those types of teachers who like to miss some parts out, change the order or even add their own supplementary materials, but its primary function is to offer a complete lesson.

You have to write the material so that one activity flows into the next and that it follows basic principles of good lesson planning. In other words, there is probably some kind of lead-in task that engages the students, perhaps some comprehension work with a text followed by language analysis and finally a free practice stage of some kind in which students use the language presented in the lesson.

Part of writing materials with flow is also to provide clear ‘navigational tools’ that help the teacher to orientate the students through the lesson. These tools include use of headings, numbering, referencing and the rubrics or instructions which accompany an exercise or explain a procedure. You know when these features are badly written because you can’t find your way around the material or you are unsure what the aim of the exercise is. On the other hand, when they are well-written, you barely notice they exist alongside the rest of the material and everything flows logically.

Finally, once you’ve written your materials, you may find it useful to check them against these nine key questions.  Better still, hand your materials to another teacher and, without any explanation from you, see if they can walk into class and use them successfully with their students!

Check you’ve got the level right:

  • Can I easily identify which level this was written for?
  • Will it interest, motivate and challenge the students at a cognitive level?
  • Are the exercises and tasks too easy or too difficult? (Can you do them yourself?!)

Think about context:

  • Will the material work in classes of two or two hundred?
  • Will the material work in another classroom, region or country?
  • Will the material work next week or next year, or in three years’ time?

Finally, check, for flow:

  • Is there a logical flow from the beginning to the end?
  • Do I understand where to go next in the materials?
  • Do I understand what to do next in each exercise?

 

© John Hughes ELT Ltd 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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How to write your own EFL materials: Part One – Writing for different levels

EFL coursebook writingJohn Hughes has co-authored a number of titles for OUP including three levels in the Business Result series, Successful Meetings, and Successful Presentations. He will be giving a practical workshop on how to write materials at the upcoming BESIG conference in Bonn on 15th November. This is the first of two blog posts in which John explores three key areas which he believes underpin effective materials writing.

If you want to write your own EFL materials, where do you begin?  Let’s start with a question: What do most established EFL materials writers have in common? First of all, they’ve all taught for a number of years and they are fairly confident about what will and won’t work in the classroom. Secondly, throughout their teaching career, they have always loved creating their own materials. Thirdly, most materials writers that I know have also spent time working as teacher trainers. In fact, I personally believe some kind of teacher training experience should be a requirement for all materials writers; it’s only by working with and observing other teachers that you can really understand how to write materials for use by other teachers.

Finally, I think that all effective materials writers understand – either knowingly or unknowingly – how to write materials that are at the correct level, aimed at the appropriate context, and organised into a series of stages which flow to form a cohesive and complete lesson. In this first of two blog posts, I’ll look at level in more detail.

How to write your own EFL materials

When we talk about the level of the material, we are usually referring to whether you can use it with an elementary, intermediate or advanced student. So knowing how to write for different levels requires that you have experience of teaching at lots of different levels. In addition to that, there are some tools that can help you. For example, if you are writing or adapting a text for reading materials then you can assess the level of the text with a tool like the Oxford Text Checker. By putting the text into the text checker it will show you which words are not within the top 2000 or 3000 keywords of English. As a result, you can decide how to adapt the level of the text and which vocabulary could be taught as new.

As well as considering the language level, materials writers also need to think about the cognitive level of the students; for example, writing materials for young learners is quite different to writing for adults. Also, there’s the danger that when we write materials for students with a low language level, we write materials which treat the students as if they have low intelligence. Even materials for elementary levels must still be intrinsically interesting, and motivating; in other words, if you are writing for grown-up adults, then the material should feel ‘grown-up’.

Level in materials writing also refers to the level of an exercise or task. In other words, the exercise or task itself must be achievable. So if you ask students to fill the gaps in a conversation while listening but there are too many gaps, it becomes impossible – regardless of their language level. Similarly, if you write a speaking practice task which requires more than three sentences of instructions, then the task is probably overly complex for use by the teacher and students.

So level is a key part of writing EFL materials, and in my next post we’ll look at how it links in with the skills of writing materials with context and flow.

 

© John Hughes ELT Ltd 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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So you think you can write?

Close up of pen on paperEver thought about writing your own teaching materials? Stephen Greene is an English language teacher, teacher trainer, and materials developer. Here, he takes us through the process he undertook to write his first published materials.

I have always written materials for my students. My first job was in a school in Poland where we had a grand total of two resource books to help us. The fact the course books we had ordered didn’t turn up until almost the end of the first term meant that we had very little choice but to get creative.

There are many reasons why we occasionally need to look outside the course book, but for me one of the main reasons is just the fun and the interest of doing it. I simply love writing for my students.

When OUP offered me the chance to co-write the Teacher’s Pack for Cambridge English Proficiency Masterclass with Jeanette Lindsey-Clark, I jumped at the chance. I thought to myself that all I would have to do was replicate my endeavours over the last 15 years, but on a grander scale. I could write a book, no problem. It turned out that I had a lot to learn.

Doing your research

Normally, I just wrote. I knew my students, my syllabus and my course book. I knew the strengths and weaknesses of all of them. If there was something lacking, and I felt inspired, I would sit down at my computer and write something to make up for it.

But when writing on this project I had to study. I needed to study the brief from the publisher in detail. I had to go through the Student’s Book to understand how it had been put together and the methodology that the author had used. I also had to check the changes in the Cambridge English: Proficiency (CPE) exam and ensure I understood what the new questions demanded from the candidates. And all of this before I could even start doing any writing.

Constrained creativity

A number of times I had a great idea and spent some time developing it only to realise that it didn’t fit the criteria I was supposed to be working to. I found this to be one of the more difficult aspects of writing for somebody else; coming up with ideas wasn’t the hard part. Instead, coming up with ideas that fit the requirements of the project constrained and restricted my creativity. After a while, though, this restriction actually led to a better focus.

Being disciplined

The romantic image I had of sitting down at my computer and letting the creative juices flow through me to the screen just didn’t happen. Or at least, when it did happen it was as a result of being very disciplined and working through the times when I just couldn’t think of what I was supposed to write about. Balancing writing with teaching, family and having some sort of life isn’t easy so I often had to force myself to stay up until the early hours of the morning to keep to schedule.

Deadline is king

One of my favourite (non-ELT) writers, Douglas Adams, had a thing about deadlines: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

This might be fine for a famous author, but for the likes of me, struggling to even get one book published, this was never going to be possible. If there is one thing that is going to make an editor angry with you and so not invite you back to the party it is to miss a deadline. Just don’t do it, under any circumstances.

The results

Despite the hard work and the steep learning curve the whole process was worth every minute. I learned an incredible amount about the publishing process and I believe this has made me a better teacher because I clearer insight as to why certain things have been selected in course books.

The discipline, focus and awareness of objectives have also improved the writing I do for my students and I feel sure that my personal materials are of a much higher standard now. I am a much better writer now, but I know I still have a lot more to learn.

This article first appeared in the September 2013 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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The Young Explorer’s World of Nature

Everybody Up author Patrick Jackson rediscovers his favourite book from childhood after 35 years and asks if it can teach materials writers and young learner educators anything.

Young Explorer's World of NatureThe Young Explorer’s World of Nature

I’ve just found my favourite book from when I was a boy. It’s called The Young Explorer’s World of Nature and it was published in 1957 by Sampson Low, Marston. It’s nearly four decades since I last looked at it but every page comes right back to me like it was yesterday. I loved nature and spent a lot of time looking under rocks in the garden. What was it about The Young Explorer’s World of Nature that kept me reaching for it? What fascinated me about that one book so much? Is there anything in that fascination that will help me now as a teacher and materials writer?

The first thing to mention is the variety of the content.  This is an adventure that spans the whole world, from creatures living in a pond to an armadillo’s burrow, to giant redwoods, to the Kalahari Desert. Woodpeckers, beavers, bees and a bush pig, a bathyscaphe, people who live with herds, a frilled lizard, a wolverine, a vet examining a sick chimpanzee and a man milking a reindeer into a bowl all jostle for attention. This variety keeps you turning the pages. Likewise, lessons and materials should be varied and have plenty of surprises to keep our students on their toes.

Animals running from volcano

There is a sense of wonder throughout the book. Nature and our relationship with it is something to marvel at. These images were my connections to a wider world beyond suburban Dublin. Although most of the pages showed scenes beyond my imagination, some of them were about things closer to home: a cat with an injured paw, a toad in a half-buried flower pot or sycamore seeds that spin as they fall – all fascinated me as much as the Kirghiz chief riding along with a falcon on his arm. We should never forget that plenty of miracles are very close at hand and do our best to bring them into our classrooms.

Every single page of the book is full of action. A frog dives into the water, a musk ox tosses a wolf high into the air, a baboon bangs his chest and a puffin catches a rabbit’s foot just as it enters its burrow. Most memorably, a hippopotamus overturns an African canoe as two crocodiles watch intently from the bank, one showing its sharp teeth. As a rule, crocodiles should be kept out of the classroom but we should never forget how much children are verb-driven creatures and bring as many opportunities to do as we can into our teaching.

Wild buffalo

Every page is rich with detail. To think it was all done by hand without a computer in sight! There isn’t a photograph in the whole book either so this had to be made up for by the excitement of the drawings and the events they show. There’s plenty to take from that too. As we surround ourselves and our students with the digital and the instant we shouldn’t forget that something hand-made and personal usually has the value of a thousand clicks.

These images leave as many questions unanswered as they answer. Will the squirrel catch that dragonfly? Will the man who looks a bit like Charlie Chaplin get out of the pot-hole? What happened to that camel’s leg and can you really bandage them like that? Are Tasmanian Devils dangerous? Will I ever see cormorant fishermen or listen to lions roaring just beyond a thorn hedge?

This book comes from an age when people had fewer tools at their disposal and had to work harder to captivate the young explorer’s imagination. There is much for us to learn 55 years on as we do our work in a world utterly changed. We have so much power at our fingertips but do we appreciate that power enough? Do we make the most of it? Would we sometimes be better off with less?

I learnt a lot from my trip down memory lane. The Young Explorer’s World of Nature is full of variety, adventure, surprise and wonder, connections to a wider world, action and movement, fascinating detail, discovery and metamorphosis and I suppose, without realising it at the time, that’s why I loved it so much. All those happenings and all those questions both answered and unanswered!

Those are not just the ingredients of a great children’s book, they are the ingredients of great language teaching, the ingredients of beautiful and effective education and, ultimately, the ingredients of happy childhood. Think back to your favourite book when you were a child. What can you learn from it today?

Visit our site for more information on Everybody Up and the Everybody Up Global Sing-along 2013.

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

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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