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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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An interview with the authors of English File, Clive Oxenden and Christina Latham-Koenig

English File third editionEnglish File third edition is here! We went behind the scenes to find out what makes the authors Christina Latham-Koenig and Clive Oxenden tick. They tell us about their inspirations, their own struggle with learning Polish and Spanish, and they muse about the future of English language teaching.

What made you decide to become a teacher?

Christina Latham-KoenigTo be quite honest I hadn’t actually thought of becoming a teacher. I studied Latin and Greek at university, and I knew I didn’t want to teach that. When I left university I got a job at the British Council in London, and that’s where I learned about TEFL, as we had to organise courses for people. I then decided I’d like to go and live abroad for a year, and thought that the easiest way would be to teach English. In fact I loved it right from the start, and realised that I had accidentally found the right career path.

Clive OxendenAfter university I worked as a volunteer for a while in the Middle East with a lot of young people from different countries. It showed the importance of English as Lingua Franca and I found that I enjoyed helping people with their English. When I came home I went to the local library to look up English teaching (this was a few years before the internet was invented!)

Where did the idea of writing English File come from?

Christina Latham-KoenigBasically it responded to a need – we didn’t find that the material we were using as teachers was appropriate for our context, teaching monolingual classes abroad. In particular there was very little material that helped to get students talking, which is why we have always really focused on this aspect of teaching in English File.

Clive OxendenWe wanted to write a book that reflected our view of teaching which was that while learning should, of course, be approached seriously and  in a very professional and organised way it is vital that the experience should also be fun and motivating. If not, students quickly get bored and disheartened.

When you were learning a foreign language, what did you find most challenging?

Clive OxendenPronunciation! I came to live in Spain and at first I had a lot of problems with certain sounds in Spanish, especially ‘r’ and ‘rr’. When I went shopping in the market I sometimes could not make myself understood and I spent several months ordering pork (which I could pronounce) when I really wanted steak (which I couldn’t ). It certainly showed me the importance of pronunciation and how it affects a learner’s confidence and willingness to speak. I think the fact that Christina and I wrote English File while living in a foreign country explains the emphasis we always give to pronunciation.

Christina Latham-KoenigAs I’d studied Latin at university, I have found learning Latin languages relatively easy, in fact I was convinced that I was a very good language learner. Then a few years ago I decided to learn Polish. It was a real shock to learn a language where you couldn’t rely on Latin-based words being the same. It has taken me forever to learn certain basic things, like the months, or telling the time. And the grammar, the different ending for nouns and adjectives, is a nightmare.
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How teachers help to rewrite coursebooks

Blonde woman taking notesHaving given us an insight into the daily lives of materials writers, English File authors, Christina Latham-Koenig and Clive Oxenden, share with us the importance of reader feedback when it comes to writing new editions.

In our last post we talked a bit about the way we work and how we look for interesting material to provide good lessons for our books. This time we thought we would talk a little about how readers’ feedback helps to shape the new versions of English File that we are currently writing.

The way it works is that we send the first draft to a number of readers all over the world. The readers are all experienced teachers, and they tend to all be teachers who have used New English File, because what we want to know is whether they prefer the new lessons to the old ones, and what still needs improving or tightening up in the  new lessons.

It’s always a slightly tense moment for us when the readers’ reports arrive. Normally we feel reasonably confident that readers are going to like most of the lessons, but you can never be totally sure! However, although positive comments are important to reassure us that we are on the right track (and sometimes just to boost our morale!), constructive negative comments really do help us to improve the material, and so we welcome both types of feedback. The feedback we received this time gave us just about the right mix, and it has been extremely helpful.

After reading through all the reports – a stage when the room we work in is almost knee deep in papers – we then have a meeting with our editors where we go through each lesson one by one and discuss all the readers’ comments (not to mention the editors’ comments) and decide how to improve on them. These meetings always seems to take longer than anticipated, but by the end of it we are really clear about what needs doing for each lesson. All that is left to do then is to go away and re-write them!

By the end of the report stage we often feel that we have really got to know our readers, even though we have never met most of them. We know the kind of topics they like or dislike, what aspects of grammar and pronunciation are important to them, even their sense of humour! For example, we once wrote a grammar practice sentence which said ‘England ___ Brazil 3-0 (defeat/beat/thrash) and one reader added the comment ‘In your dreams!’

We would like to take this opportunity to thank all the readers from all over the world, past and present, whose comments have helped us so much in the writing of all the different levels English File. If you have any suggestions for improvements, we’d love to hear them.

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