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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over five years old, for example, you may notice that photographs of technology look old-fashioned, reading texts are out-of-date, or perhaps some so-called famous people are no longer famous.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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Discover what’s different about the new International Express

Young businesswoman smilingRachel Appleby, co-author of two levels of the new International Express (publishing January 2014), presented a sneak preview of the course during her webinar on Wednesday 6th November.

I wonder how you decide which coursebook you’re going to use with your adult professional learners. Not long ago, the choice seemed a lot easier, but there’s so much out there now that it’s much more difficult, not to mention the fact that contexts are changing, and learners are getting more demanding too!

So, what can we do?

Well, I’m always on the look-out for materials that offer flexibility: I don’t necessarily want to work through them page by page, although having a reliable coursebook structure is certainly comforting. What matters most to me is being able to respond to what my learners want, and what motivates them. So that means dealing with language they might need there and then – language they can use immediately after class – and also making sure that topics are up-to-date and inspiring, and will get them talking!

I’m also keen to get my students using new language as much as possible, especially in speaking activities. I have lots of resource books at home, but quite often I find a task which fits their level, but is totally off-topic, or vice versa, and so not really appropriate. That sort of time-wasting can be incredibly frustrating!

So let me tell you about the new edition of International Express. You probably know the earlier editions. I’ve used the different levels at a number of companies, but such a lot has changed since they came out. Learners these days expect to be able to do more in their own time, or at home, which means, I think, that language in coursebooks needs to be even more clearly presented, guiding learners through really carefully, and giving them plenty of practice too.

The new 5-level International Express series is coming out in January 2014, so in fact no-one’s seen it yet (although I have a hunch the Beginner level might already have escaped!). Rest assured that if you were a fan of International Express before, as I was (for its reliability, clarity of language work, and meaningful practice for students), then you’ll find all this here – and more. The content is 100% new, so of course it’s up to date with contemporary global lifestyle topics, including travel and socializing, but it’s still for the professional. And it offers plenty of bite-sized chunks, and flexibility – music to my ears!

But apart from addressing how students want to study, one of the other things I find especially tough these days is “keeping up with the Jones’s”, in other words, other teachers! It’s happened to me a few times that a colleague has mentioned “a great video-clip” they used in class, and I simply don’t find it easy to select videos that are going to work with my students. I do think this is what learners are wanting, yet we still have to ensure that what we do in class will support and help their learning, and meet their needs.

As luck would have it, one of the exciting new features of the new International Express is the add-on video for each unit, directly related to each unit topic. They’re handled in such a way that, by the end, the learners are really going to get a sense of achievement in watching the clips; and let’s face it, that’s one of the main confidence boosters I know of in language learning!

So, if you want to be one of the first to look inside the third edition of International Express, perhaps check out a video clip, and see how it’s going to help you and your learners, watch a recording of my webinar on Wednesday 6th November, and I’ll show you more.

It would also be great to see you at the BESIG conference in Prague from Friday 8th – Sunday 10th November. On Saturday 9th, I’ll be using hot-off-the-press International Express materials during my talk entitled ‘Does the customer really know best? Getting the most out of in-company training’. Speak soon!