Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


6 Comments

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over five years old, for example, you may notice that photographs of technology look old-fashioned, reading texts are out-of-date, or perhaps some so-called famous people are no longer famous.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.


8 Comments

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.


4 Comments

#qskills – Is it better to create your own materials or use existing materials?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: Is it better to create your own materials or use existing materials?

Colin Ward responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.


22 Comments

Bring your ELT coursebook to life!

Students with a textbook in the parkKolos Esztergályos, an Oxford ELT Consultant based in Hungary, gives his tips for how to breathe new life into your ELT coursebooks.

Most teachers would agree that no matter how attractive an ELT coursebook might look, its real strengths and hidden weaknesses will unfold only in action, that is, in actual classroom use. And then, it’s not long before teachers start saying things like “Oh, that text didn’t go down particularly well with my students” or “My group couldn’t care less about pop stars”. With the new academic year looming ahead, it looks like a good time to start thinking about your new classes, your present coursebook, and how to match the two by tweaking some elements to your and your students’ tastes.

Generation gap 1: You know the movie star? Chances are, your students won’t

You have a charming Pierce Brosnan smiling at you next to a reading text about James Bond movies. You might find that your students will have a different idea of a heart-throb. With today’s online resources it’s only a matter of a few clicks to revive the personality and put them into a present-day context through Wikipedia or IMDb facts and links. Start off with a topical bit of information or a recent photograph that can spark a discussion about a life event, a controversial topic, or the social issues a celebrity is likely to stand up for. With less advanced groups you can use the photos only: in pairs, one student describes the person in the photo from years ago, the other will do the same with a more recent one. Later, they will show their pictures to each other and find out that they have been describing the same person – with a lot of differences!

There are many various possibilities, but the main thing is to find a way to relate the person to your students’ present reality.

Generation gap 2: You can’t relate to a topic

You’ve never followed the Premier League events. You can’t see how designer brands make a difference. Your worst idea of a holiday is couchsurfing.

It’s very likely that your students will be experts on the topic, so the best thing is to own up. Argue that you don’t see why brands / clothes / having the latest gadgets / etc. are important. You’re sure to instigate a wild classroom debate, especially with the 14-18 age group.

Tom, Dick and Harry

By the very nature of coursebooks, exercises are often riddled with general, “faceless” names. You might want to try and add a little flavour by replacing these with the students in your group. “What time does Ivan get up?” will have a totally new interpretation if Ivan is the regular latecomer in your group! “What would Mr (eg. history teacher) say if he found out that you had copied your homework?” will also shed a new light on typical questions. But even without direct references, any mechanical exercise will benefit from turning fictitious names into flesh-and-blood people. Of course, it is your responsibility to avoid sensitive issues and to maintain the integrity of all people involved.

 “C, final answer”

Multiple choice tasks are prevalent in any ELT material, obviously, for good reasons. But don’t forget that any classic MC task can be turned into a ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ quiz item to involve groups of students and to increase motivation. There are some great online tools to create your own quiz show. You will have to introduce “cat mode” (ie. multiple lives) if you want to play it with more students or groups of students simultaneously; all students or groups will mark an answer, but those who get it wrong can also play on with a life lost, or, alternatively, by earning no points/”money” for that round. Even more engaging if played with toy money, where culturally acceptable.

Video killed the radio star

ELT materials today tend to cater for the fact that students are brought up in a multi-sensory environment. As a result, these materials make use of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic channels to accommodate different learner types and to make content more memorable. This, in turn, allows us to transform material by “switching off” channels to leave more to the imagination. If you have a listening text, first use the transcript only to let students make guesses about the age, sex, occupation, etc. of the characters. If you have a video, use the audio only and get students to make the same inferences. This may sound time-consuming but will help students focus on the linguistic material to make judgements and to work with the text more intensively.

My test, my learning

It is indeed very appealing and time-saving to print off a ready-made test, but you can make students part of the whole learning process by involving them in test design. Use your review lesson to get groups of learners to write tasks for an ideal test they would be happy to take. This will make them go through the material covered and they will be likely to use the task types found in the coursebook. Collate and correct the tasks, go through some of the items together. The remainder will give you the basis of a test, ideally to be used as it is. When compiling the actual test, give students credit for an extra morale booster. I’ve found that this works especially well with students who need extra support.

Naturally, this is a list of recommendations only, but I hope that these ideas will give you enough inspiration to look forward to a new academic year!


3 Comments

This house believes that published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners

Young woman public speakingAhead of the ELT Journal debate at IATEFL Liverpool, Graham Hall, editor of ELT Journal, presents his arguments for and against the need for published course materials.

Teaching and learning materials of one form or another are almost, but not quite, universal in ELT classrooms. And, obviously, the materials available to teachers and learners vary widely according to context; teachers and learners may also use similar materials in different ways depending on, for example, their beliefs, knowledge and skills, and wider social and institutional expectations.

But over time, changing ideas about language learning combined with developments in technology lead to changes in ELT materials. ‘Older’ materials are often replaced by newer resources which, in turn, eventually become outdated or unfashionable. So it can help us as teachers to think through some of the debates surrounding teaching and learning materials to make up our own minds about their strengths and weaknesses.

By way of example, let’s look at some of the debates surrounding textbooks (and here I mean textbooks generally, rather than evaluating a particular book or series). Textbooks are the main source of teaching ideas and materials for many teachers around the world; indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine ELT without textbooks. But whether they are a help or hindrance to teaching and learning is often a source of heated discussion.

Well-designed textbooks have a number obvious benefits for teachers and learners. They provide language input for learners; they can provide interesting and motivating material, organised in an appealing and logical manner; and they provide a written record of what has been studied, allowing for revision and continued study beyond the classroom. Textbooks also reduce the amount of time teachers’ require for preparation. So, one way of thinking about textbooks is that professional materials writers and teachers have different areas of expertise which complement each other. Using well-presented, professionally published textbooks frees teachers to deal with the day-to-day business of actually teaching.

But there are a number of criticisms of textbooks. Perhaps they create a ‘dependency culture’ in which teachers avoid responsibility and just do ‘what they are told’ by the textbook writers. As a result (so the argument goes), teachers may become ‘de-skilled’, losing their ability to think critically and work independently in the classroom. Textbooks are also said to fail to cater for individual needs, lead to material- rather than person-centred classes, and constrain creativity in the classroom.

However, criticisms of textbooks extend beyond these classroom-focused concerns. As well as being an teaching resource, textbooks are commercial products, which, it is claimed, are innately conservative in order to sell as widely as possible. This caution might be methodological, or it might be reflected in the cultural images that textbooks present. Most textbooks, for example, continue to focus on native-speaker lives, lifestyles and language varieties, and images of successful L2 learners are absent from many ELT materials; likewise, images of poverty, disability and many other aspects of ‘real life’ are difficult to find in many textbooks. Thus, it is argued, textbooks are not ‘neutral’, but reflect a particular view of social order and particular sets of values.

Of course, it is would unfair to suggest that textbooks writers and publishers are not aware of, or concerned about, these issues; yet producing a marketable product which does not ignore global and local realities and contexts is a difficult challenge.

These issues will be discussed and debated in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Liverpool on Thursday 11th April (17:05-18:20 UK time). There, Scott Thornbury will propose the motion ‘This house believes that published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners’; Catherine Walter will oppose the motion. For more information about the conference, and to access the debate via Liverpool online, go to http://www.iatefl.org/.

Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.