The following book review of ETpedia Materials Writing was written by Brian Brennan and first appeared in Modern English Teacher Issue 28 (1), January, 2019. Save 20% on one-year individual subscriptions to Modern English Teacher with code JHMET (not compatible with any other offer or discount.)
A couple of weeks ago, I was giving a course for Business English teachers from various parts of the world, half a day of which consisted of evaluating the fine array of published materials already out there, while at the same time acknowledging that it can never be enough. And that is in spite of the expanding range of English for titles (add: Law Enforcement, Football, Marketing, Nursing, Job Hunting, Telecoms, the Energy Industry, Human Resources, etc.) that have appeared over the last ten years. Yet you still get the logistics manager who says ‘Oh, that material’s about vehicle logistics and we do drinks logistics, so that’s not for us’ or the A1 group who work for a laser hair removal company who need much moreanatomical vocabulary than any coursebook dares to offer. This issue of creating your own material is very much to the fore in the English for Vocational Purposes sector, since those learners usually know what they want to talk about, whereas in General English we tell the students what we want them to talk about (Crime & Punishment, Sport and Exercise, The Environment, Leisure, Health [i.e.: sickness], etc.). Having said that, this ETpedia is a source that teachers of General English ought to relish, too.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the front cover claim of ‘500 ideas for creating English language materials’ is a bit far-fetched, but I can assure you that there really are 50 units with 10 ideas in each. Titles of sections include: Writing language exercises and different types of questions, Writing materials for the four main skills, Writing complete lessons and worksheets, Writing supplementary materials (games, questionnaires, song and video lessons, test writing), Writing materials for other teachers, and Developing your materials writing skills. End matter includes games boards and sections for building up your own ideas.
There are a number of cogent reasons why we write our own materials: to test students’ progress, because for whatever reason we lack published material; to work on specific language (often lexical); to provide material that approaches the learners’ interests or home town or country; when keen or desperate students bring to class something they want to work on, whether it’s a 14-year-old with a song whose lyrics she doesn’t understand (frequently I don’t either) or in-company students who let you know that they have to draft an important email about a complex or delicate issue. As the authors of this book point out, being creative is enjoyable per se; what’s more, it’s a step in the direction of professional development. And surely it’s a real buzz for students when they see a piece of well-presented, home-made material that has been tailor-made for them, and that can only reflect well on the teacher and the school that he/she represents. Put another way, any teacher worth his/her salt will end up producing their own material, and until now there has been nothing out there to provide solid guidance on how to do so.
There are sections of the book that make no bones about being extremely basic and I can see them becoming a fixture on CELTAs around the world. Nevertheless, for old hands there are absolutely heaps of ideas that will jog your memory (‘Oh I haven’t done that one for a while; why don’t I use it with my 7.30 class today.’), or even inspire you to do something better than how you’ve been doing it up to now; the excellent section on writing clear, concise rubrics is a case in point. There is always a danger that we become jaded, that we think we’ve seen it all and know it all, but let he whose skills cannot be honed cast the first stone.
Pitfalls are legion: in our keenness to customise the material for a hefty percentage of the course, we can end up burning the midnight oil more than is good for us (the Get-a-Life syndrome); we start scouring The Guardian website for discourse markers; we develop a tunnel vision for the material that prevents us from spotting otherwise glaring errors, like the info gap where both sets of students find themselves with exactly the same text; we can become overprotective or aggressive, like a mother watching a child from the sideline of a contact sport event. And why is it that our best proofreading only happens after the horse has bolted? ETpedia’s authors tackle many of these issues head-on in the section titled Writing materials for other teachers. Teacher’s notes are something you can arguably do without when it’s just you doing the teaching (the same can maybe be said for rubrics, too, as you know what the instructions are and you probably prefer to give them orally), but allowing other teachers to test drive or simply use your work really is a paradigm shift, so tips like using the imperative in rubrics, rather than the silly, patronising ‘Try to …’ in the meticulously thought-out 10 Tips on writing effective rubrics make you wonder why the obvious is often so hard to come by.
Beyond the basic level of coming up with material that gives you, say, a more satisfactory take on the real differences between some and any (right down to where they do actually overlap) than you’ve seen in many coursebooks, with a certain discipline and some honest feedback, you can find your own voice coming through in the way you devise authentic responses to authentic material, instead of subjecting the text to a battery of so-called comprehension questions. The section on Writing material for reading, listening, speaking and writing provides sound guidance in moving in this direction, though the authors acknowledge that ‘creating exercises to practise speaking can be especially challenging’.
Among the standout units for me here are the 10 Tips for writing role plays. The question of shelf-life (they call it Lifespan) is important with authentic material; only invest your time in what you can get several years of use out of. They also recommend the use of glossaries, still incredibly underused to judge by the stuff I find lying abandoned around the photocopier. Used wisely, glossaries are a sensible way to deal with rare lexis that is key to understanding. The section on Adapting the level of the text has tips that include shortening, simplifying and omitting low frequency vocab. I find, maddeningly, that the more peripheral the lexis, the longer it takes to deal with, and I have no qualms about de-bugging (eliminating or rewriting the peripheral) authentic print text; nothing is sacred, fortunately.
One thing I noticed again with the trainees on our recent Business English Teachers’ Course is how little published material most teachers have access to, making this ETpedia even more valuable and overdue. It’s common for glowing reviews to conclude with something like ‘This is a must for every teachers’ room’, but I cannot say that here; in my opinion, this is a must for every teacher.
Going into class with a piece of material of your own making, you want it to work so much that you teach from it as if your life depended on it. One thing is to be a fine teacher, another is to be a fine material writer; put them together and you have a potent mix.
Brian Brennan is the Language Training Manager at International House Barcelona Company Training.