Ten steps towards developing your skills as a materials writer

I originally published this article with the title ‘Making the leap’ in English Teaching Professional, (113), November, 2017.

Classroom materials form a natural part of what teachers do: we write tests, we adapt readings and make comprehension questions, we produce quizzes, we provide extra exercises for homework – the list is endless. And yet, surprisingly, teachers rarely receive much formal training in the skills required. As a result, they have to develop these skills as they go along. In this article, I will outline what I consider to be ten key steps in the development of any teacher as a materials writer.

1 Taking one small step, one giant leap

Many teachers avoid trying to write their own materials. Sometimes, this is due to a lack of confidence or classroom experience, which makes them feel unqualified or nervous of leaving the security of their coursebook or other published materials. Good ELT materials also require the writer to have a thorough knowledge of the subject matter, and it goes without saying that you can’t write a good exercise to practise a particular grammar feature unless you have confidence in your own understanding of it. Having said that, there’s a point where less experienced teachers just need to take the plunge and start writing. It doesn’t mean you have to write a whole lesson from scratch. Start out by creating a short supplementary exercise to go with your coursebook, or try writing a quiz to use in the last ten minutes of a lesson.

2 Learning from your mistakes and learning from others

Once you start writing materials, you will inevitably enjoy success and some failures. Learn from both, especially the really bad material! I still have memories of lessons that went wrong because of poor material that I had written, but I learnt from my mistakes and never made the same mistake twice. Through trying to write my own materials, I also learnt to appreciate the quality of the writing in published materials, and I started to see why authors produced their course materials in a certain way.

3 Understanding the context for the materials

One of the most common challenges for new writers is to recognise the role of the material in relationship to the teacher and the learners, and to write accordingly. The diagram below shows how materials relate to the teacher and learner in three ways. In-class materials for use in the classroom can include more open-ended tasks for a teacher to mediate, such as roleplays and discussion tasks. Self-study materials will need more controlled exercises, with right/wrong answers. Materials for teachers are what you find in teacher’s books (eg answer keys, listening scripts and suggestions for further practice activities) as well as methodology texts.

Inexperienced materials writers sometimes try to produce in-class materials which, in fact, are more like self-study materials – for example, a series of exercises where the students’ heads will be down all the time. Good in-class materials encourage plenty of ‘heads-up’ communication, so if you have written a series of exercises for in-class use, make sure that there is a balance of ‘heads up’ and ‘heads down’ practice. On the other hand, when writing materials for self-study, you need to avoid exercises where there is more than one answer, exercises that require the participation of more than one student or anything ambiguous, which could confuse a student who has no teacher there to explain things.

4 Establishing the writer’s ‘voice’

When you are certain of how the material will be used, you need to consider the ‘voice’ of the material. By ‘voice’, I mean that for in-class materials, you are writing for the students and the teacher, and some of the material will be interpreted by the teacher. For self-study materials, you have to assume that only the students will read it, so the writing needs to be at the right level and to the point. For teacher’s materials, your voice will tend to have the register of one colleague talking to a fellow professional. To illustrate this, compare these instructions for a basic gapfill exercise from three different types of material.

A In-class material: Work in pairs. Fill in the gaps and compare your answers with your partner.

B Self-study material: Write the answers in the gaps.

C Teacher’s material: Ask the students to complete the exercise on their own. Monitor and help any individuals. Then have the students compare their answers with a partner before you check together as a class.

5 Developing your ‘materials radar’

Once you have started to write your own materials, it becomes infectious! You start to see materials everywhere. You turn bus timetables into information-gap activities, photos on your phone into discussion activities, a celebrity magazine interview into a reading lesson, or your students’ favourite song into a lesson about the lyrics. You have then developed what I refer to as your ‘materials radar’ – and it becomes very hard to switch it off. At any time of day, even when you aren’t at work, part of your brain is on the lookout for ideas and resources that can become teaching materials. In fact, I gave up trying to switch my ‘materials radar’ off ages ago – it’s simply part of being a materials writer.

6 Acquiring the skills of a journalist

In recent years, there has been an emphasis on the materials writer taking authentic texts and adapting them for students. I think this is overdone and that, in fact, materials writers are often better off writing their own reading texts or making their own video content. To do this, you need to develop the two particular skills which good journalists have. Firstly, you have to be able to spot a good story that will interest people (the development of your own ‘materials radar’ will help with this) and secondly, you have to learn to ask the right questions. Increasingly, in my own work, I am interviewing people in order to make video content or to include their responses in a text. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds and, in my experience, if the person you are interviewing has a passion or interesting story to tell, they always want to tell you about it. Try interviewing someone and video them speaking (on your phone, for example). Their enthusiasm for the topic will come through on screen and you will have some great authentic content to add to your materials.

7 Self-editing and quality control

Published materials writers are lucky because they usually work with an editor – and you can’t overstate just how important a good editor is for the success of any published course material. However, when writing materials for your own lessons, you’ll need to be your own editor, who looks for errors and checks the quality. There are some basic ways to do this. Firstly, work though any exercises that you have written and write the answer keys. That way you will see the material from the students’ perspective and you can avoid any basic mistakes in the writing process. If necessary, use the spellcheck function on your computer – even if you think your English is perfect, it’s easy to let things slip through. Finally, be prepared to let some ideas go; you might be convinced that a text or a classroom activity will make good material, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. This can be for any number of reasons – either forget it or put it in a box with lots of other rejected ideas that you can perhaps come back to in the future.

8 Sharing and piloting your materials

Another way to edit and check your material – and perhaps the most foolproof – is to hand it to another teacher and ask them to try it out. This is known as ‘piloting’ the material. Many teachers can make their own material work in their own class, but the real test comes when another teacher takes it into a lesson and tries to use it. At first, ask a teacher you know well and who will give you honest feedback. Note that you may also need to add to the materials, so that they are easy for someone else to follow: include clear rubrics (instructions) with each exercise and provide an answer key. In fact, this is a good moment to develop your skills as a writer of teacher’s notes by providing your colleague with instructions and ideas on using the materials – take a look at a good teacher’s book for ideas on how you might do this. After the piloting, learn from the feedback, revise the materials accordingly, and then give them to another teacher to try out.

9 Writing for digital media and online

These days, many teachers will need to write materials to go online rather than on paper. The difference between writing for these two formats is sometimes exaggerated, and all of the skills above apply to both. Perhaps the main difference is that writing digital materials often involves writing into a template or within the limitations of the software. For example, if you are using an online tool like Moodle, you will have a limited choice of exercise types which you can use. This can be frustrating at first, as you spend time learning how the software works and what it is capable of. However, the more familiarity you have with using a keyboard effectively and the better you know your way round a variety of software, the quicker you’ll be able to get on with the core activity of trying to write effective and engaging materials.

10 Not doing different things but doing things differently

Finally, like most teachers who enjoy writing their own materials, I relish the creativity of writing and the fun of seeing my students and other teachers using them to learn English. However, when we talk about ‘creativity’ in materials writing, there’s always the danger that we try too hard to think outside the box and create something completely new. Whenever I go on such flights of fancy, I have to ground the material back into reality and remind myself that – ultimately – it’s about students learning and teachers teaching. So, to conclude, I’d like to adapt an old saying and point out that good materials writing isn’t about doing different things, but doing things differently. In other words, what we are trying to do (ie teach English) doesn’t need to change, but our materials should always strive to present and practise the language differently and in ways that reflect the needs and interests of the learners.

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