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ELT Materials Writing:

a beginner's guide


Many teachers, at some stage in their careers, decide they would like to turn their hand to materials writing. Often this urge comes in reaction to the published materials that they are using. The textbooks seem unsuitable for the students and are lacking in one way or another - or teachers simply get bored with the content and the approach. Teachers also have a natural desire to develop their own professional skills. After some time in the profession they may feel they would like to give the benefit of their experience to their students - and perhaps to other teachers too. 

Writing materials seems like a natural progression. But what is the best way for teachers to start writing their own materials? Should all teachers get involved? What guidelines are there, if any? And, by the way, what are the chances of getting such materials published and retiring on the royalties to a tropical island?


What do we mean by teaching materials?
Let us start by deciding what we mean by teaching materials. They come in all shapes and sizes depending on the situation and the intended audience and are not by any means restricted to just the printed page. However, generally speaking, we can identify three main types:
1) Supplementary classroom materials
2) In-house materials 
3) A published course

1) Supplementary materials are those which teachers produce for their own classes. They typically focus on one area of language, for example a difficult structure, a set of vocabulary items or a language sub-skill, such as reading for information. Rather than replace a traditional textbook, they are usually meant to go alongside it and fill in any gaps. 
2) In-house materials are materials written for and produced by an institution. They are extensive and usually cover a module or perhaps an entire course. Writing is often done by teachers writing in a team alongside a designer or production manager. An example of in-house material might be a basic writing module produced by teachers who feel that the writing skill is not sufficiently dealt with in the course book they are using.
3) A published course is produced through mainline educational publishers with one or more authors. Sometimes, authors approach publishers with ideas for textbooks, or increasingly, publishers decide there is a need for a certain type of course and recruit authors and others to develop the course. Published courses may occasionally develop from in-house materials.
 
We can also think of these three types of materials writing as ‘stages’ through which ELT writers might progress. 
 
Common myths
Before looking at the process of writing teaching materials, let us have a look at a few common myths about writing.
1.  Only experts can write teaching materials. Writing is such a skilled process that only a talented few should attempt it.
2. All experienced teachers can write good materials. The contradictory view. This assumption is often used by institutions to justify the formation of writing teams.
3. The writer is the most important part of a writing team. The writer is king (or queen) and his or her word is final. 
4. The more high-tech the design and production the better. The use of colour, illustrations, state of the art design, etc. results in better materials.
 
None of these statements is true, or at least they are only true in part, as will be argued in this article.
 
Who writes materials and why?
 Jolly and Bolitho (1998) believe that all teachers should have a ‘grounding’ in materials writing. By going through the writing process themselves they are able to evaluate published materials in a more informed way. In fact, most teachers do write their own supplementary materials at one time or another - and many produce them on a daily basis. They do this not only through immediate need, to plug a gap in the next lesson, but also through personal interest. Home produced materials can be motivational, not only for the teachers and also for the students – especially if the materials address a particular need and have clearly defined and limited objectives. They may not be as polished as published materials, but at least, we can argue, teachers know that the content and level are appropriate for their particular students. 
 
 However, if the writing is more extensive in scope, for example the development of in-house materials, we need to question if all teachers are able to produce good materials. We don’t, for example, expect actors to write their own plays, or pilots to design their own aircraft, so why should we expect teachers to be able to write courses? In practice, we see that different teachers have different talents. Some are excellent organisers or managers, others are good at nurturing newly qualified teachers and others excel in classroom innovation. But writing extensive courses, either in-house or for a wider market, is not for everyone. It requires particular skills and a certain aptitude.
 
What skills do material writers need?
First of all, let us look at the professional requirements for a good materials writer. What would their curriculum vitae look like? It should probably include:

 
More difficult to define are the personal qualities of writers. What aspects of personality could be considered helpful for prospective materials writers? They probably need to have at least some of the following attributes: 

 
The most important of these attributes is probably the last – the ability to persevere, almost to the point of obsession, in order to see a long (and sometimes tedious) project through to its conclusion. For some writers the most difficult aspect of writing in a team is dealing with criticism. Writers need to develop thick skins and to detach themselves from what they have written. They need to accept that an attack on the materials is not an attack on their whole being.

Most of all, writers, drawing on their classroom experience, need to be able to visualise how the materials will be used in the classroom – rather like a director might watch a rehearsal for a play to see the script come to life. The writer needs to see the printed page and in terms of ‘acts’ and ‘scenes’ (lessons and parts of lessons). What will be the roles of  the ‘actors’ (the teacher and the students) and what type of interaction will be generated between them?

Who makes up the writing team?
Most writers would naturally assume that they are the most important part of a writing team. After all, their name is usually the most prominent on the cover! But in truth a large writing team includes many players, many of whom we can consider to be at least equally important to the success of the writing project. They include:

 
If a course involves a number of writers working on different levels, then the key to the success of the course may well be the editor, as the diagram below shows. It is he or she who holds the course together and makes sure that the writers are following the syllabus and producing materials at the right level.

A/W Diagram as below.

Writing/production team: possible organisational structure
 
 
 

 
 
What format should materials follow?
There is, unfortunately, no manual for materials writing – no ‘how-to-assemble’ guides that we might get with, say, flat-pack furniture or a desk-top computer. Instead published materials reflect various trends in language teaching methodology (behaviourism, the direct method, the communicative approach, etc.), which vary over a period of time. Fashions, in ELT methodology as elsewhere, come and go. However, some researchers, such as Waters ( 2007), have expressed surprise at how little textbooks have changed over the last twenty years despite shifting academic trends. Analysing a number of current textbooks he identifies the following as being a typical unit structure: 

This structure, he points out, has changed little over the years – and is not far removed from the format of the traditional PPP lesson (presentation, practice, production).


For a more simple model we can strip the format right down to a basic INPUT -----  (A/W arrow) ---- OUTPUT model. Students receive some form of input (a reading or listening text, a dialogue, pictures, etc) which is usually followed by language/vocabulary/skills activity and analysis leading eventually to output ( e.g. a writing task). Hutchinson and Waters (1987) gave the following refined input-output model for their own ESP materials production (though it has wider application). The student output is defined in terms of a final task.


 
Models such as these are useful for those embarking on more extensive writing, but can also provide a framework for more limited, or supplementary, teaching materials.

Should I get involved – and how?
Few novice teachers will be asked to take part in a major writing project and plan the format of units. But for those who would like to start to develop their own supplementary materials, either through need or through professional interest (or both) here are a few guidelines:

1) It is important to focus on a particular language point or sub-skill - something in the course book that needs to be developed, or perhaps something that is missing altogether. For example, a worksheet could focus on an area of vocabulary such as ‘emotions’, or a reading sub-skill such as recognising topic sentences.
2) As a first step, model the materials on successful activities and exercises that you have used before, either from your current textbook or from others you are familiar with.
3) Use a clear, simple layout for your materials with plenty of white space. An overcrowded page is de-motivating for students. 
4) Don’t waste time on elaborate production techniques, even if you have access to them. If the materials are successful and are to be more widely distributed they can be redesigned at a later stage.
5) Check your materials carefully, preferably with a colleague, before using them in the classroom. Make sure there are no typing errors and that the activities can, in fact, be done.
6) Be prepared to revise, completely rewrite or even ditch your materials, depending on the classroom experience. Even if materials worked well it is a good idea to ‘refresh’ them before you use them again.
 
More experienced teachers with wider ambitions to work in writing teams or perhaps to publish their own courses, should consider the following:
1) Ask yourself if you have the personal and professional requirements (listed above) that make a good writer.
2) Study the market and see what publishers already have in their lists. Identify any gaps. Discuss any ideas with experienced colleagues to get their reactions.
3) Produce a proposal, consisting of a summary and perhaps a syllabus, of the course you have in mind. Include one or two sample units.

Should I give up my ‘day job’ - teaching?
Finally, it is important for a writer not to lose touch with teaching and students. The classroom is an enormous source of ideas for writing and it can give writers the motivation that they need to actually sit down and write materials. They may also be in a situation where they can try out various activities with classes, get feedback from students and other teachers or even pilot whole courses. 

On a more practical level, teachers who are potential writers should think twice before giving up their ‘day jobs’. As a financial venture a writing career is risky and teaching will provide a regular income – at least until you are ready to move to that tropical island!

References
Hutchinson, T and Waters, A   English for Specific Purposes  CUP 1987
Jolly, D and Bolitho, R    A Framework for Materials Writing in Tomlinson, B (ed.) Materials Development in Language Teaching,  CUP 1998
Waters, A  Materials Design: Bridging the Gap,  Paper given at the IATEFL Conference, Aberdeen   April 2007