Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

The Materials Writing Special Interest Group is the newest IATEFL SIG, and very active. They have a blog, a facebook page, and a Twitter account.

MaWSIG logo

Each SIG has a pre-conference event (PCE) with a specific theme. The MaWSIG theme this year was The Materials Writer’s Essential Toolkit and featured a whole range of speakers with huge amounts of experience between them. I’ve done a little materials writing myself, and thought this would be a very useful way to find out more about how to develop in this area, even if none of my materials end up being published. I’m very happy I chose to go to this PCE as it turned out to be incredibly useful, with lots of tips that I can start using straight away, and hopefully build on if and when I get more writing work.

How to write multiple-choice activities – Sue Kay

This was a very practical way to start the day. Sue offered us these tips:

  • Keep options of a similar length and style, preferably short and avoiding linkers – students should be spending time processing the text, not the question;
  • Keep distractors plausible – avoid humorous or silly options because they’re obviously wrong;
  • Don’t have any obviously incorrect answers;
  • Avoid any overlap between options;
  • Make sure questions can’t be answered using world knowledge or common sense;
  • If using an unfinished sentence as the stem, divide it in a logical place (e.g. not in the middle of a fixed expression).

Sue also advises writing the text and the multiple-choice items at the same time whenever possible, unless you have a text which you’re required to base your items on. It’s much more natural than writing the text first, then trying to shoehorn distractors in.

When writing distractors, here are a few techniques you can use:

  • Change the period of time using phrases like I used to…but now I… or Normally…but this time…
  • Compare the desire/hope/intention of the speaker to what actually happened: We planned to…, We thought about…
  • Use unreal past in conditionals or after ‘wish’: If the boss had given me a raise, I’d have stayed.
  • Use negatives or near negatives, especially less common ones: It’s not as if we’re desperate for a car park. or It’s hardly my idea of fun.

To find out more, Sue recommended two ELT Teacher2Writer books: How to Write Reading and Listening Activities by Caroline Krantz and How to Write Exam Practice Materials by Roy Norris.

The role of the image in materials design – Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones

Ben and Ceri shared lots of image banks and showed how the same search of ‘beach’ can yield very different results depending on where you search and the filters you use. Panos seemed particularly interesting. It’s a collection of photojournalism, often accompanied by short texts. Even if you don’t end up using the images themselves, they can provide inspiration for your writing as they are a lot more generative than stock photos. Other image banks are:

Unsplash is a Creative Commons image bank where you can use the images for any purpose, including commercial. They share 10 free images a week. Another option is Death to the Stock Photo. For non-commercial use, there is of course ELTpics, and there are lots of ideas for how to use those images on the Take A Photo And… blog.

On Alamy you can set filters to look for certain kinds of image. For example, if you choose ‘square’ you’ll end up with Instagam influenced shots. As a materials writer, you may have to write an artwork brief to tell publishers what to put with your materials. By experimenting with filters, and telling publishers what you DON’T want, the image is much more likely to be what you’re looking for. Don’t get your heart set an image though, and remember that there is a budget.

Other tips for writing an artwork brief:

  • Consider including sample images you’ve sourced – this can be clearer than describing the image;
  • Explain how the image will be work/be used in the materials, not just what it looks like;
  • If you know what you want, but can’t find an example, describe it in as much detail as you can to make it more likely that the final result is what you envisaged.

We may also need to move away from the traditional image and consider modern types of image such as the selfie, infographics, dronies (new to me!), panodash, Dear Photograph, Draw My Life, memes and kinetic typography. With these, they may be hard to sell to publishers, and they may go out of fashion. To stay up-to-date with images, try these ideas:

  • look out for images being used in adverts, etc;
  • subscribe to adweek for the top 5 commercials every week;
  • follow accounts like @nytimesphoto on Twitter;
  • subscribe to Unsplash for weekly emails with taster images;
  • [my addition: download the Guardian app for images from Eyewitness]

Images have four roles in materials:

  • scene-setting
  • illustrative
  • decorative
  • driving force

When choosing your image, consider which role it will play and choose accordingly. For example, CAE images tend to be mid-shot (rather than close up) so you can see the surroundings too.

Find out more at Ben Goldstein’s blog and Ceri Jones’ blog.

A technological toolkit for Materials Writers – Nick Tims

I learnt  a lot of useful tips here!

  • Use multiple monitors so you don’t have to flick between screens too much. (I’m doing this for the first time as a I finish this blogpost!)
  • Get browser extensions to save you time and reduce clicks.
  • Link shorteners (like bit.ly) make huge links to Google Images (for those artwork briefs!) much more manageable.
  • Use ‘Grab’ for Mac or ‘Snipping tool’ on Windows to take partial screen shots instead of copying and pasting things into Paint or other cropping tools.
  • Create custom search engines in Chrome. Go to any site with a search box, right click the search box, add as search engine, create a keyword and you can use that search that site directly from the address bar. It took me about 10 seconds when I just tried it – amazing!
  • Use Evernote to archive texts you find for future materials writing. It appears in Google searches you do later too. (I use diigo which does something similar, although Evernote is more elegant and has a much better app)
  • Macros are ways of using one click to do a series of actions. You can download a whole set of macros from Teacher’s Pet to do things like automatically create matching activites, making activity and worksheet creation much faster. This got a round of applause and a collective gasp from the audience! (Unfortunately there are only versions for Microsoft for Windows and Open Office, but no Mac version – it’s a work in progress according the developer.)
  • StayFocusd is a browser extension you can use to limit the time you spend on particular sites in a single day. Don’t be over-enthusiatic though, because you really can’t get round it!
  • The Pomodoro technique can make you manage distractions. It involves 25 minutes of work, followed by 5 minutes of ‘reward’. That’s also good for getting you to move around. You can download browser extensions to help you with the timing.
  • RescueTime sends you a report at the end of each week telling you how much time you spent on useful/distracting websites. Can be a bit depressing, and Nick says he never gets more than 70% productivity 😉

Nick says that you need to experiment with these tools, and you may need to ‘kiss a few frogs’ in the process of finding what works for you. Here is his handout.

Writing ELT audio and video scripts – John Hughes

John showed us ways of improving our scripts to make them more interesting and add a little drama to them.

To add authenticity, you can record people in real situations. Interesting bits of language come up in this way that you might never consider if you are trying to write things yourself. However, this can be time consuming: from half a day of recording, John only got five minutes of usable audio.

You can also add features such as fillers, false starts, contracted forms, slang and more. This may depend on the publisher and the purpose of the materials (developing language or developing listening skills?), as some markets are resistant to this and prefer the more ‘polished’ nature of traditonal coursebook audio. One audience member mentioned the difference between spoken and written grammar, and there was some discussion of the fact that spoken grammar has only recently started to appear in published materials.

Target language needs to be balanced with incidental language.

Increase the amount of turn-taking to make audio more manageable for students, particularly at lower levels.

Stick to a limited number of speakers, and differentiate them through accent, gender and use of names to help SS follow the turn-taking.

Video helps you to show context, whereas you need to set up the situation more clearly if you’re writing an audio script. With video, don’t state the obvious. Show, don’t tell.

To add drama to your scripts, we can learn from Kurt Vonnegut. He said that in a good story you need to have a clear central character who wants something. You can then add drama by applying the ‘try it three times’ rule. The first two times the character fails to get what they want, but on the third attempt they succeed. This can give you more opportunities to showcase the target language, and in a more natural way than a short two or three line dialogue might. It also gives you the opportunity to add characterisation.

The final idea was to video the same scene twice, once running smoothly, and the second with the ‘try it three times’ rule. Students can watch both and compare the difference.

John has many ideas for writing materials on his blog, and has written a book about writing audio and video scripts for ELT Teacher2Writer. Here are his slides from the presentation.

Writing ELT activites for authentic video and film – Kieran Donaghy and Anna Whitcher

Kieran is the man behind the very successful Film English website on which the majority of the videos have little or no dialogue. He’s particularly interested in exploiting images used in film. Anna is an ELT film-maker, and her opening quote was that there is an increased demand for authors who can write for video, film-makers and script-writers, so this is definitely an area to develop your skills in if you want to get into materials writing. Together they’ve written a book for ELT Teacher2Writer including many more ideas than those below.

Videos need to be consciously integrated into course material, rather than used as an add-on or as glorified listening comprehension. It particularly needs to match the topic, with a language fit as secondary. To aid comprehension, follow these guidelines:

  • Use dialogue which is clearly enunciated and not too fast.
  • Include a high degree of visual support.
  • Ensure the soundtrack is not too loud or distracting.
  • Have only one person or character speaking at a time.
  • Include supporting, titles, subtitles or graphics.
  • Reduce the number of dialects and/or strong regional accents.
  • Use a slow, clear voiceover or narration.

Keep videos to 2-5 minutes to hold the attention, and make repeat viewings easier to fit in. Try to use different activities for each viewing. When choosing a video, consider the relevance and interest of the topic, the cultural backgrounds of your students, and their experience of the world. You can also ask your students about the kinds of videos they enjoy watching. Vimeo Staff Picks, Future Shorts, BBC Earth and National Geographic are good places to look for videos.

Once you’ve chosen one, follow a three-step approach to exploit it. Editors often recommend the structure and/or the kind of activities they would like you to use, and you should ask if they don’t.

  1. Pre-viewing
    e.g. Look at the stills and have a discussion/complete the sentences with the missing words. (could be used to pre-teach vocabulary)
    Match collocations.
    Complete a summary/review.
  2. While viewing
    Don’t overload the students at this stage – stick to short answer tasks like true/false or ‘Number the sentences in the order you hear them’. The answers should be from the video, not from their knowledge of the world. Ask questions in the same order as they are in the video, and spread them evenly throughout.
  3. Post viewing
    Draw out the key concepts of the video in some way, for example through a discussion or a longer project. Students could also make their own version of the video or a follow-up to it.

Does a corpus have the answer? Corpus tools for ELT writers – Julie Moore

Julie started by telling us that she can’t imagine writing materials without a corpus, and once she told us the range of things she uses it for, I’m not surprised!

  • Ask questions like ‘How do we use…?’ ‘Do we say…?’ ‘Which is the most common…?’ ‘What’s the difference between…?’
  • Find natural examples.
  • Get inspiration for the context you introduce language in.
  • Search for collocations. Once you’ve found that a collocate exists, click through to read examples.
  • Expand the range of words which you collocate with a key word.
  • Check your intuitions.
  • Find phrases and chunks of language.
  • Do a ‘context search’ to find words around the key word, accounting for variable collocations or ones which might have other words in the middle of them.
  • Examine British/American/global English variations.

Corpora can’t do everything though. They’re not good for:

  • Searching for language features that don’t involve specific language chunks, e.g. present continuous to talk about the future.
  • Getting longer stretches of complete texts – these are still subject to copyright. This also makes it difficult to use corpus examples for things like discourse markers which require longer texts.

SketchEngine is a good tool for searching within corpora. Know your corpus! Think about British v. American English, the kind of texts used to build the corpus (e.g. newspapers, stories, academic journals…), spoken v. written language, expert v. student writers… Choose a corpus based on the text types your students will have to produce. Here are some ways you can access a corpus:

Ways of accessing a corpus

Other useful tools you can use to analyse language are Vocab Kitchen (breaks down the language in a text by level), Google NGram Viewer (showing changes in language use over time) and the Macmillan Online Dictionary. Dictionaries with CD-ROMs in them are particularly useful because of the advanced search tools which are often available on them. Julie has put more information about using these tools on her blog.

Finally, don’t accept everything the corpus tells you blindly. If it looks like a strange result, question it. Go deeper by clicking on the results to see the longer text, and look carefully at where the examples are taken from.

Tailor-making materials from an ESP perspective – Evan Frendo

Evan works mainly in the corporate sector, and has spent many years developing materials specific to his clients.

Corporate culture can influence the materials you make as you need to fit them into the training culture of the organisation. The needs of the business take priority over the needs of the individual students, and the focus is more on training than education. Materials tend to have a short shelf-life and may need to be frequently updated depending on the market. When creating tailor-made materials, you don’t need to worry so much about PARSNIPs (the topics which are often avoided in more commercial materials) providing the people you are creating the materials for are happy for them to be included. However, sometimes even in ESP they can cause problems. Evan was asked to use the longer term not the shorter term in some materials for oil workers (see photo below), even though ‘pig’ is a very generative term and is in common usage across the industry, including in the Middle East: Have you pigged the pipeline? Is the pipeline piggable?

When designing your own materials in these situations, you need to find the gap between ‘where they are now’ and ‘where they need to be’, then create materials to move the students from the first point to(wards) the second. This involves in-depth needs analysis which can be done through:

  • Analysing real texts that the students will need to be able to read/write. Tools like WordSmith can be useful here.
  • Finding out about the specific terminology students need, and what they are aware of already. Many of these may be well above their ‘level’ if they were in a traditional EFL environment.
  • Interviews with various stakeholders, not just the students and their managers.
  • Recordings (e.g. of meetings, telephone conversations).
  • Field notes (e.g. a day in the life of…, collected by shadowing somebody using the target language/doing the target job).

The materials you put together need to reflect the target discourse, which is why such in-depth research is vital. It shouldn’t be about what we as outsiders perceive to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather what is required within the organisation/industry you are creating the materials for. Genre is a key focus, including how to handle different/international understandings of those genres. For example, presentations may be done differently in different cultures, and there may be varying requirements for the amount of information included on slides depending on what they will be used for after the presentation. Use experts to tell you what counts as “successful communication”.

Communication style can be as important, if not more so, as lexis and grammar. Many learners don’t care about accuracy in the traditional sense, they care about meaning. They are often not aiming or a native speaker model, with English as a Lingua Franca becoming instead.

Ultimately, the materials you create must be evidence-led, not intuition-led.

Adventures in self-publishing – Christien Lee

What should you self-publish?

Something which fills a gap in the market, has good sales potential and where there is limited competition. Do your research! Christien decided to publish a print self-study guide for an English test in Canada, with an online component.

Print or e-book?

What are your audience likely to respond better to? Print can be considered more trustworthy, and for some people they prefer it because they’re more familiar with it. It can reduce the ease of pirate copies being distributed. Cost is also a factor here, as you need to spend more money up-front if you choose print.

Why self-publish?

Traditional publishers offer more cachet, better production values, no up-front costs, and you should get either commission or royalties. However, there is no guarantee of publication, it takes a long time to get products to market, you get less money and there is a delay in payment. Sales might also be quite low depending on how much the publishers choose to promote it.

Self-publishing means guaranteed publication, a short publication process and returns of up to 70% of sales. The disadvantages of it are that there is no guarantee of a return on your investment, and you may lose money due to upfront costs. There is also more work pre- and post-publication if you choose to self-publish.

How do you go about it?

You can use crowdsourcing, freelancers, friendsourcing (my favourite new word of the day!) or go it completely alone. The latter option is difficult as you need to deal with editing, layout, audio (maybe) and many other options, so it’s a good idea to look for specialists to avoid too much work for you. VoiceBunny is a tool you can use for audio: post a project on the site, and people can audition to be allowed to record for it.

Where should you publish it?

Amazon has a system called CreateSpace which is a print-on-demand service. You could also use book distribution systems like Draft2Digital, Lulu or Smashwords. Wayzgoose Press is a publisher which is somewhere between a traditional publisher and self-publishing. The Round is specifically aimed at ELT authors looking to publish something a little different from what traditional publishers offer.

Ensuring quality

Christien was putting together a test preparation book. When putting together something like this, it’s particularly important to provide a quality product. Questions need to match the original test for length, genre, register, topic, difficulty, distractor patterns and more. Here are some tools you can use to check that your material is at the right level:

Developing online content

If you decide to create online content to accompany your book, WordPress with premium options is a good choice as you can get features like a login-only area and a shopping cart. Articulate is a versatile tool for creating professional-looking online courses. Christien described it as ‘like PowerPoint on steroids’!

Problems with self-publishing

It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time, money and work involved in self-publishing. Be prepared for everything to take longer than you expect!

Other summaries of the day

Lizzie Pinard wrote four blogposts covering two talks in each:

Olga Sergeeva has summarised the whole day in one post.

Christina Rebuffet-Broadus writes beautiful SketchNotes of the talks she goes to, and the MaWSIG PCE was no different:

Finally, if you want to follow the day as it unfolded, Sophie O’Rourke, part of the MaWSIG team, put together a Storify with tweets from the whole event.

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Comments on: "IATEFL Manchester 2015 MaWSIG Pre-Conference Event" (6)

  1. Thank you Sandy for this comprehensive guide to Materials writing. The wealth of ideas and digital tools shared by the presenters are of value to ELT practitioners in other fields too.

    Great write up.

    Jane

    Like

  2. Excellent summary Sandy. Thanks for doing it!

    Like

  3. What a fantastic summary, Sandy! Thanks a lot.

    Like

  4. […] They run a blog which features a new post every month from members of MaWSIG. I think I’m the least experienced writer to feature on there so far 🙂 It’s a real pleasure to be asked to join in with what I have already found to be a very useful blog from a very useful SIG! […]

    Like

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