What I think I know about materials writing (IATEFL Belfast 2022)

This is something of a companion piece to my IATEFL 2021 talk, What I’ve learnt about teacher training this year. This is the abstract for the talk:

Over the years, I’ve attended many Materials Writing talks at IATEFL. I’ve been involved in producing materials for my classroom, for publishers and for self-publishing. I’ve also recently completed the NILE MA Materials Development module, meaning I’ve been able to add more theory to my practical experience of materials writing. This session brings together what I’ve learnt in the process.

These are the slides from the presentation:

Background

Like many teachers, I did my first materials writing in my early lessons, creating materials for my classroom. These were of somewhat mixed quality and resulted in lessons of somewhat mixed quality. With trial, error and student feedback I improved, but it definitely helped to get external input.

The first professional materials writing I did was for OUP, creating model texts for online content. Through this and other writing work, I received feedback on what I was producing and was pushed to improve the quality of my writing and/or to move it closer to the brief I had been given. I also got feedback on my writing from the editors I worked with on my self-published books, and informal feedback through materials I posted on my blog.

I’ve followed the IATEFL Materials Writing Special Interest Group (MaWSIG) since it was first created in 2013, attended many materials writing talks at IATEFL and online, and read MaWSIG blog posts. Here are links to my summaries of IATEFL talks related to materials writing:

In 2021, I started the NILE MA Materials Development module. This gave me more of a theoretical grounding in materials writing, both through the sessions I attended during the course and through the two assignments I wrote. Please note: this talk is not endorsed by NILE. The MA module just provided some of the input for me to reflect on.

The ideas in this talk are a distillation of some of the things I’ve learnt during this process. They’re not intended to be new or innovative, but hopefully there will be something useful in there for you.

Evaluating materials and using checklists

Looking at other people’s materials is a useful starting point for your own materials writing. By deciding what should and shouldn’t be on a checklist, then using it to analyse existing materials, it helps you to consider what makes materials work or not. You could use a similar checklist after you’ve written your materials to see what you might need to change.

As part of the MA, we learnt about different approaches to writing evaluation checklists, and through this process I thought a lot about my own materials writing. Here is the checklist I compiled for my assignment.

As part of my work as a Director of Studies, I had to guide the selection of coursebooks used at our school. I had never received any training in how to do this, so it was mostly a process of trial and error. Over time we built up a list of characteristics that we knew we needed to look for in the books we would use, but it would have been a lot easier to create a checklist to guide our selection.

Tips for writing a materials checklist

  • Define your context. Who are the students? Years of learning? Level? Purpose for the lessons? Educational background? Who is the teacher? Experience level? Subject knowledge? What is the lesson format? Online / face-to-face / blended? Lesson length? Course length? Without knowing the context, the materials evaluation will be generic. The context can make a real difference to which criteria are important to include.
  • Start with a list of ideas of what you think would make effective materials for this context. These ideas could (and probably will!) be guided by principles you believe (see below). Turn your ideas into questions. I found ‘To what extent…?’ to be a useful framing device.
  • Ensure each point is discrete / there are no overlaps.
  • Think about how many criteria it’s appropriate to use. I used 25 to analyse a full coursebook unit, which I found covered all the areas I thought were important, but remained quite quick to complete.
  • Use a scoring system. I scored each criterion 0-4: 0 = not at all, 1 = just barely, 2 = to some extent, 3 = to a large extent, 4 = to the greatest extent.
  • Add weighting to show which criteria are more / less important/desirable. I used 1-3: 1 = desired, 2 = preferred, 3 = essential.
  • Grouping the criteria into categories can help you to check for overlaps / missing criteria. It allows you to have sub-totals for different sections if you use a scoring system, and to compare different materials.
  • Include space for comments so you can make notes to back up your scores.
  • Collaborate with others during the process: when deciding on what to include, when weighting criteria, when editing the checklist, when using it.

Resources for writing checklists

There are examples of checklists and advice for creating them available in various materials writing methodology books and journal articles. You may need to have a subscription to access the journal articles. These are ones I found useful:

  • Cunningsworth, A. (1995) Choosing your coursebook, Macmillan. [Amazon affiliate link]
  • Gearing, K. (1999) ‘Helping less-experienced teachers of English to evaluate teachers’ guides’. ELT Journal, April, 53(2), pp. 122-157.
  • Hutchinson, T. (1987) ‘What’s underneath?: an interactive view of materials evaluation’ in Sheldon (ed.) ELT Textbooks and Materials – Problems in Evaluation and Development, British Council, pp. 37-44.
  • McGrath, I. (2016) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching, 2nd edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. [Amazon affiliate link]
  • Mukundan, J. and Ahour, T. (2010) ‘A Review of Textbook Evaluation Checklists across Four Decades (1970-2008)’ in Tomlinson, B. and Masuhara, H. (eds.) Research for Materials Development in Language Learning: Evidence for best practice. London: Continuum, pp.336-352. [Amazon affiliate link]
  • Sheldon, L. E. (1988) ‘Evaluating ELT textbooks and materials’. ELT Journal, October, 42(4), pp. 237-246.
  • Williams, D. (1983) ‘Developing criteria for textbook evaluation’ ELT Journal, July, 37 (3), pp251-255.

You can see a summary of some of MA notes related to checklists in this post.

Principles and materials writing

Discovering your principles

I first came across the idea of considering your principles when approaching materials writing in Jill Hadfield’s talk at IATEFL Manchester 2015. She wrote a journal while writing a set of materials, then used this to put together a list of ‘framing principles’ to guide her future materials writing. Here are some of them:

Mishan and Timmis (2015:1) define principled materials development as follows:

Materials development which takes into account current practice, but goes beyond it to consult first principles drawn from second language acquisition (SLA) and language teaching theory.

Materials Development for TESOL, Freda Mishan and Ivor Timmis, Edinburgh Textbooks in TESOL [Amazon affiliate link]

This could sound quite complicated or difficult to achieve if you don’t have much of a background in this theory, but it is actually easier to consider than it might seem. You could start with a list of what you believe makes effective materials, perhaps supported by prior evaluation of materials (see above). This was the list I compiled when I started my MA materials evaluation assignment:

  • Materials should engage the learners’ interest through the choice of topics, and maintain it through varied activities.
  • Developing positive group dynamics are a key factor in effective teaching.
  • Materials should train learners to be better listeners and readers, not just test their abilities.
  • Materials should provide plenty of opportunities for learners to speak and write, as well as support to help them do so.
  • Materials should help learners to become more autonomous.
  • Language work should not be purely grammar focussed. It should also include work on lexis, including lexical chunks, on pronunciation, and on functional language to improve the quality of learner discourse.
  • New teachers need and guidance support with their teaching.
  • Materials should be inclusive and accessible to all. Learners should see themselves represented in the materials they use.

Chapter 2 of the Mishan and Timmis book includes a selection of key points which might help you to incorporate SLA and theory into your principles.

You can see more detailed examples of some of the beliefs I considered during my MA module and my thinking behind them in these three posts: week one, week two, week three.

How to use your principles

Once you have a list of principles, you can refer to these regularly.

Before you start designing something, remind yourself of your principles. Is there anything key to this context which you might also need to consider? Are any of the principles not relevant in this context? If it’s for somebody else, will the project require you to ignore some or all of your principles, and if so, do you still want to commit to it?

As you design, look at your principles occasionally. Are you sticking to them? Are there any which are hard for you to follow? Is there anything you could do or anybody you could speak to in order to change your approach to the writing to be able to stick more closely to your principles?

As you proofread and edit, use the principles as a checklist. Is there anything you’ve forgotten to include / pay attention to in the writing process?

Stakeholders in materials writing

When you’re in the middle of writing materials, it can be easy to get caught up in making them exactly how you want them to be. It’s important to stop occasionally and consider the other stakeholders in the process.

The user

Ultimately, the materials have to be suitable for the user. This might be the learner, the trainee, or the teacher. Put yourself into the position of each potential user and ask yourself:

  • How easy is this for me to understand?
  • Do I have all of the information I need to make the most of these materials?

The editor

Please, please, please have somebody edit your work. This can make a huge difference to the quality of what you produce! It certainly did with my books.

I’ve learnt a lot from attending talks by and working with Penny Hands, editor extraordinaire. At the 2021 MaWSIG PCE, Penny talked about different roles an editor might have (see the final section of the post). When working with an editor, make sure you’re clear about which role(s) you’d like them to fulfil: whether you’d like them to focus on copy editing or proofreading. It can be easier to do these in two separate cycles. Before you send it off, read the manuscript again yourself with your ‘copy editor’ or ‘proofreader’ hat on, and try to resolve at least some of the problems. If you’re self-publishing, this saves you money too!

When you get edited work back, it can sometimes feel a bit depressing. You’ve put so much work into producing the materials, and now you find there are lots of things you need to change. Remember that the editor will only comment on things which should improve the end product. If they’re materials for your own classroom, it could make the difference between a lesson which works and one where the learners have no idea what’s going on. If you self-publish, it’s up to you whether you take the editor’s advice (in 99% of cases, I would!) If you’re working for a publisher, the editor will be helping you to meet the brief. In all of these cases, feel free to spend a few minutes being sad about the work you put in, but then let go and make the changes. The final product will be better for it!

Designers

If you’re working with a designer, learn how to write an artwork brief. Ceri Jones and Ben Goldstein included advice on this in their IATEFL 2015 MaWSIG PCE talk (the second one in the post).

If you’re self-publishing, keep the design as simple as possible. You’ll thank me when you have to reformat it for different platforms!

Layout

Some very simple tweaks can make a big difference to how easy it is to navigate your materials. These are the ones I most commonly suggest to people:

  • Number exercises and questions within exercises.
  • Use a different font for rubrics. Having rubrics in bold / on a different coloured background can also differentiate them.
  • Add spacing before / after exercises and questions.
  • Use lines and / or boxes to separate sections on the page.
  • Use tables rather than text boxes to organise a word-processed document – they’re much easier to manage the layout of. You can remove the border of the table if you don’t want it to be visible.
  • Use page breaks and section breaks to create new parts to your document, rather than pressing enter lots of times. The exercise will always stay on a new page, regardless of how much you add above it.
  • Use ‘styles’, including Headings, to create a consistent layout across your document. Having headings also allows you to use the navigation pane to move around your document quickly and easily. [Note that some publishers prefer you not to use these as it can interfere with the design stage of materials production.]

If you’re not sure how to do any of these things, do a search for the relevant topic and there are normally accessible written and video tutorials for them e.g. ‘use a table in Microsoft Word’ or ‘page breaks in Google Docs’.

Many of these changes could make a big difference to learners with SEN and how easy it is to navigate your materials.

Inclusivity

Think about who is represented within your materials and how. Can the target users ‘see’ themselves in the materials?

  • What names have you used?
  • Is everybody the same colour? Gender? Body type? Age?
  • What kind of things are the people doing?
  • Who are they with?

Ceri Jones and Ben Goldstein included different sources for images IATEFL 2015 MaWSIG PCE talk (the second one in the post).

Other useful resources

Two very common activity types are gapfills and multiple-choice. These talks helped me to improve the quality of these activities and avoid some of the pitfalls.

The ELT Teacher2Writer books are a goldmine of useful information, covering a wide range of different materials writing topics. If you can only afford one, I recommend How To Write Excellent ELT Materials: The Skills Series which is 6 books in one: [Amazon affiliate link]

ETpedia Materials Writing is a one-stop shop of 500 ideas to help you with your materials writing. [Amazon affiliate link] Pavilion often have a discount on it, including during the IATEFL conference.

Over to you!

Was anything here particularly new or interesting to you here?

What tips would you add to the list?

Which resources have you found particular useful in your own materials writing?

7 thoughts on “What I think I know about materials writing (IATEFL Belfast 2022)

  1. Sandy, you’re a machine! When have you got the time to present and write all those blogs?😳 Thank you so much for your hard work. I’ll be coming back to your checklist to improve my materials writing.

    Like

    1. thanks alot Sandymillin I have gotten so usefull guide and benefit.
      Iam in Afghanistan i teach english in a high school you guide me so nice

      Like

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