This is the first year that the annual IATEFL conference was run fully online. Pre-conference events (PCEs) were run at different times depending on the Special Interest Group (SIG). The Materials Writing SIG PCE was the day before the main conference, on 18th June 2021, and was run via Zoom. This meant we had the opportunity to hop around breakout rooms for a little networking at certain points in the day.
These are my summaries of the talks I saw. There were so many useful things in there, from the perspective of writing, design, freelancing, mental health, editing, and lots more useful little tips.
Covert syllabuses: How to avoid them, how to include them – Jill Hadfield
What is a covert syllabus?
Jill’s definition is:
Usually used with a negative connotation: ‘the unwritten, unofficial and often unintentded lessons, values, and perspectives that students learn in school’ from http://edglossary.org/hidden-curriculum/
First example: from a Ladybird series called ‘Peter and Jane’, used to help 1960s children learn to read. The example was Jane helping mummy to make cakes for daddy and Peter. The covert syllabus is helping (desirable) and the other is females doing the domestic/cookery work.
Second example: A book from the 1970s showing a man being drunk at 3 in the morning, then coming home and being spoken to by his wife: You’ve been drinking whisky. Only one, dear. You’ve been smoking cigarettes. Only one, dear. You’ve been kissing girls. Only one, dear. Another covert syllabus: that this is acceptable behaviour and acceptable reaction to it [my interpretation of it].
Third example: An English coursebook from 1978 with a discussion of Steve and Anne. Anne uses a new shampoo which makes her hair soft and shiny, and therefore Steve likes her. Covert syllabi: Men are shallow. Women need to be attractive to be liked.
I think you get the idea!
They’re not just a thing of the past though – they’re everywhere, and something we should be aware of.
Undesirable and desirable covert syllabuses
Some examples now are consumerism, everyone can afford holidays, heteronormativity, lots of stereotypical images (though some of these are thankfully starting to change).
They can be desirable too though: confidence, self-believe, sustainability, awareness of others and the environment, empathy, non-stereotypical roles and images.
There can also be a covert syllabus by omission, for example by avoiding PARSNIPs:
One question is who decides what is ‘desirable’ – that could be biased and highly culturally specific.
Jill’s first use of a covert syllabus was to include cognitive activities to raise awareness of aspects of learning in a group and affective activities, which had an overt language learning aim, Classroom Dynamics. The teacher is covertly building group dynamics while overtly working on language. So why should this be covert? Teachers have a busy syllabus so there might not be time for separate activities, but also it seems somewhat counter-productive to start that’s why you’re doing an activity.
Using checklists and self-evaluation to avoid undesirable content
- Be aware of possible undesirable agendas: regarding pictures, task types, topics.
- Be aware of your own possible bias, e.g. topics you like, depth vs ‘the unbearable lightness of ELT’ (Scott Thornbury), ‘core energies’: Jill’s term for the forces that drive a writer and give colour to their writing making them unique – for example Jill’s are affect, creativity and play.
[I missed a little of this!] Core energies should be grounded in theory/knowledge, though they are are based at the level of passion. Passion may lead you astray though – they could lead to bias. Will it appeal to all of the students you are writing for? Writing with a partner or a team can lead to a balance of core energies.
- Checklists to ensure coverage, variety and lack of bias. For example
- Ensure there is a variety of activity types, and that you haven’t been led in a single-minded direction by your ‘core energies’. Another checklist:
Modality: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, tactile
Grouping: self/intrapersonal, other/interpersonal
Structure: single-minded (e.g. competitive), co-operative
Reaction time: immediate/reflective
Mood: serious, playful
Outcome: open-ended, closed task
All in a grid against: Thinking/Feeling/Creative/Practical
[note: This looks useful for my materials writing MA module 🙂 ]
She published it in RELC Regional English Language Journal 37 – Teacher Education and Trainee Learning Style
Changing any factor from this grid creates a different kind of activity.
- Build in positive checklists for yourself, based on what you created at the start.
As materials writers we need to have strategies in place to guard against unintentional bias and undesirable covert syllabuses creeping into our work, and also plan to include desirable covert syllabuses.
Side note: Jill’s latest book (with Lindsay Clandfield) is Interaction Online [Amazon affiliate link].
50 ways to avoid gap-fill fatigue – John Hughes
(There might not be 50!)
A definition of gapfills by Scott Thornbury (because as John says, no ELT presentation is complete without a quote from Scott!):
John visited the ELT archive at the University of Warwick. He searched for the earliest examples of gapfills he could find: C. E. Eckersley: A concise English grammar for foreign students from 1933. Low level gapfill with is, are, has, have, was, were, but vocab like congregration, and herd of cattle!
Here are some of the methods of avoiding gap-fill fatigue which John shared:
- An activity from Simon Greenall: You walk into school. The DoS says a teacher is off and you need to teach their group in 3 minutes. A simple solution: find the last reading or listening task the students used in the book. Copy it and fold it up. Cut it up in a similar way you might to a snowflake. Instant gapfill! That gives you 15 minutes of your cover lesson at least! It’s interesting because it’s not just words missing, but letters and bits of letters.
- Divide the group by birthdays. First half of the year: why is it a good thing? Second half of the year: why is a bad thing?
- Gapfills can be visual too: what is in the picture? Not just sentences with gaps.
- Gaps can have a broader definition too: information gaps, opinion gaps. Gap-fills aren’t just removing a word – there’s an art to it too!
- Pesonalisation by finishing a sentence stem (John found the first example of these in Streamline in 1975.
- Technology means we’re writing more gaps than ever. John showed Lyrics Training and Quizlet Gravity. They allow us to add tweaks like time pressure.
- In 2006, John wrote an article for English Teaching Professional called ‘Over to you: Gap-fills’ as a checklist of different kinds of gap-fill. There are 20 ideas on there.
- Potential problem 1: all first person – ‘I’ sentences. Mix up the subjects.
- Potential problem 2: all positives, no negatives or questions.
- Potential problem 3: no numbering for the answer key or classroom management.
- Potential problem 4: no context or very loose, creating gap-fill fatigue. Can connect them together into a single text.
- Potential problem 5: no example completed for students to scaffold the instructions.
- Potential problem 6: no sub-heading or title to guide students on the page.
- Potential problem 7: a rubric which is more complicated than the task. Break them down.
- Potential problem 8: the questions are all closed and impersonal. Introduce a couple of examples at the end for the opportunity for personalisation, e.g. creating two extra questions for other students to complete.
- Remember that the idea of a gap-fill can be quite hard to read for learners. Jon Hird recommends putting the verb in brackets before the gap to reduce the amount of cognitive processing needed. This is especially useful for learners with dyslexia. There’s an interview with John and Jon is here.
- You can read more about making materials dyslexia friendly in Jon Hird’s MaWSIG blogpost.
- MadLibs are a fun variant on gapfills. Students put their words into the gaps, then decide which words sound right and which ones they need to change to make it more logical.
- Make gapfills communicative using information gaps, for example information about the members of a family tree – not just the names, but ideas like hobbies.
- Crosswords, and half a crossword.
- Information gap of different kinds of pictures: spot the difference (classic ‘what’s in your fridge?’) but also the idea of time shifts, like an updated fairytale.
- Making them student-centred: get students to write their own gapfills. For example, they have 5 sentences with furniture to choose from a box. Then they are given 5 more words which they write their own sentences for – the students are far more likely to remember those words than the first 5.
- Making them memorable: give a gapfill with the same text students have already seen. Gradually remove the words over a series of lessons, and students are likely to memorise structures and key phrases – John gave the example of presentation phrases.
John does teacher training connected to materials writing if you’d like more tips. There’s a lot of information on his excellent blog too.
Scope and sequence design: A top-down or grassroots approach? – Frances Amrani
This talk is based on Frances’ own thoughts and opinions – it’s not meant to be definitive.
Scope and sequence: a definition
Interrelated concepts that refer to the overall organization of the curriculum in order to ensure its coherence and continuity.
Scope refers to the breadth and depth of content and skills to be covered.
Sequence refers to how these skills and content are ordered and presented to learners over time.Definition from International Bureau of Education, UNESCO
Scope and sequence in ELT
Typically the map of the book:
Top down scope and sequence
Publishers typically see new books as a hole to fill in their list of books – a top down approach. This means the scope and sequence might be prescriptive, for example:
- Using CEFR Can do statements
- English Profile – graded vocab and grammar
- Topic lists, for example from exam topics
- Exam syllabus mapping
- Meeting requirements of the National Curriculum defined by ministries
- 21st century skills
- Competitors’ products – differentiation or cloning of them
- Influenced by market expectations and what sales tell the publisher is needed
This results in:
- Matrix-driven writing
- Predictable content
- A risk that it limits personalisation
- A risk of it being too generic or too specific (for a very narrow market)
- A risk that it may not match students’ real needs, only perceived needs
- Can be seen as a big boring
- May be seen to guarantee an expectation of ‘standards’ – a known quantity for standardisation, and adding a comfort level. It can make coursebooks interchangeable
- Similar products, but every publisher still needs to find a USP (Unique Selling Point)
The author may see writing a book a bit like designing a garden, considering all of the exciting elements of the project. They’re putting all of their efforts into one special project a season. The outcome is more personal and needs to be creative. The aim is a less prescriptive syllabus as the author wants to make it special.
This results in:
- No pre-determined scheme of work from the author
- A risk of a pick and mix / scattergun outcome – not thinking about the task or topic in a holistic way
- Enabling personalisation
- Supports differentiation (for levels, different interests, different abilities)
- Can address a real learning need
- Creative and exciting content
- Something which is ‘seen as’ hard to sell, and therefore risky
- Making you think beyond ELT
The reality of current ELT publishing
Very few unsolicited ideas are published these days. Most are commissioned and there is often a tendering process with samples conforming to the brief. Most of the scope and syllabus is top down and there’s not much scope for creativity and grassroots materials. Small publishers might be more likely to take a risk.
Here are examples of grassroots projects and materials from the past which might not get published today:
- Mario Rinvolucri using psychology materials and unorthodox humanistic activities – he might be able to do that still, but aspiring authors might find that a lot harder.
- Hancock McDonald Pronunciation – too niche for big publishing houses now
- Penny Ur’s problem-solving activities e.g. zoo layout in Discussions that work
- Richard Cauldwell’s pronunciation projects
These would all have to jump through a lot of hoops nowadays and therefore be less likely to be published.
Jill Hadfield reminded us that you can right resource books on any topic you want, but Frances mentioned that because the market is very small publishers are publishing a lot fewer resource books.
Tensions and finding the sweet spot between top-down and grassroots
There’s a tension between wanting to be innovative and wanting to conform. Frances believes there’s a sweet spot in between. How do you find it?
Commercially viable i.e. checks all the boxes
Yet fresh and new:
- Move away from character stories in text books
- Move towards authentic photos Discovery / National Geographic
- Demand for more technology
- Move towards skills-based syllabus
- Move towards CLIL based syllabus
- Move towards 21st centry skills: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration
Try to understand the other’s perspective:
- Authors: How can I make my brilliant grassroots ideas fit the matrix / brief?
- Publishers: How can I make my market0driven brief receptive to innovative ideas?
Questions to think about
What makes a good brief for an author?
How can grassroots innovation be included?
How do you persuade the publisher to include some creative ideas that weren’t on their radar?
How do you do unbiased market research for scope and sequence design?
Who are the gatekeepers beyond the publisher and what are their agendas?
Breakout room hopping
This was a super useful feature: three 15-minute opportunities to ask questions about areas connected to materials writing. I asked lots of questions about editing, and was reminded of the existence of the Publishing Professionals website. Thank you for everybody who answered my questions!
Bring your ideas to life using mood boards – Colin Morton
Colin is a freelance designer and illustrator, working as part of Morton Design and Studio Spirit, working in ELT projects. This talk was particularly interesting as it’s a key aspect of ELT publishing which I’ve never heard discussed before.
What is a mood board?
They’re designed to create the feel of a project before it exists, a collective of references, colour palettes and images to give an idea of the direction or feeling of the concept between the actual design work is done. It can help you spark other ideas and think around a problem. Lots of ideas should tie together into a single concept. 5-15 images is the sweet spot.
Designers might produce several mood boards to present to the publishers and decide which way the project might go, for example for a project on street food it could be more authentic and around the world, or connected to the hipster movement.
‘But I’m not a designer!’
Why use it?
- Planning an event
- Planning a project
- Thinking about a blog post you’re writing
- Considering your personal branding and how you want to sell youself
- Before you do a talk
- A character for a story you’re writing
- An idea for a book you’re writing
Tools you can use
- InDesign (ID)
Where to get inspiration
- TV and film
- Google Images
- Getty Images
- [I added ELTpics]
- Absolutely anything you see!
If it’s going to be published, make sure you track the copyright!
Col’s top tips for mood boarding!
- Set yourself a limit – a time limit helps you to be more creative
- Cast your next wide – think about lots of different ideas to enrich materials
- Don’t fear the cliche – they can create a common visual language and get other people to the idea you’re considering very quickly
- It’s OK to get a little weird – if it’s helped you get into the headspace you need to be in, it’s fine!
- It doesn’t have to be just images – it can have key words that you hadn’t thought of before, sounds clips etc. if you’re working online
- Curate, curate, curate – it’s not a load of images just because you like them, it has to fit together somehow and create a single concept.
- Use them throughout a project – for inspiration at the start, but also great as a reminder part way through of what you got excited about in the first place.
- Keep them safe! – you never know when you might want to use them again. Keep the images you discarded and where you got them from.
- Vary the sizes – you can draw the eye around the image and highlight what is more or less important.
Strategies to survive overwhelm – Rachael Roberts
Rachael’s website is life-resourceful.com
One problem with being a freelancer is feast or famine: we’re either overloaded or we’re worried about not having enough. This means we might take on too much in case we don’t get anything else. However good we are at managing our workload, deadlines are going to slip, something unmissable is going to pop up, and things will overlap. The outcome of either situation is higher stress.
The impact of stress on the brain
It’s not always a bad thing. The body releases stress hormones to help us deal with the situation. It’s meant to be a temporary situation and we’re meant to go back to normal after this. Imagine raising your voice to shout, and continuing to shout for the next three or four weeks. This kind of chronic stress has serious impacts on us physically and mentally.
Cognitive fatigue includes:
- easily irritated
- tasks that should be simple feel difficult
- difficulty in prioritising
- avoidiance or procrastination
- sleep issues
- disconnected from others and the world
- brain fog
When we feel like this, we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture. We often don’t see the things that might help us to get out of the hole that we find ourselves in.
Why do we take on too much in the first place?
We’re worried that we might not get work in the future. We’re not necessarily making this up, but sometimes the fear of scarcity can blind us to the bigger picture.
If you’re offered longer term work, look carefully at the amount of money – what will your hourly rate work out at? Is it actually worth it? Or will you end up earning very little for the sake of a couple of years of work, and not be able to take on other better paid work?
Opportunity cost means that we have to consider the time, energy and money involved, and comparing it to the benefit we would have got from the next best alternative. For example, break down your earnings over the past year to see what you’ve earnt from each area e.g. fees, royalties, training, etc. How much work did you put in to get each area of earnings?
The planning fallacy is under-estimating how long it should take to do something. It’s a natural human bias which we all suffer from. Rachael uses Toggl to keep track of how long projects take. Once you have a better idea of how long things actually take, you might be better able to estimate more accurately how long things might take in the future.
Make sure you allow time to work ON your business as well as IN your business: emails, marketing, writing samples, admin, invoices, chasing invoices, taxes, accounting, meetings, etc. You also need to factor in areas like sick pay, holiday pay, pensions, etc. You need to step back and see the bigger picture, rather than engaging in magical thinking about how much time we actually have available.
Time management strategies
To do lists provide a ‘second brain’. You have a system where you know something is safe in another place, rather than getting stressed by remembering things again and again. On the flip side:
- Can feel overwhelming, especially if you just have one list.
- Some tasks are tiny, others are massive.
- Tendency to do the quickest, easiest tasks first – even if they’re not the most important thing to do.
- No sense of priority.
We can get stressed because we never finish the to do list, and we might feel that we should.
What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.Eisenhower
The Eisenhower matrix means you can display a to do list in a different way:
Covey says we spend a lot of time in the top left box, feeling like firefighting. However, we should spend more time in the top right box – this includes things like exercise. If you focus more in the top right box, you’ll have fewer things int the top left box. In the bottom left box, think about what point in our day you do things – for example, don’t reply to all of your emails when you’re best at concentrating, or consider what could be delegated, or when you might have lower energy levels.
Consider time blocking, especially for things which require deeper focus:
Eat the frog! Do the things you’re resisting doing first thing before you do anything else.
Break down larger tasks, rather than getting overwhelmed by looking at the whole thing you need to do.
The discussion at the end of the day reminded us to have a clear start and end point to your day, including perhaps a walk or a swim.
The Compassionate Mind – Paul Gilbert
We have three systems:
- Thread system: to react to threats and self-protection
- Drive system: motivation to survive and succeed
- Soothing system: to make us feel safe
If we spend too long in the threat or drive system, and not enough time in the soothing system, we’ll suffer for it.
We have to do three things:
- Rest – more work without rest doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be more productive
- Go outside – if you go outside and get exercise, your brain continues to work in the background.
- Stop – if you’re struggling with something, stop and do something else. Go outside or indulge in some deep play, where you’re in flow: puzzles, gardening…
These will help your brain work better.
- Consider WHY you may be taking on too much
- Develop strategies to manage your time more efficiently
- Learn to manage your energy, not just your time
Self-publishing in ELT: ensuring quality through the editorial process – Penny Hands
[Penny edited both of my self-published ELT Playbooks, so I was particularly interested in this talk to see what I might have missed out, since I’m fully intending for the series to get a lot longer!]
Topic seems niche
Experiment with writing things that publishers might not be interested in
Faster than finding a publisher
Self-publishing has a quality problem.Nick Robinson, ELTJam
So what can we do to compete on a quality level with publishers?
What does a developmental/structural/content editor do?
You can work with them:
- to develop the structure and content of your book
- to express the essence of your message
- identify disparities in style and tone
- ensure you remain focussed on your target audience
- help to make your book more marketable
[As Penny said, this is a very helpful process – it really helped me!] It’s a collaboration. They don’t usually check your spelling and grammar.
What does a copy editor do?
A copy editor:
- ensures that your manuscipt does not contain errors
- is easy to read
- fulfils its aims
- ensures it doesn’t contain unnecessary parts
- identify mistakes
- alert you to possible legal problems
- analyse the document structure
- checks whether the language is pitched at the right level (of language/knowledge) for the target readers
- whether any terms or abbreviations need to be explained
- whether the tone, style and vocabulary are appropriate,
- whether things like jokes or anecdotes add authority or undermine the writer.
Either of these kinds of editor has to put themselves in the shoes of the reader to help you make the book as good as possible for the reader.
What does a proofreader do?
- They read the ‘proof’ for typos, punctuation, etc. The proof is post design.
- Look for consistency in presentation and corresponence between text and images.
- Checks the table of contents against the headings.
- Check or insert cross references.
- Check that everything looks right and is logically arranged.
As a self-published author, it helps to be clear about which of these roles the editor should fulfil at any point, and you need all of them. This may be in separate rounds.
Why does an author need an editor?
- Writing which may seem clear to you could be confusing to the audience. You need somebody with distance.
- It can feed in new ideas.
- To help the author get to where they want to, without the author being there to explain it!
- They can recommend how to rewrite in various ways: pruning, reining you in, noticing holes in your arguments.
- Having a second person who cares about the project as much as you, but can see it from a different angle, can be really useful.
- Adds an extra layer of quality.
How can I find an editor who is a ‘good fit’ for me?
- Word of mouth / networking (I found Penny through MaWSIG)
- Go to the directory of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading
- ELT Publishing Freelancer’s Hub facebook page (run by Atena Jusko) – you can post an advert here
Narrowing it down
Once you have a list of possibles, look at their LinkedIn profile and their credentials.
- What’s their experience?
- What sort of books have they already worked on?
- Do they keep up with current methodology?
- Do they have a blog/website?
- Do you think you might like them? (tone of email, Skype call?)
- Find out a bit about the editor
- Ask about their rates
- Agree on the scope of the work
- Establish expectations
- How will the work be done (software, drafts, tracking quesries)?
- What are you style preferences (e.g. spelling, vioce)?
- How will you communicate?
- When is each part of the work due?
- When will payment be due? How will you pay?
- Does this editor understand your aim?
- Do they know what the audience needs?
- Do they have the appropriate background and experience?
- Can they do the work within the timeframe and within your budget?
What to tell the editor
- the subject area
- the number of words
- the format it is written in (Word, pdf, etc.)
- when the file is likely to be available
- your preferred deadline for completion
How much will it cost?
CIEP minimum hourly rate (2021)
- 29.90GBP for copy editing
- 34.40GBP for development editing
Average of about 30 GBP an hour according – freelance editing
How long will it take?
Copy-editing: around 1000-1500 words/hr
Development editing: 500-1000 words/hr
According to https://scieditor.ca/2011/07/productivity-rates-in-editing/ – there is an estimator on the page, but it might be quite high
When do you get in touch?
If you have an idea, you can speak to a development editor to brainstorm ideas, but generally most editors would prefer you to have finished your manuscript.
You may want to have a beta reader look at it first, for example running it by a colleague. It has to be somebody who want just say ‘yes, that’s great’. Having a list of questions can help them to know what you need the answers to.
- Create files
- Craete folders
- Establish naming protocols
How can I nurture a quality relationship with an editor?
- Respect deadlines
- Respect the target market
- Write for the reader, not yourself
- Welcome constructive criticism
- Expect the editor to be prompt, clear and positive
- Treat the relationship as fundamentally collaborative
[I’ve definitely missed some things in Penny’s talk here – there was so much useful information there!]