How to improve your materials writing
How to improve your materials writing
By Sandy Millin
Every teacher is a materials writer, even if we might not describe ourselves as such.
As soon as we create a discussion question for our learners, adapt an activity from a coursebook, or even create a worksheet, we are writing materials. However, very few teachers have been given any training in how to write effective materials, and most of us learn to improve our skills through trial and error. In this article, I’d like to share 7 ways you can improve your materials writing without just waiting for something to go wrong when you’re using what you’ve created.
1. Make sure you need a new resource
Before you reinvent the wheel, look around to find out whether the resource you need already exists. Experiment with ideas and resources from different sources: coursebooks, teacher’s book, resource books, the internet, journals like the IH Journal… The wider the range of resources you’re aware of, the easier it will be for you to identify whether there really is a gap you need to fill. It will also improve your awareness of what you do and don’t like in different materials, and what does and doesn’t work for your learners and your context.
2. Identify the aim(s) of your materials
Putting the aims into words helps both you and the learners. If you know what your destination is, what you’re hoping the materials will achieve, you’re much more likely to arrive there. For example, if your aim is to create a PowerPoint presentation to test learners’ understanding of the meaning, form, and pronunciation of the present perfect simple, you can check back at the end to ensure that all of those areas were covered and that the context is likely to be clear to the learners.
If learners know why they’re using a particular set of materials, they’re likely to be more engaged and motivated. They can also see their progress more clearly as they have something concrete to measure it against. How well did they already achieve the aim before using the materials? How well can they achieve it after using the materials?
3. Be aware of some design basics
There are a few things you can start doing straight away to make your materials more user-friendly. The first is to number activities, questions, and answers to make them easier to refer to. It’s amazing how much simpler it is for learners to discuss answers when the questions are numbered!
Next, think about the instructions. It’s important to include brief instructions on all materials, so that learners (and you!) can refer back to them. Keep instructions as short as possible. Use imperatives. Start a new sentence for each part of the instruction. Just like I’ve done in the last three sentences, in fact.
Finally, look at the layout of your materials. Is it immediately obvious which parts are instructions and which parts are activities? Can you see where a text ends and the questions begin? Is there space to write? By using bold fonts, lines, and simple boxes, you can make it much easier for learners to use your materials.
To build your awareness of these areas, look at materials created by others to see how design can impact on the usability of the materials. Consider which materials you and your learners find easiest or most challenging to use and think about how the design of those materials impacts on that.
4. Get feedback from other people
The process of testing materials is called ‘piloting’. It can make a big difference to the final quality of your materials. For example, you could show your materials to another teacher, and ask them to give you feedback. For activities with correct answers, like true or false questions, ask somebody else to try the activity, then compare their answers with yours. If they’re not the same, then you know there’s some work to do!
Of course, you can also get feedback from the students. After they’ve used some materials you’ve designed, ask learners to tell you two things they like about the materials and one thing they think you could improve. For a set of discussion questions you’ve written, this might be: ‘There were lots of different ideas for us to think about and I liked that we only had 10 minutes so we had to speak quickly, but question 3 was impossible to answer and took us a really long time.’
5. Explore the materials writing community
There are an increasing number of materials writers who are sharing information about how they approach materials writing, and their learning processes. For me, John Hughes has probably had the biggest practical influence on my materials writing. For many years he has done presentations, written articles and blog posts, and presented YouTube videos with tips and tricks for improving your materials. Other writers like Kath Bilsborough, Sue Kay, Ceri Jones, and Ben Naismith have also shared ideas that have improved how I write.
I’ve been a member of the IATEFL Materials Writing Special Interest Group (MaWSIG) for many years now, and am currently on the committee, so I do have to declare an interest here. However, being part of MaWSIG has been invaluable for my understanding of what it takes to write effective materials, and their events are where I came across most of the people mentioned above. As a member, you have access to an archive of webinars through the IATEFL website, and you get discounts on paid events organised by the SIG. Even if you don’t want to join, you can still benefit from the MaWSIG blog https://mawsig.iatefl.org/blog/ and attend webinars without being a member.
Other groups specialising in materials writing include the TESOL Materials Writing Interest Section (MWIS), BRAZ-TESOL’s MaWSIG, and the Materials Development Association (MATSDA).
6. Read about materials writing
Lindsay Clandfield and John Hughes wrote ETpedia Materials Writing which has ‘500 ideas to support and aid writers, teachers and students in creating English materials’. I often dip into it for ideas and would definitely recommend it.
ELT Teacher 2 Writer have a highly practical and ever-expanding range of ‘How to’ guides, available as both e-books and paperbacks. The full list is at https://eltteacher2writer.co.uk/our-books/ The compilation How To Write Excellent ELT Materials: The Skills Series is a great starting point, as it’s six books in one. It includes tips on reading, listening, speaking, and writing activities, audio and video scripts, critical thinking activities, and vocabulary presentations and practice.
7. Take a course
If you’d like to develop your materials writing further, John Hughes and Katherine Bilsborough launched a highly practical short course called ‘Writing ELT Materials’ in 2023. The course includes sessions introducing principles of materials writing, and gives you the chance to get feedback on your materials from two of the best writers in the business.
NILE, the Norwich Institute in Language Education, offer a course in Materials Development for Language Education, which can also be used as part of a longer MA course. Masters courses increasingly include materials writing or materials development modules as an option.
What will you try?
Hopefully this article has helped to persuade you that there are many things you can do to develop your ability as a materials writer, and that it’s not only people who are being paid to write materials who can develop in this area. Good luck with producing ever more effective language learning materials for your students!
Sandy Millin has worked at IH schools around the world, and particularly in Central Europe. Her last position with IH was as the Director of Studies at IH Bydgoszcz, where she worked for 6 years. Sandy is now a freelance trainer, methodology writer, editor, and IH inspector, as well as an IATEFL Ambassador. Read her blog here.