9 tips to help teachers become materials writers

Katherine Bilsborough
Katherine Bilsborough

By Katherine Bilsborough

The title of this blog post is misleading because when you stop to think about it, all teachers are already materials writers to a lesser or greater extent. Whether it’s a diagram on the board to help explain the difference between the past simple and the present perfect or a list of sentences illustrating how to use key vocabulary in context. Most teachers are already engaged in creating materials for their students: to recycle language, to support a course book, or to replace existing materials that don’t quite work for one reason or another. So whether you want to build up a porfolio of materials that you can use again and again with your own classes or you have a more ambitious dream of becoming a full time ELT author, the good news is … you’ve already started your journey.

Aiming for excellence

Write excellent materials for your clases. Don’t just settle for mediocre or even good. Think about what makes materials excellent and then get to work. You might like to do some background reading on the principles of ELT writing or just ask yourself questions like What am I trying to achieve with these materials? Are my materials engaging? or Would I enjoy learning from materials like these? Good materials get noticed and can become a showcase of your abilities. It makes sense to spend time polishing them until they shine.

A fresh pair of eyes

Ask a colleague to peer review your materials. Provide them with a simple checklist or framework so that they know what to look out for. A list of simple questions works well, such as Are the materials engaging for this age group? Have I provided a variety of activity types? etc. Alternatively, if appropriate, ask the students themselves for feedback. You could use an anonymous questionnaire format and ask things like Were these materials easy to follow? Why (not)? and What did you like/dislike about these materials? A friend or family member can also spot the odd typo that is easy for you to miss.

Don’t keep things to yourself 

Share your materials with colleagues, either in your staff room or in an online space. When several teachers use the same materials with different groups of students, you get a better idea of (a) how well they work and (b) potential problems that might not be immediately apparent. This might also be a good time to write simple teacher’s instructions to accompany the materials – something that will be required if you find yourself in a position where you are paid to write materials. Include answer keys where necessary and anything else that can add support. Set up a focus group meeting at the end of term to discuss the pros and cons of the materials you’ve shared and to brainstorm ideas for improvement.

Have a look around

Do some research online and look at other people’s materials. Make a note of things you like and things you don’t like. Which materials are popular? Is it easy to see why? There’s nothing wrong with copying the format of materials that are good. If the layout or design of some materials works well, borrow it. Content can have copyright but style is a different matter. If you are creating a collection of lesson plans, think of a simple format and use it as a template. Consistency can make your materials look immediately more professional.

Keep everybody happy

Whether you are making print materials or online materials, consider things like accessibility and differentiation. Nobody likes to read a packed text in small font with reduced spacing. Font styles and colours that seem funky to you might actually cause headaches in extreme cases. When you’ve created your materials, ask yourself if there is anything you can add as a challenge for stronger students or as support for students who need more help. There usually is and making two versions of the same materials needn’t be a chore.

Get yourself out there!

If you want to become a professional ELT author, it’s a good idea to get noticed. Consider speaking at a conference or writing a guest blog post. Better still, start your own blog, alone or with a like-minded colleague. Join teachers’ groups on social media where you can share your ideas and links to sample materials. Ask publishers to add your name and details to their database and to consider you for writing work on upcoming projects. Make it clear that you are willing to start off small, writing Teacher Notes, online language exercises, or extra resources. Getting a chance is the best way to show your skills as a writer, and if you work well, further offers will follow.

Take a moment to reflect 

Keep a journal about your progress. Just as self-reflection is a valuable tool for a teacher, it can help you become a better writer, too. Keep a record of materials you write and then go back and make a note of how well they worked in class or of things that didn’t turn out as you’d expected. Have an ideas section where you keep a note of any brainwaves you have for future materials. Build up a resource bank of useful websites for finding appropriate content, apps and tools for making things like crosswords, etc.

Practise what you preach

As teachers we are supposed to be helping our learners develop 21st century skills such as collaboration and communication. But these are essential skills for us, too. Speak to other materials writers, in person or online. Join existing groups on social media or, if you can’t find the right one, start a new group. Organise an informal meeting where you can share ideas, ask and answer questions and support each other’s projects.

And most important of all …

Enjoy this opportunity to be creative. For many of us it’s one of the best aspects of being an ELT professional.

Published by

Katherine Bilsborough

Katherine Bilsborough is an ELT author, content developer and teacher trainer. She has written course books for many of the top ELT Publishers as well as online courses and mobile learning materials for the BBC and the British Council. She writes monthly lesson plans for www.teachingenglish.org.uk and is the author of ‘How to write primary materials’, published by ELT Teacher 2 Writer. Katherine curates the Free and Fair ELT Facebook page and regularly gives face-to-face and online teacher training workshops. Katherine lives in a tiny village in the mountains in northern Spain. When she isn't writing, she is usually gardening.

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