Five Things I Think I Know about Writing ELT Materials 

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Five Things I Think I Know about Writing ELT Materials

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto


Like for many teachers, my first ELT materials were worksheets I created for my own classes. Sometimes I needed to supplement what was covered in the coursebook, sometimes I wanted to take advantage of student interest in a topic, and sometimes I had to create specialized curricula. The first materials I wrote for publication were guides to go with coursebooks. Eventually I started writing coursebooks. I’m still learning new things about writing and materials design, but here are five things that I think are important in creating excellent ELT materials. 

Have a clear purpose 

Even if you are only creating a worksheet that will be used once in your own class, you should have a reason for using that handout rather than doing something else. All materials should have a purpose and fit into the larger context of a course curriculum, or a coursebook syllabus. What are students supposed to learn? How does it build on what they’ve already learned and how does it prepare them for what will come next?    

Aim for transparency 

Teachers and students should know what to do when they look at your materials. If you’re creating worksheets for your own students, this might not seem very important because you can explain anything that isn’t clear. But what if someone else has to teach your class? Will your replacement be able to look at your materials and know what you had in mindTransparency is essential if you are planning to publish and sell your materials. The easiest way to understand this concept is to browse through coursebooks at a bookstore or at a conference. Flip through books asking, “What are students supposed to do on this page?” There are plenty of good materials available, so teachers aren’t likely to choose books that require them to guess what the author had in mind.  

Write a lesson plan or teacher’s guide 

If you’re writing materials for your own classes, this might seem unnecessary. However, writing lesson plans to go with your materials, whether they are ultimately collected in a teacher’s guide or not, helps identify problems. Let’s say you’ve created an activity to have students talk about things that they have and things that they want. You might not see a problem until you write a lesson plan and realize that it might be difficult for students to differentiate between the two verbs. I want a new game and I have a new game are both grammatically correct, so you might end up spending your class time explaining the difference in meaning between have and want rather than practicing the language.  

Get feedback (and maybe an editor) 

After you use your materials in class, make notes about what worked and what might need to be changed. When students are doing a worksheet, notice how much help they need. Give your materials to a teacher who hasn’t seen them before and ask for feedback.  

If you have any plans to publish and sell your materials, an editor is essential. No matter how brilliant your content is, a good editor can make it better.  

Keep learning 

I’ve been writing materials for more than 30 years and am still learning new things about writing, about learning, and about pedagogy. When I first started writing, an electric typewriter was considered high tech. Now I’m learning how to use online authoring tools for online lessons and how to write video scriptsThe world of ELT materials writing is always changing, but the fundamental principles remain constant. If you want to improve your own skill as a materials writer, I highly recommend Katherine Bilsborough’s course, Creating ELT Materials 2019. This is the third year I’ve had the privilege of working with Katherine on her course, and I always learn something new from her.  

A rising tide lifts all boats

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
By Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

It’s not like English language teaching has ever been a bastion of egalitarianism. There have always been Haves and Have Nots.

Haves earn enough to support a family and even save a little, with resources to support their teaching and professional development, in an environment that rewards them for improving their teaching skills.

Have Nots don’t earn enough to do more than get by, don’t have access to resources, and aren’t in an environment that rewards improvement.

Obviously, this is a broad generalization, and most teachers fall somewhere between these two extremes.

What I find worrisome is the sense that the gap between the two groups is growing, with increasing numbers of teachers who used to do okay finding it harder to get by. My evidence is mostly anecdotal, based on the teachers I work with through iTDi courses, but our community includes more than 5000 teachers from over 100 countries, and we’ve gathered data from the hundreds of teachers receiving scholarships. From my perspective, lack of access is one of the biggest issues.

Access to a living wage 

Some income gaps are longstanding. The gap in pay between different teaching contexts, and between native and non-native English speaking teachers is familiar to anyone working in ELT, particularly in countries where English is a foreign rather than second language.

Teachers are subject to the same economic forces that are challenging many around the world these days – currency devaluations and restrictions, austerity programs, and sanctions.

One change has been the growing awareness of professional development opportunities, both face-to-face and online. Thanks to online social networks, teachers have realized what they’re missing. While US $200 might be an adequate salary for an unmarried teacher in a developing country, it’s completely inadequate if that teacher wants to attend an international conference, or enroll in a TESOL certificate course, or take an online professional development course.

Teachers increasingly realize that conference participation and additional training can help them advance their careers in ways that will help them earn a living wage. To be aware of what they could do, but be unable to afford conference fees that are more than a month’s income, or certificate programs that cost more than they make in a year turns these teachers into kids looking in the ELT candy store window, unable to afford any of the treats inside. iTDi offers scholarships for our courses because we believe that these teachers matter, too. Every teacher who pays for one of our courses means we can afford to include more teachers who can’t pay.

Access to information 

Access to research articles has long been a perk for university teachers. While not all universities have equal access to research journals, they all beat the access non-university teachers have, which is none.

This wasn’t as big a deal when there were few ELT journals and most classroom ESL and EFL instructors found academic research irrelevant to their daily teaching lives. With the explosion of information available online, more classroom teachers are becoming interested in doing action research and publishing – in part because that’s also a way to advance careers and become eligible for better paying positions – but until they can access more than article abstracts on Google Scholar they will remain the kids outside the candy store, looking in.

Access to professionalism 

A great deal of English language teaching around the world happens in for-profit schools, and most schools are run by business people, not teachers. Since their bottom line focus is on attracting and retaining paying students, school owners tend to invest in what they believe students (or their parents) will pay for, and what will give them an edge over their competition. If students (or their parents) chose schools based on the professionalism of their teachers, schools would invest in training and retaining excellent teachers.

While preferred qualifications vary around the world, school owners can generally require their new teachers to have some sort of ELT certification. However, there is seldom support or reward for language school teachers who want to continue their professional growth by presenting at conferences, or writing, or taking additional teacher training courses. Why? Because teachers who make themselves more attractive professionally tend to leave language schools for better jobs (with higher income and greater access to resources), or they open their own schools.

This is one area of access where I have seen gradual improvement. The decline of big language school chains has created more opportunities for teachers to open their own schools. While they still need to turn a profit, they are often better able to meet the specific learning needs of students in their locales than a national chain. They tend to recognize the value of continued professional development – for themselves and for their teachers – in being better able to attract and retain students.

Teachers also have increased opportunities to share their professional accomplishments online, in blogposts or in social networks. In a sense, a teacher’s online profile is a living resume. Investing in whatever sort of professional development one can afford, even if not currently teaching in an environment that rewards it, is banking on being qualified and ready to take advantage of future opportunities when they do appear.

If access is the problem, what is the solution? What can we do to lessen the gap between Have and Have Not teachers?

  1. Support open, online journals, and let the publishers and researchers who choose to publish in them know that you appreciate having access. Stephen Krashen is a great example of a respected researcher who has made all his work freely accessible.
  2. If you publish articles or book chapters, consider uploading a draft of your work to an open access site, like Academia.
  3. Support professional teaching organizations that offer discounted membership fees for low-income teachers, or discounted registration fees at conferences. Let them know you appreciate both the efforts they are already making and any future efforts to increase access for all teachers.
  4. Support professional development that works to include all teachers, both the Haves with credit cards and strong currencies and the Have Nots, who have just as great a need for the continued training even if they can’t pay. If, for example, you enroll in one of iTDi’s 2017 Advanced Teaching Skills courses, part of your registration fee will support a full or partial scholarship for another teacher.
  5. Help your students (and their parents) become more savvy education consumers. Let them know how attending conferences or continuing your own training benefits them.

Improving access for all teachers increases the strength of ELT as a profession. I hope that you will add to this post with additional examples of the problems unequal access creates, and with more suggestions for reducing these gaps.

The Difference an Audience Makes

Barbara Hoskins SakamotoBy Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

My teen learners are amazing. After a long day spent in an environment that values English test scores over communicative skills, they still come to my English class. While they appreciate that pronunciation and word choice matter, and that the best way to improve in English is to use it as a means of communication with their classmates, they have a hard time moving away from focusing on getting right answers. They have enough years of experience as students that they’re generally pretty quick at figuring out patterns so that they can create grammatically accurate sentences, yet still have a lot of trouble in using learned language to communicate meaningfully beyond getting the ‘right’ answer.

I’ve found that giving my teens an audience makes a huge difference. Who they are communicating with helps define language parameters.  Trying to communicate something to someone presents students with real-life problems to solve, and encourages them to think deeply about the language they use. Strategic selection of audience and task can help create problem-solving activities that are within my students’ ability to discuss in English. Having an audience tends to help balance the public school focus on English as a subject where success is measured by a test, by focusing on English where success is when communication happens.

Here are three examples where having an audience made a difference.

Listening Tests

When students answer questions, or talk to each other in class, there’s not much motivation to speak clearly. Even when I ask them to record themselves, they don’t work very hard at careful pronunciation. So, I asked my teens to make listening tests for younger students. The preparation was great review for the older students, but even more importantly, the process of recording the test for the younger students encouraged my teens to make a lot of effort in speaking loudly and clearly. They felt responsible for being understandable. You can hear the effort Satoshi makes in his listening test. Click the link to go to Satoshi’s listening test online, in order to hear his recording.

listening test image

Book Reviews

My teens do a lot of writing – it really helps them build fluency with the grammar and vocabulary they’ve learned over the years. Even when they write stories where peers are the audience, it doesn’t really push them to consider word choice in the way an outside audience would. So, I had them write book reviews of books they’d chosen to read from our small library. The first time, I asked them to tell me about the book and if they liked it. I got something like this:

It’s a book about dogs. It’s a good book. I like it.

The second time, I told them we’d put the reviews on our class blog so that students in other countries could read them. I told them that their review would help other students decide whether or not they might want to read the same book. Suddenly, they were thinking about what might information might be important to include in their review in order to help other students make good decisions based on their reading interests. They were also being much more careful about revising and correcting, so they wouldn’t look ‘bad’ in public. You can see how Satoshi includes a summary and recommendation in his review.

The third time, we posted the reviews on Amazon. This time we talked about who would be reading the review – teachers, mostly – and why they would be reading it – to decide whether or not to buy the book for their own students. This time I noticed students really considering what information to include in the review based on who might be reading it.

Satoshi's book review on Amazon


My teens enjoy creating games, and the process can be a great creative and critical thinking activity. However, unless I’m very careful in setting up the activity students tend to switch into their first language when they get caught up in the excitement of deciding content and rules. It’s still a great discussion activity, but not great language practice.

If, however, I ask them to create games for much younger students, the content tends to be language that teens find very easy, and the rules are simple enough that they can manage to keep the discussion in English (mostly, with some reminders).

I asked the students to create a matching card game that would reinforce the language the kindergarten class was learning – shapes, colors, and numbers. They based the first version on a card game they’d seen online (Blink), and then had to decide how many items and how many variations of the items were needed for a game, and then how to adapt the rules so that the kindergarteners could play it in English.

student made game

If you’d like to read more about the game students created, I wrote about it on the Teaching Children English blog.

I don’t always specify an audience for tasks, but when I do I find that it helps my students see English as a tool for communication, using it to communicate something meaningful to a specific audience. Success happens when they communicate clearly enough for someone to understand their speaking on a listening test, or provide enough information to enable someone to make a decision, or create an easy-to-play game that reinforces language practice for a specific group of learners. Success in communicating with people outside of their small class also builds confidence in their ability to interact with others, in English.

Homemade Materials Issue – Barb

Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!   – Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Course Director

Turns out, the same principles that are good for Mother Earth are also an excellent way to teach.  I don’t mean simply giving milk cartons, bottle caps, or plastic bottles a new life as classroom resources, although anything that keeps items out of landfills has got to be a good thing. I mean that we should apply these three principles to all that we do in class.

Reduce the amount of new language in lessons

Reuse language, games and activities

Recycle familiar language with new


Reduce! It isn’t how much you teach, it’s how much students can do with the language they learn.

In workshops, I often meet teachers who are pressured by administrators (who are pressured by parents) to teach as much as possible in each class, to move as quickly as possible through each coursebook. The classes in which I see students making the greatest progress are those in which the teachers introduce relatively little new language in each class, recycle previously learned language in order to introduce the new, and then spend the majority of class time reusing both new and familiar language in new contexts.

There are certainly times when you will choose to throw students into the deep end of the language pool – when asking them to work at understanding the gist of a listening or reading task, for example. But, it should be a choice that works toward your lesson goals, not the standard approach. If you need to spend most of your class explaining the language on your coursebook page, then students are unlikely to remember much for the next class, and you end up teaching the same things over, and over, and over again without much feeling of progress.


Reuse! Once students have learned something, you can re-use without having to re-teach

Once students have learned new language, they ought to be able to use it (although they may need to be reminded that they do already know the language). The increases the amount of time available for practice, and learners, especially young learners, need to use language repeatedly, in new contexts, in order to really “own” it. The same is true of activities. If you repurpose a game students are already familiar with, your students can spend more time playing with language and less time learning the rules.

My students enjoy a game with cubes made out of recycled milk cartons. They first learn to play in kindergarten, and because the game becomes more sophisticated as their language grows, it continues to be a favorite throughout elementary and even secondary school. We begin with three cubes for phonics practice, with all six vowels and 12 consonants of their choosing. A turn consists of three chances to toss the cubes, the goal being to form a word. After each toss, students can keep any of the letters rolled, so if they’ve rolled an A and a T, for example, they might keep those letters and roll the final cube, hoping for a B, C, or H. If students make a word they get a point. If they haven’t made a word after three tosses, the next student takes a turn.

When students begin working on word order in sentences, and collocations with verbs, vowels are replaced with verbs, and students now have three tosses to form a sentence. Laughing at sentences like I am cake (and not accepting them as point worthy sentences) means that students are deepening their understanding of language and how it works.

When students are ready for longer, more complicated sentences, we increase the number of cubes to five and work with a mix of nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and the conjunction and. Students make a list of words that fit each of these categories (searching through their coursebook, browsing through other games and picture cards, and asking for translations). From those, they choose which words to include in their game and write them on the cube sides. My students, at least, prefer the words that have the greatest potential to make silly sentences. They have the same three tosses, but now the goal is to make a sentence that is exactly five words long. While having a lot of fun, students are also discovering that there is more than one correct way to form a sentence, depending on the luck of the toss: Funny rabbits and elephants dance, Funny and furry elephants dance, Funny rabbits dance and sing. They also discover the value of conjunctions more clearly than I could probably explain otherwise.


Recycle! Students can use what they know to figure out what they don’t

There’s no way we will ever be able to teach our students everything they need to know of the English language, so let’s instead teach them how to use what they do know to figure out what they don’t. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to introduce new language in the context of familiar. Another way of looking at this is to make sure you maximize the value of any language your students spend the time learning. Here’s one simple example of how teachers mixing familiar and new language can actually help students learn more by teaching less in each lesson.


It’s green.  
It’s windy. Familiar pattern, new adjectives
It’s sunny today. Brenda is eating green grapes. Familiar language, new context (reading)
It was sunny yesterday. Familiar adjectives, new pattern
It’s going to be cool. Familiar adjectives, new pattern
The dolphin was amazing. Familiar pattern, new adjectives.


A simple guideline is to teach one new thing (new pattern or new vocabulary, but not both) in each lesson, or for longer lessons or older students, in each section of a lesson.  Reducing the amount of time spent on introducing new language creates more time for students to use language – to use it in games and activities that provide the repetition necessary for memory, to add it to their language repertoire in order to talk about new things, to learn to read what they can say and understand, to use language they can read to write about their own unique lives and experiences, and to use language to connect with other students in order to share their own and learn about others’ lives and experiences.

By making efforts to reduce the new language load, to reuse both language and resources, to recycle language in ways that support learning we can make the most effective use of limited class time and set our students on an empowering course to becoming language users rather than just language learners.

For more reading:

Lexical Scaffolding in Immersion Class Discourse (PDF)

Scaffolding English Language Learner’s Reading Performance


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Critical Thinking – Barb

Thinking Is Critical  —  Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Course Director

Long, long ago, when I was working toward my first teaching license, I was introduced to Benjamin Bloom and began a love-hate relationship with his taxonomy of learning objectives.

I loved having a rubric that helped me include higher level thinking skills in my lessons. I hated that my lessons so rarely touched on the skills at the top of the pyramid. It’s easy enough to write lesson objectives that incorporate higher order skills:

Students will analyze the appeals used in popular television advertisements, evaluate which appeals were most effective, and create an original advertisement incorporating one appeal from each of the categories studied.

Sakamoto image 1


The challenge is to make sure that students remember the names of the persuasive appeals, understand how they are used in advertising, and can apply that knowledge in new contexts so that they can make the most of the more challenging tasks. It’s the time spent on building the lower level thinking skills that make the class project a meaningful activity.

If we’re doing this activity in a language class, we also need to make sure that students are comfortable with the language needed to discuss, negotiate, and produce a group project. The tasks at the top of the thinking pyramid reinforce the language and concepts that we’re trying to teach. But, without the foundation of remembering, understanding, and applying language, students will be unable to accomplish the tasks in English. On the other hand, teaching language without also teaching students to think when using it can produce students who answer questions with grammatically correct utterances that make no sense in context. Naomi Epstein addresses this problem, and introduces a simple approach that helps students become better at producing answers that are relevant to the type of questions being asked in her The “Reading Pictures” Strategy.

All levels of thinking are critical. And all have an important place in our classrooms.

I like the visual image of a pyramid because it helps me remember that my goal in teaching English is to make language a tool that has value in my students’ lives outside of class. For that to happen, I need to help them make connections between the language they’re learning and the creative ways in which the language can be used. One cannot happen without the other. In Moving beyond “Do you like? Randy Poehlman shares a clear step-by-step example of how he builds the language students need to discuss, share, and support opinions.

The taxonomy can be a useful tool for incorporating higher order thinking skills with even the youngest learners. For example, rather than telling your students why we say It’s a ball but It’s an apple, give them several examples and let them figure out the rule behind the pattern. Even if your students don’t have the language to explain to you that whether to use a and an depends on the initial sound of the word following the determiner, they can show you that they’ve analyzed the language by providing the appropriate determiner in front of new words.

Games like I Spy or Twenty Questions encourage problem solving as students learn to ask smarter questions without feeling like hard work. You can also challenge your students to solve a problem that you face in every class, coming up with activities that practice target language in an enjoyable way. Rather than choosing a project or creating a game that reinforces language objectives, let your students come up with their own solution. The process of creating a game, of coming up with and testing different rules for play, and then evaluating how well the game meets the language objective is an easy way to strengthen your students’ thinking skills while using language for a real purpose.

We do something similar in our English for Teachers course by asking teachers to focus on both language and teaching objectives in our lessons. For example, in EFT Lesson 2, teachers strengthen their language skills by focusing on collocations and logical connectors in listening, vocabulary, grammar, and reading sections. Not too different from any language course, except that the context for lesson is teaching – in the case of EFT 2, about how we can incorporate a variety of thinking skills in our lessons. (We made sure that the language focus was authentic and relevant by having discussions on the same topic with our iTDi Associates first, and pulling language for the lesson from those conversations.)Teachers connect the language they’re learning to their own experience by participating in discussions about teaching thinking skills with iTDi Mentors and other teachers working on the same lesson.

Thinking skills and language skills are not separate learning objectives. Including both in a lesson creates a more effective learning experience. The key, I think, is to find what motivates your students – games, projects, discussions, or something else – and use that to engage them in lessons that build both their language and thinking skills.

~ Barb

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