A Day in the Life… 

Katherine Bilsborough profileA Day in the Life…

Katherine Bilsborough


If I’d written this blog post a couple of years ago, it would have been a lot different, more chaotic and definitely less positive. Neither the amount of work I’m doing nor the type of work has changed. Nor has the number of projects I’m working on at any given moment. But I’ve made some changes in my approach to work that have helped increase productivity, efficiency and, most important of all, sanity and personal wellbeing. This is a typical day, in as much as any day can be called typical. 


I wake up to the sound of my alarm. I don’t always do this because one of the benefits of working from home and setting my own timetable is not having to be anywhere at a given hour. But sometimes I set the alarm because I want to fit in an early morning walk. I get up, have a quick cup of tea and quickly read through notes that include a lexical set and a grammar point that I need to include in a story I’m writing for a primary course book. With the language fresh in my mind, I’m hoping to get the seed of a story idea while I’m out and about walking and having a breakfast stop up the mountain. 


The tactic works (it usually does) and I get home from my walk with the makings of a story, noted in an audio file on my mobile phone. This is a great way to start the working day because it means that when I begin working on the story, I’ll be able to dive straight in to the writing part when I open the file. I have my second breakfast (I always have two). Today it’s a poached egg on toast and another cup of tea. 


I go into my study and open the window (it’s a nice day). The first thing I do is check my to-do list. It has three sections: 

  • today’s writing work (achievable units that I’ve broken down from larger projects) 
  • non-writing, work-related things I need to do today (emails, a Skype meeting, an invoice to prepare) 
  • non-work things 

I’m usually working on about five things at the same time. Of these, one or two will be large, longer-term projects like a course book or a module for an online course. Others will be medium-sized such as a series of interactive activities that are part of a course book’s extra resources or half a dozen stories for the “Review” sections of another author’s course books. Then there are the smaller things like a monthly lesson plan for the British Council’s TeachingEnglish website or my monthly blog post for the National Geographic Learning In Focus blog. Articles, book reviews, preparation of webinars, talks or teacher training workshops, all fall into this category, too. It’s the variety that I love but it can get a bit overwhelming at times so one thing I’m doing more of these days is learning to say no. 

I usually stay in my study for three to four hours in the morning. The first thing I did today was to write up the story I’d thought of while it was fresh in my mind. I always do this in two ways: a manuscript with instructions for artwork, design, and text, and a hand-drawn sketch of the page, with each story frame drawn in detail and text written in. I scan these sketches and send them to my editor so that she can see exactly what I’ve got in mind. And so that I can check it all fits on the page! 

After a fifteen-minute coffee break (outside in the garden) I write some online interactive activities for a primary Science book. It’s very formulaic work and the sort of thing I can get done quickly as I’ve been doing it for so long. I finish and make a note to prepare the invoice. 


I go out for another walk while my husband (and co-author) prepares lunch. I’m lucky that he loves cooking! This time I take a podcast as I don’t need to think about work. I’m currently listening to “The Allusionist,” a podcast about the English language. It’s entertaining. 


Lunch, followed by some TV-watching. I catch up on the news and watch a political debate between candidates in the upcoming local elections in Spain. I sometimes have a 30-minute siesta after lunch but today I decided to read my book instead. I’m reading a great book called “Rest: why you get more done when you work less” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. It’s about the power of deliberate rest. By the time I finish it I hope to be doubly productive and working half the time. 


I decide to finish an article I’ve been writing for an online magazine. It’s an opportunity to work with paper. I print off the document (on the back of some paper that has been used once already) to proofread what I’ve already written. Then I literally cut things up, move them around and finish the article on paper. It will take me about ten or fifteen minutes to finish the article on the computer but I leave it till tomorrow. It’s always a good idea to have some work waiting the next day that can just be picked up and done. This is why many great fiction writers like Haruki Murakami often stop writing when they are “on a roll.” It really works! 


After a short break to help my neighbour move his cows from one field to another (that’s a blog post for another day) I’m back in my study for another couple of hours. I work on a second draft for a unit of the course book I’m writing. Yesterday I had a quick look at my editor’s comments to gauge how long the work would take. I judged it would take about an hour and a half so I set a timer on Pomodoro to see whether I was right and to stop me from sitting for too long without moving. The work takes less time than anticipated. I use the remaining time to prepare and send the invoice from this morning, to browse the NGL image library and choose a photo for my next blog post. This year’s posts are all photo-related. I’ll start my day tomorrow by looking closely at this photo so that when I go for my walk I can think about classroom activities it lends itself too. 


I stop work for the day. This is early for me. Sometimes, when a deadline is looming or when I’m teaching on an online course, I work until midnight. Today I spend the evening going for a swim, doing a few chores around the house, and making some Welsh cakes. We’re expecting visitors tomorrow and they are always well received. 

Catch the 2019 edition of Katherine’s ever popular course:

The Impact of ELF on Teachers and Materials Writers

Katherine Bilsborough

The Impact of ELF on Teachers and Materials Writers
by Katherine Bilsborough.


Where are all the ELF books? 

If you write “ELT books” in the search box of a well-known online bookstore, you’ll get pages and pages of suggestions, from grammar books to resource books, course books to methodology books and everything in between. The same is true for “ESL books”, “EAP books” and “ESOL books”. But type in “ELF books” and, perhaps unsurprisingly, you get a range of elf-themed picture books for very young children. And while “101 Things to Do with Your Christmas Elf” looks quite charming, it has nothing whatsoever to do with English as a Lingua Franca.  

A few questions about ELF from a teacher’s perspective …  

How does the growing acceptance of ELF impact on the role of a teacher? Do we have to focus on different aspects of the language? How do we know what we need to teach and what we don’t need to teach?  

 … and from an author’s perspective 

What kind of things might need to change in teaching materials in order to make them appropriate for an ELF context? Do teachers need specific ELF materials? If not, how might they use traditional resources differently? Which aspects need to change? And how? Is there a need for self-published ELF materials to supplement resources that teachers create themselves?  

A teacher’s focus 

If I was working as a teacher today and my students were going to be mainly using English as a Lingua Franca, I’d probably start each new course with these three steps. 

Step 1. Conduct a simple needs analysis and include a question asking your students who they think they are most likely to be using their English with in the future. In all likelihood you’ll have at least some students who think they’ll be mainly speaking English with people whose first language isn’t English either: students collaborating on joint university research projects from around the world, businesspeople at international conferences where English is the official language, or even would-be travellers who see English as a language of communication in destinations from Scandinavia to Patagonia.  

Step 2. After establishing that your students will most likely be using English with other speakers of English as a second language, set up a class discussion with a list of statements or questions to make them think about what would be helpful and what might be a waste of time.  In my experience, students don’t always realise what it is they need. They just remember and repeat what they’ve heard others say over the years. This means their reasoning can be underpinned by a spurious premise. Some will be passionate about grammar. Others will insist on learning lists of vocabulary. And for many the goal will be to speak English like a native English speaker – whatever that might be.  

Some suitable discussion questions could be along the lines of: 

a) Which is greater – the number of people who speak English as a first language or the number of people who speak English as a second language?(More than a billion people speak English as a second language, while around 400 million speak it as their first language.) 

b) How many different accents are there in your language? Are some better than others? Should a learner of your language try and adopt a particular accent?(When students think about people learning their language, they are able to step back and see learning English from a different perspective.) 

c) If communication is the ultimate aim of a language learner, which skills are important to develop in your English lessons?(Hopefully, a discussion will help students realise that some things, like having perfect grammar, are less important than, for example, developing their listening skills so as to be able to understand a range of accents. While they need to learn how to speak clearly, they certainly don’t need to have any particular accent.) 


Step 3. I’d look for the best possible materials for my students. This might mean checking the audios that come with traditional course books to see what kind of speakers have made the recordings. I’d choose the one with a variety of accents and reject the ones that only include native speakers of English. I’d look at the pronunciation sections in the course book and see what kind of things are being taught and focused on. If I wasn’t sure which features of pronunciation were important for speakers to communicate intelligibly, I’d find out! The “Lingua Franca Core” (LFC) has, along with a lot of other interesting content, a list of these features and it’s a useful list for teachers to familiarize themselves with if they really want to help their students become competent communicators in English. You can find out some of the key points from the LFC and read more about it in a post on Katy Simpson and Laura Patsko’s Elfpron blog here. Robin Walker’s book ‘Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca” is another excellent resource and a practical guide to the LFC. It comes with audio recordings of non-native speakers and lots of classroom suggestions.  


An ELT author’s perspective 

  1. In general, many of the teaching materials we write are based on native speaker models of English so parts of them might not be relevant for ELF. 
  2. There is a need for Listening materials with a variety of accents in the audio components.  
  3. We should write pronunciation materials after consulting the Lingua Franca Core to ensure that the aspects of pronunciation we are teaching are the most useful. 
  4. Digital materials might be better than print materials for ELF teachers because they can be more easily adapted for more specific needs.  
  5. There might be scope for writing “wrap around” materials that can be used alongside existing videos and audios1 with speakers from different countries speaking English well. Some of these could be generic, others more specific. 


As the number of people who speak English as a second language continues to grow, it’s inevitable that a growing number of teachers and students will turn to ELF as the most appropriate form of English to teach and learn. It’s my belief that in a few years time when we write “ELF books” in the search box of that well-known online bookstore, we’ll start finding the kind of books we’re looking for. 

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.

Online tutoring: a beginner’s tale

Katherine Bilsborough
Katherine Bilsborough

By Katherine Bilsborough

New experiences in cyberspace

In June 2016 I taught my first ever fully-online course for teachers. The course was directed at teachers who were interested in learning more about how to create ELT materials. When I’d originally agreed to design and deliver the course, I hadn’t really given it much thought. After all, I’d done webinars before and wasn’t this just a series of 4 webinars with a few other bits in between? As the starting date loomed, I began giving more thought to what would actually be involved and realised that (for me at least) the webinar parts would be reasonably straightforward. It was the bits in between that required some consideration. My previous, relevant experience included:

  •       writing online materials;
  •       being an online student on a 12-week course in 2006;
  •       using collaborative hangouts while working on projects with multiple authors;
  •       having regular Skype or phone meetings with co-writers and editors;
  •       designing and delivering face-to-face courses for teachers;
  •       being the parent of a son who was doing an online degree and was giving me regular updates on what he hated and what he loved about each aspect of it.

I wondered how much of this experience would be of help when the course kicked off. As it turned out, I drew on reserves from all of these sources. But what really facilitated my first experience as an online tutor was my decision to enroll as a participant on an online e-Moderation course that was running simultaneously. Some might say the timing wasn’t thought out well but, as it turned out, the timing was perfect. After fine-tuning the skills of time management, the situation offered me a unique opportunity to (a) put much of what I was learning on the e-Moderation course into immediate practice and (b) have a ready-made support system of expertise (my tutor) should I run into difficulties. I kept a journal through the month of June, recordings highs and lows and making a note of any revelations. There were lots! But for this post I’ve chosen six which I’ve presented as useful tips below.

Extracts from reflective journal and tips to would-be online tutors

Late May

Today I received a pre-course questionnaire to complete from my tutor on the e-Moderation course. What a great idea! It made me feel (a) welcome and (b) that they really cared about who I was and where I was coming from. I’m not just a reference number on an Excel sheet! They will use the information I give them to better address my particular needs. They’ll know which things I might be worried about (Have I got enough time? Will I be able to get my head around the ‘technology’ side of things?) and they’ll advise me accordingly. Tomorrow I’m going to design a pre-course questionnaire for the participants on my course! Copy cat? Of course.

Tip 1: Build in a pre-course element to your course to find out valuable information about participants.


Day 1

I’ve had a look around the platform of my E-Moderation course and I love the fact that there are defined areas and forums for different activities, actions, and interactions. It reminds me of a real world learning environment with classrooms, a library, a café for informal chats, and so on. I wonder whether there are any other spaces out there in the world of VLPs (virtual learning platforms) that have yet to be considered. I’m thinking a virtual cinema might be a good idea with a selection of topic-related videos. Maybe it’s already been done. The course I’m giving has fewer places to hang out but that isn’t a problem. In fact, for me right now, it’s a good thing. We’ve got all the spaces we need and in this particular case, less is definitely more.

Tip 2: Do a needs analysis that focuses on which spaces are necessary for a particular course.


And we’re off

Today I wrote my first comment in a discussion thread on my E-moderation course. It felt a bit scary, to be honest. I don’t want my fellow participants or tutor to think I’m stupid. I was thrilled (and relieved) to get a swift response from my tutor. The content of the response gave me confidence, and the fact that he didn’t make me wait too long reassured me that he was there and really interested in our thoughts and opinions. Note to self: I must show that I have read the contributions from my own course participants and sooner is better than later.

Tip 3: Let your presence be felt in discussions and forums! Even a single word sends a message that you are there … and listening. It’s probably better to make frequent short visits to the forum rather than longer, less frequent ones.



We’ve been given a short writing assignment that is really motivating because it allows us to focus on something personal of our choice. I already know what I’m going to write about and I’m intrigued at the thought of what my colleagues will write. What a great way to get us motivated. I’ve decided to invite my participants to share something personal, too: a photograph of a person, a place or a thing that inspires them … The results have been overwhelming – lots of beautiful photos of all kinds of things that help us all learn a little bit more about each other. I’ve figured out who the cat and dog people are! One participant made my day when she wrote “Thank you for this opportunity to share photos. It’s lovely to get a glimpse into the lives of my colleagues and learn a Little bit more about them. ”

Tip 4: Create opportunities for sharing something personal … but make sure personal isn’t intrusive! The key is in giving participants choices, either in whether to share or not … or in what they feel comfortable sharing.


Week 3

I’d been intrigued at the prospect of interaction on an online course, especially ways of setting up pair work and group work. We’ve had two different kinds of group tasks on the e-Moderation course so far and both were inspiring. One involved a chain of turn-taking and it made me realise the importance of participants actively … ehm …participating! In this kind of activity, you only need one learner to obstruct the process and the whole thing breaks down. It’s probably a good idea to spell this out at the beginning of the course. Make sure participants (a) understand the importance of active participation in collaborative tasks and (b) have communication pathways to let you know about any potential problems with collaborating. I’ve looked ahead at a third group task and am now convinced that any face-to-face interaction can be mirrored in an online course. In the course that I’m running, I’ve stayed away from explicit pair and group tasks but – human nature being the way it is – I’ve noticed partnerships forming between like-minded participants who are making plans to collaborate on future projects. This is heart-warming. I know that since the course ended, several partnerships have been set up between course participants including a joint blog and some self-publishing ventures.

Tip 5: Make sure participants know not only what to expect of the course but also exactly what is expected of them for the duration of the course. Giving them the reasons behind these expectations is also a good idea. Sometimes what is obvious to a tutor might be a mystery to a learner.


A final few words

To conclude I’d like to encourage those teachers considering teaching online to give it a go. Online teaching offers all kinds of exciting new opportunities for those prepared to grasp them.

Tip 6: If you are thinking of being an online tutor, become an online learner! You might like to enroll on an e-Moderation course as I did or you could find something completely unrelated to teaching. Keep a reflective journal. I’m sure it will come in handy when you eventually decide to take the plunge.