A Journey into Creating Materials 

Rhett Burton profileA Journey into Creating Materials

Rhett Burton


I love creating language learning materials for my students. The materials I use are the tools that allow me to teach who, what, and how I want.  

However, at a certain point I felt I couldn’t take ownership of the majority of the materials that I had created because I didn’t own any of the copyrights to the images. I couldn’t sell or share what I had created without fear of copyright infringement laws. The more content I created, the more I felt like I had to address my process for developing materials. It was important and necessary, but it always felt like a task for tomorrow. 

One day, I came upon a digital painting school that had just opened in my neighborhood in Yongin, South Korea. I wasn’t interested in learning digital painting skills but I was curious if the owner could make illustrations of several images for a few worksheets I needed. 

I knew I had to visit the school. 

I walked into a dark, nicely decorated classroom. A Korean man greeted me with a smile on his face and a questioning look in his eye. I knew the look quite well. “Oh… an English speaker… I can’t speak English… Does he speak Korean? How can I help?” 

I quickly introduced myself as a local teacher who runs an English language academy for young learners. I also mentioned that I was looking for an artist to illustrate a few images for some of my materials. The school owner directed me to his blog and requested me to bring in the content that I wanted to have illustrated. I thanked him for his time and left. 

As I walked home, I thought about the images I wanted to have illustrated. At home, I looked through the resources I had collected over the 13 years of teaching and realized it was a lot! I had to define what it was I was looking for, so I sat down and defined the principles I wanted to follow.  

I settled on two primary principles: flexibility and consistency. First of all, I wanted the images to be flexible enough for me to co-create authentic interaction with my students. Secondly, the images needed to be consistent so that I could create anything from a single worksheet to a whole course.  

Then I worked to identify three categories that were going to be used to organize the images: settings (images to define the themes), characters for each setting, and topical items that would be used for staging different situations. 

I was convinced that if I collected images according to themes, characters, and items I would be able to create flexible and consistent content. I could see now how this project could have the potential to change my entire school’s curriculum, if things worked out. 

My wife and I quickly drew up a simple contract outlining ownership of the images, the price per picture, and a schedule for monthly completion dates. After the artist and I both agreed and signed the contract, the work began. 

Month by month, I would visit his digital painting school to discuss the next set of images and how they all tied together. Month by month, he illustrated more and more images for my school’s curriculum.  

We have been working together for the past 5 years and the images this artist has drawn have had a tremendous impact on materials used in my school, on the teaching and learning process. I am forever thankful for his dedication to our project! 

In these past few years, I have been nurturing relationships with my students, the artist, and other professionals to create meaningful materials for the lessons. The images we keep creating are embedded in multimodal activities, songs, easy-to-retell stories, leveled readers, and engaging games through scaffolded interactions that allow for a flexible yet consistent experience for the students. 

I am thankful to my family for their continuous support. 

I am thankful to my students who engage very well with the materials I’ve put so much effort into. 

I am thankful to the artist who has made all my content possible. 

I am thankful to groups like iTDi, Hagwon Start Up, and Global Innovative Language Teachers for empowering teachers to move forward with their professional development.  

I look forward to learning, unlearning, and relearning as my journey continues. 



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 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: