Advice to teachers becoming writers by Jill Florent

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Jill Florent, has kindly agreed to share with us her materials writing experience and she has written a practical and comprehensive list of suggestions for teachers who want to start (or are in the process of becoming) materials writers.

We believe, though, that such advice can be applied to a series of teaching related activities that even if you’re not thinking about becoming a writer yourself, you may find the reading intensely interesting and applicable.

Advice to teachers becoming writers

by Jill Florent.

Teaching and writing have a lot in common. Many of the same principles apply to planning a coursebook and planning a course for your students. There are a lot of similar factors to consider when writing a unit and teaching a lesson. Lessons needclear aims and objectives, a mix of presentation, practice, individual work, pair and group work. You want your lessons to have a consistent structure and a degree of predictability, but you don’t want them to be dull and boring. Lessons need balance and variety, changes of pace and an element of fun in order to motivate students. The same applies to coursebooks. Most of the writers I’ve worked with have also been teachers. At first, teachers tend to write material that is suitable for their own classes. The next step is to write material that is suitable for other people’s classes.That is not a lesson that they could deliver themselves, but a blueprint for a lesson that anyone could teach, a jumping-off point to inspire other teachers to create interesting and effective lessons. As an editor, my watchwords are: clarity, consistency, simplicity, balance, variety. Let’s unpack that a bit and see what it means in practice. 

Clarity

Take a look at your favourite textbook. Why do you like it? For me, the layout is a very important factor. I find coursebooks that use double-page spreads clearerbecause the ‘lesson’ appears as a whole. A double-page spread with the right amount of material for a 45-50-minute lesson makes it easier for the teacher to plan their lesson from the coursebook. Texts and exercises that fit into the columns and pages look more organised that ones that break across the page in uncomfortable ways. It is helpful for illustrations and any text boxes of key language to be in the appropriate place. Something I would consider ‘uncomfortable’ is where a key language box is placed at the bottom of a column or page and the activity using that language is in the next column or over the page. You certainly don’t want a language box to be split, and if possible (and it usually is), exercises should not be split. If the rubric and items 1, 2, 3, 4 fall in one column but items 5 and 6 spill over into the next column I would make adjustments. Either the exercise could be reduced to 4 items or an illustration of some kind could be added to the first column and the whole exercise moved to the next column. It’s helpful to have a little ‘white space’ sometimes, so the page doesn’t look too crowded. 

The aims, objectives and outcomes should be clear, even if they aren’t overtly statedin the Students’ Book. It’s important to know what the unit is about and what students are expected to have learned by the end. Whichever way the syllabus is divided,each unit and each (double) page should have a clear focus and outcome. Headings and target language boxes can be helpful signposts, showing what type of language and activities to expect.

Consistency

Consistency aids clarity, if you describe the same activity in different ways, teachers or students may look for non-existent differences. Don’t vary the rubric for the same type of exercise, choose one style. For example, each activity where students have a gapped text or sentence should have the same rubric. It could be Fill in the gaps orComplete the text/sentences or Put the correct word in each gap. But it’s important to use the same formula every time. If you think about this from the beginning, it will help enormously. You will be able to see right away how many of the same sort of exercises you have, and if you find you’ve got too many of one type, you can easily amend this, because you can search for the relevant rubric.

Headings should also be clear and consistent. If you decide to call a language box key words in one unit, don’t call the same thing useful language in the next. However, if there are differences, for example if you’re giving key words for a vocabulary activity, and supplying useful language for a speaking activity, then it’s a good idea to use different headings.

Simplicity

Keeping it simple makes the tasks easy for everyone to follow. Complicated rubrics or exercises cause confusion and slow the lesson down because students don’t understand what they are supposed to do. If you can’t write a simple rubric, it probably means that the exercise is too complicated. Try splitting it into two or three parts. If tasks are straightforward and instructions are clear, the teacher’s job is easier, and the lesson will flow.

In creating practice exercises it’s a good idea to start with binary choices and gradually include more options. There are a variety of ways of presenting the choices, but the principle is to start with very simple either/or choices and slowly make the activities more demanding. That way, students have more chance of getting the correct answers, which builds confidence. 

Keeping rubrics simple (as well as consistent) is also helpful. Think of rubrics as Teacher Talking Time and it’s natural to want them to be as short and direct as possible. So, 1 Listen and match 2 Now work with a partner and compare your answers is better than You are going to hear four people talking about their journey to work. While you listen, match each speaker with their method of transport, then compare with your partner. Have you got the same answers?

Balance and variety

This applies to each aspect of the book and to the book as a whole. As well as making sure that you have a balance of skills and a variety of exercise types, check that you have a variety of photographs and illustrations, that there are different voices and points of view, a balance of male and female, young and old, ethnicorigins, hair colour, etc. (and remember, men are not always taller and stronger than women); make sure that it isn’t always men or boys who speak first, check the gender stereotypes of attitudes and attributes (girls can be daring, boys can be caring), as well as jobs (women can do the same jobs and be senior to men). At the same time, be wary of overdoing it. If you put all the women in superior roles, and make all the men incompetent, you will end up giving an equally unrepresentative view of the real world.

Magic fairy dust

A course can be perfectly well organised and easy-to-follow with a clear layout and stated aims and objectives, and yet be stiflingly dull. The missing ingredient is what I call ‘magic fairy dust’. This is what gives a book ‘character’, what makes the courseinteresting and relevant to the target users. The magic is in the author’s choices: the new twists on old topics, the unusual or surprising texts, the people (real or created) chosen to exemplify the language, the opportunities provided for students to explore interesting ideas and use the language they learn. This is what the author uniquelybrings to a book – editors can look out for all the points mentioned above, but only the author brings the magic. It’s the key ingredient in a successful course, one that has staying power in the classroom.

For more specific and detailed advice, go to eltteacher2writer.co.uk where you will find books about writing different types of activities and for different audiences, as well as other resources and training opportunities to help you develop as a writer.

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