What’re the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt so far about materials writing and how do they inform the way I craft my lessons? If you’re interested in writing your own materials, keep reading to find out.
I’ve been adding my own materials to the lessons I teach for as long as I can remember. The first thing I created was a set of flashcards meant for my 7-year-olds which I drew by hand on xerox paper. As I gradually began settling into teaching teens and adults, I switched focus to what you can find on this website: grammar activities, vocabulary games, exam-prep activities to complete lesson plans. I’ve been trying to regularly update this online repository since 2015.
Additionally, I develop lessons from scratch for my online students which get rewritten each time I teach them as I notice new ways they need or could be improved and edited. Finally, in order to deepen my knowledge about materials writing and receive feedback on my work from professionals, last year I signed for a course for aspiring ELT authors developed by DOS ELTea.
All of these experiences have been formative in their own way and to say I’ve learnt only 5 lessons would be an understatement. These 5 lessons, however, are the ones that resonate with me and are always on my mind whenever I want to prepare a lesson or an activity myself.
#1 Clarity of instructions
Formulating instructions to tasks I write has been my nemesis and I see it as one of my weaknesses. What comes out of my mouth in class could often be called convoluted, to say the least! This quest for simplicity has been my goal for a long time now and rewriting my lessons very often has to do with simplifying the language of instructions. If I’m not sure what the student is supposed to do in a given task 5 minutes after writing the instructions, something must have gone wrong there.
What might help:
- Say the instructions out loud as they tend to sound different (easier!) in your head
- Separate instructions into several sentences if necessary. This often means the task is complex and it might be a good idea to divide into smaller parts ( a), b) and so on)
- Watch closely how the task works out with the students. If more than one has a difficulty following, the problem might lie in the instructions.
#2 Density and duration of activities
About half the hours I teach each week are in fact 1-1, 60-minute lessons with adult learners. Since I teach online, I usually prepare these lessons from scratch and have absolute freedom when it comes to their topic and structure. One hour might seem like a perfect duration for an individual lesson yet, in my experience, it’s quite hard to figure out the optimal number of tasks/skills that can be practiced effectively in this time.
My biggest challenge to date is finding this balance between densely-packed lessons that offer no in-depth practice and thinking time and these which contain fewer activities but at the same time lack variety and put you at risk of running out to f things to do quickly if the lesson doesn’t click with the learner. I usually end up with lessons which can easily be divided into 2 or sometimes even 3 parts because I overplan and hate cutting out my precious activities.
What might help:
- Clarify the purpose of each activity to make sure it’s really a valuable addition to the lesson or just a way to kill time / fill the worksheet.
- Be realistic about the timing and remember to factor in the thinking time you’d like the student to have in order to complete the activity.
- Don’t think of your lessons as closed capsules of English that need to “cover” points X through Y. Seeing the materials you write for a single lesson as a part of a longer series makes it easier to divide packed lessons into smaller units. This leaves you and the learner some breathing room, ensures continuity, and allows for ways to revise and recycle the language.
#3 Vocabulary practice
Here’s something I’ve overlooked for a long time: designing vocabulary tasks which offer multiple opportunities for the student to engage with the language and work with it in different ways. Flooding my student with numerous new words and expressions and thinking that including said vocabulary in the discussion questions would be enough used to be my MO. It took a very eye-opening training session by dr Karolina Kotorowicz-Jasińska to grasp the concept of brain-friendly activities and how it translates into activity design.
What might help:
- Think about how your activities engage the learner with the new language beyond choosing the correct answer.
- Be selective with the vocabulary you want your students to encounter during the lesson. Offering more varied and deeper practice of 5 collocations beats cramming 5 more phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions in the same lesson just because they are all thematically linked.
#4 Knowledge challenge
For me, one of the biggest joys of materials writing is being able to research a topic and offer some interesting content to my students. However, interesting shouldn’t mean obscure and too niche. Quite often, what in my eyes might have seemed fascinating, turned out too outlandish for my students and they didn’t necessarily feel like talking about a certain topic as they simply didn’t have enough knowledge about it in their native language, let alone in English. In other words, these classes posed a double challenge (linguistic and intellectual) and, at the end of the day, were too intimidating.
What might help:
- Don’t feel like you need dumb the content of your classes down but at the same time don’t expect your students to have certain knowledge, especially if it’s too expert. If you feel strongly about the topic, think of ways your materials could teach something about it in a non-preachy, non-threatening way. My biggest success to date is my Astronaut lesson.
This one has to do with one aspect of materials writing that seems obvious to some but not necessarily to impatient people like me: the need to organise the content on the page in a neat and consistent way.
Text written in bold vs. text written in italics.
Numbers and bullet points.
And all of these being used in a systematical, consistent and logical way. I don’t think there is one right system but I’m sure there needs to be a system in place and once you identify your own, stick to it. Since you’re not the only one who will navigate through the page/worksheet, try to make the journey for other users as seamless and intuitive as possible.
I’d love to hear what have you learned about materials writing.