This month’s post is by Denise Santos, and she has some questions for you! The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.
Who do we write for?
An exploration of the notion of ‘audience’ in materials writing
by Denise Santos
As a materials writer or a teacher who has the experience of designing your own materials, chances are the following scenario is familiar to you.
You are developing a writing task, and thinking of ways of encouraging learners to consider their audience while writing. As a result, your task may include asking your learners to think about one or more of the following: who they are writing for, what level of formality they should use, what prior knowledge the potential readers are expected to have about the topic, and so on. To help you design your task, you draw on your knowledge about writing development. You may also look for inspiration in publications for teachers on how to teach writing, as those are likely to discuss the centrality of the audience in writing processes.
Indeed, while the concept of ‘audience’ receives a lot of attention in publications for learners and teachers, I am not convinced this concept is debated widely enough in publications for materials writers – by which I mean publications aiming at the developing of materials writers’ professional knowledge. This neglect intrigues me, as it is no simple issue: materials writers deal with a complex interplay of audiences which include, simultaneously, publishers, teachers and students. Our audience may also include official evaluators in contexts where materials need to follow curricular guidelines outlined by governmental bodies.
Materials development for the Brazilian state sector illustrates this latter scenario. In the last eight years I have participated in five different EFL textbook development projects in that context, and this experience has taught me a few lessons about how to address those multiple audiences, as I explain below.
1. Writing for your publisher
It pays to spend as much time as possible, in the early stages of writing, on familiarising yourself with your publisher’s guidelines, both the explicit ones (e.g. spelling conventions, taboo topics, preferred rubrics) and the tacit ones (e.g. how much text they tend to include on the page; what lexicon and themes they prioritise in the notes for teachers; what external sources they are prepared to acquire rights for). Additionally, when you use a term which is likely to be unknown or confused with another by your editors (e.g. co-text), or when you design a task which you expect to undergo dramatic editorial interventions, potentially affecting your pedagogic rationale, it is always a good idea to include in your manuscript an explanation of your choices (in the form of a comment in the margins, for example).
2. Writing for your official evaluators
These readers will decide on the fate of the materials you design (after all, if your textbook is not approved in the official evaluation, there will be no further readership for it), so it is important to consider this audience seriously. In Brazil, evaluators are typically represented by academics, who will expect a sound theoretical foundation orienting the work and pedagogical procedures that do not contradict such foundation. If you claim to adopt a sociocultural approach to pedagogy, and if you decide to include some work on, say, strategy development, you cannot explain such work from a purely cognitive perspective: rather, you will have to theorise about strategies as by-processes of socialisation, and create tasks that follow this rationale.
3. Writing for teachers
The Teacher’s Book provides a good forum for you to address teachers explicitly: task objectives need to be clarified (if teachers understand what is meant to be achieved by a task, they are more likely to conduct it adequately); potentially obscure terms must be defined; alternative ways of carrying out particular activities should be provided to cater for differences in proficiency levels, resources (e.g. internet availability) or interests. Teachers are also likely to appreciate suggestions on how to know more about a particular topic, or how to find additional sources, so it is good practice to include those suggestions in the materials you design. Engaging in dialogue with teachers is even more important in contexts where a focus on the official evaluators may have led to the development of potentially complex tasks. In those cases, I would argue that we need to support teachers without patronising them: instead of saying ‘Look for further information on …’, it is better to say ‘You may find further information on … if needed’. Imperatives and taken-for-granted assumptions should be avoided, giving way to modals and hypothetical scenarios.
4. Writing for learners
When I write, I often imagine very vividly the classroom interactions around the task I am designing: I see students’ expressions (of like, dislike, doubt, interest, and so on), I hear their responses, the questions they ask. These visualisations are important, I think, lest we lose track that the ultimate purpose of the materials we design is to mediate learning. When writing rubrics, we should always ask ourselves: are they clear? Will students understand what is required of them? When presenting a topic, we should consider: do students need any extra information about this? (If the answer is yes, we need to think of a way of providing such information: in a box, through an image, in the rubric itself). I also find it inspiring to receive feedback from ‘real’ students: publishers may help you connect with schools adopting your materials; you can also create your own communication channels (e.g. via your personal website).
I end with an invitation for my readers to join in this debate, by responding to this article with answers to these questions:
- Who are you writing for now?
- How does that audience affect your decisions?
- Would you do anything differently if you focused on a different audience?
- If so, what changes would you make?
- What would be the consequences of those changes?
The exploration of those questions might help materials writers better understand the demands imposed by the interplay of audiences while writing, the choices made while addressing those demands, and the implications of those choices. And such understanding, in turn, might lead to better writing.
Denise Santos is a Brazilian-born language teaching consultant, researcher and materials writer currently based in the UK. Her latest publciation is the book ‘Strategies for second language listening: Current scenarios and improved pedagogy’ (with Suzanne Graham, published by Palgrave Macmillan) and she is currently participating in two EFL textbook projects (with Macmillan Education Brasil and LeYa). Denise can be contacted via her website, www.denisesantos.com.
Thanks for the interesting post. The references to writing for the Brazilian market are especially relevant to me, as I also mainly write/proofread for it. I find it’s so important to take a step back from your writing and try looking at it critically from the audiences’ perspective, which I’m sure most people will agree is easier said than done!
Your point about not patronising teachers is spot-on- sometimes it’s a fine line between giving teachers the support they need and stating the obvious.
Although your post is about writing for publishers, I have self-published material for use in social projects, which has shown me the need to consider yet another audience: the stakeholders (with no pedagogical background) who will finance the design and printing costs. As you can imagine, this has even further complications on the choice of topics for scope/sequence!
Many thanks indeed for your reply and apologies for my delayed response! (The life of a writer and its deadlines; I’m sure you’ll know what I mean…) Your comments made me wonder about the social projects you’re involved with in Brazil – is there any way of knowing more about them? And your mention of this additional audience (sponsors ‘with no pedagogical background’ as you put it) is fascinating: this audience does create further issues to be considered, opening new doors of possibilities and thresholds of constraints I’m sure! I’d love to know more about your experience!
And thanks again for your thoughts!
You’ve written a very interesting post and one which certainly resonated with me. I work as part of a small in-house publishing department producing online and offline materials for our students based in China, Indonesia and Russia. We produce textbooks and the typical associated materials for a fairly large network of schools in those three regions. Furthermore, we produce specifically for the kids and teens age range (3-17). So, we do have to be very mindful as to our audience.
Due to the age of our students and the countries in which they live, there are constraints on what we write. We adopt a PG rating and PARSNIPs apply. We certainly don’t want to offend any of our students or their parents and, indeed, the countries within which we operate have certain political sensitivities. Therefore, there is a need to respect those constraints which does, as a result, have an influence on what we write. However, that’s not to say everything we write is ‘travel and tourism’ and other safe topics. We have, particularly with lessons at higher levels, pushed those boundaries a little bit, albeit carefully.
I recently conducted some research on the inclusion of critical issues in our materials (those that promote transformation and increased social awareness) and while it was generally held that such materials would promote questioning of the status quo by students, it was also thought that such a move could be potentially dangerous for those students doing the questioning in contexts that would not be so receptive to change. I think that if I had conducted that research with a, for example, European audience, the responses would have been quite different. Although the Chinese students who participated in my project reacted quite well to the topic of homelessness I introduced to them, European students would have possibly reacted quite differently, voicing their opinions, debating the topic and generally being more critical and questioning. Indeed, my selection of topic may have been influenced as well. Homelessness was something I felt could be brought up in our classrooms without upsetting anyone – but what about topics that really affect teenagers such as binge drinking, drugs or suicide? I certainly wouldn’t have been given permission to conduct a research lesson relating to any of those topics in one of our classrooms in Shanghai. Can you imagine preparing a lesson about homosexuality in Russia? Consequently, the audience makes a huge difference since they are influenced (or constrained) both socially and culturally, with those influences/constraints filtering through to us as materials writers.
For now, I don’t think there will be any significant changes in the way we produce our materials although we will continue to push boundaries as far as we can.
Hi Derek, thanks for your thoughts and your work in such diverse countries sounds very challenging. Your comments made me wonder about potential variations within each of these countries, and whether different subgroups within a country (according to geographical origin, state/private maintenance, religious/non-religious affiliations, etc) posed different challenges (in terms of constraints and possibilities) to your writing. In Brazil this is certainly the case, and in a sense when we talk about ‘teachers’, or ‘students’, we are making a broad generalisation that doesn’t contemplate the internal diversity of these groups.
The development of critical thinking is no easy task for materials writers – and there’s some great stuff about this topic in the book ‘Critical perspectives on language teaching materials’ http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/critical-perspectives-on-language-teaching-materials-john-gray/?isb=9780230362857 (edited by John Gray). There’s so much to be achieved in that regard! I loved to hear about your experience; thanks for sharing!
There’s more about Derek’s research in an earlier MaWSIG guest blog post.
Thanks for the info! I’ve just read Derek’s post and there’s a lot of food for thought there!
This is really interesting – some good advice here too – thank you!
I’m currently writing materials for Chinese vocational students and so recognise a lot of what Derek said in his comment. As well as choosing culturally appropriate contents, I’ve also had to think carefully about the very different teaching and learning context I’m writing for.
Recently I’ve also been involved in designing materials for volunteer teachers who are working with ESOL learners with literacy needs. This has thrown up challenges of a completely different nature. As the learners will be taught on a one to one basis, tasks have to be designed with this in mind. How can lessons be made enjoyable and varied without recourse to team activities, pair and group work?
Also, knowledge of ELT methodologies cannot be assumed when writing for volunteer teachers, so instructions have to be made explicit but not patronising.
Thinking about the interplay of these audiences is something I suppose I’ve done on a fairly subconscious level up until now – thanks for bringing it to the forefront of my mind!
Hi Genevieve, and thanks for sharing your experience. You bring an additional aspect to this discussion by mentioning tailor-made materials for individuals. Is it the case that the materials development process happens as the course progresses, and is not pre-defined before the course starts? If it is I’d think that the ‘student as audience’ would become in a sense ‘student as contributor to the materials writing’ as well – and that would be a very interesting issue to be investigated in a research project! 🙂 All the best and thanks again for your comments!
Thanks for your post; it raises a lot of important points. Sometimes, as writers we can be so focussed on the nature of the content, that we lose sight of who we are actually creating it for.
Recently, I’ve been working on the ‘Writing’ section of a digital component of a blended learning course for Beginner level. This has involved creating online interactive lessons that culminate in a productive task, and which are for students to use at home – or anywhere, at least not in a classroom.
Given that the learners are at beginner level and have neither a teacher nor any L1 guidance to help them, the material must have absolutely no assumptions about the learners’ prior knowledge. During the course of a typical lesson, the learner is guided through a task, first with examples, then concept checking activities, then practice exercises, until finally they are able to produce their own piece of written English. Rubrics need to be very clear and direct; there needs to be plenty of examples, and the scaffolding has to be engineered in such a way as to ensure that the absence of a teacher doesn’t affect their ability to complete the task.
Not being able to trust that a teacher will be there to explain things, or that group activities can be relied on to drive the lesson forward, has thrown up some interesting questions about my own assumptions of what it must be like as a beginner-level learner. This has been a valuable experience for me as a materials writer, and one that I hope will inform my other work.
Even with materials that are designed for the classroom, I think it’s essential that we assume as little as possible about the learners, and even to imagine whether they would be able to complete the tasks without a teacher at all. I’m not suggesting that teachers should be ignored – far from it – but that by putting ourselves as writers in the minds of the learner first, we are better able to create materials that are clear, unobtrusive and effective.
Hi Edward – the experience you describe sounds very interesting indeed! It amazes me how each reply to my post depicts rather different scenarios, each with their own set of expectations, possibilities and constraints! Are the materials you describe ‘up and running’ already? Do you have any feedback from learners about the materials’ strengths and areas for improvement? I ask this because I think more and more we’ll have to conceptualise learners as autonomous materials users and lessons from experiences like yours could inform our practice in important ways. Thanks for your comments!