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.
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.