A fresh start?

We’re delighted to present the inaugural guest blog article, written by Johanna Stirling, with a very appropriate title to begin a new year.

The MaWSIG blog features both seasoned authors and novice MaWSIG members, who contribute monthly articles based on their experience, research and the latest trends in materials development.  At the end of the year, the collection of twelve articles will be published for MaWSIG members as a complimentary ebook. Please post your opinions and questions, and contribute to the debate.

JohannaStirling_smA fresh start?

by Johanna Stirling




Now, where shall I begin?

A question

‘Now, where shall I begin?’ This is a question that we might not ask ourselves enough when we write teaching and learning materials. Perhaps we have a habit of always starting in the same place. In this inaugural post for MaWSIG, I want to look at where writers start when they write a new piece of material, how this affects the product and whether it’s a good idea to try starting somewhere else.

So many questions

Think about a piece of teaching or learning material that you have written that you were pleased with. It doesn’t matter if it was for publication, for your own teaching or somewhere in between. Where did you start? Did you start from a language or skills development aim? Did you start from a great bit of media that you knew would engage your learners? Did you start from a brief that someone else had given you? Did you start from an established activity type, or from an idea or technique of your own? Were you using the tried and tested, were you stretching that a bit or were you experimenting with something new? What role did your own beliefs play in the design of this material?

Let’s look at some of those starting points.

Start at the end

The obvious place to start is at the end. Isn’t it? By ‘end’ I mean the aim: what you want your students to be able to do (better) at the end of the lesson that they couldn’t do (as well) at the beginning. Whether planning a lesson or writing an activity or something longer, making yourself establish the aims and writing them somewhere prominent should result in materials that fulfil a language learning aim.

But … should we always stick to the aims we have set out with? Sometimes as I’m writing I realise that those aims aren’t quite right. For example, I might realise that my students in fact probably have that knowledge (that I had aimed to impart) and what they really need is further practice in a realistic context. We also need to think about where those aims come from. It seems to me that we often teach from a rather narrow and predictable syllabus of grammar and vocabulary – perhaps that which is easily teachable, rather than that which is the most communicatively valuable. Are the aims that we define just taken from that syllabus? If so, aren’t we just reinventing the wheel by creating more activities for the same aims? Or do the aims come from the students themselves? That sounds more worthy. But do students always know what they really need to improve? Are they also being influenced by a traditional narrow syllabus? Some yes, some no, in my experience.

Start with a model

Faced with a stubbornly blank page, writers often turn to what has gone before for inspiration. Got to write 30 self-study activities? Grab a published workbook for ideas of activity types, change the target language and hey presto!

When I look at new material, there is always an element of anticipation … but often I’m not blown away by it. It’s rarely quite different enough for me. Coursebooks are often well-researched, beautifully presented, trialled and in the main very effective at doing what they’re supposed to do. You could argue that that’s fine – why fix it if it ain’t broke? OK, but why write more of the same? It’s only worth producing more material if what we’ve got is not good enough for a particular context, or out of date, or we’re aiming to produce something different. Unless, of course, we’re just in it for the money.

Start at the source

And what about this article? Where did that start? In fact, from a discussion with writer Jamie Keddie (of Lesson Stream). Most of Jamie’s materials start with a picture or a video, not a language aim. The media items are chosen not just because they are appealing but because Jamie can see the potential for language work growing out of them. The result is a set of very engaging, contextualised and creative materials. But they don’t form a syllabus and while sometimes you’ll find what you need, other times you won’t. Of course, many of us do this – start with an article, an anecdote, a piece of literature, or even stimulation for students to produce their own texts, stories, opinions, etc., which can be exploited for emergent language. How many times have you had your own reading for pleasure distracted by thinking ‘Oh, I could use this text for …’? Use it as the base for some materials and your efforts are also potentially more engaging, contextualised and creative. They may cover useful language areas that are not in the traditional syllabus but – and especially if learners are going to be externally assessed – we need to have some check of what language is covered.

Start at the heart

book cover for eltons jpg_smHow about our own beliefs as teachers and materials writers? What role do they play? I think it is vital to think about and preferably articulate our beliefs about teaching and learning. It’s certainly how we start our Materials Development courses at NILE. When I self-published Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners, I did so because I could fill it with what I believed teachers and learners needed. I rejected a publishing contract for 300 spelling activities because I knew I’d end up writing at least 100 that I didn’t believe would make any difference, just to get to the magic 300. When we are writing for our own classes, it’s easier to stick to our beliefs – we just need to have confidence in them.

So where shall we finish?

Let’s end with words variously attributed to Henry Ford, Mark Twain and several others:
‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always have what you’ve always got.’
So what about starting somewhere different and seeing where you end up?


Johanna Stirling is a freelance ELT Consultant. Most of her work is with NILE as a face-to-face and online teacher trainer. She writes and edits online courses including one on Materials Development (starting April 2015) and is the NILE Online Academic Manager. She also writes, edits and presents for Cambridge University Press. Her self-published Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners won a Special Commendation in the British Council Award for ELT Writing and was also nominated for an ELTON. See her website The English Language Garden and The Spelling Blog for more.

5 thoughts on “A fresh start?

  1. Hi Johanna,
    Thanks so much for this timely prod! Just this week I’ve started writing on a brand new project. But because I’m tired, a bit under the weather and under time pressure (for the new project and other stuff going on), I realize that my first draft of my first unit was just a rather uninspired rehash of ideas I’ve used elsewhere. I’ve spent so long mulling over my outline and syllabus, it seems criminal not to put the same effort into what goes on the page! I don’t have the luxury of time to play around with lots of ideas, but I’m certainly going to chill out over the weekend and try to go back to work on Monday with a fresh eye.
    Julie x

  2. I’m a big believer in starting with the source as, if it’s engaging, then getting the students engaged is easy. That’s far more likely to lead to learning something (no, I have no statistical evidence to support this!) than endlessly cycling through a grammar syllabus. The very least we can do is provide interesting materials that someone wants to talk about. In the end, all the grammar needed will emerge. This is how I apply that principle:


    1. Thanks for this, Nicola. Do you think if you’re teaching exam classes, for example, that you need to keep a check on what language has been ‘covered’? Or do you believe that we should just trust that plenty of exposure (along with noticing activities, practice, activation etc) will provide a comprehensive enough syllabus anyway?

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