In the penultimate webinar Q&A post in the ‘What about …’ series, Dr Elaine Hodgson follows up on some of the questions that participants asked during her recent webinar, What about writing Teachers’ Guides? You can watch a recording of her webinar here.
Look out for the last webinar in the series: on Sunday 10 February at 14.00 GMT Leo Selivan is asking What about writing vocabulary activities? The webinar is open to anyone, not just MaWSIG members, and you can sign up for it here.

Do you think the best teachers’ guides are written by the authors of the students’ books or by other materials experts?

When it is the author of the student’s book who writes the teacher’s guide it is very likely that one will complement the other in a very coherent way. On the other hand, when it is other professionals who write the TG, they can come up with ideas that had not occurred to the SB author. So, in a way, both situations have pros and cons. The most important thing, from my point of view, is that whoever writes the TG has to know the book in depth. This does not only relate to the activities, but also to the teaching philosophy that permeates the book.

It can be hard to consider the audience while writing, as it’s sometimes impossible to know who they’ll be (i.t.o. experience, context, etc.). What do you suggest in those cases? 

As a book will end up being used by a variety of teachers in a variety of contexts, I recommend balance. However, when I write, I tend to think more about the teacher with less experience, either less experience in ELT or less experience with that particular proficiency level, for example. It is important to remember that teachers are also experienced learners and that they will inevitably transfer what they believe is good practice to their lessons. Moreover, the teacher’s personality will also have an impact on how they teach. These are important things to remember as the TG should only do what its name indicates: it should offer guidance, not prescription.

Do you think these guides improve teaching?

If you are open-minded and flexible, teachers’ guides can definitely help you improve as a teacher, regardless of whether you are experienced or not. I say that because even if you have been teaching for many years, you are always likely to find new and fresh ideas in materials written by other people. You are also likely to learn by seeing things from a perspective that is different from yours. Of course, more experienced teachers will have a wide range of tried-and-tested activities and ideas, but this doesn’t mean we can’t find new ideas out there. I believe this is pretty much the nature of our work: learning from one another. To me, that is what makes teaching and writing so exciting and motivating.

What information would be included to make a brief ‘good’?

That’s a million-dollar question. Whether or not a brief is considered ‘good’ depends a lot on the writer’s style. I like detailed briefings which not only state the basic structure of the TG, but which also cater for details, such as when to use italics and bold type and whether we should use cardinal numbers, roman numerals, letters, a combination of all these, etc. Of course, comprehensive briefings are not brief, and some writers don’t like that. From my experience, though, the more detailed the briefing, the less time we spend rewriting and adjusting.

What would a good style sheet include for a teacher’s guide?

From a writer’s perspective, having a clear template you can type into saves a lot of time writing and, I suspect, a lot of time editing. A good style sheet doesn’t have to be complex; it should clearly outline the format, headings, font, colour and other basic information that can help you keep the same standard throughout the whole document. A TG can be long and it is natural that we end up forgetting a few things while writing. This leads to inconsistencies that can be rather annoying. In short, a good style sheet has to be as clear and as objective as possible.

Can you provide a link to any guides or tips for writers of teachers’ guides?

As far as I know, there isn’t much literature related to writing teachers’ guides, but the website ELT Teacher2Writer offers, among other titles, one that is dedicated to TGs. It can be found here.

As for tips, my suggestions are:

  • Listen to teachers: it seems obvious, but I’m not sure teachers are consulted in depth about they want and don’t want, need and don’t need. So, talk to teachers as much as you can.
  • Listen to editors: editors have the wide picture of a book or a series and look at things from a reader’s point of view, which is absolutely essential. Trust and learn from your editors but …
  • Don’t be afraid to make suggestions: not all editors have a lot of teaching experience, so make suggestions for improvement and defend your point of view whenever you believe it is really worth it.
  • Put yourself in the teacher’s shoes: after all, it is a teacher who will be reading the TG and looking for guidance or inspiration. When you write a TG, picture yourself in a class using the book you are writing. What kind of information would you like to find in it?
  • Read other TGs (and note down ideas): just like any other professional, writers need to stay tuned and keep learning. I learn a lot from reading TGs and they are a constant source of ideas and new perspectives.

To finish, I’d like to add that writing a TG that is useful and that teachers value is not so simple. It is such a shame that they are so very often undervalued. TGs have continued to change and innovate, but this doesn’t mean there is no more room for improvement. For example, TGs usually follow the pattern: Introduction –> Lesson-by-Lesson –> Extras, which make them rather predictable and far too repetitive in some cases. Maybe it’s time we thought about new and more flexible formats of TGs that could be even more helpful and user-friendly.

Dr Elaine Hodgson is a freelance materials writer, as well as a tutor and supervisor on the Distance MA in TESOL at the University of Birmingham. She holds an MA and a PhD in Applied Linguistics and has written for publishers in Brazil, Mexico and the UK.