Here, Katherine Bilsborough offers new insights on a theme she first discussed on the MaWSIG blog last autumn – the topic of principles for materials writers. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.

Since writing a blog post called ‘Emerging principles for ELT writers’ on this website in October 2016, I have given the topic more thought, carried out some research, engaged with other ELT professionals about the topic and given a workshop with the same focus at the 2017 IATEFL conference at Glasgow as part of the MaWSIG Day. This new post summarises my workshop and offers a simple framework for anyone writing ELT materials, whether professionally or for their own classrooms.

Where did my interest in principles start?

I first considered the concept of principles for ELT materials writers when I attended a presentation by Jill Hadfield at IATEFL 2014 called ‘Do writers have principles?’ Before Jill’s talk I knew plenty about principles of language learning and teaching, but I’d never really thought about materials writers having principles. In retrospect that’s a daft supposition; after all, principles from language learning theory find their way into our materials in all kinds of ways. It’s just that most materials writers don’t stop to think about them, perhaps because we are far too busy writing!

Where do principles come from?

Traditionally, principles for ELT materials writers have come from two sources. First, a (surprisingly low) number of theorists such as Paul Nation, Brian Tomlinson and Rod Ellis have drawn on research findings from ELT teaching and learning. Examples of specific principles are:

  • The course should help the learners make the most effective use of previous knowledge (Nation, 1993).
  • L2 language learners can benefit from those mental resources which they typically utilize when acquiring and using their L1 (Tomlinson, 1998).
  • Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners (Ellis, 2005).

Second, publishers use the findings of extensive market research involving surveys, teacher focus groups, curriculum designers, ministers of education, and so on, to shape the briefs they send to their authors. Examples of principles that I’ve come across in briefs are things like:

  • All vocabulary items must come from the Cambridge Young Learner Exams word lists.
  • Wherever possible, use real-world examples.
  • Activities should practise HOTS (higher-order thinking skills).

For me, the difference between these two sets of examples is that in the first set, the principles could be classed as ‘common sense’, whereas the second set are far more context specific and will not apply to all materials. Brian Tomlinson calls the first set universal principles and the second set local principles. Jill Hadfield has recognised a third type, which she calls tacit principles. These are principles that reflect the philosophy of the writer; they can change from activity to activity within a set of materials. They might include things like:

  • Make sure the activity includes an element of humour.
  • Give learners an opportunity to be creative.
  • Include an activity that gets learners moving their whole bodies.

Isn’t it time we moved on?

Between 12 and 24 years have passed since the theorists came up with their principles. Is it time to reconsider some of the established principles? Or to start writing our own? Especially when we are writing materials for our own classes or are self-publishing, the traditional principles might not address our situations. I decided to ask Rod Ellis, Paul Nation and Brian Tomlinson whether the time has come to make some changes to their original principles.

Rod Ellis pointed out that the principles he had drawn up were intended to frame classroom instruction more than materials writing. He based his principles on research into classroom teaching and second language acquisition. He recognised that personal experience can be valuable when framing principles and said that his own personal experience as a teacher came into play when he wrote his principles.

Paul Nation believes his original principles continue to be backed up by current research. He told me about recent research on deliberate learning, which creates both explicit and implicit knowledge – something that is present in his original principles. For example:

  • As much as possible, the learners should be interested in and excited about learning the language, and they should come to value this learning.
  • A course should be presented so that the learners have the most favourable attitude to the language, to users of the language, to the teacher’s skill in teaching the language and to their chances of success in learning the language.

Brian Tomlinson believes his principles from 2005 are still valid today but that the following are most relevant for today:

  • Provide a rich, meaningful and recycled exposure to the target language in use.
  • Stimulate affective engagement.
  • Stimulate cognitive engagement.
  • Provide opportunities for noticing and discovering how language features and strategies are used to achieve intended effects.
  • Provide opportunities to use the target language in order to achieve communicative effects.

Can we make it up as we go along?

Last July I trained around 35 materials writers on a four-week online course; this allowed me to do some informal research. I asked course participants to think about materials they were currently creating and to suggest principles that would be appropriate and helpful for their writing. I asked them to think of their particular context, and I suggested that they justify each principle so that I (and other participants) would have a better understanding of their reasoning.

I had no idea what to expect, but something obvious (in hindsight) happened. For almost every principle that was shared, a contrasting principle was suggested. For example, one participant said there should be no background noise on recorded dialogues, while another stated that authentic audio must have background noise.

Other principles were initially puzzling or surprising, but in the justification phase, their logic became clear. For example, one participant said it was important for materials to contain blank spaces of differing sizes where his students could write. This teacher had noticed that by providing boxes to write in, students understood how much they were expected to write. Another participant said that when she created a cloze activity, instead of adding lines for the missing words within the text, she added them in a column at the side of the page. That way, she could tear off the whole column at the end of the activity and use the same materials again with a different group.

For these particular teachers, these principles were important and justifiable in their contexts.

Where do principles fit in to the writing process?

To conclude, I’d like to suggest this simple framework for ELT materials writers.

  1. Think about the aims and objectives, the context and users (teachers and learners).
  2. Draw up a list of principles (universal and local).
  3. Justify each item on the list (to yourself or to a colleague).
  4. Write your materials, keeping your principles in mind.
  5. Use your list as a checklist when your materials are finished.

Different materials require different principles. Sometimes, when we are writing materials for a third party, we might have to throw our principles out of the window – or at least shelve them for a while. I don’t think this should cause us too many headaches. After all, as Groucho Marx once wisely said, ‘Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well, I have others.’


Ellis, R. 2005. Principles of instructed language learning. Asian TEFL Journal.

Click to access sept_05_re.pdf

Nation, I. S. P., 1993. Sixteen principles of language teaching. In L. Bauer and C. Franzen, eds. Of Pavlova, poetry and paradigms: Essays in honour of Harry Orsman. Wellington: Victoria University Press. pp. 209−224.

Tomlinson, B. ed., 1998. Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Katherine Bilsborough is a freelance ELT author living in northern Spain. She writes coursebooks for OUP, Macmillan and others as well as monthly lesson plans and blog posts for the British Council’s website TeachingEnglish. Katherine hasn’t got her own blog but enjoys hijacking other people’s blogs and has been called ‘the interloping blogger’, a title that makes her smile. Her current interests include the process of ELT writing and quality in ELT materials. When Katherine isn’t writing she’s either gardening, reading or lying on the sofa watching telly.