Kath B photo

In this post, Katherine Bilsborough discusses the need for principles in materials writing and outlines some of her own principles and those of others. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.

Put your hand up if you write ELT materials, either for your own classes or as part of your professional work. Now put your hand up if you’ve ever been taught how to write ELT materials. The likelihood is that you haven’t had much (or any) training and that most of what you know has been self-taught or learnt on the job. But in these changing times, more and more teachers are working on writing projects … so wouldn’t it make sense to provide some kind of training?

A training course for ELT materials writers

With this in mind, I designed and delivered a four-week online course for iTDi

(http://itdi.pro/itdihome/creating-elt-materials.php) called Creating ELT Materials. In a live session each Sunday, I presented background theories and aspects of ELT writing; these included Frameworks for ELT Writing and Copyright and Authentic Texts. Participants then had to do two things each week: (a) complete a materials creation task, which their peers and I would critique; and (b) take part in a discussion related to one of the week’s themes. In week 1, after covering Principles in ELT Writing in the live session, the discussion question was as follows:

Which principles of material design are most important to you? Why?

In the live session I first gave an overview of the principles outlined by Tomlinson (1998); I then shared my own principles for ELT writing, explaining that we can, of course, use or reject any established principles and – even more exciting – think up some of our own.

Tomlinson’s principles (in brief)

Tomlinson highlights six principles which he believes should drive materials development. Materials should

  1. expose the learners to authentic language;
  2. help learners pay attention to features of authentic output;
  3. provide opportunities to use the target language to communicate;
  4. provide opportunities for outcome feedback;
  5. arouse and sustain learners’ curiosity and attention; and
  6. stimulate intellectual, aesthetic and emotional involvement.

Tomlinson emphasises that materials should be driven by learning and teaching principles rather than developed in a spontaneous manner. He also underlines the importance of paying attention to what teachers and learners want from the materials they use.

Jill Hadfield’s ‘framing principles’

After attending Jill Hadfield’s splendid session Do Writers Have Principles? at the 2014 IATEFL conference, my interest in writers’ principles grew. I recently contacted Jill to ask if she was continuing her research in this area; I’m glad to report that she has published a book chapter and a journal article on the subject – all part of her PhD – and that she has a new research project underway. Jill introduced me to the Ellis Principles (2005), which are related to language learning in New Zealand secondary schools, and to Nation’s Principles (1993). Her own list of framing principles is interesting: there are overlaps with other theorists, but she has also taken into account the teacher’s needs, something missing until now. I look forward to seeing it in publication.

After some self-reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that my principles change from project to project. For one particular project, I needed to create materials which had

  1. input at an appropriate level (Krashen’s I + 1);
  2. grammatically correct English;
  3. language that is useful for the learners’ context;
  4. a visually pleasing design;
  5. accessibility to learners of all kinds, in all contexts;
  6. logical sequencing;
  7. flexibility / adaptability;
  8. appropriate content (PARSNIPs … or not!); and
  9. clear and appropriate instructions (rubrics).

As you can see, I’ve taken on board some of Tomlinson’s principles, but I’ve also rejected some and added a couple of my own. I had my reasons for including each item to my list. For example ‘flexibility / adaptability’ was important as this was a coursebook which was going to be adapted for another level and context. On the writers’ course I felt it was important for participants to consider the discussion question from within their own contexts. I expected disagreements and conflicting opinions about which principles should be included.

The ensuing discussion was enthralling and revealed much about the changing times we’re writing in, with some writers throwing spanners into the works of what we have, until now, considered to be sacrosanct. I’ve extracted a few examples of emerging principles.

Emerging principles to consider

Materials should include information about the real world and compromising principles.

This issue of whether to include or actively exclude material of a sensitive nature is complicated. In some contexts writers receive guidelines about no-go areas. But increasingly, teachers around the world are showing an interest in global – and often controversial – issues, for which they need materials.

Audio materials should include non-native English models.

This is a hot topic at the moment as more and more professionals realise that the English their students are likely to experience will be spoken by non-native speakers. So for this participant, ‘authentic’ means ‘non-native’.

Create materials that can be accessed in different formats.

This refers to digital materials, of course: IWBs, tablets, smartphones … but it also refers to contexts with limited technology. Sometimes print versions of materials are a must.

I want something that can be created within minutes, not hours. And also, it must be improved with minor tweaks, not major overhauls.

This participant is speaking from experience. He creates his own materials; he is also a teacher, a school owner and a parent. This means time is in short supply. This is a good example of a principle that is quite personal. We all complain about not having enough time, but I wouldn’t have thought of including this as a principle. Maybe I should.

Good material should be presented in multiple formats as every student learns differently.

This participant is referring to learning styles and suggesting multiple formats to address this issue. In most contexts this might be unachievable because of costs, but in more localised contexts or self-publishing, it can be achieved.

Materials should provide opportunities for feedback.

This point was made with regard to digital materials. One of the problems of some online activities has been the inadequecy of online feedback.

My favourite comment from the discussion is this one:

I feel like different materials require different principles not least of all because paid work sometimes means compromising principles that I’d rather keep!

This is thought-provoking and raises several interesting questions. How far should we compromise our principles? Is it okay to replace our own principles with those of an editor or a publisher? Might it be a good idea to sit down at the beginning of a new project and draw up principles which both parties agree with?

On reflection, it makes perfect sense that the principles of ELT material design are changing. These principles are informed by teaching and learning theories, and these are changing. I suggest we embrace these changes. From now on, before I start each new project, I plan to draw up a list of appropriate principles; I will use this as a checklist as I work to make sure I haven’t drifted.

Which principles are important to you, and why? I’d love to hear your ideas.


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. When Katherine isn’t writing, she’s either gardening, reading or lying on the sofa watching telly.