How not to write … ‘really rotten materials’

This post is an abridged version of an article by Peter Viney. It first appeared in Modern English Teacher in July 2006 and was subsequently posted on Peter’s own website. It was a reply to an article in MET by Neil McBeath, ‘How to Write Really Rotten Materials’, in which Neil complained about the process of developing ELT books. It’s over ten years old but feels just as relevant today as it did then.

I enjoyed Neil McBeath’s article. I laughed a lot, and I was aware that some uncomfortable truths lurked in there. But a response from a coursebook writer (or, as some would have it, a coarse bookwriter) is necessary.

Arrogance and ignorance

Neil says, ‘Really rotten materials are the result of a hard-nosed self confidence that comes from a rare combination of arrogance and ignorance.’

Absolutely right. So are really good materials. For years, teachers have confided to me that they could write a great textbook if they had the time and money. I’ve seen brilliant teachers who can’t make the transition to textbook writing. The underlying reason is fear – the fear of having something in cold print that your friends and colleagues can criticise. When I first wrote Streamline with Bernie Hartley, we had a large group of teachers who taught it as we wrote it. We had our morning coffee with them, we taught the same classes, we had lunch with them, we socialised with them. Their opinions were vastly more frightening than the opinions of publishers or audiences at conferences afterwards. So hard-nosed self-confidence is essential. You have to live with the fact that someone may come up to you in ten years’ time, brandishing your book and saying, ‘Did you really write this crap?’ If you never put anything in print, you’re free of this worry.

Does confidence come from arrogance? With some of us (and I’d probably include myself; I know some of my editors would), it may. With others, it comes from the sense that they’ve researched it, tried it out, done their very best. As for ignorance, that’s a more difficult question. I’ve spoken to many fellow authors who refuse to look at other coursebooks at all. Some are frightened of unconscious plagiarism, some are scared that the purity of their vision will be compromised, some are plain not interested. In my case, I buy every coursebook that comes out at the levels I work at. I skim some, looking at design, illustration and syllabus. I read some from cover to cover. Every book will have a new exercise technique or approach to a piece of the syllabus, and you can learn from the ones you dislike as much as the ones you like. I angered a group of teachers in Japan by stating that Headway had had a far greater influence on what happens in the ELT classroom that the entire collected works of Stephen Krashen. In practical terms, coursebooks are the filter through which theory reaches the classroom. It’s a thick filter with an inbuilt delay system, but the good ideas trickle through eventually. And a lot of crap gets caught in the filter and never passes through.

Forming a team

Neil’s article betrays ignorance of the process: I know of no team with an author, an illustrator and a computer nerd.

British situation comedy on TV was almost always written by a team of two. The classics from Dad’s Army through Fawlty Towers to Father Ted all had two authors. The one that’s often considered the greatest of all, Fawlty Towers, had a male/female team. I believe that a male/female team is the most effective for ELT, too, and I can normally spot two male authors or two female authors without looking at the names on the cover.

British situation comedy declined, and the TV schedules were taken over by American series written by teams of up to 30 writers – Cheers, Friends, Frasier. It was only through such a large team that quality could be maintained for 26 episodes a season. Teams of this size might exist in ELT, but I don’t know of any, and I suspect that there wouldn’t be decent recompense for any of them.

Writing teams function in different ways. Some courses will have one person doing contexts, another exercises, a third skills work. In the teams I’ve been involved with, we have deliberately never split duties. Everyone participates in everything because that’s where the need for two people to bounce ideas back and forth comes into play. I’ve written solo, too, and this is the easiest way with something like graded readers. I don’t think it’s wise to write a coursebook solo unless you have an excellent editor and one who has the confidence (or courage) to intervene on a regular basis.

Generic content

Neil points out that the same limited range of 24 topics are used again and again. True. ‘Oh, no! Not pollution again’ must be a thought that regularly runs through the minds of students all over the world as they open the textbook at Unit 13.

Your students have 40 hours. No more. What is the most efficient use of your time and their time? In short courses, everything you do should be balanced against their needs. They’re in your class to learn English.

What degree of intimacy do you have with your students? What degree of intimacy do they have with one another? Topic is related to degree of intimacy. Crossing a student’s own intimacy barrier is poor communication. Some people have a knack for escalating conversation to a deeper degree of intimacy. Others don’t.

Topics are always best when students think they, rather than the teacher, have introduced them. We’ve often used the teacher’s book to suggest routes the discussion might follow, rather than banging them overtly in the student book. Side-tracking the teacher onto a risqué or controversial topic is something students enjoy. A great teaching skills is allowing students to think that (a) they introduced the topic; and that (b) no other class was original enough to do so. A forced discussion on a controversial topic is a bit like sex education discussions when you’re 11 years old. Embarrassing. I’ll never forget my biology teacher: ‘Stop sniggering! If there’s any more sniggering, you’ll leave the class and then you’ll never learn how to do it.’ I wish I hadn’t sniggered now.

Some ‘How not to …’ advice

There are a few pointers I’d like to add.

  • Write the book and series in sequence. As I specialise at the lower levels, ‘subtraction syllabuses’ irritate me – that is, when a series starts in the middle, goes up, then goes down to pre-intermediate and elementary. When this happens, the easier syllabus has to be created by subtracting from the higher level syllabuses. Going backwards is always less satisfactory. The best ideas for teaching were in the intermediate book. The second-best are in the most important initial levels.
  • The whole book counts. Illustration isn’t decoration; it’s part of the working tool set which the teacher uses in the classroom. A whole-page stock picture of Big Ben at night might look great when you leaf through, but it does nothing for the lesson.
  • Resist market pressure to use proper names from every conceivable country that might use the book in the happiest dreams of the optimistic marketing director. Ilona and Sinead visiting Guadalajara on vacation will cause justifiable irritation from a teacher in Japan dealing with the pronunciation. After all they’ve just spent ten minutes getting students to say Jean in the French way and Jesus in the Spanish way, and they’re getting tired. Last year, we put ten beginner courses on the desk and counted over 50 non-English given names, at least ten of which we didn’t know how to pronounce.
  • At the end of the day, when the reviewer in Modern English Teacher hates the book, when your fellow teachers scoff at your approach to passives, when someone says that the unit on vacations is both hackneyed and deeply insulting to all citizens of Andorra, when respected figures accuse you of being trivial or sexist … when all the brown stuff hits the metal revolving thing, it’s your name on the cover. So sometimes you have to remember that and stick to your principles.
  • Not the managing editor’s. Not the desk editor’s. Not the designer’s. Not the illustrator’s.

Peter Viney is the author of the Streamline English series, the Survival English / Basic Survival series, and the Departures in Reading / Connections in Reading skills development series. Peter and Karen Viney co-authored many courses including Grapevine, Main Street, Handshake and the IN English series. They were pioneering ELT video authors and have written thirteen video series and adapted the Academy Award® winning Wallace & Gromit animations for ELT. Peter was also co-series editor of the Storylines series of graded readers, and has written many ELT readers. He is on the board of the Extensive Reading Foundation. Peter has just moved his fascinating back-catalogue of ELT blogs, not to mention hundreds of theatre and music reviews, to his new website at https://peterviney.wordpress.com. You can read the unabridged version of this blog post on Peter’s site here.

The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.

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3 responses to How not to write … ‘really rotten materials’

  1. Nicola Prentis 20 February 2017 at 10:19 am #

    I was particularly interested in this line as it echoes a thought I had for a talk I’m planning about the shaping of ELT ” I angered a group of teachers in Japan by stating that Headway had had a far greater influence on what happens in the ELT classroom that the entire collected works of Stephen Krashen”. Could Peter elaborate on what the teachers were angered by exactly or how they reacted? Thanks!

    • Web Editor 2 March 2017 at 9:13 am #

      Hi Nicola. We had technical problems posting Peter’s reply so we’re posting it here on his behalf:

      “I was neither criticizing Krashen, nor praising Headway. Just stating a fact. I often quoted Stephen Krashen in my talks on extensive reading. When I made the comment in Japan, a group of “conference people” (teacher trainers, applied linguists, D0Ss) appeared to disagree strongly. In Europe, talking on reading I saw blank faces at the mention of Krashen, so I’d ask who had heard of him … just a few had, mentioned on TT courses. Then I asked who had actually read him. Between 2 and 0 in large audiences was the norm. Successful major courses influence the way people teach on a day to day basis. Modesty prevented me mentioning Streamline.

      The influence of Headway has been enormous, fuelled further by the fact that so many books since try to clone its arrangement, syllabus and approach. The enormous success was because OUP liked to throw everything into a “one size fits all” course, rather than choosing horses for courses. Some of its influence was a sensible return to basics of grammar. Other aspects were negative to me. Like many courses which started at intermediate level and went up, the lower levels are afterthoughts and that compromises the syllabus progression and content. I’ll readily admit that my books were the opposite, strongest at the lower levels. Streamline was way better at level one and two than three and four. Though I got it right (for us at least) later with Handshake, Grapevine Three, In English Three.

      When I watched Headway being taught, I always felt far too much time was spent on explaining vocabulary. Maybe that’s teachers failing to teach strategies for guessing and reading around problems, but I also think there were just too many new words, and far too many low frequency ones. But it must work. Vast numbers have learned with it. It’s just not my style.”

  2. alex 5 December 2017 at 6:22 am #

    From what I can see you lay particular stress on Grammar ,rather than vocabulary. Would you agree that this approach is more suited to the students of lower levels?

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