We’re posting our fourth article early, so that you can read it on your way to the IATEFL Conference! Written by Tamzin Berridge, it looks at things to keep in mind when you start out on a writing career. Do you have any tips to add?
The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – get in touch if you would like to write for us.
by Tamzin Berridge
I’ve taught ESOL for twenty years and, having done my DipTESOL and been involved in numerous inspections, I’ve written many lesson plans. So when I had a chance to get into writing via lesson plans for the British Council Anniversaries project, I thought I knew how to do it. But I didn’t. Here’s what I’ve learnt.
Rule 1: Keep it simple for students
An early mistake I made was to try to cover too much – producing complicated, unwieldy lesson plans which took hours of editing before they could be published.
I repeated this mistake several times, until I attended a training session run by Rachael Roberts, a colleague on the Anniversaries project. She showed a plan she was writing which transformed the way I developed material. It was short and simple, with task types which were familiar and manageable for students and, rather than trying to practise everything, it was very focussed.
I now try to design tasks which are familiar to learners and to develop plans which are focussed in terms of what students learn and practise.
Rule 2: Keep it simple for teachers
As well as keeping activities and resources simple, it’s important to keep teachers’ notes simple – remember they’re often used by busy teachers who won’t always have the time to read them in detail before the class.
When starting to write, I tended to over-explain teachers’ notes, giving too much detail. However, feedback from editors and research of published teachers’ notes helped me understand what I needed to include: how to set up an activity, how to do the activity and the answers to the questions.
A useful piece of advice I received was to vary the verbs I used; rather than always starting instructions ‘Tell the students to …’, I now use verbs such as explain, elicit and ask.
Teachers’ notes need to be something a teacher can read during the lesson if necessary. When writing materials, I think of teachers who are covering a class at short notice and ask myself if they could use my resources.
Rule 3: Vary your activities
My early materials were full of matching activities such as matching words and meanings, or sentences and grammatical functions. Matching activities are easy to write and teach, but can make resources repetitive and unengaging.
Think of more interesting ways to design tasks. Jigsaw activities, where students have different information which they share with partners, are a good way to get students communicating. Word clouds – visual representations of text which can be generated and personalised using websites such as Wordle – are a highly visual and engaging way to introduce vocabulary or ideas. Published coursebooks are useful sources of ideas for tried and tested task types; just be careful not to copy the content.
Rule 4: Avoid assumptions
It can be easy to make assumptions about the background, experience and linguistic and cultural knowledge of people you’re writing for. When writing activities for an anonymous audience, you can forget there may be concepts or events teachers and students aren’t familiar with.
When I first started developing materials about World War One, I didn’t consider that some teachers or students may not know that, in this context, trenches were holes in the ground dug by soldiers as places to hide while they attacked the enemy. Similarly, I wasn’t always aware that the reading texts may contain specific vocabulary related to battlefields or war, such as conscription, that teachers may not be familiar with.
I now anticipate difficulties teachers and students may have, particularly cultural, and include information in my materials. I’ve recently written materials based on a video about making British biscuits. As the speaker refers to measurements in ounces, rather than grams, I included information for teachers about contexts where pounds and ounces may be used in the United Kingdom as well as a noticing activity for students.
Rule 5: Trust your editor
I’ve designed tasks I thought were original, innovative and engaging, which my editors have told me won’t work. I’ve had to accept that someone with a more experienced and objective eye doesn’t feel the activity is appropriate – and either adapt or replace it. It’s easy to take negative feedback personally and get upset, but the feedback is about the activities, not you. See it as an opportunity to learn and improve.
Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. It’s easy to get stuck and your editor can help. In my current plan, I’m struggling to adapt my warmer, which my editor doesn’t think is appropriate. I’ve asked for advice and had some very helpful suggestions.
Trust the feedback you receive when materials are trialled. Activities may seem good on paper, but aren’t necessarily successful in the reality of a classroom – they may be too difficult or not elicit the responses you hoped for. Teachers who pilot these materials, and their students, have first-hand experience of using them and their feedback is very valuable.
Rule 6: Remember you have a deadline
My final piece of advice may seem obvious: make sure you know your deadlines. Early in my writing career, I forgot to check a deadline and found myself in the embarrassing position of having to negotiate an extension. I don’t blame the people I worked for – it was my responsibility to ask. Needless to say, I haven’t worked for that organisation again.
Once you know your deadline, stick to it. Others higher up the ladder than you also have deadlines. If you don’t meet yours, it’s difficult for them to meet theirs. The ability to produce work on schedule is important if you want to get more work.
I hope you have found these tips useful. Whilst they also apply to different types of writing, I think many teachers get into writing in the way I have – by writing lesson plans or teachers’ notes. Do other members have experiences to share of starting as a rookie on other kinds of materials, and any tips for that?
Tamzin Berridge has been teaching ELT since 1995, in a number of countries, including Cameroon, Tunisia and the UK. She currently works as a materials writer and examiner and teaches ESOL, CELTA and Access to HE at an FE college near Leicester.