The voice of the teacher’s notes

This month we’re pleased to publish a second guest post from John Hughes, who looks at ways to help teachers to use your materials.

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

JH picture

The voice of the teacher’s notes

by John Hughes

Anyone who has used a coursebook has probably used the accompanying teacher’s book. It’s the how-to guide that lets you know how to approach the material, to adapt it, or to extend it. Sometimes, teachers follow it much like they would a lesson plan; sometimes they just use it for the answer keys or the listening scripts. Or perhaps they like to use the photocopiable worksheets or progress tests in the back. Even if you rarely pick up the teacher’s book, it’s good to know it’s there – just in case.

So when writing materials which you intend to share with other teachers – whether it’s a video worksheet or a set of exercises with song lyrics – get into the habit of writing a set of notes that accompany them, so other teachers will be keener to use them. Here are some of my top tips for writing teacher’s notes.

Provide more rather than less

Whilst no one wants a set of teacher’s notes that are too wordy, teachers – as a general rule – won’t complain if the notes contain more ideas than they need. They will, however, complain if the teacher’s notes don’t include enough support. So when writing teacher’s notes, it’s worth assuming you are writing for a teacher with little experience. That way, your notes will be useful for a newly qualified teacher as well as more experienced teachers, who will automatically ignore what they don’t need and jump to the part of the notes that are relevant to them.

Referencing and headings for navigating the material

Here’s something else that sounds obvious but is important to remember: any page numbers and exercise numbers in the classroom material also need to appear in the teacher’s notes. Detailed and clear cross-referencing is crucial. If the classroom materials have any headings and subheadings, the teacher’s notes should include these. Furthermore, adding extra subheadings in bold, such as Audio script, Answer key or Extension activity, will help a teacher quickly find the section they need.

The tone and style of the writing

Views vary on how the teacher’s notes should talk to the reader. Is your writing style going to be chatty, informal and friendly? Or do you want it to be direct and to the point? In my experience, newer teachers tend to appreciate a style of writing which feels like the author is leading them gently into the lesson, whereas more experienced teachers prefer a direct approach. Ideally, I’d suggest trying to strike a balance. For example, here is an extract from a set of teacher’s notes explaining how to start the lesson using a unit called ‘Energy’ from a coursebook. The first exercise asks students to look at a picture and discuss two questions. Notice how the writer switches between an indirect style at the beginning (using modal verbs), to a more direct instructional style (using sequence words and imperatives).

You might want to start the lesson with the books closed and write the title of the unit, ‘Energy’, on the board. You could put students in pairs and give them two minutes to brainstorm different types of energy, e.g. solar, oil, etc. Write their ideas on the board and help with any pronunciation problems. Next, ask students to turn to the picture on page 20 and look at the image of smoke rising from factories. Discuss the two questions about the picture as a class. If you have a large class, you could ask students to discuss the questions in small groups and then summarise their answers to the rest of the class afterwards. Allow about five minutes for this part of the lesson.

Don’t repeat what’s in the classroom materials

In general, avoid repeating what’s on the page of the classroom material. So, when referring to an exercise in the classroom material, don’t repeat the exercise rubric, but perhaps suggest different ways of managing the activity. For example, perhaps students could do the exercise in pairs, perhaps the teacher could set a time limit, or maybe students could just complete the exercise orally rather than writing the answers.

The what, the who, the how and the why

To sum up, teacher’s notes need to set out what kind of lesson the material is for, who it’s aimed at (the type of student), and how you can use it. Finally, you might want to include something in your notes on why the material takes a certain approach. In other words, it can be helpful for some teachers to provide the reason for doing something. The example below is from some teacher’s notes that accompanied a questionnaire activity, designed for use on the first day of the course. The writer explains the reasons for doing it in the first part of the instructions.

As it’s the first day of your course, this questionnaire is designed to help students get to know each other and to build a sense of community in the class. Students need to realise that everyone has their own reasons for learning English and that they should support each other. Make a copy of the questionnaire for each student. Put the students in pairs; they take turns to interview each other and write down their partner’s answers.

So, what are your experiences of writing notes for teachers – do they encourage teachers to use your materials? Do you think teachers appreciate this kind of guidance or do they find them too prescriptive? Do you have any tips to add?


 John Hughes is an ELT author of coursebook series and teacher’s books, with titles including Life (National Geographic Learning) and Business Result (Oxford University Press). He is series editor of a new teacher resource series called ETpedia. He has delivered training on materials writing with and published How to write audio and video scripts with them. His blog is

6 thoughts on “The voice of the teacher’s notes

  1. Great post. It’s sometimes ridiculously difficult to train new teachers on how to optimize course books and the associated teacher’s guides. If there’s a clear format in the teacher guide, it’ll be so much easier. Suggested procedures, a clear rationale and how the activities are linked are all important. There are quite a few that simply repeats or paraphrases the text book instructions and then just give the answers. An indication of how difficult it is for a teacher to spot the rationale and link to other activities is evident in the fact that it’s a question in delta module 1. If delta candidates battle with it, shouldn’t more care be taken when writing them? Again, I loved the post.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Gerhard. I think your point highlights the need for piloting of materials, including the teacher’s books. It’s one thing to know the material works for you – the writer – but quite a different thing to know if it works for other teachers and if they can follow it.

  2. Hi John
    Nice, clear guidelines here. I would also add that it’s good practice to include tips for differentiation: extension activities for early finishers or stronger learners and suggestions for how to scaffold activities for less able students. If you’re writing materials for ESOL settings, these are especially important if you want to address the needs of all students in classes that are typically mixed-level and with students who have spiky profiles.

    1. Thanks, Kathryn. I love the term ‘spiky profiles’! I should make it the sub-heading for a section in my teacher’s notes. Yes, notes on differentiation are useful and I think many new teacher’s books are trying to extend the guidance on how to use the material in different contexts. With the growing awareness of aspects such as dyslexia in ELT, it’ll be interesting to see if and how teacher’s book try respond to this.

  3. Great post John, thanks. I’d add that with Primary TBs it’s sometimes useful (requested) to add some useful classroom language – either built in to each unit’s step-by-step guide or as a ‘bank’ at the end. Stuff like ‘phrases for playing games’, etc. Other ‘banks’ that you tend to find in primary TBs are things like ‘Ideas for using songs’, ‘flashcard games’, etc. So I suppose a primary TB is much the same as any other TB but with added extra support for inexperienced teachers for those parts of the lesson that are specifically ‘primary’. If that makes sense.

    1. Thanks for your insight here, Katherine (as I’ve never written a Primary TB!). I can only imagine that it’s similar to writing a Business English TB, in the sense that the job of the TB – unlike with General English – is to provide help with the content and methodology which makes the area different. So in a Business English or EAP book, I tend to write more background information on the content, so that a teacher knows why it’s important to deal with it in the lesson; for example, why teach the ‘skill’ of presenting as well as the language and how you do it. As you say, the TB should provide “extra support’ for inexperienced teachers for those parts of the lesson that are specifically ‘primary’ (or ‘business’, or ‘EAP’, etc., etc.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.