In our first post in the series Looking back at the MaWSIG PCE, Belfast 2022, Sue Kay writes about her presentation in which she shared an insightful account of her thoughts and experiences as she prepares to update and self-publish materials that she originally wrote 30 years ago.

I’ve been writing ELT materials for thirty years now, and during that time I’ve co-written some successful coursebooks, notably adult courses Inside Out and New Inside Out, and two editions of an Upper Secondary course Focus. The reason I mention this is that you’d think that was pretty impressive, but apparently not as impressive as something I wrote thirty years ago: the Reward Resource Packs. I’m always amazed at how much more recognition I get from people I meet at conferences and other ELT events for those packs of photocopiable communicative activities than for anything else I’ve written!

So when the Reward Resource Packs went out of print and the copyright reverted to me, it was a no-brainer to think about updating and republishing them in some form. With my ELT Teacher 2 Writer colleagues Karen Spiller and Karen White, we’re used to publishing our own titles, and so it made sense to create new editions together under the ELT Teacher 2 Writer banner. And this is what I spoke about at the MaWSIG PCE event at IATEFL Belfast recently.

For those who are too young to remember the Reward Resource Packs, they were first published in 1994 to accompany the Reward series, written by my late friend and colleague, Simon Greenall. Simon had the idea to get me to write them when he saw some activities I’d written for the Lake School, where I was working at the time. The Resource Packs were popular because teachers could choose a grammar or vocabulary point, photocopy the relevant worksheet and use it to get students on their feet and talking to one another.

Over the thirty years that have passed since then, a lot has changed in our industry, and as we embark on the task of updating the material and making it suitable for 21st century ELT classrooms, we’ve been considering things that weren’t on my radar at all – at that time, things like diversity, inclusivity, neurodiversity, 21st century skills, the green agenda and online delivery. In 1994 there was no broadband internet for googling authentic material (hard to imagine), no CEFR, no ELF. At that time it was assumed that people were learning English to speak to Americans, Brits or other nationalities whose first language was English. These days, of course, we know that the majority of students learning English are more likely to use it to speak to another person who’s learned it as a foreign language.

It was a lot of fun revisiting the Resource Pack activities; it was also amusing (and sometimes a bit shocking) to observe how many references there were to love and romance, television, exotic holidays and air travel, smoking, drinking alcohol, and even a passing reference to hallucinogenic drugs. We found that there were activities that could be improved from a diversity and inclusivity point of view. For example, the categorising activity below is somewhat ageist. In my defence I was 30 years younger then and thought that it was okay to have ‘over 50’ as the category representing ‘old’, and to assume that ‘sleeping in the afternoon’ and ‘fat around the middle’ would fit into that category, whilst ‘falling in love’, ‘holding hands’ and ‘the opposite sex’ might not! I cringe. Phrases like ‘the opposite sex’ and ‘fat around the middle’ would have to be taken out for the new version of this activity, but actually I’m not sure the premise of the activity should survive at all, given that it makes all these ageist assumptions.

The biggest challenge we now face in updating the Resource Packs is not only bringing them into the 21st century, but also making  sure we don’t lose the fun element that made them popular in the first place. But for the most part, the activities rely on student input (see Sentences in a hat below) and these kinds of activities are as relevant today as they were then; they mainly require rethinking only in terms of online delivery.

We conducted a survey with teachers to find out which platforms they use for online lessons, and how they share worksheets, etc. with their students. Teachers told us that they were happy to do pairwork using breakout rooms of some sort, but mingling activities were a bit more challenging. Basically, if an activity was too complicated to set up, there was a risk that both teachers and students would decide that it wasn’t worth the effort. In the talk, I demonstrated two activities that we’ve updated for online delivery: a jigsaw reading and a mingle. For both activities, we updated the content and then we created Google Sheets, which students access through a link. They then click on the relevant tabs to access the information they need to do the task.

Here’s a mingling activity on a Google Sheet.

This is how it works:

  • In the main room, the teacher gives each student a number from 1 to 8, and repeats if necessary.
  • The teacher puts a link in the chat for students to access the worksheet.
  • The teacher gives pairs of students two minutes in breakout rooms.
  • In breakout rooms, students access their questions by clicking on the numbered tabs – Question 1, Question 2, etc.
  • Pairs of students ask one another questions and note down whether their partner can or can’t do whatever they’ve asked about.
  • After two minutes, the teacher resets breakout rooms and students repeat the activity with a new partner, asking the same questions and noting answers.
  • After several changes of breakout rooms, feedback takes place in the main room.

The frequent changes of breakout rooms means that students get to speak to different students as they would in a face-to-face class, and the limited amount of time also introduces a game element.

We’re just at the beginning of this project but we’re particularly enjoying the opportunity to give these activities a new lease of life. It’s been a great chance to make the materials suitable for online teaching, and to take into account some of the issues that have gained more importance in ELT materials development since I first wrote them.

Sue Kay has been working in ELT since the early 80s and has been an author for the last 30 years. Her first publication was the Reward Resource Packs published by Heinemann. With co-author Vaughan Jones, she has written Inside Out and New Inside Out for Macmillan, and two editions of the Upper Secondary course Focus for Pearson. Sue is one of the co-founders, along with Karen Spiller and Karen White, of ELT Teacher 2 Writer, who publish books that train teachers in the craft and skills of ELT writing. She’s also one of the directors of ELT Publishing Professionals, a dynamic online directory that brings together ELT publishers and freelancers.