In this post, James Styring summarises a talk he gave at the ELT Freelancers’ Awayday, an annual conference for editors of ELT materials held in Oxford, UK, on 25 January 2020. The theme of the conference was ‘Raising your Game’, and in the first of three reports from the conference, James explains why it’s vital for writers (and editors) to raise their game by keeping in touch with the classroom – and how they can do this.
Most people who can play an instrument practise it regularly – daily in some cases, or perhaps weekly, and at least once a month. If you don’t practise, you get rusty and eventually you forget how to play. The same principle applies to teaching: the ‘tl;dr’ version of this blog post is ‘use it or lose it’.
Plenty of writers and editors sit at their desks day in, day out, creating and editing content for the ELT classroom, yet they haven’t taught a class or even had the opportunity to observe one for ten, twenty, even thirty, years. You might be thinking, ‘Why does it matter? The way students acquire language and the way teachers teach hasn’t fundamentally changed, has it?’ Well, yes it has. Fundamentally.
Since I first taught EFL in the early 90s, classrooms and learners have changed beyond recognition. Personal computers and basic mobile phones were only just coming on stream in those days. Nowadays, it’s rare to teach a student who doesn’t have at least one digital device in their backpack. For younger learners, their entire lives are mediated via digital technology, sometimes inside the classroom and certainly outside. it. For teachers in the 90s, lesson planning involved scouring A4 ringbinders in the staffroom and queueing by the photocopier. Most classrooms these days feature some combination of IWB (= interactive whiteboard), CPT (= classroom presentation tool) and digital homework.
How can we write or edit for the modern EFL classroom if we haven’t used these digital tools, or at least seen them in use? How do we know how hard it is to set up even a simple pairwork activity in a class of 30 distracted teenagers if we haven’t been reminded of the reality fairly recently?
Authors who last taught before the digital revolution can’t expect to be at the top of their game any more than we would expect a composer of classical guitar music to be able to start writing electric guitar music without going along to at least a few rock gigs.
In my view, there’s no substitute for getting back into the classroom, back into the shoes of the teachers and learners you’re writing for. Classrooms are changing all the time, which is why it’s essential we get back to the chalk face and reconnect with our inner-educator.
There are other reasons editors and writers will reap benefits from getting back into teaching:
Knowing what you’re talking about
When reacting to feedback on my writing from an editor, I’ve found that it helps enormously to have my finger on the pulse. For example, recent classroom experience led to my being able to explain with relative authority why a certain exercise I’d written needed more scaffolding. This was because I had found that asking learners at this level to read a model first gave them the food for thought they needed to make their best attempt at a speaking activity.
Trial and error
Several of the volunteers where I teach are, like me, ELT authors. We have all trialled our own materials, both in manuscript and even proof form. It’s astonishing – alarming, even! – how material that looks perfectly polished from the perspective of the desktop can fail in a real classroom. I can’t count the number of times I’ve revised my own material in the light of a classroom test-run.
Like many authors, I give talks for publishers. Whether it’s a pedagogical talk at a conference or a product-promo talk in the market, it makes a huge difference if you’re teaching, however occasionally. At my first IATEFL talk five years ago, several members of the audience piped up at the end to ask who I was teaching and where – oh, and how did I deal with students using their phones in the classroom, and so on. If I hadn’t just got back into the classroom myself, I’d have been flummoxed. That recent teaching experience saved my bacon.
Thinking like a teacher
For me, one of the best things about getting back into the classroom is that I’m on a perpetual mission to teach my best-ever class. When I’m done with the published materials I have on my shelves, and when I want a break from creating bespoke materials, I start casting around for other ideas that are out there. I’d never have come across lesson plans with a twist from Raise Up!, or ELT Sustainable, or TEFL Discussions, or some enjoyably rabble-rousing materials from New Internationalist, if I weren’t in the position of a teacher hunting for engaging lessons that really work in my ESOL setting. Thinking as an active teacher as well as a writer means that I engage with the MaWSIG and ELT Footprint Facebook discussions with a fresh thirst for new classroom ideas. This has all had a tangible and positive washback on my own practice as a writer.
How can I get back into teaching?
Perhaps you’re now thinking that it’s all very well: you can see the benefits of getting back into the classroom but with a full-time writing schedule and relentless deadlines, how on earth are you going to fit in working part-time at a language school?
The good news is, you don’t need to make a regular, time-consuming commitment to teach. There are loads of other ways, easier ways, of getting back into the classroom. The following suggestions are all UK-based so if you don’t live in the UK, you’ll need to look for similar opportunities that are local to you.
Volunteer at an ESOL centre
I teach ESOL classes at FELLOW (‘Free English Lessons for Overseas Workers’), an Oxford University-organised scheme that coordinates volunteers to teach refugee and migrant learners in Oxford. Most of the teachers are editors at OUP, and a handful of us are authors. There are classes three evenings a week in university term time in the city centre, and at other times and locations around the city. Because I’m a 20-minute train ride out of Oxford, I only teach there one evening every three weeks, but some of the editors who live in the city teach fortnightly or more. We do it for the reasons mentioned above, but also because it’s fun! The learners are very varied in terms of background and experience, and it’s not uncommon to have all five continents represented amongst the students in any given class. The learners are motivated and happy to go along with whatever class you have in mind: you’re volunteering, after all, and there’s no set syllabus. For me, it’s easy to slip into town every couple of weeks to teach and it always feels worthwhile. After every lesson, I like to reflect on what I’ve learnt as a teacher, about the materials I was using, about how learners think and talk, and so on. And after five years at FELLOW, I learn something new every time.
Most British cities and towns have similar set-ups where you can teach ESOL via the local council, FE college or university.
But I’ve never actually taught
I was surprised by a show of hands during my talk at the ELT Freelancers’ Awayday. Out of an audience of 120 ELT editors, about 20% had never taught before. Increasingly, apparently, ELT editors may have completed a publishing degree and worked in other areas of educational publishing before landing a job as an editor at an ELT publishing company. If that’s you, there’s no need to worry! You can assist or observe classes instead. At FELLOW, one assistant is allocated to every teacher/class. Most of them are undergrads with an interest either in teaching or simply in volunteering. Experience is not needed or expected, and the teachers find it invaluable to have an assistant to help with pairwork and speaking practice, or to provide one-to-one in-class support for learners who are unfamiliar with the Roman alphabet, or who have never learnt to read.
But I write/edit primary materials
FELLOW, like many ESOL facilities, only accepts adults. ARCh in Oxfordshire coordinates people who read with primary school children. Reading with young pupils and being in a primary classroom can give editors and writers insights into the abilities and behaviour of primary-aged children, as well as classroom organisation and how they use digital devices and materials. Many local authorities in the UK have similar schemes. Some are seeking specific help (paid and unpaid) with teaching ESOL to primary-aged children.
But I write/edit secondary materials
Many UK cities are inundated every July and August with teenagers attending language courses. If teens are your market and you can see that you have a spare week coming up in July or August, why not apply to teach at a summer school? You might only get three contact hours every day for one week but instantly, you’re back in the thick of it, reminding yourself of what makes teens tick and how to get the best out of them.
If you don’t want to commit to a week, you could offer your services as a locum instead. If a school has a teacher who is off sick, you would step in at the last minute to teach for a morning or two.
English for Academic Purposes
UK universities are crying out for teachers on pre-sessional EAP courses in late summer and early autumn. Apparently there is something of an attrition rate with teachers on EAP pre-sessionals, so even if you don’t want to commit to a four- or six-week course, you might be able to pick up the occasional day here or there to cover absences amongst staff.
I have no experience of this but quite a few people at the Awayday had tried it. It’s a growing area with paid and voluntary opportunities. Examples include:
- Verbling – enables you to be paid to teach your own materials via an online platform.
- Learnlight – specialises in face-to-face teaching, teaching via video conferencing and online language learning.
- Alliance for International Women’s Rights – a charity that supports women leaders and future women leaders in developing countries, with a current focus on Afghanistan. Teachers need to be female and able to volunteer as an online teacher for 2 hrs/week for 12 weeks.
And there are dozens more.
Most major publishers pay freelance authors (and editors) to give presentations. These might be pedagogical sessions at conferences or product-promotion talks abroad. Ask your editor who books speakers for the organisation you’re writing for. It’s usually quite well paid, always interesting and it often gets you into the classroom via the side door.
Learn a language
Learn a language yourself to experience how it feels to be on the receiving end!
Refresh your pedagogy and renew your interest in all things teaching by going along to the annual conference, which this year is in Manchester, 18–21 April. If you’re reading this blog post then you might be lucky enough to have bagged a ticket to the MaWSIG PCE (Pre-Conference Event) in Manchester on 17 April. The PCE is called ‘Practical tools and tricks of the trade: sharing our expertise’ and it promises to be a day packed with practical advice from experts in all areas of ELT materials writing. It’s sold out now, but don’t despair: IATEFL has 16 SIGs covering areas such as Business English, ESOL, Global Issues, Young Learners and Teenagers, and Teacher Development. They’re all putting on PCEs as well, so why not check out what they’re doing this year?
If you’re not UK-based and Manchester is some distance – and a pile of CO2 – away, get involved on social media. MaWSIG and all the other SIGs have lively Facebook presences where you can quickly and easily keep tabs on developments in the fields that interest you. Most SIGs organise webinars which are well worth attending.
In this increasingly competitive world, we all need to raise our game a little and there’s no more fulfilling way to do that than to teach. If you have other suggestions for how teaching makes you a better writer or how to get back into the classroom on a casual basis, add your comment below.
James Styring worked for five years as an EFL teacher and then in editorial roles for seven years before becoming a freelance ELT author in 2005. He has co-written several series including Metro (OUP), English Plus (OUP), Heads Up/Look Up (OUP), Prepare (CUP) and the award-winning series Richmond Mazes (Richmond). James lives and works in Oxfordshire, UK. When he isn’t writing or teaching, he’s out riding his bike.