In this post, John Hughes meets Jane Spiro, a lecturer on the MA TESOL at Oxford Brookes University and TESOL programme leader until 2016. John interviews her about the new module in ELT Materials Development. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.
Writing materials is such a core skill for any English language teacher; we need to know how to write a short gapfill exercise, create a speaking role play, make a short video or even develop an entire course. And yet, it always surprises me how little formal training in this field is included on courses for teachers. It’s also an area I’m increasingly being asked to provide training on. As a result, I’m always interested to hear about new courses in ELT materials writing for teachers and to find out how it has been approached.
This year Oxford Brookes University, which already has a well-established MA in TESOL, added a new option for its participants – a module in ELT Materials Development. I was invited to attend one of the sessions to give feedback to the participants on their materials. I also used this opportunity to interview Jane Spiro, the Module Leader, and find out more about how the course was developed. Then I met Jane again after the course to discuss the feedback and what she needed to consider when running the course again next year.
I began by asking Jane why she felt there was a need for this module at this particular moment in time. She said:
The students taking this course are often teachers who want a new career track rather than an academic applied linguistics track. Some are moving out of the classroom and into a new area with their knowledge. It seemed to match that moment in the language teacher’s development. Also there are opportunities now for teachers to take control of publication for themselves – with online publishing, such as YouTube and ‘citizen journalism’. You no longer have to become part of a publishing house but you can contribute independently via websites, blogs and so on.
The course at Oxford Brookes is a combination of face-to-face and online delivery. Some students attend lectures and seminars on campus, and some are 100% online. Here’s a very basic overview of how the course progresses:
- Analysing published materials for task type, differentiation of language level, development of skills, approach to language, level and type of cognitive challenge
- Analysing published materials for overall design: choice of topics and content, progression, approach to recycling, support for the teacher
- Carrying out small-scale activities such as trialling task types, piloting, evaluating and revising these with one another
- Identifying a target group for developing materials
- Analyzing the needs of the target group, the resources available for them already, and potential gaps in these resources
- Researching the gaps: focus groups with the target audience, market research of available resources, reviewing the research terrain
- Learning and practicing materials writing strategies: drawing on guidelines and examples from ELT Teacher2Writer resources, published materials and draft materials of writing in progress from the programme leader’s personal resources
- Developing, peer reviewing and revising materials over four iterations
- Piloting the materials with students and other teachers
- Presenting your final material (e.g. an idea for a book, website, set of worksheets etc.) as a ‘pitch’ to an editorial board made up of course tutors and specialists from ELT publishing.
Jane adds that when designing the programme, she was keen to bring together the idea of academic rigor with the experience of writing for the real world of ELT publishing. She adds:
I don’t believe there should be a distinction between the academic and the real-world. By ‘academic’ I mean critical, self-aware and well-informed, and I feel all activities in the working world should be guided by these principles. So, for example, a materials writer would bring these supposedly ‘academic’ skills to bear when researching the needs and aspirations of their audience, honing their materials to meet cognitive, linguistic, social, needs of their audience, keeping their materials in touch with cutting-edge knowledge in the field, and responding to feedback from others. So what I am hoping this course might do is help teachers make the bridge from ’these materials work in my class’ to ‘I understand why these materials work, and have principles, strategies and current understandings to develop excellent materials for every course I do.
Balancing the demands of materials for the real-world ELT classroom and the demands of the academic world is a key issue, and the course at Oxford Brookes addresses this. However, I have also seen MA courses in materials writing where participants have written materials, but they have not been graded on how these materials work in the classroom, or the materials themselves have not been graded. Instead, students write about the materials and how they were developed; it’s this document that is graded. I’ve never thought that this was a reasonable approach to assessment. On the Oxford Brookes module this year, participants were also graded on their analysis and reporting of the process, which took the form of a 3000-word ‘development record’. The material itself was not graded, and Jane accepts that will need addressing next year. She explains:
I chose to grade the student’s development of skills which would go beyond the preparation of these specific materials: such as the capacity to see what might need to change, what they would do next time differently, what was or was not effective in their current set of materials. This capacity to evaluate themselves and see into the next stage of development seemed to me more important than an assessment of materials at a single point in time. However, having seen how much work and effort was put into the materials, it needs to be reviewed. We need to look at how the material might be graded and add this to the criteria so they are rewarded for their effort. I may develop a form of peer assessment so materials writers identify the criteria against which they wish to be judged, and teachers/learners piloting the materials respond to this – but I am reviewing the system so it as constructive, transparent and realistic as possible.
Student feedback on the new module at Oxford Brookes has been extremely positive, and it highlights the importance of training in ELT materials writing. In a future post, we will feature the thoughts of students who took the MA module this year, and have them reflect on their experience of learning to write materials. If you are involved in a similar MA course in materials writing, or if you run training courses in materials, MaWSIG would like to hear from you. Feel free to add your comments or questions below, or perhaps you would like to write an article outlining your own experiences of running (or taking) materials writing courses.
For more details on the MA TESOL course at Oxford Brookes, visit https://www.brookes.ac.uk/courses/postgraduate/ma-in-education-tesol/
You can also read two follow-up interviews with two trainees from the course here.
Jane Spiro has also been a materials writer for Cornelsen Verlag and a writer of learner literature (ELI Recanati and Nelson). Her further publications include resource books for creative language teaching (with Oxford University Press), a core MA textbook Changing Methodologies in TESOL (with Edinburgh University Press), two poetry collections and a novel.
John Hughes is a teacher trainer and coursebook author whose titles include Life (National Geographic) and Business Result (Oxford University Press). He is also series editor of the ETpedia Resource series and co-author of ETpedia Materials Writing (www.myetpedia.com)
Jane, you say :
‘So what I am hoping this course might do is help teachers make the bridge from ’these materials work in my class’ to ‘I understand why these materials work, and have principles, strategies and current understandings to develop excellent materials for every course I do.’
I think this is spot-on, and exactly what is needed in terms of developing as a materials writer. And, I would add, if I may, that if someone is planning to write for publication (whether mainstream or self-publishing), it’s also vital that anyone else could pick up the materials and use them successfully. The logic of the materials needs to be clearly visible. Not as easy as it sounds!
Thanks Rachael for your comment. One challenging new aspect of the course for the MA students, is that they must prepare their materials to be used by another teacher. For those with CELTA and teaching experience, developing materials for our own classrooms is a challenge we meet daily; but this is certainly the new leap, and the difference between “this works” and “these are potentially publishable materials”. The feedback the students gained this year from other teachers who had tried out their materials was extremely formative, always insightful and often surprising. It involved some quite drastic rethinking – for example one student who had prepared very interesting induction activities for the first weeks in an international school, but the teacher trialling the materials planned to do so in spring long after the induction period: so the whole resource was rethought to make it workable at different stages in the school year.