In this post, Laura Broadbent and Billie Jago, who run Otterelt (a digital ELT agency providing digital content expertise and editorial services to leading publishers and educational institutions), summarise the presentation they gave at the MaWSIG Showcase at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate. Their workshop addressed the design of digital materials for a self-study app and the steps to follow in the process, including how content can be made accessible to learners.

Otterelt is a digital ELT agency providing digital content expertise and editorial services to leading publishers and educational institutions.

Digital materials are crucial in today’s English language learning landscape. They have the ability to enhance accessibility, interactivity, and personalisation like never before. Digital resources now offer a wealth of advantages that empower learners to engage with the language on a deeper level.

One of the most significant advantages of digital materials is their accessibility. With just a few clicks, learners can access a vast array of digital content, ranging from interactive e-books, self-study apps, gamified language learning apps, online articles, audiovisual resources, language learning apps, videos and web-based learning platforms, to name just a few. The ease of access allows learners to learn at their own pace, enabling them to fit language learning into their busy schedules and embrace self-directed learning.

Digital materials provide an immersive and interactive learning experience. They can integrate audio recordings, videos, and interactive exercises, which captivate learners’ attention and stimulate multiple senses. Interactive platforms enable learners to actively participate in language activities, practise pronunciation, engage in real-life conversations through voice and video calls, and receive immediate feedback on their progress, with suggestions for how to implement it. These interactive features foster a communicative and dynamic language learning environment, replicating authentic language use scenarios and enhancing language acquisition.

With all this in mind, it’s essential for materials writers to adapt to the ever-changing technological landscape and learn how to write digital materials. As a digital-first content provider, the team at Otterelt gave a workshop session at this year’s IATEFL conference about how to write digital materials, with a key look at how to write for self-study apps.

Why focus on self-study apps?

Language-learning self-study apps are a rapidly growing market, with more than 10 million users on the app Babbel alone, and revenue topping almost $9billion in 2022. Some other examples of these apps include Duolingo and Mondly.

Self-study apps provide learners with independence and the ability to choose their own pace of study as well as the choice of how they learn. They provide the opportunity to reinforce learning, allow for a customised learning experience, and have students learn in ways which are closer to their daily lives. Our phones are now an integral part of our everyday lives and fit into every scenario and situation we face daily. The same principle should apply to language learning: we should aim to align with the world as it is now, rather than seeing technology as ‘just another thing to use’.

Features of digital materials

There are many things to consider when writing digital materials, and, more specifically, self-study apps. It is important to note that when we’re referring to writing digital materials, it’s simply the student-facing content, rather than the backend code.

  • As a teacher, you’re often armed with your Teacher’s Book, Student’s Book and Workbook for a lesson. Self-study apps often provide only student-facing materials. With this in mind, as materials writers, we need to think about how we can replicate the instructions and guidance a teacher might give, and instead use a narrative thread to guide students from one activity to the next, at the same time setting context and activating previous knowledge. We can also include pop-up tip boxes (platform dependent), and ensure our rubrics are as clear as possible.
  • Consider the accessibility of the materials you’re writing. For example – what screen size will these materials be available on – a phone, a tablet, a laptop or a desktop? How much information can be easily read on-screen? How much information is too much information?
  • Remember that the activities must meet the same learning objectives as the print materials, but with fewer items or activities. After all, a learner is unlikely to sit studying on their app for the same length of time as they would for a face-to-face lesson. Learning becomes more ‘bite-sized’, and therefore needs to be segmented in such a way that a student can simply leave and come back whenever they want to.
  • Think about what task types would work well in a self-study language learning app, but keep in mind that the activities don’t necessarily need to replicate a coursebook. Writing digital materials is a great way to be creative about the tasks, depending on the capabilities of the digital platform you’re writing for. With the development of Generative AI, platforms are inevitably going to progress in what they can do – watch this space!

The Otterelt workshop

In our IATEFL session, we worked with delegates to create our own self-study language learning app, by guiding them through the steps above.

We began by discussing self-study apps and why they’re so crucial to the learning landscape. It turned out that many delegates in the room had, in fact, learnt on a language-learning app themselves, or were currently doing so!

We also discussed how self-study apps may have a different focus. For example, Duolingo uses a badging reward system to gamify learning. It prompts the user to want to level up their language learning and share what they’ve done with others. Other self-study apps may act as an accompaniment to a coursebook, or as a standalone product.

We then went on to elicit many wonderful suggestions for how delegates thought print materials differed from digital, and particularly the things to consider from a materials writer’s perspective. We then provided some sample content to use as the basis for the session, before practising writing the narrative thread to replicate the teacher’s guidance.

We then moved on to how to make the content accessible to all users. Many universal design principles were elicited and discussed. Some of the key points, among many others, were:

– considering the font, and its size
– the contrast between the writing and the background colour
– including alt text for photos
– considering the type of task and how accessible it is to a variety of processing abilities
– considering using colour to convey meaning (e.g., in grammar explanations)

We then finished the session by asking for delegates’ key takeaways from the session. A recurring idea was that it was interesting to hear that digital materials don’t need to be an exact copy of a coursebook, and how important the narrative thread is.

We absolutely loved giving our workshop session at IATEFL 2023 in Harrogate and can’t wait to see how digital materials evolve over the next year before IATEFL 2024. We’ll see you there!


Laura Broadbent is an ELT materials writer and consultant specialising in digital and SEN materials. Before writing, she worked as a teacher in Malaysia, Brazil and Europe, and then as a textbook translator in Spain. She has worked on a wide range of digital and hardcopy resources, including student materials, apps, and video filming and editing. She also volunteers as a speech and language therapist assistant for people who have experienced a stroke, at a school for deaf students, and at the Royal Sussex Hospital.


Billie Jago is an ELT writer and teacher trainer specialising in digital learning materials and assessment resources. She has written for various publishers including Pearson, National Geographic Learning, and the British Council. Alongside materials writing, she delivers international teacher training workshops and is the founder of the ELTcpd professional development podcast.