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Putting Teachers Back In The Driver’s Seat

Putting Teachers Back In The Driver’s Seat

Teachers can and should become materials writers, but they need support to expand their skill set

Recently, I read an article written by Kris Boulton for the TES. Kris, a teacher at an inner-London school begins with the incendiary line:

“A racing-car driver wouldn’t do an engineer’s job. So why do teachers insist on building lessons as well as delivering them?”

He goes on to explain that because teachers don’t have the time or the resources to write, pilot and edit their own materials, they should content themselves with being consumers of curricula and ‘meticulously-crafted’ materials, rather than their designers. As teachers, he argues, we shouldn’t define our professionalism by our writing skills. Rather, our professionalism lies in our ability to select and deliver materials written by others successfully.

I agree that an important part of a teacher’s job is to know how to analyse and deploy published materials judiciously; these are skills which every ELT teacher begins to learn on their CELTA course and develops during the DELTA, after all.   But there are also several compelling arguments for teachers writing their own materials.


One size does not fit all

When publishers are trying to specify a new product which they hope to sell globally, they often set up focus groups to which they invite the decision makers from a number of local schools. Attending one such focus group as an editor I recall feeling bewildered at the range of responses I heard to the same set of questions. The only word that many of the responses had in common was ‘flexibility’. How can one coursebook or set of resources be sufficiently flexible to meet all these demands? I asked myself. Although the blended learning solutions which are trickling onto the ELT market go some way towards offering a more flexible solution, the peculiarity of each teacher’s context means that published materials are not always a good ‘fit’.   Teachers need to supplement in order to answer their students’ particular needs. Of course, there are plenty of online resources that might plug a lexical gap or provide more productive grammar practice than the coursebook, but often it’s quicker, cheaper and more suitable to write a worksheet which addresses the systemic errors your students make or that scaffold a writing task that you know they might otherwise have difficulties with.


Ownership of materials

Energised, enthusiastic teachers are considered by their students to be better communicators (Coulson, 2006) and therefore tend to deliver more engaging lessons. If a teacher feels disconnected from a set of materials because they don’t suit her teaching style or relate closely to her students’ interests and context, then this is likely to result in a less enthusiastic teacher. By the same token, a creative teacher who finds writing materials rewarding and believes in her ability to do so is likely to deliver more interesting lessons, even if the materials themselves are a little rough around the edges.


If not teachers, then who?

A final argument for teachers writing materials is that they are really the only people qualified to do so. I can’t personally think of one ELT writer who hasn’t taught at some point in their career. Many of the experienced writers I know still keep one foot in the classroom.

Publishers themselves recognise the value of recent classroom experience. They often actively recruit teachers and teacher trainers fresh out of the classroom to write ELT materials in the full knowledge that they are likely to make the sort of mistakes which require heavy editing. This is because new writers tend to:

  • be full of ideas and enthusiasm,
  • have up-to-date knowledge of teaching methodology
  • have an instinctive sense of the need for lesson flow, change of pace and variety of activities gained from their recent classroom experiences,
  • gear lessons towards real communication.

However, as Kris Boulton’s article acknowledges, there is a difference between materials written by a teacher for their own purposes and those written for publication. The advantage of the former, as we’ve seen, is that they are tailored to a set of students’ needs and allow the teachers to connect with and ‘own’ their materials. The benefits of the latter are that they are meticulously crafted by a team of experts and that publishers employ a series of ‘quality control’ strategies throughout the materials’ evolution. These strategies also aim to support new writers in their development.


Working your way up

Although a new writer (or a team of new writers) is sometimes lucky enough to land a student’s book to write as their first paid writing job, more often than not, a publisher will try them out on a component which has a lower profile. New writers are often asked to write teacher’s books, workbooks or supplementary online materials. Although these may not make a writer’s name, they can be a safe practice ground to hone a writer’s skills. They also provide an opportunity for a writer to learn about the publishing process and to build a relationship with an in-house team, so that the writer becomes a ‘safe bet’ for a higher stakes component in the future.


A more experienced co-writer

When I wrote my first IELTS book, the publisher asked me to work alongside a writer who had written a raft of exam books. Intimidating? Yes and sometimes quite challenging – writers are usually not as diplomatic as editors in their feedback, particularly if they have a vested interest in the course succeeding. Despite this though, the experience of working with someone who knew much more than me was invaluable. For example, when selecting IELTS texts I initially looked for a text which felt ‘academic’ and fitted the topic of the unit. My co-writer encouraged me to look more deeply at the macro-structure of the text, pointing out that all my texts were ‘descriptive’ and I needed to find texts which had a variety of structures (problem-solution, cause-result, chronological, comparative etc.).


The value of an editor

Whatever level of experience they have, all writers need an editor. Writers who haven’t worked with an editor tend to think that they exist to dot the ‘I’s and cross the ‘t’s; that they put the finishing touches on the work. Certainly, the copy editing stage allows for a manuscript or digital screens to be cleaned up, but the ‘deep’ editing takes place at an earlier stage. Development editors are often highly qualified and experienced teachers and / or writers themselves. As such they can take an informed view of whether an activity works and make suggestions to move the development of a series of activities forward. Experienced editors are particularly useful to new writers as they are trained to diplomatically navigate typical pitfalls, such as overwriting, too complex rubrics and difficulties in translating an activity that works for one teacher into a universally appealing task.

In conclusion, unlike Kris Boulton, I firmly believe that there are advantages to teachers writing classroom materials, both for their own use and for publication. Teachers who are keen to get published, however, need to be prepared to work their way up, accept constructive criticism and to a certain extent, renounce their sense of ownership of materials in the process of collaboration.

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