Aug 29

SPREAD YOUR KNOWLEDGE! (Part VIII) ‘Write (More Of) Your Own ELT materials’ by Jason Renshaw

There are, of course, many obvious reasons for creating your own ELT materials. Coursebooks don’t have enough materials in them (or not enough of the ones you really need), some things may need more extensive practice or explanation, and sometimes there is no material whatsoever! With your own materials, you get to do things more YOUR way, and there is always that nice fuzzy feeling that you get knowing that the class is progressing and doing well with something based on your ideas and activities rather than someone else’s.

However, here are some other reasons for writing your own materials which you may not have given (much) thought to yet.

1. Adjusting the distance between course materials and learner contexts

Generally speaking, the more “global” course materials are, the more distant they tend to become from specific contexts, their needs, and their preferred learning styles. The “one size fits all” approach (often the holy grail of major international publishers) can’t possibly address all of the interests and learning needs of the students in your particular country – but the supplements or complete course materials you develop yourself (possibly) can. Your materials can involve the local country’s people, geography, history, and current events. They can also make the most of the learners’ predictable learning difficulties and preferences, and cater to the local testing arena. Learners are likely to feel closer to, more familiar and more comfortable with these sorts of materials.

However (and before the localized publishers out there throw their arms in the air and claim a brilliant victory for their capacity to deliver exactly what local learners and teachers “need”!), locally published course materials often run the risk of featuring singularly narrow approaches to teaching methodology, and can be stifled, over-predictable and too test-oriented. Creating supplementary material for these courses ourselves means we can incorporate more eclectic approaches to content and teaching, and give our learners a glimpse of a broader world outside the borders of their own country’s approach to teaching English.

This kind of elastic gap between global and local language learning content has been taken up in the “Glocal” movement of late, but teachers who can write their own materials and apply them well in class are that all-important elastic that allows course content to narrow or broaden, and incorporate more of that absolute spice of life – variety.

2. Incorporating our own methodological concerns into our teaching approach

This is linked somewhat to the point above, but approaches and methodology are certainly not always just “global” versus “local” (they can vary from teacher to teacher), and it’s important for teachers to be able to both tweak the approach represented in coursework for the direct benefit of their learners, and experiment with new approaches and techniques to break new ground and find new and better ways to teach. Writing your own supplements and materials is the best way to facilitate these factors.

By way of example, look at the approach that forms the backbone of my own (hey, had to slip a plug in here somewhere, didn’t I?) Boost! Speaking coursebook series (center), and the ways teachers might add or insert their own supplements to adapt the overall approach:


While I doubt many teachers would ever need or even want to incorporate the number of additions shown here, they do serve to show how a basic set of materials can be adapted to incorporate different aspects of teaching methodology, and almost all of them would require some sort of materials writing or activity design from the teacher concerned.

Of course, to really make the most of your methodological beliefs and favourite techniques, you would need to consider making whole units of material on your own. It can be exhausting (and often thankless) work, but the pay-offs can be enormous.

3. Materials design and teacher development

When you design your own materials, you are facilitating progression as a teacher in terms of both knowledge and professionalism.

On the knowledge front, you get a better awareness of what works and what doesn’t in a variety of different classroom settings. If you are required to use coursebooks (and let’s face it, most of us are), your own materials design skills will give you broad instincts about what, when, and how existing materials need to be adapted or added to in order to cater to the specific needs of your learners. Materials and activity design also gives you a deeper awareness of methodology and learning styles and strategies, as it involves thinking your way through learning processes and making a lot of key decisions that will have a major impact on what happens in class. If you share your materials with other teachers, you gain even broader knowledge by seeing how they may apply your materials in different ways. When they need guidance or explanation on how to apply the material (and why), it forces you to vocalize your objectives, rationales and approach – solidifying it all in your own personal knowledge framework.

For the professionalism side of things, there is no doubt that people who create their own materials look and feel like more capable teachers compared to the teachers that don’t. Materials design requires good decision-making, a willingness to experiment and learn from both successes and failures, and – well – let’s face it: a lot of extra work! Learners know when a teacher is making good stuff for them to use, and they view the teacher as being more committed, knowledgeable, and professional as a result. The teacher with his/her own materials tends to attract the attention of other teachers looking for new ideas, which in turn leads to more discussion (including constructive criticism and that noble art of making suggestions) and sharing, and I think these are two essential ingredients in professional relationships. As an academic coordinator, I was always more willing to listen to the opinions of teachers who had made some sort of effort to improve their own teaching situations with their own materials – especially when it came to major decisions about course structure, methodology, content, and assessment. Simply put (and irrespective of official teaching qualifications), to my mind these teachers were more professional and more worth listening to!

All of these factors also contribute to self-belief, which is a major sign of ongoing teacher development. Self-belief feeds confidence, independence and commitment, all of which help you to become a better teacher.

4. Improving your career opportunities

Materials design can be an important factor in determining how far you might go within the ELT field and (for that matter) whether you can make a successful transition to a related or different field altogether.

For one, the materials you make yourself become like an ongoing resume or “track record” of your development and experience as a teacher. While you can always list years or total number of hours spent teaching, it becomes a pretty dry-looking statistic without a whole lot of substance. When it comes to promotions within ELT contexts or applying for new jobs elsewhere, that folder/file/blog/site documenting all of your own materials can become extremely influential. It’s proof of what you know, what you’ve done, and what you are likely to bring to a new position.

Secondly, if you begin to progress into academic management or curriculum design roles, your own “stash” of ELT materials can become really useful. In addition to having a lot of material that can become incorporated into the curriculum immediately, you will have material to help or inspire less experienced teachers, and you will have the confidence and capacity to create whatever is needed for the school and its programs. It’s also a sure way to earn some important initial respect and confidence from a new teaching team you may be in charge of (and it can help offset the later shock when you turn out to be an authoritarian slave-driver or else that poor thankless sod that has to pass on nasty announcements to the team from upper management.:-)

Next, other career and money-earning opportunities open to the teacher who can create good teaching/learning materials. Once you have a big enough stash of tried-and-true good quality materials, you might consider selling them directly online (or selling access to them online through subscriptions). It’s also a great way to attract the attention of commercial publishers – in addition to the “track record” I described above, if/when you actually land a publishing contract your ELT materials experience will help you manage the actual process of writing and decision-making about different kinds of activities and levels. These two opportunities certainly ended up working for me personally: over several years of ELT materials creation I managed to build up enough material to launch and develop a very successful online teacher resource site (oh, there’s another plug opportunity) – www.EnglishRaven.com – and the material on that site in turn helped me win a major publishing contract with Pearson Longman (any more plugs here and I’ll be at risk of becoming a plumber or something), resulting in the Boost! Integrated Skills Series. It may not pan out like that for all materials writers, and of course shouldn’t always be a primary goal for writing your stuff, but these can be nice options to potentially explore.

Beyond those considerations, professional materials design experience has cross-application to different fields of work if you ever decide to go beyond or outside ELT. In addition to the computer and Internet skills that you may have picked up along the way, you’ll be in the box seat if you ever need to produce things like presentation or training materials (just to name a couple). And remember, if you can write material that is accessible and clear to second/foreign language learners, there’s a good chance you can produce beautifully clear directions and explanations for 1st language contexts as well, and this is a skill that is often highly regarded in many different fields of work.

Jason’s Top Ten Tips for Budding ELT Materials Writers

1. If you don’t have great computer skills, be patient but definitely stick at it. When I started making ELT materials, I barely knew how email worked and I struggled to make a presentable resume in Microsoft Word. Learning how to use the applications effectively was all part of the process – it took time and a lot of patience!

2. Start with simple supplements to go with existing coursebooks (they are usually quick and manageable to produce, and may be relevant to many other teachers in your immediate teaching context), then upgrade to chapters or units of your own, and then later perhaps even whole textbooks!

3. It’s a good idea to learn how to write test materials, especially your own versions of parts of major tests like the Cambridge ESOL test suite, TOEFL, TOEIC, etc. – you will get great insights on how your own learning materials correlate to major tests and test task types (and this is very important to many schools and certainly to publishers).

4. Always write your name or site or business somewhere in a header or footer, and learn how to convert your files to PDF (to maintain your authorship of the materials you make).

5. Make good presentation a priority, as first impressions really do count and the levels of care and attention you put into paper-based material is often reciprocated in the response to it by learners, other teachers, schools or publishers.

6. Be willing to share your material and consider 3 levels or layers of materials sharing (in-house with other teachers at the same school, at conferences or training seminars, and over the Internet through blogs or websites) – it will bring you broader feedback but also broader recognition.

7. Consider making supplementary materials or even textbooks for your school or department without expecting extra payment – you may be missing out on an effective writing apprenticeship if you try to make it about money right from the start.

8. Store your best materials in an organised way in both print form and online somewhere, for easy retrieval but also for effective presentation to prospective employers or publishers.

9. Don’t get your hopes up in terms of having your work published by a major publishing company (they very rarely take on outside proposals these days), but use your existing materials to catch publishers’ attention (through Internet or conferences), as they may then approach you to help write something they’ve already planned or are looking to develop.

10. Write materials for the love of it, not because you hope it will earn you a lot of money. Very few ELT writers are rich in monetary terms, but all ELT writers (at every level of experience or exposure) are richer for what they bring to their learners and own sense of professionalism.



Jason Renshaw has taught English for more than 17 years in countries on three different continents. He is the author of the acclaimed Boost! Longman Integrated Skills Series, and is the founder/webmaster of the well-known teacher resource website www.EnglishRaven.com. He has also developed considerable specialization in materials design and test preparation for TOEFL, TOEIC and IELTS. Currently, Jason lives in Australia and works from his home near the beach as a freelance ELT materials writer and tutor for his own online school: www.English-iTutor.com.


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  1. Mary Blythe Howland

    Thank you for all of your helpful information. I enjoy using your materials. I am making a lot of my own materials also as I am an ESL Instructor at Beaumont Adult School in Beaumont, California. Yes, I have standards and curriculum I use and follow but the creative part of teaching and loving working with people from all over the world with many different cultures and languages encourages me to continue to make my lessons, presentations and interactive activities successful, fun, and memorable learning experiences for my students. I supplement a lot with activities and extra materials like yours. I have MA in Education and ELD/SDAIE Credential in addition to a Multi Subject Credential. I am always having ideas for learning in my head. I too love to make and use new approaches and I make a lot of multi-sensory learning tools to reinforce lesson content. Your innovative materials and approaches are wonderful. Thank you again for so freely sharing with us teachers!
    God bless you,
    Mary Blythe Howland

  2. Shelly Terrell

    Thank you Jason for the information! Your materials are excellent. I have already written several items while curriculum writing for a school. However, I never really had proper training in doing this. I looked at how others designed their materials and made sure my materials backed up the state standards (big thing in US) and were pedagogically sound. However, the visual format leaves a lot to be desired and I know the format should be updated as well as the lessons put in some kind of pdf like you suggested. Thank you for the suggestions! I will take your tips into consideration. Looks like I have a lot of work to be doing!
    .-= Shelly Terrell´s last blog ..How to Fit Widget A into Socket B! by Jo Hart =-.

  3. Jason Renshaw


    Thanks for those very kind comments, and keep up the great work with your own materials design!


    I think if you are making your own material, and using it in your classes (and learning from the process), you are getting the very best “training” possible for this sort of thing.

    Also, the visual format is only important insofar as things are clear and easy to work with on paper, and definitely it comes after your pedagogical considerations. You can always make a good successful activity on paper look more attractive later down the line as your formatting skills improve. You can’t always ensure a visually appealing resource will work better as a teaching/learning activity later down the line… Books and their covers and all that!

    Great to hear from people passionate about making their own materials!

    ~ Jason
    .-= Jason Renshaw´s last blog ..Great site for making your own comics (or letting your learners create their own!) =-.

  4. Dave Kees

    Great ideas, Jason. I would add just a couple things.

    1. Don’t develop any materials for one class only. If teachers do something for one class only, then don’t spend too much time. Leveraging time in developing materials that can be used in other classes will save time in the long run.

    2. “Think outside of the book!” Publishers are completely locked into markets and they only do what is easy and profitable for themselves. The best way they do this is primarily producing books with some audio materials and a bit of Internet on the side, like a salad.

    If we “think ourside of the book” we can develop material on paper, too. But we can also,

    A. Make our own audios in simple English telling stories and interviewing English-speaking friends.

    B. We can develop materials around movies. Some movies that are easy for students to understand and enjoy are “Big” with Tom Hanks, “Regarding Henry” with Harrison Ford and “Mosters, Inc” with, well, monsters. Publishers can’t use movies and thus miss out a a great and popular medium of spoken English.

    C. We can make an MP3 audio tour of a popular walking destination like a mall, sight-seeing attraction, walking street. Students can download it and go to the place and listen as they visit. Don’t be limited to what you see, invent a crazy story of what the things are or even a mystery of seeing something strange happening. Remember, our goal is to help them practice their English and sometimes crazy is the key.

    D. Send out their new vocabulary words every week as a reminder.

    E. Send them SMS messages every week to remind them to do their homework or if it is a rainy day tell them: “What can you do on a rainy day like this? I know, why don’t you do something in English? Read a book! Download an MP3!

    F. One week tell them to go to a certain website and find something interesting and prepare a report for the class. They could go to HowStuffWorks.com one week, VOA Special English another week, ESLPod.com another week, AbsurdInventions another week.

    G. If it is a small class, maybe 6-8, take them on an English Safari to the local Ikea store or a book store and talk about everything. Use the whole city as your “book”. Bring a few notes from your grammar book to help prompt you to practice some certain forms of grammar with the things you find. In a store, tell a couple students they are going to be salespeople and they need to sell something to the rest of you. Later, have a couple people be service reps and others to be complaining customers.

    These are all things that publishers can’t figure out how to do or how to do profitably because they are in a box. We are making a big mistake if we climb in that box with them. Teachers should “think outside the book” and liberate their students.

    Dave Kees
    .-= Dave Kees´s last blog ..Teaching IELTS writing – keeping it simple =-.

  5. Jason Renshaw

    Hi Dave,

    Those are excellent and very creative additional recommendations – thanks for adding them!

    ~ Jason
    .-= Jason Renshaw´s last blog ..Interesting article about "the new literacy" and how today’s young writers are benefitting from things like social media =-.

  6. Mira Etherington

    Thanks a bunch I really enjoyed reading this. It makes me want to create my own weblog! Just what topic though? I am a dentist by profession but cannot imagine many people wishing to read about dentistry? Maybe I am wrong! Mira Etherington

  7. Edgar Lucero

    Great article about material design. It becomes very appropriate for a course on it I’m currently teaching at university level. The article does center on what can be included from the teacher him/herself to the design of own material for language classes.
    However, I found the article quite teacher-controlled. In my humble opinion, material design should balance that teacher control upon the material selection and the learners’ initiative for the language classes. I believe that there must be learner-inclusion in the language classroom since new language teaching approaches (emmancipatory, for instance) lean towards learners’ overal language development.
    It’d also be fantastic if what has been explained had also a connection to TELL and ICTs. I say this because technologies are now demanded and a requisite for current language teachers.
    Thanks for this space to share ideas!

  8. Asifa

    hi, i’m a student of English Language, I have given my thesis on Material Development, I have to design excercises and activities on any one unit that course is Remedial English for graduate students that excersises will be according to the book of Undergraduate by D.H Lawrence, I’m confused what methodology I use to write material can anyonr help me out?? i shall remain thankfull!!

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