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.