A Tsunami of Materials Writing Ideas from our Readers

A Tsunami of Materials Writing Ideas from our Readers

By: Think Tank Readers

Editors: At our request, a number of experienced  language materials writers sent us their ideas.

A List of Materials Writing Gems

From various authors

  • Publishers have a tendency to get top names in the field to write textbooks, but there is a problem. The leaders in the field tend to teach native speakers and high level non-native speakers, not the kinds of learners who will be really using the book.
  • Related to that, anyone can write a good X Book 2 and X Book 4, but few authors can write a good X Book Intro. Instead, most authors tend to dumb down the lowest level Intro book and take all the fun out. But that is where the most fun is needed, and thus, the most skill as a writer because Intro level students tend to be the least motivated.
  • Whereas language level control is all important for input books (listening and reading), it is less important for output books (writing and speaking). Students tend to perform at their own level of proficiency naturally. A low-level and high-level student might be given the exact same task, but what they produce will be massively different.
  • Putting grammar exercises after a speaking or writing task works better than putting them before, which is usually done. The task creates the learning need.

  • Warm-ups at the start of a lesson help activate background knowledge, create language needs, and also give the teacher time to look the rest of the unit over if they are coming in cold.
  • Like any story, a unit/lesson needs something at the end that expresses closure.
  • Transparency is the key if you want teachers to buy your book. That means a teacher can use it instantly without seeing the teacher’s guide.
  • Reading activities should be lower than the students’ language proficiency levels. Listening materials much lower.
  • Leave about 50% white space.

More on White Space

Heather Kretchsmer – author of some truly innovative activities.

(Related to 50% white space): use an easy-to-read font that’s not too small. If a task calls for writing on the worksheet, leave enough space for students to write, keeping in mind that some students write larger than others. For children developing their fine motor skills, it’s frustrating when the spaces are small. And if you’re photocopying the worksheet for your students, please don’t reduce the worksheet size to fit two worksheets onto one regular sheet of paper to save on copy costs.

Read our Design issue from September 2021. The videos featured are also full of good tips!

Keep Universal Design for Learning principles in mind when designing learning materials.

A funny thing happened on the way to the publishers!

 I like to write horror stories. The original cover for the reader, Zombies in Tokyo showed an illustration of two junior high school zombie students eating an unsuspecting passenger outside a train station in Tokyo. Unfortunately, it was considered to be too graphic for publication and the cover got changed. It was a shame as I loved the original cover. When thinking about the cover for the reader, Kuchisake Onna Story Two, I

suggested a scary stock photo of a woman covered in blood with a slitted mouth, holding a large knife! Luckily, it was accepted and has been named as “probably the most gruesome graded reader cover I have ever seen” (Dykes, 2021).

Andy Boon is the author and co-author of textbooks and graded readers, including Inspire, Research & Write, Discover Conversation, Business pocket readers, 10 Ways To series, 10 Things to See and Do series, and more.

Have Learners Write Out–Not Just Label–Words

Curtis Kelly – wrote 17 a bit out-of-the-groove textbooks

Authored Writing from Within, Active Skills for Communication, Snoop Detective School, etc

As materials writers, we have to balance out the load exerted in an activity. We have to slim down the less important parts (for example, by making rubrics short and simple) and add weight to the more important parts (the target language). We should also opt towards deeper learning, which depends on how we have students interact with the target language. Learning, from shallow to deep, might be seen as a continuum from exposure, to recognition to manipulation to production, as in these ways to teach vocabulary:

Exposure: Learners just read through a list of words and definitions

Recognition: Learners draw lines between the words and their definitions

Manipulation: Learners fill in blanks in a text with the words

Production: Learners generate written or spoken language that includes the words

In my opinion, materials writers often fail to recognize the difference between Recognition and Manipulation without realizing that manipulation leads to deeper learning. Using the examples above, drawing lines between words and their definitions does not take much cognitive processing, especially in regard to the form and spelling of the target words, whereas writing them out does. The latter increases retention.

Another benefit of writing a word is that the word gets connected to more parts of the brain, which in itself defines deeper learning. For example, the action of writing engages the motor cortex, the part of your brain that moves muscles, so the motor routines of writing are connected to the word as well. What is more, recent theories of embodiment (see this Think Tank) show us that there is something about physical movement that is particularly brain compatible and leads to stronger acquisition.

So don’t spare the students from writing, even if it is just copying, because it leads to deeper learning.

A Good Laugh is a Mighty Good Thing

John Carle – English educator in Japan, Program Chair JALT Materials Writers SIG

       Authored The English Gym and The English Gym II

“A good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing.”

–  Herman Melville

Have you ever heard students laugh out loud while reading a dialogue from a textbook? Probably not. Textbooks tend to be dry and serious; that is, after all, their nature. But sometimes, having materials that are even a little funny can be incredibly beneficial. In this short article, I’ll share with you a simple but powerful literary device for writing engaging material that will guarantee laughter.

A few years back, I was writing content for a conversation textbook for university students and wanted to approach serious topics in a lighter, more playful way. I decided to use humorous dialogues as one means to do so. While ridiculous situations, clever wordplay, or funny punchlines may help with writing funny material, that’s no guarantee that students will laugh. The real secret to getting students to laugh is this: simply write “ha ha” in the dialogue.

That’s it, really.

"ha ha"
John Carle
MW SIG Program Chair

Excerpt from The English Gym II, Unit 1: Fast Food or Healthy Food?

Ronald: Uh… what’s hummus?

Genki: Hummus is made from mashed chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, and tahini.

Ronald: Tahiti?

Genki: (ha ha) Not Tahiti! That’s a tropical island. Tahini is a paste made from sesame seeds.

Ronald: Uh… I don’t want to eat chickpeas or sesame seeds. I’d feel like a bird or something.

(PDF and story audio track here)

Teachers may need to instruct their students to laugh when they encounter the “ha ha” moment. Some students will fully embrace the roles and deliver a really convincing laugh, while others may force out an awkward and artificial “ha ha,” which in fact makes them laugh at themselves, at how fake they sound. Either way, the result is the same: laughing students. Once one pair starts, it becomes contagious. Do this week after week, and your students will really look forward to reading their dialogues.

“Humor opens doors to discussion.”

The benefits are numerous and include increased engagement, stronger emotional interaction among students, and a positive classroom atmosphere. Humor opens doors to discussion, even if the topics are rather serious or difficult to talk about. If students are in a good, joyful mood, they talk more freely. If you are using materials that are a bit too serious, try writing a funny dialogue to supplement them and don’t forget to add the “ha ha” element. I guarantee you’ll witness some mighty good results!

Teaching Grammar Must Be L1 Specific

Svetlana Albanskaya – English Tutor, Teacher Trainer, Instruction Material Creator

English-centric textbooks rarely consider how students’ L1 grammar affects the way students approach and understand English grammar. Different L1s will produce different languaging habits which need to be approached individually when we teach English. Therefore, a good textbook should be tailored to the learner’s L1 and take into consideration the particularities of its grammar. It should be able to compare and contrast English grammar to the student’s L1 grammar and on this basis create new languaging habits.

A funny thing happened on the way to the publishers!

The authors had a story involving making beds in the morning, i.e., tucking in bed sheets and pillows, etc. The art brief asked the artists to draw “two people making a bed.” Unfortunately, the story and artwork were outsourced to a developing country with weaker English skills. The illustration came back with two carpenters, hammers. and nails in hand, building a bed out of wood.

Curtis Kelly, co-author of Active Skills for Communication series (Cengage), and 25 other books.

L1 is a critical starting point for all ESL students. They usually begin by mentally translating sentences from their L1 into English. This means that L1 grammar has a significant effect on how students approach and interpret English grammar. And this, in turn, means that different languages create different pitfalls in acquiring English grammar. For example, West Germanic languages have a verb comparable to “to be,” which means students only need to learn the correct forms of the verb to construct proper sentences. That is, in German “am” has a comparable form “bin,” so translating “Ich bin ein Student” to “I am a student” is a simple word-to-word transformation. However, East Slavic languages lack a verb comparable to “to be.” That is, in Russian, you would say “I — student,” instead of “I am a student.” As you can see, the sentence is lacking both “am” and the indefinite article because Russian grammar doesn’t require these two elements. This makes it difficult for learners of East Slavic linguistic background to understand the need for an additional word in such sentences. Hence these learners must develop the habit of paying close attention to every sentence they say and checking whether they forgot to add a verb. This takes much more time and effort than simply learning that “bin” is “am” in English.

Another example is the omission of pronouns in sentences in Spanish and Italian. Let’s look at the same sentence. In Italian “I am a student” is “Sono uno studente.” That is, there is no “I” pronoun in this sentence. So, a common mistake for the speakers or these L1s is forgetting to add a pronoun and saying “Am a student.” They would benefit from an approach that emphasizes the importance of pronouns in English and helps them develop the habit of checking for pronouns in their sentences.

I think it is important to remember that languages are not put into separate boxes in our heads. When we start teaching English as a Second Language we do not deal with a tabula rasa; we deal with an already existing and very complicated communication system in our students’ minds. We need to embrace the fact that this system, with both its grammar and its vocabulary, will intertwine with the knowledge we will present to the students and create something new and unique. English will affect the way learners think and produce speech, but so will their L1. And we shouldn’t disregard this; we should embrace it and have textbooks that embrace and support this approach.

An Overlooked and Misplaced Factor of Learning

Curtis Kelly – wrote 17 a bit out-of-the-groove textbooks

Authored Writing from Within, Active Skills for Communication, Snoop Detective School, etc.

In designing materials, we often overlook or misplace the single most powerful learning tool: fun. We overlook it because we think it is an extra, something not related to learning, something that might keep the learners engaged but of little value beyond that.  We often misplace fun by following the red flag notion that language study should be serious, which means, there is no room for fun if you are serious about learning. Fun is just a distraction.

Both assumptions are wrong. And at the deepest level. We know that because neuroscience tells us so! Fun and its partner, novelty, are both products of the unifying principle of the brain: predictive processing (see this Think Tank). We are constantly, ir-repressively predicting the very next thing that may come in any moment because that is how our brains conserve energy. As Lisa Feldman Barret once said: “you are already predicting what I am going to say even before the words come out of my….” 

Humor and novelty (the base elements of fun) happen because the thing we expect will come next, does not, and it both surprises and tickles us. “What did O say to 8?” “Ooo, I love your belt.” In neuroscience, this is called prediction error. To the brain, that means the model of the world it is using is flawed and needs to be amended.  So, on experiencing a prediction error, the brain releases a dollop of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates new synaptic connections, or as is often said, “learning.”  The dopamine not only helps the brain reconfigure its model (so the next time someone asks what the zero said, you’ll moan out, “I already heard that one.”) but it will also do the other things that dopamine does: it makes you feel good, and it makes you want more.

Learn, feel good, and want more. Turn the order around because dopamine works like this as well:  Something makes you feel good, like a hug, a chocolate, or a joke in a language textbook. The good feeling comes from dopamine release, and that release also causes you to learn what made you feel good and to want more.  To put it simply, the brain is built to retain what makes it feel good and drive us towards repeating that experience. That is how our ancestors remembered the best place to pick berries and how we remember the best place to get pasta. And that is why drug addiction, —a kind of super learning—is caused by the trifecta of dopamine.

Now, here is the catch. We don’t just remember that very thing that made us feel good, such as a joke, we also remember all the bits around it as well. So, textbooks that provide fun also increase the probability that the language in and around that fun will be retained as well. 

Yuichi Suzuki and I, writing The Snoop Detective School Speaking Book (Abax), decided to make fun and novelty our priority: a) each unit has an info gap mystery designed according to one special criterion: it has to be fun enough that the learners would even want to do it in their native language outside of class. We also have this mysterious cat that keeps showing up in the illustrations, with only hints at who he might be. 

So, take that you overlookers and misplacers!  Fun causes deeper language learning!

Activating Schemata to Facilitate Language Acquisition and Content Comprehension

Brian J. English, Ph.D. – Professor, Tama University, School of Global Studies

Author of: Global Issues: Wealth and Poverty , Reading for Writing as Reciprocal Reinforcement in Vocabulary Acquisition

In Second Language Acquisition, “reciprocal reinforcement” means designing lessons so that comprehensible input triggers comprehensible output to build a deeper understanding of the targeted language structures. For example, students acquire new grammatical structures and vocabulary during lessons that focus on receptive skills and then test their individual hypotheses about how to use those newly acquired language features to create meaningful messages in lessons that focus on productive skills. I have had challenges with trying to make this connection when it comes to designing lesson material for a content-based course I teach, Global Issues: Wealth and Poverty. University teachers of any level, and especially those teaching content-based classes should be able to relate to my dilemma, “How can I facilitate a deeper understanding of language and content for my students to prepare them for speaking and writing exercises?”

I have come up with a unique solution to that dilemma. I compile short videos and use them as comprehensible input to first guide students’ vocabulary use in the form of cloze exercises; and then encourage students’ use of target language features in writing assignments and presentations. The visuals in the videos help to activate schemata, a necessary step toward deeper understanding of both language and content.   

Using multiple-choice vocabulary quizzes, presentations and short writing assignments as formative assessment tools, I have been able to gauge the effectiveness of using this approach for long-term retention of vocabulary. Quiz scores and analysis of writing assignments indicate this approach has mixed results. Some students score very high on the vocabulary quizzes while others still have challenges understanding the target vocabulary. I believe one reason for this is that my classes have students with a wide range of fluency levels. The more proficient students benefit because their “i + 1” level is in sync with the level of target vocabulary. Lower proficiency students still struggle with more basic vocabulary and need to process a wider range of new words. However, I have noticed that while using this approach, there is greater verbal interaction between the high-level students and lower-level students (albeit in L1) with regard to the material and vocabulary. I observe students discussing the words and the material together. I think this interaction helps to foster an understanding of new language among all students in the class.

Perhaps, an unseen advantage of this approach is that it should, by design, trigger individual students to meta-linguistically reflect upon what they do not know, or only partially know, in regards to L2. They become aware of the gaps between understanding input and their ability to create output. That is the basis for reciprocal reinforcement in Second Language Acquisition.Although making videos is time-consuming, once the material is made, it can be used over and over by both teachers and students in a flipped-classroom approach or as supplemental material for a textbook.

Developing a Love of Reading

Constance A. Leonard teaches English for Academic Purposes at the United States Air Force Academy

McDermott Library USAFA Constance Leonard

All of us want our students to learn to love reading, because that will lead them naturally to extensive reading. What is the biggest barrier to developing this love? Slow reading. This can be demotivating for many students; however, as they increase their reading rate they become more motivated and less distracted. Therefore, as materials writers, we need to provide more than something to read, but strategies to increase reading efficiency. Here are a few techniques you might incorporate when writing reading lessons.

In order to determine reading rate in print, teachers can choose a short reading, put on a timer, and then students will divide the number of words in the text by time. In order to augment their reading rate, teachers can highlight the importance of skimming everything before reading. This helps students predict what they will be reading and relate it to their prior knowledge on the topic. In addition, training students to use a pacer (using a finger or pencil under the text to read smoothly from left to right) will help them focus and reduce regressions.  

Reading a novella in three 20-minute sessions adheres to the 20-20-20 minute rule of reducing eye strain and maintaining focus. If you haven’t taught this strategy to your students here are the steps for previewing a book:

    1. Look at the front cover, title, author, and date of publication and read the blurb on the back. Students then share what they have learned so far and make some predictions based on the cover illustrations and blurb.
    2. Next, students can take a few minutes to flip through the book and look for any illustrations, chapter titles, or other distinguishing features.
    3. Finally, students take ten seconds a page in two short sections of perhaps four pages and make a backward “s” motion to pick up words and phrases.

Student Handout:  How long will it take me to read this book?


Type in the name of your book and your current reading speed and you can estimate how long it will take you to read your book of choice. Or you can use the chart below as a guide.

Title of Book

Word Count

250 wpm

350 wpm

450 wpm

The Pearl by John Steinbeck



1 hour
36 minutes

1 hour
4 minutes

50 minutes

The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck



1 hour
52 minutes

1 hour
20 minutes

1 hour
2 minutes

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck



1 hour
47 minutes

1 hour
16 minutes

59 minutes

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

PA#: USAFA-DF-2023-389

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