Materials Writing: Letting Teachers’ Creative Juices Flow to Fruition

Materials Writing: Letting Teachers’ Creative Juices Flow to Fruition

By: Heather Kretschmer

Some years ago, a special two-day workshop for developing task-based materials for the foreign language classroom was held at my university. From across Germany and beyond, college instructors of German, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Polish, Russian, Italian, Swedish, Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese came to talk about and develop materials for the classroom. We divided into language groups to work and afterwards came together as a full group to share what we had created. The first day was devoted to creating classroom materials and the second to developing exam materials. Although we came from different institutions and taught at different language levels, we were able to share resources, bounce ideas off one another, develop tasks and materials, and connect with instructors outside our home institutions.

You might feel a little hesitant to write materials for your learners. But as the above workshop shows, teachers are perfectly capable of creating their own classroom materials. So, how do we progress from having an initial idea to the finished product?

In this month’s Lite video, Rachel Roberts gives us useful tips for writing materials. She encourages teachers to not view materials as individual bits and pieces but rather as pieces that fit together to form a whole. These pieces contribute to the overall flow of the lesson, in which the learners feel that each piece of the lesson is the building block for the next stage of the lesson.

Roberts also emphasizes that materials need to be relevant to our learners. Learning materials should pique students’ interest so that they need language to communicate about the topic at hand. Teachers also have to keep in mind learners’ background knowledge. Will the learners be familiar with cultural references in the materials? Is the language level appropriate? Will the material challenge them cognitively? Finally, Roberts urges teachers to incorporate variety into their lessons. This includes a balance of materials where students work individually and where they work with each other.

A funny thing happened on the way to the publishers!

Nearly every author we know has a humorous story of miscommunications, disagreements with someone (editors, art departments, co-authors, etc.), and the like. We are going to sprinkle their stories throughout the issue to try to make you laugh. When you do,  your brain automatically gets a shot of dopamine (you feel happier), oxytocin (trust), lowered cortisol (less stress) and endorphin (a pain killer) (Aaker & Bagdonas, 2020). But here you are, reading a magazine on brain science, and it isn’t even a required assignment. That is evidence for what Saturday Night Live star Tina Fey pointed out, “You can tell how smart people are by what they laugh at.”

(The stories were gathered by Marc Helgesen.  See his story below.)

In the Main podcast episode, Aleksandra Popovski explains her process for writing materials for learners. She not only follows a set of principles when creating materials but also carefully designs her materials. As part of her development process, she pictures herself in the classroom and tries to predict what will work and what might not, and she finds solutions for any problematic aspects in advance. Moreover, she writes clear instructions, both for students and fellow teachers she shares her materials with. To make her materials even more user-friendly, she writes up teachers’ notes with additional instructions. Finally, she asks a colleague to pilot the materials to make sure other teachers can use her materials.

A funny thing happened on the way to the publishers!

I was writing an elementary-level listening book. We had a unit on holidays—nothing heavy, just fun, fluffy stuff.  “Christmas on Bondi Beach” got cut because you can’t have a religious figure in a book (illustration of Santa Claus surfing). Another bit about Bob Marley Day being a holiday in Jamaica got left in—we didn’t mention the sacraments.

Marc Helgesen, author of English Firsthand series

I would like to add that materials are not just coursebooks and worksheets. They can be anything: recordings, objects, pictures, stories, games, to name just a few possibilities. Materials can also be found anywhere: in the classroom, outside, and at home. Teachers can even just walk around town, notice ordinary objects, and connect those objects creatively to learning, just like three teachers demonstrate in the video “Inspiration is Everywhere.” So, a willingness to be creative is key to finding, adapting, and developing materials for our students.

Popovski also expresses her conviction that teachers are indeed very creative people who can infuse that creativity into developing learning materials for their students. In this Think Tank, our authors showcase this creative spirit in so many different ways. Mariana Gisler beautifully shows how teachers can unleash their creativity to adapt and develop tailor-made materials for their students. Catering to the diverse needs of students in large classes is challenging, and Duane Kindt outlines a practical procedure to help students at different levels develop their communicative competence.

Teaching is an art and a science. As you’ll find in Marc Helgesen’s article, he masterfully weaves creativity, brain science, and practicality into his materials and textbooks. In my article, you’ll see that in order for materials to be effective, they need to follow a principled approach. Finally, in one of our Plus articles, Konoka Nakamura investigates possible reasons why some high school students find it difficult to learn foreign languages.

When I look back at the two-day materials writing workshop at my university, very few of the participants, if any, worked as professional coursebook writers. And yet, we were all willing to give materials writing a go. A step further is joining a materials writing special interest group (SIG), as Popovski encourages teachers to do. You’re in for a treat in this issue because members of JALT’s Materials Writing SIG not only share their expertise on a range of topics in short pieces in our combination article but also introduce their SIG and invite us to collaborate with them. So, take a gander at this month’s Think Tank. Be inspired to let your creative juices flow, and see what fruits your efforts bear.

Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently she has the privilege of working with Business English students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *