Reflections on 35 Years of Textbook Writing

Reflections on 35 Years of Textbook Writing

By: Marc Helgesen

My first textbook came out in 1986, just over 35 years ago. And I’ve been writing pretty much all the time since then. When I retired (kinda, sorta) last year, my publications list came to over 200[1] articles, books and textbooks. I’m starting with this not to brag, but just to say that I’ve been writing materials long enough to have some ideas that are probably worth sharing with other teachers who want to get into the game (and yes, do think of it as a game—as in “something to have fun with”).   

I’m trying to approach this article as if I was talking to a kohai (in Japanese, a younger teacher/colleague) who wants help getting started. Here are eight ideas I’ve found helpful in writing textbooks and classroom materials. Whether you are writing a whole book or just tasksheets for your class, I hope these ideas are useful.

[1] OK, 200 may be cheating a bit. My biggest series, English Firsthand, is in its 5th edition. Each edition has 4 levels, each with a Teachers’ Manual and a workbook. So, 12 books in each edition.  5 x 12 = 60.  That means 60 of the 200 books are Firsthand

1. KISS: Keep Instructions Short and Simple.

Textbooks are a way for learners to practice. If they don’t understand what to do, you haven’t accomplished anything.  Keep instruction language short. Use the imperative (command form: Open your book.) Try for sentences of seven words (+/- 2) (Dean, 2023). Short sentences are easy to understand and remember. People disagree about whether “7” really is the magic number for working memory. Whatever the case, short sentences are easier for learners to process and remember.

2. Make your content emotional.

The brain loves emotion. It is a trigger for dopamine which is connected with memory and motivation (Achor, 2010, p. 44). Although students often love emotional bits, publishers don’t. Emotion is, well, emotional. It is not unusual for that to scare publishers off (especially negative emotions). One way around that is to have students add their own stories: Talk about a time you felt happy. Or Sad. If students are adding their own stories, the negative ones are things they choose to share. For ideas on how, see Helgesen and Kelly (2015).

3. Include novelty.

As John Medina famously said, the brain “doesn’t pay attention to boring things.” Again, this can be something of a dilemma. Predictability can be boring, but publishers like standard book formats. So do teachers who don’t have enough planning time. One way around this is to make extensive use of Pairwork and Groupwork. You can have a lot of variety in the activities while keeping the consistent format.

A funny thing happened on the way to the publishers!

In the 1980s, I contributed some songs to a course book published by Cornelsen, the ELT publisher based in Berlin. The material was specifically written with Gymnasium (grammar school) pupils in mind. I remember noticing a very amusing cartoon strip in one of the units. It was about someone on a quiz show who knew all the answers, but refused to get excited when he won more and more money.

I asked my editor about it and he told me the cartoon was based on one from MAD magazine (remember MAD? Still going, but much smaller than in its heyday). Because Cornelsen wanted to modify the original to fit with the language aims of the unit, they wrote a letter (no email in those days) to MAD and asked for permission to re-draw the images and re-word the script. They got a hand-written letter back, with one word on it. “Fine.” Cornelsen always does things by the book, so they wrote back and asked what the fee would be to re-use the material. Another hand-written reply: “One German sausage.”

Cornelsen wrote again, explaining that it was against the law to export meat products to the US, and got yet another letter from the people at MAD, which simply said, “Send a drawing of a sausage.”

In the end, they got the artist who re-drew the script to draw a German sausage. If I remember rightly, it was on the end of a fork held by Alfred E. Neuman, the goofy gap-toothed young man who was on the cover of most issues of MAD.

Ken Wilson has been writing ELT materials for more than half a century. Amongst other course material, he’s the author of Smart Choice, published by Oxford University Press

4. Make it multi-sensory.

Barring a handicap, we all have all five senses. And we learn through all of them. Sadly, most textbooks are limited to visual and auditory input. Smell and taste are powerful learning tools but not very flexible. On the other hand, you can add the sense of touch (haptic or tactile-kinesthetic). Ideas, here.

5. You need an editor.

Period. Before you get to the point of publishing, you need to pilot your materials. Ideally, do so in several classes. If you are working with a regular publisher, they will give you an editor. These days, self-publishing is getting easier. does it. So do many other companies. But you still need an editor. No one can step away from their own work adequately. (Need proof? How many self-published books ever make it to a 2nd edition? Not many.) If you are self-publishing, get someone to review the manuscript, someone who is independent enough to tell you, “no.”   (I still recommend a professional editor.) BTW, a lot of people have an image of the relationship between authors and editors as being adversarial. It shouldn’t be. Editors make your book better—even if it hurts. And while I’m on the topic, let me give a shout out to my editor, Mike Rost. He’s great.[2]

[2] From Editors: Along with Marc, an author whose 2022 Think Tank contribution was chosen as a favorite!

6. Move.

Our bodies were not designed to sit still all day. We aren’t even meant to sit through a 90- or a 60-minute class. Sousa (2011) tell us that when we sit for 20 minutes, there is a buildup of blood in the buttocks, lower legs, and feet. When we stand and move for just one minute, there is a 15% increase of blood flow—and therefore oxygen—in the brain. Unfortunately, it is hard to build movement into books and tasksheets. (Why is it that we assume TPR [Total Physical Response] is only for kids’ classes?)  I interrupt my own classes with short physical activity tasks. I know that students can’t move much in many other classes but I can give them a handout of “airplane exercises” to compensate. You might not be able to add physical movement to your book, but you can add suggestions to use it. I also teach the 20-minute rule above to my own students, especially those who will be teachers someday.

7. Honor the Pareto Principle.

Have you heard of the 80/20 rule? It is really called the “Pareto Principl.” and, as the linked article points out, it is more of an “observation” than a “law.” It comes up often in business; it sometimes means that 80% of sales come from 20% of the books marketed. My editor once suggested that, in ELT writing, it might mean that 80% of the book needs to be “instantly transparent to teachers.” I agreed, adding that transparency needs to be “true on Monday morning, when they don’t have a lesson plan, have no time, and are really tired.”  Does that mean there is no room for creativity? I don’t think so. Actually, 20% is a huge playground. Here is a short list of ideas that I would consider in the 20% in my own books:

    • Adding an “about you” step to listening tasks where the recording asks learners to write personal questions related to the topic, answer them about themselves, and share their answers with a partner. For example, after a task describing people, they have to answer questions about their own hair, fashion sense, etc.
    • Adding a “Drama coach” to conversation/dialogs with “drama technique” practice ideas. I had a video to work with but still put ideas like these on the student book pages.
    • Adding “multi-sensory” pronunciation techniques that go way beyond “repeat after me.”[3]
    • Instead of giving complete language models, I like including a “cloze” (fill in the blanks) exercise for the key words, so learners have to really think about how to say what they want to say.
    • Putting the scripts for the listening passages in the back, adding blanks that let the learners do “Focus on Form” (FonF [grammar awareness]) exercises as they review.
    • Putting the quizzes in the students’ book. (If you are going to use those quizzes for grading, yes, some students will game the system by looking at them in advance. Great! That is called studying.)

OK, those are just a few ideas. My point is you can add new and creative ideas without making teachers think your book is unteachable in their situation.  

[3] If you are interested in learning and the senses, there are two new books you should know about: Magsamen, S. & Ross, I. (2023). Your brain on art. Canongate Books (Random House). / Rubin, G. (2023). Life in the five senses. Crown.

8. What are we testing with questions?

Pick up nearly any textbook or task sheet and look closely at the comprehension questions. Most are limited to literal comprehension—essentially the student just has to restate what is written directly in the book. That tests very little. To make that point, I once wrote a series of comprehension questions—both grammar- and meaning-based—about the sentence below. For example, “What did the glorf do?”

The glorf drebbled quarfly.

Most people could correctly answer all the questions, even though none of the words except “the” are real. You really want your students processing what they read more deeply and so you need meaning-oriented questions. There is a scale of comprehension called Barrett’s Taxonomy. I find it useful when composing questions for ELT materials. I’ll put in one or two literal questions to help students get started successfully, then focus on the higher levels.

Barrett’s Taxonomy of Reading Questions

    • Literal (recall)
    • Reorganization (simple analysis)
    • Inference
    • Evaluation (judging by criteria, such as “Is this situation realistic?”)
    • Appreciation (understanding the psychological or aesthetic impact)

For more about how Barrett’s Taxonomy fits into materials writing and the brain, see Kelly and Helgesen, 2015. For more on the Taxonomy and different ways to apply it to what you write, see this article from Attadale Primary School in Australia.

Writing materials for ELT can be hard work. But it also can be very satisfying. I hope these ideas I’ve learned during my journey will make your journey more pleasurable.


Marc Helgesen is professor emeritus at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University. He’s an author of over 200 professional articles, books and textbooks including English Language Teaching and the Science of Happiness (ABAX) and the English Firsthand series (Pearson). Websites: ELTandHappiness, HelgesenHandouts

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