How Every Language Teacher Can and Should Be a Materials Writer

July 2023

This issue was published in collaboration with the Materials Writers Special Interest Group (SIG) of JALT. Together, we’ve put together an issue that focuses entirely on the practical steps and procedures teachers should use when putting together their own classroom materials. Whether you’re looking to adapt an existing activity, design an original one, or even write your own textbook, this issue will have lots of tips and advice for you to draw upon. Of course, we squeezed in a fair bit of brain science too!

Our cover: “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” – Jack Kerouac

Cover photo by Kampus on Pexels; others from Pixabay &  Unsplash

Watch before you read...

Without doubt, writing materials is an essential skill for teachers. For this issue, we joined forces with the JALT Materials Writers SIG. Together, we invite you to sit back and enjoy high caliber advice, inspiring stories, and a wealth of information on materials writing. In the Main podcast episode, Aleksandra Popovski covers the basics of materials writing. In the Lite video, Rachel Roberts briefly explains what’s important to remember when teachers integrate the materials they develop into their classes. To start us off, Heather Kretschmer summarizes our Main and Lite selections and whets our appetite for writing materials for our students.

In the Think Tank, Marc Helgesen distills over three decades of materials writing experience to eight valuable tips. Heather Kretschmer explains how to evaluate materials and encourages teachers to write their own materials. Next, our readers and JALT Materials Writers share their expertise in a wide range of contributions. Drawing on her experience teaching Spanish, Mariana Gisler tells us what motivates her to adapt materials in creative and fun ways for her classes. Then Duane Kindt describes the strategies and materials he uses to give multi-level classes ample opportunities to communicate in the target language. In the PLUS, John Carle tells us all about the activities of the JALT Materials Writers SIG. Wrapping up our issue, Konoka Nakamura writes up her thoughts on why it’s difficult for some students to learn languages. Finally, be sure to keep an eye out for text boxes interspersed in this Think Tank with humorous anecdotes from the textbook writers among us.

Our Thoughts on Materials Writing

Materials Writing: Letting Teachers’ Creative Juices Flow to Fruition 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.

Think Tank Articles

Reflections on 35 Years of Textbook Writing 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”).   

[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

Taking Materials Writing into Our Own Hands Heather Kretschmer

How many times have images like this one leaped out at me when I flip through a newly published Business English coursebook?

Too many times to count.

It’s not just the pictures that show a striking similarity in published Business English materials. It’s also the exercises, the accompanying audio materials, the storyline running through the coursebooks, and the underlying beliefs about how people learn languages.

A Tsunami of Materials Writing Ideas from our Readers Think Tank Readers

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

Creatively Tailoring Materials to Address Student Needs Mariana Gisler

For 16 years now I’ve been working as a Spanish instructor at the University of Göttingen in Germany, and for the past 11 years I’ve co-led our team of Spanish instructors. A while ago I finished developing an exam for students just beginning to learn Spanish (CEFR A1) and, as usual, I sent it to all my Spanish colleagues to try out the exam and give me feedback. The feedback was unanimous: the exam was very easy! Since my exams are known to be challenging, we were all expecting high results and even joked about having to add one or two extra A2 courses to the following semester’s schedule. 

A Recursive Materials Series for an English Speaking Course for First-Year Japanese University Students Duane Kindt

I’m sure that, like me, you have often tried to figure out how to deal with the challenges and dilemmas you face in teaching spoken English, especially in big classes, with students at greatly different levels, and following a communicative approach. One common dilemma is how to give students multiple opportunities to develop skills in a second language (L2) while they are at the same time trying to communicate with their classmates in the L2. Without a clear solution to this, teachers may put too much attention on rote memorization of words and phrases in lists or one-off tasks that do not provide enough chances for meaningful practice. To try to better deal with this situation in my courses, I began developing a collection of tools and procedures that improve students’ active communication skills in English while at the same time providing several chances to make meaningful connections.

Think Tank Plus

The JALT Materials Writers Special Interest Group John Carle

Editor’s comment: This month we are co-publishing with the JALT Materials Writer’s SIG, so let’s learn a little bit about them!

The Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MW SIG) is delighted to have the opportunity to collaborate in this issue of the Brain SIG’s Think Tank. The following is a short introduction to the goals and activities of the MW SIG.

What are the Reasons Students Experience Difficulties When Learning Foreign Languages? Konoka Nakamura

I am a high school student who would like to become an English teacher because I enjoy studying English. However, many students in Japan do not share my enthusiasm for the language. I wonder if students in other countries face similar difficulties when learning a new language. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to study at a high school in Australia for 10 days in March 2023. The high school I went to is located in Perth and is a relatively rural one. The school is all-girls and the economic level is average. I decided to conduct a survey in Australia to investigate whether students there struggle with learning foreign languages as well. This was part of my Tankyu (exploration) class activities.

Call for Contributions: Ideas and Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Going Deeper

Creating ELT Materials with Katherine Bilsborough

Katherine Bilsborough talks about adapting and creating materials. Topics she covers include:

  • getting the language level right
  • making materials engaging for learners
  • creating materials without breaking copyright laws

DIY NeuroELT: Watch Marc Helgesen give a workshop on making EFL/ESL textbooks more brain-friendly. He explains these seven tips/points and gives the workshop participants lots of practical advice:

  • Go for emotion.
  • Give learners choices.
  • The brain likes novelty.
  • Teach across the senses.
  • The brain needs a challenge.
  • Let learners create.
  • Personalize the classroom.

101 Creative Ideas for Using AI in Education

Recently published, this is a crowdsourced collection of teaching ideas for using AI in the classroom and for educating students about AI in a wide range of disciplines and in different teaching contexts. This collection is a great starting point for teachers interested in creating materials about AI or with AI.

Pressbooks Directory

 Useful for higher ed, Pressbooks Directory is a free, searchable catalog that includes 5,365 open access books published by 157 organizations and networks using Pressbooks. It’s easy to copy, revise, remix, and redistribute any openly licensed content found there.

MBE Logo

The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

             Heather Kretschmer          Curtis H. Kelly            Skye Playsted               

    Jason Walters                               Mohammad Khari




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