IATEFL 2015: Pre-conference Event Day – MaW SIG – Part 1

The Materials Writer’s Essential Toolkit

Here I am at the IATEFL 2015 PCE Day, and I have to admit, MaW SIG has its work cut out for it today, as there is a portion of me that is rather sorry to be giving up my precious Easter holiday to be attending a conference! Fortunately, as the venue came in to sight, my enthusiasm and excitement finally made themselves known. Having registered and collected the usual conference bumpf, I have even read the programme now and everything! Bring on the Materials Writer’s Essential Toolkit! As it’s a long day of many talks, I am breaking it into several blog posts to make it more digestible… 

 Sessions 1 and 2 – 10.10 – 11.30

 Writing Multiple Choice Activities – what Sue Kay has learnt…

Who knew that there could be so much to say about Multiple Choice Activities? Perhaps it-s because…“there’s an awful lot that can go wrong!”

Sue kicked off by talking about advantages and disadvantages of this question type:


  • Can be marked by a computer;
  • Can deal with large volumes of students being tested (hence chosen format for TOEFL and TOEIC).
  • From a teaching point of view, can offer some support to lower level students who can recognise but not produce much


  • Assess recognition not use of language;
  • Depending on no. of options, 33 or 25 % chance of guessing;
  • Easy to cheat…
  • Writing good ones is HARD!


Are the items difficult enough? Are they plausible? The art of adding distraction to text or script (aka how to confuse the students and tempt them away from the right answer!)

At this point, we looked at the anatomy of multiple choice.

Firstly, they are not MCQs (Multiple Choice Questions) but MCIs (Multiple Choice Items) as not all are “questions”. E.g. a stem can be an unfinished sentence to complete.

Distractors – wrong answers that tempt ss away

Stem – the question or sentence beginning

Key – the correct answer

 Important to remember:

Options should be plausible, not too obviously right or wrong, consistent in style and length, not repeat or contradict each other, be clear and easy to process…

Task 1 

We looked at these multiple choice items:


Multiple Choice Quiz

Multiple Choice Quiz

And had to identify a) which one was a good example? b) what was wrong with all the rest of them!

  1. C stands out as correct as much longer than A or B (should be short/roughly equally in length; avoid using linkers)
  2. Option C is obviously a distractor, very silly (all options must be plausible or you give ‘one for free’ : suppress the urge to inject humour into MCIs!)
  3. End the stem at a logical point e.g. after the verb AND preposition. E.g. concerned about plus the options rather multiple structures
  4. Correct! (Options same length, consistent style, no linkers or complex structures, all plausible)
  5. Option D stands out as the only one not starting with ‘Michael’ (consistency)
  6. The information on the page is enough to guess the correct answer, without reference to the text. B is obviously the right one. (Too obvious right answers, too obviously wrong distractors, shouldn’t be answerable through common sense)
  7. Options A and D have the same meaning = a double key (mustn’t cancel one another out by saying the opposite either…)
  8. Too easy to answer without listening to the interview. (A and B easy to reject, D too obviously wrong. World knowledge shouldn’t come into play…)

The process as a whole

 You need to write the text and the activity at the same time. Sue used to write the text first but this isn-t a good idea… you end up shoe-horning distractors in. The text becomes unnatural and lacking in coherence.

  • Plan the ideas you want to include in the text
  • Before you write it, draft some stems and keys
  • Brain storm different attitudes feelings emotions angles to include in the script so that you can test not only specific info but opinion and intention too.
  • Paraphrase the language in the text in your key – if you use the same language it’s too obviously the right answer
  • But you can use the same language in the distractors to tempt them away from the right answer. But generally speaking better to paraphrase across the board. Sometimes can be a good temptation though.
  • Use students’ common mistakes when adding distraction. Things that students always confuse.

Adding distraction

  • Time phrases can be used to set up distraction. E.g. saying what happened in the past and then testing what is happening now.

We used to….then… so now…

Distractor: (We used to) live on the edge of a city (outskirts) as something that is happening ‘now’

 At first I thought… but then I saw through…

If testing what is happening now, content following at first I thought acts as a distractor.

We were thinking of….but…

He wanted to….but…

So, what did the couple do at the weekend? (Task 2)

Wanted to, hoped to, intended to, planned on, thought about, was/were going to, tried to, would to have, was/were supposed to etc. are useful to seed into the text.

  • Unreal past

Past tenses in conditionals or after wish.

“I’d probably stay if the boss said he’d pay me more”

Distractor: Her manager has offered her a salary increase


If you’d done what it says on the label, it wouldn’t have shrunk”

Distractor: He followed the washing instructions


I wish we’d brought the compass with us

Distractor: They were well equipped for the walk.


  • Negatives

It-s not as if we’re desperate for a new car park

Distractor: She thinks the town needs better parking facilities

 Here are the guidelines on which the talk draws:



Useful resources:

How to write Reading and Listening Activities  by Caroline Krantz

How to write Exam practice materials  by Roy Norris

Teacher2Writer  website


Reflecting on what we looked at today, Sue says “These are techniques for adding challenge…”

Comments arising from the post-talk Q and A

  •  Making the options challenging but the language as easy to process as possible, so that the students are processing the text rather than the options.
  •  Try your questions out on colleagues first…
  •  With listening texts, more important to spread the items out vs. reading texts where students have control over processing time.
  • Digital – templates may have character limits; can be set up for exam type (i.e. can listen only twice) or to learn (can listen as many times as they want, with more challenging questions? Or if supporting lower level students then they have more time to get it right; higher levels may choose not to slow it down, listen again etc.)

End of session 1 – happy to report that enthusiasm/excitement/motivation are fully present and accounted for again! 🙂

 Session 2: Maximising the image in materials design – Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones

The role of images in ELT

How has it changed over the last 15-20 years?

When they started, it was purely decorative or a visual aid. This has changed a lot in the last 5 -10 years. Opening pages of units in CBs, there is often a big image, more central to the writing and learning process. Careful: These big images still involve rather conservative use of image. More prominent but yet still traditional exploitation. E.g. decorative.

How can we subvert?

In our roles as writers, how can we make sure that the images are working for us, inc. the decorative ones? Focus on print. Digital is slightly different.

Ben and Ceri showed us a sample search. We had to guess the search term…

Image search results

Image search results

What was the search term? “Beach”

Image banks: some publishers have them (affiliations) and prefer only to use those banks. Some give you more freedom to search outside them. Some receptive, some less so. There are also budgets to be aware of. Certain images need to be cheap. You may be able to squeeze in the odd expensive one.


  • Stock images (clip art etc.)
  • Creative commons
  • Photo journalism
  • Design/boutique

Flip flops – stock image (thinkstock; used by BA in an advert. Used often for corporate materials)

Palm trees – design/boutique (lens modern) (aesthetically pleasing, airbrushed, but not full of ideas, so very decorative quality)

People on beach – photo journalism (Panos – image and text; often very generative. Can be too strong/controversial)

People on the beach – creative commons (unsplash – the social media front for a design company; like a teaser)

Sand shark – creative commons (ELT pics – by teachers for teachers, creative commons on Flickr; Blog – Take a photo and…)


Sources for different image types

 These are different kinds of image banks. How do we search for images?

The bigger the bank, the more difficult it is to find what you are looking for i.e. using suitable search terms. Specificity of search is important…

 Some more good sources:

  • The whole picture – Guardian;
  • The wider image – Reuters
  • Getty works with Flickr.

Using Alamy

 Search term “beach”

Parameters – “square” [influenced by instagram, may be more creative]; (vs portrait or square-) “Creative” rather than “relevant” filter.

When writing artwork briefs, specify what parameters you don’t want as well e.g. “not Landscape”

Using Panos – the image can give an idea for a whole activity/topic. Another role of the image in the writing process – inspiration even if it doesn’t make it on to the page…

Image types revisited… this time with focus on fashion!

Are they new? trending? on the way out?

Here are some of the ones we considered:

  • Selfie
  • Selfie on stick
  • Mosaic
  • Drony (Dronie?) (Yes, really. Selfies with drones)
  • Infographic
  • Word cloud
  • Fish eye
  • Panodash (iphone trick, same person appearing in photograph multiple times);
  • Draw my life
  • Angry cat.
Keeping up to date is important - here's how...

Keeping up to date is important – here’s how…

 More useful sources and ideas:

  •  The Map of the Urban Linguistic Landscape Facebook Group
  •  Use your own images also!
  • You can use image banks to inform your artwork briefs.

Writing an artwork brief

 Be very specific. Explain how the image is supposed to work not just what it looks like. Be clear about what you don’t want. (E.g. NOT a lifestyle magazine type of shot)

An artwork brief

An artwork brief

Image roles

  • Scene-setting (for a topic or context)
  • Illustrative
  • Decorative
  • Driving force (opening spread, man and nature – positive, negative, conjures up different feelings)

Coming back to the process again, a good idea is to go to images first, see what is out there, let the images inspire. Start with a topic and brainstorm images, see what hits you. It can kick-start the creative process. It can rejuvenate you when you are on Unit 10 of level 4 of a course!

For more information see Ben’s website and Ceri’s website

My thoughts:

Much like with MCI’s, my general thought is, “who knew there was so much to know!” With both talks, within half an hour I went from knowing very little to at least knowing how little I know! Lots of useful content. From the practical aspects such as how to find the images, sources etc. to the process, where I am particularly struck by the idea of doing an image search around a topic and letting inspiration flow that way. It’s a new way of brainstorming that hadn’t occurred to me before. Not having written an artwork brief before, it was also interesting seeing some examples and then actually doing a task in which we worked in small groups to create a brief for a given image.

Has to be said, a great start to a great day. 🙂 Worth giving up being on holiday for… 😉






3 thoughts on “IATEFL 2015: Pre-conference Event Day – MaW SIG – Part 1

  1. Pingback: IATEFL 2015: Pre-conference Event Day - MaW SIG...

  2. Pingback: IATEFL 2015: All my posts indexed! | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

  3. Pingback: IATEFL Manchester 2015 MaWSIG Pre-Conference Event | Sandy Millin

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