IATEFL 2015: Uncovering Expertise in Coursebook Writing – Heather Buchanan and Julie Norton

Well, I wasn’t going to miss this one – interesting topic and one of the speakers (Heather)  was, of course, my tutor at Leeds Met (now Beckett) Uni. 

Julie and Heather want to build on the work done by the likes of MaW SIG and ELT Teacher2Writer in terms of demystifying the field of Materials Development.

They started by showing us a quote that sums up the field. Materials writing – it’s “like expecting the first violinist to compose the orchestra’s repertoire in his or her spare time”  – this was Michael Swan on expecting materials development from untrained teachers.

Expertise in materials writing

We looked at the characteristics of expertise:


Then we moved on to hearing about Heather and Julie’s research project. They had used simple questionnaires, which they had distributed writers and editors. They shared the data collected with us, looking at different questions (and the responses they had collected) in turn…

What are the 3 biggest challenges that you face when writing a unit of a coursebook?

  • Practical constraints: space, fitting it all on to the page; being able to develop interesting texts with a limited number of terms; meeting deadlines/timing
  • Creativity: thinking of ideas, fresh angles on topics, a wide repertoire of tasks, creative language practice for different language points. Editors say that constraints can generate creativity i.e. within the brief.
  • Following the brief: being really aware of your students and teachers, background, interests etc so that you can write the right kind of lessons for them; coping with changing briefs (as projects move forward this happens)
  • Technical aspects: the biggest category, coming back to it later!
  • Managing the process: relationship with the editor

What three pieces of advice about the craft of writing would you give a new course book writer?

  • Working with others: useful to have a writing partner, complement each others strengths/weaknesses, bouncing ideas off each other; being able to take feedback. Editors represent teachers that aren’t like you.
  • Going back: looking at what you have created and being self-critical; redrafting things and being meticulous
  • Visualisation and imagination: you have to be able to imagine what it’s going to look like on the page when it’s finished. How will things flow from one thing to another. Trying to visualise the position of the teacher who will use the material. Understanding what works and being able to conceptualise how the material will work in class. If you don’t have this, you are an editor’s nightmare!
  • Managing time: managing time within a day, being self-disciplined, managing deadlines etc.
  • Beliefs: being aware of your own beliefs and principles regarding teaching, being aware of the principles of the project in comparison with your own and thinking twice about taking on a project if the two aren’t compatible.

Coming back to Technical aspects:

A big category so broken into 2:

Theoretical Expertise

You need a sound knowledge of methodology and linguistics.

Writers need to make the findings of research more palatable for the classroom. They also need appropriate terminology to teach items that arise out of theory e.g. corpus research. E.g. what do you call connected speech on the student book’s page?

Practical Expertise

  • The more support a writer puts on the page, the more tied the students and teacher are to the page. There is a balance between support and flexibility that needs to be considered.
  • Thinking about the final task in a unit and how you prepare students through the unit to meet it. There was a lot of talk about tapestries and weaving, ending with a seamless garment. This applies within a unit but across a whole book as well, so as to ensure continuity and good recycling of language, also consistency. Ensuring the theme is maintained but interestingly developed.
  • What do you do if the editor doesn’t like the topic? Knowing when to let go of a topic is important, whether it is because the editor doesn’t like it or if it just isn’t working.
  • How do you make your text sound natural? Will the editor cut those ums and ahs from your audio in the end?
  • Knowing how much material is needed for a lesson so that you don’t end up with too much.
  • You need to make sure communicative activities are genuine.

What advice would you give?


(In terms of use tools, this refers to things like the Oxford 3000 or the Vocab profile)

Has the way you approach writing changed since you first started writing coursebooks? If so how and why?


  • Developing greater automaticity
  • Gaining more confidence
  • Gaining more knowledge of the language
  • Gaining more knowledge of the craft – how much can fit on one page, what works etc.
  • Awareness of pitfalls
  • Professional maturity – understanding how it works, relationship with the editor, greater awareness
  • Focus on students


  • What’s valued in materials
  • what has changed in the world of publishing
  • the impact of the internet.


It’s highly complex but it can be demystified. Is there any shortcut for experience? What is the best method for developing expertise? “Writing is just like a muscle: you just have to keep at it” (a writer) “I have rarely seen improved ‘creativity’ in writers, as this tends to be inherent and is difficult to train” (an editor)




Responses that came out in the post-task discussion:

  • A very abrupt beginning
  • Lots of vocabulary not practised/activated
  • Formatting unclear, no explanation for the words in bold.
  • An example would help to clarify the rubric
  • Is there a correct answer? If there isn’t, is that ok or not?
  • The discussion questions are not generative in discussion terms, could be rephrased to push students to produce more than one word answers.
  • Cultural inappropriacy – potentially inappropriate in some places, taboo issues e.g. divorce in some places.
  • My group and I also thought that the mixture of word types in the first question could be misleading. And one group of words had more words than the other groups.

And that was all we had time for! It was a very speedy half an hour on a very interesting topic. 

One thought on “IATEFL 2015: Uncovering Expertise in Coursebook Writing – Heather Buchanan and Julie Norton

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

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