On Saturday 18th February at 4pm, MaW SIG hosted an online panel discussion event using Adobe’s webinar platform. We had four panellists join us and share their views on a range of questions that had been submitted in advance via MaW SIG’s social media. The panellists were Vanessa Reis-Esteves (young learners author), Sarah Milligan (commissioning editor for Onestopenglish), Julie Pratten (founder of Heart ELT Publishing) and Lyn Strutt (freelance ELT content editor, copyeditor and proof reader).
While the event was unfolding, in addition to being behind the scenes on the webinar platform, I was also giving my fingers a brisk workout i.e. attempting to take notes on what was said. Here is a write-up of what I managed to catch, which is far from everything as I am just human! There is a recording that IATEFL members can watch too though, available here (scroll down until you see it – recordings are not organised chronologically).
Question 1 : Are there any agreed upon principles about materials writing?
There’s a lot of advice out there now that there wasn’t a few years ago on how to write and how to achieve writing goals. There are principles but it depends on who you are writing for, not everybody has exactly the same rules. E.g. for publisher in Portugal rules less strict and more adapted to the context of writing. But definitely procedures spending on age group. E.g. young learners, you’d be allowed to do certain things that you wouldn’t do if you were writing for older learners.
This links to the question of whether things have changed in last 20 years. What works in materials classroom is what works in the classroom. Is it going to be clear? Is it going to make sense? Is it going to achieve its aim?
Useful links suggested (by Lyn):
Question 2: What design principles do you use when planning layout, colours, fonts and image and text incorporation?
For young learners everything needs to be visual and guide the learners.
In the past, we might have used colour for prettiness or attention grabbing but nowadays these are looked at from the point of view of students with special learning needs/requirements and whether they will be able to access them. Will learning be easier not only in terms of context but also the layout? Every image has a purpose, which is to help students master and take control of learning in a particular task.
Materials are much more visual/magazine-like, lots of powerful images used, not always directly connected to task but as lead ins to topics etc. In commercially published materials, design is not material writers’ job. The in-house designers at the publishers will work with a design agency who will plan the design for the book, influenced by the market and other books by the publisher on the market and in a series, all influenced by market the book is being sold into. A major course book series, the author will be involved in the discussion and allowed to have input but not control. Author and editor may fine-tune it later one but the overall structure, key colours etc will be designed earlier than that (by the design team). If you are into self-publishing, look at successful books and books you think work in the classroom and use those as a guide, as they have been done by people who know what they are doing.
This link may be of interest: EMC Design blog
Question 3: How important is the inclusion of cultural content in instructional materials design?
Becoming more and more important, lots of courses cropping up for teachers. A change or shift in publishing creates a need for training teachers and writers. Teachers need to be more competent themselves in terms of recognising differences in their students or within a particular context depending on where they work. It’s a tricky one because if you have a coursebook meant for a general market, which is appealing to publishers, it is not that easy to create the intercultural part of it as so many different things to bear in mind. Writers need to skill up on it as teachers expect it more and more.
In the past, would be asked to include anglo-american culture in the books but now in 21st century learning, ministries are feeling the need o prepare their students to work with other cultures. So they want you to bring in some kind of intercultural awareness into the materials but not necessarily including anglo-american, but for example getting kids to understand that one culture isn’t better than another but just different and to value differences rather than judging and stereotyping. A lot of training is needed because people don’t know exactly what is needed. But it is an exciting time as this element grows.
There is a move away from anglo-centrism and towards something more global, which can only be a good thing.
Question 4: With so much free content online, both for students and teachers, what can paid content offer?
Onestopenglish – a subscription website. Paid for content vs free content online offers professionalism and is content that maybe is trusted slightly more because it has to go through editorial rigour. Free content is fantastic in many ways but when you put content through a publishing cycle then it doesn’t just have one pair of eyes on it but rather several – writing, design, editorial process – so it can offer higher quality in terms of the way its presented and the way that it reaches the teacher.
Question 5: Is there a market for self-publishing?
Still a bit of stigma attached to it, in terms of association with vanity publishing. But there is a possibility that it goes through stages of editing. Where you haven’t got multiple pairs of eyes scrutinising it, there might be big issues with it. Perhaps publishers could take on materials that have been self-published and do something with them? It’s getting big but people need to get together, collaborate, so that quality will improve. The role of an editor is still important in self-publishing, as self-publishers use editors. In self-publishing, you may have great ideas but you need an editor to work on it (not just about typos and silly mistakes but other professional eyes on the material) – the more input you get on your materials, the better they will be. It’s got to be good, useable and make teachers’ lives easier if it’s going to sell.
Question 6: Although in academia the NS x NNS seems to be history, what are the real chances of NNS writing ELT material for international markets?
The chances are 100%, the same as for NS author/writer. Sarah was surprised and saddened that the question was being asked. If a writer is turned away due to being an NNS then that’s discrimination. It’s the same as the argument for teaching. Hopefully it won’t even be an issue in the next few years. Publishers should be choosing their writers according to whether they are writing good material, excellent material. Onestopenglish does employ NNS writers.
There is a lot of discussion about the position of the NNS teacher at the moment.
Julie’s concern as a publisher is that the ideas are good, the content is good and there is a need for the material. She has several NNS authors on her books at the moment. In the NNS community there is a feeling that they are being ignored. But if you look at what’s available e.g. in an online ELT bookstore, it is not all British/American names. And it should continue to grow.
Rachael has worked with plenty of NNS publishers and editor as well. Hopefully it’s a non-issue now.
Vanessa thinks an NNS will know their context better in terms of difficulties those students might have, so they should be seen as an asset. It’s more about the contribution you are bringing to the material rather than the language/country on your passport.
Question 7: What is THE qualification you need to get into writing?
Be a teacher at heart, understand how kids (or whatever age group) learn. Need to be able to see how students learn. While she would agree each teacher is an author, not necessarily able to write a book. Need to be able to be a bit more objective to assess whether something would work with most teachers/students or just with you. You need a very big teacher heart and a lot of resilience and taking on board other people’s ideas and not just sticking to your own.
You need to love teaching to be able to teach and write. Start from a creative spark. If you had 5 new, fresh authors who hadn’t written but had taught for a while, they could bring a fantastic approach to a certain teaching point. We need space for creativity. Julie wants to run courses that will generate that buzz, that spark and then put all the scaffolding into that material. There is no one formula to getting to a good piece of material. We always need innovation, that’s what publishers are looking for.
If you collaborate as teachers, someone with ideas could work with someone who is better at writing. Sarah is always looking for writers who can think outside the box in terms of activities that would be enjoyable to do in class and have a little spark but also you want someone who can write a lesson plan/worksheet that has a strong learning outcome to it. A collaboration of those two types of writer/teacher would be really powerful.
Question 8: I know plenty of people who’ve sent publishers book proposals but not heard anything book while some established names have been involved in book after book. Is this because the book proposals were not good enough or because editors prefer writers they know? (AKA how do you get into writing materials)
For Sarah, it’s becoming rarer for publishers to accept proposals because when you are thinking about a publishing plan, you are basing that on research that you’ve done looking at various markets and pinpointing what’s important and what needs there are. So it’s harder and harder for writers to submit proposals because publishers have specific things in mind that they are trying to do. Publishers do accept new authors but if you find a writer you love working with (meets deadlines, produces quality material), why would you let that writer go if you are an editor? However, those writers become more and more popular and then they don’t accept your work anymore as too busy and then you take on a new writer. If you want to submit something, you can submit a proposal, but a CV with experience and expertise is more useful as publishers can see if that matches up with what they are trying to do.
Vanessa thinks it’s worth a try to do lots and lots of talks. Make sure you have something to say and that what you have to say is of interest. So, go to IATEFL, join a SIG, be an active member of it, do little things and learn with others, collaborate a million times, and if you do it enough, then somebody will be there and notice you. It’s about being in the right place, putting yourself in the right place. An editor won’t miraculously appear and send you a proposal. You need to network. You can meet fantastic people by working on things. IATEFL is a great place to start networking, local organisations and conferences too. Sometimes people get into writing by having a great blog and that blog being noticed. If you have an audience, people will notice you sooner or later.
Lyn wanted to emphasise that she knows several authors who got spotted at PCEs and talks at IATEFL and have plenty of work because of that. A blog is a very good way of proving you can write. The idea is that you give away some of your ideas to prove that you have ideas and then people may buy your further ideas. If you have lesson plans and tips, and can show that you are able to produce material, that’s what’s going to make publishers look at you and think you can do something bigger. Proving that you are reliable is important.
Julie wants to add that IATEFL etc is expensive, even if done on a budget, if you don’t live nearby. What about all the other people who can’t do that? She thinks publishers could do more to help new blood into books. But there is a problem, for example if writers don’t deliver beyond the sample material. Julie offered a writer the chance to do a guest activity in a book. This is something that publishers could try to give young people a chance to get in the book and something that Heart ELT does. It was first come, first served, and they ended up with a split of well-known names and unknown names and the unknowns sent in good, well-structured material.
Sarah thinks that the big publishers could definitely do with giving people a few more chances and go to more local conferences. You will find that publishers and commissioning editors going to local conferences to find people who can’t afford to go IATEFL in the UK. But also, there are competitions. Any sort of writing competition is useful to enter. Editors do look at people who have self-published and done workshops and if they are good, they will want to ask them to do something.
At this point, we ran out of time! A huge thank you to all the panellists (and if you read this and think I have misquoted you, please let me know!) and to everybody who attended the event.