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… 😉






ELT Teacher 2 Writer: Training teachers to be writers

Excited to be at this talk as I missed the ELT Teacher 2 Writer talk at Liverpool last year… More materials writing-related larks! 🙂 And it’s clearly going to be a good one – we have exciting task handouts on our chairs and key-rings being given out! 

Training teachers to be writers

Sue and Karen are going to talk to us about how ELT Teacher 2 Writer can help teacher materials writers.

  • the database: established writers and people interested in writing can all be in the database

Publishers can search the database when they are looking for new writers but also when they are looking for people to pilot materials/write users reports/answer questions for market research. There are a mixture of publishers national, international and independent.

  • the training modules: developed by ELT Teacher 2 Writer

Where does materials writing feature in a teacher’s professional development?

Within the British Council Framework puts it at stage six (specialist) but teachers do it from day 1, with their own learners.

ELT Teacher 2 Writer did some research into existent writing courses and tried to learn lessons from these. (All non-ELT related) e.g. journalism, creative writing… They discovered that the only common ground that all of these course had was a module that urged users to know their market/know a little bit at the industry. So they had a look at ELT materials writing to see what was involved in writing materials.

They broke it into 3 main categories:

  • core skills
  • market-specific (e.g. ESP materials)
  • component-specific (e.g. writing a teacher’s book/grammar summary/worksheets

There are now 30 titles on the website. All written by experienced authors and they share the lessons they learnt in their own process of being published. All available for download on Amazon/Smashwords (special IATEFL discount ends tomorrow!) These are relevant for people writing for developers, teachers writing for their own classrooms and teachers wanting to self-publish.

Task 1: How ELT publishing works  – time to do a task! (T/F statements about publishing)

  • True: publishers DO decide things well in advance. They have 5 year plans, which they check at intervals to make sure they still make sense. They use market research to inform this.
  • False: the best way to get published is NOT to send a complete manuscript to a publisher!
  • False: you don’t need an M.A. or a Delta to write materials. Relevant teaching experience is essential. Delta/M.A. can be positive but publishers may fear an overly academic manuscript.
  • True: lots of investment goes into publishing, it is expensive, so publishers DO want to make sure everything works and DO do a lot of market research to this end.
  • False: You *do* have to meet deadlines! In publishing, there are many people writing to the same schedule. If you don’t meet it, there is a huge negative knock-on effect.

Task 2: What makes a good rubric? (or direction line in Am. E!) i.e. instruction to the students within a piece of materials.

This is an important skill to learn and is thus included in several ELT Teacher 2 Writer modules.

Rubric checklist

  • Rubric language should be less complex than the language point being addressed.
  • Use small sets of words
  • Use the same rubric for all similar activity types
  • Be careful with staging – sometimes better to break things down into two activities rather than one.

We had to apply these criteria to some sample rubrics. We saw one that was too long and in which it wasn’t clear what was required. We saw one where the language used was too complex for the learner level aimed at – here it would be necessary to simplify the language and helpful to include examples. The third was too complex and needed breaking down. The fourth was rambling and dense, requiring major surgery to sort it out!

Task 3: How to write a graded reader?

Graded readers are great to write – they combine fiction and education! The answer to the task question? Can be found in Sue Leather’s module.

Sue (presenter) read from Sue (writer)’s module to comment on this. Here are couple of quotes:

“An idea is the story’s essence”

” It should include a vital issue that needs to be resolved one way or another”

Skills are needed for the following:

  • language and story
  • drama and premise
  • high stakes
  • conflict and choice
  • action
  • character
  • dialogue

We applied this to three story ideas, deciding that two had wheels and one was dull – the two with wheels are in fact in print! The other, not so much…

Task 4: Writing a critical thinking activity 

What is a CTA? What does a good one look like? Equally importantly, and what may shed some light on this is, what is it not?

  • It is NOT a pure comprehension question.
  • It is NOT a do you agree/disagree discussion.
  • It is NOT a T/F statements activity
  • It is not a question about the literal meaning of vocabulary in a text

In a general comprehension activity you find:

  • identify ideas
  • vocabulary meaning-related activities
  • agree/disagree discussions

In a critical thinking activity you find:

  • Why does the author present the ideas like this?
  • Why are these vocabulary items chosen?
  • Does the author support the ideas? How? What evidence is there?
photo (3)

Some critical thinking activity types

We looked at some sample activities and decided whether they were CT activities or general activities.

Finally, we learnt some more about the ELT Teacher to Writer website:

As well as the database, it includes a resource section for writers.

The Writer’s Toolkit

  • style sheet: publishers have in-house ones of these – if you are working independently, this  will help you to be more consistent.
  • template: example template for styles for rubrics/body text etc. and layout/order/structure
  • permission grid: a grid that lays out the information that is needed in order for an editor to apply for permissions to the copyright holder. It is very important to get all the permissions needed e.g. for different platforms etc.

You can find out more about ELT Teacher 2 Writer by:

Liking their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/ELTT2W

Following them on Twitter: @ELT_T2W

My last talk for the day and like all the others I’ve attended: super-interesting and worthwhile! 🙂