Tips for ESL/EFL Materials Writers
A page where ESL/EFL Materials Writers Can Share Tips
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It's a good idea to use commonly-used names in dialogues and stories. This way students can learn names they are likely to actually encounter in the real world.
These URLs give a listing of names used in the USA in order of popularity.
Last Names in the USA (Family Names, Surnames)
First Names in the USA - Boys
First Names in the USA - Girls
Submitted by Charles Kelly
When writing material for professional adults, please assume that they already have expertise in the business world. Avoid trying to "teach" business or management concepts in English. This puts the teacher in the false position of being an "expert" and may be perceived as patronizing by professional people who héave many years of experience.
Submitted by Barbara Venner
When writing video material work-ups, have the students try their hand at split viewing. With the sound off and in pairs, one partner watches the video and describes it ("He's coming down the stairs." "There's a TV. There are some blue books." etc) while the other partner does not watch, but listens to his/her partner and takes notes.
You could then have them switch roles, and later answer questions on what they saw/heard (T/F: He was wearing a tie; How many bags was she carrying; Put the following actions in order...etc.) Of course you can use the pause or rewind as many times as necessary. This can be done at nearly any level of proficiency.
Submitted by P. Bruce Riley
1. Check that all aspects of an exercise or task, or even unit, are at the target level. All too often this is not the case, especially in higher level reading texts where some of the exercises or comprehension questions which follow the reading are at a much lower level than the reading itself. There are also lots of low level texts, especially integrated skills texts and listening texts that contain intermediate level vocabulary.
2. Check that discussion questions really elicit discussion as opposed to just one or two sentence responses, especially in reading books. When writing discussion questions, it helps to keep in mind what you want students to say or what responses you are trying to elicit.
3. On a more mechanical level, for multiple choice exercise, keep all of the options fairly close in length to each other. Also check that all the options are worth considering, but that one of the options is fairly easily eliminated. Also, at least one option should be close enough to the correct answer to warrant serious consideration.
4. Think about the amount of time an activity will take and whether or not that amount of time is warranted for that particular language point within the context of the focus of the unit.
Submitted by Deborah Gordon
I couldn't agree more that layout is very, very important. Usually publishers don't involve authors in the details of design, but authors can actively seek to have a say. My suggestions are (1) that authors submit an ms that reflects as closely as possible what they envision seeing on the printed page, and (2) that authors ask to see the specs and then sample pages before the book goes into production. Reading book specs is like reading a foreign language, but if you can start to understand the specs and teach yourself the basics of print composition, you can exert more influence over the formatting. Being able to understand spec symbols on a copyedited ms allows you early input on formatting. If you wait until page proofs to comment on the format and design, the horse is already way out of the barn.
Submitted by Betty Azar
A layout thing: If allowing space for students to write in the answers, make the gaps big enough. They never are.
A two-part tip about making tasks....
(1) Put the tasks and the items that are involved in doing the task in a logical order. For example, I had a vocabulary pre-listening task for students to fill in blanks, then listen and check their guesses. The task read as follows:
"Look at the sentences below. Fill in the blanks, using
the words in the box. Then listen and check your
After that came the sentences and the box with fill-in-the-blank choices. It works, but the teacher and students have to jump back up to the top to remember the "Then listen and check your answers" part. Better would have been to say:
"Look at the sentences below. Fill in the blanks,
using the words in the box."
Then have the sentences and the box of answer choices. Then...
"Now listen and check your answers."
This seems obvious, but I've seen plenty of textbooks that don't follow classroom logic.
(2) Read your task or instructions aloud, looking at the page like a teacher who has to use the book. Anything that make you do a double-take will probably also make teachers and students do a double-take, too.
Submitted by Kenton Harsch
1. As far as possible, ensure that the language and format of all texts reflect a real world authentic text type.
eg: a list should look like a list and not be written in full sentences; a dialogue should sound like real spoken language and not a carrier to amplify some grammar point.
2. As far as possible, ensure that the activities and tasks match a real world need for processing that text type.
3. In a course book, where activities and tasks repeat themselves, use consistent layout (font/color/ format) to signal sameness.
4. Involve the learners in the purpose of the activity or task by referring thereto in the instructions.
5. Specify in the instructions what skill/s are being targeted by the activity/task.
Submitted by Lola Katz
If you are fortunate enough to get the ear of an editor, listen to what they are looking for rather than trying to convince them that your latest good idea is the best thing since PPP.
Submitted by Jeremy Taylor
If you're writing teacher's guides, or even putting answers in back of student's books, make sure the answers are not only correct but are lined up properly. It's amazing how many books make one error on a line and set the whole sequence off. Very frustrating to explain to students who think if it's in print, it must be correct
Submitted by Mona Scheraga
Pilot, pilot, pilot.
Oh, and try to jot down what you actually say to the students in class when you're piloting. Instructions given in a classroom to expectant faces are generally better than those written in a quiet office. (Don't you think rubric's the hardest thing to write?)
Submitted by Vicki Hollett
Plan the materials, activities, or lessons so that there are natural divisions. It's difficult to plan class time if there are not several possible stopping points. It is also helpful to think about which activities might be done in class and which for homework.
I realize that not all class periods are the same length, so several points are preferable.
Submitted by Christine Tierney
If you include multiple-choice questions, give a class an exercise to complete a half sentence in their own words. Then choose your distractors from the incorrect answers.
Submitted by Valerie Whiteson
Envision the class doing the work. Look at the "C-" and "D" students. They should be able to complete (most of) the work. D students are not Fs.
While we want give the better students materials that stretch them, we also need materials for the below average portion of each class.
Submitted by Robert J. Dickey
Instead of using a script when recording listening materials try using prompt cards. And prepare yor questions from listening rather than from a tapescript or it becomes a reading exercise!
Submitted by Robert Craig
Though some materials writers don't have much control over final layout,
there are certain layout considerations that many textbooks seem to
You need to make your layout friendly to use. Often good material is
"killed" by bad layout.
If you have some control over the final product, you should remember these.
- Don't use hard-to-read fonts and font sizes.
- Be careful when using background colors to highlight text. If you must
print on a background for hilighting purposes, be sure that it doesn't
interfere with easy reading.
- Keep the page clutter-free (avoid too many "boxes", arrows, etc.)
- Include a certain amount of white space. Too much material on a page is
just as bad, if not worse, than not enough material on a page.
Submitted by Charles Kelly
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