DIY materials writing and publishing

This article first appeared in Modern English Teacher, 23 (2), April, 2014 so it’s a little dated in parts but still contains good advice if you are considering self-publishing.

Materials writing is just one of many skills we can add to the long (and ever-growing) list of skills needed by the ELT teacher. As teachers we begin by thinking of some lead-in questions, devising a short exercise or role play, or setting a writing task to supplement our course book. Next we spot an article on the web that’s relevant to a class and create tasks around the text. Then, at a more advanced level, some teachers start producing series of materials for their school which form a complete course; this is especially true of ESP courses. And nowadays, materials writing for the 21st century teacher has another developmental stage: learning how to use modern self-publishing software that offers the ability to professionalise the appearance and design of the material and in turn create motivating content which can also reflect a school’s brand or values. So what begins as one individual teacher writing new material for their own class can conceivably develop into a school-wide publishing project.

Here’s a typical example of this in action: The Meridian School of English in Plymouth offers a whole range of ELT courses and, like many schools, the courses make use of mainstream published course books. However, the school also offers short intensive specialist courses to overseas work experience students. The materials have to be more specialised for these courses and over time the teachers developed their own materials to match student needs. As the number of courses grew, director of studies Geoff Dowson wanted the materials to be shaped into a complete course that any teacher could work with and that also looked professional. Teachers began developing their writing skills and the end result was a set of publishable worksheets. Geoff comments on the experience: “[Currently] we have about 10 units being trialled for the 2 week courses … It has been a useful development and learning process for all.”

This form of in-house materials production clearly offers various benefits including professional teacher development, raising the profile of the school’s brand and providing students with tailor-made, quality materials. The obvious next step for the budding teacher-writer or school wishing to raise its profile is to publish materials more widely: perhaps in book form using print on demand, as an ebook or in the form of an online course. But how realistic, viable or even desirable is it to throw out the existing coursebook, create everything from scratch, and then attempt to publish with a view to selling?

Certainly, the modern web-based self-publishing model offered via sites like Lulu, Amazon’s Create Space or Smashwords has caused a publishing revolution and allowed thousands of individual writers the opportunity to write a book and offer it to the world; this is also increasingly true in the world of ELT. Most noticeably it’s the publication of teacher methodology and resource books which have been a popular starting point for many self- publishing ELT teacher-authors.

One website which reflects this growth is It’s a self-publishing initiative run as a collective where authors can self- publish “innovative, niche or critical materials”. The Round has already published eight ebooks since its creation in 2011 and plans to publish ten more titles in 2014. So far, all of the books on offer at the-round are teacher methodology and resource books. Lindsay Clandfield, co-founder of The Round, explains why: “With teacher methodology books the process of publication is simple. It’s text, maybe a few images and you can read it on kindle, an iPad etc. But as soon as you try to self-publish something student-facing like a course book, the design becomes complicated and expensive. Even if you can afford a designer, students may need to use it in class. The most accessible format for everyone is pdf, but it’s also harder to sell pdf pages. People often expect those to be free.”

Of course, if your plan is to produce self- study materials for students, you could move away from the idea that materials come on paper in the first place. There are countless examples now of online course materials which have been created by schools to either supplement their existing face-to-face courses or to offer a complete online language training. Using ready-made LMS (learning management systems) such as Moodle allows you to generate a range of controlled practice exercises which can include video as well as images.

With a larger budget, a large school or organisation might even develop its own learning platform from scratch. John Anderson of the British Council in Kuala Lumpur is project manager for one such programme for Malaysian students. While he endorses the view that all schools can now self-publish student materials online, he believes that many mistakenly feel they have the expertise simply because they have the technology at their disposal.

“You can’t underestimate the time you need to do your research beforehand.” Anderson advises. “Even though we were using existing technology and following a course model previously used in Hong Kong, we spent many months researching our own market and running focus groups with students before any writing began.” So one of the key questions any school planning to self-publish needs to ask it itself at this stage is: What will our new materials offer our students that doesn’t exist already? Clearly, if some students need English for specific purposes, then some small scale, tailor- made self-publishing might possibly make sense. If on the other hand the new materials simply do the same thing as your existing course books and the only the difference is that your material includes your school logo, you might doubt the wisdom of what might be nothing more than a costly branding exercise.

Anderson also endorses the importance of design and says that bringing in an external designer to develop a professional ‘look’ for the material can be key. Once again, the message seems to be that if you want to self-publish materials aimed at students, you shouldn’t avoid the need for a designer. A designer can create a great-looking end product which will bring credit to your classes and your school’s brand. The other cost you need to consider is hiring the skills of an experienced ELT editor, who can move the writing from first ideas to final drafts and ensure the quality.

The subject of an editor brings us to the most important question of all for any school thinking of online and self-publishing: the writers. For many schools, the obvious people to write course content on a self-publishing project are the teachers. Offering the opportunity to write materials is a form of staff development and gives teachers a sense of ownership. However, many years of classroom experience isn’t necessarily a guarantee of good materials writing. It’s true that a teacher may have experience of writing supplementary materials as part of their everyday work, but the ability to write extensively (eg. a whole course) requires a wider set of skills and experience. As ELT author and teacher trainer Philip Kerr comments: “I think that writing teaching materials is very hard, and that much of what the best writers do is not fully appreciated by most others. Writing takes a long time to learn and good teachers do not necessarily make good writers.”

Some schools, such as Meridian in Plymouth, start their publishing project by bringing in an external and more experienced writer and editor to guide the project as well as provide formal training and mentoring to a team of teacher-writers. This starting period can also incorporate work on establishing a writing brief with a syllabus outline, people’s roles and responsibilities as well as the details needed to establish a consistent writing style; for example, how instructions or rubrics are to be structured or how exercises and questions are to be numbered.

John Anderson of the British Council also adds that in-house publishing projects like these mean managing a teachers’ writing time carefully. There is the temptation to ask teachers to do the writing in their ‘spare time’ or to fit writing in between their teaching hours. “Teachers who are writing need dedicated days for writing. It doesn’t work to try and fit writing and teaching on the same day.”

Finally, if you are a teacher who has written and self-published a teacher methodology resource book or you are a school offering online courses, you now face the biggest hurdle of all: marketing and selling. This message was endorsed at a recent materials writers’ conference hosted by IATEFL’s newly formed Materials Writing Special Interest Group. One panel discussion was dedicated to self-publishing. Members of the panel were all teachers and ex-teachers who had tried their hand at self-publishing including print on-demand books and websites offering self-study materials. The main benefit cited by these writer-publishers was the freedom it offered and the creative control. The flipside was that you ‘have to do everything yourself’. You are no longer a teacher and a writer; you are also the editor, book seller and distributor. As one panel member concluded: the biggest challenge for any self-publishing ELT author isn’t the writing, it’s marketing:

How do you let the world know about your book? How do you make it profitable? And as any of the largest and established ELT publishers will tell you, that question does not have a straightforward or simple answer.

This article was first published in Modern English Teacher 23 (2), April, 2014. Save 20% on one-year individual subscriptions to Modern English Teacher with code JHMET (not compatible with any other offer or discount.)