So you think writing dialogues and scripts for ELT is new?

This post is adapted and abridged from the introductory chapter of my ebook ‘How to write audio and video scripts.’ (See end of post for details).

It’s easy to think that the scripts we use as teachers or write as materials writers are a new phenomenon. Because audio and video is delivered using modern technology (sound files, podcasts, downloads etc) we tend to associate ELT script writing with the recent world of ELT. But in fact scripts and especially dialogues feature in some of the very earliest materials written for language learners. Here’s a five-minute history of how scripts have evolved in materials writing over the last five centuries and the influence on modern materials writers.

Early scripts in language learning materials

In A History of English Language Teaching, Howatt and Widdowson provide examples of language learning materials taken from early handbooks written for learners of English. Many of the earliest extracts take the form of scripted dialogues on the page; for example, the following dialogue from is set at a dining table and appeared in handbook published in 1554 called A Very Profitable Book. Written specifically for Spanish learners of English, the English version and the Spanish translation would have originally been placed side-by-side on the page:

Hermes: John, I pray God send ye a good day.

John: And I, Hermes, wish unto you a prosperous day.

Hermes: How do you?

John: Ask you how I do? I fare well, thanks be to God, and will be glad to do you pleasure. I say, Hermes, how go matters forward?

Hermes: Verily I fare well.

(Howatt, A.P.R & Widdowson, H.G. (2004) A History of English Language Teaching Oxford, p15)

Although the English is clearly of its time, the actual context and rationale behind this text feels quite contemporary; after all, it provides students with the language for meeting people for the first time and making small talk so if updated it wouldn’t feel out of place in any modern business English coursebook.

What’s interesting about the early examples of scripted ELT materials in Howatt and Widdowson’s book is how they focus on the learners’ needs and provide functional and useful phrases in a context; much in the same way that the modern ELT writers try to do today; the only difference being that they were not recorded but probably read aloud by the teacher and the students had to memorise the dialogues by heart.

Later textbooks also include scripted dialogues which weren’t necessarily functional but were used in a question-and-answer approach in order to explain points of grammar or other areas of language. This example of such a dialogue is from a Russian textbook published in 1795 (p71):

Teacher: When is g pronounced?

Pupil: G is pronounced soft when it precedes e, i, and y, for example, gender, ginger, gipsy.

Teacher: Are there exceptions?

Pupil: The letter g is pronounced hard before e and i in the following words: gelderland, gibbons, gilman …

Howatt and Widdowson also report on another book published only two years later in 1797 designed to aid pronunciation by listing sets of words (including nonsense syllables) for the student to practise such as lip, nip, pip, rip, sip. This kind of listing of words for students to pronounce is not greatly different from what modern ELT writers do when they script simple ‘listen and repeat’ type pronunciation exercises for low-level materials.

After a period of materials writing for grammar translation texts when script writing seems to take a bit of back seat, the Direct Method and the Natural Method the end of the 19th century brings back dialogues back into materials writing with gusto! Maximilian Berlitz’s First Book (first published in 1906 with many new editions printed in later years) illustrates how important dialogues were. Many of these scripts are formulaic and artificial language teacher-student drill exercises, like this one in the ninth lesson of the book:

Me, him, her, us, them

I give you a book. What do I do?

Give me a pencil. What do you do?

I give a box to Mr White. What do I give (to) Mr White? You give him a box.

M.D. Berlitz First Book (333rd Edition 1924), p27

In the second half of the book, there is a section of reading passages which often take the form mini-conversations. Unlike the language drills earlier in the book, these scripted conversations have a strong context, like this one on travel:

The arrival

1.– We shall soon be at the station. We had better roll up our rugs and get our valises down.

2. – At what hotel shall we stop?

3. – We can stop at Charing Cross, because it is so centrally located, not expensive, and it will be very convenient when we leave for Paris, as it is connected with the station.

4. – The train is stopping. What an immense station! Shall I call the porter?

5. – If you please.

6. – Here, porter! Take these two bags to a cab. You can carry the rugs also.

7. Porter – Here is the cab, Sir. Have you anything besides your hand-luggage?

M.D. Berlitz First Book (333rd Edition 1924), p67

Again, it feels dated – obviously – but the context would suit the growing number of number of students who needed English for business and travel purposes in the early part of the 20th century.

The introduction of recording technology in the classroom

As the Direct Method ‘metamorphosed into audiolingulaism’ (Thornbury, S. (2006) An A–Z of ELT Macmillan Education, p66) by the fifties, classrooms stressed the value of having students listen to and repeat sentences in a continuous drill pattern. And by the seventies you have scripts being written for language laboratories with students in rooms of cubicles, each with a set of headphones.

The script below is from a text used in language laboratories. In it, the student has listened to model versions of questions and sentences based on a series of small pictures of grocery items bought while shopping. Next he/she listens to a prompt, replies and then checks the reply with a model version.

Voice: Good morning. Can I help you?

Student: I’d like five oranges. How much is that?

Look at picture 2.

Voice: Good morning. Can I help you?

Student: I’d like half a dozen eggs. How much is that?

Look at picture 3.

Voice: Good morning. Can I help you?

Student: I’d like two loaves of bread. How much is that?

Dakin, J. (1973) The language laboratory and language learning Longman, p124

Despite its lack of authenticity, it’s easy to see the influence of this kind of audiolingual scripting on modern language learning materials, especially those sold for self-study such as ‘listen-and-learn-a-language-in-the-car’ type audio recordings or teach-yourself computer-based programmes. In other words, many present-day ELT materials writers produce this type of script for online self-study materials.

Writing scripts for communicative language teaching (CLT) materials

Towards the late 70s, there was a growing demand for materials to include audio recordings which, if they weren’t entirely authentic, at least reflected the need for learners to achieve communicative competence. Coursebooks started to focus on skills development; in other words, the contents page of a book might include a column on developing the skills of reading, writing, speaking and – most relevantly – listening. So the tape cassettes which were sold with these books not only included dialogues and mini-conversations but also longer spoken texts which were scripted to develop listening sub-skills in some way. Many of these listening scripts were written in the style of news broadcasts or journalistic interviews but graded to the target level.

The emergence of video

In the late eighties and nineties, no language school was complete without one enormous video player and TV which lived on a cumbersome set of metal wheels. I even worked for a school which advertised that every term students would have at least one ‘video lesson’. Teacher’s rooms had shelves of VHS video and publishers brought out whole courses based around learning from a video, or producing video as an add-on to a coursebook. The author Ben Goldstein in his article A History of ELT Videcomments on one such early attempt to teach English via video:

Follow Me, the BBC video crash course from the late 70s, is a revealing way to see how video was used in the beginning. The series commonly showed functional language contexts with heavily scripted and rather unnatural dialogue. The purpose of the video was language focus. Learners would watch the sketches and use them as a model for their own output. In fact, the video was exploited no differently to audio.’

Other ELT video courses such as the Grapevine (OUP) videos became very popular. In an interview with the co-author of the successful Grapevine videos, Vicki Hollett asks Peter Viney to look back at his period of video and script writing and he remarks that, ‘For years I’d tell [teachers] that in the future teachers would use video in every single lesson and I was completely wrong. It didn’t happen.’ You can watch an extract from Vicki Hollett’s video interview here.

In the period that Viney is describing, video tapes were relatively expensive and the cost of the equipment to play it on was a significant amount for the average language school, which may explain why video remained the ‘fun’ lesson and not a common feature of any lesson. However, the arrival of YouTube in 2005 and the increase of digital projectors or IWBs in classroom suddenly made it more possible that teachers might use video in every lesson.

The present day

So that brings us to the present day more or less. Materials writers are probably creating more and more video and audio content to keep pace with the YouTube generation of learners. I’m still writing scripts with dialogues and listen and repeat exercises but increasingly I’m writing scripts with much stronger visual elements such as animated sequences or kinetic typography. I’m also finding myself working more closely with production teams to develop video content such as documentaries with a narrator or doing an interview with someone in the street to get authentic text mixed with scripted graded language. Anyway, for more on that, and how to write scripts for modern ELT materials take a look at my ebook ‘How to write audio and video scripts’ published by eltteacher2writer and available from any of the these links:

Most teachers like making their own worksheets – for example, maybe a reading text with some questions or a worksheet with tasks that accompany a video. The fun part is coming up with creative tasks but it’s easy to spend more time on aspects such as adding headings, titles, rubrics and so on. To speed this aspect of materials writing up, I have a mental checklist of things that appear in every worksheet. If you make them an automatic part of your writing process, it frees up more time for the fun creative stuff.

1 Titles

The main title on the worksheet lets the students know what the lesson is going to be about and also gives them a reference when they look at the worksheet a few weeks later. Keep the main title general and not too specific so the theme will apply to a wide variety of contexts.

2 Sub-headings

In addition to the main title, add sub-headings such as ‘Vocabulary: Places in the city’. These sub-headings break the exercises up into manageable sections and help the teacher and students navigate their way through the material.

3 Rubrics

If you are using your own materials, the rubrics or instructions for an exercise are less important. But if you want other teachers to use the material, then rubrics are very important. As a general rule, keep them short using one clause at a time. Avoid any complex structure like relative clauses. The aim of the rubric is not to test the students’ level of English but navigate them through to the next exercise or task.

4 Numbering and referencing

Number all the questions so using notation such as 1, 2, 3, 4… or (a) (b) (c) (d) etc. You’d be surprised how often materials are produced without this simple system but it speeds up classroom management and is crucial for checking the answers (as well as writing an answer key).

5 Example answers

As a general rule, provide the first answer in an exercise. This makes the task much more obvious and students will usually know what to do straight away.

6 Images

Add pictures and images to your materials. Either integrate them into the exercise or add them to help the design and look of the material. Materials are so much more engaging when they have an illustration or photograph. Taking your own images is easier than ever but you will also find images that are free to use as long as they credited from sites like ELTpics, Unsplash and Flickr.

7 Reference boxes

If you want to teach language items such as a key set of vocabulary, functional expressions or a grammar point, it’s helpful to sum up the form, use and meaning of the language in a titled box. That way, it’s easy for the students to refer to and they always know where to find the ‘rule’.

8 Gaps

When writing controlled practice exercises with gaps, multiple choice, and different options, don’t write more than is humanly possible to complete. For example, if students are listening and expected to write words they hear in the gaps, then they physically need the time to complete the gaps. As a general rule, exercises tend to include 8 gaps or questions though this will vary – any less than 6 seems to few and more than 10 makes the exercise either impossible and/or uninteresting.

9 Answer Key

Write one of these as it’s a quick way to check if everything works properly instead of students finding out you’ve made a mistake. And in the classroom it’s always helpful to have the answers on your desk anyway.

10 Heads-up and heads-down

For a final check of how well the material flows, check that within a worksheet there’s a good combination of exercises where the students’ heads are up looking at each other, and where the students’ heads to be down looking at the material. For example, if you have three exercises in row where students have their heads down in the material it’s time to create an exercises where their heads are up.

For 500 more ideas on writing materials, take a look at my book with ETpedia on the subject at

I originally published this article with the title ‘Making the leap’ in English Teaching Professional, (113), November, 2017.

Classroom materials form a natural part of what teachers do: we write tests, we adapt readings and make comprehension questions, we produce quizzes, we provide extra exercises for homework – the list is endless. And yet, surprisingly, teachers rarely receive much formal training in the skills required. As a result, they have to develop these skills as they go along. In this article, I will outline what I consider to be ten key steps in the development of any teacher as a materials writer.

1 Taking one small step, one giant leap

Many teachers avoid trying to write their own materials. Sometimes, this is due to a lack of confidence or classroom experience, which makes them feel unqualified or nervous of leaving the security of their coursebook or other published materials. Good ELT materials also require the writer to have a thorough knowledge of the subject matter, and it goes without saying that you can’t write a good exercise to practise a particular grammar feature unless you have confidence in your own understanding of it. Having said that, there’s a point where less experienced teachers just need to take the plunge and start writing. It doesn’t mean you have to write a whole lesson from scratch. Start out by creating a short supplementary exercise to go with your coursebook, or try writing a quiz to use in the last ten minutes of a lesson.

2 Learning from your mistakes and learning from others

Once you start writing materials, you will inevitably enjoy success and some failures. Learn from both, especially the really bad material! I still have memories of lessons that went wrong because of poor material that I had written, but I learnt from my mistakes and never made the same mistake twice. Through trying to write my own materials, I also learnt to appreciate the quality of the writing in published materials, and I started to see why authors produced their course materials in a certain way.

3 Understanding the context for the materials

One of the most common challenges for new writers is to recognise the role of the material in relationship to the teacher and the learners, and to write accordingly. The diagram below shows how materials relate to the teacher and learner in three ways. In-class materials for use in the classroom can include more open-ended tasks for a teacher to mediate, such as roleplays and discussion tasks. Self-study materials will need more controlled exercises, with right/wrong answers. Materials for teachers are what you find in teacher’s books (eg answer keys, listening scripts and suggestions for further practice activities) as well as methodology texts.

Inexperienced materials writers sometimes try to produce in-class materials which, in fact, are more like self-study materials – for example, a series of exercises where the students’ heads will be down all the time. Good in-class materials encourage plenty of ‘heads-up’ communication, so if you have written a series of exercises for in-class use, make sure that there is a balance of ‘heads up’ and ‘heads down’ practice. On the other hand, when writing materials for self-study, you need to avoid exercises where there is more than one answer, exercises that require the participation of more than one student or anything ambiguous, which could confuse a student who has no teacher there to explain things.

4 Establishing the writer’s ‘voice’

When you are certain of how the material will be used, you need to consider the ‘voice’ of the material. By ‘voice’, I mean that for in-class materials, you are writing for the students and the teacher, and some of the material will be interpreted by the teacher. For self-study materials, you have to assume that only the students will read it, so the writing needs to be at the right level and to the point. For teacher’s materials, your voice will tend to have the register of one colleague talking to a fellow professional. To illustrate this, compare these instructions for a basic gapfill exercise from three different types of material.

A In-class material: Work in pairs. Fill in the gaps and compare your answers with your partner.

B Self-study material: Write the answers in the gaps.

C Teacher’s material: Ask the students to complete the exercise on their own. Monitor and help any individuals. Then have the students compare their answers with a partner before you check together as a class.

5 Developing your ‘materials radar’

Once you have started to write your own materials, it becomes infectious! You start to see materials everywhere. You turn bus timetables into information-gap activities, photos on your phone into discussion activities, a celebrity magazine interview into a reading lesson, or your students’ favourite song into a lesson about the lyrics. You have then developed what I refer to as your ‘materials radar’ – and it becomes very hard to switch it off. At any time of day, even when you aren’t at work, part of your brain is on the lookout for ideas and resources that can become teaching materials. In fact, I gave up trying to switch my ‘materials radar’ off ages ago – it’s simply part of being a materials writer.

6 Acquiring the skills of a journalist

In recent years, there has been an emphasis on the materials writer taking authentic texts and adapting them for students. I think this is overdone and that, in fact, materials writers are often better off writing their own reading texts or making their own video content. To do this, you need to develop the two particular skills which good journalists have. Firstly, you have to be able to spot a good story that will interest people (the development of your own ‘materials radar’ will help with this) and secondly, you have to learn to ask the right questions. Increasingly, in my own work, I am interviewing people in order to make video content or to include their responses in a text. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds and, in my experience, if the person you are interviewing has a passion or interesting story to tell, they always want to tell you about it. Try interviewing someone and video them speaking (on your phone, for example). Their enthusiasm for the topic will come through on screen and you will have some great authentic content to add to your materials.

7 Self-editing and quality control

Published materials writers are lucky because they usually work with an editor – and you can’t overstate just how important a good editor is for the success of any published course material. However, when writing materials for your own lessons, you’ll need to be your own editor, who looks for errors and checks the quality. There are some basic ways to do this. Firstly, work though any exercises that you have written and write the answer keys. That way you will see the material from the students’ perspective and you can avoid any basic mistakes in the writing process. If necessary, use the spellcheck function on your computer – even if you think your English is perfect, it’s easy to let things slip through. Finally, be prepared to let some ideas go; you might be convinced that a text or a classroom activity will make good material, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. This can be for any number of reasons – either forget it or put it in a box with lots of other rejected ideas that you can perhaps come back to in the future.

8 Sharing and piloting your materials

Another way to edit and check your material – and perhaps the most foolproof – is to hand it to another teacher and ask them to try it out. This is known as ‘piloting’ the material. Many teachers can make their own material work in their own class, but the real test comes when another teacher takes it into a lesson and tries to use it. At first, ask a teacher you know well and who will give you honest feedback. Note that you may also need to add to the materials, so that they are easy for someone else to follow: include clear rubrics (instructions) with each exercise and provide an answer key. In fact, this is a good moment to develop your skills as a writer of teacher’s notes by providing your colleague with instructions and ideas on using the materials – take a look at a good teacher’s book for ideas on how you might do this. After the piloting, learn from the feedback, revise the materials accordingly, and then give them to another teacher to try out.

9 Writing for digital media and online

These days, many teachers will need to write materials to go online rather than on paper. The difference between writing for these two formats is sometimes exaggerated, and all of the skills above apply to both. Perhaps the main difference is that writing digital materials often involves writing into a template or within the limitations of the software. For example, if you are using an online tool like Moodle, you will have a limited choice of exercise types which you can use. This can be frustrating at first, as you spend time learning how the software works and what it is capable of. However, the more familiarity you have with using a keyboard effectively and the better you know your way round a variety of software, the quicker you’ll be able to get on with the core activity of trying to write effective and engaging materials.

10 Not doing different things but doing things differently

Finally, like most teachers who enjoy writing their own materials, I relish the creativity of writing and the fun of seeing my students and other teachers using them to learn English. However, when we talk about ‘creativity’ in materials writing, there’s always the danger that we try too hard to think outside the box and create something completely new. Whenever I go on such flights of fancy, I have to ground the material back into reality and remind myself that – ultimately – it’s about students learning and teachers teaching. So, to conclude, I’d like to adapt an old saying and point out that good materials writing isn’t about doing different things, but doing things differently. In other words, what we are trying to do (ie teach English) doesn’t need to change, but our materials should always strive to present and practise the language differently and in ways that reflect the needs and interests of the learners.