Top ten tips for writing excellent materials

Materials writing.jpg

I was just going over the presentation used for the MAWSIG & ELTTeacher2Writer session on writing excellent ELT materials at BESIG annual conference in Munich and found some useful advice for materials writers, sourced from the modules/ebooks published by ELTTeacher2Writer. Note that I’ve listed these suggestions in the order that they appeared in the presentation.

  1. Use project management techniques such as Gantt charts to plan and present course design to clients (Evan Frendo: How to write corporate training materials)
  2. Break a task into small, more manageable tasks with opportunities for intermittent feedback (Rachael Roberts: How to write writing activities).
  3. Scaffold instruction by providing verbal cues and prompts to help learners (Rachel Roberts: How to write writing activities)
  4. Divide handouts into sections with clearly labelled sub-headings such as discussion, keywords, information sharing, expressions, comprehension check etc. (Karen: Richardson: How to write worksheets)
  5. Ensure instructions for activities aren’t more complex than the target language  (Philip Kerr: How to write vocabulary presentations and practice)
  6. Separate activity instructions from information for setting up the activity and discussion questions (Sarah Cunningham: How to write speaking activities)
  7. Write options for multiple choice questions that are consistent in length and style, plausible, not too obviously right or wrong and not repeat or contradict one another (Sue Kay)
  8. Test for opinions and intention, not just specific information in multiple choice questions (Sue Kay)
  9. Get to know the digital activity types that are available in the platform you’re using: multiple choice, multiple answer, matrix sorting, select in the blank etc. (Jeremy Day & Peter Sharma: How to write for digital media)
  10. Be careful about screen size issues – computer screens vs. mobile phones (Jeremy Day & Peter Sharma: How to write for digital media)

Olya Sergeeva has a couple of summaries from this event: How to write writing activities & Writing corporate training materials 

I’ll be posting a review of Evan Frendo’s How to write corporate training materials soon.

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Lesson aims & business outcomes

Lesson aims and objectives

I recently saw this lesson aim in a Business English lesson plan that someone had created for a demo lesson as part of an interview.

To clarify the use of the past perfect in written business communication.

It identifies the target language and the use of the verb ‘clarify’ suggests that the Ss may be familiar with this form but are perhaps using it inaccurately. It also identifies the context for the language use. A fairly well-articulated aim, right? Well maybe in the world of ELT but not in business. After all, who are the consumers of lesson aims in corporate and business training? Sponsors, managers, HR folks and training heads. And what do the aims written in this way mean to them? Absolutely nothing.

Here are some aims from lessons plans that have come out of the business and ESP section of Onestopenglish, a couple are in fact by big names like Adrian Doff. If you were a delivery manager in a software company or an operations manager in a manufacturing firm  or an HR person in a consulting organization, what would these aims mean to you?

Rate the lesson aims on a scale between 1 to 5 where 5 describes a business performance outcome and 1 essentially describes what the teacher will cover or what Ss will learn in the lesson. But, rate them not as a teacher/trainer but a business sponsor.

A. To review important elements of good business writing in English, especially for letters and emails

B. Match a selection of functional questions and responses

C. To produce a description of the production process or the part of the production process they are responsible for or familiar with.

D. To use common expressions for talking about problems and difficulties.

E. Reviewing and extending positive adjectives, giving and receiving compliments.

F. Help medical students to write a case report.

G. To practise and expand vocabulary and phrases associated with fundamental market concepts
and activities.

H. To practise polite language used when taking customer orders

I. To talk about scope for doing things.

You probably feel that these are relatively better than that initial past perfect one. I’m afraid most of them are in fact meaningless to business managers. The two that are somewhat better and would probably get a 4 are F and H. Both talk about things the Ss will do on the job. On the other hand, E is clearly a 1. Even aims that seem ostensibly businessy may in fact not strike a chord with managers such as A and G because they don’t define business performance outcomes or what the employee will do back on the job with this newly honed skill.  You may have assigned C a score of 4 or 5 but this aim, albeit extremely job specific, does not describe the context and criteria under which the employee might do this and therefore is not a business outcome.

My perspective on this comes from many years of working closely with corporate entities on language training. Most organizations use some sort of competency framework to manage learning, drive performance, and ensure role readiness. The workhorse of competency frameworks is the performance outcome that describes what people do or should do back on the job. When sponsors are reviewing course outlines and design documents, they are always trying to fit the aims and objectives they read back into their existing competency frameworks.

I’ve actually taught a course along the lines of lesson aim C. It was for assembly plant workers at a pharmaceutical company and one of the situations they needed to speak in English was with USFDA auditors who would ask them general questions about their work before specific ones about SOPs that needed to be followed. Here’s a simple lesson aim that speaks directly to the managers of these assembly plant workers who worry about their employees fumbling when interrogated by these auditors.

Describe the drug manufacturing process they are responsible for with minimal hesitation to USFDA auditors during a formal plant review.

When the whole point of Business English or ESP  in corporate settings is addressing performance gaps, we can’t keep churning out lesson aims that make sense only to us. Moreover, articulating aims as business outcomes makes business sense as well . When program sponsors see clearly defined business performance outcomes, they are more likely to be receptive to the solution you’ve designed. I know it’s difficult to let go off the ingrained language and style of lesson aims that we are conditioned to write as a result of teacher-training courses but in the context of business, it’s something that’s well worth doing.

Image attribution: Darts by Richard Matthews  | CC by 2.0