Interview: Sue Kay on Materials Writing, the Perfect ELT Coursebook and Incidental Dream Careers

in Professional Development

Seasoned materials writer Sue Kay tells her story of becoming an English teacher and published author, unveils what makes a compelling coursebook and shares some tried and tested writing tips.

Sandra: Hello Sue, it’s lovely to have you here for an interview with ELTABB!
We are curious about your story as an ELT author and your thoughts on materials writing, so I’d say, let’s dive right in…

How did your ELT career start and what prompted you to become a materials writer?

Sue: I’m slightly reluctant to tell the truth of how I started my career in ELT. I want to say that teaching was an ambition that was burning in me from an early age. But like a lot of people I know, I more or less fell into it by chance, with the intention of doing it for a while.

Four decades later, I feel like the luckiest person to have ‘fallen into’ the ELT world and the writing is the icing on the cake. I got the writing bug as soon as I started my CELTA training; making worksheets, flashcards, and dreaming up activities to get people talking felt like the most fun and creative job I could imagine.

My first teaching job was in France. When I came back to Oxford I had the good fortune to find work at the Lake School of English. It was a teachers’ cooperative, a really stimulating and creative atmosphere to work in. It was the mid 80s and Headway had just come out. Of course we were using it – who wasn’t? But I felt there was something missing… a communicative element. So I set about writing activities to go with each unit.

As luck would have it, a local author, Simon Greenall, was preparing to write Reward and wanted to do some class observations. I volunteered to host him in my class and afterwards showed him the communicative activities I’d written. He asked if I’d like to write the Reward Resource Packs. That’s how my ELT writing career started.

What makes a good coursebook?

The million dollar question! When I started teaching there was an unwritten rule that it was a ‘sellout’ to use a coursebook at all, unless you were doing an exam class, in which case it was okay.

I suppose I can thank that anti-coursebook attitude for forcing me to hone my writing craft. But in retrospect, I think it did the students a disservice. Because if the coursebook is useful for one thing, it’s providing a framework for both teachers and students. Moreover, it’s something for students to refer back to after the lesson.

I want my coursebook to treat the students as a valuable resource in the classroom.

But to answer the question, this is what I look for when I’m evaluating a coursebook:

1 – Does it provide space for the students to contribute their own knowledge of the language and experience of the world? I want my coursebook to treat the students as a valuable resource in the classroom, not as empty vessels to fill with coursebook knowledge. I want to see plenty of personalisation in my coursebook.

2 – Is the input material engaging? Are the texts authentic? Are they about real people doing real things in real places? If not, it’s difficult to get students to engage with the material and give genuine responses to it. Is the listening and video material good enough? Are the listening scripts interesting or bland, deja-vu and boring? Video has a way of increasing motivation, but there’s a lot of competition nowadays. Students can watch whatever they like on YouTube, so the coursebook videos need to be a cut above.

3 – Is lexis given centre stage? The lexical syllabus should be at least as important as the grammar syllabus.

How important is the editor-writer relationship?

The editor-author relationship is an important one, and when the chemistry is right, the results are amazing. I’ve been incredibly lucky with the publishers and editors I’ve worked with over the years.

When this relationship works well, it’s usually because it’s based on mutual respect. Authors tend to be a bit precious about what they’ve written (including me). It can be hard to see your carefully crafted material slashed (usually, admittedly, because it doesn’t fit the page). Building up professional trust is essential. There are times when you do have to fight your corner, but it’s important to acknowledge that writers and editors have different skills.

What tips would you give to aspiring and seasoned writers?

No hesitation – I’d point aspiring writers in the direction of ELT Teacher 2 Writer’s ‘How To Write’ titles. Karen Spiller, Karen White and I set up ELT Teacher 2 Writer because there were no training courses for materials writers. We asked experienced ELT authors to share the lessons they’ve learnt and give practical advice that new writers could immediately apply to their own work. We now have a list of 22 titles and two compendiums, with new titles in the pipeline.

You’re never too seasoned to learn new skills!

I’d consider myself to be a seasoned ELT materials writer. But when I started writing an exam-based course for Upper Secondary, I felt very much outside my comfort zone. So I consulted Roy Norris’s How To Write Exam Preparation Materials and Caroline Krantz’s How To Write Reading and Listening Activities. I now consider myself to be something of an expert in writing Multiple Choice activities.

The point I’m making is that you’re never too seasoned to learn new skills!

In the light of the current global situation, how do you adapt your writing to the needs of the digital classroom?

A couple of months ago I wouldn’t have had anything to say about this, but right now it’s the burning question! At the moment, my writing partner (Vaughan Jones) and I are writing materials as if they’re going to be taught online. So far I’d say the most important thing we’ve learnt is that it’s not that different to class teaching really.

Teaching online is mostly about getting to grips with the technology. I’ve become very au fait with Zoom and all its capabilities. You still need to provide students with engaging material. Also make sure you’re exposing them to high frequency language, common expressions and plenty of opportunities to personalise.

Nicola Galloway* talks about the “mismatch between the language presented in current ELT course books and how the language actually functions today as a global lingua franca.” Is this a fair criticism?

Nicola’s right – ideally, we should be preparing students for the context in which they’re most likely to use English: as a lingua franca with other L2 users. As Laura Patsko and Katy Simpson point out in How To Write Pronunciation Activities (published by ELT Teacher 2 Writer), the more you train your students to sound like native speakers, the less intelligible they’ll be to the other NNS.

So the important message for the materials writer is to focus on features of pronunciation that will make learners more intelligible to an international audience.

Students need to be exposed to a range of accents including non-native accents.

Another area for improvement in course books is in the audio element. Students need to be exposed to a range of accents including non-native ones. But most course books have scripted listening tasks. Publishers tend to record these scripts using actors who ‘act out’ accents. They’re often passable accents, but they’re not authentic, and this is usually obvious.

I’m pleased to say that I worked on a video element of a global course book recently, and the main character was a Spanish speaker. Ten years ago, I don’t think that would have been acceptable to publishers. So I consider this as good progress in the right direction.

*(Galloway in Routledge Handbook of ELF, 2018, p. 478).

Last question: Writing can be lonely at times. How do you keep up your motivation, focus and creativity?

I’d find it really hard to write on my own. I strongly recommend finding a writing partner you get on really well with; preferably someone who has skills that complement your own, but who shares the same learning and teaching values as you. That writing partnership is a big factor in keeping up motivation.

Focus comes from the publisher and editors – they set the deadlines, and without them, we may never get started. Then I’d say that creativity comes from being in the classroom. There’s nothing better than having a class of students to prepare a lesson for to get your creative juices flowing.

Thanks a lot Sue, for this fun and insightful Q and Kay!

Sue Kay is an experienced author and has co-written Upper Secondary and Adult courses for Macmillan and Pearson. She’s also co-founder of ELT Teacher 2 Writer, which publishes books and runs training courses for ELT writers. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter or contact her via e-mail.

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