A few months ago, Dale Coulter and I had a strange psychic moment whereby we both replied to a tweet from MaWSIG saying more or less the same thing. MaWSIG is the Special Interest Group for Materials Writing from IATEFL, the international organisation for teachers of English as a foreign language. One of the lovely ladies behind the MaWSIG Twitter account had written something about the recent MeetUp they’d organised with MELTA, the Munich version of Berlin’s ELTABB (English Language Teacher’s Association of Berlin and Brandenburg), and Dale and I simultaneously – although separately! – decided it would be great to do something similar in Berlin, so replied to MaWSIG to that exact effect.
Cue a few meetings over coffee, rhubarb juice and beer (of course; this is Germany after all!) and the final idea we came up with was as follows: to host a fairly intimate event whereby professionals from the intersection between ELT and publishing could come together to discuss key topics pertinent to both industries. Borrowing an idea from a Young Society of Publishers’ event I attended when I first worked in publishing, we adopted the tagline ‘What’s hot and what’s not in ELT publishing?’, which we hoped would appeal to a wide variety of interests.
So, a few months after our initial meeting, it was finally time for our event on a chilly Wednesday evening. The very talented Mandy Welfare, our Events Coordinator for ELTABB, had struck gold with the venue: a quirky café just north of the centre of Berlin called Bar Jää-äää. The great thing about the venue was the fact that it was exclusively ours after half 6, which afforded our event a very cosy atmosphere. For the first half an hour or so, there was lots of mingling fuelled by Weinschorle, beer and some delicious homemade quiche and soup. Then Mandy did her excellent teacher thing and brought us together into ‘plenary mode,’ with everyone fitting in the little circle around the sofas in the middle of the bar. This was a really nice way to kick off the event, I thought, as everyone was sat together before the real ‘networking’ began. She and Dale (ELTABB’s current Chair) welcomed everyone to the event, and Dale explained a little about its conception. Then it was the ‘hot topic’ speakers’ – or the ‘hot speakers’, if you will! – turn to introduce themselves. We had the pleasure of the company of the following guests:
Peer Barber-Meyer: ELT Consultant from Pearson Education’s ELT division
HOT TOPIC: EFFICACY – measuring the impact we make on a learner, as well as the learner outcomes
Claire Hart: an experienced teacher and materials writer based in Bavaria. Claire has written for numerous publishers and is, like me, also a keen Tweeter 🙂
HOT TOPIC: adapting print materials for digital contexts
Angela Lloyd: author of Simply Business and an experienced English teacher
HOT TOPIC: authentic listening: how authentic should we be? Angela said she’s never been one for ‘just pressing play’ in class because she thought she was always a sufficient model for her students, but her stance has changed over the years. Her experience is based on years of teaching multinational groups in Germany’s vocational colleges.
Tim Phillips: the ELT Sales Executive for the National Geographic Learning / Cengage Learning partnership.
HOT TOPIC: authentic video and using TED Talks in class.
Ian McMaster: Editor-in-Chief of Business Spotlight Magazine
HOT TOPIC: ‘joined-up writing’, the cross-section between journalism and materials writing (particularly relevant to his authors for Business Spotlight)
After these excellent speakers had said a little bit about themselves, the remaining fifteen or twenty of us did the same, giving a quick insight into our backgrounds and why we’d come along to the event. I introduced myself as the Tweeter for ELTABB, as well as somebody who has ‘done the ELT thing’ a little bit backwards, in the sense that I used to work in publishing and then quit my job to move to Berlin to try my hand at ELT. Besides my strange situation, our other attendees had a wide range of experience: some were very experienced writers, with over 20 publications under their belt; some have been working freelance on numerous different projects for a few years and a few have just started to dip their toes into the huge world of ELT publishing and materials writing. My inner publishing geek was already raring to get chatting with a room full of such interesting and like-minded people!
After the round of introductions, everyone topped up their drinks and then headed to a table. This is where my general overview must end, as of course I can only really report briefly on the interesting conversations I had at my tables – much as I wish it were possible, I unfortunately couldn’t be privy to all the conversations concurrently!
So here is a little insight into which ‘hot’ topics I ended up talking about with our guests. I should probably mention here that I was almost certainly the most inexperienced teacher in the whole room, so I apologise in advance if my outlook seems somewhat naïve or ill-informed – I’d be very happy to hear further explanations or comments on any of the below. Equally, I don’t intend any of the following summaries to be construed as any kind of sales pitch / promotion of one publisher over another; it was simply an evening of very friendly discussion.
So, in the order of who I spoke to:
Claire Hart (teacher and materials writer)
For me, it was particularly nice to meet Claire as we have exchanged a few tweets in #ELT land on Twitter, and it’s nice to start putting more and more faces to the names of the lovely folk who move in the online ELT world.
We spoke mainly about her materials writing experience: the instances where she’s written print-only materials; when she’s just written the digital components, or where she’s done a bit of both! She explained a bit about how she gets work, and cited LinkedIn as a great place to ‘sell yourself’ if you use it well.
Claire also helped me understand why it’s often numerous different author ‘teams’ who write each different component of an English course: I’d always thought it a bit odd that two or three people write the student’s book, but then two or three different people write the workbook or teacher’s book. However, when she spoke about the need to critically analyse your own work to create the teacher’s book, for example, it did make more sense to sometimes use a fresh pair of eyes for this job. She did also add that sometimes smaller publishers do ask you to do two or more components, and that can also be beneficial because then you, as the original author, are very aware of what your aims and objectives were with each stage of the materials writing process, making the creation of any spin-off texts considerably easier.
Furthermore, having recently read this excellent post on the MaWSIG blog about whether writing for digital stifles creativity, I wanted to know how Claire felt about writing into templates for publishers, and she was kind enough to show us some of the files she’s working on for different publishers to give us an idea of how she works. For me, after my short spell in publishing before I moved to Berlin, it was very interesting to see materials writing in action. I’d thought that publishers often oblige materials writers to write into complicated templates and spreadsheets, but Claire said that often she just works into Word and then the publisher has another person who translates her content into the relevant template. I’d have loved to talk more to Claire about the crux of her hot topic: adapting print materials for digital, but unfortunately our 20 minutes were up all too soon!
(I later found this great post from Claire on this exact subject for anyone interested.)
Tim Phillips (Cengage Learning / National Geographic Learning)
The event wasn’t really designed to be a sales pitch from any of the publishers, but an ELTABB friend had recently been to the Business English Special Interest Group (BESIG) Conference in Sitges, Spain and had heard about Cengage’s new series of books on TED Talks. I have always enjoyed teaching with TED Talks, but I have developed a particular obsession with them lately, ever since my very best friend from university delivered a TEDx talk on women in space and engineering. I use them often in my teaching, and have gathered a bank of four or five worksheets that I’ve designed on TED Talks to use with more advanced students for discussion lessons. My worksheets were initially modelled on those of other teachers online, but since my first two, I’ve largely made them up myself. Then I learnt from the lovely Sherri Williams about a new series of books from Cengage where each new unit is introduced by way of a TED Talk, which is what I was keen to talk to Tim about.
Tim’s hesitance to show us his books, in the knowledge that he didn’t want to be too ‘salesy’ was admirable, but myself and the few other people I was networking with were keen to have a look, so we flicked through the C1 textbook together, whilst discussing the benefits of authentic listening. I spoke of my experiences using TED talks and other authentic videos on intensive courses, and another ELTABB member spoke of her experiences teaching university students, and how much more animated all our students are when presented with something real like a TED Talk, as opposed to a textbook tapescript on a CD. I think I’ll definitely be putting in a request that my school invests in some of the TED Talk books, because I think they’ll be very popular with teachers and students.
We also talked about the introduction of critical reading and reasoning to some course syllabi, which was news to me. My only experience of critical reasoning is from several failed attempts to join the British civil service’s graduate scheme, but it’s interesting to learn it’s also beginning to form part of ELT curricula, too.
Ian McMaster (Editor-in-Chief of Business Spotlight magazine)
Our conversation with Ian was a little more philosophical, and we discussed materials such as the English for Business (Listening) book and whether or not it’s a good idea to expose students to ‘incorrect’ English. This is a common problem in Germany, as Germans are very commonly worried about making mistakes and therefore don’t like activities such as ‘Find the error’ because they are concerned they’ll pick up bad habits. We therefore discussed whether such ‘authentic listening’ activities have a sort of aspirational function too, in the sense that they show students they don’t always need to be perfect to be understood.
Another interesting question that Ian posed was whether TED Talks are too perfect for learners… What do you think?
Peer Barber-Myer (Pearson Education)
With Peer we had a great conversation about how Pearson develop their products, and I was fascinated by their drive to ensure that whichever products they bring to the market are really learner-focused. This is all part of Pearson’s switch from being a publishing company to a ‘learning services company’, and for Pearson it’s most definitely not just about the book anymore. They run focus groups for brainstorming and feedback before the materials writers are even involved, and it’s more the learners’ needs rather than the writers’ experience that determines what appears in the materials. They even watch teachers using their material to see how they interact with it, and what might need to be added or taken away.
Dale offered a fantastic suggestion here, whereby a publisher could observe a range of classes interacting with a particular part of a coursebook/product, and if students were consistently pulling their phones out during one reading exercise, then perhaps it’d be a good idea to add a glossary to that exercise. Or if a teacher likes to bring in a photo to introduce a podcast lesson, then perhaps this particular page could be adorned with such a picture to aid both the students’ understanding and the teacher’s preparation. This all seems to amount to what seems to me to be a necessary switch in approach for the digital age.
We also talked about the ever-decreasing lifecycle of products and Peer told us a little bit about Pearson’s forthcoming study on efficacy, due to be published in 2018.
Angela (Business English writer)
I ended the evening talking to Angela a little more about authentic listening, which seemed to be one of the most popular topics of the evening, appearing at a lot of tables. (A few months ago there was an ELTABB workshop on exactly that, held by Ian Badger, and you can read my account of that here.)
We discussed the exact definition of authentic listening, and then the fact that some students still have the perception that they should only listen to, and indeed learn ‘native speaker English.’ Angela gave a great example from her own teaching in vocational colleges: that the multinational students in her classes could often understand each other long before she could understand them because she saw them so much less frequently than they saw each other. They perhaps wouldn’t appreciate that this is ‘authentic listening training’ but, in today’s globalised world, this is just as important as understanding a BBC News podcast in a southern British English accent.
And then, remarkably, five lots of twenty minute ‘networking’ rotations were up and it was time for us to be kicked out of the café. Concision was never my forte, but there’s my account of the fantastic evening’s events. My personal takeaways would then be as follows – and please bear in mind that I have a more publisher-focused interest in everything, due to my desire to return to England at some point and hopefully work for an ELT publisher!
- the coursebook certainly isn’t dead (I realise this statement is often very controversial, but that was just my opinion from the evening)
- learners should be at the heart of all materials design
- students really enjoy authentic listening, and as teachers we should encourage them to interact with more authentic materials more often
- it’s a good idea to set-up, and keep updating, your LinkedIn and about.me profile if you’re looking to enter the materials writing world
So a big thanks to all those who came, and especially to Dale and Mandy for organising it! I look forward to more such speed-networking events in the future.