The Material Writer’s Essential Toolkit – MaWSIG PCE at IATEFL 2015. Workshop summaries

Posted: April 10, 2015 in Conferences
Tags: , ,

IATEFL 2015 has kicked off, and – yes, this year I’m attending it.  Feeling incredibly lucky and very grateful to my company, without whose support I wouldn’t have been able to go!

Today I spent a delightful day at MaWSIG pre-conference event. There were eight information-packed sessions and workshop focusing on practical hands-on ideas useful for any materials writer, no matter how experienced you are. Below is a brief overview of the day – if you want to find out more, scroll down to detailed summaries.


After a brief introduction by Nick Robinson, Sue Kay gave a session on writing multiple-choice questions. She gave a checklist of potential pitfalls to avoid and shared several very useful slides with suggestions how to reformulate language from the text in the questions.  

A theme that came up in two talks was the changing role of ‘non-visuals’ in ELT. Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones showed that images can be a lot more than just a pretty picture displayed next to the text. They also shared lots of image stocks, as well as tips how to navigate them to get exactly what you need. Later, Kieran Donaghy and Anna Whitcher explored the changing role of video in ELT and shared lots of ideas for activity types that can be used with video content.

Nick Tims gave a wonderful, lively session in which he made a very strong point that whenever you find yourself frequently doing a certain action in several clicks, you should find a tool that does that action in one click. He also shared some great browser extensions that allow you to control and analyze your time spent online.  

Another important theme of the day was creating materials that reflect realistic language use. John Hughes shared insight into writing scripts for videos,  focusing specifically on the ways to make them sound natural. He also shared some techniques for making scripts interesting, referring to none other than Kurt Vonnegut and his 8 tips for writers. Material writers are writers too! Julie Moore demonstrated how indispensable a corpus is for creating grammar and vocabulary materials – and also talked about the limitations of corpora. Evan Frendo developed the theme further, arguing that for a ESP materials writer the first thing to do is to get insider perspective on what is ‘successful communication’ in the setting they’re creating materials for. Materials in this context will aim to enable the learners to become successful communicators (as opposed to ‘improve their language level’), and consequently a lot of emphasis will be not on language but on intercultural communication. 

Finally, Christien Lee told us the story of his (mis)adventures in self-publishing. Along the way, he shared some very useful tips and tools for creating practice tests for high stakes exams – specifically, how to make sure that they are close in difficulty to the original tests. 

Below are the notes that I took during the sessions. I decided to put the whole ‘toolkit’ in one post to make things easier to find in the future. As a result, this is one long, long post, so use the links below to come back and explore the summaries of individual sessions. Many of the sessions were very practical and I tried to incorporate that into my notes: when you see [practice], there’s a task to try out. Notes in cursive after (most of the) summaries are my comments. 

Sue Kay ‘Writing multiple-choice questions’
Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones ‘Maximising the image in materials design’
Nick Tims ‘A technological toolkit for material writers’
John Hughes ‘Writing ELT audio and video scripts: From basic principles to creating drama’
Kieran Donaghy and Anna Whitcher ‘How to write ELT activities for authentic video and film’
Julie Moore ‘Does a corpus have the answer? Corpus tools for ELT writers’
Evan Frendo ‘Tailor-making materials from an ESP author perspective’
Christien Lee ‘Adventures in self-publishing’

The programme on MaWSIG website.


Session 1
Sue Kay  ‘Writing multiple-choice questions’.

AbstractAlthough I’m an experienced author, this is something I’ve always had a blind spot for. Up to now, I’ve avoided writing MCQs, but I’ve recently had to face my fears and do it anyway for the exam strand of a secondary course I’m currently writing. In this session I’ll describe how, with the help of ELT Teacher 2 Writer’s training modules, I … a) cracked it. b) found it more of a struggle. c) went back to T/F activities. Participants will have a chance to do some practical tasks and leave with a set of guidelines

Sue Kay ‘learnt the hard way’ that there’s a lot to get wrong with multiple-choice questions (though it’s better to call them items as they might not be questions!).

Why use them at all (and why are they the chosen format for exams like TOEFL)?

  • can be automatically scored rapidly and objectively, esp. when assessing large numbers of students
  • give support to lower level students who can’t produce much.


  • assess recognition of language, not use
  • students have high chance of guessing the right answer – plus it’s easy to cheat

The main challenges:

  • making options difficult enough
  • making the distractors plausible
  • adding distractons in the text

What are multiple choice items and the terminology?

Terminology: stem / options/ the key (the correct answer) / distractors:

This is a stem
A a distractor
B the key
C a distractor

How to write them?

[practice] Sue Kay went on to refer us to an example of badly written multiple choice questions trying to identify what’s wrong with them.


Here’s what the editor said about them:
1. C stands out as the correct answer because it’s much longer (TIP: make items consistent in length and style)
2. C is obviously a distractor (TIP: avoid items that are obviously right or wrong)
3. Add the preposition to the stem and adjust the options (Rob thinks that his mother is concerned about..) TIP You should always finish the stem at a logical point, e.g. the end of a clause.
4. The only good one! (TIP: Options of the same length, the same style, no repetitions).
6 Quite easy to choose the correct answer without listening to the passage (knowing that Daniel is an ex-offender).
7. A and D have the same meaning (TIP: make sure items don’t say the same thing or cancel each other out).
8. Again, this question is easy to answer without listening to the interview (TIP: make sure that world knowledge isn’t coming into play).

So to sum up, options should

  • be plausible
  • not be too obviously right or wrong
  • consistent in length and style
  • not repeat or contradict one another
  • be clear and easy to process

When to write them?

Write the text and the activity at the same time. Don’t write the text or script first and then shoehorn distractors in.

More tips:

More tips

Setting up distractors: reformulating the text in the options
1. 1 Periods

2.  [practice] Write a key and two distractors to this text


Here’s Sue Kay’s version. Notice how text is paraphrased in the options.


3. Unreal past

Unreal past

4. Negatives


Further points made by the audience:

  • Make the language in the options the right level (maybe even simpler than the text)
  • Test them on actual students and see which one everyone gets right or wrong
  • Is there any difference between writing MCIs for reading and listening? (In Sue’s opinion, writing them for reading is more challenging; someone else’s point: you have to make sure they are spread evenly or students will miss something while processing the previous question).
  • Is there any difference between writing MCIs for paper and digital materials? Might be, because for digital materials s/s might have the choice to stop / replay the audio – depending on the purpose of the materials.


How to Write Reading and Listening Activities by Caroline Krantz
How to Write Exam Practice Materials by Roy Norris

A very interesting session! I particularly enjoyed the practical bits: analyzing badly written MCIs and exploring ways to reformulate texts. 
The things that were particularly surprising for me were the observation that MCI stem should be a finished clause and that you write text and questions at the same time, incorporating distractors into both. Another observation that I found very interesting was the idea brought up by the audience that digital materials are more powerful in terms of teaching objectives as they allow more control on the part of the learners, and that questions might support those teaching objectives. 


Session 2
Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones ‘Maximising the image in materials design’

Abstract: In this session we aim to equip writers, both new and experienced, with tools and techniques for using and choosing images in their work. We will focus on the use of online image banks, the range of resources available and the different ways images influence the way we write.

Participants will take away:

  • an insight to how images are sourced in-house and how to influence the process
  • practical tips for researching and producing effective artwork briefs
  • a list of links to current state-of-the-art image banks
  • suggestions for keeping up to date with images and their uses
  • ideas for using images to inspire and inform the writing process.

The focus of the session:

  • Focusing mainly on printed materials
  • How has the role of visuals changed? They used to be purely decorative but now there’s been a shift to making images more central to the learning process (which is clear e.g. if you look at coursebook layout).
  • How can we fine-tune our search for images to get something very relevant?

Where to get images?

At the moment, material writers have more say in what images to use than they used to. There are budgets for images – so most of the images have to be free/cheap, but sometimes editors will consider buying something more expensive if that’s a central image exploited a lot.

There are four types of image banks:

  • stock images (e.g. thinkstock – cheap, very commercial, hence used for corporate materials a lot)
  • creative commons (e.g. unsplash – totally free for any kind of use including commercial; eltpics – non-commercial use free, by teachers for teachers)
  • photo journalism (e.g. panos – more expensive – a site Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones have used a lot recently, often very generative of ideas for texts / discussions, sometimes even too controversial)
  • design/ boutique – very aesthetically pleasing but might be decorative rather (e.g. lens modern)
  • the fifth source is to take them yourself!


Working with a publisher, you’ll get a list of stocks the publisher works with – this is not exclusive, but if you want to use something else, this will have to be negotiated with the editor.

How to search for pictures?

You get very different results if you play with parameters and filters on image stocks (e.g. on alamy if you pick ‘square’ you get pictures influenced by instragram; you can pick ‘two people’ and so on and so on,)

Points made by the audience:

  • A lot of stock images are too stereotypical (think ‘doctor’). Ben Goldstein’s answer to that: use more specific search term, e.g. ‘doctor working with a patient’, or adjust parameters (e.g. ‘two people’).

What image type? 

Explore image types like selfies / infographic / fish eye / word clouds  / #panodash (the same person on one image) / memes … – but careful with that because they go out of fashion (e.g. word clouds and the grumpy cat meme).

Ideas for staying up to date:


Writing artwork briefs

When working with a publisher, there’s a photo researcher who looks for images and you’ll often need to write a description of what image you need.
Tip: it’s mportant to include what you don’t want (e.g. ‘not a lifestyle magazine type of living room’).

Sample artwork briefs:

ab2 abrief1

[Practice] Write the artwork brief that will guide the photo researcher to find the following photo for you:


[a/w brief that Ceri Jones wrote: wide-angled landscape photo showing people at a busy ski-ing resort on a sunny day with blue skies, should show montains and/or forst in the background to emphasise the natural surroundings (the overall theme is man and the environment so we need both elements) and a range of skiers/snowboards, kids etc – overall visual impact should be colourful and dynamic]

Coming back to the role of the image:

  • Scene setting
  • Illustrative
  • Decoragive
  • Driving force (the image in the right bottom-hand corner has a major role because it creates very different responses – when people realize that’s a golf course..)


Another very interesting session.  I particularly want to explore panos to see if there are indeed lots of controversial images that might generate a lot of confersation and follow up on the passing remark to Lonely planet ‘The story behind a photo’ competition – I’ve run a quick search on google and there seem to be quite a lot of sites on that. It was also extremely interesting to learn about the nitty-gritty of writing for publishing houses and see examples of artwork briefs. 


Session 3

Nick Tims ‘A technological toolkit for material writers’

Slides and the handout explaining how to install/set up all tools mentioned in the talk: (also go there to share tools that you find useful as a materials writer – might serve a basis for a future article for MaWSIG!)

Abstract: In this session I will present and demonstrate a range of tech-related tools that make me a better and more efficient material writer. This will include discussion of: hardware (set-ups, a few super-useful peripherals), software (applications, web-based customisations, some *superlight* coding), plus a few tips on time-management.

1. Useful hardware

Browsers: if you use Internet Explorer, you really should try something else.
Monitors – one is not enough!  Nick Tims uses three to switch between apps less (e.g. have answer key on one and the coursebook unit on another). To organize labels on the monitor, try fences.

2. Time-saving software

If you think of anything that you regularly do in more than two clicks on the internet, someone has probably a browser extension (software that extends the functionality of the browser).


  • lastpass (stores your passwords). email a page, shorten your url – all can be done in one click
  • If you regularly search some service (e.g. Cambridge Dictionaries Online or Shutterstock), you can easily set up your browser to search there directly from your address bar. To set that up, position the cursor in the search box, right click > click Edit search Engine > choose a keyword that you can remember. Voila, now you can search that resource  simply by typing your keyword in the address bar.

More: Use snipping tool (Win) / grab tool (Mac) to snip out images.

Texts – get organized!

Save articles / pages you come across on the internet to Evernote. Helps to keep internet materials organized through tags, and also searches through your database when you search on google.

Tip: Evernote seems daunting at first, but actually it is easy! Free in its basic form; premium allows to share things.

Practice exercises: automating boring bits!

Marcos – you can record a series of actions on Microsoft Word and then use one click to perform it. Doesn’t involve coding, takes about 1.5 minutes to write one.
Example: you might have double spaces in your text that you need to remove. Write a macros and do it in one click.

Better still: install Teacher’s Pet – a massive collection of pre-written  macros.
Example: pair matching puzzle: write sentences separated by pluses, and in one click you get this:


(At this point the people in the room started to applaud.)

3. Avoiding internet-based disruption

  • StayFocusd – an extension that limits the time you can spend on a particular site. But don’t lock yourself out for 10,000 hours. 🙂
  • RescueTime – send you a weekly report analyzing your applications/websites and distraction/productivity time.

Don’t be afraid to kiss a few frogs – try stuff out that doesn’t work.

This was just so so useful! After this talk I really want to make a commitment to time-saving tools and I’m going to research every single tool mentioned in this session. This really is a matter of attitude: I know there are great tools out there, but normally I don’t even spend time to learn useful shortcuts, which alone would save me a lot of time. I’ve heard of some of the tools Nick mentioned and even registered an account with Evernote and installed Teacher’s Pet at some point, but they seemed complicated and I immediately gave them up – but now I see that I really should’ve invested some time there, as there would definitely be great pay-offs in terms of time and organisation. 


Session 4

John Hughes ‘Writing ELT audio and video scripts: From basic principles to creating drama’


Abstract: Audio and video ELT scripts recorded for course materials are often criticised by teachers for their lack of authenticity, overload of target language, dull characters and non-existent plotlines. In part, many ELT writers sometimes share this view but at the same time there are basic principles we need to follow which seem to limit what we can realistically do. In this session, I’d like to explore what those limitations are and then consider ways to write more creatively within them. Participants will work together on some short ELT dialogues and then redraft these scripts by applying techniques used by writers for theatre and film. The session will give novice writers an insight into ELT scriptwriting for audio and video, and give experienced writers the chance to share and reflect on their own approach.

Scripts were around a long time ago and they have come a long way. John Hughes started out by sharing some examples:

  • The year 1555 – materials for Spanish speakers.
  • Berlitz:
  • Audiolingual language laboratories (and there’s a lot of materials available online which resemble this – so, the medium is modern, but the content not so much so):
  • Shoehorning the grammar point into your texts:
  • And finally, this one was produced by John Hughes, but not actually written by him: recorded in the street, transcribed and used as materials. This way you’ll discover all sorts of interesting language that you’d never think of if you scripted it yourself.

[practice] Look at the script that’s to be recorded.

  • what do you like about it?
  • what criticism could we get from teachers using it? how can it be improved?


Comments from the audience:

Conversation 1:

  • feels scripted (‘It serves delicious pasta.’ > ‘It’s great’. ‘The pasta is great.’);
  • quite abrupt: no exponents for politeness (‘excuse me’), no reply to the recommendation;
  • you need clues that go with it (a map, pointing, etc) – otherwise it will get too difficult to follow, even for a native speaker;
  • in short, there’s too much target language in it and not enough incidental language.

So, things to consider:

  • how to achieve balance between target language and incidental language
  • adding context (e.g. through sound effects)
  • regular turn-taking? (include interjecting, etc)
  • number of speakers to include? (more than 3 becomes unmanageable – e.g. for meetings, if you have 4 people, it might get very challenging to make it easy to follow)
  • names, genders and accents? (to make it possible for the listener to differentiate between people; to address that, include accents in the description of the script)
  • consider whether your script is stilted

Naturally sounding scripts

These are transcripts of unscripted recommendations that were recorded in the street.

[practice] Here is a transcript of unscripted recommendations that were recorded in the street. Identify features of authentic speech (grammar, vocabulary, discourse, etc):




Notice the total absence of the word ‘restaurant’ (place)

Implications: So, if you’re writing a script, which of these do we include? Probably not errors, but definitely fillers?

Comments from the audience

  • Rachael Roberts: Publishers have said to her ‘you use this word too much’ – yes, but that’s the way we speak!
  • Evan Frendo: We’re used to teaching written grammar, but this is spoken grammar. People are only just becoming aware of those features (which are features and not ‘mistakes’, e.g. ‘choices which is Italian, Turkish… in the script above isn’t a ‘mistake’).
  • Ceri Jones: But these features are still being removed by editors.

Making scripts a little bit more dramatic

Check out Kurt Vonnegut’s tips for writers!

  • ‘Try it three times’ (the character tries to get something and fails two times). Or maybe seven or eight times, in which case it becomes a bit Fawlty Towers! 😀
    Example: try_3_times
  • Record the same scene twice: the straight version and the one where things don’t go smoothly – students could compare
  • Show don’t tell (make it visually interesting).

[practice] Improve this very dull script applying the ‘try it three times’ rule:


Our group came up with:

  • Make someone refuse
    Sorry I’m rushing to a meeting. Maybe such and such could help you.
    Sorry, I’ve got a bad back.
  • Think through the characters: what’s going on in their lives? Why do they need to move that box?

John Hughes’s final version:


One reservation voiced by the audience:

  • But students want simple stuff that they can learn by heart.

Spoken language, spoken discourse and materials that exploit natural communication are my favourite topics ever, so I really like the idea of getting people to record target tasks and then use the language they produce to inform materials/reuse their scripts. I tried a version of this once while creating materials for a Delta lesson – asking two colleagues to chat about inventions that are likely to make a difference in the long run, just to see what modals and functional language would come up in a conversation – and I really liked the results, because I instantly saw some discourse patterns and lexis accompanying target grammar (E.g. ‘that’s very unlikely to happen. Not in a million years‘). I’d love to be able to do this more – though being in non English speaking environment doesn’t help. I can’t walk into the street and ask a passer-by where to eat, so I normally end up searching for authentic language on youtube – more often than not, without much success. So that’s definitely an idea to bear in mind, but I’m not sure how applicable it is to my context. The last part of the workshop, on the other hand, was truly universal, and I loved the ideas that sprung up from the ‘Three tries’ technique, and especially the idea that ELT materials writers should sometimes check out advice for fiction writers. 🙂


Session 5
Kieran Donaghy and Anna Whitcher ‘How to write ELT activities for authentic video and film’

Slides: send Kieran and Anna an email to get them

A lot of activities focused on today are from How to write Film and Video Activities.

Traditionally, video is:

  • used as an add-on, after the coursebook has been created
  • ‘glorified listening’. However video becomes much less effective in language learning if task is only based on non-visual content.

Increasingly, like images, it’s been taking a more central role. Kieron Donaghy thinks that there will be an increasing demand for script writing.

Problems / two sides of the coin:

  • You choose the video. Huge choice. Looking for a video is overwhelming.
  • You’re handed a video that you have to write activities for – what activity types to explore?

How to choose the video: 

  • Language learning is greatly enhanced when the film/video is integrated into the syllabus.
  • Language level
  • Length: 2-3 minutes (due to attention span)
  • Relevance to students’ lives, cultural background. If you think someone might be offended by this, they probably will be.
  • Task potential: video becomes much less effective in language learning if task is only based on non-visual content.

[practice] We went on to analyze the following two videos considering the factors above. Be careful as the first clip contains sexual scenes.

How to exploit video.

The task will depend on the pedagogical objective (normally the objective / outline of the sequence will be in the publisher’s brief – if not, better to ask them if there should be a certain structure).


  • consider what vocabulary to pre-teach
  • communicative activities


General guidelines:

  • activities should allow the learners stay focused on the video – important not to overload the learners;
  • hence, activity types: just ticking – nothing involving lots of writing
  • there could be some ‘listening-type’ comprehension questions – but again, Kieran warns against focusing exclusively on that

Ideas for activities:

Video2 Video3 Video4

Post viewing


Session 6
Julie Moore ‘Does a corpus have the answer? Corpus tools for ELT writers’ (Julie is going to write a blog post around this session in the following week and so.)
facebook: ETLjuleswords

The answer to the question in the title is ‘no’. However, Julia can’t imagine writing without access to a corpus.

What is a corpus and what are corpus tools?

Terminology. Concordance lines: examples of how the words were used in real language use; usually appear with the word you search for down the middle – usually called key word in context. If a sentence you like is cut off, in most tools you can click on it and see more contect.

Why use a corpus?

To answer questions like

  • how  do we actually use must naturally (as opposed to ‘have to‘)? (use concordance lines)
  • ‘beat about the bush’ or ‘beat around the bush’? Which expression to focus on – which one is more frequent in BrE? (frequency analysis)
  • Do we say keep your temper? (expression originally came from authentic material); to check your intuitions about vocabulary. (collocations analysis tools)
  • Do you use actor or actress for females? (trends in use – Ngram, COBUILD online)

How to use a corpus?

Grammar: (e.g. ‘how to use must’). Search for authentic examples. Then use them to

  • get ideas what context to use
  • use sentences directly in exercises
  • or (more frequently) reformulate sentences (to grade language)

Vocabulary: collocation searches – see what words a target word is used with. E.g. a search for temper returns control your temperkeep your temper is there, but exploring examples we see that it was used in phrases, e.g. keep your temper in check – so the answer to the question ‘do we say ‘keep your temper’? is probably no.

Phrases and chunks:

Julia showed an example of search on ‘beat around/about the bush’ on sketchengine. Tip: use settings for search for widest possible range – to get as much information as possible. This particular search returned some interesting variability, e.g.: Don’t tease too much about the bush. 

What is corpus not good for?

  • It’s difficult and time-consuming (though possible) to search for language features that don’t involve specific lexis. E.g. to find about present continuous for future plans you’ll have to wade through all examples and see which ones are used for future plans.
  • Copyright issues: OK to use short, unidentifiable chunks/sentences, but when you’re looking for examples of discourse markers, you need 2-3 sentences and you can’t steal it. But you could still inform yourself but not copy it.
  • Not good for learning any info if the type of corpus you’re using doesn’t represent the kind of language you need!
    Things to consider: spoken vs written? genres? AmE vs BrE? expert vs student?
  • Not to be followed blindly!
    >Question surprising results (to return to the example given above, yes, keep is a collocate of temper – but when you question that, you explore examples, and then understand that it’s only used in longer phrases);
    > You only get what you search for! (If you say ‘went on foot’, you’ll get that from corpus and miss the more frequent walk to work
    >there aren’t always clear-cut answers

Where to get access?

  • Ask your publisher
  • Free open corpora: normally they’re free because there are some issues.
    COCA (great, but only American English), SKeLL (tools are somewhat limited), BAWE/BASE
  • Subscription corpora: Sketch Engine, Collins Corpus – will be released soon

But also:

  • Textchecker
    English Vocab Profile shows which words in a text belong to which levels (could be used e.g. to remove too difficult vocabulary); AWL, Oxford 3000 is similar
  • Usage trends
    Ngram, COBUILD online
  • Dictionary DVDs e.g. Cambridge  advanced learner’s dictionary allows to run advanced searches – could return indispensable information.


Session 7

Evan Frendo ‘Tailor-making materials from an ESP author perspective’ 

Abstract. Lots of teachers talk about tailor-making materials to suit particular groups of learners or a particular client: in ESP it is considered normal practice. Tailor-making materials involves understanding the learner’s context and priorities, and it also involves analysing the target discourse and working out what the key language is. In this session I will introduce some materials I have helped design for corporate clients, and discuss some of the thinking that went in to the development.

Some of the biggest differences between creating ESP materials for corporations and coursebook writing:

  • Language needed for the learners can be very specialized (IT specialists creating software for oil industry will need vocabulary from oil industry – so there cannot be a universal course ‘English for IT specialists’); material writers spends a lot of time trying to understand company discourse.
  • PARSNIPSCoursebooks are politically correct so you might not be able to use some terms. e.g. PIG = pipeline inspection gauge but publishers won’t have the word in their materials (although professionals in Saudi Arabia obviously do use it!)
  • Learning centered, not learner centered. Paid by the corporation, goal: to help learners do their job better

In ESP we bridge the gap –  find out what learners need to do their job, where they currently are and where they need to be. This gap is not ‘the gap between B2 and C1’. This gap is not ‘learning to create Steve Jobs style presentations’. You cannot bridge that gap without researching the company.

So what can this gap be and how to research it?

  • Research lexis. Working with a corpus of texts produced by the company. Tools: e.g. Wordsmiths tools. The concept of ‘lexis level’ shifts: general English C2 vocabulary will probably be very high frequency in workplace setting.
  • Research typical situations and intercultural communication issues. Get stakeholders to provide you with insight. Technique: Record a real phone conversation, get the participant to comment on how typical it is and keep asking yourself about each bit of insight: so what in terms of training. 
  • Research genres. Example: What do people in this company mean by a successful presentation? in some companies presentation slides are used as documentation, so the conventions for the genre are totally different from ‘standard presenting advice’ found in all BE coursebooks.
  • English as a lingua franca. ‘I don’t actually care whether something is correct or incorrect. As long as the meaning is not distorted. Sources of miscommunicationnot a lack of vocabulary (you can always ask), it’s vocabulary used in different ways by speakers from different cultures (do Americans and the Japanese mean the same by the word contract?)
  • Not all language at work is language about work. Some research says, it’s 50/50 content/interpersonal communication. So, small talk is a hugely important component of the course.

One-sentence summary: when teaching in company, get insider perspective on what successful communication in this setting is. 


Session 8
Christien Lee ‘Adventures in self-publishing’

Christien is currently creating a book that he wants to self-publish and he’ll share his story. The correct title for this talk is ‘misadventures in self-publishing’. 🙂

Session outline:
1. What shall I self-publish? Why? How? Where?
2. How to write good quality content?
3. Developing the online component
4. Final thoughts / next steps

What shall I self-publish? 
Christien’s background is in testing, which means tough competition. He went for Canadian test, where there’s a lot less competition. There were already practice test books, so he decided to create a self-study guide. He spent several months creating materials and then organized some workshops to test his materials with students, and the response was absolutely awful, as it turned out that in fact all the students wanted was practice tests! So all the time spent researching for the self-guide had been wasted.

Why online component? Stops students from buying one book and sharing it. The plan: the book comes with an access code to an online component which has the key and the answers.

Why self publish?

  • No guarantee that your publication will be accepted by a publisher (especially for a niche topic)
  • You’ll get published a lot sooner
  • Potential return of up to 70% (as opposed to royalties from publishers, which also come after quite a long time).

Why not self publish?

  • No guarantee I will make money (right now the project is running up to 1000GBP to produce)
  • A lot of editing work involved.

How to handle editing, book layout, audio, and so on?

  • Do it yourself (Christien mostly does scripts himself).
  • Use crowdsourcing / freelancers. But you have to make sure you trust the freelancer and ensure quality (e.g. for audio).
  • Friendsourcing – which also means networking with your friends.

Where to publish?

Ensuring quality content

For creating practice tests:

  • match your materials to the original for length, genre, register,
  • difficulty. Use a range of tools and make sure they return similar results on your texts. E.g. use Cambridge Vocabulary Profile to achieve the same distribution in terms of CEFR difficulty of lexis: 20% B2, 70% B1 etc; Academic Word List Highlighter; Lexile Analyzer)
  • complexity (in terms of ‘how many clauses in a typical sentence?’),
  • topic or subject,
  • testing point,
  • distractor patterns (it’s wrong because it.. what? contradicts the passage? ..?)

E.g. original passage about a match. Christien introduces a text about another Canadian species and ensures that the aim of each paragraph is the same (introducing what the species is, etc)

Options for the website:

  • A platform like WordPress with premium plugins

For the interactive service:

What went wrong?

Christien underestimated:

  • how much time he would have to work on the book
  • the difficulties and costs in terms of the website
  • he had to put things on hold and got unexpected interest from publishers, so he’s exploring other options.

I really enjoyed Christien’s ‘story so far’ and I really hope that it will have a very very happy ending! My most important take-aways from this session are the need to do market research/piloting ideas as soon as possible before investing lots of time and effort in them. What I found particularly fascinating is was his ideas for grading texts to make them match commercial exams as closely as possible. I’d always assumed that the only way was to try materials on students and  collect huge amount of statistics and it was very interesting to see ways to make some short cuts there. 


So, the outcome of MaWSIG PCE? A treasure trove of tips and links to explore and some bits of very interesting insight into the world of publishing. I don’t remember when I last learnt so much in one day. What a great event!


Click here for an overview of all my write-ups from IATEFL 2015.

  1. Thank you so much!! All this information in one place – absolutely wonderful!

    • olyasergeeva says:

      Thank you! Yes, I was thinking whether to split this into more posts to make it more readable, but having all these ideas and links in one post was absolutely irresistible. 🙂 How great it is that there is a SIG now that organizes such events!

  2. annazernova says:

    Hi Olya! I wa enjoying reading your post, thank you so much!
    I’m happy to work with you!

  3. Reblogged this on Kaur Gibbons' Thoughts and commented:
    Some very thought provoking ideas here. I use the “How to write multiple choice items” with students.

  4. BerLingo says:

    This is a brilliant summary Olya, thanks! I have only recently joined the ELT bubble, and start my CELTA in Berlin on Monday but already have the feeling I’ll have to attend the conference next year! I used to work at Routledge on linguistics books, and we tended to have a stand at ITEFL but now I’ve changed career direction I’d like to be on the other side of it! Enjoy the rest of the conference 🙂

    • olyasergeeva says:

      Hi Rachel,
      Yes, you’re right, it’s was an incredible event, definitely do go if you get the chance! (off to write a very log list of ideas that I want to try out in the next few months :))

  5. Well done, Olya! A perfect post summarising all important points of a perfect day! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  6. […] Olga Sergeeva has summarised the whole day in one post. […]

  7. A very informative and useful account. Thank you very much for sharing your insight.

  8. Reblogged this on indiaelt and commented:
    A very insightful summary of eight information-packed sessions and workshop focusing on practical hands-on ideas useful for any materials writer. A must read for a materials writer

  9. thanks ever so much for sharing this. The article on MCQs is brilliant. Will come back to check out the others!

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