ELTons award for Excellence in Course Innovation: Keynote by Cengage Learning

 Materials Writing  Comments Off on ELTons award for Excellence in Course Innovation: Keynote by Cengage Learning
Jun 062016

Every year around this time the ELTons Innovation Awards are presented. There are always some very good nominations and I’m glad I don’t have to make a decision as it must be really difficult to choose the best in each category.

This year, I’m particularly happy about two of the awards:

Keynote by Cengage Learning (National Geographic Learning) won the ELTons for Excellence in Course Innovation.

I was involved in the authoring of some of the digital IWBs, online workbooks and ebook versions and it was a  real pleasure to read through and work with the material that is created around selected TED talks.

I also had the pleasure of meeting and talking to some of the authors and editors of the series at IATEFL in Birmingham.

As a teacher, I have used TED talk and other videos and material I created around them in my classes and they are usually popular with students. The authors of Keynote have written engaging course materials using TEDtalks as a basis for all skills and they help students gradually understand, learn and use the authentic language from the talks and language that is related to and expands on that used in the talks. The material is also personalized and learners get to critically engage with the topics of the talks and either write (an essay, letter, email, etc.) or prepare and give a presentation at the end of each unit.

Digital Video: A Manual for Language Teachers by Nik Peachey won the ELTons for best Innovation in Teacher Resources

Nik crowd-sourced the budget for this multimedia ebook and I contributed because I thought it was a fantastic idea, I was curious about the book and wanted a copy and it allowed me to follow the process of creating this ebook.

What is particularly great about Nik winning this award is that he self-published the ebook. This is very encouraging for those who have self-published or have been thinking of  doing it.


Two well-deserved winners of the ELTons!


Here you can read who else won in the other categories and there’s also a blog post with more details on the winners on the British Council website.


Workflow tip: How to change default save location for screenshots on MAC

 Materials Writing, Technology  Comments Off on Workflow tip: How to change default save location for screenshots on MAC
May 122016

One of the most-used functions on my Mac for work is taking a screenshot (using the shortcut Shift-Command+4). Particularly when I do editorial or writing work and have to communicate to others what part of a webpage I have a question about or what needs to be changed on a website or an activity, etc., usually the most efficient way is to take a screenshot, annotate it and send it to together with the question or feedback.

What’s been bugging me though is that on Mac OSX, the default location where screenshots are saved is the desktop. With the number of screenshots I take, my desktop always looked cluttered. I understand there is a good reason behind having the desktop as the save location: the screenshots can be located very quickly, for example if I want to send them as email attachment.

So, I was looking for a solution that allowed me to keep my desktop clutter-free but also allowed quick access to the screenshots. I thought easy enough, I’ll create a screenshot folder on my desktop and there surely must be a system setting where I can change the default save location… … … No? No! I actually had to search on the Internet how to do this and it turned out I needed to do it with a Terminal command, nicely explained here.

Eh voilà!

Screenshot of screenshot folder

Apr 302015

Let’s say you have thought about your reasons to write, and you want to get started. But how do you start?

I guess the best scenario is that you already feel the urge to share something with a wider circle of people than your immediate environment (family, staffroom, local association), rather than “just” the wish to write without knowing what about.

But even if you know what you want to write about, it can feel like a daunting task if you’ve never written for the “public”. So, how do you start?

Writing for teacher development

In my case, I started by taking notes for myself in private. Writing needs practice and this is a “non-threatening” way of doing it as there is no public.

Then, I started taking notes on my lessons and sharing lessons plans publicly on my first professional blog about my experiences of teaching in the 3D virtual world Second Life. Blogging is a wonderful way of starting writing publicly. The posts can be short, they can be informal and personal. Some people like writing guest posts on other people’s blogs without committing themselves to their own; others might find it easier to write on their own as they can decide what the style will be, the length, the topics, etc. A third option is to write for blogs of publishing houses, online magazines, and similar.

The next, bigger step would be to write an article for submission to a magazine or journal. I would assume it’s easier to write for a professional magazine, as it doesn’t need to be academic, and they will accept shorter pieces as well. Many start by writing book reviews or submitting lesson plans and similar.
A great way of making this task easier is to write a series of blog posts on a topic and then combine these and rewrite for an article in a professional magazine. I did this with my blog posts about teaching in Second Life — my first published article in a print magazine!
I have also rewritten some of my MA assignments for publication, for example, my article on using podcasts in an English course for taxi drivers. Like with the blog post series, it makes the task easier because it’s already written. But it needs to be rewritten for a different audience, which can mean making it less academic or less formal, using fewer sources, shortening the text, adding new sections, removing others, etc.

For book chapters, you can do the same as for articles, but they might need to be more academic; therefore, it might be easier to rewrite dissertations rather than blog posts, because the former will already have references. In book chapters, they also often want some results, some kind of research with outcomes. In most cases, there will be a call for chapters to which you can submit your proposal and if they accept, you write the full chapter. For my first short book chapter, I have rewritten my MA assignment about the taxi driver course for a book on Blended Learning. You can compare it with the one for the magazine in the paragraph above to see how they are different (length, style, formality, images, etc.)
I have also written a longer book chapter completely from scratch based on an editorial brief about technology-integrated ESP lessons.  This has been the most challenging one for me so far.

The next step would be to write a complete (e)book, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon 😉 But I’ve edited quite a few written by others.

Although it might sound very daunting to write articles and book chapters, the great thing is that, in both cases, you will have editors who help you improve your draft, so you are not alone in the process.
Writing to share my experience has been a great experience for me. And when what you write is published in a magazine or book and people appreciate it, it feels like a great achievement and motivates me to do better work.

Writing course materials

Just like when writing for teacher development purposes, writing course materials was a gradual process for me and probably is more many. I can’t think of any example where a teacher who has never written anything would suddenly start writing a whole coursebook. Let me know if you know one 🙂

So, it usually goes something like this (which is how it has been for me):

  • write some extra exercises for your students
  • write extra activities to go with a coursebook unit
  • substitute some coursebook activities
  • write whole worksheets
  • substitute a whole coursebook unit with more relevant content and tasks
  • write a complete course or set of materials for your students with special needs (EAP, ESP, etc.)
  • share lesson plans, worksheets, or courses you have written publicly on your blog (SLexperiments), or a special course website (English for taxi drivers, English citiy planners)
  • write for someone else (a school, publisher, online lesson plan banks, etc.)

Writing course materials for others is still a very new experience for me  and so is the logical (?) next step: editing the work of other writers. But it’s exciting and I’m learning a lot in the process.

Where are you in your writing journey and where would you like to be?

Apr 292015

I posted this on Facebook yesterday:

FB status update

I like the work I do and this is one reason why I tend to work a lot. As I also usually work on many different things, there’s always something to do, it never gets boring. For several years now, I’ve also been working during the summers, teaching on pre-sessional courses (which I love doing, but that’s another blog post). When I take off time to go on holiday with my family, it’s usually more a change of location/office for me, with reduced hours of work, but never without any. That’s how it’s been for some time now and it’s been good actually, as I can be in nice locations any time I want as long as there is internet access, and I don’t have to worry about work not being done, not earning an income, etc. A dream!
On the downside of it, I haven’t had any real time off for very long and I seem to have lost the ability to do nothing… or so I thought.

This year, we are in our lovely timeshare flat again, which has got thermal water in the bathroom and is situated in a lovely village where cows eat grass and wild flowers on the pasture and produce the fattest, tastiest milk, where the eggs and vegetables are organic, the cheese is made of the tastiest …, where you can walk in surrounding hills and collect tea leaves… You get the idea. AND, for once, this is at a time when I don’t have much to do as some projects have just finished and others are not urgent.

Sheep IMG_0188

So, I was sitting on the balcony yesterday and suddenly realised that I still am able to do nothing! Hence the Facebook update above 🙂 And I noticed how good it actually is not to be doing anything (work-related).

Then, when I wasn’t doing anything or thinking of anything particular again later (yes, I’m enjoying this now), I suddenly had lots of ideas pop into my mind — work-related ideas! Ideas for new projects, for new blog posts, etc. So, after all, it seems that doing nothing actually means doing a lot.

Now, back to counting the shades of green… or the sheep…


In the meantime, when and where do you have your moments of doing “nothing”?

You can leave a comment here or write on your own blog and share the link in a comment.

Materials writing: feedback is an essential element

 Materials Writing  Comments Off on Materials writing: feedback is an essential element
Apr 282015

Cyanistes caeruleus 3 Luc Viatour

I’ve been writing materials for my students for many years now, including digital material for blended and online courses. One of the benefits of writing for one’s own students is that we have a lot of information about them. We know their needs, we know their skills, we know their interests,  we know how they like to learn, what motivates them, what is culturally appropriate, how much time they have to learn, their work and (often also) their personal circumstances.

Another benefit is that we get immediate and direct and indirect feedback from our students when we use the material we have written for them, whether in the classroom or online. With direct feedback I mean what they tell us about the lesson or activities we have planned or the handouts we have produced. Some students, especially if it is an ESP course, will tell us whether the material were useful or appropriate, whether they think they will be able to apply what they learned in their job, or whether they found the activities interesting and engaging. Some students might even make concrete suggestions for improvements.
With indirect feedback I mean what I can observe: Are students engaged? Do they seem to like the text, the listening piece, or the activities that go with them? Do they make any remarks about the content? I find this kind of immediate feedback very insightful and rewarding.

Last year, I had the opportunity to work for english360.com and write lessons plans and material for project-based lessons for a group of vocational colleges in the Middle East. The material was delivered as PDF (teacher’s notes, worksheets) and had an online component for the students. It was the first time that I had to write lessons for students I didn’t know personally and lesson plans for other teachers, who I didn’t know, who were at an institution I didn’t work at. For the first time, I thought about coursebook authors who always find themselves in this situation. How difficult, I thought, not to receive any direct feedback! Of course, their materials are piloted and feedback is collected from teachers and students, but it just isn’t the same as walking into the classroom with one’s material and plan and trying them out. How would I know whether my material engaged the students, whether the teacher’s notes were clear, whether the timing was good, and the objectives were achieved? Without the immediate student (or teacher feedback), an important element was missing for me.

Then, I saw the colleges’ monthly newsletters and I was extremely happy to see pictures of students displaying what they had created in the project-based lessons that I had written! How nice it was to be able to see what students and teachers had actually done with the material! Sometimes, they had taken it further than I had planned for them. For example, I sometimes suggested that they work together with other classes or that they hold an exhibition to display their work to make it all more real and motivating, but I wasn’t sure whether they would be able or were allowed to do this. However, in one lesson based on health, where their task was to interview each other and create health posters, they had involved the whole school, interviewed teachers on their eating habits and gave every interviewee a health snack as a little present. Another lesson was about writing up their favourite recipes. What they made out if it was to actually bake and prepare other types of food and have a garden party with teachers and students where they shared the food.

How often does it happen that material or course book writers get to see this kind of thing? It made me feel very happy.

Another reason why I liked  this particular project was that the teachers were encouraged to provide feedback and could do so in the “staffroom” on the platform. I received feedback and questions from the teachers who were using my lesson plans and I could react to these by explaining the rational behind a lesson plan, helping them with some aspects, or, even better, by immediately making changes they asked for. One teacher, for example, suggested that one activity was not possible in their city, so I changed the lesson plan quickly slightly to make it work for them. This was easily possible because the lesson plans and materials were distributed digitally. It wasn’t a print coursebook.

Of course, it can also be challenging to receive such feedback if it comes across as criticism. One has to be open to this and ready to make changes where appropriate and possible. But for me, so far, it’s been a very rewarding experience.

Images take a central stage

 ESP&EdTech, Materials Writing  Comments Off on Images take a central stage
Apr 212015

There seems to be a growing interest in images in coursebooks. Several sessions at the IATEFL conference in Manchester focused on this topic.

I attended two:

  1. Maximising the image in materials design by Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones (MAWSIG PCE Day)
  2. Can a picture tell a thousand words? by Hugh Dellar

The main message for me in both sessions was that in the past images in coursebooks were mostly used for decorative purposes, but today, they are often more central to the unit (Ben and Ceri), in fact, sometimes even the driving force for a whole page or eve double page (Hugh Dellar). Having trained as a photographer and having worked with images a lot, I was happy to hear this.

Hugh Dellar listed the following functions that images can have in coursebook:

  • to illustrate the meaning of lexis > limited, often nouns and actions BUT these are often not problematic to sts, – these don’t help sts speak
  • to test sts have remembered lexis
  • to serve as decoration
  • to act as prompts for grammar drills / practice > peculiar use of English (he is cooking)
  • to check receptive understanding
  • to set the scene for role plays
  • to generate language and ideas
  • to generate discussion, opinions, stories, etc

He suggested that the last three are the more interesting uses.

I would say that all uses, including decorative uses of images are good if the images are chosen well and don’t confuse the learners. But I agree that images can and should sometimes have a more central role.

Due to my personal interest in images, I have often based a whole lesson around them, sometimes around a single image. Not only do learners often feel engaged by images if they are well-chosen and meaningful, but as their isn’t much or any text, a lot of language emerges from the learners.

I’d like to give one example of an image and how I used it for a lesson. This is just one example, and in this case, it was I who chose the image as I felt strongly about it. However, I also knew my students and their interests well and knew they would have a lot to say about the image. Of course, learners can be asked to bring their own images to the class and possibly even create their own questions and task around them, or simply talk about them.

In this case, the image was that of a new church that was being built in my city then, but not many people knew about it yet, and this was crucial as otherwise the activities I had planned wouldn’t have worked. It’s also important that it has got some relevance to the students. In this case it was an image of a local building in a newly developed area. Also crucial when choosing an image is that it shows something controversial or something that would trigger highly emotional reactions. The architecture of the church was extremely unusual and it was planned as an ecumenical church, another hot topic for many.

Here are two images of the church — the one I used was black&white and there was no green park and no glass windows.

Maria-Magdalena-Kirche im Rieselfeld

Maria-Magdalena-Kirche im Rieselfeld

I had several students who were taking general speaking classes and liked talking about different topics of interest. I don’t remember the complete lesson plan, but I started by showing the students the image which I had cut out from a local newspaper and asking the students questions about the building:

  •  What kind of building do you think is this? (Answers varied from museum to prison to bunker; none said church).
  • When do you think was it build?
  • Where do you think is it located?
  • Which adjectives would you use to describe it?
  • How does it make you feel?

Once they new what it was, I had prepared more questions:

  • Do you think it was designed by a male or female architect? Why
  • Would you want to visit / attend mass in this church? Why/Why not?
  • If you had the chance to talk to the architect, what would you tell them?
  • What would you change about the church so you’d like it more?

I had more questions ready which gave the students the opportunity to produce and practice different grammar, vocabulary and skills.However, I didn’t always go through my list of questions with the students. Sometimes, they wanted to talk more about one question or aspect of the church or the controversy, etc. A student who was a regular worshipper was interested in different questions or aspect than one who was more interested in architecture, for example. Sometimes, a student would take over and make it completely their own lesson, talking about things I hadn’t thought about.

I used the image mainly in general English speaking lessons, but it can easily be used for practising other skills. The students could, for example, be asked to write a letter to the mayor, the architect, or the newspaper to state their opinion, etc.It could also be used in ESP classes with a different set of questions.

The lessons with this particular image were always interesting for the students and for me; the discussions were never the same and I always learned something new from my students too.

This is only one example of a lesson based around an image. It could have been done entirely differently. What also works well is image comparisons with multiple images. Another “classic” image activity: The teacher brings some personal images and tells stories about them; then, the students are asked to do the same in the next lesson. I’m sure you know many more. I’d be happy to hear about your favourite image activity.

Can such lessons flop? They certainly can. There’s a lot that can go wrong when images are used, which might be worth another blog post…