Materials Writing: Turning constraints into assets

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ELT materials writing is a creative process, and the prospect of creating something from nothing on an empty white page can be quite daunting. But the materials writer has to do just that, and moreover, do it within very tight constraints. For instance, if you are writing a narrative for ELT purposes, it must not only be engaging as a narrative, but it must also be useful as a learning tool. This means that it must effectively display the target language in a natural manner, while at the same time being appropriately graded to the learners’ level. Writing a good story is difficult enough already, and when you add these constraints to the mix, it seems on the face of it to be almost impossible. However, in this article I would like to suggest that the opposite is true. Constraints, far from being an obstacle to creativity, actually facilitate it.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at an example from the classroom context, where it is the learners rather than the materials writer who are creating a narrative. If the teacher asks the learners to write a story about anything they want, many of them will come up with very little by the end of the session. If, on the other hand, the teacher adds constraints to the task, it is likely to become much more productive. For instance, the learners may be asked to write a story using only the words below and no others.

Walter  Wendy   want(ed)   walk(ed)   watch(ed)  didn't  with  away  to  and  but

Far from limiting creativity, this tight constraint actually helps to drive it, and the same is true in materials writing.

To look in more detail at the kinds of constraints the writer of pronunciation material must work under, let’s look at a simple schema of the writing process in three phases – inception, preparation and production.

1. Inception: The first step in the materials writing process is deciding what pronunciation point to cover. The constraints here include your students age, level and language background. Their age may affect, for example, your decision about whether or not to use phonemic symbols. Their level may affect your decision about how much to simplify the rules. Their language background may affect which sound distinctions you choose to focus on.

2. Preparation: This stage in the writing process is where you collect data. The main constraints here are linguistic: for instance, if you are working on regular past tense endings, for example, you may want to make three lists of verbs – one for each of the possible pronunciation of the –ed ending.

3. Production: Once you have your data, this will itself become a constraint when it comes to actually writing your material. You will find, for example, that minimal pairs lend themselves readily to information gap type tasks, while features of connected speech may be better demonstrated in some form of word-play such as a chant or limerick.

To illustrate the stages outlined above, here is an example of the process I went through in writing the following small fragment of pronunciation material:

I know a little bit about kittens

I got bitten by a kitten last year

A certain little kitten in Britain

I’ve not forgotten that it bit me on the ear

I began with the intention of producing a text which would illustrate cases where /t/ tends to be replaced by a glottal stop. I prepared by collecting a set of words containing this target sound. finally, I produced the text by staring at the list until a narrative idea emerged, and then composed that into a short rhyme.

I would like to finish with the observation that the sparkle of a piece of material like this contrasts with the seemingly dull process by which it was created. It is like a joke - The inventor of the joke begins with the punch line and works backwards to create a narrative that will lead to it. The punch line is effectively a constraint in the composing process.  Meanwhile, for the hearer, the punch line comes as a delightful twist at the end of the story, and the effect can be almost magical. The materials writer can harness such magic by learning to use constraints as an asset.

(First published in IATEFL Voices Issue 251; Image - detail from a work by Mondrian)

Comments

Hi Mark, thanks for your interesting and thought-provoking article on materials writing. It's particulary relevant to what I'm doing at the moment on my website. If you and any of your many readers would be interested in giving me feedback, the following link is to a short story under construction with exercises for the first 3 parts finished with illustrations pending. http://lukelanguagetraining.com/product-a2-reading-accidental Thanks for sharing your knowledge, experience and ideas which are always a great source of guidance and inspiration.

I really like the way you've used a comparison of the constraints we give our students to 'help' them write. I hadn't thought of that before. My favourite things to write are stories. I write them for my own books and I've recently started writing them for other people's books. I start with a list of vocab, key grammar and 'other constraints 'related to appropriateness (stories are usually for primary and what I can write for a 5 year old is very different from a 9 year old, for example). Then I start writing. It's like doing a huge jigsaw puzzle. It can be frustrating at times but when the final piece is put into place it's extremely rewarding.
Mark Hancock's picture

Yes, Kath, agreed!

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