• ELT Action

Principles of Material Writing

Initially, when I first started writing the materials that would become part of my MA dissertation, my decision was not informed by any data collected through research. The driving force behind the materials was my intuition; what I felt would be interesting for my students to exploit in the classroom. Prowse (1998) makes a reference to intuition as an influential factor in the process of materials design.

However, when I decided to continue designing the materials and use them as the focus of the dissertation, I conducted a simple survey on the reading habits of my students and afterward constructed my own set of principles for materials writing.

1. Materials should encourage creativity.

In 2008 the Ministry of Education introduced a 9-year primary school system for the first time and in the school year 2012/2013 it introduced the ‘external examination’. The external examination is a computerized test on two subjects, which are randomly selected for each student through a computer system, taken at the end of the school year. It is necessary for the students in both primary and secondary schools to pass both subjects in order to complete their current grade successfully and move onto the next one. The external examination has produced a lot of negative reactions from teachers, students and parents who feel that teaching and learning taking place in the classrooms around the country is too exam-focused.

In a system such as this one, creativity is completely lost. The teachers and the students are only concerned about tests and grades, without paying any attention to more creative activities. Sir Ken Robinson (2006) refers to this phenomenon of schools educating children out of creativity in his famous TED talk because schools are too exam-focused. In 2016, it seems that things have not changed at all. Fostering creativity in our students is as important as teaching them how to read and write. Creativity is not just about making new things. It is about novelty, new ideas, approaches, insights – looking at the world in a different way and noticing things other people cannot see. Both children and adults must be given the opportunity to express their creativity regardless of the fact that ‘society often perceives opposition to the status quo as annoying, offensive, and reason enough to ignore innovative ideas’ (Sternberg in Sawyer et al., 2003: 98).

Maley suggests that one way of introducing creativity is through widening the choice of text types, emphasizing ‘literary texts, which expose students to more creative uses of the language’ (2014: 179). He points out that these literary texts also include social, cultural and human issues that contribute to more general educational purposes, not just language teaching.

(the external examination was suspended in 2017)

2. Materials should be engaging.

Active engagement is connected to learners’ motivation to learn. Brophy (in Dornyei and Ushioda, 2011: 106) points out that ‘developing your students’ motivation to learn involves socializing it as a general disposition as well as stimulating it situationally in the process of implementing lesson and learning activities.’ In addition, the organization of the activities is crucial because it is important ‘to build up a co-operative group atmosphere both to enhance language learning and develop the self-image and motivation of the group members’ (Williams and Burden, 1997: 195). Materials that exploit topics that are of interest for the learners and they can relate to, together with activities that encourage pair work, group work and active participation of every learner, are likely to succeed.

3. Materials should help learners to develop learning-to-learn skills.

Materials for language learners should not be written without a clear purpose. They are aimed at assisting learners in the process of learning. Furthermore, they use activities that help learners to develop their learning-to-learn skills, i.e. how to use different learning strategies. These strategies are important because ‘they are tools for active, self-directed involvement, which is essential for developing communicative competence’ (Oxford, 1990: 1). Strategy instruction, therefore, needs to be part of the materials in order for learners to become aware of the strategies and learn how these strategies can be used to assist them in the learning process. This is not only important for their language learning, it also equips them with the skills that will help them with real-life tasks.

4.Materials should be innovative.

Innovation – for me – does not mean that materials should try to do something that has never been done before. Innovation can be in the format of the materials. For example, instead of the usual format of a coursebook, the materials could take the form of a graphic novel and still exploit the same topics, lexical units and grammar structures. The materials can also adopt a different perspective on teaching the four basic skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening and approach them through different methodology.

5.Materials should be teacher- and learner-friendly.

Materials should be user-friendly. They should be well-designed, with a good page layout and visual elements should be appropriate for the type of materials (coursebook, workbook, reader, etc.)There should be a clear indication of where one module or chapter ends and the next one begins, and which skill is the focus of a certain module or unit. There should be enough space between exercises and enough space for learners to write their answers. Also, the instructions in the student’s book and the teacher’s book should be simple, comprehensible, and easy to follow. Ellis and Ellis (1987) list four characteristics of a well-designed coursebook: 1. at a glance recognition of what is happening on the page; 2. clear information paths; 3. accessibility to target group; and 4. encouraging motivation to use the information from the material. I find two of them more important than the other two: quick recognition of the theme, its purpose and intended result and ‘clear information paths which help the EFL learner and teacher to understand the relationships between the texts, exercises, artwork and photographs so that they know where to go/what to look at next’ (Ellis and Ellis, 1987: 91).

6.Materials should cater to different learning styles.

It is very important to take into consideration the fact that learners are not all the same. They come from different backgrounds, they have different personalities, attitudes and opinions, and they learn in different ways. Learning styles are defined as ‘[an]individual’s natural, habitual, and preferred way of absorbing, processing, and retaining new information and skills’ (Reid in Lightbown and Spada, 2006: 59) and Lightbown and Spada point out (2006: 5) that ‘… the goal of the sensitive teacher is to take learners’ individual differences into account and create a learning environment in which more learners can be successful in learning a second language.’

7.Materials should raise cultural awareness of one’s own culture and other cultures.

Too often when we refer to culture in EFL we mean the culture of the target language. In fact, ‘learning a foreign language becomes a kind of enculturation, where one acquires new cultural frames of reference and a new world view, reflecting those of the target language culture and its speakers’ (Alptekin,2002: 58). I do not agree with the view that language learning or language learning materials should reflect only the culture of the target language, in this case English.

Alptekin (1993: 138) argues that

‘most textbook writers are native speakers who consciously or unconsciously transmit the views, values, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings of their own English-speaking society – usually the United States or the United Kingdom. As such, when learners acquire a new set of English discourse as part of their evolving systemic knowledge, they partake of the cultural system which the set entails.’

Although learners of English need to understand the culture of the target language, it should not be the primary culture when learning the language. I would argue that learners of English as a foreign language, first of all, need to understand their own culture to be able to understand another culture. This ‘defamiliarization’, or ‘seeing one’s own language and culture refracted through the medium of a foreign language and culture’ (Pulverness and Tomlinson, 2014: 447) needs to be included in ELT materials as much as possible. First, the learner needs to become familiar with their own culture and then explore the culture of the target language or other cultures through the target language. Byram (1997) refers to this as ‘intercultural communicative competence’, the ability to understand one’s own culture and other cultures as well, and to use this knowledge and understanding for successful communication with people from different cultures.

8.Materials should achieve impact. (Tomlinson, 1998)

Tomlinson (1998) emphasizes the importance of impact of materials on learners as a tool for encouraging curiosity, interest and increasing attention. He lists several means of achieving impact such as novelty, variety, attractive presentation and appealing content. Pulverness (2007: 6) finds that ‘extensive reading of stories that are amusing, scary, exciting or romantic offers a wide range of contexts that will make new language easier for learners to recall – and to use.’ I would add that materials need to appeal to learners’ emotions and feelings by using characters learners can relate to, situations that are familiar to them, and topics that are not usually exploited in traditional coursebooks but reflect learners’ realities. Rinvolucri (1999) raises his voice against the usual topics found in coursebooks around the world, coursebooks that follow the PARSNIP (Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex. Narcotics, Isms, Pork) rule of excluding certain taboo topics from materials design and says that ‘the EFL discourse world avoids the shadow side of life with little or no reference to death, poverty or war’ and that topics such as jealousy, ambition, betrayal, etc. are ‘far from the soft, fudgy sub-journalistic, woman’s magaziney world of EFLese’ (p.14). At the time of publication, his ideas were met with great resistance and negative reactions, but when viewed in the context of the world today, I think that his ideas are increasingly relevant.Being exposed to so many different sources of information (television, radio, but mostly the internet) means that taboos are no longer taboos. Everything we want and need to know is one click away.

9.Materials should expose the learners to listening to a text first before reading it. (Masuhara, 2014)

Masuhara (2014) argues that learners will have a more positive experience of the text if they listen to it first because they will be free from the strain of multiple processing of visual stimuli, syntactic and semantic units, extracting meaning and connecting it to their previous knowledge, all at the same time. Also, adding features such as prominence to mark situationally informative pragmatic meaning and reading with appropriate affect will make the text more accessible for the learners (Masuhara, 2014). I would add that exposing learners to listening to a text creates a more positive learning environment and they can approach reading a text more relaxed, without experiencing the cognitive load ‘of processing scripts and sounds at the same time.’ (Masuhara, 2014:379)

10.Materials should enable the learners to create multidimensional Mental Representations in the Reader’s Mind. (Masuhara, 2014)

Masuhara (2014) and Tomlinson (1998) discuss the use of mental imagery or visualization as one of the key features of reading comprehension. Tomlinson discusses several experiments he conducted on visualization, reporting that a small number of language learners visualize when reading L2, and that those language learners who used visualization had better comprehension and recall. Masuhara goes further and says that ‘meaning construction in a reader’s / listener’s mind is achieved in a multidimensional way, deriving from the integrated neural interactions of the various parts of the brain (i.e. the sensory, motor, cognitive and emotional systems)’ (2014: 381).’ Popovski-Golubovikj (2014) conducted a small-scale research project on the use of visualization as a reading comprehension strategy and reported active engagement and interest during the lessons. In fact, combining listening to a text first and creating mental images while listening has been one of the most useful strategies for my primary age learners (6-12). They get comfortable in their chairs, close their eyes, and I can see a range of emotions, reactions on their faces as I am reading a text. They are cognitively and emotionally engaged.

adapted from:

Designing materials to instruct and support EFL students in the Republic of Macedonia in using reading comprehension strategies through the application of the Guided comprehension model for English learners: Writing a children’s fiction book with e Teacher’s guide to facilitate the application of the Guided comprehension model for the first time in the Republic of Macedonia

a dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Arts (MA) by Aleksandra Popovski Golubovikj, 2016

Note: Although I wrote this 4 years ago, I find the principles and rationale behind them still relevant and applicable. Although principles of materials writing are not universal and every author has their own set of principles (or at least should have one), I think they give a framework necessary to keep ELT materials writers on track.



Alptekin, C. (2002) ‘Towards intercultural communicative competence in ELT’, ELT Journal, vol.56, January, pp. 57-64.

Byram, M. (1997) Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence, Multilingual Matters.

Dörnyei, Z. and Ushioda, E. (2011) Teaching and researching motivation, 2nd edition, Harlow: Longman.

Ellis, M. and Ellis P. (1987) ‘Learning by design: some design criteria for EFL coursebooks’, in Sheldon, L.E. (ed.) (1987) ELT textbooks and materials: problems in evaluation and development, ELT Documents 126, [Online], Available: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/F044%20ELT-33%20ELT%20 Textbooks%20and%20Materials%20-%20Problems%20in%20Evaluation%20and %20 Development_v3.pdf

Lightbown, N. and Spada, N.N. (2006) How Languages Are Learned, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Masuhara, H. ‘Materials for Developing Reading Skills’, in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) (2014) Developing Materials for Language Teaching, 2nd edition, London: Bloomsbury.

Maley, A. (2014) ‘Creative approaches to materials writing’, in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) (2013) Developing Materials for Language Teaching, 2nd edition, London: Bloomsbury.

Oxford, L.R. (1990) Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know, Boston: New York, NY: Newbury House / Harper & Row.

Popovski-Golubovikj, A. (2014) ‘Enhancement of reading comprehension through visualisation’, MATYL Assignment.

Prowse, P. (1998) ‘How writers write: testimony from authors’, in B. Tomlinson (ed.) (1998) Materials Development in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pulverness, A. (2007) Reading Matters: The Guide to Using Graded Readers, Helbling Languages.

Pulverness, A. and Tomlinson, B. (2013) ‘Materials for Cultural Awareness’, in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) (2013) Developing Materials for Language Teaching, 2nd edition, London: Bloomsbury.

Rinvolucri, M. (1999) ‘The UK, EFLese Sub-Culture and Dialect’, Folio, 5, 2, 12-14.

Robinson, K. (2006, February). Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity

Sternberg, R.J. (2003) ‘The Development of Creativity as a Decision-Making Process’, in Sawyer, K.R. et al. (eds.) (2003) Creativity and Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tomlinson, B. (ed.) (1998) Materials Development in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Originally published on https://eltshouts.wordpress.com by Alexandra Popovski

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