Vol. 3. No. 4 F-1 January 1999
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***TESL-EJ Forum***

Materials Writing in the New Millennium

Materials writing is a difficult and rewarding field within English as a Second/Foreign language. Materials writers must somehow bring together what are often opposing forces: their experience, knowledge, and training as educators with the perceptions of what the market wants, often dictated by publishers who do not necessarily know the theory or practices that inform our profession.

Bring into this mix rapidly changing technologies and uncertain budgets, and the pursuit of materials writing becomes even more precarious. Editors change publishing houses, small houses get eaten by larger ones, projects are changed beyond recognition, or worse-- canceled outright.

So, why do writers follow this dream? Is it the money? As minimal as it can be, it does frequently exceed (and certainly augment) our often meager salaries as teachers. Is it the fame? Well, there is often little of that--though seeing your name on a book cover is a rewarding experience.

I suspect that for most materials writers, the possibility of influencing the education that students receive keeps them going. It is certainly what prompted my entry into the arena--seeing a gap in the available materials, developing those materials, and then being fortunate to have a publisher who understood the need for something new or different.

The challenge for seasoned writers is to balance writing with classroom needs--to listen to both students and teachers and write for an audience that goes beyond one's own classroom.

It is a competitive business--yet good materials writers are often sought after. For this issue's Forum, I posed the following question to a group of ESL/EFL materials writers and editors:

"What is the most important change, and the most critical challenge you face, with respect to the ESL/EFL publishing industry? How are you dealing with it?"

The answers that follow come from a writer who moved to editing, a new writer, and a seasoned one. I think you'll find their responses enlightening.

We invite other responses to this column to be published in future issues of TESL-EJ.

Maggie Sokolik

Editor, TESL-EJ   [-1-]

Janet Raskin, Developmental Editor
Heinle & Heinle, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

I have sat on both sides of the publishing fence -- as a writer and now as an editor. As a writer, my most critical challenge is to create materials for new media that are creative, interactive and full of engaging content. This means understanding how people can interact with computers, how to make it fun and efficient and how people want (and don't want) to use their computers. The challenge for the writer is to keep up with technology changes and keep trying new ways to create interaction. My number one question is always: "How is this new media product working differently from a book, an audio cassette, a video or a classroom experience? Am I using the technology to the best advantage or using the computer because it is there?"

As an editor, one of my biggest challenges has been to find writers who have an understanding of the above in addition to solid writing/research/story-building skills and gallons of playfulness. There is freelance new media work available, and the challenge is to hook up the writers with the publishers. Networking is a must for both sides. I found that networking at TESOL and meeting publishers face-to-face helped me find the chutzpah to freelance. Yes, we are nice people. Yes, some of us used to freelance too. And yes, we are looking forward to meeting the "write" stuff.

Maurice Hauck

Maurice Hauck has taught ESOL in Europe, in Asia, and, most extensively, in the City University of New York. He is currently at work on a College English textbook series at Fudan University Press, Shanghai, China.

As a fledgling writer of ESOL materials (first book to come out in summer 1999), I can't really comment on changes in the publishing industry. But even this brief experience as a writer has made me more than familiar with the challenges in this field. I'll mention the three of those that weigh most heavily on my mind.

Clearly one major challenge is the money structure. Standard ESOL advances and royalty rates are much lower than those for trade books. Additionally, textbooks carry relatively little weight in the push for academic tenure. Thus ESOL materials writers are caught a bit in the middle: we have neither the financial motivation of writing trade books nor the professional motivation that comes with writing an academic book. [-2-]

It's sometimes frustrating to visit your publisher and see that they have a huge office building with all kinds of staff and equipment-- clearly, a lot of money is being spent on your project in one way or another--and remember that you are putting in thousands of hours on a project for which your advance was in the very low thousands. Like so many things we do as ESOL educators, you find yourself trying to do good work out of a sense of personal professionalism and dedication, but you don't get much support in doing so.

A second issue that has worried me since I started studying Second Language Acquisition is the degree to which our field seems to be dominated by the desire for a quick fix, for a new method that will make language learning magically effortless. Throughout the field, there seems to be a constant emphasis on coming up with new, innovative ways of doing things rather than simply having a solid approach and then well-written execution of it. The question that I always seem to hear from acquisition editors is "What can you wow me with?" "What can you show me that I've never seen before?" (I suspect that this is a slightly modified version of, "What can we feed to our marketing division?")

A key counter-example to this approach is the Azar grammar series, much maligned by ESOL professionals and still, as far as I know, selling extraordinarily well. The reason many ESOL teachers don't like this series is because they are in principle opposed to its approach; they want something more "enlightened." But for those who do like the approach, and there are many, the series is an absolute savior because it is thoroughly consistent and well- written. As a materials writer (and a not-rich person), I would love to have such a failure.

The final challenge I'd like to mention is a widespread assumption that working in ESOL publishing requires no special knowledge or experience. This is, of course, an extension of the unfortunately common idea that any native speaker can teach ESOL with minimal or no training.

At present, my co-author and I are really suffering in our relationship with the development editor on our authentic listening and integrated-skills book. It is her first ESOL project and her previous experience is in working on high school language arts texts. It's hard to tell what is a problem with the individual and what relates to her lack of experience in the field, but the problems are manifest.

In essence, the publisher seems to think that this editor's skills in working with materials for high school students can translate directly to our adult ESOL book. Well, they can't. For better or worse, the world of ESOL is a much different place and the students are much different. [-3-]

To me, the essence of teaching English to adults is respecting their adult intelligence while developing their limited competence in the target language. This editor seems to want to make our adult ESOL book, which is based on material that is just a bit edgy and non- conventional (NPR radio documentaries), into stuff which would pass muster in a high school. This seems to mean cutting out much of the more interesting ideas and language, and writing directions that belabor the obvious to a deadening degree.

To avoid devolving completely into personal invective, I'll return to my point: a person with some experience in the ESOL field would know what my co-author and I are talking about, would have a handle on the concept of authentic materials and a sense of what is and is not level-appropriate, what the students can and can't handle coming in. When the attitude that "anybody can do it" is taken towards any aspect of the ESOL field, those of us in the field suffer.

What each of my points have in common is that writers of ESOL materials, much like ESOL teachers (and perhaps teachers in general), get treated like amateurs, as if the work we do were just an avocation rather a profession. The result is that there are a large number of dedicated people doing surprisingly good work for minimal reward, but as a whole I find the materials which are published at present to be somewhat weak and quality to be spotty.

In the long run, I think the answer is that the field of ESOL needs to become more professionalized in every sense of that world. When the field of ESOL is respected, meaning that our students are treated well and the work we do with them is valued, teachers and materials writers will be better treated and able to do better work. Then, one hopes and expects, there will be a new set of challenges to confront.

Keith Folse
Univ of South Florida, USA

My first book was in 1983; this year I'll publish my twelfth. The biggest difference in ESL publishing then and now is the size of the ESL publishing market. In the early 80s, there were only a handful of grammar books, reading books, writing books, etc., on the market, and these were handled by a handful of ESL publishers. Today a trip to the book display at the international TESOL conference, or even a regional TESOL for that matter, will easily illustrate the depth and breadth of TESOL publishing materials today.

Another difference between the early 80s and now is the amount of knowledge that we have gained from research in second language (L2) acquisition. However, there is an important gap between what the [-4-] research tells us about teaching and learning languages and what kinds of books are available. I'm dealing with this challenge by integrating L2 research results into my materials. What is the best way to present new vocabulary? What kinds of exercises are most effective in promoting speaking in class? What does L2 research tell us about the teaching of writing?

As the market has grown, publishers (and authors) have felt compelled to constantly re-do their books to maintain market share. Revisions are good, but these books just keep getting bigger and bigger and not necessarily any better. My biggest disappointment is with many of the popular grammar series. While ten pages of explanation and exercises used to be enough to teach simple past tense, we now find almost twice as many pages for the same grammar point. It's not that simple past tense is no longer simple. Instead, it's that writers feel compelled to add components to their books to make them more competitive. First, someone added a listening exercise, then someone else did that along with a reading passage, and now someone else has these plus a CD-ROM.

The real problem here is that many ESL programs set up their curricula by using the textbooks as a guideline. We used to be able to cover the material in a book in eight weeks (one hour a day in an intensive course), but now we have to cover listening exercises, speaking exercises, writing exercises, and reading exercises for the grammar point as well. If teachers don't do the pages, the students complain that they're wasting their money. If teachers do the pages, then the class becomes a rush to complete the assigned material. Don't get me wrong--I have no problem with following the syllabus, but many of today's books have become just too much--too much for the teacher and too much for the student. We teachers were having a hard enough time finishing the material that we had; what to do now? And the bottom line is that I don't think students are learning English any better or faster or more efficiently with many of today's materials.

The old adage "simple is best" rings true here. I'm dealing with this challenge by working hard to streamline my materials. It's not an easy thing to do, especially when the trend seems to be toward bigger books. For example, when I worked on my Clear Grammar series, it was a constant battle NOT to include more things. I managed to keep the presentations simple and include a fair number of written exercises and one or two relevant speaking practices, but this was really hard to do.

Another difference today is the growing use of technology, namely the web and CD-ROM. Technology can be useful, just as a blackboard and a dictionary can be useful, but too many people are jumping headfirst into the rush to put technology in the ESL classroom no matter what. Technology will never replace the teacher, and CD-ROMS have a long way to grow (a LONG way!) before they can replace books. [-5-]

My doctorate is in second language acquisition and instructional technology, so I have some knowledge of what good language software is. Much of what is available violates many of the principles of good language software design, i.e., it is not good. Companies have yet to realize that you can't just put books on a computer and call it second language learning software, but that is what many publishers are doing. Unfortunately, many schools are adopting this low quality material because of the incredible dearth of really good material available even in 1999. (Caveat emptor: the software ought to do things that printed material, a.k.a., books can NOT do, or save your money!) So the big change I am seeing is the rush for materials developers to put out software due to market pressures. I have dealt with this so far by not doing anything on CD-ROM. Sure, it would be easy enough to put some of my books on CD-ROM, but I know that this would be a poor excuse for good language software, but just as soon as I get some free time...

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