MWIS Newsletter

MWIS News, Volume 18:2 (July 2005)

by User Not Found | 10/27/2011
In This Issue...
  • News
    • Letter From the Cochairs
    • Bio of Chair-Elect: Julie Vorholt
    • Bio of MWIS Electronic Mailing List Moderator: Bill Walker
    • Publish Professional Articles in a Refereed Journal
  • Articles
    • Some Considerations for Designing Activism-Related Materials
    • Improving Readability in Online Instructional Materials
    • Using ELT Text Design to Navigate Students
    • Despite Concerns, Special Project Meets Success
    • Taboo or Not Taboo?
  • Convention Updates
    • Notes on the MWIS Academic Session: How Research Informs and Influences Teacher Materials
    • Discussion Group: Technology and the Role of Materials Writers
    • Discussion Group: Time Management 102 for Independent Materials Writers
    • Discussion Group: Writing Effective Task-Based Activities
  • About This Member Community
    • Materials Writers Interest Section (MWIS)

News Letter From the Cochairs

By Dorothy Zemach, e-mail:, and Carlos Islam, e-mail:

Greetings all,

The 39th Annual TESOL Convention in San Antonio, Texas, was filled with presentations and discussions and networking opportunities. Though MWIS had fewer presentations than in some previous years, they were all of exceptional quality (no surprise!). We put on a good show with the Academic Session, featuring Marc Helgesen, Diane Larsen-Freeman, Michael McCarthy, David Nunan, and Jack C. Richards talking about how their research informs their materials (please see the conference reports), and an InterSection with the Elementary Education Interest Section on preparing materials for the K–6 market.

There was quite a buzz around MWIS member Lynn Stafford-Yilmaz' special project on negotiating ESL contracts, which someone in the TESOL administration told me (probably off the record, but what the hey . . .) was the best use of TESOL special project funds that she had ever seen. See Lynn's article in this issue for a description of both the project and the process.

At the business meeting, we elected several new officers: Julie Vorholt became the chair-elect and passed on the management of the e-list (now moderated, to reduce accidental postings) to Bill Walker. Bill is also our new Web site manager. Tay Lesley continues as the newsletter editor. We'd like to thank Deborah Gordon and Susan Iannuzzi, the past IS co-chairs, for their leadership.

On Friday evening, we had a gala MWIS social event, cosponsored with the Video Interest Section. Jan van Zante did a fabulous job of publicizing the event this year, and we had a super turnout. You couldn't turn around without knocking into a keen editor or energized fellow materials writer (or, as sometimes happened, someone who just wandered in to see what the great party was). Alison James organized a materials display, showcasing books and other materials written by MWIS members. She set up a clever "match the book to the author" game, a nice way to make the display interactive. This is definitely an event to plan for in Tampa!

We didn't have an Interest Section booth set up this year, but it's definitely something to consider for '06, if there is enough interest.

We hope as many MWIS members as possible can make it to Tampa. We realize that it's hard in terms of funding and timing for independent writers to travel such a long way, but we hope that the opportunities for professional growth and development make it worth the effort.

Best wishes to everyone and your writing projects in the coming year!

Bio of Chair-Elect: Julie Vorholt

Julie Vorholt, e-mail:

Julie Vorholt currently works at San Jose State University in California and also writes ESL/EFL materials as a freelancer. Her articles have appeared in a variety of publications. She reviewed the MWIS TESOL special project, Negotiating ESL/ELT Publishing Contracts, and participates actively in the TESOL organization. She has served on the Awards Committee, moderated the MWIS electronic mailing list, and frequently presents.

Vorholt earned a BSEd in secondary education-English at Kent State University and taught high school English in Ohio. She next taught English (EFL) at a middle school in Turkey for three years and chaired the foreign languages department. Vorholt later instructed adults in southern China.

After completing her MA in TESOL at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), she began teaching in an IEP near Chicago. Vorholt returned to MIIS to coordinate a specialized language training program for translators and interpreters. She then worked as the director of enrollment and career services for MIIS' MA programs in language teaching. Recently Vorholt trained language educators in Kazakhstan for the U.S. Department of State.

Bio of MWIS Electronic Mailing List Moderator: Bill Walker

Bill Walker, e-mail:

Bill Walker has been an ESL teacher for 20 years. He taught 7 years in the Middle East and is now a core instructor at the American Language Institute at the University of Oregon. He is past president of ORTESOL and editor of the ORTESOL Journal. His area of specialization is vocabulary teaching. He has published one book for the Japanese market and is working with Oxford University Press on a vocabulary book proposal.

Bill says this about his duties as electronic mailing moderator: "My duty is to monitor all list postings. I read each e-mail as it's posted. If someone makes an inappropriate comment, I send a warning to that person and take further steps if necessary. The MWIS list is not a place for authors to publicize books they've published. Therefore, if someone sends a message saying 'Go read my new book!' I would have to take appropriate action."

Publish Professional Articles in a Refereed Journal

By Bill Walker, e-mail:

Classroom teachers need to know more about how to develop materials for their students. You, as a professional writer, have the expertise that these teachers need. Please consider writing an article for the ORTESOL Journal. This is a professional, refereed publication concerned with the teaching of English as a second or foreign language in elementary and secondary education, higher education, adult education, and bilingual education. As a publication that represents a variety of cross-disciplinary interests, both theoretical and practical, the Journal invites manuscripts on a wide range of topics. Journal articles should be written in a reader-friendly style that is therefore accessible to classroom teachers. While maintaining a practical focus, the articles should, nevertheless, be well-founded in research and include references to the appropriate literature. The ORTESOL Journal invites submissions in three categories: full-length feature articles (2,000 to 4,500 words), research notes (500 words), and teaching notes (500 words).

Please submit the manuscript as an electronic file (.rtf or .doc). Also include, in a separate electronic file (.rtf or .doc), the author's name, full mailing address, daytime and evening telephone numbers, e-mail address, institutional affiliation, and short (50 words) bio. Images may be incorporated into the manuscript for review, but should also be available as separate files for printing.

For submission details, please visit the ORTESOL Web site at or e-mail Bill Walker at or Deborah Healey

Articles Some Considerations for Designing Activism-Related Materials

By Sophi Hronopoulos, e-mail:

As teaching practitioners, we should be driven to make our learners' experiences in the classroom worthwhile and enjoyable. Getting involved in creating our own materials provides us with the ultimate opportunity to make a difference, not only in our learners' educational lives, but also in our professional growth as teachers. It can be a very rewarding adventure from the early stages (brainstorming, researching, and writing) to the final stage (putting our materials to the ultimate test in the classroom). Activism-related materials provide linguistic stimulation and expose our learners to a range of critical issues. As educators, we owe it to our learners not only to improve their English competence but also to empower them with knowledge to make them responsible citizens who can create a just, humane, and violence-free world.

My interest in designing activism-related materials stems from my own involvement in a variety of causes ranging from Amnesty International to indigenous issues (Leonard Peltier and the Zapatistas). The general apathy that I observed among my learners regarding global issues was a motivating factor that led to my decision to inject some activism-related materials into the classroom. The other impetus came during one of my visits to Mexico in 2001 as a volunteer for the Zapatista delegation's march from Chiapas to Mexico City to drum up support for passage of an indigenous law, the San Andres Accords. I was fortunate to meet with a group of students from the National Autonomous University in Mexico City who had been tackling the government's attempts to increase tuition, a prelude to privatization of the university. These students had been subjected to an incredible amount of violence and intimidation, and yet they risked their lives to protect their right to receive an education (the Mexican constitution guarantees a free education to all). Listening to their harrowing tales of persecution and the constant harassment that they were subjected to even months after the strike was over, I was overcome with emotion and it dawned on me that most of my students in Japan could not even begin to relate to their Mexican counterparts. After this encounter, I was even more determined to do more to enlighten my learners by exposing them to activist-related issues. I discovered that my learners' apathy was a result of not being exposed to global issues, and that once their attention is drawn to such issues, they express not only interest but also appreciation as their worldview broadens.

It must be emphasized that when we create materials our aim should be to broaden our learners' horizons and to improve their language abilities. We must never lose sight of this. Our goal should never be to impose upon students our own personal opinions and politics. When the task is learning how to write persuasive letters, for instance, the decision as to whether to send the letters should rest entirely with the learners themselves. During the process, they learn a particular genre of letter writing and we do not run the risk of being accused of attempting to indoctrinate our learners. Present materials that contain the facts and leave it up to the students to make their own interpretations. You should always encourage your learners to question everything, even the materials you present to them. Fostering healthy, inquisitive, and independent critical thinking skills will serve our learners well beyond their educational life.

The choice of materials used to create activities is critical. Activism is about tackling the injustices of this world, and unfortunately a lot of issues do reveal some horrendous injustices. Our aim is not to depress our learners but to illustrate that positive change can be achieved if people unite and take action. For this reason it is imperative that the materials we choose to use in the classroom demonstrate how a different world is possible if people, especially young people, band together to tackle an injustice instead of sitting by the sidelines with the belief that they do not have the power to effect change. If learners are exposed to motivating material, the difference it can make to the atmosphere in the classroom is immeasurable. Experience has also taught me to avoid certain culturally specific (and perhaps sensitive) subjects as this avoids, first, offending any learners and second, the teacher being perceived as sanctimonious. When I teach my sweatshops module, for example, I use materials that introduce labor conditions in Central America and China. The impetus has been provided in a nonthreatening way and the learners are then free to use their own initiative to investigate the existence of sweatshops in Japan.

Furthermore, the lessons you design must serve some pedagogical purpose. Design your lessons so that they optimize learning opportunities for the particular skill you are tapping into. Activism-related materials can provide the springboard for improving all four macro skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening). Reading-based activities can build a solid foundation for improving the overall English proficiency of the learners. Writing skills can be worked on, too, by assigning learners tasks to express their reactions, opinions, and other relevant thoughts to the issue at hand. This can be done with an "Activist Journal" either online via discussion boards or, in the more traditional way, by notebooks. Speaking skills will be honed during discussion sessions on relevant issues, whereas presentation skills can be taught and improved upon during mini-presentations throughout the course. Listening skills can also be fostered via creative and interactive materials. Activism-related materials provide a plethora of new words and phrases and lead to vocabulary building. Learners can be encouraged to keep a detailed notebook that can include such details as the word's meaning, its part of speech, sample sentences written by the students themselves, and a list of antonyms and synonyms.

Another equally important factor is the layout and content of the materials that are presented to the learners. It is extremely useful to highlight any new or unfamiliar language in the text of any handout. This method helps learners combat vocabulary overload by highlighting some of the most useful language and helping them come to terms with the idea of understanding the general meaning of text rather than assuming that it is necessary to understand every word that appears in the text. Learners also appreciate and respond favorably to "Useful Language" boxes that appear on their handouts. They feel more secure and confident in having language that can assist them in accomplishing a task if it is easily accessible. Furthermore, handouts that are aesthetically pleasing also make the teacher's task easier as it can be the hook that catches the learners' attention. Graphics should not be overdone as this defeats the purpose of preparing pedagogically sound materials. However, a good dose of suitable and appropriate clipart can do wonders for any handout, and the learners will definitely appreciate your efforts in creating and presenting high-quality materials for their benefit.

In conclusion, well-thought-out and appropriately designed activism-based materials provide numerous benefits: They can engage the students' attention; enable students to work on all four macro skills; and empower learners with knowledge and sow the seeds that can lead to positive change in the world. We have a moral obligation to bring these issues to our learners, but we should always be careful to design lessons and tasks that attend to our learners' language needs. If we keep these two points in mind we will be serving our learners and our profession more than adequately.

Improving Readability in Online Instructional Materials

By Anita Sökmen, e-mail:

Writers of online instructional materials begin the development process by focusing on their audience. However, in many cases, it not possible to know who the eventual users of the materials will be. For example, the Internet has increased the number of nonnative speakers who have access to online courses, and therefore created the need for materials that are accessible by learners with various reading levels and different cultural and language backgrounds. In spite of these challenges, texts designed for native speakers can be made more readable for multiple audiences by following basic guidelines for clear and concise presentation and by providing language support.

There are three categories of changes in making a text more readable: style, content, and organization. Begin to improve style by making simple structural changes: Use headings, consistent highlighting, and white space to show the hierarchy of information. Second, use parallel structure to help the reader anticipate information. The following language changes will also affect the style: Eliminate unnecessary words; link to meanings or optional vocabulary work; avoid abbreviations, slang, and jargon; and use shorter, simpler sentences, avoiding passive voice if possible.

Regarding content changes, present information in chunks. Keep in mind that not all information in the original text may be necessary for the online version and that it is difficult to read through a wall of text online. Supply visuals, short nonculturally bound examples, or links to explanations. Whenever possible, compare new content with old; for example, "As you learned in lesson 1, . . .; Un(like) X, Y . . .", and "How is X different from Y?" Finally, summarize sections so readers are reminded of the main points.

Overall organizational changes from the original text can also aid readability. State the main point first and use general to specific order, use transition devices to show relationships, and strive for seamless movement between parts of the lesson.

Using ELT Text Design to Navigate Students

By Gabriela Kleckova, e-mail:

Have you ever had to repeat your instructions about locating information in students' language textbooks too many times? If you are like me, you must have had some frustrating moments when you told your students to go to a certain page and activity in their texts, and 5 minutes later you realized that they were still looking for the activity. You probably thought that they either weren't paying much attention or didn't understand your instructions. It might not have occurred to you that the problem could be with the way the materials were designed.

Although the first two causes of the frustration are serious and important, the issue of problematic design is often overlooked. Schriver (1997) wrote that "poor design may not only prevent people from accurately making sense of products and documents, but also influence people's ideas about themselves" (p. 211). In other words, poorly designed ELT texts can not only discourage learners from using these texts, but perhaps also negatively shape the way they see themselves as language learners. Consequently, their second language acquisition could be hindered by this experience.

Current ELT texts employ a variety of visual elements to better serve their educational purposes. Compared with texts from years ago, these elements are much more abundant. They include illustrations, photographs, tables, lines, use of space to color, and other elements. (See Kostelnick & Roberts [1998] for a thorough discussion of visual language elements.) With this extensive use of visual language elements, there is a higher risk of problematic design that can impact how ESOL learners access and master the content of their materials. For example, multiple visual elements such as pictures, text boxes, and a colored and/or shaded background on the same page can compete for students' attention and draw their attention away from the information that they are seeking. In other words, overdoing a visual system and making it too complex may result in the attention of the user being drawn to the visual system rather than the verbal system (Gribbons, 1992).

Much research has been done on the design of documents such as computer manuals. This research shows dramatic differences in the usability of print material depending on how it is designed and laid out on the page. For example, Kostelnick and Roberts (1998) wrote that "a well-designed field enables readers to glide effortlessly through the text; a poorly designed one makes their work hard" (p. 188). Similarly, Schriver (1997) stated that "with a well-designed grid, we can make the hierarchy and the internal relationships of the text visible, giving readers signals about the intended structure and meaning" (p. 342). Moore and Fitz (1993) also stated that the visual design of a document defines how easily the user gets to the text and moves through it.

The process of materials development is such a complex one that requesting designs that are, among other things, absolutely user friendly, aesthetically appealing, and economical in the sense of meeting production cost constraints might be too idealistic. (This doesn't mean that those characteristics shouldn't be aspired to and expected from materials creators.) A more pragmatic, realistic, and immediate solution is at hand when teachers modify their instructions. Specifically, to help students overcome instances in which visual cueing becomes misleading and overwhelming, teachers (who already know where things are located in the textbook) should provide clear and specific instructions for navigating the text. For example, the teacher might tell the students the name of the section as well as approximate location of the sought information in their texts. Also, as it is well known that pictures, which are plentiful in most ELT texts, are the first thing that students notice on a page, instruction can make use of these big attention grabbers to enable students to locate a specific section. For example, learners could benefit from instruction that says that a section is located "on the left of the picture with goats" rather than an instruction that says to locate Exercise 5. In other words, when using ELT texts that teachers or language learners find visually overwhelming or confusing, language teachers can identify major visual stimuli and use those as cues for locating sections in the text rather than the cues (numbering, lettering, etc.) provided by the design of the text.

Gribbons, W. M. (1992). Organization by design: Some implications for structuring information. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 22(1), 57-75.
Kostelnick, C., & Roberts, D. D. (1998). Designing visual language: Strategies for professional communicators. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Moore, P., & Fitz, C. (1993). Gestalt theory and instructional design. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 23(2), 137-157.
Schriver, K. A. (1997). Dynamics in document design. New York: John Wiley & Sons. 

Despite Concerns, Special Project Meets Success

By Lynn Stafford-Yilmaz

Last year, MWIS received a $700 grant from TESOL to create a short booklet about negotiating ESL/ELT publishing contracts. The purpose of the publication was to provide both writers and publishers with a clearly worded, factual presentation of one another's concerns in contract negotiations.

Negotiating ESL/ELT Publishing Contracts makes an invaluable scholarly contribution to our field. It includes meaty, hands-on, detailed discussions about common contractual issues. Four prominent voices carry the discussion: authors (who pose 39 common questions about publishing contracts), executive editors of two major publishers (University of Michigan Press and McGraw-Hill), and a Cincinnati-based publishing and copyright lawyer, Stephen Gillen.

At the start, some MWIS members questioned whether the project could be done. One of their primary concerns was whether any ESL/ELT publisher would be willing to go on the record with a naked discussion of such topics as royalties, noncompete clauses, and escalation clauses. Nobody wanted another washed-out discussion about generalities or negotiating power. Instead, we wanted numbers, guidelines, actual scenarios, and an estimate of the negotiability of key issues.

Even if we could find publishers who were willing to speak honestly to these topics, we guessed that they would surely not want their comments followed by the competing voice of a publishing lawyer. This is not to mention that our $700 grant would hardly cover the cost of a lawyer. Could we possibly find a pro-bono lawyer for this kind of work?

All concerns noted, I, as the project coordinator, approached potential participants with our vision. A freelance writer and author, I have negotiated many contracts, some more successfully than others. Through my reading, discussions with editors and lawyers, communication with other MWIS members, and experience, I felt sure that there was enough common ground among the players in a negotiation to produce a worthwhile resource.

Many people have told me that they feel this goal has been achieved. Negotiating ESL/ELT Publishing Contracts was published this winter and distributed at the TESOL convention in San Antonio. In addition, I gave a presentation on the document to an eager audience at the convention center. At the presentation, Betty Azar stood up to say that she wished she had known the information in Negotiating ESL/ELT Publishing Contracts when she was negotiating contracts.

Readers of Negotiating ESL/ELT Publishing Contracts have access to information that has traditionally taken authors many years to gather—mostly through trial and error. The booklet establishes a reasoned framework within which to discuss negotiations intelligently and with a general perspective on the field. Just last month, Andrew Robinson, with Thomson Learning Asia, passed on the document to several of his authors. In his e-mail cover he wrote, "I agree with almost all of what the publishers have to say, and 80% with the lawyer. Coming from a publisher's perspective that's probably not too bad! There's some good overall advice in here for both writers and publishers." Robinson feels that the document "helps to get a lot of frequently discussed issues on the table, which can only be good for both parties."

Negotiating ESL/ELT Publishing Contracts can be viewed or downloaded for free from

MWIS members who have other ideas for making a scholarly contribution to our field should consider applying for a special project grant from TESOL. 

Taboo or Not Taboo?

By Valerie Whiteson, e-mail:

Recently I asked members of the MWIS e-list what they would do if they had written a super book and it was not selling as well as anticipated. The request went out under the heading This may be a taboo subject. All the respondents agreed that it was not a taboo subject and was, in fact, an appropriate question for our group.

  • Here is a list of some of the excellent suggestions:
  • Make contact with the salespeople responsible for selling the book and explain the rationale. 
  • Give presentations at conferences to explain the book.
  • Get book reviews into ESOL publications such as TESL-EJ or Essential English.
  • Get your book promoted in tandem with other texts sold by the publisher.
  • Do some research on the topic of promoting your own book. Jean Waldman recommended the following resources: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Publishedby Sheree Bykofsky and J. Basye Sander; Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It by Peggy Klaus; and Getting Your Book Published for Dummies by Sarah Parsons Zackheim.

As a result of suggestions from the list, I realized that we may have chosen the wrong publisher. It is simply too small so we'll probably need to find a new one. Lida Baker said that Longmans and McGraw Hill have the largest worldwide distribution and she suggested Cambridge or Oxford if the book is aimed at a more academic audience.

Our book is based on authentic international literature and it could be used in any intermediate class of students from about 15 years old and up. The writers speak English as their primary language but live in different cultures; consequently, students who use the materials are exposed to a variety of environments. From reading about the authors' experiences, they will also realize that one doesn't have to be British or American to publish in English. The focus of the text is on developing vocabulary and helping students to express their ideas about their own worlds. They also learn about appropriate sites on the Internet to widen their reading experience.

Thanks to everyone who contributed ideas.

Convention Updates Notes on the MWIS Academic Session: How Research Informs and Influences Teacher Materials

By Tay Lesley, e-mail:

This academic session, organized and moderated by Carlos Islam and Dorothy E. Zemach, brought together five authors of textbook series to discuss how they incorporate what they know and believe into what they write. The five panelists agreed that the relationship between research and writing was a complex and reciprocal one. Not only do textbooks need to be informed by current research, but insights gained during the process of text development often suggest pathways for further research and influence the interpretation of the findings themselves.

David Nunan began the discussion by talking about the field research he normally undertook in preparation for writing a new series. This research process involved going to the country or the countries where the series was to be used, talking directly with teachers, and analyzing the needs of learners. From the needs analysis a set of tasks would be developed, which in turn would become the basis for the syllabus. Nunan noted that a syllabus developed in this way provided much richer data than did any set of language objectives thought up by a text developer.

Diane Larson-Freeman expanded on the relationship of research and writing in the context of developing the series Grammar Dimensions. This series did not arise directly from the research but out of a perceived need for a particular type of grammar series (one dealing with form, meaning, and use). However, Larson-Freeman found that her work on the series led her to look at certain grammar topics that she had not expected to investigate previously. She commented on the fact that all materials development is selective, and that research findings from second language acquisition and pedagogy (particularly, data about what grammar features students find difficult to learn) also guided what grammar points would be included in the series.

Michael J. McCarthy, looking at the research/writing connection from the point of view of someone who has worked extensively with various language data banks (corpora), characterized the relationship as definitely a "two-way street." On the one hand, the corpora provide an enormous resource for the writer. On the other, data from this source can be useful only if they are treated with common sense and a great deal of qualitative (as well as quantitative) analysis.

Marc Helgesen talked about how his research into "language planning" provided the theoretical foundation for the Active Listening series. The message of the research he looked at was, if you want to get students to accomplish certain goals (such as to talk), you need to prepare them. Each unit in the series lays out a carefully sequenced set of tasks that provides students with the background they will need to become active listeners and speakers.

Jack C. Richards concluded the session by emphasizing the need to establish a clear theoretical foundation for whatever materials a person planned to write. Such a foundation starts with an informed view of the skill being focused on as well as a clear understanding of the writer's own views about how that skill should be taught. People who hold different theoretical views about the same skill will naturally develop different materials. Taking listening comprehension as an example, Richards noted that the more traditional view (listening comprehension as a means to getting meaning from messages) leads to the development of certain types of exercises based on prediction, identifying key words, and so on. On the other hand, a perspective that views listening comprehension as a means to language acquisition leads to the development of exercises that help students first notice certain language behaviors and then actually incorporate these behaviors into their own production.

Discussion Group: Technology and the Role of Materials Writers

By Marta O. Dmytrenko-Ahrabian, e-mail:

With numerous computer software authoring possibilities, the products of materials writers have become better, more sophisticated, and even artistic. Writers now have the tools to create materials that were once the domain of computer graphic artists. Though it may be rare at present for the materials writers to have both areas of expertise—language teaching/writing and computer graphics—technology is quickly changing to permit this dual specialization.

During the meeting of the discussion group, publishers and materials writers discussed the advantages and disadvantages of the newly evolving dual role of materials writer/graphic artist. Publishers mentioned that a project coordinator or manager serves in the production process to coordinate and act as liaison between the materials writer and computer graphics artist. The project manager makes certain that the material written is rendered as a marketable product. The publishers firmly believe that each person in the production process needs to focus on his or her area of expertise to efficiently develop the product. The project manager facilitates production by ensuring that both parties stay on their respective tasks.

But what if the writer is the computer graphic artist? There were two such ESL teachers in the audience (myself included). Both have an avid interest in technology and have authored materials using multimedia software directly (i.e., on their own). To them, it seemed that they were expediting the production process because they could author directly into the finished product by using the technology. In short, they were writer-artist-manager all in one person.

The advantages of materials writers authoring directly without a computer graphic artist seem obvious and very direct. In addition, the materials writer controls the rendering of the product, which may be good or bad. Much depends on the knowledge and experience of the materials writer, similar to an interpreter who knows two or more languages. The disadvantages of materials-writer-turned-computer-graphic-artist are not so clear, however, except that production could hinge on (and possibly burden) one person.

This situation is new territory. However, a similar transition happened before. In the past, writers handwrote material for publication and then passed it to a typist. Yet now most writers use a computer for word-processing and thus eliminate the typing step (by doing it themselves). Now current technology permits (even beckons) materials writers to go beyond the normal word-processing level to render their materials in final—or close to final—format.

Discussion Group: Time Management 102 for Independent Materials Writers

By Deborah Gordon, e-mail:, and Linda Butler, e-mail:
Our discussion group at TESOL this year continued a conversation begun last year in Long Beach. Because materials writers tend to juggle multiple projects and because we often work at home (where multiple distractions lurk), we wanted to talk about strategies to help us manage our time effectively.

The discussion ranged over several topics:

  • planning the work day (and the value of attending to our own biological clocks), assessing both the benefits and the costs of a flexible schedule
  • keeping track of hours worked
  • sharing office space (the perks and the perils)
  • managing time spent collaborating with coauthors and editors
  • dealing with publishers' expectations
  • scheduling projects
  • coping with stress and fatigue

The topic of dealing with distractions figured prominently, with common distractions being the e-mails, the phone calls, the children, the dog that needs walking, and so on.

We recommended books by Julie Morgenstern, including Time Management from the Inside Out (Owl Books, 2000), distributed copies of an amusing article by freelancer Kate M. Jackson ("Working from home: Inspiration for the undisciplined," from the March 20, 2005, Boston Globe), and shared a list of potentially useful Web sites on time management.

Discussion Group: Writing Effective Task-Based Activities

By Deborah Gordon, e-mail:, Andrew Harper, e-mail: aharper@els.ucsb, and Susan Iannuzzi, e-mail:

We began our presentation by asking the participants to do a brief task. The task was to assign value to the following six possible advantages of task-based activities:

Task-based activities

  • are motivating and engaging
  • provide instant feedback regarding students' success
  • make students use their critical thinking skills
  • are communicative
  • promote authentic language use
  • provide students with clear language-learning goals

After comparing their ratings with their neighbors, the participants put the task aside while we explained that we had become interested in this subject in part because of questions about task-based learning and using task-based activities that had come up in teacher-training classes as well as in conversations with editors. These questions had led us to do a preliminary survey of classroom teachers' perceptions of task-based activities and their value. To better inform ourselves as materials writers, we wanted to know what types of task-based activities these teachers chose to use and why, and also what teachers found particularly useful or problematic about using task-based activities (TBAs).

We sent out a questionnaire to 100 teachers who taught in a variety of educational institutions from universities to private language schools around the world. We found that although teachers defined TBAs in different ways, most agreed that TBAs were activities that (a) had a communicative goal, (b) used realistic language, (c) had a context, (d) were outcome oriented, and (e) had an element of problem solving, decision making, or consensus.

The advantages of using TBAs for teachers were that TBAs were motivating, engaging, and communicative and promoted authentic language use. The other advantages listed above were chosen under 50% of the time.

The main disadvantages reported of using TBAs were that they can be complicated, difficult to explain, and time-consuming; and that it can be difficult to keep students from resorting to their native language when engaged in them. However, a number of respondents noted that none of the disadvantages that we had listed on the questionnaire were really significant for them.

The activities our respondents chose most often as being typical TBAs were (a) problem-solving activities that require a consensus, (b) surveys, (c) simulations and role plays, (d) filling in a chart or table as the result of language input, and (e) information gap activities.

Although we acknowledged that our sample size was relatively small, we felt that the information we received from these questionnaires gave us a solid set of criteria to use when writing TBAs that would be well received by teachers in the field. We then used the criteria to first evaluate the task we had the participants perform at the beginning of our session and then various other tasks that we had either written ourselves or adapted successfully from other authors. 

About This Member Community Materials Writers Interest Section (MWIS)

MWIS serves as a forum to exchange professional, noncommercial issues and concerns that relate to the writing, editing, and production of instructional materials in ESL/EFL. A regular newsletter, and conference participation, workshops, demonstrations, and papers have served as the means for the exchange. Under consideration are other possible activities: an award for outstanding contribution to materials preparation, and a clearinghouse to link up new writers, publishers, and regional affiliates.

MWIS Leaders 2005-2006

Cochair: Dorothy Zemach, e-mail
Cochair: Carlos Islam, e-mail
Chair-Elect: Julie Vorholt, e-mail
Newsletter Editor: Tay Lesley, e-mail
E-List Manager: Bill Walker, e-mail
Web Manager: Emily Lites, e-mail

Discussion E-List: Visit to subscribe to MWIS-L, the discussion list for MWIS members, or visit if already a subscriber.