Designing textbooks for modern languages: the ELT experience

Author: Rod Bolitho


This article looks at the steps involved in writing coursebooks from the point of view of authors and publishers. It also looks at the advantages of team-authoring in the context of recent national textbook projects in Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union states. Whilst the main focus is upon the design of ELT materials, the approach described can usefully be applied to the design of language teaching materials in general.

Table of contents

1. Introduction

The spread of English as a global language of communication and the almost simultaneous advances in information and communications technology have led to a worldwide demand for up-to-date and user-friendly teaching materials. Publishing houses throughout the English-speaking world respond by producing mass-market coursebooks, designed to appeal to as many teaching and learning situations as possible, thus maximising their sales potential, but there have also been a number of recent initiatives involving the production of coursebooks designed to meet the needs of learners and teachers in a particular country or group of countries.

In this article I will review some of the factors and working principles which may inform good practice in either or both of these cases. Although the discussion focuses specifically upon the design of ELT textbooks, much of what is said is generalisable across all languages. It may be useful for the reader to keep in mind that changes in textbooks are second only to changes in the format of examinations as a means of reforming teachers’ classroom practices.

Finally, by way of introduction, it is hoped that many of the points made below will be of use to those producing materials non-commercially on a smaller-scale, e.g. for in-house use at schools, colleges and universities.

2. The preparatory phase

2.1 Initiation

A writing project may be initiated in any of the following ways:

(i) A commercial publishing house may identify a gap in the market or a new opportunity which arises because of examination reform or, in a particular context, curriculum reform. In such cases they are likely to identify an experienced author or authors and commission a textbook to be written, usually to tight specifications.
(ii) A potential author or authors may develop materials (perhaps arising out of their own classroom practice) and may submit samples to a publisher for consideration. Initially, they are most likely to approach publishers with an established reputation and profile in the field (in ELT for example, the global market leaders are Pearson Longman, Macmillan Heinemann, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press). However, some of the smaller publishing houses such as Delta or Chancerel may be more inclined to give a chance to new authors with innovative ideas. This is how new authors often break into publishing but it is an increasingly difficult route as most publishers tend to rely on the skills and experience of established authors in a very competitive market-place.
(iii) A Ministry of Education, often with the support of an outside agency such as the British Council or the World Bank, may set up a textbook reform project in a particular country. In such cases, there is likely to be a detailed planning phase, including a baseline study, selection and training of authors, partnership with an institution or with individual consultants from a native English-speaking country and the production of some kind of specifications for the textbooks and any accompanying supplementary materials. This model has, over the last decade or more, been followed in projects in a number of countries, including Morocco, Romania, Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Mongolia. The key objectives in such contexts have included the introduction of a free market for textbooks in the school system, and the building of textbook-writing capacity in the local educational community. This has been of particular importance in the field of ELT which is open to domination by native-speaker authors, with, often, little or no knowledge of the context in which their books will be sold and used.

2.2 Identifying needs and constraints

The kind of research undertaken by publishers, both locally and internationally, may reveal gaps in the publishing market. A brief for a new series of textbooks needs to go further than this, and the more ‘local’ the project is, the easier it is to develop a clear profile of the target users (learners and teachers) and the context in which they operate. Among the factors worthy of closer investigation at the preparatory stage are:

(i) reasons for dissatisfaction with the materials currently in use
(ii) curriculum requirements
(iii) national and (if appropriate) international examination requirements
(iv) communicative perspectives: what uses will learners put their English to outside the classroom and in their present or future careers? Is English a second or foreign language in the target context or contexts?
(v) existing traditions of teaching and learning English: are there any prevailing orthodoxies? What use (if any) is made of the mother tongue in English language classrooms? What are the favoured ways of teaching grammar, vocabulary, the four skills etc? Is there a strong literary tradition?
(vi) the degree of innovation which may be desirable and/or realistically possible, in terms of methodology, approach to language systems, classroom management etc.
(vii) the availability of funding and resources which may dictate the nature of the textbook ‘package’: should there be an accompanying teacher’s book , workbook, cassette, video, CD-ROM etc? There are some markets in the developed world where a CD-Rom would be a vital part of the package, mainly for the benefit of autonomous learners, but there are still many countries in the developing world where only a minimum package would be appropriate.
(viii) the availability of funding and appropriate channels for in-service orientation seminars aimed at familiarising teachers with the new materials
(ix) local procedures for official textbook approval (usually laid down by Ministries of Education)
(x) establishment of an acceptable variety or varieties of English to suit local needs and the prevailing language policy. This is a particularly hot issue in contexts where English is a second language.

2.3 Author selection and training

In UK ELT there is a long tradition of teacher-writers. Most of the successful authors of globally successful coursebooks started out as teachers and their ideas are rooted in classroom practice. In many other countries, this is not always the case. The authoring of textbooks is often seen as a task for high-profile academics based in universities. These people often wield great influence in their own countries, and are looked on with tremendous respect by many teachers. However, the introduction of textbook projects in countries such as Romania and Russia has seen a break with this tradition through the selection of practising teachers as authors. The rationale for this is based both on the belief that many teachers, with their immediate chalk-face experience, have the potential to write good materials and on the perceived need to break into a ‘closed shop’ and broaden the local base of expertise and capacity in the area of textbook authoring.

In most of these projects, the teacher-authors work in teams, with sub-teams often operating simultaneously at different levels (e.g. primary and lower secondary). This team approach enables rapid progress to be made where the need for new textbooks is urgent. It also has the advantage of sharing and spreading the workload, thus enabling teachers to stay in their full-time jobs (and incidentally to try out their materials in their own classrooms) while writing. Finally it means that a variety of different views of the learning process come together in the finished textbooks, which helps cater for the varying learning and thinking styles of the students who will use the book.

While publishers select and train their own authors for major global textbook ventures (usually through intensive interaction with in-house editorial staff), training is usually a matter for the project management team in the case of ‘local’ projects. In Romania, for example, a team of 14 authors from all parts of the country was selected by national advertisement and open competition: candidates were asked to submit sample material and a letter of application, on the basis of which they were called for interview. Criteria for the selection of authors included prior experience, cognitive style, creative ability, ability to work in a team, willingness to prioritise textbook writing over other commitments and even geographical location (to enable sub-teams to meet on a regular basis during the writing phase). Successful candidates were sent to the UK for author training on a tailor-made 12-week course at The College of St Mark & St John, sponsored by The British Council who also managed the project. This pattern has been repeated on the Russian primary and secondary projects and (with in-country rather than UK-based training) in Uzbekistan, Belarus and Mongolia. Author training courses are likely to include components such as Materials Evaluation, Syllabus Design, Teaching Methodology, Testing and Evaluation, ICT Skills (including the use of corpora), Principles of Materials Writing, Language Awareness and Cultural Awareness. However, such courses also serve as a period of team-building, which is essential to the ultimate success of any project, and provide an opportunity for key issues to be thrashed out in a vital move towards shared working principles and ground rules.

By the end of a period of training authors should have a clear idea of their writing responsibilities, of the syllabus and approach they are working to, of the deadlines they are expected to meet, and of the guidelines they are expected to adhere to concerning extent, layout, fonts, numbering, art briefs, tapescripts, copyright issues etc. These are all part of the discipline of writing, and for new authors there is a lot to absorb if they are to function as effective team-members. It is worth reiterating that in publisher-led (rather than project-initiated) textbook design, training in all these areas occurs ‘on the job’ through the process of interaction between authors and in-house editors. For this reason too, even in projects with a long run-in phase which includes author-training before the process of writing commences, it is important to identify a publishing partner as early as possible in the life of the project so that writers can become acquainted at first hand with the norms and constraints which every commercial publisher has to work with.

3. The writing phase

By the time any author or team of authors gets down to writing in earnest they should have a clear idea of the brief they are writing to in terms of:

(i) extent (number of pages)
(ii) target users (levels, hours per week or year, second or foreign language etc.)
(iii) the ‘package’ as a whole, including supplementary materials (teacher’s book, workbook or activity book, cassettes, videos, CD-ROMs etc.)
(iv) syllabus (topic-based, grammar-based, skill-based, etc.), and its relationship to any curriculum requirements
(v) methodological principles (task-based, activity-based, degree of learner autonomy etc.)
(vi) budget and provision for artwork, permissions etc.
(vii) lines of responsibility and reporting (e.g. to in-house editor, project managers, fellow authors)
(viii) deadlines (a nightmare for some, but essential in any publishing venture)

The process of writing inevitably has its highs and lows. There are moments of inspiration or satisfaction when everything seems to fall into place, but also moments of despair, when a whole unit or section has to be consigned to the waste-paper bin, or when an author becomes blocked and seems to run out of ideas. Publishers’ in-house editors are, of course, aware of this, and part of their role is to encourage and support their authors through peaks and troughs. Within team-authored projects, this kind of support may also be available from fellow-writers, from consultants or from project managers.

For this and a number of other reasons, in team projects, regular meetings are essential. In Russia, Romania and most of the other contexts mentioned above, these meetings take place three times per year, though electronic communication has made it possible for essential issues to be discussed and resolved speedily between meetings. The meetings themselves take the form of workshops, attended by authors, project managers and consultants. This blend of local and international partners seems to bring the best of both worlds to the writing process. The workshops provide a forum for the discussion of drafts, exchange of ideas, standardisation, troubleshooting, decisions on changes to the syllabus, and plans for the next phase of work. The consultants (native English-speakers, usually from the institution which provided the initial training), will typically focus on language accuracy and appropriacy as well as on facilitating the workshop processes. The authors bring their immediate classroom experience to bear on the material, which will typically go through three revisions before final publication. Project managers usually handle issues related to the resources the writers need (computers, accessories, software etc.), and the organisation of the workshops and wider (often political) considerations. Publishers’ representatives (editors, artists etc.) may also attend all or part of these meetings to get to know the writers, or resolve any problems such as the need to make cuts, page layout relative to pedagogical objectives, etc. In short, the workshops make it possible for interested parties to meet and discuss everything that is needed to keep the work on track and on schedule.

Most publishers are now convinced of the value of piloting samples of the new textbooks in the target context. In this process, sample units are selected and produced in reasonably complete form for piloting in a cross-section of target schools with teachers of varying levels of experience and learners of different ability levels. These teachers and learners are asked to complete questionnaires on the pilot materials, and results are evaluated by publishers, authors and/or the project team. The findings are usually a powerful lever for change wherever there is doubt about the need for it, and an important means of reassuring the wider community of end-users of the validity of the materials. Piloting is also a valuable public-relations tool: teachers invited to pilot the material are usually proud to do so and are likely to become converts to the new material, particularly if they have an opportunity to meet the authors face-to-face.

The result of all this industry and careful planning will, it is hoped, be good coursebooks. It may be worth listing here some generic features of good coursebooks (not necessarily synonymous with successful coursebooks in market terms).
A good coursebook will:

(i) be appropriate to the context in which it is to be used, in terms of language and cultural content, length, grading and methodology
(ii) offer choices to teachers and learners
(iii) be valued by teachers and learners
(iv) contain language which has real world relevance and is, wherever possible, drawn from authentic sources
(v) contain tasks and activities to motivate learners
(vi) deal with topics which learners can identify with
(v) support learning outside the classroom.

There may well be more characteristics, and readers of this article will certainly have their own views on this particular topic. At this point however, it is probably at least worth asking whether globally marketed coursebooks are necessarily the answer to the growing worldwide need for English as a means of international communication. At best they ask learners in far-flung countries to make a daunting leap into the world described by the authors. At least a locally produced coursebook can start where teachers and learners are in terms of experience, traditions of teaching and learning, and knowledge of the world.

4. The Post-writing phase

There was a time when the author of a textbook could simply hand over a final manuscript, check the proofs and then sit back and wait for the royalties to roll in. Similarly, publishers would launch the product on the market and promote it, seeing that as their prime role. In ELT publishing those days are long gone. Authors are in demand as conference presenters, workshop leaders, and often, trainers. They are expected to play an active part in the promotion of their books. This often makes new (and not always welcome!) demands on them in terms of time and skills. Becoming articulate in public about one’s work and the values, beliefs and principles which underpin it is certainly a further stage in an author’s professional development.

But publishers and project managers are also becoming increasingly conscious of the need to evaluate their projects and the impact they have had on the target users and on the wider educational community. Evaluation can yield valuable data about the reasons for the success or failure of a coursebook series, and can be used to justify the initial investment or, more importantly, to inform revisions of existing material and planning for new publishing projects.

5. Conclusions

Writing materials raises, sooner or later, every issue in language teaching, from questions of language to problems of approach, method and class management. Authors need to develop an understanding of learning styles, of the principles of assessment, of different ways of dealing with language points and of language pedagogy. On a personal level they will have to learn to work collaboratively, to accept and make criticisms and to modify their principles in the light of feedback and experience. In short, writing is a route to professional development. But there is also immense satisfaction to be gained from having, through writing a textbook, touched the lives of so many others, and having played a part in their development as teachers and learners.


Though no specific literature references have been made in the article, readers may find the following to be of interest:

Byrd, P. (1995). Materials Writer’s Guide. Rowley, Mass: Newbury House.

Cunningsworth, A. (1996). Choosing Your Coursebook. Oxford: Heinemann.

Hidalgo, A.C. et al (eds) (1995). Getting Started: Materials Writers on Materials Writing. Singapore: R.E.L.C.

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

The Pathway to English series for Romanian Secondary Schools. Oxford: OUP.

The New Millennium English series for Russian Secondary Schools. Obninsk, Russia: Titul Publishers.

Related links

The Materials Development Association (MATSDA) provides a forum for materials writers and publishes a specialist journal. ‘Folio’. Available at:

The Society of Authors has a special interest group for educational writers (84 Drayton Gardens, London SW10 9SB; e-mail: The Society will offer advice to its members on publishing agreements and other legal issues.

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