How to write worksheets
In an extract from ELT Teacher 2 Writer’s training module, Karen Richardson explains why aspiring ELT authors should focus first on writing worksheets rather than books and includes some useful exercises to help you produce a great worksheet that publishers will love.
Why Publishers Like Online Worksheets
We all know that teachers love to use worksheets. But you want to write a book, don’t you? Why should you bother writing worksheets?
Well, there are two major reasons as far as I can see – and both equally convincing in their own way. One is the financial aspect. If you write a Coursebook, be it on your own, or more likely, as part of a team, you will need to put in a lot of time and work before you see any financial rewards. Sure, if a publisher asks you to be part of a writing team on a product they are convinced will sell, or if your fantastic proposal is accepted and you sign a contract, you might get an advance. Note the use of the word might here – this is certainly not always the case. If you do get an advance, it will be based on projected sales over the next three or five years. The calculation uses the publisher’s net receipts – that is, the income the publisher receives after its discounts to distributors and bookshops.
So you sign your contract, produce the first draft and receive an advance. Not much, but enough to keep you motivated and hopefully enough to mean that you don’t need to do a fulltime job and so can dedicate the necessary time to the writing. This is probably the last money you will see until a year after the book is published. Don’t forget this may be 24–36 months after you first started writing the Coursebook. Why so long? Well, the first royalties will most likely be eaten up by your advance as it was an advance against future royalties. Didn’t you read the small print? Of course, publishers do not set out to trick you out of your hard earned cash, it’s just that you should be aware that you may have to wait a while before you see it in your bank account. On the positive side, if you are lucky and have a good editorial and marketing team working with you, those royalty cheques may keep on coming year after year and it will feel like ‘free money’. For those whose virtues do not include patience, the relative immediacy of the payment you get for worksheets is a huge plus. To make this clear, when you write worksheets for a publisher, you will usually be paid a fee. This fee (called a ‘grant’ in the US) will be a fixed sum which you will receive regardless of the amount of sales your work generates. Typically, a fee is divided into parts and spread over three payments: on signature of the contract, on submission and acceptance of draft, and on submission and acceptance of final manuscript.
The second reason for thinking about writing worksheets is that larger publishers often set the task of producing worksheets as a kind of a kind of interview test for new writers. It’s unlikely that you will be offered a key role as a Coursebook writer when you are essentially still an unknown quantity. So, publishers may ask you to write worksheets with the aim of assessing your writing ability and potential for bigger writing jobs. If you do well during this ‘probationary period’ and are able to produce good, solid, but at the same time interesting and original material on time and prove yourself to be someone they would like to continue working with (after all, we work best with those people we like and get on with at a personal level as well as on a professional level), you may well be asked to join a writing team and work on a larger or more prestigious project. Many well-known ELT authors have started in this way.
Here, Sue Kay tells us her story:
“There’s something satisfyingly self-contained about worksheets. Teachers love them too – over the years I’ve had plenty of positive feedback about the Coursebooks I’ve written, but when teachers find out that I’m the author of the Reward Resource Packs, my popularity shoots up.
I also love worksheets because they got me into writing published materials.
I was teaching in a small private language school in Oxford, and well-known local Coursebook writer, Simon Greenall, asked if he could come down and pilot some new material he was working on. As my role in the school was ‘materials person’, I was designated to look after Simon, and after the lessons I took him into the staffroom and showed him two big files of worksheets I’d produced.
Most of the teachers in the school, including me, were using Headway (in its first edition, so you can imagine how long ago this was). Personally, I found the material a bit too grammar-focused and lacking in meaningful, communicative practice. I was happy to use the Coursebook material but I felt the need to supplement it with some activities that would get the students mingling, communicating and generally practising the language in a fun way.
I guess Simon liked my worksheets because he then asked me to write the Resource Packs to accompany the course, Reward, that he was writing for Heinemann ELT.
It was a fabulous opportunity: the school I was working for let me write part-time and teach part-time so I was able to try the worksheets out in the classroom as I wrote them. I had a brilliant editor, Catherine Smith, who dealt with the knotty problem of writing crystal-clear rubrics and teacher’s notes. I learnt so much from her.
The Resource Packs turned out to be very popular with teachers, and I had a great time going round the world doing promotional workshops. As a result, when Vaughan Jones and I approached Heinemann with our ideas for a course, I wasn’t an unknown quantity. They knew I could write teachable material and that I was prepared to go out and promote it.”
And Pete Sharma kindly shares his story, and enthusiasm, with us:
“I am a great lover of free-standing, photocopiable worksheets. How did I ever get to write them? It started through something called an e-lesson …
When I was a teacher, I saw things as a teacher and it never even occurred to me that some day I might be a writer. One day, after giving a presentation, a very special publisher (David Riley, who many ELT people remember with much love and affection) asked me to meet him in Oxford. He had an idea …
He asked me to submit an ‘e-lesson’. This consisted of a free-standing page of content (a short text) and accompanying tasks, plus a page of Teacher’s Notes.
I poured my heart and soul into the first draft and sent it to David. He summoned me to Oxford again to give me feedback. I’ll never forget his words:
‘When I asked you to do this draft, I didn’t quite know what I wanted. Now I’ve seen this, it’s clear. This is NOT what we want.’
My face fell. My heart sank.
He continued: ‘Basically, this is just like the stuff in a Coursebook. And we don’t want that for the e-lesson’.
Observing my crestfallen look, David went on:
‘So, thanks for helping us find what we’re looking for. Now, some people might be on the floor after what I’ve just said. But look at this way: you could be here in my office now, or at home. If you were at home, we wouldn’t want you! But – you’re in Oxford. That means – we want you. Yes – you can write – so, let’s see how we’re going to develop this e-lesson.’
‘Yes – you can write!’ I couldn’t believe it.
Over the months, I worked on the format with excellent support and feedback from a team of wonderful, skilled editors. We created e-lessons which we could be proud of on the latest cutting-edge business topics. Before this process, I would have simply said: ‘Writing’s for others far more skilled than me’. It wasn’t true – I just needed self-belief; guidance; encouragement; and to be open to critical feedback. And an unforgettable meeting with a brilliant, maverick publisher.”
Different Kinds Of Worksheets
Look for an example of each of the four types of worksheets mentioned below. If possible, print out each of the worksheets in their entirety, i.e. including any teacher’s notes, keys or cover sheets.
- Current news articles: Go to your favourite magazine, newspaper or teacher resource site and see if they provide any worksheets or lesson plans linked to news articles. (Clue: onestopenglish does!)
- Grammar worksheets: If you haven’t already come across worksheets that specifically teach and practise grammar, type ‘ELT grammar worksheets’ into an internet search engine. You will get plenty of results. Choose one that you like – one that you could imagine using in class – and download it.
- Coursebook supplementary materials: Check any Coursebook website a or go to the website of the Coursebook you are currently teaching with. If you have any Teacher’s Books that accompany Coursebooks, have a look at those to see if they offer any photocopiable worksheets.
- Exam preparation: Again, find an example of an exam preparation worksheet either on an examination board’s website or look through the accompanying material (books and website) of any exam preparation book to see what is available.
It might be worth noting in which of the numbered categories above it is most difficult to find worksheets. Think about your own teaching situation and that of colleagues, not only of those in your own school but also of those you know through larger and further-reaching networks (such as teachers’ groups on social networks). Would they benefit from worksheets in this category? Maybe you are preparing students for a new exam or they are working in a relatively new area of business that hasn’t existed long enough for publishers to catch up with it yet. If you can establish that demand would be high enough, this is possibly where the need is greatest and the gap in the market is biggest. If you can write materials to fill that gap, then your chances of getting published may increase!
And it’s worth repeating that more and more newspapers, magazines and other media-related websites are realizing that teachers want to use their articles in their lessons. A few forward-thinking ones already produce specially written classroom worksheets. In addition to those mentioned already, these include Newsweek, the BBC, and TED. Newsweek provides a monthly lesson plan for language teachers to use in their European TESOL classrooms, based around a story that appeared in an issue of one of their weekly magazines from that month. The lesson plans are written by teachers for teachers and the article is not abridged or edited to a specific level. It’s possible that this relatively new service may be extended in the future so it is one worth keeping an eye on. The BBC is well-known and well-regarded by many ELT teachers and students alike. They seem to have a well-established ‘Learning English’ writing team already, so the likelihood of getting your worksheets published on their website is probably slim. But nothing is impossible and you’ll never know for sure how they will react to you unless you make the first move. In contrast to Newsweek and the BBC, TED-ed(ucation) actively encourages teachers to write and upload lesson plans based around the videos on their website. The lessons that have already been uploaded cover different aspects of education and are not specifically for language learning. However, there is already a sub-category titled Literature and Language and as the number of lesson plans and the database is increasing all the time, they may well soon introduce a new sub-category for ELT. So, definitely one to keep in your sights. You won’t get any payment from TED-ed, but having one of your lesson plan worksheets with your name on their website is definitely something that will look good on your CV.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. And don’t forget that for each magazine, newspaper, website, etc, that provides worksheets, there are tens and hundreds that do not, meaning that there is potentially a lot of work in the future for writers of worksheets.
Once you have found examples of these kinds of worksheets, print them out and look at them. Make notes of the answer to each of these questions for each of the four worksheets.
- How many pages does it have in total?
- Does it contain colour?
- Does it contain images, graphics or photos?
- Does it have a reading element?
- Does it have a writing element?
- Does it have a listening element?
- Does it have a speaking element?
- Is a key provided?
- Are there any Teacher’s Notes or tips?
- Is there any information about timing?
- What format is it in? (PDF, Word, …)
- Does it reprint material sourced from elsewhere?
- Does it tell you what level it is written for?
- Are there interaction pattern (individual, pairwork, group work, etc) suggestions with each task?
- Does it suggest what age group it is for?
- Is it for a specific number of students?
- Would you use it with your students or suggest it to a colleague?
This worksheet analysis task will provide a lot of information to help you plan, structure and write your own worksheets.
If you are interested in learning more about becoming an ELT materials writer, and to find the complete module on writing worksheets, visit ELT Teacher 2 Writer.