TESOL 2013 Highlights – Day 3 – Part 1

Criteria to Guide Topic Selection in ELT Materials Development. Deborah Gordon, Laurie Blass, and Jenny Bixby led a session that benefited both the classroom teacher and the full-time materials writer. Whether you are designing in-house materials or working for a publisher, it is important to understand why a purely subjective choice of topics is not likely going to be as successful as a criteria-based evaluation system for topic selection. Deborah began by identifying some of the influences on topic selection, such as the market and standards. Jenny observed how high-interest topics are subjective and change over time, but we also have “evergreen” topics, for example, food or relationships, which are addressed from different angles over the years. Laurie warned how a topic may look good to you, but may not be exactly right for your students. Deborah later used a cupcake analogy to emphasize that last point: As materials writers, we must look past the sweet cupcakes and look for the shiny apples.

The trio listed points to focus on when making a topic selection: (1) students’ interests, (2) students’ needs, (3) relevance for the students, (4) course objectives, (5) and how well a given topic provides a context for the teaching points. They warned against “topic fatigue” and the need to choose topics that are neither too broad or too narrow. They also raised the point of “shelf life” in the case of a book. How long will it be until the next edition comes out? Will the topic have relevance over the next, say, 6 years?

Their overreaching principles were stated as questions. (1) Does this topic use the students’ time well? (2) What is the take-away for the student? Deborah urged us to find the “nutrition” in our materials by identifying content as worthy of discussion,  text structures and vocabulary as useful, and content as conducive to critical thinking.

The three experienced authors then offered a 5-point rating system that could be customized for each writing project, big or small. They shared a long list of criteria-defining questions, which participants got to discuss in pairs. We were asked to identify the four that we considered most important. One of the questions I circled was “Is the topic something students can relate to or have experience with?” While I still feel relevance is important, I should also have circled “Is the topic culturally or politically controversial?” I appreciated hearing insights from other participants. Some were from different parts of the globe, so perspectives on cultural factors were shared. Two Brazilian teachers said that they were able to address a very wide range of topics with their young adults. For teachers from other countries, the number of taboo topics was a lot higher.

Thank you to Jenny, Laurie, and Deborah for giving us all something to take away from this 7:30 session!

More Day 3 highlights to come!


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jennifer, your reflective posts bring back memories of sessions I’ve attended, take-aways I’ve used. Nicely written and your efforts are much appreciated.

    I hope to be in a position to attend next year’s TESOL, hope to meet up with you there.

    Sincere thank you —


    1. Hi Holly!
      Thanks for the support. I’m trying to recall each session as best I can. As you know, each day at TESOL is like a whirlwind and back home we need to work to remember all the insights and tips that excited us hours, days, and weeks ago. I still have about two posts of highlights to share. 🙂
      I’d love to see you in Portland…maybe in the EV? Please stay in touch.
      Take care,

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