An interview with ELT author and trainer Katherine Bilsborough

24th January 2024

Katherine was interviewed by Vicky Papageorgiou from the IATEFL Publications Committee

Hello Katherine and thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.

Hi Vicky. Thank you for inviting me.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, Katherine.

Well, I have been around for a while. I’m originally from Wales but I moved to Spain when I started working as an English teacher in 1987. I’ve lived here ever since. These days I live in a rural area in the north of the country. There are only nine inhabitants in our village so it’s very quiet and peaceful.

In terms of my professional life, I started out teaching private classes. Later, I got a teaching job in a school. After a few years I started teacher training, then writing professionally. These days I mainly work as a writer, but I continue to do teacher training and teaching now and then.

Could you describe your typical week ?

The good thing about being a freelance writer is that I can decide how to organize my time. That means there’s no such thing as a typical week. Right now, I’m in the middle of running a ‘Writing ELT materials’ course with my business partner, John Hughes, so I have to build in time for that.

Most weeks are a combination of two kinds of work: actual writing and the peripheral work that goes with it, such as meetings or reading through briefs from publishers. I’m usually doing other things too. This week I’m writing an article for a teaching journal and I’m planning a workshop for a convention in March.

It isn’t all work though. I’m increasingly aware of the importance of self-care. I start every day with a walk and I swim every day. I take plenty of breaks away, short ones where I pop outdoors for a breath of fresh air or longer ones when I might read, do some chores or watch TV.

How do you progress from a teacher to a materials writer?

There isn’t just one pathway. I was given the opportunity to write a primary coursebook when a commissioning editor attended a workshop I gave at a TESOL Spain convention. This first writing experience was very positive and I decided I’d like to move into writing full time, so I approached another publisher. The coursebooks became a kind of CV. If you’ve written something for a publisher, you’ve proven you can do the essentials – not only write, but follow a brief, keep to a schedule, work with an editor and respond well to feedback.

Anyone wishing to become a materials writer needs to get their work seen. Presenting at a conference, giving a webinar, sharing ideas through a blog are all good ways for publishers to find you. It also helps to show what your specialism is. If you know a lot about phonics, for example, make sure everyone knows.

What are the essential skills needed to get into materials writing?

I think we can divide skills into different areas.

First, there are the skills you gain through teaching, for example, knowing how long an activity might take.

Then there are skills related to the writing process and the principles of writing. These include things like knowing how to design a sequence of exercises that flow well and achieve the key objectives.

There are also skills which are specific to different contexts, such as self-study resources for Business English students or materials delivered via an app.

Finally, if you want to work for a publisher, you’ll need to consider skills of teamworking and collaboration, as well as  time management and responding well to feedback.

Please comment on the following “Designing appropriate materials is not a science: it is a strange mixture of imagination, insight and analytical reasoning.”

Oh! I wondered who said that. It’s lovely. I see that it was written by Graham Low, University of York. It’s cited quite frequently. I’m not surprised as it’s spot on. I would maybe adapt it and say, “Designing appropriate materials is not a science: it is a mixture of creativity, insight, analytical reasoning and hard work.” Creativity is key. We can all make materials that are mediocre but what the best ones have in common is a spark of imagination, something that engages the learners and perhaps prompts an emotional response.

What are your golden rules about materials writing you would like to share with new colleagues?

I’ll try and keep it to three.

(1) Keep things as simple as possible, from the wording of an instruction to the design of a page, and everything in between. Simplicity is everything.

(2) Always keep the end-users in mind while writing. This means the students as a group and as individuals, and also the teachers who might be using the materials.

(3) Respect copyright laws. We should behave impeccably in this respect so that students have good models to follow.

Would you like to share your plans for the future?

I love my work but ultimately, I’d like to work less and relax more. One of the downsides of being a freelance writer is that it isn’t easy to plan big chunks of time off. But that’s something I’m working on, especially longer term. Ideally, I’d like to work three months on and three months off. That would be perfect.

In this line of work, you never quite know what’s around the corner. I’ve just signed a contract to write a series of graded readers so that’s quite exciting and will keep me busy for the near future. There will be other projects too, but I have no idea what.

John and I have lots of plans bubbling away too - courses to run, talks and workshops at conferences, and books to self-publish. No peace for the wicked, as they say.

About Katherine

Katherine Bilsborough is a freelance ELT author and trainer. She is passionate about training teachers how to develop the skills they need to write their own classroom materials and has recently set up Writing ELT Materials Ltd. with her business partner and colleague, John Hughes.

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