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The great grammar divide

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More idea sharing is needed between teachers of EAL / EFL and of mainstream English According to Bas Aarts, professor of English linguistics at UCL, teachers in primary and secondary schools ‘hate teaching grammar’. In a recent article for the TES, he outlines the reasons behind this aversion: Insecurity and frustration – trainee teachers are, for the most part, English literature graduates, with little formal training in English grammar. (Hands up if anyone reading this post got a good grounding in grammar at school) A lack of support in the form of guidelines from the government A lack of well-researched and reliable materials available online A conviction that the teaching of grammar is not necessary for school children   Of course, many teachers of EAL and EFL would refute that last point and put forward the following counter-arguments: Teaching grammar helps teachers and students to identify where they are going wrong. Although metalanguage can be tricky for teenagers (and younger students) to grasp, it’s very useful as a ‘feedback language’ between teachers and students for discussing students’ work. It helps students to learn foreign languages; some terms are transferable to studying another language. Understanding English grammar provides a mental map for comparison with another language. It develops analytical skills.   But how about points 2 and 3? It’s understandable that teachers baulk at teaching grammar if they don’t have enough support, surely? Perhaps they aren’t looking in the right places for it.   Interestingly, this summary of the grammatical structures that need to be taught at Key Stages 3, 4 and 5 at secondary school is not dissimilar to a typical grammar syllabus that can be found in general English coursebooks written for EAL / EFL students. Passives, possessives, the present perfect, adverbs, relative clauses, noun phrases, reported speech and modal verbs all feature. No doubt there will be people out there who object to the McDonaldization of the English language: the reduction of its grammar to bite size, teachable McNuggets. That aside though, wouldn’t it benefit teachers of English at secondary schools to consult EAL / EFL resources? Furthermore, rather than the EAL teacher supporting individual students in their mainstream English lessons, surely it would be better to give them a whole class to teach? Why not encourage them to teach English language to students who speak English as their native language? Why are English literature teachers being forced to learn the nuts and bolts of the English language on an ad hoc basis?   A conversation I had recently with a deputy head of a secondary school suggested one answer to these questions. He pointed out that the teaching of EAL or EFL was a great deal more ‘forensic’ than the teaching of English to mainstream native speaker students. This doesn’t seem to be borne out by consulting the summary of grammatical areas referred to above but perhaps reveals more about the perception of EAL lessons – they’re seen as scientific and analytical, whereas the teaching of English language and literature to native English students is perceived as something more holistic and altogether more creative. As a result, there isn’t a great deal of idea and resource sharing between EAL/EFL teachers and English mainstream teachers, which is a shame. I say this because, from just a cursory glance at the available resources, I think cross-pollination would benefit everyone. For EAL/EFL teachers and writers, the grammar areas taught at Key Stages 5 would provide inspiration for C1 and C2 classes and materials. There are also resources out there which would save EAL/EFL teachers a lot of preparation time. For...

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Whose project is it anyway?

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Whose project is it anyway? Part 2   So why do publisher-led projects dominate these days?   Access to the end-user While the author has a deep knowledge of a particular user group and of classroom pedagogy, publishers have the resources to access a wide range of potential end users. Publishing a multi-level, multi-component course is an expensive business and it’s simply too much of a financial gamble to develop a course without comprehensive market input at a number of key stages. Hence the publisher-led approach.   The review process is not without it flaws: it is necessarily selective and can be frustrating for editors and writers alike because a)it is tempting for publishers to put together a panel of like-minded experts who are unlikely to challenge the validity of materials b) reviewers often have their own agendas, informed by their favoured teaching style, which doesn’t necessarily relate to the product’s approach c)editors often select those comments which are felt to be most relevant and helpful, but this gives the author the impression that they are not getting the full story d) it’s difficult to get teacher reviewers, who have very busy work schedules, to commit to reviewing drafts of a coursebook so the number of reviewers on each draft is sometimes low.   Product review is, however, vital and, according to Keith Sands “we are seeing publishers go beyond the traditional review cycle with deeper research methods like design thinking1 and rapid prototyping2, getting at the underlying issues teachers have with time management, classroom dynamics, mixed-ability groups, and assessment. This can give some fantastic perspectives which help with course design and it can give you a clear vision about the problems you are trying to solve.” These new reviewing methods are tools in user-centred design (please see below for more on this) and theoretically, result in something better for the customer.   Whichever methods are used, assumptions need to be thoroughly tested and all parties need to be prepared to change tack where necessary.   Of course, reviewing methods are only a support for authorial creativity. As Keith points out: “[reviewing methods] won’t actually write the book for you and there is still plenty of scope for creative authors. Also, a need for anyone on a project to just follow their instincts about what works, sometimes.”   More profit for the publisher   If the publisher is answering a strong market demand, the product makes commercial sense.  What is more, having control over who writes what means that the most costly writers can be deployed to write the highest profile content and cheaper writers can be commissioned to write lower stake material.  That said, blockbuster courses with a range of components and a number of reviewer interventions tend to rack up considerable costs.   For the writer, however, profits tend to be lower. An author paid a fee will not necessarily benefit from the profits that a course will eventually make. The decline in the payment of royalties for writing services clearly makes good business sense but brings about an understandable lack of enthusiasm for the publisher-led model. There needs to be more room for discussion of what constitutes fair payment and terms in order to dispel mistrust and to ensure that the writer produces their best work rather than their minimum viable product.   Alternatives to publisher-led projects Self-publishing This post hasn’t yet considered the self-publishing route; a route that positions the author as publisher and therefore expands the term ‘publisher-led’ so that it’s no longer only attached to projects initiated by publishing houses. Although this affords...

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Whose project is it anyway?

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Whose project is it anyway? Part 1   The term ‘publisher-led’ has cropped up quite frequently in conversations I’ve had at conferences and in social media discussions. This post is an attempt to outline definitions of the term and to investigate some of the criticisms sometimes levelled at publisher-led projects. My thanks go to the authors, editors and publishers (named and unnamed) who have kindly contributed their views to this post.   Definitions According to one editor, a ‘publisher-led’ project is one that is “conceived and created primarily by a publisher in response to a specific market opportunity; this is often used in contrast to an ‘author-led project’ where an author / author team come up with the idea and then approach a publisher to collaborate.”  Historically, the ‘author-led’ project came first and underwent some changes before the ‘publisher-led’ project gained ascendancy. Jim Scrivener described the ‘old way’ of author-initiated publishing: “Potential writers sent off proposals to publishers who read through them and picked out ones they liked the sound of. They would then bash them around and shape them to what they thought might be a viable book. The final product – if it got to that – was often very different from the initial proposal, but would still bear a good deal of the individual and distinctive author voice and creative ideas.” This approach has since morphed into the author “second-guessing” ideas that publishers already have in their publishing plans. Talented authors whose ideas most clearly correspond with a publisher’s vision tended to be chosen to write the books.   Nowadays though, the consensus is that the ‘author-led’ project is a rarity in mainstream ELT publishing. Coursebook authors now almost exclusively work in teams as ‘content providers’, collaborating with editors to fulfil a brief.  The scope this leaves for author creativity and influence seems to vary. At one end of the spectrum, publishers work together with lead authors to shape the initial concept for a coursebook series and then appoint a wider team of writers to work within the concept.  At the other, the features of a course, its USPs and even the format of each lesson spread are already defined when the author team is commissioned. Equally, the way editorial teams are formed varies. In some teams, there is a strong publisher with a clear vision who leads a team of editors, all of whom have a comprehensive idea of the product they’re aiming to create. In other teams, ideas tend to evolve more throughout the course of the product’s development.  Decisions are made by a number of people and the team can be in flux as editors switch between projects.   Clearly then, not all publisher-led projects are managed in the same way. This inevitably results in a range of impressions and opinions about publisher-led projects, which I’ve endeavoured to represent in the answers to the questions below.   Does publisher-led = lack of originality and ‘bland’ ‘cookie-cutter’ content? The short answer to this is ‘to an extent, yes’.   Whilst publisher-led projects allow publishers to broker deals with media partners in order to offer video and digital resources that, far from appearing bland, could be very attractive to the student, the core content of each course released into the market tends to have a great deal in common.   As publishing plans are now driven by market demand, products aren’t generally completely different from one another or ‘revolutionary’ in approach. As Jim Scrivener observes, “teachers want better versions of the same thing they are using. They rarely request significant innovation.”   The functional constraints...

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How to deal with disruptive change in publishing

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  Last night, I took a trip up to Fleet Street, London, where BookMachine and Unite had arranged for a panel of expert speakers from the world of publishing to address the contentious issue of change. At the United We Publish III event, the panellists were: Richard Charkin, Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing Hazel Cushion, founder and Managing Director of Accent Press Tony Burke, Assistant General Secretary at Unite the Union Jacks Thomas, Director of the London Book Fair and John Pettigrew, founder of We Are Future Proofs. With such a diverse panel of experts, some of whom had effected change, some who had been on the receiving end of change, different perspectives on change were inevitable.  Surprisingly though, each speaker seemed to agree with one another’s advice on how best to manage change. This suggests that best practice exists when it comes to tackling change in an organisation. Here follows a summary of the panellists’ advice. Specialise, but keep an eye on the big picture Richard began with a whistle-stop tour of his experiences of publishing over 45 years. We were invited to imagine a time when publishing houses operated without computers and when bookshops were the only places where people bought books.  His aim was not to reminisce, but to illustrate that in many ways, publishing used to be simpler. As publishing has become more complex, we have evolved specialist roles and systems to deal with the challenges we face, such as globalisation (which Richard feels we still struggle with).  While he applauded the professionalisation of publishers, he also warned of the dangers of losing sight of the big picture. Individuals need to understand what their colleagues do and how the publishing house works in order for decisions that benefit the whole organisation to be made. He also warned about the danger of complex systems hampering the efficient journey of content. Publishers, he asserted, if they are doing their job well, should be an invisible intermediary between author and reader. Give everyone a voice Jacks Thomas took the view that as publishers are ‘chronicler of our times’, we have the responsibility to be at the vanguard of change.  This means embracing and adapting to necessary changes, engaging with the opportunities and challenges change presents and questioning the necessity of change. As change is so omnipresent, Jacks suggested, we hardly notice it anymore, but as a manager, she feels that there are some rules that should be followed when an organisation engages with change.  In order to keep your team on your side, it’s essential to: Give everyone a voice Remain approachable and respectful Allow your team to make mistakes and to learn from them without recriminations Identify your strengths and weaknesses Hazel Cushion talked about being at the sharp end of change. A self-confessed risk-taker, she is an advocate of embracing change, but also accepting the likelihood of occasional failure. Accent Press is, without doubt, a success story. It’s won awards for its innovative, niche publishing. Hazel explains that it was necessary to be fearless to be successful. Accent Press plunged headlong into digital publishing when it was in its infancy and reaped the rewards.  Growing Accent Press seemed the logical next step.  However, when Hazel stepped back, acquired a middle management layer and grew Accent Press, profits declined.  It seemed that being ‘big and sensible’ didn’t suit Accent Press. Hazel concluded that the strength of Accent Press is to find a niche in the market and to develop it quickly. A restructure was therefore on the cards.  Her message was that it’s necessary to understand the...

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All wrapped up

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Or is it? This blog post is not all that it seems at first.  It isn’t about Christmas, for instance.  I don’t do Christmas on principle until we get to mid-December, which explains my idiosyncratic habit of wandering through stores with my eyes closed at the moment. It IS about packaging, however.  More specifically, it is about getting to the end of a packaging project and reflecting on its (mostly) ups and downs. Over the last few years, I’ve done a lot of project management on both print and digital products  and have written blogs about it.  But this is the first time that I’ve packaged a project from beginning to end, including commissioning and liaising with picture researchers and design teams.  It has involved sending updates to the in-house team, coming up with the proposed budget, defining roles (including my own), writing the brief for the content and, in general, setting more parameters than usual.  All of this autonomy is very liberating, but it can be risky.  So what are the risks involved and how can they be dealt with? People don’t read things in as much detail as you do In order to get your project costing accepted, it’s sometimes necessary to prioritize tasks.  For example, whilst you might feel that your time is best spent reviewing the content at each draft stage and looking thoroughly at first proofs, you could decide to take a step back at the later proof stages when the content and style has been firmed up and artwork has been approved. If you do make this sort of decision though, it’s probably a good idea to talk it through with the in-house publisher once they’ve received it.  An itemised excel spreadsheet may seem as clear as day to you (especially when you’ve pored over it for hours) but your client may not have the same amount of time to review it.  Also, it’s a good idea to bear in mind that one person’s idea of ‘normal’ is not another’s.  If a client feels very strongly that they want you to take responsibility for the final ‘sign off’, it’s a good idea to then review your costing and put this into place. The same goes for contracts. An author paid a fee may not feel that they can reasonably be expected to look at proofs.  If reviewing of proofs is stipulated in the contract, you could feel that you are covering your back. But a packager needs to bear in mind that not everyone reads contracts thoroughly, particularly if they’ve already begun work on a project with very tight deadlines. In order to avoid bad feeling when proofs come in, it’s probably best to talk through the points in the contract with your associates. Picture researchers need briefs too It’s tempting to think that, if the development editor has a very detailed idea of the aims, look and feel of the course, that a clear artwork brief will suffice for the picture researcher. Not always so. If your project is intended for a specific market, for instance, the Middle East, it’s a good idea to share any documents you have about cultural considerations with the picture researcher.  It’ll give them a general feel of what type of images might appeal as well as things to avoid.  It’ll also mitigate the need for the poor editor to spell these things out throughout the brief. Packaging a project means I have complete control…doesn’t it? The packager walks a fine line between not bothering the client unnecessarily and flagging up things that the client might want...

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Room for improvement?

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Continued professional development is essential for all editorial freelancers. But is there room for a growth mindset in the publishing world? As Karen White observes in her recent blog post, we need to find and fund our own development opportunities.  CPD keeps our knowledge of techniques and trends fresh but equally importantly, it maintains our motivation. As many educational editors and writers are also teachers, we’re familiar with the concept that learning is a reward in itself. That sense of growth keeps what we’re doing interesting and in turn, makes us more interested in delivering our very best work to the client. The notion of a growth mindset is gaining a lot of traction in schools at the moment. Carol Dweck’s work on how to instill a belief in students that their talents and abilities are not fixed, but can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence is being examined. Her suggestions for giving feedback to students that avoids reinforcing a belief that their abilities are finite, but instead praises them for the hard work and the process they’ve engaged in, are being put into practice. For a more comprehensive explanation of the idea of growth mindset, Keith Heggart’s article in edutopia is well worth a read. Heggart develops the notion of growth in an interesting direction – if it can be used to nurture students, why not teaching staff?  He makes the following suggestion for encouraging this in schools: Modelling: schools can run CPD courses that instruct teachers in how to model the growth mindset among students and in turn, how to see themselves as learners (Gerstein 2014) Creating space for new ideas: schools allow teachers to try out new ideas and in doing so, inevitably fail or make mistakes on occasion. This also means that schools and teachers will need to embrace failure as part of the learning process Building time for self-reflection: for example, after an observed lesson, the teacher would focus on what they have learned from a process Giving formative feedback: inviting the teacher to participate in the process of evaluating their own lessons I’m grateful that schools in which I’ve worked have allowed me to experiment with teaching techniques and technologies and encouraged me to reflect on my practice. Schools feel, in my experience at least, a fairly safe space in which to grow. Can the same be said of publishing though, particularly if you’re a freelancer? I personally think that there are ways of making room for growth, but that doing so is a challenge. Editorial feedback: with schedules becoming increasingly ambitious, it’s tempting for a development editor to give feedback in a very ‘black and white’ way: to rewrite sections of text to save time or to pronounce that an exercise doesn’t work for various reasons. This may be true in some instances, but perhaps we need to ask questions of the author more often – to find out the thinking behind an exercise. There is, as a commissioning editor once reminded me, more than one way ‘to skin a cat’,  She counselled that having a very rigid or ‘fixed’ idea of the way that something should be done tends to stifle creativity in writers, which can eventually lead to bad feelings and ultimately to a formulaic book. It’s difficult advice to follow, particularly when writing and editorial briefs tend to be very detailed in order to avoid costly ‘mistakes’. But perhaps we should be taking more risks and trusting our initial judgement of the writer’s expertise? Client feedback: Editors and project managers are hired because we’re experts in our...

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