#ELTHeroes interview: Debbie Candy

Next in our #ELTHeroes series, we’re talking to Debbie Candy – Debbie is a freelance consultant teacher trainer, materials writer and editor based in the UK. She has been writing materials for more than ten years and has been involved in writing most of the British Council’s global teacher training courses.

Debbie Candy

1. Tell us a little bit about your career in English language teaching (ELT).
Believe it or not, 30 years ago I was a pharmaceutical research chemist who wanted to travel the world. That meant doing something that would help me to travel. Teaching seemed the obvious option. I got a job as a science teacher in an international school in Cairo. Teaching science was easy, understanding what the learners were trying to say in English was much more of a challenge. So I took the CertTEFLA and got an evening job at International House teaching children. I loved it and soon did more English teaching than science. On coming back to the UK I became a Director of Studies for Pilgrims language courses working directly with some of the great teacher trainers like Mario Rinvolucri, Bonnie Tsai and Tessa Woodward; all prolific authors. It wasn’t long before I was training teachers and writing materials.

2. What advice do you have for teachers when they’re developing their skills and knowledge in the professional practice ‘Managing resources’?
I’ve just reread the details on the professional practice Managing resources. It is very comprehensive and every element is useful.

My advice would be to try out as many ideas in as many ways as possible. Always reflect on the effectiveness of the resource. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Did it help the learners to achieve the learning outcomes?
  • Was the effort put in worth it?
  • Was the way I used the resource the best or should I adapt my methodology?
  • Can I use it again, as it is, or slightly adapted?

Make sure that you make notes on the resource for next time. It might be a while before you use it again.

3. Given that teachers already have plenty to do, what top tips would you give teachers to help them to manage/create resources easily?
When we are new to teaching, I think we feel the pressure to have lots of resources for which we then spend too much time preparing. I remember those days of cutting and pasting pieces of paper well into the wee hours of the night. I do not have any of those resources now. However, all the basic ideas are in my head and I can draw on them to help me in the classroom at a moment’s notice.

My main tips would be:

  • start small and work your way up
  • reflect on everything you do, then keep the materials and use them again in a  different way
  • do not spend more time making the resource than you will use it in class.

Also … don’t reinvent the wheel! If you have something then adapt it rather than make a new one.

4. What suggestions do you have for teachers working in challenging situations where there are few or no resources?
Make full use of your most important resource: your learners. They can become the resource makers or the resource collectors in your classroom. The king of using learners to produce resources is Jon Taylor. He wrote a book called The Minimax Teacher published by Delta Publishing. Minimax stands for ‘Minimum preparation for maximum learning.’

Ask your learners to:

  • bring items in that you can build lessons around; a family photo, a treasured object or a common household item. These can all be used as the basis for stories, poems and presentations.
  • collect newspapers, magazines, recyclable materials and put them in a big box in your classroom. You can make puppets, masks, big books and other crafts that will generate an infinite amount of stories and dialogues.
  • draw or write something ready to use in the next lesson.

5. In what ways can teachers use the same resources for mixed-ability classes rather than creating resources for each level within the class?
This depends on the age of learners and what you mean by the ‘same’ resources. I believe in grading the task not always the material to a large degree but then this has some limitations. Have you heard of tiered activities? These are activities that allow a range of abilities within one group to be successful with the same text. So, for example, maybe you have a text in the course book which you need your learners to write but you think it is too difficult for many of the learners. Prepare two versions of the text. One which is a gapped text and one where some words are multiple choice. Read the text to the learners. The top third of the class will write every word, the next third will complete the gapped text and the lower third will circle the multiple choice answer. Everyone uses the same text but in a way that they are capable of achieving. You can then repeat the activity with the lowest third doing the gap fill, the middle group writing every word and the highest group doing the checking.

Another way is to use a dictogloss technique. Read the text to everyone two or three times. Every learner writes down as much as they can. Put three or four learners together and let them reconstruct the text. Each learner will have written a different part of the text and they can help each other reconstruct it, everyone contributing what they can.

6. What steps and guidelines would you suggest teachers should follow when they are writing/adapting materials for their own classrooms?

  • Be clear about the learning outcomes.
  • Ask yourself, ‘Do I really need to make a new resource?’
  • Think what you can use that will be minimum effort for maximum effective learning.
  • Remind yourself of the learning outcomes again.
  • Ask yourself what style of resource would best suit the given situation – a worksheet, a craft, a collaborative activity or maybe a role play?
  • Design the resource. Be minimalist, motivational and inclusive.
  • Try it out and ask the learners what they think.
  • Modify your resource, if needed, and share it.

7. What are some of the challenges teachers might face when they are writing/adapting materials? How can they overcome these challenges?
I think that you, the teacher, are usually the right person to adapt materials for your class. You are the person who knows the class best. However, you are not always the most skilled person at adapting or writing materials. The biggest challenge for many is where to start and what to adapt.

The question to ask always is – ‘Will this enable my learners to achieve their learning outcomes?’ If not, then adapt. Think about the simplest way to help them to achieve the learning outcomes. It may be that you don’t need a resource at all. If you do need a resource, keep it simple and think about what will motivate your learners to learn.

I also think that collaboration and sharing with other teachers and your learners is the key to great resources. We don’t do enough of it. Why would we want to spend time developing resources to then put them in a cupboard to rot? Don’t laugh, I’ve seen it far too many times. Share your efforts with others and encourage them to share their resources with you especially if you are using the same course books. Include your learners in the choice and design of resources. Be honest and tell them you are trying things out. Ask them what they thought about the resource or task.

I think that we, as teachers, sometimes see issues that are not always real. I often hear comments such as ‘my learners will not do that’ or ‘I can’t expect my learners to…’ These are barriers that teachers put in their own way. All I can say is that you’ll never know until you try.

Good luck with your materials writing. Collaboration and practice is the key.

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