The best thing about writing ELT materials for primary is the opportunity we get to write stories. While discussing our experiences as authors and our contributions to common projects, we discovered a shared passion for story writing. Further discussions revealed that while we shared some approaches to story writing, there were lots of things that we did differently and we could learn a lot from each other. We realised that between us we’d written over 200 published stories for primary, more if we include pre-primary and secondary, and more since we started talking about it. So who better than us to propose a joint presentation at a teachers’ conference on the art of writing stories? Fortunately, our proposal was accepted and this article is based on How we write ELT stories for Primary, the joint presentation we gave at the IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) conference in 2018.
There are lots of different kinds of ELT stories for primary – readers, termly review stories, literacy page fiction, and Class Book unit stories. We’ve focused mainly on Class Book unit stories because this is where most of our experience lies. Class Book unit stories do vary a little in format. Lower levels sometimes have only images and audio without text on the page, whereas high levels tend to have speech bubbles. Some stories are written more like a playscript. But they are similar kinds of story to write and share common features.
Considerations when writing Class Book stories
The novelist, playwright and short story writer W.Somerset Maugham once said,
‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.’
We can’t help thinking that this quote could refer equally to the writing of ELT stories for Primary! But while there may not be any golden rules as such, there is certainly an ever-increasing list of things to take into consideration when writing class book unit stories for children.
Clearly, as our stories are for ELT purposes, use of language is a major factor. Unit stories are often a vehicle for presenting and practising new language, so we need to make sure there is sufficient exposure to the target language, without there being so much that the story begins to sound unnatural.
We also need to be careful not to overload a story with too much extra unknown language, especially when this could be at the expense of opportunities for recycling language from previous units. Some additional ‘story words’ which help the story along and are easily made clear via supporting illustrations aren’t a problem, but if a story can’t be expressed easily with the appropriate level of language, then we have to go back to the drawing board.
Topics and themes
Generally, the theme of a unit story will need to link to the topic of the unit, without repeating what has come before. Ideally the story will introduce a fresh, new aspect of the same topic.
When developing ideas for themes, it’s really essential to take into account who the stories are for, i.e. the age group and cultural background of the students. With these things in mind, we can best choose subject matter which will be relevant and engaging for the children, and also avoid cultural sensitivities and taboos.
Most people tend to think that story writing is all about imagination and creativity. Clearly these things are indispensable, but we can run the risk of them going to waste, if we don’t balance them sensibly with some of the more practical aspects of class book story writing. Word count and fit have to be taken seriously. Even the most wonderful story will lose its impact and purpose, if it is squeezed into the available space so tightly that it lacks clarity and visual perceptibility. To save ourselves time and energy dealing with copious overmatter, we therefore need to be conscious of how a story will appear on the pages of the book from the outset.
Consistency and variety
There’s also a delicate balance between making sure that stories in a series are consistent, but also each have their own identity. It’s important that character traits and details of locations, for example, don’t suddenly alter unrealistically from one story to the next. At the same time, however, plot lines need to be rich and varied. We don’t want a collection of very similar or repetitive stories, which might cause learners to become disengaged.
Further educational needs
No new brief is ever quite the same as the last one. Each time we write a series of stories for a class book, the factors that we need to take into account change slightly. Different courses have slightly different approaches; sometimes a certain kind of methodology is very much in favour at the time, so we may need to incorporate content which is consistent with this approach, or will enable us to develop relevant skills, e.g. critical thinking or life skills.
The particular needs of students of different age groups also have a bearing on our story writing. For younger students, we might need to include content to enable practise of phonics, for example.
We also have a responsibility to be aware of the messages which our stories might give to students, sometimes unintentionally. If we always showed boys playing football and girls playing with dolls, or fathers fixing the car and mothers cooking dinner, for example, we would be reinforcing gender stereotypes.
We often actually want a story to have a strong, positive, underlying message, e.g. that trying your best and practising something can help you to fulfil your potential. There is always an opportunity to encourage students to read between the lines of a story to encourage deeper thinking about values, citizenship or inclusivity, for example.
Boundaries and limitations are our friends!
Having to take so many considerations into account might seem hugely daunting. It may also be natural to assume that so many practicalities could be detrimental to our inventiveness and creative flair. In reality, it’s actually the reverse. What we tend to find is that it is precisely these limitations which help us to create a story in the first place. They give us a framework which helps us to define and focus on our aims.
Alan Maley sums this up perfectly in his overview to Creativity in the English Language Classroom, entitled Creativity – the what, the why and the how. (British Council, 2015).
‘Creativity is widely believed to be about letting the imagination loose in an orgy of totally free self-expression. It is, of course, no such thing. Creativity is born
of discipline and thrives in a context of constraints.’
What makes a good Primary ELT story?
All of the demands on Class Book story writing we’ve mentioned are important, and yet there really isn’t any point ticking all of these boxes if what we end up with isn’t a satisfying story experience. So what makes a good story?
What the editors say…
To help us answer this question, we decided to do a little crowd-sourcing and asked a number of editors from different publishers for their views on the dos and don’ts of successful story writing.
There was a surprising amount of unity as regards the common pitfalls, i.e. the things that tend to hinder the desired outcome.
Most of the editors we asked felt that being over-ambitious was a problem, citing over-complicated plots, too much action in one frame, too many characters, or too high a level of linguistic challenge as negatives.
Many editors also felt that stories which felt overly ‘ELT’ were less successful. This might lead us to assume that using a lot of examples of target language should be avoided, but in fact this isn’t the case at all, as the same editors also mentioned that stories which didn’t have enough examples of the target language were less suitable.
‘Too ELT’ relates more to story language, especially dialogue, which doesn’t feel natural to a native speaker, as well as perhaps tired themes which have become too commonplace in primary ELT courses in general.
One editor mentioned that too many exclamation marks were unwelcome!!!!!!!!!! Extravagant punctuation probably doesn’t set a great example for our young students, who are developing their own writing skills, but perhaps overuse of exclamation marks may also be an attempt by the writer to compensate for an actual lack of humour or surprise in the story. Interestingly, it’s exactly these elements which head up the following list of key ingredients for successful stories, as chosen by the editors we approached:
- A good ending (unexpected or with a twist)
- A plot with a satisfying and positive resolution
- A plot which can be followed visually, i.e. the pictures tell the story
- Appealing and memorable characters
- Practical considerations e.g. the position of speech bubbles has been taken into account
- Content which brings about a positive reaction or emotion
- Variety, i.e. the story is different to others in the same series
What the authors say …
Unsurprisingly, we don’t disagree with the views of the editors we asked. (If we did, it’s unlikely we’d have published so many ELT stories!) But we do also have our own take on things, and so we’d like to add the following key points for what we believe makes a successful ELT story.
A strong concept
Most Class Books have a story in every unit. In story-based courses, each story might have a different genre and a character set of its own, but these days author briefs more commonly call for a set of separate stories which share the same character set and context over the whole level.
Unit stories of this kind are often a vehicle for presenting and practising new language. Writing Class Books for different Primary ELT series on a regular basis means frequently working with a similar language syllabus, so story writers find themselves trying to present and practise the same structures with very similar vocabulary sets time and time again. This means we could easily end up writing the same stories time and time again, and that wouldn’t please anybody, let alone ourselves. A bored story writer is not a creative writer!
This is why having a strong concept from the outset is so important. It’s essentially the concept which can bring something new to a set of stories and make them feel fresh.
We can see the concept as being made up of three things: (1) the context or situation, (2) the setting or location and (3) the characters.
Choosing a unique context, an unusual setting or location, and a set of memorable and interesting characters will immediately breathe life into tired grammar and vocabulary combinations.
Another of the challenges that primary ELT story writers face is having to write A LOT of stories in the same series. Some top level courses have 9 units plus a Starter unit per level, and all of these have stories. We therefore need to know right from the start how far we can go with a story concept. We need to ask ourselves if it’s likely to run out of steam, or if we feel confident that it has enough staying power.
A story doesn’t necessarily have to be complex to have good staying power. Some concepts just naturally have a lot of mileage. A good example is the Oxford Rooftops series, in which Rooftops is a city and the home of a whole community. The city concept brought endless possibilities for stories about all the different places in the city, the everyday activities which happen there, the different people who live there and the relationships between them.
When a story concept has good staying power, you can put down your pen after twenty stories, still feeling you could create a couple more.
A little bit of magic
For a story to work well in its own right and not just as an element within a course book unit, it’s important to create a magical (but believable) world that learners can identify with, even if it’s far removed from their own world. When we use the word magical, we don’t just mean a world of witches or fairies; we mean a world that provokes a sense of wonder and awe, a world where children would like to be transported to.
As readers these magical book worlds have always had an impact on us. We can still visualise the worlds we read about as children … and later read to our own children. And we still enjoy losing ourselves in the magical world of a good story.
In the Big Questions course, each story takes place inside an online game and has a distinct world with a challenge and avatar characters. In the higher levels of the course, some special power ups help the characters succeed in their challenge. There are also some good old-fashioned baddies to throw a spanner in the works, Doctor Zeevil and his evil Z-bots. One story is set in a world of spies. The characters become secret agents who can activate jet packs and even become invisible. When the challenge is completed successfully, they unlock a new world, ready for the next story.
The great thing about a story is that ANYTHING can happen.
Pace and structure
The structure and pace of a story will depend very much on the kind of story and especially whether it’s a stand-alone story or an on-going story that plays out across the whole book. For an on-going serial, it’s vital to do two things: (1) have a self-contained story for each unit and (2) end on a cliff hanger (especially in the case of a mystery story) that makes readers want to read the next instalment.
Writing serialised stories is great fun. You get an opportunity to develop characters’ personalities over the course of the units and, if you manage to get it right, the children are already motivated to read the next instalment before you begin because they’ll be dying to know what happens. These days, when a course book is packaged with a digital element, publishers often recreate the story as an animated video. This works well in the classroom, in terms of language practice. You end up with something similar to a TV series where each episode begins with Previously … to recycle language and motivate the children.
The Cheryl and Kath approaches to story writing
While writing this article, we’ve had opportunity to reflect on our own personal approaches to story writing; every writer is different, after all.
Starting from the language
I’d like to tell you that my approach to story writing begins in a very cool and arty way, e.g. I awaken from an inspiring dream, I listen to whale song music, or I light three scented candles. It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But it isn’t true. The reality is much more practical.
For me, the story writing process starts with thinking hard about the language that the story has to present. This thinking time is quite lengthy and doesn’t happen at my desk. Staring at a blank screen isn’t very helpful at this point, so I tend to wander around the garden, go for a walk or do some kind of repetitive, mechanical task like ironing!
Thinking about the vocabulary that I have to use can bring about the context or setting for the story. But experience has taught me that it’s often better not to go with my first idea, so I’ll be asking myself …
What would be more fun, more interesting and more unexpected than the obvious choice?
The vocabulary set: rug, curtains, lamp, fireplace, drawers, armchair might bring a house setting to mind, for example, but it would be worth exploring more possibilities, because settings like a palace, a castle, a spooky hotel, or a houseboat would immediately start to spark fresher, more exciting ideas.
I’ll also be asking myself what my characters can bring to this context to make it new, and whether this location will also look appealing and different on the Class Book page.
Thinking about the grammar that I have to use is slightly different. As we’ve already mentioned, editors often say that a story sounding ‘too ELT’ is a common pitfall. For me, this ‘too ELT’ feel is usually the result of trying to force the grammar into a story where it doesn’t really fit. So my first question to myself will usually be …
To give an example, imagine that the grammar I have to use in my story is present progressive questions and short answers, e.g.
Is he / she playing table tennis?
Yes, he / she is.
No, he / she isn’t.
Looking at this language, it’s going to be immediately apparent that we need a situation where the person who is asking this question can’t see the person playing table tennis, and the person who is answering this question can see the person playing table tennis. Otherwise there would be no reason for this exchange to take place at all. Establishing this is already going to start a story developing. Questions immediately start springing to mind, e.g. Why can’t this character see the person they are talking about? Are they outside a room? Are they talking on the phone? Are they blindfolded?
Through trial and error, I’ve also come to understand that a story feels much more satisfying when the target language is core to the story, not just in passing. For this to happen, I’ll also need to start thinking about how this grammar might occur naturally in the particular setting and context I have chosen, not just once, but a few times, because there will need to be enough coverage of the target grammar for the story to fulfil its learning aims.
Thinking about the shape of the story
Once I’ve given the language careful thought, I’ll start thinking about the overall shape of the story. It’s important to think practically about how much room there is for the story to develop, e.g. how many story frames there are on the page or pages, and how big the story frames are.
The ‘science’ of storytelling then comes into play. Much has been written about the Story Arc and various formulas, but a very key element is always the challenge or problem the story characters have. Every story needs some kind of problem, and this needs to be introduced early, and resolved at the end. In a story with eight frames, I’ll always aim to set up the problem in Frame 2, so that the majority of the story is based around trying to solve it, and I’ll start to bring about the resolution in Frame 7.
Thinking about the story shape and the frames, I’ll generally write a quick, first draft.
Visualizing the story
But writing really isn’t enough. The pictures for a primary ELT story need to provide so much visual support for the story text and/or audio that they essentially tell the story by themselves. Some other clues to help students understand the meaning of the story can be given, e.g. sound effects on the audio, but generally the pictures have to work very hard, and if we don’t give the visual aspect of the story sufficient thought, we can’t hope to write a successful story.
To demonstrate what I mean, let’s look at an example of a piece of dialogue which might form the audio script and manuscript for one frame of a cartoon picture story with speech bubbles for lower primary:
[SFX: Giant’s tummy rumbling]
Child character: What’s the matter?
Giant: I’m hungry!
Child character: Here’s a banana for you.
Giant: Oh, thank you! That’s better!
At first glance, this might look perfectly fine and acceptable, but as soon as we start to try to sketch the scene, we are going to encounter difficulties. Initially the child is curious and concerned about the giant, and the giant is unhappy. Then the child offers the giant a banana, probably appearing resourceful and kind. Then the giant eats the banana and feels relief and gratitude. Clearly it isn’t going to be possible to convey all of the action and the wide range of emotions on each character’s face in just one image. Only once we have thought about this part of the story visually, will we realize that what we have typed into a Word document needs amending.
So, immediately after my first draft of a story, I draw a visual in as much detail as I can to test how the story is working.
Putting together the pieces like a jigsaw
Cheryl has mentioned getting specific vocabulary and grammar into stories without them appearing ‘too ELT’. But when you have to include grammatical structures and lexical sets from two or three units, things start to get really complicated because in most cases the language doesn’t come together naturally. This is what you have to do when you write a Review story. For me, these are the most challenging of stories to write. But when you get them right, they can be the most rewarding. My approach to Review stories is to approach them like a big jigsaw. Some of the jigsaw pieces are the story characters and some are related to the context. Then we have all the language jigsaw pieces, with vocabulary, grammar and functional language. As if that wasn’t enough, there are other pieces too, other elements that need to be included, maybe a value that needs to be underlined or a social or cultural point.
Thinking outside the box is the only way to write an effective Review story where you have to work in disparate language. The more practice you have, the more adept you become and sometimes something as simple as the addition of a new character trait can be the vehicle you need to include a reference to a lexical set. In one Review story I wrote for five year olds, I needed to include a main lexical set of classroom objects with Can I borrow your (pencil)? But I needed to include parts of the body too. I found a solution by adapting the personality trait of one of the two characters, a young, infuriating but loveable dragon. Besides the obvious pestering of his older sibling at homework time, I included artwork briefs for a series of badly-taken family photographs on the living room wall – dragon bodies with the heads missing, legs without bodies, etc. These weren’t alluded to in the story text but helped show the inexperience of the dragon and were referred to in the materials and activities that accompanied the story.
When I’m writing Review stories I’m usually surrounded by paper, notebooks, post-its, coloured pens … fitting bits of the puzzle together. When all of these things start to fit together, the characters and plot reveal themselves.
More sketching … not always sophisticated
As mentioned above, sketching is essential. Not only is it the best way to see what fits on a page, editors and artists are always very grateful when an author draws their ideas and sends them through with the manuscript.
We aren’t all blessed with artistic talent but as long as you manage to convey your main ideas and see what fits in terms of the image, captions, and text in speech bubbles, your sketches will be useful. Drawing is a useful skill for an author to develop.
Playing with space.
Even if you can’t draw, it’s good practice to think about what you are going to be trying to fit in one frame. But we can cheat a bit too! You can make your own rules about what a frame should look like. As a story starts to take shape, you realise that some sections need more space while other sections need less. This is where you can start playing around with stretching, shrinking, merging and other ways of playing with space. Split frames can be used to show two things happening at the same time, in a similar way to a split screen cinema effect. Or a small detail in a picture can be shown in more detail in a zoomed in image, bursting from the main picture. Reading comics is a good way to see all of the ways that we can play with space.
Closed-door writing and open-door writing
For most writers, it’s very important to show a story to somebody else, to get some honest feedback before sending it to an editor. This can be a partner, a family member, a friend or a colleague. The important thing is to choose the right moment to show your efforts. The author Stephen King talks about closed door writing and open door writing. Closed door writing comes first. This is when you focus on getting your main ideas and trying to piece together all the pieces of the puzzle. At this stage it’s important to trust your instinct and keep ideas to yourself. Open door writing comes later, when you’re ready to get feedback and discuss any issues. Authors know instinctively when the time is right to open that door.
What we know now
So, more than 200 published stories later, these are the key things we have learnt as storywriters:
The importance of RATS
RATS is an acronym which the publishing professional Des O’Sullivan often used in training sessions for ELT editors. It stands for getting things Right At The Start. This often applies to writing as well as editing. Taking the time to develop a strong concept that works well at the start of a new course, means that generating ideas for stories is much easier later on.
When to walk away from a story for a while
If a story isn’t taking form, walk away from it and do something completely different. The Eureka moment will come when you’re thinking about something else entirely.
What editors mean when they say ‘too ELT’
We’ve learnt that this doesn’t mean that they include too much target language. Editors usually want good coverage of this in a story. But the language shouldn’t feel stilted or forced. To avoid this, it has to be natural. And it only feels natural when it’s actually needed in the story. As a writer, that means thinking about it carefully from the outset, so that it helps to shape the plot.
Explaining the storyline to someone is helpful
It’s always a good idea to explain the storyline to someone else. That’s when you might notice something that doesn’t quite work.
Why fantasy characters are useful
Stories are a perfect context for teaching values. Between the lines of a story, there can be a lot of positive messages, which are obviously very important.
However, there is a danger of turning children off by being too earnest. With fantasy, non-human characters, authors can let their creativity roam more freely and add a lot of humour. These characters can stop the story being too squeaky clean, and at the same time, often by contrast, help to highlight the values and positive messages.
The importance of enjoying story writing
Enjoying the writing makes the story better. We both get really excited when a story is taking shape and we know it’s going to be good. This is the moment when you know that all of the frustrations and hard work will finally pay off.
About the authors
Katherine Bilsborough is the co-author of, Dream Box (Anaya English), Ace! Oxford Rooftops, Big Questions, Big Bright Ideas and Bright Ideas (OUP) and Look! (NGL). She has also written a series of animated digital stories for BBC English and is the author of ELT Teacher2Writer’s How to write primary materials as well as monthly lesson plans for the British Council’s TeachingEnglish website.
Cheryl Palin is the co-author of Explorers, Ace! and Oxford Rooftops (published with the pen name Suzanne Torres), and most recently Big Questions, Big Bright Ideas and Bright Ideas. She has also written numerous ELT readers for Macmillan Education, Oxford University Press, and Ladybird Books.