Imagine the scene: You’ve been asked to write materials for an elementary course lasting 90 hours. What topics will you include? The obvious ones are people, places, free time, food, travel and so on. Why? Well, in part, because those topic headings can be understood by A1/A2 level students, they link in well with the CEFR, they will work as vehicles for introducing various language items that are normally covered at this level, and most teachers using the book will find it odd if they aren’t there. But what else could affect your topic choice?  

Necessary topics

To be honest, as a writer, I prefer it when I know that the end-user of my materials has specific requirements and so certain topics are necessary or required. For example, if I write for Business English students who need English for management, then my topic list will probably need to cover professional content like ‘Human Resources’ or skills-based topics like ‘Problem-solving’.

Presentation topics

Of course, we often choose a topic as a vehicle to present certain language. Sometimes a topic text contains eight vocabulary items we want to introduce in context. Or we want to lead-in to a particular grammar item in which case certain topics lend themselves to certain grammar. For example, the present simple works well with people-related/everyday-life type topics. Whereas, for the third conditional, a topic related to ‘Regrets’ is a strong contender.

Googleable topics

Thirty years ago, you could write a text and make up the information. For example, you could create a fictional person doing a strange sport for a unit and no one knew if he/she was real or not. Today, your students can google the authenticity of the information in a topic within seconds. This is no bad thing and I often take it as a sign of success when I see students searching online to find out more about the topic in my book because they have found it so interesting.

‘Learn something new’ topics

When writing topics for course materials, you might receive reviewer feedback like ‘I don’t think the students will know anything about that.’ or ‘It’s on a subject they have no experience of.’ In some cases, this feedback has validity, but as educators we also have a responsibility to expose learners to knowledge on topics they are unfamiliar with. Otherwise, our topics take the form of an echo chamber in which students are only exposed to facts and experiences they already know and have.

Topics with visual appeal

Your choice of topic might also be affected by how it will look on the page or screen. Images really motivate people to read a text or listen to a lecture. So the choice between one topic or another is often influenced by whether it can be captured in a engaging photo or illustrated in a striking graphic.

Controversial topics

It is said that the reason for including controversial topics is to give students something meaningful to talk and care about. One advantage being that a well-chosen controversial topic should encourage dialogue which leads to critical thinking (Paolo Freire, 1970). Unfortunately, including a controversial topic in your materials often fails to be the panacea it aims to be. Probably because what one student might find controversial, another might regard as dull. (For much more controversy on the issue of controversial topics, try googling the phrase ‘PARSNIPS in ELT’ and you’ll find a lot of people being controversial about it.)

Topics within topics

Finally, some topics cut right across all the other topics. For example, course writers often  include the topic of ‘The environment’ in a set of course materials with climate change at its heart. But given its importance, it seems tokenistic to have it as one-off topic. Instead, it can be merged with other topics: The unit on sport might address the impact of global warming on sports likes skiing. Or the ‘travel’ unit won’t necessarily be about exotic faraway places but about the unsustainability of tourism. Similarly, the topic of technology cuts across every aspect of our lives so rather than have a single ‘Technology’ topic, you could add vigour to a unit on ‘Education’ by considering the impact of AI.

What affects your choice of topic when writing materials? How do you decide which topics might be necessary, visually appealing, or controversial? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed Penguin

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