Finding your voice

Some years ago, in a conversation with the ELT author Ceri Jones, Ceri referred to the ‘voice’ of her materials. She stressed the need to establish the right kind of ‘voice’ (or ‘tone’) when writing instructions (also called ‘rubrics’). For example, when you write instructions for an exercise in materials for the classroom, you are writing in a ‘voice’ for the teacher and all the students. But when you write for self-study, you are writing in a ‘voice’ for a student working alone. These two voices are not the same.

Common mistakes

Establishing the voice of the materials is a skill writers need to develop early on. As Ben Goldstein (another ELT author who has trained teachers in materials writing) comments:

“One common mistake that I’ve found new authors make is to replicate the voice of the teacher. So, they might say: Now, it’s not easy, but where do you think the photo was taken?” Instead, on the page or screen, the voice probably needs to sound something more like this: Where do you think the photographer took this photo? Tell your partner.

Adjusting your voice

To illustrate ‘voice’ in more detail, let’s consider an extract from an exercise. Imagine that your material (e.g. a worksheet) has presented the grammar rule for word order in indirect questions. Next you want students to complete an exercise that looks likes this:

1 do / time / the / lesson / ends / you know  / what / ? 2 time / you / tell  /can  / the / me / ? 3 I’d / like / our / homework / to / know / what / is

The aim is that students re-order the words to produce these answers:

1 Do you know what time the lesson ends? 2 Can you tell me the time? 3 I’d like to know what our homework is.

For the student

If this exercise were for self-study, then your ‘voice’ could address the learner only, like this:

Write the words in the correct order. For example: 1. Do you know what time the lesson ends?

It’s very direct and provides an example answer to clarify the task.

For the students and the teacher

But what if you wanted the same exercise material for in-class use with other students and a teacher? Then your ‘voice’ might be more like this:

Work in pairs and put the words in the correct order. Then ask each other the indirect questions.

Notice how the instruction recognises the presence of other students. The writer also adds a second stage to the task because she knows there is a teacher with them to facilitate the activity.

For the teacher

Taking this one step further, you might also be writing support notes for a teacher resource; in which case, your ‘voice’ is directed to the teacher:

Before students begin this exercise, complete the first question on the board as a class. Check the answers before students start asking each other questions. Monitor their answers and give feedback. For any fast finishers, ask them to write two more indirect questions for their partner.

For digital materials

Finally, to bring the topic fully up to date, the author team Billie Jago and Laura Broadbent recently touched on ‘voice’ and ‘tone’ in digital writing on our YouTube channel. In the video interview, Laura describes the challenges of writing for a learner app: “The skill of digital writing is to be so clear, so concise, knowing that nothing else is backing up those words that you are writing…there’s no teacher or no grammar reference to back up the writing…” But she goes on to say that digital rubrics, “need a light, friendly tone to give the sentences a personable feeling’.

More viewing on this topic

To watch the entire video writing for digital with Billie and Laura, click here.

For more tips on writing effective instructions and rubrics, click here to watch a video on our channel.

The quote from Ben Goldstein comes from page 106 of the book ETpedia Materials Writing by Clandfield & Hughes (Pavilion ELT, 2017). And, as ever, if you have a comment, opinion, or question on this topic, feel free to share it below.


© Writing ELT Materials Limited 2023

We are happy for you to share and quote our blog posts, but please reference them and provide a link back to them. Thanks!