Get inspired by … Katherine Bilsborough

Katherine Bilsborough writer ELT author

Katherine Bilsborough ELT writer VoicesKatherine has worked in ELT for more than 30 years. She has published for a range of contexts and publishers. She writes blog posts and lesson plans for British Council Teaching English, and a monthly blog post for National Geographic Learning’s ‘In focus’ blog. Katherine is on the committee of IATEFL’s MaWSIG (Materials Writers Special Interest Group). She speaks regularly at conferences and when she isn’t working she can be found in her vegetable garden. Katherine’s most recent project is as a co-founder of ‘ELT Footprint’, a community for ELT professionals who are actively looking for ways to limit the damage our profession does to the environment. Every year, in June, she runs the online ‘Creating ELT Materials’ course for iTDi (International Teacher Development Institute).

How did you start writing ELT materials?

When I started teaching in the 80s, I mainly taught private lessons as a freelancer with students from a range of contexts: young children, businessmen and women, teenagers preparing for exams, university graduates, etc. I couldn’t afford to buy different materials for each class and there was no internet then with free downloadable lesson plans so I started creating my own materials. This was my favourite part of the work because I’d always loved writing in every shape and form.

What was the first thing that you ever had published?

I wrote two first things at about the same time. The first was a primary poster pack for Oxford University Press (OUP).  It consisted of one large classroom poster and a selection of photocopiable worksheets to use with different levels and to develop different skills, and practise different language points. The poster showed a busy ‘Where’s Wally?’ kind of beach scene. It was great fun to write and taught me the importance of writing very clear and detailed artwork briefs for illustrators. Writing this blog post has made me think that this is something I’d like to do again, maybe as a self-publishing collaboration with a like-minded illustrator. Get in touch if that might be you!

The second thing was a bunch of topic based lessons for one of the British Council teacher websites. Topics were diverse and one of mine was ESP.  I wrote a magazine style article on extrasensory perception and some vocabulary and comprehension activities. They published it, but years later I found out that they’d actually wanted a lesson about English for Specific Purposes. I learnt another valuable lesson: always double-check abbreviations and acronyms. The website has long since disappeared, but the original lesson plan is still available online in various locations. Google my name with ‘extrasensory perception’ if you think your students might be interested in the topic. There’s a similar lesson plan about Death! But that’s a whole new story.

When was the first time you thought of yourself as an ‘author’?

When I joined the Society of Authors, uploaded all of my publications onto their website and received my first membership card! At the same time I was invited to join a local group of authors in rural Spain where I live. I declined at first because all of the other members had published novels, academic studies of local history or poetry. I didn’t think ELT was as noble. Then one of the group members pointed out that if I joined, I’d be the only author who actually made a living from their writing. This made me reassess the situation. I joined and I started calling myself an author.

What’s your favourite part of the writing process?

Usually the writing process is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. We are given lists of themes, language structures and lexical sets and we have to work out how to fit them together neatly with skills, sub-skills, core values and other important features of a coursebook. It isn’t easy, but while working it all out can be a headache, that moment when it suddenly all comes together is very rewarding. So one of my favourite parts of the process are those Eureka! moments. I think it’s really important to celebrate each and every one because they really are tangible achievements. My favourite part of writing for primary is writing stories. Lately I’ve started writing stories for other authors’ course books too and that’s a real joy.

What advice would you give to aspiring ELT writers?

  1. Spend time thinking about which principles you’d like to apply to your materials.
  2. Always write an answer key at the same time as an exercise.
  3. Ask somebody else to proofread your materials. We don’t always see our own typos.
  4. Keep instructions simple. Do the ‘Granny test’! Ask yourself Would my granny understand what needs to be done? If the answer is No, then go back and change things.
  5. Enjoy the process!

If you could have any other job, what would it be?

One thing I love as much as writing is reading. As part of her job a friend of mine has to read and review a long-list of books for a literary prize. That would suit me down to the ground.


Katharine is one of my ELT ‘gurus’. I’ve followed her career for a long time, but unfortunately, we’ve never had the chance to work together. I hope this changes soon. Katherine, thank you so much for contributing to my blog!

If you’d like to learn from Katherine how to write ELT materials, then make sure you check out her ‘Creating ELT Materials’ course. You can find all the information here.

If you’d like to learn how you can reduce the damage the ELT industry does to the environment, then you can join the ELT Footprint group on Facebook by following this link.

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