Boys, boys, boys: The conversation we’re not having

You’ve probably seen lots of recent discussion about gender representation in children’s story books and in education materials. You can see some of my previous posts on the topic here and here, with regard to ELT materials specifically.

The hype around recent publications such as Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls has done a lot to raise awareness of the dearth of female role models in children’s books, and to try to redress the balance. It’s much needed. A recent Guardian article  cites some alarming statistics – in a study of the 100 most popular picture books of 2017, lead characters were 50% more likely to be male than female, and, over the course of each book, the characters who spoke were 50% more likely to be male than female. There’s no question about it – female characters must become more visible on the pages of story books, and more empowered when they do appear. Girls need to see positive, inspiring images and be presented with a wide range of role models, on TV, in story books and in educational materials.

But that’s not the whole story, and I fear that branding a book ‘for girls’ rather misses the point.

Because this not just for the sake of girls. Boys need to see these stories too. Is it not equally important for boys to be brought up respecting and admiring the achievements of pioneering women?

We need to think about the way boys and men are represented, as well. Do the materials we expose children to challenge or reinforce traditional norms where men are expected to be dominant, aggressive, strong and unemotional?

Let’s take a minute to think about alternative characteristics we could be portraying. I absolutely love this though-provoking poster by Elise Gravel.

Boys pic

(Incidentally, if you like that poster, there’s companion one about girls, and also this about women in STEM . Best of all, Elise Gravel is happy for these to be printed out for use in class.)

How often do the materials you see include sensitive, dreamy or gentle boys? Or even boys looking after younger siblings? What about boys who love craft activities, dancing or doing gymnastics? As the tweet below from Let Toys be Toys says, there’s no ‘one way’ to be a boy, so we need materials that celebrate this richness of experience. (And I don’t know about you, but that picture of The Hulk pushing around Baby Hulk in a buggy has made my day.)

In many ways, I suspect that this discussion is more controversial than attempts to include strong female characters would be. Believe me when I say I’m very conscious of the tightrope which ELT editors and materials writers walk, keeping a product commercially viable for a range of potentially very conservative international markets while also trying to move things forward. Of course there will be lots of compromises, but we can definitely take some steps in the right direction.

The picture book Guess How Much I Love You – which is criticised in the Guardian article I’ve linked to above for not including any female characters – deserves praise for its rare depiction of a highly affectionate relationship between a single dad and his son, who compete in their claims of love for one another. I can’t believe this would be particularly controversial in many cultures, but it definitely chips away at some unhelpful macho stereotypes.

We need to move towards a situation where presenting complex, multi-faceted depictions of masculinity is the norm. I would love to hear of positive examples you’ve seen of this in ELT materials, and for us to give a virtual pat on the back to the people who’ve made it happen, and encouragement to those who want to.




Free resources for ELT materials development

Whether you are a teacher preparing bespoke materials for a class, a writer, or an editor doing content development work, at some point you will probably find yourself scouring the internet for ideas and information. It can be a time-consuming business. I’m going to use this post to pull together some of my favourite sites for materials development.

In case you are not already familiar with it, the IATEFL Materials Writing Special Interest Group has an excellent resource page full of useful links. Start there! It’s free for everyone to access, so you don’t have to be a member. There’s also advice on how to get into materials writing, and how to write quality materials (more from me on that here and here).

What else?


In addition to MaWSIG’s suggested sites for images, I’d add pexels, which has a good selection of free stock photos. My favourite is probably pixabay.

Many art galleries now have open access to their collections, too. See this article about searching the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, and this link to the National Gallery of Art. Both have huge collections from which you can download and reproduce images.

L’Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux by Vincent van Gogh, available from the Metropolitan Museum of Art



When writing grammar activities or reference pages, I make regular use of English Grammar Today, which has simple explanations and helpful examples.


Julie Moore recently published a great blog post on corpora you can access and scenarios in which you might find them a useful reference point.

Checking the level

If you want to make sure you are pitching language appropriately, you can search English Vocabulary Profile to find out the CEFR level of vocabulary. It’s free to subscribe. There’s also the Global Scale of English toolkit, which I admit I haven’t used, but I know writers who do. And there’s Vocab Kitchen, which has the advantage of allowing you to check a whole text.


It’s a truth universally acknowledged that ELT professionals love dictionaries. They are super useful, after all, as Kerry summarises:

Anyone trying to write songs will probably also appreciate a rhyming dictionary. I mostly use Rhymezone.

Rhymer is another option. It allows you to modify your search to find different rhyme forms.

(I also recently made the discovery of the Flocabulary site for aspiring rappers, and enjoyed reading their list of unconventional rhymes … spaghetti, Serengeti … Barack Obama, stop the drama … and so on. It goes without saying that I am yet to find a use for any of these!)

Phonetic keyboard

Last but not least, I find it really useful to have a link to this IPA keyboard on my favourites bar, particularly when writing lots of pronunciation activities.

Over to you

What have I missed? I’d love to hear about your recommended sites for materials writing, so do share more ideas in the comments.





Themes from the ELT Freelancers’ Awayday 2018

Last week I attended the fourth ELT Freelancers’ Awayday, a highlight in the calendar of many freelance editors in our industry, myself included. I can’t possibly capture everything from the day in this post, or begin to do it justice really, but there were some recurring themes which jumped out at me, which I thought I’d try to summarise here.

Theme #1: Finding new opportunities and working in new ways

Sarah Patey, Karen Spiller, Jo Sayers (ELTjam) and Deborah Tricker (Richmond) participated in the panel discussion, entitled ‘Broadening Horizons’. It covered ideas for broadening your client base, pitching your services and diversifying into other fields where editorial skills are in demand. (For those interested in a complete change of focus, note that the SfEP offer an online course on getting editorial work with non-publishers.)

Next, Kathryn Munt and Caroline Boot from Integra gave an interesting overview of outsourcing, the reasons for it, the kind of work they do as packagers and implications for their suppliers.

So what are ELT publishers and packagers looking for in their freelancers? What attributes and skills are particularly in demand? Throughout the day, speakers stressed the value they place on freelancers who:

  • show problem-solving skills and a willingness to take ownership of a task,
  • are familiar with publishing technologies such as project management software, freelance management systems and content management systems
  • have digital editing and writing skills,
  • can keep an open mind about different ways of working, especially when working with people from different fields, or when working with uncertainty,
  • above all … show a readiness to learn the skills they lack.

The need for effective communication while navigating this changing digital landscape also emerged as a bit of a theme, most memorably in Diane Nicholl’s informative and amusing talk on ‘How to tame your developer’.

Theme #2: Networking

Networking was mentioned by Karen White in her brilliant list of top tips for successful freelancing, and the day was certainly set up to encourage this. Representatives from publishers including Richmond, Nat Geo, Macmillan and Pearson had stalls at the friendly ‘jobs fair’, together with EMC, Integra, ELTjam and the Content Station. It was a great opportunity to get to know fellow freelancers too. I think most delegates will have come away with new avenues to explore and contacts to follow up.

Theme #3: Finance and tax

Financial advisor Rebecca Kingwell’s persuasive talk about pension planning and ISAs was an important reminder to all of us about making the most of the tax breaks on offer when planning for the future. Phil Hendy from PAH Accounting introduced us to ‘Making Tax Digital’, HMRC’s plan to roll out digital record keeping and quarterly reporting. Don’t tell me you’re not excited by that prospect! But seriously, it was great that the day included a focus on these issues. They are easily neglected in life’s day-to-day hustle and bustle.


Julie Moore’s excellent ‘corpus hacks’ talk doesn’t fit neatly into the categories above, but definitely also deserves a mention, not least because it has made me totally paranoid about my apparently fairly idiosyncratic spelling preferences! (Want to check you’re keeping up with the latest trends in hyphenation and spelling? There’s a corpus for that.)

Huge thanks to the day’s organisers Karen White, Helen Holwill and Jemma Hillyer for another great day. It has certainly given me lots to think about. Best wishes to Karen as she moves on to pastures new.

For photos and more information on the Freelance Awayday see the official page here and check out #FreeELT on Twitter for updates from the day and more freelance chat throughout the year.

You can see my write-up of last year’s awayday here. If you’re interested in writing, you may also find my summary of the Education Writers’ Seminar from the Society of Authors helpful.

Blogs to follow in 2018

This week marks the first birthday of Emily blogs. Yesterday I also found out that this blog has been featured in English Teaching Professional’s list of 20 blogs to follow in 2018. Looks like I’d better keep writing, then! You can see the lovely things they have to say about it here, along with lots of other recommendations for favourite ELT blogs to follow.

It’s been an exciting first year of blogging for me, and I think we’ve covered a lot of ground in the twenty posts published so far! From graphic organisers to assessment, retention strategies, and nursery rhymes… plus lots more.

Finally, a big thank you to everyone who has been so supportive in getting this blog off the ground. It’s much appreciated!

Choosing traditional songs for young learners: The good, the bad and the darkly fascinating

Many teachers choose to incorporate traditional songs and rhymes in their English teaching. But what are the advantages of this? And are there any drawbacks to using this kind of authentic material?

Why use traditional songs and rhymes?

  • Songs play a vital role in early language development among very young learners.
  • Songs expand learners’ vocabularies.
  • Because nursery rhymes are characterised by alliteration, rhyme, onomatopoeia and strong sound patterning, they are particularly valuable in helping children develop phonemic awareness (the ability to hear sounds in spoken words), which is an essential first step towards literacy.
  • Many traditional songs are designed to help children learn basic maths and counting skills (One, two buckle my shoe, Five fat sausages sizzling in a pan, Ten green bottles, Five currant buns in a baker’s shop, There were ten in a bed, and so on).
  • Nursery rhymes and poetry can provide learners with a set of memorable grammar templates.
  • Nursery rhymes provide exposure to rich, authentic texts.
  • Nursery rhymes are a form of oral history which gives unique expression to a cultural legacy. As such they can also provide interesting intercultural insights, too.
  • Songs are memorable and fun.

How to choose suitable songs

  • Look for songs with a clear rhythm and a strong element of repetition.
  • Wherever possible, choose songs with actions (For example: The wheels on the bus, Wind the bobbin up, Heads, shoulders, knees and toes, Incy wincy spider, Row, row row your boat, Here we go round the mulberry bush). Incorporating elements of movement and dance develops motor skills, providing important opportunities for children to learn balance, co-ordination and body awareness.

What to watch out for

When flicking through books of nursery rhymes, there are lots of traditional songs that I always feel deeply uncomfortable with. (I don’t know if this would be the case with traditional songs from other languages, but I suspect that traditional songs probably have traditional problems in common). This is a tricky area, but I’d argue that we shouldn’t undermine teaching about respect and equality by unthinkingly promoting the out-dated values embedded in some traditional songs, especially since omitting verses and making small alterations can often solve the problem.

  1. Sexism

Many of the gender roles we see in traditional songs are just awful. This is easily overlooked, I think.  For some, these songs can be so much a part of our own childhoods that we become uncritical about them or consider them harmless. I’d argue it’s worth stopping to think about the messages some of these lyrics send, though:

This is the way the ladies ride… This is the way the gentlemen ride … 

The mummies on the bus go chatter, chatter, chatter…

The farmer wants a wife. The wife wants a child, E-I-E-I the wife wants a child…

Polly put the kettle on…

Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of.

And so on, and so on.

2. A focus on violence and suffering

Let’s face it, many nursery rhymes came into existence at times when attitudes were profoundly different and life was hard. As well as recording the detail of daily life, some also remember gruesome historical events. Ring a Ring o Roses famously describes the horrors of Great Plague of London in 1665, for example. Of course, in many instances, such as this one, the historical allusions are so obscure that they shouldn’t deter us from enjoying the song with young children. The darker side of nursery rhymes isn’t always so well hidden, though.

Even in a contemporary anthology of nursery rhymes, you don’t have to look hard to find unsavoury examples of corporal punishment (see Little Polly Flinders, Tom, Tom the piper’s son and The Queen of Hearts she made some tarts which all describe you might even say celebrate naughty children being beaten). Nursery rhymes also present us with examples of religious intolerance (See Goosey Goosey Gander, in which an old man is thrown down the stairs for not saying the right prayers, and the devastatingly sad Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home, which makes reference to the brutal persecution of Catholics in 16th century England).

Just to be clear: it’s not that I don’t think these more grisly and sexist songs provide fascinating insights into history and culture I absolutely do, of course! But they can be highly problematic unless viewed critically as products of their time. Using them as part of a wider discussion of history or values is an option.

As with all teaching materials, using nursery rhymes is a question of thoughtful selection.

ladybug-1391741_1920 PIXABAY

Source: Pixabay

Over to you

Do you use nursery rhymes in your ELT teaching or materials development? Which do you find the most interesting and successful in class? What criteria do you use to select them? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Links and further reading

If you’ve found this post interesting, you may also enjoy this one about choosing picture books for young learners.  And if you want to read more about my thoughts on promoting gender equality among young learners, there’s more about that here.

For more information about the history of nursery rhymes, the links here and here make fascinating reading. (Did you know that Humpty Dumpty was actually a huge cannon used during the English Civil War? Or that Baa Baa Black Sheep refers to a medieval wool tax? Me neither!)

I have found the article ‘Grammar Templates with Poetry for Children’ by Janice Bland in Teaching English to Young Learners: Critical Issues in Language Teaching with 312 Year Olds, ed. Janice Bland (Bloomsbury, 2015) to be an interesting and engaging read, which explores the benefits of using nursery rhymes in ELT and provides some lovely ideas for exploiting them in class.

There are also some interesting articles promoting the value of singing in the classroom on the British Council website.