During this year’s IATEFL conference one of the big themes that stood out for us was the prominence image and video were given, as part of the teaching process but also the creation of ELT materials – finally we say! Where once the image on the page was more of an after-thought, briefed once the main manuscript had been written, we are now starting to see whole courses centre around visuals, whether that be stunning photography from National Geographic or interesting and authentic videos from the Discovery Channel. We’ve been very privileged over the years to work on some of the ELT courses that have forged the way with making imagery a more prominent part of the process, such as Global, Life and most recently Eyes Open and Outcomes 2nd edition, so we thought it was about time we explored a little more about why the image and video is so important in helping English learner experience authentic texts and voices. And how important it is for authors to be an integral part of the creative process of course creation and not just the writing of the material.

So should authors think about the image and design when writing the manuscript?

For the last few years publishers have started to see the benefits in partnering with content providers and the likes of Cengage Learning who are official National Geographic Learning partners and Cambridge University Press who have recently partnered with the Discovery Channel are starting to work in a different way and are centring the authoring process around the images and videos available from the content partner.

We’ve found that working more closely with the authors on these projects has also brought many advantages to the creative side of the process and they have been really satisfying projects to work on as we get to understand from the authors point of view what they had imagined when first writing the material.

So we thought it would be really helpful to ask the ELT materials author Ceri Jones what she thinks about this process and whether the results are speaking for themselves?

How has thinking about the image/video changed the way you write?

As a teacher, I’ve always used images in the classroom. Way back when I started out, they were likely to be recorded on VCR from the television, or cut out of magazines. I invested in a few, choice colour photocopies which I laminated and guarded jealously over the years. Some of these were award winning photographs from journalism, others were copies of works of art (Hopper has been a long-term favourite of mine for speaking and writing activities and I was really happy to be able to include one of his images in a coursebook in 2000 as the springboard for a speaking activity). When I first started writing, sourcing my own images was impossible. Only the image researchers had access to the libraries, but for a handful of activities, where the image was the key, I was very aware of the importance of the artwork brief, and it was written alongside the text and exercises. When writing a supplementary speaking skills book in the 1990s, all the lessons were dependent on visuals, but they had to be commissioned illustrations, not photos, and we often submitted rough illustrations of our own as examples. The artwork in that case was part and parcel of the material we were writing, but in a very different way from the high impact images of today. But, for the first two or three coursebook projects I wrote for, the bulk of the images were chosen by editors and photo researchers at second or third proofs, and often the first time we, the authors, saw them was in print.

In the mid 2000s things started to change. For the first time in my experience, we, the authors, were invited to take an active part in the image selection. This is when I first started to appreciate the wealth of images we could choose from and from the early days of accessing Getty, Alamy and Corbis, I started to change the way I wrote. And to think more about the way the material fitted on the page and its general visual impact. I think this was a natural maturing process. On my first project I had no idea of the design process, and then through experience I started to learn about, and get interested in, design and layout features and to take these into consideration as I was writing. I was most definitely also influenced by the writers I was lucky to be writing with. Philip Kerr heightened my awareness of page layout issues and we would write our materials in page templates with an eye to the positioning and type of artwork to accompany the materials. Working with Ben Goldstein on Richmond’s The Big Picture we were given a very generous budget and a huge amount of freedom to let images lead the materials and to choose and source our own images.  It was now materially possible for images to take centre stage and the choice of images and image types was growing and growing (as it still is). In TBP images often lead the writing process as well as not only scaffolding, but playing a central role in the tasks and topics. When outlining a new unit of work, we would often start with an image search, which would then feed into our choice of texts and tasks. It was one of the first courses to introduce the use of high impact images to kick off a new topic. We sourced and briefed these images from a wide range of different sites: stock photography sites, creative commons collections, photo journalism, photo sharing sites like Flickr and Instagram. It really helped inspire the creative process, but also underpinned the hard grind as well.

Do you have to approach writing the material in a different way?

Recapping on some of the things I’ve said above, I think it broadened the brief, it allowed us to take more factors into consideration, enabled us, possibly, to write more coherently, with the visual working alongside the language. I wouldn’t say the approach was different as such, possibly easier with the visual aspect scaffolding not only the tasks, but also the writing.

How have you found working with people who find the images first for you?

This has only been the case with video footage for Eyes Open, where, due to the constraints of the writing schedules, the video footage was sourced by another department while we were working on the rest of the material and we then wrote the accompanying material to drop into the unit. In this case, our task was to maximise the impact of the video through the tasks, and build a bridge between the visual stimulus and the rest to the unit.

What problems for authors does putting the image first create?

It can be time-consuming searching for the right image, and sometimes, the right image just isn’t out there, so it may mean going back to square one. But time spent trawling through image banks isn’t lost time. It’s a time when ideas and possibilities are being sifted and focused. Much in the same way as looking for a suitable text or topic angle that’ll feed into a task or exercise.  In the same way as searching through corpora can trigger inspiration, so can searching through an image bank looking for the image that encapsulates the right mood. I guess problems might crop up if the image we want can’t be used for whatever reason (an overlooked taboo, changes in permission policies etc), but the same is also true for authentic texts.

And do you think you’ve ultimately created more engaging materials for learners by working with the image whilst writing ?

I think being allowed to suggest, choose and source images has helped me feel more invested in, and knowledgeable of, both the process and the final product. The more involvement I have as a writer in the various layers and levels of creation (writing, sourcing images, attending recording sessions, discussing design and layout, outline digital templates, proof-reading etc), the better I write. It’s good to see the big picture and feel that you can participate in as many aspects as possible.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-series on images in ELT, and have found some of the hints and tips we’ve shared useful. As well as giving you some opinions and thoughts from our industry experts to think about. We’d love to hear from you if you have experiences to share or if you have an idea for another mini-series.