January 2020
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Hall Houston, National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Sciences, Taipei, Taiwan

Kleckova, G., & Svejda, P. (2019). Creating visually effective materials for English learners. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.

During the past couple of decades, I have spent innumerable hours at my computer, creating worksheets, assignment sheets, tests, vocabulary lists, and other documents to help my students improve their English. I’ve often wondered how I could improve the appearance of my materials, yet lacked the knowledge necessary to make my documents a little easier on the eye. So, when I came across this book, I couldn’t wait to order it.

Creating Visually Effective Materials for English Learners, written by Gabriela Kleckova and Pavel Svejda, is a new e-book from TESOL Press, which is all about improving the look of our teaching and testing materials. This succinct e-book, at under 150 pages, summarizes key findings from the field of document design to instruct readers on how to apply this knowledge to a TESOL context.

As stated in the book’s introduction, “this book shows how TESOL practitioners can make their materials accessible and appealing to their learners and other audiences.” This book comprises three sections, INTO, THROUGH, and BEYOND, familiar to TESOL practitioners who are aware of such lesson formatting.

The first section, INTO, contains two chapters. Chapter 1, “Defining Document Design” for TESOL Professionals, provides a concise introduction to document design, explaining relevant terminology and assisting readers without a background in design to gain a basic understanding of the goals of good design. Chapter 2, “Understanding Why Document Design Matters in TESOL Contexts,” demonstrates how ELT practitioners can benefit from the knowledge of good document design.

The second section, THROUGH, consists of three chapters and contains the main information users need to improve their document design. Chapter 3, “Identifying Elements that Shape Document Design,” overviews the key visual design concepts, including visual perception and visual rhetoric. Chapter 4, “Examining the Building Blocks of Effective Document Design,” covers the major six elements of document design: hierarchy, similarity, contrast, proximity, alignment, and repetition. The authors explain each element clearly and add examples of each one. Chapter 5, “Engaging English Language Learners Through the Effective Use of Visual Elements,” addresses visual elements, such as color, space, and typography, explaining how they can affect document design.

The third section, BEYOND, consists of three chapters. Chapter 6, “Planning for Visually Successful Materials for English Language Learners,” details how to create professionally designed documents, including worksheets, assessment tools, assignment sheets, and fliers. It includes an easy-to-follow five-step process. Chapter 7, “Learning from Common Design Mistakes Around Us,” warns of several common pitfalls of document design. These include using too many visual elements, using irrelevant or unrelated images, and problems concerning space and typography. Chapter 8, “Designing Digital Media for English Language Learners,” describes some of the issues related to materials that appear on a screen, including color, fonts, and tracking.

What I liked the most about this book is that the authors relayed the essential information about document design in the context of materials writing. In numerous places, Kleckova and Svejda include examples of TESOL related documents, both principled and unprincipled, so that the reader can instantly understand the design principles and features they are writing.

The authors are careful not to use an excessive amount of design-related terminology. When they use unfamiliar terms, such as glyphs, justified text, and font family, they are quick to define the term. This book also features a glossary, which can help those of us lacking a background in graphic design or document design (that’s definitely me) with design terms used in the book.

Another feature of the book that I enjoyed was the activity sections. These sections allow the reader to look at documents and assess how well designed they are, before reading the authors’ verdicts.

Creating Visually Effective Materials for English Learners fills a niche in TESOL materials writing literature. While most books and articles on materials writing address the content of materials, this book gives guidance on how to design and create materials that learners will find accessible and visually appealing.

This book is highly recommended, not only for TESOL materials writers but for all TESOL practitioners who create documents as part of their job.

Hall Houston teaches undergraduate students at National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Sciences in Taipei, Taiwan. His articles have been published in periodicals such as TESOL Connections, IATEFL Voices, Modern English Teacher, and English Teaching Professional. He has written five books, including Provoking Thought, Brainstorming, and Creative Output.
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What importance do theories of second language acquisition have in your materials development?
They have great importance and are the foundation from which all my materials are developed.
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