To charge for EFL resources?

So, as I’m trying to build up a paid EFL worksheet generator, you might not be surprised to hear that I’d like people to be okay with paying for resources from the internet. It’s logical.

But, as I’ve started cleaning up the things I’ve produced to use in my own classes, with an eye towards sharing them, I’ve realized that there isn’t a point in trying to charge money for them.

My thinking can be organized into three questions: why would a teacher pay money to access things that I’ve paid? Why would it make sense for me to charge money? And why would it make sense for me to give things away?

Why pay money?

I’m a teacher. And a paying customer of EFLlibrary.com and handoutsonline.com. And I happily pay for what they make, because I don’t want to make my own ‘boring’ worksheets. (Sorry, people of those websites.) That’s the word I use for worksheets that explain a grammar point and let you drill it with mind-numbing exercises.

Such things are often necessary, but they’re hardly enjoyable in class and I don’t like the idea of making them in ‘my own time.’ So, I’m glad they exist.

For me, the answer to this question is: I’m happy to pay for resources when they help me improve my lessons and free me up to use my energy in other ways (whether related to teaching or just additional free time). There is some level of cost-benefit analysis where I ask myself: how many hours are they saving me? Is x Euros per year a fair price to pay for such an assistance?

Why charge money?

Charging money seems to be the logical thing to do. I have invested time and energy in making something, so why shouldn’t you pay to use it? I’m a big fan of more of the internet costing money (argument in a nutshell: I’d rather work for you, than to maximize page views and ad revenue) and it follows that I would ask people to pay for what I’ve made.

Considering that my worksheet generator should, one day, cost money, why not include a library of static worksheets that are, basically, amazing in the price? I could add to my ‘unique selling proposition.’

Why give things away?

Here’s the thing, though… I don’t think there is a business in selling ‘static’ worksheets (defined as made once, for as many people as possible) on the Internet. The problem is twofold:

  1. One person has to pay for them, and then passes them around to friends, colleagues, posts them on her own website, whatever.
  2. Another word for ‘one-size-fits-all’ is ‘boring.’ It’s not for nothing that I called them boring worksheets above. But, if you want to make money you need to attract as many people as possible, and that means being as bland as possible. Bland is not a strength of mine.

I don’t like the idea of investing my time in hunting down online pirates. And, I don’t like the idea of not doing it, because then I’m basically punishing the people who do things the right way. Blah.

And, I don’t really want to try to be one-size-fits-all. That’s partly because I’m not the kind of person that everyone likes (ask people who know me). And, it’s partly because I know that I, personally, don’t like those resources.

There is a school of thought which suggests that the internet is big enough that there must be hundreds or thousands of people just like me, willing to pay for the privilege of downloading things that I make. And there’s probably something to that. However, I enjoy making stories and worksheets. And, I enjoy coding. However, I’m not big on promotion, and my recent experience with AdWords suggests that I can’t afford to advertise to all of my users over paid advertising.

The (to me) logical conclusion…

So, to me, it seems reasonable to offer the ‘static’ things I make for free. At some point, I might do the annoying thing of tacking a page on them pointing users to the paid service that I will, by then, hopefully provide. But, that feels like too much work.

Which is why I’m happy to point you towards the Free EFL Resources I make.

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I fixed my memory!

Yesterday evening I said to myself “I’m going to tackle adding crosswords as an available review activity for dynamic-efl.com.”

It was an activity that I’d been postponing since I got the whole thing web-based. To be honest, I don’t know why anymore. I just remember the feeling that it seemed like a lot of work and, hey, wordsearches were working, so why rush, right? But, whenever I listed everything that the website could do, I’d find myself tagging on “and I hope to add crosswords, soon, too.”

Which was ridiculous because they worked in the desktop version, so whatever I needed to get done to make them work on the web version was probably just a matter of a careful reading of the code.

So, yesterday I resolved to get them done, and I did. Easy as that.

I was almost surprised how easily it all worked. And, to be honest, it’s a bigger accomplishment than updating the memory activities, but who could pass up the opportunity to write a blog post titled “I updated my memory.”

 

crossword
Funnily, this one still includes multi-word vocabulary. I decided to exclude them from crossword activities in order to make things easier on the learners.

 

Inspired by that, I decided to tackle something else that’s been outstanding on my list: fixing the memory activities. The memory activities worked fine, of course, but there were two different activities: translation memory and, if a group had enough vocabulary with associated pictures, picture memory. It seemed most logical to make a single memory activity that would use pictures where they were available, and translations where they were not.

What’s more, the translation-only memory tacked a ‘cheat sheet’ on at the end for the teacher, in case I forget how I translated a certain word (it happens to me, and I wrote the translations. I guess it happens to others, too). Why not do the same thing, but with pictures and translations. In case one of the pictures isn’t clear.

So, this evening, I fired up the IDE and I got it done. There were a few hiccoughs along the way, but it was done in less time than it took for the kids to watch a movie I didn’t like. So, hooray for that, right?

It’s nice to feel productive. In fact, so nice that I’m not even excited about now getting to work on preparing for classes next week.

The absurd business worksheets

The worksheets

A while back, I mentioned that I was making business worksheets. The idea has been to find some sort of “business worksheet” that does the following thing:

  • Engage my students so that they don’t shut down and go into passive mode
  • Cover grammar in a “business context” so that I can say it is relevant
  • Include business vocabulary

I approached this the way I approach everything: as a chance to be a clown. The worksheets are a collection of prose ‘business stories’ (or emails) illustrating the grammar/point in question and exercises based on that grammar. The stories and emails, however, are completely absurd.

Besides my own personal love of absurdity, I value it for two reasons: it brings some levity to the classroom and, second, it allows me to admit that I don’t know anything about their work in a practical way. We always finish the story with me saying “this is how I imagine your job…”

The post linked above includes one example, but here’s another.

This is not so much typical, as one of my favorites (also from the worksheet series focused on the passive voice). It follows the adventures of a fictional Customer Service Representative named Fritzilinde:

“The ‘Grammatik der Liebe‘ album has to be delivered on Friday,” she said to her colleagues in the creative department. “The customer wants to know if we’ll make the deadline.”

Her colleague made a face. “It should be finished on time…”

Fritzilinde cut him off. “Should isn’t good enough. What do you need to get it finished?”

Another colleague stopped mixing ketchup into his vodka and said “What he means to say is that it will be finished, if the muse inspires us.” He looked at the bottle in front of him. “And this is our last bottle of muse. So, it could be delivered on time, if this is enough.”

Fritzilinde went to his desk, took the bottle and held it in front of his face. “Listen to me, it is going to be delivered on time. I know that, because, if it’s not, I’ll take this bottle and stick it so far up your behind that you’ll need your muse and a powerful flashlight to find it.”

The Reception

When I made the worksheets, I had some specific groups in mind. The ones I like to laugh with. Originally, I thought that I’d rewrite the stories to match the tone of the more straight-laced groups. But, as things go, I “didn’t have time.”

So, all of my business groups (and several advanced evening groups) have had at least some of these worksheets.

And they were a resounding success.

I credit that to a few things.

First, I have learned that people genuinely enjoy the absurdity, if only to say “I know colleagues like that” or “is that what you think human resources does, Toby?” Everyone has some idea of the fact that their work is undervalued by people who don’t do it, so these sorts of jokes are great.

Second, there is a pretty boring component to the worksheets. I don’t make much of it here, because it’s not much to write about, but after each story introduces something, there are boring activities reinforcing what the story was supposed to introduce. Following the story above, there are activities matching modal verbs to probabilities as well as exercises with more ‘normal’ vocabulary. (“The product is going to be replaced by the more expensive SuperProduct 3000.”)

Third, they include brainstorm activities. Like worksheets downloaded from the internet, these are kept deliberately general. I’ve found that the ideal solution is to include some sort of brainstorming activity in which the students list their own vocabulary (for the passive, this is a table of tools they use and associated verbs).

Lastly, the trick is to combine the ‘generic’ worksheets with specific exercises. Using the vocabulary gained in the brainstorming, and in addition to the worksheets, I prepare a translation exercise using that vocabulary which, if I do it well, comes pretty close to language they would actually produce, or can imagine themselves producing. And that brings the exercise from a sense of abstract detachment (the absurd story) gradually to a feeling of hands-on practice (the customized exercises).

All of that, I think, has made for a series of successful worksheets.

The power of refinement

Something I’d like to tag on at the end here is that I think a value to using one set of worksheets for many different groups is that I take the time to go back and expand upon them, improving them as I realize what didn’t work.

An example is that I added a whole worksheet to the processes collection of worksheets to focus on the present perfect. (And, to be honest, it wouldn’t hurt to add at least two extra worksheets that focus only on negations and questions using the grammar covered, if I were to have unlimited time).

That means that my ‘generic’ worksheets have grown into a pretty decent tool which, coupled with my vocab worksheet generator for vocab review means that I’m only occasionally making really great, tailored activities, but maximizing my results.

Branding, or how much material can you copy from the Internet?

I’m going to sit now in judgment on other English teachers. I think that most of them make one of two opposing mistakes:

  1. Everything comes from the Internet. Their students experience the lessons as a hodge-podge of formats and headers. The general impression that students have is ‘All Toby does is print stuff off from the Internet.’
  2. They make everything themselves. The people I have seen do this generally have pretty abysmal formatting, but they make great resources tailored to each group. The groups are impressed with the work they put into preparation and would happily recommend them to friends and colleagues, but the teacher is so swamped with preparation, that they don’t have time for more lessons.

As a guy who wants to make a resource to create worksheets on the Internet, I’m very aware of the risks of over-relying on downloaded (or photocopied) resources. Students do not value your talent in leading a conversation, introducing vocabulary, and explaining grammar. The best teachers make it seem so effortless, that most students won’t appreciate the effort you invest until they try to teach their own native language.

And, of course, going the other route and just doing everything yourself is great… for one group, but not for twenty or thirty. (Not if you also want to learn to code, have writing projects, make music… This post is basically aimed at me.) What’s more, when I create a resource for only one group, we always find typos, and there is no point correcting them because nobody will ever see it again. This means that everyone basically sees the first draft of everything. I make a pretty good first draft, but the second draft is always better.

The first pillar of my solution: I use stuff from the Internet. But I have also become very proactive about communicating in the I form what my plans are, and on what basis I’ve made them. And that I got some resources to help us with whatever. Here are some things that I have said in my lessons:

Steffen, Mary, and yes, sometimes you Bert, have been making the ‘He, she, it — s muss mit’ mistake and I know that you know it. But we’re going to drill it a bit more in the next lessons to help make it automatic.

Or:

Normally, I’m happiest when you don’t make mistakes, but I’m glad you made that one because it brings me to something I want to talk about: the passive voice!

I know you all love grammar, but it’s important to master this if you want to talk about processes…

The goal in these little chats is to explain that I am a professional who has a plan, and not just a guy who was lucky enough to grow up speaking the language they are paying to learn.

The second pillar of my solution: With my worksheet generator (mostly) finished, I’m focusing this year on creating worksheets that are highly reusable, and yet tailored to me. The goal is to make it clear that I made the resources and to make them so quirky that it feels tailor-made for my classes. (Which are, fortunately, all quirky.)

The way I’m approaching this goal is by using two kinds of text in the worksheets. There are the absurd texts that I write, illustrating the use of the structures to be practiced. (See this example.) And there are the ‘drill texts’ in which the students fill in the blank, or complete the sentence, or translate from German, or whatever… and these are (almost) entirely boring, could-be-copied-from-the-internet bland.

The goal is to make something that confronts students with the vocabulary and structures they need and is still uniquely me. Then, after one group finds a typo, I can correct it and use it with another group. Because I teach in three different schools, I make them without a header and just paste in the header I made for the appropriate school.

In summary: I’m only about two months in, on using the second pillar of the solution. Nonetheless, the first results are positive and, combined with using my dynamically generated worksheets (which are, being made by me, also quirky) with the appropriate header on them. (That’s automatic with my great website!)