Are you still giving old-school worksheets and Comic Sans worksheets to Generation Tik Tok?
If so, no one’s reading your stuff. You know this if you just explained three times and they ask, “What do I have to do?”
“I just told you.! Read the directions!!”
Finally, I realized something.
The stuff I gave them was awful. Paper handouts were boring–walls of text. When I first put everything online it wasn’t much better. Students skipped key information because finding it put them to sleep, or the flow was bad.
The Magna Carta was shorter and easier to read.
Students have changed. Tech’s changed. The way we do things…has changed. The only thing that hasn’t? Textbooks and teacher handouts.
Look at yours and be honest. Here’s how to know if your materials are up to speed.
Imagine you’ve never seen them before and you’re drinking coffee and browsing. Would you click on that? Then, if you did… how fast would you click away?
Would you read it? Or, would you click away (or put it down if it’s a paper handout) and go right to YouTube or TikTok to learn the material?
That’s what students are doing. This generation is mobile first, trained for a different style of research. If you’ve been teaching for a while, chances are you’ve been “classically trained.” Even if you’re a new teacher, you may have been trained by someone who remembers books, card catalogs, and life before Snapchat.
The solution: copy from the best
“Who’s the best?”
Look at the stuff you use–the material you want to engage with. Take a week and really study websites, newsletters, and print that clicks with you. Notice when you click away from a site, how long is too long to wait or read before you say, “ugggg” and click away or put an instruction book down.
Then, don’t do that.
For me, if I go to a recipe or instructional website and more than one or two adds flash at me (distractions!), I go to TikTok or Youtube and 2x a video to learn what I need to learn.
I used to be the biggest offender–I wrote walls of block text. Students didn’t read my stuff and even my friends deleted my emails. It was only when I started working outside education that I was able to apologize for my offenses. I was working with some of the best marketing people and designers in the country. These are the people who get you to buy stuff–even the stuff you don’t need.
What’s a teacher, really? A marketer. You’re getting student to learn material they might not choose on their own. And, you’re trying to do this the best way possible so they enjoy themselves, remember what you taught, and you get to have fun, too.
Reading block text, comic sans, and directions a Wordle champ couldn’t figure out–accomplishes none of those things.
I tossed all my stuff.
Marketing people spend millions hiring people to get you to do things without you even knowing you’re doing it. They write copy, create logos, and place designs on ads that’ll catch your eye and make you buy, and they’re constantly updating. Study the best–and then do that.
Are you still using font from the fifties? Update your class materials today!
How to make the best materials (students will actually read) even if you’re not a graphic designer:
I’m not. This website–it’s pretty ugly. but, you can read it because the font is clear, paragraphs short, and I’ve got some breaks in between. That’s a good start. Here’s how you can convert your classroom materials to beautiful, easy-to-follow tools students will want to use:
Learn about Typography:
I used Times New Roman out of grad school and Arial for years when I realized it was easier to read. Studies show San Serif (type without the little lines on the edge of the letters) is easier to read–especially for new readers or English Language Learners. But, type, like fashion, changes. Try updating your font to something more in style,
Alternate fonts to get attention, but don’t overdo it. Two or three different fonts will do the trick. Typography comes in many types, widths, and styles. Designers alternate them to show contrast. Start with two fonts you like that seem to be opposites. Use one for your headlines and the other for your body. Try choosing one with serifs–the little finishing strokes on the bottom of the letters–and contrast it with a sans-serif font. Or, use a “font family.”
Popular fonts often come in several different weights. We’re used to “bold” and “not bold,” but most professional fonts have different degrees of heaviness ranging from super, super bold to very light and skinny. Put these together efficiently, and you’re halfway there. Try using the same font but use a larger or heavier font for headlines or call outs, and a lighter font for the body.
If you have access to Adobe, Adobe Type Kit is your goldmine. The free version of Canva will also help–there are many templates that pair fonts for you. Your computer has enough fonts to do the job, but sometimes pairing them can get overwhelming. Google “font pairs” and find combinations you like–then, steal those.
Copy websites you love! Right click on the page. Choose “inspect” on the dropdown. Look for the line that says “font-family.”
There’s your font. Go look for that on your computer and use that. If you don’t have it and don’t want to pay for Adobe, search for, “fonts similar to…” and you’ll find something you like.
Warning: please be careful downloading from “free” font and art sites. They’re often virus magnets and not secure.
- Use simple fonts–your readers will thank you. Also, unless there’s a design reason or it’s a small flourish, avoid complicated fonts and script–especially when teaching English Language Learners or today’s K-12 students. Most haven’t learned cursive proficiently. For those who did–it’s often a side lesson. They default to type and text. The goal is easy learning, not decoding fonts.
Use a design program. Professionals use Adobe InDesign to make layouts. You can use Canva for free. The free version’s more than enough to get you started. Again–simple’s the goal. Make or find a template and use that.
Less is more. Use bullets. Edit, edit, edit! Keep things short. If the text is too long–make it two. I was trained back when paragraphs were long. Today’s web paragraphs are a few sentences–tops–followed by a space. Most newspapers are written below a sixth grade level. I’m not here to judge your vocab list or dumb down the English language. I’m just telling you what you commonly click on when you’re online.
If you want kids to do stuff, follow along, and retain info, simple directions and frameworks work best. Embed the complex material in short sections within the simple template, chunked up. It’s a game changer.
Reread your directions–then cut them in half. This gets back to “edit.” I always do a final pass on editing. Even if I think something’s short, I’ll be able to cut it by a third or even in half. If your directions are more than a few sentences, they’re too long. My old handouts make me cry.
Use callouts, checklists, and bullets. You know that “Buy now!” button on a website? Or the big arrow with a star on a print ad? “Only (3 easy payments of) $19.99!” That’s a callout. Use callouts and arrows to point to the really important things. Students’ eyes will go right there. Then, discuss that point.
Use numbered steps, checklists, mini-organizers. Avoid the temptation to make an epic novel of material. Instead, make a series of smaller elements. If print, they can be tied together in a PDF with a table of contents. If digital, make the Table of Contents linkable. You’ll have a well-designed ebook you can use for years and update when you need to. If you’ve got a website, use links so the material you chunked up is not all crammed together.
Use universal symbols. Think beyond this one lesson. Use a system of design elements or logos to create certain thoughts or behaviors.
If you’ve ever read the “(Whatever) for Dummies” books, they do this well. They have arrows, bulls eyes, and lightbulbs that prepare you for the material about to come. Every time you see them, you know just what to do.
Create symbols for “Do now,” “Think!” or “Important,” that you’ll use in every single piece of content you make.
Break up the page. Use a cartoon, diagram, picture, or negative space. A good picture or logo is worth its weight in gold. It will be for your content, too. The image for this post was made with WordSwag. Right now, it’s incredibly dated and I should swap it out.
Avoid complex rubrics. I can’t even read the rubrics I was forced to use. I tossed them. I started turning old-style boxed rubrics into simple tables and checklists. They often had jokes, “My dog would eat this paper.” And, I didn’t do a lot of the grading. I let students evaluate themselves using my graphics and feedback tools The results were astounding. Expectations were clearer and students looked forward to reading my grading sheets, directions, and content because of the Easter eggs.
Get students to design it. I’m not a designer. This website’s really ugly. If you’re not an artist, you definitely have one in your class. Ask them for cartoons, designs, ideas, logos, and elements. Use that in your content. For me, that helped in two ways–it gave students input, ownership, and control. But, I was transparent, “I’m not an artist.” I’ve even hired students to do projects for me and taught them how to invoice.
Whether as a favor or job, I treated my artists like professionals–the lesson here is “You don’t have to wait for graduation to start your business. Do it for real.”
Review and update your design periodically. Design trends change. Just like you can tell a 70’s or 50’s font a mile away, your content will start to get dated. This post is a good example–it really should be a YouTube video. And, the cover is definitely from a half dozen years ago when I wrote the first version of this post. If you’ve got powerpoints and posts from ten years ago, they’re dated. Update them with current references, fonts, and even a this-year meme or two. You’ll see results.
Learning design and better copywriting is addictive. You may feel challenged in the beginning, but once you begin redesigning your materials, I bet you’ll rabbit hole into design, copy, and marketing. You may learn a ton of best practices being used by marketers and designers in the outside world. You may even notice you can make some cash doing this for yourself, too, not just for your classroom content. And if you do, I’ll be proud!