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Andrew Wright interview

Alex Case interviews famous ELT writer and storyteller Andrew Wright.

Alex: How do you spend most of your working time nowadays?

Andrew: I still earn my living by writing, illustrating, telling stories, and working with teachers. The big change is that for the first time in 50 years I am not working on a resource book for teachers.

Alex: How did you come to do that job/those jobs?

Andrew: I told my mother when I was 8 that I wanted to write and illustrate stories and that is what I have done, more or less, all my life.

My resource books for teachers are not story books although three of them are about using stories in teaching. I have always enjoyed writing books for teachers because it is such a wonderful way of learning more about a subject – to write a book about it.

Alex: What, when and where was your first TEFL job?

Andrew: Really I have never been an English teacher, but I have always worked for language teachers as a producer of materials and ideas. Strictly speaking I suppose my first TEFL job was my post as Assistant d’Anglais in France for two years.

Alex: What training did you have before that job?

Andrew: I went to the Slade School of Fine Art.

Alex: What materials and technology was there?

Andrew: There was little published material other than grammar-based textbooks and there was no technology other than the chalkboard.

Alex: So, what and how did you teach in your first couple of years, and how did you get those ideas?

Andrew: As an Assistant d’Anglais it was not my job to teach grammar and so I just tried to engage the students in conversation. I suppose it was an early form of Dogme, I believe it is called now.

Alex: How did you first get into ELT publishing?

Andrew: After my job in France I got a job as an illustrator in the Nuffield Foundation audio-visual French project. I was thus one of the first people to be involved in the use of pictures in a systematic and central way (pictures have been used for a 1000 years but not so centrally as they were in the A/V methodology). I began to develop many ideas beyond the A/V role for pictures. For example, I believe I was the first person to publish the idea of the fortune-teller as a way of practising future tense forms. And I am sure I was the first person to suggest flashing a picture at great speed in order to challenge the students to identify something difficult to identify. For these reasons Longman agreed to publish my book, Visual Materials for the Language Classroom.

However, my next publication, Kaleidoscope, a course for primary school children, was the big step forward for me. Kaleidoscope, published by Macmillan, with the official author named as University of York, was the first topic-based course ever written. We tried it out in 8 countries with 2000 children for several years in the early 1970s. (My two colleagues in the Kaleidoscope team were David Betteridge and Nicolas Hawkes.)

Kaleidoscope was the granddad of CLIL, but I imagine this assertion would be rejected by people who never saw the course. I will just give you one example from it in order to gain some credibility. One unit was called, “Visual Perception”, and that is what the children explored for several weeks. Their English was learned as a by-product of this exploration.

In the seventies I also published some books with Donn Byrne in which we used pictures to stimulate opinion, perception and experience gaps and thus reasons for speaking and discussing. Those books were What Do You Think? and Say What You Think, both published by Longman.

Alex: What else was going on in ELT publishing at that time?

Andrew: In the 1960s the big thing was the huge experiment with A/V methodology. In the 1970s there was the new description of language based on the notional functional description, put together by David Wilkins, John Trim, Van Ek and Louis Alexander. Then there was the “humanistic movement”, for me represented by Moskowitz. It was a very important decade indeed. I know I have blown my own trumpet and placed myself there (together with David Betteridge and Nicolas Hawkes) as a contributor to “importance”, but I believe it is true and I also believe that nothing I did after that was “important” in the sense of being “leading edge”. Such things happen as a result of chance blendings of social swing, personal needs and drives and talents and fate.

Alex: What about just before and after?

Andrew: I am not qualified to say what went on before the 1960s though there were some great individuals like Lionel Billows.

After the 1970s my impression is that a lot of very professional authors and publishers began to offer good practical materials attempting to combine grammatical knowledge with communicative skill and interesting content, that is topics.

Alex: How has ELT publishing changed since then?

Andrew: Again I feel unsure of myself in offering grand perspectives but I believe the next major change has occurred in the last decade with the rise of IT and the internet.

Alex: Would you say that humanistic language teaching has had the biggest impact on your teaching and writing? What does humanistic language teaching mean to you?

Andrew: The post-war years in the West were heavily influenced by the idea that rationality could solve everything – apply this to business, the military, housing…and language teaching. By the end of the 1960s, and in particular 1968, this was rejected by many people in the universities – and rather violently. Care for the individual and his or her needs was then given more respect and value. The so-called humanistic movement in language teaching was an expression of this social change. It was not an alternative methodology – society had changed.

I was a child of my times and believe I was naturally, by my generation and by my upbringing and by my personality, a part of this “humanistic movement”.

Alex: Do you think humanistic language teaching is something we have learnt from and are ready to move on from, or something we’ve started to forget about and need to get back to?

Andrew: The question implies what I am at pains to argue it is not. It is not a methodology, it is a way of giving value to other people. It may well be that society will swing away from this and for example, give more value to the success of the team, of society, of the company, etc. In that case, the activities based on inviting people to explore themselves and their relationships with other people may be given less and less importance.

If you accept my thesis then it is nothing to do with leaving it or going back to it as a technique but how you see language teaching as an expression of human relationships.

Alex: Have there been any TEFL technologies, ideas or people who you’ve been excited about but turned out to have little impact? Why do you think that is?

Andrew: Why don’t we take Moskowitz? Because of my value system, Moskowitz ideas are wonderful in my eyes. Has the world seriously become more humanistic? Turn on the news and tell me.

Alex: How do you see the near and distant future of TEFL?

Andrew: What happens in TEFL is not determined by research in linguistics or research into the psychology of learning. What happens is determined, above all, by what happens in society as a whole. Power determines whether a language is spoken or not. The values, perceptions and behaviours of the most powerful societies will continue to determine the approach to language teaching – for better or for worse. Given that I believe the values, perceptions and behaviours of society determine which languages we teach, to whom and how, then there could be a major change ahead if societies are less geographically bound and more internet based. Indeed, is this not beginning to happen already?

More about and by Andrew Wright

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net
December 2010 | Filed under Interviews
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.
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