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An interview with Andrew Wright
- February 2003

• When , where & why did you begin teaching English ?
And briefly from there until now?

I have always been a worker for teachers rather than a language teacher. It's a bit like being a maker of violins for others to play. Of course, I can and have knocked out some tunes on the violin myself but basically I am a maker.

• What is your involvement now in ELT?

I run a language school with my wife. My school organizes London Chamber of Commerce Cert TEB courses for teachers of Business English with Mark Powell. I do some work with teachers in various countries each year. I write articles for teachers' magazines.

• Which books have you published & why? Which are you most proud of?

I have been writing non-stop for forty years, almost exactly. So I can't list all my books. Like a bit of flotsam I have been lucky to have been thrown forward by the wave of developments in language teaching for much of that time. I am very proud of being the writer
(co-author with David Betteridge and Nicolas Hawkes) of the very first topic based text book ever written: Kaleidoscope, published by Macmillan in the 1960s. Now out of print.

I am also proud of the fact that my Games for Language Learning, (co-author David Betteridge and Michael Buckby), is still going strong after 25 years. It was the first book in ELT to be based on the cook book recipe layout of the activities.

Five Minute Activities, also with Cambridge University Press, has sold over 100000 copies in its ten years of life. Penny Ur, my wonderful co-author and I, conceived and wrote the book very quickly, not exactly in five minutes but very quickly.

Perhaps I can mention just one more? I wrote a book for Longman with Saphia Haleem, Visuals for the Language Classroom, which hardly sold at all and is now out of print but it was special for me. I think it is the only book in language teaching which is based on the idea of the
character of the medium suggesting all kinds of special ideas for language teaching. The smears on the old fashioned chalk board can be interpreted, as Leonardo said, as 'landscapes and armies marching' or any other kind of image from the imagination. You can fold paper and
hide all kinds of things underneath…guess what it says…guess what the picture is, etc. The medium is just like a person; it has character and can suggest all kinds of ideas, if you listen to it.

• Which people in language teaching have most influenced you?

In the 1960s I was very influenced by the work of SCOPE, a course book for teaching English as a second language. It showed me that language learning can also be about learning other things of interest and value and not be necessarily based on trivial stories and drills. I was also
influenced by books and materials published for teaching other subjects in the curriculum, for example, history, science and social studies.

In the 1970s Donn Byrne was an influence on me because he was such a professional and was the first person to invite me to work with teachers in other countries and invited me to co-author books with him for Longman.
In the 1980s I was influenced in my ELT work by all the other work I did in the production of educational materials for use in other parts of the curriculum, during that decade.

In the 1990s I was most influenced by Mario Rinvolucri. I love all his books but revel in his book (co-author Paul Davies) called, Dictation, published by Cambridge University Press. They have managed to find more
than 100 humanistic and communicative activities based on that old 'stick in the mud' technique of, dictation.
Mario and his colleagues at Pilgrims constantly drive their ideas and the teachers' ideas they work with, to new thinking.

• Which 3 non-ELT books would you take to a desert island?

You should have said 'apart from Shakespeare!', because Shakespeare would be my first book to take. Perhaps one of Henry Mayhew's books on life in London in the mid- nineteenth century, for example, Mayhew's Characters. It is fascinating (it was a source of inspiration and
information for Dickens) and it would make me feel that there are compensations in not having to struggle to exist in a big city…it may not be so bad to live on a desert island. And perhaps I would take a book on survival for example, Collins Gem, SAS Survival. It has all kinds of intriguing ideas for remaining alive and well in nature.

• Which level do you prefer teaching? Why?

I love working with beginners because it is amazing that beginners can spend an hour with a native speaker and go out of the classroom feeling that they have understood what was being said. They can feel so good.
And I love working with advanced students and wonder why I am being paid because it is such a privilege to be paid for spending time with people.

• What was one of your finer/more rewarding moments in the classroom?

I was once using the technique of asking questions in order for a class to create a character. They were 17 and 18 years old and advanced students. There were about 90 of them in the room for one hour and they created a woman who will be vividly in my mind for the rest of my life.

There was one moment when I said, 'You say she is elegant. But you also say she is nervous. Elegance suggests a sophisticated ability to hide emotions. You say she is smoking. Tell me how she is smoking.' A student called out, 'She is smoking slowly. She is elegant.' And
another student called out, 'She is smoking slowly but her fingers are trembling! She's nervous!'

What a wonderfully vivid image. There was absolute silence in that room of 90 students. I cannot know but I can imagine that they all had the same sudden vision of this woman that I had and which is still with me.

• And one of your worst moments

One of my worst moments was in the 1960s and it still haunts me. That fateful morning, sitting on the toilet, I found myself imagining all kinds of different images in the pattern in the linoleum. Seized with excitement, I tore the lino from the floor and took it to a group of teachers of German in Newcastle which I had been hired to work with. I hung the lino over the board and began enthusiastically to ask what they could see. There was silence. I looked again at the lino and suddenly realized that the oval shape of the toilet was clearly there and two discolorations of foot steps were also visible. What a disgusting
thing! Horrors! It has scarred me for life…perhaps the teachers as well!

• What do you think of the current training options within ELT?

I am sorry that funding for extended teacher development courses are less than they were in many places.

• Are you optimistic or pessimistic about ELT in the future?

I don't really understand the question. There is a massive demand by people all over the world to learn the world's language which happens to be English, for the time being. That drive to learn is the main thing and is much more important than all the fancy materials and methods we
might dream up.

• How do you see it developing in the future?

The internet will play a much bigger role. No doubt. I like that.

• Can we talk of ELT as a profession, as one does with doctors & architects?

Why not?

• Any other thoughts to pass on about language teaching?

Language teaching changes as societies change I don't believe that research findings seriously influence how aims and methodologies change.

The reasons for students wanting to learn English (or not wanting to learn it) is largely a reflection of the society, or sub- cultural group, they are living in. This background and its values and perceptions also help to determine the methodologies which are accepted by the learners.

In the 1960s when I began, Western societies believed that logic could provide answers to everything from military efforts, exploration in space, housing and language teaching. So we had the audio lingual and then the audio visual methodologies which were going to make language learning possible for everybody.

In the 1970s there was a rejection of these global and logical answers and there was more concern for the individual; more humanistic approaches. That was in the West. In other parts of the world societies did not move in the same way and the aims and methodologies relevant to the West were and are not necessarily relevant in other societies.

An addendum: Any individual teacher or student can have a natural disposition which is in conflict with these swings in society. Some teachers use the eclectic communicative approach of recent years but teach it with the spirit of a grammar translation teacher. I heard and saw a teacher completely ignore a student who said he had swum across> Lake Balaton during the previous weekend. That is one hell of a swim for anybody but for the teacher it was merely on opportunity to practice using a past tense form.

Andrew Wright has been an author and illustrator for many years and has written books for Oxford University Press (some of the reviewed here), for Cambridge University Press (Five Minute Activities, Games for Language Learning, Pictures for Language Learning), Longman (1000+ Pictures for Teachers to Copy). He has been a professional storyteller for fifteen years and estimates that he has worked with 50,000 student either telling them stories or helping them to make stories and books. Now Andrew is based in Hungary where he runs a language school (ILI International Languages Institute) with his wife Julia and the intensive LCCI Arels Cert TEB course with Mark Powell (for teachers of business English). Andrew can be contacted at andrew.wright@ili.hu
If you would like information about the LCCI Arels course then please see the ILI International Languages Institute web site http://www.teachertraining.hu

To Andrew's article about storytelling

To the review of Andrew's storytelling books

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