Andrew Wright’s six things from sixty years

A few posts ago I talked about my favourite Five Minute Activities, the much-loved resource book by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright. I had the honour of receiving a comment from Andrew Wright himself on the blog, partly in response to all the praise for his work. I was going to ask him to write something for me when he came out and asked if he could! It was a great pleasure to say yes, and share with you here Andrew Wright’s six things from sixty years of language learning and teaching experience.

1 I have been working in the world of language teaching for fifty years.  It has given me an opportunity to be with people and to have an interesting time and to travel to many places: about forty countries.  Furthermore, my fifty years as a teacher’s resource book writer have coincided with what are probably the last fifty years of resource books.  I feel I am very lucky to have been working during this last half century.

Sixty years?  Well, before that I was learning French at school or rather wasn’t.  Lead by Dr MacGraw, we, myopically, crawled along sentences looking up the words we didn’t know until, blinking, we came to a full stop or the abyss at the end of a paragraph.

2 Some friends told me that I have collocated with stories in the last twenty years before that I collocated with games and before that with pictures.  Stories is the big one.  I have become a story fundamentalist.  I believe that our minds are storied from top to bottom so much so that the way we eat and drink, work and die are all partly determined by the stories we have heard and which have constructed our life maps.  CNN once said something like: ‘The stories CNN bring you today make the world in which you live in tomorrow. ‘  Journalists are so open about what they are doing.  Not the news but ‘the top stories today are…’.

Of course, stories are for children but in the last year or two I have bought nine books about the use of stories in business (Internet: Business stories!).  Given that stories are so central to who we are and words are a major component in the way we story experiences then it amazes me that stories are not the main road we all take in language teaching.

3 I have always been a conference goer. I have had the good fortune to work with many brains,  feverish with creativity.  The tsunami of technology in the last twenty years is wonderful. So exciting!  But all these leading edge people and technologies represent a minute part of the world of language teaching.  Millions of language teachers never go to conferences and their only development, if any, is through the books or internet materials they use.  My belief is that the vast number of language teachers manage to teach according to their inner agenda whatever books or current philosophy they use or refer to.  A teacher I observed, in class, took the topic of sharing information about recent experiences.  Sounds very healthy and communicative.  A student told him, ‘I swim across Lake Balaton and do butterfly.’  The teacher corrected him, ‘I swam across Lake Balaton doing butterfly.’  He didn’t make a single comment or gasp and raise his eyebrows when he heard that the student had swum across the biggest lake in Central Europe!

He appeared to be a ‘modern’ teacher but he was an old fashioned grammar point obsessed teacher.  Like millions of others he teaches as he was taught.

4 The West gives great value to research and I believe research has a valuable role to play.  However, in my fifty years in language teaching I have experienced changes of value, perception and behaviour in society having far more effect on language teaching than research.  I am a creature of my times and in the late sixties I was influenced by the demand for concern for the individual (rather than global answers) out of which came the notional functional description of language by David Wilkins.  I conceived and helped to write with David Betteridge and Nicolas Hawkes, the first topic based course ever published, as far as I know: ‘Kaleidoscope’.  Macmillan.  And then, ‘What Do You Think’ with Donn Byrne, with pictures juxtaposed and no words, designed to poke thinking.  At the same time I was trying to support teachers in moves away from the rule of the text book by writing resource books, like ‘Games for Language Learning’, ‘1000 Pictures for Teachers to Copy’ and later, ‘Storytelling with Children’ and ‘Five Minute Activities’ with Penny Ur.  None of these books are based on research but on the gut feeling of a surf boarder with his feet on the driving swell of social change.

5 For fifty years I have done my best to promote the teaching of verbal languages.  But now I want to protest!  Words cannot exist unless they are seen or heard. Words are manifested by the non verbal languages of voice and writing.  The language of the voice is SO important.  How many ways can you say, ‘Yes’.  Can you say, ‘thank you’, so it doesn’t mean thank you?  Of course you can.  And consider the difference in typeface used by Rolls Royce and MacDonalds.  It’s not an accident.  Non verbal languages of voice and typography manifest words but also add their own meanings which may be harmonious or disharmonious with the words they manifest.  Its a duet and often the non-verbal instrument of voice or typography is dominant.

And then, add in the many non verbal languages which do not manifest words but accompany them.  Its a blooming orchestra: graphic design, furniture and interior design, architecture, body, clothes, car, house, film, and so on!  The world leader’s frozen hand shake and smile for the photographs.  The mock Tudor black wood struts on a million suburban houses.  The John Lennon glasses.

Now that technology allows us to readily make use of these non verbal languages at a high technological level through video recording and editing programmes on the internet, surely it should become a central part of our teaching?  We would no longer be language teachers but communication teachers and in a very different sense.

6 I can’t retire.  I have never been able to separate my work from my personal life.  If we really believe that language teaching must be about more than learning a language then how can we separate our life from our work?  It would be a contradiction to do so.  Nevertheless, after fifty years of an unbroken production of books I have stopped working on ELT books.  It is wonderful to be able to spend more time on writing my life stories.  My theme is the individuality and the universality of all of us and the situations we are in.  It is my answer to MacDonalds.  I have a wonderful time listening to and sharing such stories with my students who, these days are mainly bankers and pharmaceutical engineers….well…people.

Forgive me please for not writing six useful things for the classroom.  I have spent my life trying to do just that.  This wandering and pondering on Lindsay’s six thing site is a little self-indulgence which I do hope you will respond to, with benign tolerance.

If you would like to see my stories then please visit:

If you would like to comment on my stories, then please do: as long as I hear tapping I will know I am still alive.

Published in: on October 31, 2010 at 8:50 am  Comments (11)  

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  1. I teach young learners at a Primary School in Turkey and I’ve always been surprised by the lack of stories in the curriculum. They are generally relegated to an ‘end of unit’ cartoon series which tries to cram in target language or graded readers which lose something in the simplification process.

    However, when I hear accounts and experiences of teachers like yourself, I always hear about stories being used. Real, authentic children’s literature. I love reading to my son and I’ve used some of his illustrated story books in class – they always get a positive reaction and contain so much repeated language that it sticks. I wish we could use these kind of books on a more regular basis!

    Thank you for sharing the wisdom of your experience.

  2. What a wonderful list: thank you so much Lindsay for writing a blog that would prompt such a response from such a master!

    This definitely hits the best-of-the-blogs lists.

    Hi Andrew, other than the very obvious thank you for all you’ve done and created for English language teaching, it was a real pleasure exploring your ‘sixty years’ as I have always been a fan – and I’ll give you complete credit for the stick figures on my whiteboards :-).

    Your passion and commitment really shines through your work so I’m not surprised you don’t want retirement. My Dad’s 73 and still very actively working and to be honest, I reckon that quality of loving your job and never quitting is actually the secret to eternal youth!

    But on to your post:
    Stories– yes, the external stories you mention from the world around us all affect us deeply but also the students’ deeply personal stories and experiences that help students to see the point of communicating in another language and it’s in the uncovering of these, pulling them out from the students and encouraging them to share that creates the necessary cognitive connections.

    I work with adult learners and we often read real-life business books (as opposed to textbooks) as prompts/springboards for discussion and blogging, one of our favourite stories is the Google Story (Wikinomics is another fave) so will look for the Business Stories book – btw, have you seen Microtrends by Mark Penn? That’s a really nice one with thousands of short “case-study” type prompts for getting students talking.

    I have to confess I got a little lost in 5, re verbal and non-verbal languages and unless I am quite confused with regard to your point, I do not agree at all that words need to written and seen before existing.

    We humans make up words all the time and name or rename or recreate words made up of older words all the time… I don’t think there is an order, it’s based on context – sometimes an idea that simply needs a way of being written… e.g. Google instead of googol.


  3. Hi Andrew and thank you for a truly wonderful post!

    First of all, I was happy to read about the power of stories – I have been thinking a lot about it this year, as I teach mainly adults. Many are the times they ask me to tell them a story! It hit me as odd in the beginning. What kinds of stories they want to hear? About my life in Canada and Greece, how I like Switzerland and such. Then it is a good opportunity for them to take turns and tell us their story, whatever they would like to narrate!

    I loved how you said that your life is inseparable from teaching – it is the same for me as well, an extension to my character. I wish you the very best to keep on writing and teaching! Thank you again!

    Lindsay, many many thanks for having Andrew write on your blog!

    Kindest regards and many thanks,

  4. Hello Andrew

    How lovely to hear your voice here – and it does come through so resonantly whatever the font!

    I totally share your passion for stories and belief in the way we construct our lives around stories. By coincidence, I have just got to ‘S for Storytelling’ in my ABC of teaching children. There was a fabulous contribution there on Friday from David Valente and he ended with a very apposite quote from your wonderful book on storytelling: “We need stories for our minds like we need food for our bodies”. Do pop over and see if you have a moment as I think you may enjoy reading what David said in its entirety:

    Re not being able to retire, can completely understand what you say – if your work is your life, and your life is your work then how can you possibly separate the two. Sounds a great personal move though to be focussing on your life stories rather than ELT books after all these years and will really look forward to reading these – no doubt with all the poignancy, wisdom and humour that you bring to all your stories.


  5. Thanks for your insights, and for your great book “Storytelling With Children,” which I really enjoyed using in class: and the kids I was teaching really enjoyed the activities we did from it, too!

    All best wishes


  6. You certainly have some agreeable opinions and views. Your blog provides a fresh look at the subject.

  7. I love reading your site because you can constantly get us fresh and cool stuff, I feel that I must at least say thanks for your hard work.

    – Henry

  8. Dear Folks
    I am so moved by the things you have said. Like any teacher I feel it is such a relief and such a pleasure to receive happy feedback.

    YOu are right to take me to task about my assertion that words have no existence except through voice or writing.
    It would be a quibble to modify my assertion by saying that the brain’s ability to conceive words which have never been seen or heard before can only exist through the initial experience of the notion of words which are seen or heard. Not being a philosopher or academic it would be shrewder of me not to get myself into a hole in the first place so…thank you for pointing it out.

    How is the following for an avoidance of ‘hole’?

    Our common experience of words is by seeing them or hearing them. Sometimes the design of the writing and sometimes the quality of the speaking is harmonious with the meaning of the words manifested and sometimes disharmonious eg try saying ‘thank you’ and showing you dont mean it.
    In spite of the over simplicity of my initial argument which ignores Shakespeare’s ability to add 1500 words and phrases to the English language we are still left with a huge and largely ignored fact (in language teaching) that words are normally part of a duet, chamber music or full orchestra together with a huge variety of non verbal languages. In language teaching we usually concentrate on words as a solo instrument when they rarely are.
    Given our access, these days, to the sophisticated technologies of visual presentation and sound recording it does seem reasonable to suggest that we should take the other instruments of communication which harmonise or disharmonise with words, more into account.
    Lindsay, thank you so much for giving me space and the opportunity to discuss and to learn.

  9. Lindsay, thank you so much for inviting Andrew to contribute. Helen & Andrew, thank you so much for reminding me of this blog through your exchanges on the YLTSIG list. Andrew – Thank you alone for sharing somehow very moving thoughts expressed with highly appreciated twists of Andrew-originality. Dennis

  10. Let me join the chorus of English teachers expressing gratitude for your insights and reflections.

    Stories matter – especially when many students feel that they have few places to be heard. That’s one reason I like to use public radio resources like and which provide insights into the everyday lives and powerful experiences of individuals in the English classroom. By listening and struggling to understand the stories of other humans, the students both explore their environment and gain confidence in sharing their stories. Working with both more advanced graduate students and adult students in the United States, it’s often possible to have students go on to record their own personal experiences or give class presentation. The website , especially the shorter video presentations with transcripts (and often translations) works too.

    Thank you, again, for sharing your stories of teaching, reflecting, and surfing “on the driving swell of social change.”

  11. Loving the information on this website , you have done great job on the content .

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