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.