An Author Responds

By Peter Viney. Published in “Between The Keys” The Newsletter of the JALT Material Writers SIG, Volume VII, Number 2, Summer 1999

This article was a response to an article on the impact of American Streamline on methodology in Japan.

I was interested to see Robert H. Long’s article on American Streamline. which was passed on to me. No one objects to being credited with a classic. I felt there were some factual points worth making.

• I’m flattered to be named as “principal author”, but the original editions were a 50/50 collaboration with Bernard Hartley. This misapprehension probably arises because I have often visited Japan to talk about the series. In Latin America, where Bernard has travelled extensively they would probably see it the other way round. However, I was responsible for the revisions.

• I agree that the introductory note in the 1995 edition is questionable (This approach is based on recent research into language acquisition and on extensive classroom experience.) We should have deleted the underlined section in 1995, which had carried over from the first edition. I’m more than happy with the rest of the sentence, Streamline was originally piloted with over 3000 students in monolingual and multilingual situations. The revised New American Streamline was based on interviews and questionnaires from hundreds of teachers.

• The new edition Teacher’s Book incorporates ideas from the Teacher’s Extras to the original edition, and these promote further personalization and classroom interaction.

Robert H. Long’s article is designed for aspiring authors, but I think he fails to mention some of the reasons, the secrets, if you like, of the book’s success. When it was revised the approach was exactly “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” as he says and revisions were based on extensive surveys. The units which were least popular, and felt to be least effective were replaced. Listening was added. These changes were more extensive than it would appear from the article and are described in some detail on my website, in the New American Streamline article.

I’m going to ignore the entire methodological debate and tell you why I think the book has been successful.

• First and last, it works. Students learn. No book, however hard it’s hyped, succeeds for more than a couple of years unless this is true.

• The dialogues show an ear for language, particularly minimal language. This we called “formulas and fixed expressions”. In 1999 it would be described as “lexical chunking.” We felt that some of the minimal language was altered to its detriment in the first American edition. Our original intent was restored in New American Streamline.  Only this week I discussed the series with a group of teachers from Brazil. The thing they thought most important was “real language” in the Everyday Conversation sections.

• The structural contexts are memorable and often funny. This is what students and teachers have been telling us for years.

• The Student’s Book does not dictate methodology. Our method is only in the Teacher’s Book. You can use the core material in any manner or style. In so many books, the Student’s Book more or less contains the Teacher’s Book. So there’s only one way to teach them. This is not true for Streamline (nor for Main Street where alternate routes are given for the teacher). Lots of users don’t like our method, but they like the core material. No problem. We gave a very disciplined, thorough lesson plan because we know what it’s like teaching six classes on a wet Monday. But we always assumed creative teachers would adapt the material and teach it in their own way (except perhaps on wet Mondays).

• The layout is clear. The pictures are good … and useful and purpose-made. In 1999 attractive looking books can be thrown together with stock CD-ROM photos. But the illustrations don’t do their job unless they are designed for a purpose.
• Students get a sense of rapid movement. They don’t spend five or six lessons on one topic area.

• A lot of work was done below the surface. The structural progression is carefully thought out.

• While the core of the series is the Student Book, with a heavy focus on spoken English, Workbook sales have been good throughout its life, and we have added other components with a different approach - Departures / Connections in Reading, Streamline Graded Readers (now Storylines ), the video series A Weekend Away and A Week By The Sea, the Speechwork language laboratory materials. These integrated compents give students alternative approaches. Student book sales increased after the videos appeared.

Writing a textbook is like other forms of creative writing. Here’s my advice:

• Hone your ear for dialogue. This means watching TV with awareness, listening to colleagues, noting how language is really used. The adaptors of the original American Streamline followed the British edition and taught “Here you are” early. When I began to spend more time in the USA, I observed that “There you go” was far more frequent. The new edition has “There you go.”

• Make sure you know the “nuts and bolts” of the language backwards, forwards and sideways. I’ve seen recent beginners’ books that “forget” to teach possessive adjectives, or demonstratives or countability or whatever. They just use the structures without seeming awareness that they are new to the students, and fail to present them in any systematic way. This is careless to incompetent. Even if your approach never mentions grammar, never teaches structure, you, the writer, have to be aware of the structure and difficulty of every single word.

• Research stuff for yourself. I just looked through a pile of recent course books which agree that banks in the UK are open from 9.30 to 3.30. Then I went out and photographed the boards in some bank windows. Some are 9.30 to 4.30, some are 9.00 to 5.00, and The Royal Bank of Scotland is 9.15 to 4.45.

• Don’t leave the picture research entirely to the publisher. Describe exactly what you want in a picture. Better still, find the pictures yourself. Describe requested illustrations in great detail.

• Don’t plagiarise. As well as being so supposedly influential, Streamline has been shamelessly plagiarised. I saw a copy of a book the other day that not only used the same 007/M situation for a dialogue, but also used it for the same structure. The most successful books don’t copy others.

• Don’t try to be the “next” anything. At one time everyone was trying to write a Streamline clone. Recently everyone has been trying to do a Headway clone. The next major success won’t be a clone of anything. It will be totally different and establish its own character. I had hoped it was going to be Handshake .

Finally, please do visit our website. If you want to know about my ideas on methodology in the late 1990s, then look at Handshake, especially the Teacher’s Book. It’s totally different from New American Streamline, but I’m equally proud of both of them.

Peter Viney

Poole, Dorset
April 1999

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