On the Profession

ELTN: How has the ELT field changed since you started in the profession?

PV: I started teaching at the end of my first year at university, teaching German summer vacation students. I was about three years older than the students. In those days the materials were total rubbish, and I discarded them and taught from Simon and Garfunkel and Beatles records instead. I started teaching full time in 1971, and materials quickly started getting better. Robert O’Neill’s Kernel lessons Intermediate was the first fully-satisfying course book I taught. By the late 70s, things were getting vastly more professional. The RSA exams were a major influence on that. Things took a dive after 1980, with teachers in a worse position than they had been in the late 70s.

American English courses have changed from a ‘So you want to immigrate into the USA’ approach to an American English as an international language approach that brought it closer to British ELT.

When I started, there were a small number of textbooks available, and the number then increased hugely, though it appears to be contracting as publishers merge.

In twenty years of travelling, I’ve seen the standards of non-native speaker teachers improve most dramatically. Their English is better, their skills far greater.

On Teaching

ELTN: Some of your course books have accompanying videos. How effective is the use of videos in language learning? Will they become more widespread?

PV: This is my hobby-horse. If I were running a language school now, I’d have a TV in every classroom, and I’d use it in most lessons. Short courses would be based entirely on video materials. Most video books provide a great deal of work that is inspired by the video students have watched, but don’t require the use of video in the later lessons. English Channel is already being used as the only coursebook on some short courses. On longer courses, video would still be a vital element. It’s insane that audio-cassettes and CDs are used so much more widely than video. There are all sorts of listening comprehension, pronunciation and mechanical activities that require the use of audio, but for providing a context and embracing communication skills work, video is unbeatable.

There are now a decent number of video courses available. Our stuff leans heavily towards fiction and comedy, but you can get songs, documentary material, “vox pop” material, news based material and so on as well. The technology is improving. We’ve been using the original version on of “A Close Shave” DVD rather than videotape in working on an ELT adaptation this year. The access to points in the video is so much easier, the tape isn’t going to wear out and the picture is sharper. DVD won’t be the perfect answer yet. The “jog/shuttle” control on video machines makes it much easier to play around repeating words or sentences than with DVD machines. You can easily locate single frames with video. It’s slightly more hit and miss with DVD on a computer, with a nasty tendency for digital break-up to intrude when you keep going over the same few frames. They say that Apple have corrected some of the problems with DVD playback and it will run better in system OS.X. Whatever, it’s going to be perfect very soon indeed.

Once we’d finished the adaptation and re-recorded the soundtrack, we were back to video anyway as we need a time-coded copy (where you have an index number for every frame – remember there are twenty five frames a second on PAL, thirty on NTSC) to locate stills for use in the accompanying book.

A good teacher doesn’t even need a blackboard, but video is such an asset that it has to become universal in the classroom, and the sooner the better. Teachers always quote prices as prohibitive, comparing them with (e.g.) a store-bought copy of “The Phantom Menace.’ As with hard disk space and microchips, video will get cheaper. Do you realize that CDs and DVDs are cheaper to manufacture than cassettes and videotapes? Nonetheless, manufacturers get away with charging a premium for them. But ELT videos will always be far more expensive than movies or concerts. The formula is simple: production cost divided by likely sales. ELT videos sell a few thousand. The Phantom Menace sells many millions. I know how much these ELT videos cost to make, and believe me the publishers aren’t ripping anyone off. And in “Only in America”” you even get to have Edward Norton in your classroom. “Only in America” is the title that gets most hits on our ELT website (www.viney.uk.com) I was thrilled because it’s my favourite of our videos. Then we analysed the hits and found that many of them came from within the USA (where we haven’t sold many copies). We followed some links and found that it’s linked from several Edward Norton fan websites.

ELTN: The use of multimedia and the Internet is becoming increasingly popular in ELT. What are your views on this?

PV: Dull exercises on a computer are nearly as dull as dull exercises in a book or on a tape. The problem with computers is material. The internet is a huge resouce and it’s largely in English. Everyone’s been trying to create useful ELT computer materials, then web materials for years, and we’ve wasted many hours on aborted projects. I suspect really good purpose-made material will only arrive once publishers have discovered a foolproof way of getting paid for their efforts in small increments. Does the student want to pay $5 by credit card to download some activities? Probably not. But say it becomes 10 cents an exercise? Possibly, but then there has to be a system for paying in 10 cent (or one cent) blocks and for collecting lots and lots of tiny sums of money. And they haven’t worked one out yet. I can’t see the necessary investment being made until they’ve found a solution.

You’ll need enough fast connections in the country to allow video and audio to be delivered at a better speed (which is coming). You’ll need improvements in video (which are just about there already). Download time for video may have been the single factor that’s been slowing this all up. Storage space was next, but with recordable DVD drives it’s all getting more feasible.

On Japan

ELTN: What do you think of the ELT scene in Japan? What changes have you seen since you first arrived here?

PV: The first time I was in Japan was 1979 or 1980, and I came every alternate year until about six years ago. I haven’t been at all recently. I felt the country changed enormously in that period of time. Things became more westernized, but the West changed to. I can get sushi at my local supermarket in Britain (not as good as the real thing, I hasten to add. I think tinned tuna wrapped in rice rather loses the point!) On my first visit I seemed to be at colleges or universities far more. Actually, a surprising number of faces stayed the same – my first meal in Osaka way back then was with OUP and Jack Richards. Robert O’Neill was at the same book fair in Osaka. I remember we foolishly volunteered to help carry the book exhibition tables downstairs together. As with everywhere else in the world, the students have changed more than the methodology. This generation has a different attitude to the more widespread education system. There is more incentive to learn English too.

Do you remember your first experience of teaching a Japanese student?
(Michael – I’ve amended the question!)

PV: Not specifically. It would have been on my first day at Anglo-Continental, where we always had a significant number of Japanese students. I would have taught my first all-Japanese class there too. That was one year when they did an “English + Golf” course with English lessons in the mornings. After I’d left home, my mother used to be a “landlady” for students from Eurocentre, and she’d had a lot of Japanese students staying with her before I ever started teaching full-time, so the accent and problem areas were already familiar. What was good, in retrospect, was that my first meetings with Japanese people were in a social setting not a teaching situation. I still remember private lessons from 1971. One gentleman from Sony presented me with a tiny radio that was the envy of all my friends for about three years. Then of course everyone had them.

On Publications

ELTN: How did you get into writing course textbooks?

PV: The same way that everyone else does. I was dissatisfied with the material I was teaching. I was teaching at Anglo-Continental in Bournemouth, England. When I started there in 1971, the school already had a research and development department and its own recording studio. My first boss was Colin Granger (Generation 2000 author) and he used to write stuff, we’d record it at lunchtime and use it in the afternoon. His material was always funny and lively. So I always expected to write material. This policy continued when Bernie and I were testing ideas for Streamline. We’d write it, have it typed, letrasetted and illustrated. We’d record it the next day, duplicate tapes, and teach it. Our brief was to prepare something that could be used both by very experienced teachers and by very inexperienced teachers. The first pilot version was heavily illustrated (there’s lots about the original version on our website). Streamline spawned so many other projects – higher levels, the graded reading scheme, then eventually the videos – that it became a full time occupation just after Connections was published.

ELTN: You’ve been writing course books since the 80’s. What aspects of course design has remained the same? What changes have you experienced?

PV: I’ve been through plenty of changes myself. The materials I was writing just before Streamline were functionally-arranged, and Streamline was a return to a careful structural progression after trying it in other ways. We’ve seen trends come into ELT, and they don’t then “go”, they leave a mark and become absorbed into the broader concept we have of the syllabus. By the time we started on Grapevine, and Main Street, we were bringing in a more balanced skills approach. The “back to grammar” trend in the late 80s influenced us into having fuller grammar summaries and more explicit focus. Learner autonomy ideas were influential on Grapevine, and even more so on Main Street. Video materials were important too. In the 90s we became convinced that communication skills could shape the syllabus, and the result was Handshake, which hasn’t had the world-shattering success we’d hoped for. I still think it’s just ahead of its time.

The structural syllabus hasn’t changed that much overall. Books look better, but I so often see splashy photos from CD-ROM royalty-free photo collections all over textbooks. There’s a German CD-ROM of business people in photos that gets into every book I pick up. The point is that these stock photos don’t do much. Illustrations are a vital resource. They should be rich in exploitable detail and should explain as well as look pretty. So you have to commission art and photography. We used professional actors in photos in Survival, Basic Survival and Handshake. It might not be the prize-winning artistic photo, but it shows what you want it to show. I shake my head when I see things like a huge photo of a bee taking up 70% of the page with six questions about work below. The illustration has done nothing except create a good initial impression. If I need to explain “bee” to a class, I only have to say “buzz.”

Textbooks are unjustly maligned by some teacher trainers, which does no one, teachers or students, a service. Students spend a precious and finite number of hours in an English course, and it’s only by having some kind of carefully thought out procedure and progression that the effect can be maximised. Trainers encourage trainees to “do their own thing” and they should … sometimes. But too often topical material that is taken into the classroom results in the teacher explaining vocabulary most of the time. You need to assess your own material in comparison with a textbook. The textbook will (or rather should) be recycling vocabulary and structures in a way that can’t happen with one-off pieces of material. Eventually, you might gather a selection of great one-off lessons that you can present in a logical order, but then you’ve already started writing your own book.

ELTN: Streamline is the core text for one of the biggest conversation schools in Japan. Are you surprised that a book written in the 80’s is still being used today?

PV: “American Streamline” was written in the early 80s, but it’s based on the British “Streamline English” which was actually written in the late 70s. “Streamline English” is still being used in its British edition in Europe too, and its older. I’m gratified and honoured that “American Streamline” is still being used, yes. Surprised? No. It works. No one goes up to a singer and says “I’m surprised the radio is still playing your hit song from 1982”. The original book was tested over two years with 3000 students, in monolingual and multilingual situations with many language groups. That’s why it works. I spend my days trying to think of new contexts and ways of teaching things, but when it comes down to a context for the simple past of regular verbs, while including all three pronunciations of the –ed endings and all the spelling rules, I still can’t come up with anything as complete and neat as “Willy the Kid.” It’s a timeless context which hasn’t dated.

Because we used a lot of fiction / media based contexts, they haven’t aged too badly. Elton Kash can still be used with a smile, while later “hot musicians” used in other books at the time have dated themselves out of existence. Contexts on groups like ABC, Ultravox, New Kids on The Block or whoever are of no interest to a new generation. An over-the-top sitcom figure survives much better.

The thing about Streamline is that the student was provided with what they needed for that lesson and no more. The meat of the course was in the Teacher’s Book. This left the teacher free to choose how to present the material. Teachers are not left slogging through exercises A1.1 (a) to D8. 3 (e) in the order they’re printed in the textbook. The Streamline Teacher’s Book is prescriptive in tone, because that saves a lot of space. But the students can’t see the Teacher’s Book. You can teach it however you want. I’d happily teach from it tomorrow.

“New American Streamline” was a thorough update in 1995, and I was delighted with the results. I wish OUP would do the same to the British version, but they won’t.

I’m so heavily identified with “Streamline” that it’s sometimes good to be asked about something else. Recently I was in a bookshop, and was introduced by name to a young teacher. I was delighted when he said, “Oh, yes! The author of Handshake!”

What advice would you give to prospective textbook/material writers? What essential points must be covered before submitting proposals and ideas to publishers?

PV: Never discuss contracts in a place where alcohol is served? That’s probably unfair. I did and I wasn’t ripped off. The fabled publishing lunches of days gone by no longer exist, if they ever did. It’s all much harder than it used to be. The ten or twelve significant international publishers who were operating when I started writing are now down to just four mega international publishers. That’s an extremely bad thing for writers, editors, students and teachers. All of us in this profession suffer from the resultant MacDonaldization of ELT. There are not enough markets for your material.

First, be original, use stuff that you know works. People have often told me what the next major coursebook might be. Whatever is it, it’ll be different from the last one. It won’t be a clone of Streamline, Cambridge Course, Interchange or Headway. Avoid “Me too!” writing. Don’t plagiarize. I could fill a book with stuff that’s been “lifted” from Streamline, Grapevine, Main Street and Handshake, particularly Handshake in recent years.

When you meet with publishers, get outside advice about contracts. They are not fixed, they’re just word processed to look like it. The Society of Authors in Britain will provide guides to contracts, copyright etc. The guides are free to members, and available at a small charge to non-members. See www.writers.org.uk/society. If you get a deal, or look like getting one, join a writers organization. It’s worth it. We’ve been professional writers for twenty years, and we still make mistakes because of our trusting nature. Ask for a contract early on, and failing this ask for a letter of intent to publish. Be aware that there’s a very long gap between writing something and earning money from it. I’m talking years here! A single level of a coursebook can take two years to write with a further two or three years of piloting, reports, editing and production. It’ll be at least two years after publication before it earns anything sensible, and then the publisher sits on the money for six months before they pay the author. That’s just the way it is.

Submitting ideas: Look at the catalogues, find out who publishes which coursebook. It might not be important to you, but it’s important to them. Then speak to the ELT representatives from the publishers when they call at your school. Get the name of an editor interested in your area. Ask the rep to mention that you’ll be writing to them, so your letter doesn’t come out of the blue. Write an introductory letter with c.v. and a brief synopsis of your idea. They’ll probably ask to see a rationale, approximate syllabus / chapter list and two sample completed units. Write a full art brief for any pictures you need. Volunteer to read and pilot material for the publisher. Once the publisher gets to know you, through (say) writing good reports for them, you might be offered work on materials for courses they already have. This might be teacher’s guides, or resource packs or workbooks. It’s going to be easier to get a foot in the door with smaller-scale projects, like photocopiable resource packs, readers, supplementary titles than with a six year course. For minor projects, publishers might suggest a fee rather than a royalty. That’s OK if it’s a test pack or photocopiables that are being given away by the publisher. Once you’ve committed to a major project, always stick out for a royalty, and whenever possible an advance.

Prospective authors often ask me about copyright and clearly harbour fears that publishers will rip off the material. I don’t think this is a realistic fear with the vast majority of publishers.

Can I use the opportunity to be cruel to be kind? We must have seen five or six suggestions for Monopoly-style board games based on Streamline, and another couple on Grapevine. None of them have been published because the market for such a game would never, never cover production costs. Do think this through if you have an elaborate and unusual project.

On Peter

ELTN: What has been your greatest satisfaction from working in the ELT profession?

PV: It’s been a privilege to meet so many people of different nationalities. I’ve travelled a great deal, and had the chance to be introduced to countries by the people who live in them. That’s the deepest personal satisfaction.

The most fun I’ve had has been filming the videos. It rarely feels like fun when you’re standing in freezing fog on Exmoor at the end of a 15 hour filming day, but there are enough magic moments to compensate. Writing is a lonely activity and it’s great to get outside and work with a video production crew. You have twenty or twenty five people focussed on a common purpose.

ELTN: What do you see yourself doing in 5 years time? Is another course in the pipeline?

PV: There’s always another one in the pipeline. We’re currently working on the Student Book to the ELT adaptation of Wallace and Gromit in “A Close Shave”, which should be out by the start of 2001. Video activity books are much faster than standard coursebooks, because you don’t start writing until the video is finished, which means the text is set, and the source of illustrations is set. Five years is not that long in main course book writing. For example, that’s how long Grapevine took for three levels.

We’ve been working hard on a full new course for eighteen months, but its destiny is still unsettled. It’s time for us to start on a major series again. We’ve had time to accumulate new ideas and contexts.

Five years time? Hopefully, the new course will be finished (and published) and we’ll be working less. I expect that the internet will have had sufficient impact by then to change the means of distribution of material. The positive scenario sees this as a way of authors connecting directly with users. The more negative view (or “The Microsoft Belief”) suggests that there will be even less choice with the big publishers dominating everything. Pearson and AOL are working together already. The Internet should have allowed more choice, but think about it, how many web browsers are there? Effectively just the two.

I’d like to be writing more of the things I haven’t had time to work on, such as mainstream fiction, and books on rock music. I’d like to be doing more ELT videos. Karen and I keep working on ideas for non-ELT sitcoms between things.

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