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Interview of the authors

(From ELT News: The Website for English Teachers in Japan,

(To see the interview in the ELT News site, click here.)

ELT: Allen, first to you. You seem to wear many hats: teacher, teacher-trainer, author, administrator and publisher. You seem to be best known as the author of Think about Editing: A Grammar Editing Guide for ESL Writers. Can you tell us a bit about that popular book?

AA: In terms of my many hats, I believe I'm very fortunate to have had the opportunity to view materials writing from a number of different perspectives, as well to have met and heard about the experiences of so many teachers around the world. Think About Editing was written out of my experience teaching writing to intermediate students. I found (as most teachers do) that, although students had had previous exposure to key basic grammar points, they still continued to make errors with that grammar in their writing.

The book was designed to raise their "grammar awareness" so they could self-correct more readily — an approach I found worked successfully in my classes. It has been very rewarding to hear from a number of teachers using the text that they have observed significant results.


ELT: And Joan, you're no slouch either! Your resume includes jobs such as teacher, teacher-trainer, editor, and public speaker, with your teaching experience varying from EFL in Chile to workplace English at a General Motors auto assembly plant in New York. What aspect of your work gives you the most satisfaction?

JS: It may seem strange, but I consider all aspects of my experience part of the same whole. It's hard for me to separate teaching, teacher-training, and authorship of textbooks and courses for teachers. Each of my "jobs" informs the others. In fact, I don't think I would be able to create materials without having had the experience of teaching and working with teachers who use my materials and the materials of other authors. Similarly, my work as a teacher and teacher-trainer is enhanced by my ability to get maximum benefit from materials. And when I am asked to speak to groups of teachers, I like to think that the integration of my teaching experience into the authorship of my published works is the reason I am asked to speak. I hope this is the value that participants in my workshops derive from them.


ELT: And how did you both come to work together on your new series, Top Notch?

Answered by Joan for both Allen and Joan: We have worked together as editors on a variety of projects since 1993, beginning with Longman's Focus on Grammar series. We next collaborated in the editorial directorship of the True Colors series. Allen was my editor on Workplace Plus and Literacy Plus, and through the years we have developed the shared belief that materials need to be specialized to the needs of learners and teachers in either the "ESL" or the "EFL" settings, not both. In other words, we are convinced the reality of the EFL setting requires materials specifically dedicated to that reality.

We have always enjoyed working together and, over the years, developed a successful working relationship based on a shared background, professional and personal trust, and mutual respect. Our co-authorship of Top Notch grew out of our common experience of years of teaching English in settings where the classroom was the only source of input and practice — the "EFL setting" — Allen's in China, and mine in Chile.


ELT: The publicity for Top Notch says that it "sets a new standard using the natural language that people really speak" and that it "empowers and motivates like no other course." Can you elaborate on those claims?

Answered by Joan for both Allen and Joan: That's brochure "advertising-ese" (and a little embarrassing!) for describing two important aspects of Top Notch: the use of corpora and the analysis and inclusion of conversation strategies. As you may know, Top Notch is a corpus-informed course backed by the extensive database of the Longman Corpus Network, and it uses both the Longman Spoken Corpus as well as the Learners' Corpus of Common Learner errors. In addition, Top Notch is also based on use of a broader, more informal corpus of spoken and written language including authentic interviews, real conversations, and authentic texts to ensure that conversation strategies are well understood and applied.

It is commonly accepted that conversation strategies must be part of a spoken syllabus — strategies such as ways to keep a conversation going, ways to soften conflict, etc. The mastery of conversation strategies is one aspect of "empowerment" (again "advertising-ese"!). We believe building conversation strategies into practical conversation models for productive manipulation and personalization provides students the social confidence to communicate with others in a new language.


ELT: What else distinguishes this series from others of its kind?

Answered by Joan for both Allen and Joan: Both pedagogy and content. Starting with pedagogy, learners in the EFL setting lack exposure to the English language and opportunities to practice. In our experience, textbooks don't come near to providing enough quantity or quality of input, opportunities for practice, or enough deliberate and varied recycling to make English memorable. Most textbooks present something, say on page 36, and then that language is never seen again after page 38! It's impossible to acquire a foreign language without enough multiple exposures, intensive practice, and systematic recycling to make it memorable. We wrote Top Notch to provide that to the student and the teacher in the EFL setting and for that reality because there simply are no materials that do that.

Considering content, if you look at the content of most published textbook series, you can see immediately that they are directed to a multicultural, multilingual class. The perspective of almost all textbooks is understanding life in the U.S. or in the U.K. However, students in the EFL setting are learning in mono-cultural, monolingual classes and preparing to use English to communicate largely with other non-native speakers from a variety of both familiar and unfamiliar cultures around the world.

The fact is that the center of students' English-speaking worlds is no longer the U.S. or Great Britain. We designed the content of Top Notch especially for that student and that student alone, not for the student seeking to immigrate or live in the U.S. That's part of what we referred to earlier when we said our shared belief is that materials should be designed either for the EFL setting or the ESL setting, not both.


ELT: How much do teachers actually use the course-specific websites to the series?

Answered by Joan for both Allen and Joan: The Top Notch course-specific website has just gone live so we don't have that information, but Pearson ELT's other course companion websites are heavily used because they provide real teaching and learning support, not just advertising.


ELT: Both of you have taught English to Japanese university students in the United States. From your experience of teaching students in and from other countries, do you see any particular qualities that set your Japanese students apart?

Answered by Joan for both Allen and Joan: Most educators agree that though Japanese students have an extremely good grounding in grammar, they have difficulty in free oral and written expression. One reason for this is a lack of exposure to real conversational English. The language and listening material in communicative courses comes as a bit of a shock when the pedagogy you've been exposed to is primarily reading and grammar-based. In our experience, however, Japanese students are much more confident and successful if they are provided with activities that give them a lot of support. Merely setting out a topic for discussion, even if students have learned the vocabulary and grammar necessary to discuss it, is not enough.

Japanese students, perhaps more than others, benefit from step-by-step language planning activities (such as note-padding, on-the-page reminders of language already known, surveys, realia, etc.) to help them frame their ideas and access the language that lies within them. We believe the fault lies more in the usual pedagogy found in textbooks than in the nationality of the student. For that reason, we have included in the Top Notch series a set of discussion practice activities ("Top Notch Interactions") specifically designed for the student who needs this sort of support.

Without systematic support (such as that provided in activities like the "Top Notch Interactions"), many Japanese students are unlikely to participate fully in class discussions, and therefore they will not develop the essential ability to express themselves freely. Expression, finally, is one of the most important goals of language study, but without practice, students don't grow. And then what some may think is a lack of ability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We, however, have both had positive results with Japanese students in classroom discussions. When the pedagogy of the classroom and the textbook provide enough support, Japanese students are able to speak more fluently, accurately, confidently, freely, and with greater complexity. Author Marc Helgeson pointed that out in a panel discussion on the research basis for textbook development at International TESOL in San Antonio in 2005. And our own experience with Japanese students confirms this assertion.


ELT: You've both been in Japan recently. Do you notice any changes in university English teaching here?

Answered by Joan for both Allen and Joan: Over the years, we've heard from a number of teachers and administrators that students are entering universities at a much lower level of English proficiency. The low-beginning learner — or very weak false-beginner — requires much more language support and opportunities for controlled practice than in the past. So this led us to begin our series Top Notch with a Fundamentals level, a highly enriched yet very low level communicative textbook to provide a thorough grounding in the "fundamentals": fundamental grammar, social language, conversation strategies, and vocabulary.

In our experience, many "starter level" or "opener" level textbooks assume too much prior knowledge and ability, so we wanted to create a textbook that would build confidence while still respecting the adult student who may have had years of prior study. Key to confidence-building is making sure students receive multiple exposures to each new language taught, lots of opportunities for varied practice so they will remember it, and a tremendous amount of recycling.


ELT: Allen, you've taught in China. How do you see the English teaching industry developing there over the next decade or so?

AA: I was there way back in 1985 through 1987, and at that time English classes were very "grammar translation." Some language institutes were just opening up to more communicative methodologies, and I had the opportunity to observe some phenomenal teachers — but they were the ones who tended to move overseas to Australia, the U.S., or the U.K., rather than contributing to the profession in China.

In my speaking classes, many students had the same reluctance to speak that so many Japanese students have. There were, of course, always a few talkative students who desperately wanted to converse with me, and the easy thing to do would have been to chat with them and ignore the rest. So they were usually quite shocked when I continued to insist on class participation by all students. Everything in China has changed so much since that time, so I'm sure language teaching has also seen some great leaps forward (if you'll excuse my choice of words!).


ELT: Joan, last year you gave a plenary entitled, "Irresistible English: How to Keep Adult Students Coming Back for More." No doubt, many school owners in Japan would love to hear what you had to say...

JS: Adults face a choice when enrolling in an English course and usually pay money for their instruction. Making English "irresistible" means understanding their needs and desires and constructing a course around content and pedagogy that is highly appealing. We mentioned content and pedagogy earlier, and we feel that all course and textbook content decisions should be geared to the real needs of the learner. Adults find relevant, practical content irresistible and are irritated by boring, irrelevant content. They know well how they will be using English outside of class.

Adults, unlike children, choose to enroll in English courses. They have limited time. They don't want to be infantilized or embarrassed by the classroom. Most important, they need to see tangible progress in each class session and need to see progress in each course. For each class session, students must know what the communication goal is and actually achieve that goal in a communication activity before leaving class. We have written lessons with that in mind. When students see progress and learn content that is relevant to their use of English as an international language, they re-enroll. Word gets around fast when a school provides that kind of value.


ELT: Thank you both for taking the time to talk with us.

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