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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

March 2005

Topic: What ELT books influenced you most as a teacher?

Peter Viney

The books that influenced you as a teacher betray your age, because surely some of the most influential ones must come early on. I've restricted it to ELT books (textbooks, applied linguistics, teacher training, grammar, dictionaries etc). So here are my five choices.

Julian Dakin, 'The Language Laboratory & Language Learning'
(Longman, 1973) Out-of-print
I just started looking through my bookshelves to get the information, and this has now attained legendary status, because I haven't even got a copy. (Make note: NEVER lend books … either give them away or offer to buy copies for people, but loaning is the same as disposing of). So its contents grow in my mind like the songs on an album you remember from your youth, but have never been able to find a copy of.

First of all, it hasn't got much to do with language laboratories. Labs were universally popular at the time of publication and he does look at the techniques for various types of oral exercise. What fascinated me most was the invented language he uses as examples of exercise types, Novish. The reader has to work out the rules of Novish from the direct method exercises and every rule is based on a real rule in one language or another. You can try out an exercise in Novish by following this link.

What the book did most was make me think about English grammar from the learner's point of view. However, I can't say I've looked at it regularly because I hadn't noticed its loss!

“I believe that textbooks have had vastly more influence on what happens in the classroom than applied linguistics books.”

Robert O'Neill, 'English in Situations'
(Oxford University Press, 1968) Out-of-print
My agenda becomes apparent. I believe that textbooks have had vastly more influence on what happens in the classroom than applied linguistics books, because they are the filter through which teachers get the new ideas. Headway has had more influence on what happens on a daily basis than Krashen. O'Neill's English in Situations lasted around 35 years, but seems to be out of print now. It had no illustrations. It was in three sections and presented problem areas of grammar in neat contrastive pairs at different levels. It was an ideal stand-by because whenever a question came up in class you could find a short, clever contextualization with a careful set of questions that led students to the contrast. English in Situations set a whole approach and its strong influences can be seen in the selection and ordering of structures in a wide range of current intermediate textbooks.

On the negative side, it tended to avoid those areas of grammar which did not contrast neatly, and that's something which has continued. It emphasized the teachable over everything else. Teachability is a criterion for selection that you can get away with at the middle levels, but which leaves dangerous gaps lower down, and is irrelevant higher up. For example, I maintain that most coursebooks devote far more space to comparatives than they're worth communicatively, because they're easy to teach and codify and students give a satisfying "Ah!" after explanations.

L.G. Alexander, 'First Things First,' Teacher's Book
(Longman, 1967)
It was already looking old when I started teaching, and at first I hated this book. But the teacher's book introduction and interleaved notes were highly influential. It wasn't the first interleaved teacher's book (I think that was Realistic English, OUP, which was also spiral bound, which First Things First wasn't.) The notes and summaries were very basic and were unashamedly dull, but for a novice teacher they provided a get up and do it possibility. The introduction was a compact mini training course.

The student book was never a favourite (awful illustration, wooden recordings), but the very short illustrated dialogues put the onus on the teacher and the teacher's book to provide an active lesson using the student book as a springboard. You didn't just plow through a range of activities on the page, YOU the teacher provided them from the teacher's book, which the students hadn't seen, so it kept the lesson lively and active. You never had to say 'Turn to Module 4, Section A, Listening, Exercise 4, Part 2.' either.

As for the student book, Alexander had analyzed structural progression for beginners, with only one new structural item per lesson, more thoroughly than anyone else. He was not a great contextualizer but he was a superb analyst. Later, Louis Alexander worked with W. Stannard-Allen and R.A. Close and Robert O'Neill to produce English Grammatical Structure (Longman, 1975), a reference book which broke the language into six stages, with thirty logical steps within each stage, complete with a lexicon for each stage. It was a course designer's dream and it made no attempt at frequency or usefulness, just a bare bones structural index. The course designer had to rework it in terms of function, vocabulary and usefulness, but at least one major task had been done.

Michael Lewis, 'The English Verb'
(LTP, 1986)
Michael Lewis is best known for The Lexical Approach (LTP, 1993), but this earlier volume is equally essential, if less well-known. Michael Lewis rethinks the structure and meaning of the verb system, and comes up with novel and fascinating practical 'rules'. For example, he defines the use of some and any more accurately than any of the grammar books I have on my shelves. He can write too, which makes a change.

Jennifer Jenkins, 'The Phonology of English as an International Language'
(Oxford University Press, 2000)
If The Lexical Approach was the most read and quoted book of the last ten years, I'd like to think that Jennifer Jenkins will be the most influential of the next ten, in spite of a less than catchy title, and that mutual intelligibility will follow on from collocation as the buzz word. This is one you have to read. I've had unease about nit-picking pronunciation points based on native speaker examples for years and I found myself nodding in agreement again and again. Negative point ­ too many initials ­ IL, ILT, NS, NNS, MDH, DL1, SABE which could have been replaced with words by doing a search and change.

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Marc Helgesen

ELT books that influenced you? Hmm. This is pretty tough, especially for a panel like ours. Most of us have been teaching English since Kitty-chan was, uh, a kitten. A long time.

A basic rule of writing is to know both your audience and your purpose. Am I writing to remember and pay homage? To explore how I become the teacher I am? To give advice?

Books along the way all played ­ and continue to play ­ a role.

My earliest books were by people like Mary Finocchairo, Christana Bratt Paulston & Mary Bruder. Important for me. So that's a bit of remembrance. It's also past tense. Ignore it.

“ The late 70's and early 80's was the time of a paradigm shift: the heady days of the communicative revolution.”

When I think of books that were important for me early on, I think of the late 70's and early 80's. This was the time of a paradigm shift: the heady days of the communicative revolution (for those weren't teaching in those days, this period followed the communicative insurgency). Earl Stevick's A way and Ways explored alternative paths for teaching. It was the first book that inspired me to write a "fan" letter to the author. Later his Images and Options was an important learning, too. Alan Maley and Alan Duff's Drama Techniques and Viola Spolin's Improvisation opened my eyes to the range of options I have. This is an acknowledgement of what made me the teacher I am.

Peter (and he is absolutely correct) suggests that textbooks are more important that linguistics books. Curtis (and he is absolutely correct) looks more toward the overall knowledge a craftworker needs. I figure it starts from tools (and I am absolutely… out of words in this paragraph).

The first courses
The Strategies series (Starting Strategies (later Opening Strategies), Developing Strategies, Building Strat's, etc. - Brian Abbs and Ingrid Freebairn, 1979, Longman) and the Cambridge English Course (Michael Swan and Catherine Walter, 1984, CUP).

I came to Japan in 1982. I quickly learned that much of what I learned in grad school was either irrelevant or just plain wrong. I happened (just luck) to come to a very good eikaiwa school. They assigned the Strategies series for me to teach. These were sort of the second round of early "communicative" books. The first round was a mess in terms of curriculum. People were still trying to understand what the new approach meant. These books started to understand the complex nature of tasks and the complex nature of language. I credit these courses with teaching me how to teach EFL: Brian Abbs, Ingrid Freebairn, Michael Swan, Katherine Walter. Brilliant teachers (homage).

A little background. Strategies was British English. So was the Cambridge English Course. Back then, all the good EFL courses were. American publishing was ESL ­ it assumed immigrants. British EFL grew up in their world-wide empire (or what was left of it). I don't want to justify history. But the BrEng books were simply better for what we were trying to do. A lot of North American teachers refused to even try them. Bad idea. Later, in no small part because of independent publishers in places like Japan, there came to be a lot of EFL-appropriate books in American English. It gave people like me our break.

A couple things I learned:

  • Like Peter, I am suggesting that coursebooks train a lot more teachers than MA-TESOL courses, or even a CELTA/DELTA/TEFL In'tl certificate course ever will. And coursebooks are tempered by classroom reality. If it don't fly, people don't buy.
  • Given what coursebooks are and can be, have a look at the Teacher's Manual. There is usually a lot there for teachers at nearly every level.
  • Don't get uptight about surface stuff like dialect. Look at the activity design.
  • If you don't like the materials you find available, write something better.
  • Steve Brown, my co-author on lots of books including English Firsthand and Active Listening, did a retrospective plenary where he looked back at Strategies and one of our books. You can read that here. (The Steve Brown who is president of JALT is a different person. For information on the "Steve Brown confusion", click here.)

What books do I consider important now? Like a lot of teachers, I've got an office with bookshelves lined with hundreds of books. There are only a few that I keep on my desk, rather than on shelves. Perhaps this is for "evaluation by proximity" ­ if I want to always have them less than a meter away, they must be important. So this part is advice.

The books on my desk
A dictionary. I happen to like the Longman Dictionary of Language and Culture, but must admit I hardly use any dictionaries anymore. On, you can type "define: (the word)" to get any meaning you want. Doesn't help with spelling but usually that is just a matter of trying one or two guesses.

Practical English Usage
3/ed. Michael Swan, 2005, Oxford
Nearly everyone already knows this ­ or at least they should. The usage discussions on the ETJ discussion list often contain questions that could easily be answered simply by looking it up in Swan.

I like PEU for a lot of reasons. The explanations are clear. They can help learners understand how the grammar of English works. Also, things are easy to access. If you want to know the difference between the usage of must and have to, you can look up modal auxiliary verbs. Or you can look up must or have to. stop signImportant point: Don't buy this book just yet. There is a new edition coming soon. (Next month, maybe. See the link above). It will be based on what we are learning from corpus data about how the language actually works. I haven't seen it yet but know that the current edition was enough of an improvement from the earlier one to make it worth buying. I am sure the is one will be too.

The Owner's Manual for the Brain: Everyday applications from mind-brain research
2/ed. Pierce J. Howard, 2000, Bard Press (available from Amazon)
I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how my students process information and how I do. And how I can present information in a way they can make use of it. This book is a godsend. It explains brain research in a way we mere mortals (as opposed to neurology researchers who are simultaneously brilliant and unable to write comprehensibly) can understand. And each section includes applications and ways to experiment with the information. It has helped me with everything from how to explain communicative rapport to figuring out what color of carpet we should put in the conversation classroom (blue, with some red accents around the room).

Practical English Language Teaching
David Nunan, editor. 2003. McGraw-Hill (ELT News review)
I work with a lot of new teachers: graduating students who are soon going into their own classroom, JALT & ETJ members who don't have a lot of formal training but want to improve their skills. This is an introductory methodology text that I think has a good balance of theory and practical advice. An interesting thing about it is that all the people who wrote chapters are academics who are also successful authors of classroom material. The idea being that this is some guarantee that they can actually write, not always a given in academia. By the way, Peter is right about lending books. This is only a couple years old and think I'm on my third copy. (Full disclosure: I have a chapter in this book but so do a lot of other people).
OK, I'm cheating now. This isn't actually a book. But up until a couple years ago, I always had a huge clipart book on my desk. And my computer is on my desk so it is almost the same. Like a lot of teachers, I make a lot of materials for my students. Design is part of the content. I don't try to make things look finished and professional. If I put something in a book, the publisher will have someone who can do that far better than I ever could. But having graphics and a clear, simple design makes it a lot easier to really test material and see how it works. has something over 5,000,000 pieces of clipart. I haven't used them all (yet) but it is very easy to search. It costs a bit to join ($170/ year ­ that's expensive but ¥17,000 for a year of unlimited access is reasonable for a lot of us). You can also figure out what you need for the semester and join for a week (¥1,500) and download all you need. The stop sign above is from

It would be really interesting to hear from other teachers what books and resources you find useful. Why not use the message boards here on ELT News and let us know?

The "Steve Brown" confusion
My co-author on the English Firsthand series (Longman) and Active Listening (Cambridge) is Steve Brown. (Steve will be the lead author on the new edition of Active Listening)

The President of JALT is Steve Brown.

These are different people (who are often confused ­ with each other, I mean).

The Steve Brown I write with was in Japan for years. We started out in conversation schools in the early 80's. We both later went to the University of Pittsburgh English Language Institute ­ Japan Program, Tokyo where Steve eventually became director. Steve was very involved in JALT, being national program chair at one time. He eventually went back to the States, did a PhD at Pittsburgh and now teaches at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

The other Steve Brown, the president of JALT, has been in Japan 20 years. He is chair of the English Dept. at Assumption Junior College and will join Konan Women's University in Kobe from April. He has been Coordinator of the JALT Learner Development SIG and was the JALT conference site coordinator for two years and program chair last year. Perhaps most importantly, he is the past Chieftain of the Kansai St. Andrew's Society.

Steve "Firsthand" Brown. Steve "JALT" Brown.

As far as anyone knows, neither Steve Brown is the evil twin of the other.

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Curtis Kelly

ELT books? None. Not one of the books I am recommending has anything to do with teaching English, but they all have everything to do with teaching. I doubt any of the rest of you have read them, but they are well-known in the field of Education, and I think when you read my comments, you will.

Peter, you said that your choice of books betrayed your age, but check out mine: five from the nineties and double-0ies. I guess I am a lot younger than you!

“Not one of the books I am recommending has anything to do with teaching English, but they all have everything to do with teaching.”

'The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs' ­ Elliot W. Eisner
3rd edition, Prentice Hall, 1994 (available from Amazon)
My first choice is a fascinating book about schools, about teaching, and how it hammers our heads. Eisner discusses educational philosophies that unconsciously shape teacher notions, and the hidden curriculum that shapes student notions (such as "Be in your seat on time!"). He also points out, though, that most curricula are determined by the textbook writers rather than teachers.

Eisner is a curriculum expert at Stanford, but don't let his position fool you. He was originally trained to be a painter, and through his artist's eye we get a view of education most of us are blind to. Just look at these exceprts taken from chapter 13, which can be downloaded here.

The dominant image of schooling in America has been the factory and the dominant image of teaching and learning the assembly line.

The canons of behavioural science have too often determined what shall be studied and what shall be regarded as important in education.

Operationalism and measurement have focused so heavily on behaviour that the quality of the student's experience has been generally ignored or seriously neglected.

The history of the curriculum field has been dominated by the aspiration to technologise schooling and to reduce the need for artistry in teaching.

Ahh, I can just about hear Chris Hunt clicking on Amazon to buy this one. And now, to be fair on the age issue, Peter, I confess. The version of Eisner's book that I read was the first edition, published in 1979, not the edition listed above.

'The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life' ­ Parker Palmer
Jossey-Bass, 1998 (available from Amazon)
I cannot really say that this book was one of the most influential, but I am going to recommend it anyway. Palmer approaches teaching as a kind of spiritual endeavor, in which we must look into our hearts and minds to better understand what we do. Teachers weave a complex web between themselves, their subjects and their learners, so that the learners can then weave their own. Sounds like constructivism. Here is an excerpt:

This book is for teachers who have good days and bad -- and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts, because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life.

'Mentor: Guiding the Journey of Adult Learners' ­ Laurent Daloz
Jossey-Bass, 1999 (available from Amazon)
This is a delightful and highly readable book in which Daloz mixes stories about helping adults go back to school and research that explains their problems in doing so. He characterizes the teacher as mentor, using Luke Skywalker's guide, Yoda, and Dante's guide, Virgil, as perfect archetypes. The mentor asks the questions rather than give the answers, and eventually, moves farther and farther away from the learner. But why take my word for it? Here is what Parker Palmer, the author of my #2 choice said:

Essential reading.... This book will help more of us grow into one of the most life-giving relationships we can have with another person, one that will bring deep fulfillment to our own souls. Daloz has given a great gift to all who teach and learn.

If you don't read the whole thing, at least read the middle chapter on William Perry's discoveries about college student intellectual growth.

'The Adult Learner, a Neglected Species' ­ Malcolm Knowles, 1990 (Amazon)
'A Way of Being' ­ Carl Rogers, 1980 (Amazon)
'Designing World Class e-Learning' ­ Roger Schank, 2002 (Amazon)
To keep my contribution short, I am lumping the last three into one commentary. All three have shaped my view of education in a fundamental way. They may seem to be readings on very specialized topics ­ adult learning, psychology, and e-learning ­ but they are not. Each provides a view of human relations and learning that will change the way you deal with vocabulary, speaking practice, lateness, and anything else you deal with in class. Knowles' book provides alternatives to the teacher-centered pedagogy, Rogers teaches us to give "absolute positive regard" to our learners, and Schank preaches that school does not really teach, only real-life experience does, even if it is virtual experience in a simulation.

So, how's that, Think Tankers? You thought I'd be listing Procedur Elementale for Teaching English, The Oxford Corpus Compendium, Understanding Syntax and Lexicon, or books like these, didn't you? However, the books that influenced me were not manuals on how to use the tools, but guides to understanding my role as a carpenter.

I am looking forward to reading your choices as well.

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Chuck Sandy

Anyone who knows me knows I am a reader. Ever since I was a child, I have always been the one with too many books in his bag. Whenever I go out of the house, even on a short outing, I have to make sure I have at least a few things to read. One book is never enough. Many of these books I'll read and discard. Others go back on my shelves just in case I'll want to look through them again or remember what I was thinking about or going through when I read them. Looking over my bookshelves is almost like looking at a map of my inner life.

“Looking over my bookshelves is almost like looking at a map of my inner life.”

Among these book there are a few I'll turn to again and again. The five books I've chosen to write about here fall into that category. My own copies of these titles are dog-eared and yellowed. They have bits of paper, old letters, and various notes stuck between the pages. At least one of them is falling apart from having spent too much time in my bag. They are like old friends, and I'd like to share them with you. They are all about education in one way or another. Sometimes it's not immediately apparent why this is so, but I promise you they are.

The hardest thing about this assignment was to limit my choices. Curtis Kelly helped me do this by writing about one of my recent favorites, Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach: Exploring The Inner Landscape of A Teacher's Life. I cannot say enough about this book, but since Curtis has already mentioned it, I'll simply endorse that choice again now, and in my own way, offer you these:

'Teaching As A Subversive Activity'
- Postman & Weingartner (available from Amazon)
When Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote Teaching As A Subversive Activity in 1969, it was news. It still is. This book is as valid an attack on lock-step teaching and unimaginative schooling now as it was when they first declared that, "There are trivial ways of studying language which have no connection with life, and these we need to clear out of our schools." One of the reasons this book has been reprinted as many times as it has over the years is that we haven't quite managed to do this --yet. Perhaps not enough people have read it. If you are going to read one book about education, this is the one I'd recommend. It will change the way you think not only about the way you teach, but also about the ways your students learn and the schools they learn in. What was subversive about this book in 1969 is that it was the first to state that the purpose of education is to learn how to learn. Later, others would write about student autonomy, but it is still a subversive idea in many circles. I've read this book at least five times, and hanging by the door in my office is a card on which I've written these questions from the chapter entitled, "So what are you going to do now?"

What am I going to have my students do today?
What is it good for?
How do I know?

Teaching As A Subversive Activity is not only an attack, but also a book offering alternatives and suggestions. Even if you don't read the book, start asking yourself those three questions before you walk into class. Give it some thought. Then, begin to change.

'On Becoming A Person'
- Carl Rogers (available from Amazon)
The older I get, the more I realize that being a teacher is a matter of becoming that self which one truly is. As it is a process of becoming, one never gets quite there, but when actively engaged in this process, a teacher is somehow able to encourage others along in the same way. Carl Roger's On Becoming A Person opens with a very simple yet deeply profound statement:

"I speak as a person, from a context of personal experience and personal learnings."

You might ask what that statement has to do with teaching, and I'll tell you: everything. I've said it elsewhere, but it's worth repeating. To offer yourself, as you are, to a group of learners is the greatest gift you can offer them. If you're interested in discovering one of the places from which I've arrived at this conclusion, Rogers' On Becoming A Person is a very good place to start.

It is not easy reading. It is very challenging, for it asks such fundamental questions as: "What is the meaning of personal growth? Under what conditions is growth possible? How can one person help another? What is creativity and how can it be fostered?" Rogers speaks from a lifetime of experience as a psychologist, teacher, and person to provide the answers he's arrived at. In the process of reading you'll likely discover some of your own.

Recently, a good friend of mine suggested that many of the best teachers end up working their way right out of teaching. Rogers provides a good example of how this process works when he writes:

  1. "My experience has been that I cannot teach another person how to teach."
  2. "It seems to me that anything which can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential, and has little or no significant influence on behavior."
  3. "I realize increasingly that I am only interested in learnings which significantly influence behavior."
  4. "I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning."
  5. "Such self-discovered learning cannot be directly communicated to another."
  6. "As a consequence of the above, I have lost interest in being a teacher."

Fortunately, Rogers never lost interest in becoming or in being a learner. His beautiful book, written with honesty, "as a person" in his true voice, is what he offers us.

'A Place To Stand: Essays for Educators in Troubled Times'
- Mark Clarke (Available here)
This wonderful collection of essays by Mark Clarke reminds teachers that they are change agents and agitators: people whose very job is to gently shake up systems and agitate for change. In one of the essays entitled "A Systems Perspective on Changing, Teaching and Learning," Clarke suggests that "To change society, you have to change institutions" and that "To change institutions, individuals have to change." Yet, he says, "I am the individual who has to change" and "I cannot change myself without affecting others, and because I cannot change others unilaterally, I will need to engage them in some principled interactions…" You get the idea. This book is full of them. I highly recommend it as sound advice and good talk from one of the strongest and most authentic voices in education.

'I Won't Learn From You and Other Thoughts On Creative Maladjustment'
- Herbert Kohl (Available here)
We've all had intelligent students who have refused to learn whatever it is we had to teach them. Herbert Kohl's classic essay on "not learning" or refusing to learn, suggests that such behavior is an active process, a conscious choice made by students who "choose to not learn from a system which they feel is oppressive or deadening." After reading this essay, it's almost impossible to look at your "troubled" students in the same way again. Kohl says that, "Deciding to actively not learn something involves closing off part of oneself and limiting one's own experience. It can require actively refusing to pay attention, acting dumb, scrambling one's thoughts, and overriding curiosity."

Sound like anyone you know?

Kohl suggests that such behavior is often mistaken for failure, when in fact it is a sort of survival strategy, designed to make it possible for a person to function in a situation that is beyond his or her control or understanding. In this light, "not learning" is not only a healthy response; it is the only possible response.

This essay should be required reading for all teachers. The three other essays in the book are equally brilliant and humane. My favorite is "The Tattooed Man: Confessions of A Hopemonger." This autobiographical essay will make you proud you're a teacher and thankful that you've had the chance to "become an explorer with the goal of uncovering or helping your students uncover the gifts and strengths which can nurture them as they grow."

'You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To'
- Bob Arnold (Read it here)
This last offering you can read online, simply by clicking on the link above. It's a small book of poems by someone who should be more widely read. Bob Arnold is a poet, essayist, builder of stone walls and dwellings -- as well as an educator in the best of senses. He lives with his family in Guilford, Vermont and writes how he lives: honestly. Bob's voice is a fine example of what Carl Rogers means when he says, "I speak as a person, from a context of personal experience and personal learnings."

In my poetry seminar, Bob Arnold's poems have become favorites among students, for they are written simply and clearly -- in the authentic voice of one person speaking from the center of his life. Even readers approaching these poems in their second language get that. In class, it's a joy to see the lights of recognition and understanding come on as students come to these poems on their own. Give them a try with some of your students. If that seems like it's a stretch for you ­ then, good. Sometimes a little stretching is a healthy thing. If you don't feel quite up to the stretch just yet, then do take a few moments right now to read these poems on your own. You'll be glad you did.

After you read the poems, spend some time at Bob and Susan Arnold's Longhouse, Publishers & Booksellers website. This has become my favorite bookstore ­ and yes, they do ship to Japan. If you love books, this will be heaven for you, too. Many of the books I wish I could have included on this list can be found here. Take a look. Again, you'll be glad you did.

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