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Interview with Liz & John Soars

lj_soars.gifLiz & John Soars are co-authors of the 'New Headway' course of books, cassettes, videos and CR-ROMs, used in over 140 coutries around the world.

On ELT

ELTNEWS
How has the ELT field changed since you started in the profession?
Liz
It has developed dramatically in many different ways. There are many more materials available to the teacher, not only a wide variety of books, but also new media such as videos and computers. You only have to look at a publisher's catalogue to marvel at the depth and range of their list. There are also many more models of the profession. Language teaching involves much more than teaching the grammar, although this is still a core element in our view.
John
ELT takes place in such diverse places and for such a variety of reasons that there cannot be a standard approach. Teachers adapt and evolve according to their circumstances and the needs of their students. English has established itself as the lingua franca of the world. Some commentators see this as a bad thing, blaming the dominance of English for the demise of other languages. Others see it as liberating influence, enabling the world to talk to each other with this shared second language. We belong to this second school of thought.

However, if some things have changed, then many things haven't. Teaching is still basically a matter of the interaction between human beings. It still involves the transfer of information from one person to another. The task that faces the language learner is no easier now than it was twenty years ago. The process of acquiring a foreign language still involves skill getting and skill using, lots of practice, lots of learning, lots of effort.
Liz
Of course, the biggest (and most over-used) word to arrive in our profession over the past few decades is the word 'communicative'. It collocates with all sorts of things - communicative syllabus, communicative games, communicative activities, communicative methodology, and the catch-all communicative approach. By and large, this is a good thing. Let us not forget that the reason our students are in class is to be able to do something at the end that they couldn't do at the beginning.

However, we have two caveats. Firstly, it is important to remember that many people successfully learned a language before the arrival of the communicative approach; and secondly, just because something is called communicative doesn't necessarily mean that it is.
ELTNEWS
What current themes or research topics in ELT do you find particularly interesting?
John
This is difficult to answer. There is always something 'new' on the horizon as we search for the 'best' way to teach foreign languages. We've observed many bandwagons roll in and out over the years and indeed discussed them at length with trainee teachers. We're always interested, and certain influences have been highly beneficial. However, we've developed a healthy scepticism whenever we hear extravagant claims being made for new ideas, especially when they seem pour scorn on everything that went before.

We believe that as much as teachers can sometimes benefit from new ideas, they can also become overwhelmed and feel guilty that they are not teaching in the 'correct' manner, rather than judging what works most effectively for them. It's good to work in a vibrant questioning profession, but it is also good to recognise that foreign languages have been taught successfully by many different means throughout time.

On Teaching

ELTNEWS
Do you remember the first class you taught?
Liz
I remember it very well indeed. It was a class of six to thirteen-year-olds in a junior school in Tanga, Tanzania. Nguvumali school. We had a huge wasps' nest full of huge wasps on the unused light bulb in the middle of the classroom, every time a wasp came home it sounded like a military helicopter! The children were of mixed nationality and I had to teach them all subjects (even Maths!) as well as EFL. I was 21, had just graduated and was clueless about teaching.

Fortunately, ignorance is bliss and they and I survived. I suspect (know), however, that it was a greater learning experience for me than it was for them! I learnt that despite my degree in English Literature and German, I knew precious little about the English language. Hence my interest began.
John
I first taught as an assistant in a French school in Corsica. The head of the English department taught the first half of the lesson. He conducted the class in English, and at one stage asked me a question. Unfortunately, his English was so bad that I couldn't understand, and I had to ask him to try again in French. I next taught in a language school in the UK, run, would you believe, by a lady called Mrs. English! The school had two classes, one with just one student studying for the first certificate, and the other class consisting of everybody else. I hadn't a clue what I was meant to do, but we played a lot of table tennis and had a lot of fun. Perhaps ignorance is sometimes a good thing.
ELTNEWS
Any classes in particular that stood out during your teaching years?
John
I remember the highest level class I have ever taught. There was a Russian girl in the class who knew the English language better than me. I was terrified of her. She would challenge my knowledge and ability within seconds of the beginning of the lesson. I had to reassure myself that I was a native speaker and she wasn't, but I swear I taught her nothing in sixty hours of being together. Of course, there are many classes that stand out, usually because one particular student made it all come together.

Andrea, an Italian boy with a girl's name, who was so kind and funny that everyone fell in love with him. Annick, a French lady who mothered the whole class, who told me as she arrived ten minutes late 'Sorry I'm late, I should have gone to the post office.' (What she meant was I had to go to the post office.) Fuji, a Japanese boy who studied at International House, London, for over a year. He had every teacher at every level - he knew the school better than anyone else. His hobby was collecting idioms, which he wrote down in a big A4 folder. His English was very good, in fact, but he kept trying to use idioms that were inappropriate or old-fashioned - "Today, John, is a lovely day, I am in the pink!"
Liz
In my first year at IH London, I was given a specially constructed 'problem' class of students with 'attitude'. This was because an IH luminary was doing research into badly motivated students and presenting a paper at the IATEFL conference on the subject. She observed the class daily. Pressure! The inevitable happened, when you expect the worst it can only be better, and the students turned out to be the most enjoyable, entertaining, volatile class ever. I loved them dearly.

Also, a truly advanced, advanced class one hot July. There were some strong personalities and some warring nationalities, but the peacemaking skills of the delightfully down-to-earth Sister Sofia, a nun from Poland, meant that discussions/arguments always ended on a harmonious note. This class informed me one day that they would all be absent the next day as they were camping out all night for tickets for Wimbledon. And indeed next day the room was almost empty, just Sister Sofia and myself, so we watched Wimbledon on TV, and there were the rest of the class, in the front row of Centre Court. We weren't at all surprised.
ELTNEWS
Do you think qualifications such as the RSA and Trinity, adequately prepare a teacher to the world of ELT?
John
Yes and no is the answer. Yes - because they give vital practical and theoretical guidance. Considering the relatively short duration of the courses a great deal is accomplished. The teaching practice is probably the best preparation. No - because a training course will never prepare you for every teaching situation and the day-to-day reality of lesson preparation and five(?) hours teaching. Inevitably, on courses, an unrealistic amount of time is spent planning individual lessons. A false sense of what the nature of teaching can result.

Also as the years have passed the content of courses has become ever fuller, as so many different approaches and ideas have hit the profession. It becomes increasingly difficult to cover the syllabus and at the same time develop in trainee teachers the ability to make informed judgements about it all. Sometimes they leave courses feeling like experts because they have covered so much, when they still need above all the daily grind of experience.
ELTNEWS
The use of the Internet and multimedia in the classroom and for private study is becoming increasingly popular - to what extent do you think technology will play a role in ELT in the near future?
Liz
Technology will undoubtedly play a bigger role in the future, near and distant. However, the history of technological advances so far is peppered with predictions of teachers becoming redundant as machines take over their jobs. This hasn't happened yet and we don't believe that it ever will. The machine will only ever be another resource for teacher and learner. Interacting with a machine, especially in language learning, can never replace the vitality and reality of classroom interaction.

When you go to a self-access centre with computers and videos etc. they are largely silent rooms, with electronic beeps being the predominant sound. This environment can have a certain usefulness and enjoyment, especially for revision purposes or simply as a change from the classroom, but languages are used to interact with people, so we feel that the teacher and the classroom will never be replaced.

On Writing & Headway

ELTNEWS
When did you decide that it was time to write a textbook? Were the texts at the time pretty bad?
John
As teacher trainers, we had spent years talking to trainees about the ideal course book, and what components it would have - clear contexts for grammar and functions, lots of varied practice material, authentic readings and listenings, speaking and writing activities, strong lexical input, situational and survival work, grammar explanations at the back of the book... and inevitably concluded that this book didn't exist.

However, there were some very good course books at the time, notably Strategies, Meanings into Words, and the Cambridge English Course. We wanted to combine a strong grammatical element with interesting skills work. For years we thought we might try writing, (a lot of teachers think they might, but just don't get round to it) but we had absolutely no confidence or knowledge of how to go about it. Then in the summer of 1983 we actually got down to it, and Headway Intermediate was published in 1986.
ELTNEWS
How did the name Headway come about?
Liz
For a while it was 'Noname' course. Then it became necessary to choose a name and various names were tossed about. We were unenthusiastic. Then Susanna Harsanyi, our first editor at OUP, suggested 'Headway'. We felt immediately that this was the one. Somehow it was just right. It must be even more difficult to choose names now. It seems that nearly everything suitable has been used!
ELTNEWS
How do you explain Headway's popularity?
John
We listen to others giving reasons for this and never fully agree! Perhaps teachers like it because they feel they can rely on it. A course book is only successful if teachers return to it again and again, because it has worked before. A director of studies once told us that her experienced teachers liked Headway because they could use it as a springboard - they could play around with the order of activities, bring in their own material, and use the book to tie it all together.

Her inexperienced teachers could just do exactly what the book told them to do and it worked, the lessons would go in pretty much the right direction. Another teacher told us that he liked it because having done an activity, he'd think 'Ah - now I feel my students should do x or y', and he'd turn the page and x or y would be there. We hope its success is due to the fact that it helps produce good users of English. This after all should be the main aim of any English textbook.
ELTNEWS
What advice would you give to potential course writers?
Liz & John
First of all don't just talk about how you could do so much better than existing course books. Start writing. But before you do...
  1. Be sure you have a very clear set of principles behind your course. You need to present these and sample units to a publisher.
  2. Be aware that writing a course book is not just putting together a series of favourite lesson plans that worked for you. Your own material always works best because your own thinking and enthusiasm shines through to your students. Writing for other teachers to use and feel enthusiastic about is much more difficult because it is second-hand. Your material needs to interest them and their students.
  3. Be clear as to how to do activities, but keep rubrics to a minimum (tricky!).
  4. Remember that a course book is also a manual for students. It should not be impenetrable to them without a teacher's help. They need it to revise from and refer to. It is not like a magazine for entertainment-only.
  5. Don't be tempted to include fashionable gimmicks - unless you truly believe in them.
  6. Never publish anything that you haven't taught yourself. Not just individual activities, but your course as a complete ongoing course.

On Liz & John

ELTNEWS
Away from ELT and Headway, how do you spend your time?
Liz
We have four children and so their lives and activities take up a great part of our lives. Kate, the youngest, has just finished her GCSEs. Megan has just completed her first year at university. Justin is about to go off to New York to work for a couple of years. Joey, TEFL trained, is at the moment teaching English in a high security prison in the UK. Also, we love walking. A day of pure pleasure for us is walking for miles in the countryside, with our dog, Molly, and having a picnic or a pub lunch. We have a place by the sea in Devon and we go for long coastal walks or, weather permitting, we walk in the wilds of Dartmoor. We also love gardening. Flowers and fruit and vegetables. John loves cooking, especially Indian and Thai cooking. He probably has every cookbook ever published. We both like food a lot. We never take for granted the fact that Headway has given us the freedom (to some extent) to organize our time as we want to. We can sit on a cliff top on a Monday morning and breathe in the pleasure of no longer being a commuter.



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Comments

Hi!

Congratulations to you and to Liz and John Soars. I am a their great fun. Even though, I am in great need of a piece of information I once read from one of their books. It was a British woman called Alice Hopper who hit the jackpot and left her husband. Can full references about that issue? How I can personally contact Liz and John Soars?
Best regards,
MacDad

hi i m faizan from india i wanna know ins and out of english could u tell me appopriate book in this regard have a good day thx

Hello everyone!

I consider you two great inventors because of the fantastic Headway, just you have to know that the name "Andrea" comes from the greek word "Andros", which means "man", so I would say that it should be considered a male name and not the opposite...

Best regards

Carlo

I had always been curious about John and Liz Soars, the folks behind Headway. I've been using the books for years. Thanks guys!

Does anyone know of a poem that depicts a break-up? The furniture comes to life and talks to each other of the longings and loneliness that ensues and also scolds the Voice? It was in one of the Headway Elementary/ Pre- Intermediate books that I had used before, that I cant locate anymore....you have any idea? Or any Poems to this nature?

Could I ask you a huge favour. Could you please remove all the bad news about the Getty family out of the Pre-Intermediate books.
This news is not building this family up but in fact destroying them and causing more hurt. We need to protect this family from more hurt and rather say something good and upbuilding about the Getty family. This will benefit the family and also the students.
Students do not like to read bad news, please.

Thank you very much.
Irma


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