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Interview with Vaughan Jones

vaughan_jones.jpg Vaughan Jones has been involved in English teaching and ELT publishing for twenty years, both in Europe and Japan. He helped establish the Heinemann ELT publishing company in Japan and later returned to the U.K. and became an author himself. He is co-author with Sue Kay of the Inside Out and Inside English series. Jones is currently working as a teacher and author in Oxford. He gave this interview with ELT News editor Mark McBennett by e-mail in May, 2004.

How did you get into English teaching?
I suppose I've been involved in TEFL in one way or another for all of my working life. I stumbled into it early on in Grenoble, France where I had gone straight after university to seek glory on the rugby field. Sadly, in the early eighties, rugby was still very much an amateur sport so I needed a job to pay for the beer. Through various rugby contacts I got a teaching post at the local Chambre de Commerce and spent two very stimulating years relearning my native tongue through the eyes of my French students.

Attracted by the idea of "TEFLing" round the world but worried that I still didn't know much about teaching, I decided to hang up my rugby boots, do the 4-week preparatory certificate at International House, Piccadilly and try and find a job outside Europe. After a very bizarre year teaching for a door-to-door sales company called HOLP in Yamagata, deepest Japan. It was like having my own juku. My 'classroom' was the lobby of the Hotel Green Tohoku and I taught students ranging from three-year-old children to a group of local neuro-surgeons. Character-forming stuff...

I then returned to work for the International House organisation and spent three fabulous years in Northern Spain where I completed my Diploma in TEFLA. After six years in the classroom and pondering that tricky question: "Now what?" I was just about to take up a post with the British Council in Kyoto when I spotted an advert for a Sales Rep. / Teacher Trainer with Heinemann ELT in Madrid. It was a great move and I spent the next couple of years careering round Spain in my Fiat Uno, talking to teachers, giving workshops and trying to explain to my publishing colleagues what sort of materials I thought were really needed in the classroom.
When and how did you make the move back to Japan?
Heinemann was expanding fast, and in 1990 I swapped the Fiat Uno for a Tokyo train pass and spent four very exciting years establishing Heinemann ELT in Japan and later on, setting up marketing operations in Korea and Taiwan. After coming from Spain where Heinemann was one of the established market leaders, it was weird being the new kid on the block. No office, no database and, at the beginning, no books to promote! However, our small team worked very hard and as the new publishing came through we enjoyed some success - particularly with David Paul's children's course Finding Out which I believe is still doing well. We also set up the relationship with eigoMedia (the forerunner of eigoTown, parent company of ELT News - Ed.) and the CD-ROM version of Finding Out which has just come out in a third version. It was an intense time but a really enjoyable one and I stay in touch with a lot of friends and colleagues from that era.
And after that?
After twelve years abroad, and with a baby recently arrived, my wife and I decided it was time to move closer to home. So we returned to Macmillan HQ in Oxford and I took up a regional role in Western Europe. The late nineties were a period of great change in the ELT publishing industry with lots of mergers and take-overs. A year before Heinemann was bought by Macmillan I had already decided to get back into the classroom and try my hand at writing materials. My move was born out of frustration really. My job had seemingly become a series of interminable meetings about sales forecasts and balance sheets - very little to do with teachers or teaching. I returned to the chalk face as a teacher and trainer at the Lake School in Oxford and have spent the past six years co-teaching and co-writing Inside Out and then Inside English with Sue Kay.
Can you tell us a bit of the background to why you decided to do Inside Out and Inside English?
Click to order Inside English from ELTBOOKS To quote Scott Thornbury: "The great challenge of teaching is to set up activities which are essentially meaning-focused, but within which a focus on form can be engineered".

In Japan, the first thing students learn is that "This is a pen." Other countries have their equivalents: for example, "My tailor is rich." will bring back memories for tens of thousands of French people who studied English in the 1970s. Sentences such as these hold very little meaning for students. Their sole purpose is usually to exemplify or practise a particular language form. Taken to the extreme there are some fabulously absurd examples of the genre. Here are three of my own favourites from a list compiled by Michael Swan:
  • "Come down from that tree I want to kiss you."
  • "The oxen are standing on my feet."
  • "Is that your leg?"
Apparently all of these have appeared in print at one time or another. It takes a particularly imaginative mind to invent a context in which they might be useful. Sadly, the same thing can still be said for a lot of the material we use in the classroom today. Even the most up-to-date course books are full of random, de-contextualise, meaningless sentences - particularly in sections dealing with grammar. The only 'context' is that the six or so sentences that make up the exercise all practise 'Object Pronouns' or the 'Present Perfect' or 'Question Forms' or whatever. This is just not good practice. It seems that when we focus on form, meaning goes out the window. We are constantly asking our students to exchange invented information about places they've never visited, or complete sentences about people who don't exist. Why?

All the research suggests that the optimum conditions for learning a language exist when meaning matters. As Peter Skehan has stated "...the teacher has to contrive a situation in which learners are simultaneously alert to language-as-form and language-as-meaning". You can't have one without the other. Meaning isn't an 'optional extra', it's a pre-requisite for successful language learning. Meaning should 'rule'.

Inside Out and Inside English are full of language practice activities where we combine form AND meaning. In particular, we've tried to develop exercise types that engage students on a personal level. We have long realised that the students are our richest resource in the classroom. So even at the nitty-gritty 'grammar-bashing' end of teaching, we have designed exercises that tap into our students' experiences, feelings or opinions. Quite apart from making the class much more enjoyable, we believe that this approach makes language learning more effective. Meaningful exchanges are possible when students relate form-focused sentences to their own lives. It leads to more grammar practice, not less.
You've summed this up in the expression "Meaning rules", which you've also used as the title of talks you've given on the subject.
Yes. Very simply, the idea was to have a title where the importance of meaning was emphasised. As my talk went on to explain, I'm fed up with teaching materials that disregard meaning. We think it's important to engage students on a level that goes beyond 'going through the motions'. We need to design activities that tap into our students' experiences, feelings or opinions. If we do this then students will come to realise that their choice of one grammatical form over another actually matters - it affects meaning. We don't want our students to choose a form simply because it's the 'right answer'. We want them to choose that form because it helps them say (or write) what they mean.
What are the most important theoretical principles you followed when writing Inside Out?
Inside Out I think that writing a course necessarily involves distilling all the ideas you have tried out or read about throughout your teaching career. It's difficult to single out just one or two. Very definitely, our course is rooted in our own teaching experience and in that sense it's a collection of practical ideas that have worked for us in the classroom. We have continued teaching throughout the writing process.

Like all teaching professionals we have been profoundly influenced by all the insights computer technology and language corpora have given us into the way our language actually works. Most recently this has included information we've gleaned through our work as advisors on the new Macmillan dictionaries.

I suppose our pre-occupation with doing things in the classroom that are meaningful, that engage the student on a personal level, could be labeled 'humanistic'. Certainly we agree with a lot of the ideas that have come out of the humanistic tradition. However, I'm not very keen on labels and would prefer teachers to think that our course is simply based on the sound principle of common sense!
What, in your view, is the importance of focusing on personal engagement and learners' own experiences and opinions?
I think the answer is two-fold. Firstly, I believe our job as teachers is to concentrate on how our students speak and write. This can be achieved more easily when what they speak and write about is part of their life experience. It is much more difficult to achieve when the topic of the lesson is alien to students - something they have never considered before.

Secondly, if we are going to spend lots of time inside the classroom encouraging our students to speak, then it seems more sensible to have them talk about things that matter to them and that they might conceivably want to talk about outside the classroom. Imagine you're an English student and you're in a pub in London. You could talk about a party you've been to recently or alternatively you could talk about the people you would choose to start a space colony. Which is more likely?
Could focusing on emotional, personal engagement not be inhibiting and counterproductive, particularly for the shyer students?
Well it could be, but it's up to the teacher to be sensitive to this. Getting to know your students and finding out how much information they want to reveal about themselves is an important part of creating a good group dynamic. Activities have to be devised so that students are always in control of what they say (or don't say). In my experience, students themselves decide what they feel comfortable with. It can range from the student who is happy to elaborate on why their marriage is breaking down to the student who is reluctant to tell you who their favourite film actor is.

In any case, I should note that for me 'personal engagement' does NOT mean baring your soul - heaven forbid! As often as not, it simply means making activities relevant and interesting so that your students actually engage in what they are doing rather than drift along on automatic pilot.
What can be done to make the learning of grammar more interesting and enjoyable?
The simple answer to this - and it touches on what I've already mentioned - is by making grammar meaningful. In Inside Out and Inside English the sentences or questions that form the first part of an exercise are often recycled for the second part. For example here is a two-part exercise on questions that end in a preposition:
1) Which prepositions are missing from these sentences?
  1. Who do you usually have lunch ______?
  2. What are you learning English ______?
  3. What do you spend most money ______?
  4. Who does your teacher remind you ______?
  5. When you go out with friends, what do you talk ______?
  6. What kind of music do you like listening ______?
2) Work with a partner. Ask your partner the questions in 1.

As you can see, in the first part of this exercise the students' attention is focused on form, but in the second part attention shifts to meaning. Here are some more ways in which the second part of an exercise can recycle and give meaning to the sentences in the first part:
  • Re-write the sentences in 1 so they are true for your partner.
  • Replace the names in 1 with the names of people in the class
  • Work with a partner. Do you agree with the statements in 1?
Invariably, it is when the students are doing this second part that the class becomes animated and the grammar 'comes alive'. Form and meaning, meaning and form. Never one without the other.
What do you consider the most innovative feature of Inside Out?
I think it's probably dangerous to use emotive words like 'innovative'. In my experience, there's always somebody who will say - "Oh we've been doing that for years!". However, one of the most exciting areas of our work concerned developing the ideas and techniques which eventually became the 'Anecdote' feature in Inside Out and 'Speaking Personally' in Inside English. These are extended speaking tasks where students are asked to tackle a longer piece of spoken discourse. They are based on personal issues, for instance, memories, stories, people you know. The main aim is to encourage students to experiment with and hopefully grow more confident at using language at the more demanding end of their range. Seeing my students talking at length and in great detail about something that is really important to them has been one of the highlights of my time researching and writing the course.
What is it like working with a co-author?
Sue is a wonderful person to work with and I think we complement each other very well. Whereas I have concentrated more on formal language work, Sue's major contribution has been in generating such fabulous reading and listening texts along with topic areas that really interest students. I think it's Sue who has given the course its personality, its 'soul' and I've been very lucky to have worked with such a talented writer.
Vaughan, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.
Thank you!

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