Learning Styles – help or hoax?

A Professor in a Pickle

Dr. Doug Brown

Dr. Doug Brown

Some years ago, H. Douglas Brown, a professor of TESOL at San Francisco State University, was traveling from Barcelona, Spain, to Naples, Italy, a trip that would normally take a few hours. On this occasion it took nearly 24. One disaster after another occurred. Doug missed a flight, another was delayed, and then another was rerouted. He finally arrived at Naples Airport at 3:00 a.m. Without his luggage. Exhausted and frustrated, he looked around for help, but the airport was almost empty and he spoke little Italian.

Fortunately, Doug was able to use a variety of personality traits to get through the mini-crisis. His left-brain got him to take practical, logical steps. His right-brain got him to empathize with airport staff and to use alternative communication strategies. His ability to remain tolerant of ambiguity allowed him to keep the conversation going. He was impulsive enough to insist on prompt action, but reflective enough to understand where miscommunication might slow down the process.

Having finally got his luggage back and collapsed on a hotel bed, Doug, like all good educators, reflected on his experiences. His behavior had revealed that he possessed various interactive styles and character traits that had helped him to achieve his task.


Learning styles

Several of those personality traits that Doug used can be categorized as learning styles – a potentially powerful concept. If we know how people prefer to learn – for example, some are visual (they learn through images), some are auditory (learn by listening), others kinesthetic (learn by moving and touching) – surely we can adapt our teaching method to the student. This means pupils will have a better chance of learning and retaining the content.

Sounds convincing, doesn’t it? It ticks all the boxes. It makes logical sense; it appeals to our need for practical solutions; it seems to echo Howard Gardner’s influential Theory of Multiple Intelligences; and it explains why some students are dozing in class while others are bouncing off the walls.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung

Carl Jung first proposed a theory of psychological types in the 1920s, but it wasn’t widely applied to education until the 1970s. Since then, numerous questionnaires have been developed so that students can find out how they like to learn best, and scholarly and practical works have come thick and fast in both ELT and general education.

But wait. Is it really so simple? Could learning styles be the Magic Box that contains the answer to the only question really worth asking in language education: how to motivate students? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Let’s look a bit deeper and see why learning styles are problematic.


A Beautiful Fiction

Firstly, what is a learning style? It’s a personal disposition to learn in one way, as opposed to another. But that definition is so vague that it encompasses just about every cognitive, cultural, sensory and communicative factor you can think of. Indeed, some studies suggest there are up to 80 styles. Others say more.

The styles are usually bipolar, e.g. reflective versus impulsive, inductive versus deductive, concrete versus abstract. This begs the question: are people really one or the other and not somewhere floating in the middle? Aren’t our styles variable rather than fixed? I’ve known people whose personalities change completely depending on whether they’ve had their morning coffee or not.

The other issue with the notion of a person having “a learning style” is that information processing just doesn’t work like that. It uses multiple modalities. Just as Doug Brown, stranded luggage-less in Naples Airport, used both left and right brain, was both impulsive and reflective, people simultaneously process information in different ways.

Another problem is how to assess a person’s learning style. People commonly report having a particular style, but when tested they don’t do any better using that style than another. In short, people think they are visual or auditory learners, etc., but they’re wrong. They have no idea about their own learning style.

It seems that the concept may not be a Magic Box, after all, but rather a ‘neuromyth’ (a term used by Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries during their talk at IATEFL 2016).


Misapplied science or the accidental hoax

We language educators like to co-opt the findings of neuroscience. Our profession has the habits of a magpie, the great thief of folklore. Just as we “borrow” from therapy, games, drama, etc., so we happily borrow from science. The problem is, we don’t always see the full picture. An example: left-brain and right-brain theory. This theory came about because of Roger Sperry’s research on brain hemispheres in rats, cats, monkeys, and epileptics. There was no educational use for the theory and no empirical evidence that people are more inclined to be right- or left-brained. Yet we educators brought his work into our classrooms.

Something similar happened with Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner himself has looked on in horror as his ideas are played out in classrooms in the form of children writhing around on the floor because “they’re kinesthetic learners.” He has repeatedly said it’s only a theory. It shouldn’t drive entire educational methodologies.

Multiple Intelligences in action: image from www.newcityschool.org

Multiple Intelligences in action: image from http://www.newcityschool.org


Learning styles, which are frequently confused with Multiple Intelligences, have at times been similarly misappropriated.


Inconclusive Conclusion

While learners do report that they have preferences in the way they learn, the educational implications are controversial and inconclusive. Research studies that looked at the correlation between Second Language Acquisition and learning-style-tailored-instruction found negligible gains for the learner. In other words, there’s just no evidence that it works.

None of this means learning styles are worthless. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that the concept has alerted teachers to principled variety: students have a variety of predispositions and teachers might therefore want to provide a variety of activities. Lots of pictures, some extended aural input, hands-on activities and games, some digital whizz-bang and some chalk-and-talk – the variety means we have more chance of reaching more students more of the time.


(*This story begins a chapter on Styles and Strategies in Doug’s book Principles of Language Learning and Teaching.)

15 Paths to Professional Development for Educators

Image from spopstick.com

Image from spopstick.com












1. Read deeply

Take any subject related to English Language Teaching – linguistics, pragmatics, theories of Second Language Acquisition, etc. – and read all you can: books, blog posts, journal articles. Then try to relate your reading to your classroom practice.

2. Do Action Research

Action Research usually begins when we identify a problem or issue in class. We experiment with a solution and monitor its effectiveness over a period of time. Finally, we evaluate the solution. It becomes a cycle: identify, experiment, monitor, evaluate. An extra stage of Action Research may be to write an article about it, to share what we learned.

3. Write articles

Writing articles changes our relationship with the profession. Instead of being consumers of other people’s research and ideas, we become producers of both. We join a community that drives the conversation about our profession. The good news is that, with the preponderance of online journals, there are now more places than ever to publish articles.

4. Write materials

Material that is tailor-made for particular students at a particular time and place can have big advantages over mass-produced commercial material. And writing materials is a great way for teachers to develop because it raises our awareness of aspects such as pacing, variety, creating and sustaining interest in a topic, balancing the four skills plus grammar and vocabulary, and balancing individual study, pair-work, and group work.

Image from pdstcli.wordpress.com

Image from pdstcli.wordpress.com










5. Collaborate

Collaboration could mean joining a SIG (Special Interest Group), working on specialized curricula, choosing materials, team-teaching, or doing collaborative lesson planning. Inevitably, collaboration demands that we conceptualize and justify our ideas – a good way to develop professionally.

6. Teach a new course

“Some teachers have twenty years’ experience; others have one year’s experience repeated twenty times.” Bearing in mind this well-known adage, we teachers need to get out of our comfort zones and teach classes we’d normally avoid. Depending on where we work, there may be opportunities to teach Young Learners, teenagers, Business English, English for Special Purposes, etc. Great teachers are often those who expand their horizons and thus keep learning on the job.

7. Give workshops

Find an interesting subtopic of ELT – something new or underrepresented in our field. Research it and come up with engaging ways to present it to colleagues. Giving workshops uses many of the same skills as teaching. In fact it is teaching, with the added twist that you’re teaching teachers, a surefire way to get critical feedback.

8. Keep a teaching journal

Make notes on your lessons. What went well? What didn’t? Why? If you keep a journal for long enough, you’ll begin to see continuities in your teaching: patterns and sequences you repeat, activities you rely on, materials you love, islands of safety in the shark-infested waters of the classroom! You will also see how your teaching subtly changes throughout your career.

9. Become a mentor

When experienced teachers help new teachers with lesson planning, troubleshooting, school routines and bureaucracy, interesting things sometimes happen. The person being mentored brings a fresh perspective and may question things that the mentor takes for granted. Being a mentor is great for the mentor’s development because it forces us to analyze and explain the things we do in class.

10. Use PLNs

Your Personal/Professional Learning Network might consist of bloggers you follow, facebook posts, tweets, friends in the profession, podcasts, clips on youtube, journals and newsletters. Your PLN is probably in a state of constant flux as you discover new outlets – other bloggers, other journals – which keep you up to date with the profession.

Image from ihes

Image from ihes










11. Participate in conferences and courses

Courses usually guide participants along a common path towards some useful destination (e.g., a certificate or a degree). Conferences may provide opportunities to explore a little – to go off the beaten track and find out about things we’d previously neglected. Whether we prefer convergent or divergent routes, conferences and courses give structure to our development and allow us to learn by interacting with our peers.

12. Learn a new language

Doing this will remind us of the challenges our students face: of how time-consuming language learning is; of how elusive words are even when we’ve heard them a dozen times; of the intricacies of grammar and pronunciation; of how listening comprehension can be like trying to catch butterflies in your hands. It also reminds us of the roles of the teacher: mentor, facilitator, cheerleader, expert.

13. Look at developments in other fields

Many developments in ELT originally came from elsewhere: Audiolingualism came from behavioral psychology; cloze tests (gap-fills) from Gestalt Theory; “input” from computer processing. Humanistic teaching methods, the use of recording devices, Big Data – all were imported into ELT from the big wide world. The “feeder fields” from which ELT takes its ideas include technology, sport, psychology, music, and many others. Whatever is in society will eventually filter down to ELT. Great teachers tend to be curious about such developments and look for their educational applications.

Scott Thornbury. Image from britishey.com

Scott Thornbury. Image from britishey.com


Professor Anne Burns

Professor Anne Burns








14. Learn from great educators

Read and re-read the great educators of the past: Vygotsky, Montessori, Dewey, Freire, Ashton-Warner. Delve into your ELT gurus once again: Harmer, Thornbury, Burns, Douglas Brown. Our interpretation of their work changes as we change and grow more experienced. Inevitably, we begin to ask ourselves, “Where do I fit in? What do I believe? What kind of educator am I?”

15. Examine critical moments

Anyone who has taught for any length of time will have experienced a mini-crisis or a full-blown disaster. A student starts crying; a fight breaks out; a power-cut occurs during a video; the whiteboard won’t switch on; the students riot or fall asleep. What do we do? We fall back on our training and experience, and we remember these are human beings in the room and the best way to deal with human beings is to talk to them. Afterwards, in tranquillity, we reflect on what happened and learn from it.

Native and Non-native Speaker Teachers: Prejudice, Privilege, and a Call to Action

When I worked in a private language school in London, I had a colleague – let’s call her Paulina – who stayed late every evening. I would see Paulina preparing lessons and grading papers as if her life depended on it. She was always the last to leave the school and often the first to arrive the next morning.

One day I asked her about this. Her reply broke my heart. She said, “My students found out I’m from Poland. They aren’t happy about being taught by a non-native speaker in England. I’m scared they’ll complain to the Director if my lessons aren’t perfect.”

Paulina spoke such good English that I’d thought she was British. She was dedicated, hardworking and very well-qualified. But, for some, it still wasn’t enough.

The world is full of Paulinas: brilliant non-native speaker teachers who, for no reason other than prejudice, are seen by some as second-class citizens in the world of English Language Teaching.

The Death of “Non-Native English Speaker Teacher”?

Maybe it’s time the term ‘non-native English speaker teacher’ (or NNEST) disappeared. Why?

*Because the term impacts negatively on these teachers’ confidence and self-esteem. It also unjustly privileges native speakers, whether they’re qualified or not, whether they know what they’re doing or not.

*Because the term breeds discrimination in hiring practices.

*Because the language learning industry has shifted from an attempt to produce native speaker clones to an attempt to produce competent bilinguals. NNESTs are often the best model of the latter.

In a plenary talk that was met with a standing ovation at the 2016 IATEFL conference in the UK, Silvana Richardson spoke about each of these points in detail. This post is designed to reflect on and reinforce her ideas.

Silvana Richardson, IATEFL 2016: photo from teflequityadvocates.com

Silvana Richardson, IATEFL 2016: photo from teflequityadvocates.com


The Deficit View of L1

There’s a tradition in ELT of seeing L1 (the student’s first language) in negative terms – sometimes called a deficit view. For decades, teachers were told not to allow students to speak L1 in the language classroom, and student errors were commonly assumed to result from L1 interference.

Teachers would also hammer away at pronunciation in order to ‘eradicate’ L2 features. One thinks of endless drilling of r and l sounds to Japanese students or attempts to get Europeans to produce th sounds in line with those in English. Many teachers now see this as a waste of time. If the problem area doesn’t hinder communication, it’s better to spend class time working on other things – new vocabulary or fluency.

Monolingual Teaching: Why?

The monolingual approach that precluded use of L1 was conceived and popularized in London, specifically at International House. It was regarded as effective and was then exported via teacher training all over the world. The question is whether this way of teaching actually suits other countries and cultures or whether it’s just more convenient for monolingual English speakers to teach like this.

Most classes around the world are linguistically homogeneous: the students all speak the same L1, whether it be Arabic, Chinese, German, etc. It’s hard to see how a knowledge of the students’ L1 can hinder the teacher, as long as she doesn’t conduct most of the lesson in this language.

Privileging Native Speakers

There’s an assumption in many quarters that it’s better to have a native speaker teacher. The argument goes: they have a stronger grasp of vocabulary, including tricky areas such as idioms and slang. They also provide a better model in terms of fluency and pronunciation. Finally, they have fewer difficulties with cultural understanding.

However, NNESTs have advantages, too. Having learned the language, rather than acquiring it naturally, they can identify potential areas of difficulty. They can make cross-linguistic comparisons, pointing out cognates and false friends. They have declarative knowledge: they actually know grammar rules because they had to learn them. Finally, NNESTs are in a better position to suggest effective learning strategies than those who never needed consciously to learn the language.

Hiring discrimination

When it comes to privilege, we also need to look at hiring practices. Even in 2016, there are advertisements for teaching jobs that specify a native speaker is required. (Some even say “white native speaker.”) This specification entirely disregards the notions of professionalism, qualifications and experience, and amounts to discrimination.

School owners excuse it by saying that students prefer native speakers. They say it’s purely a commercial, market-driven issue: without native speaker teachers, a school cannot compete. As with my colleague Paulina, it’s true that students in the UK and elsewhere occasionally say things like, “I didn’t come all this way to be taught by a non-native speaker.” But any decent school chooses its teachers by their professionalism and experience, not their L1, and any decent school director will defend her NNESTs as long as they are good teachers. A good language teacher, by definition, will be proficient in the language they are teaching.

On top of this, it’s something of a myth that students prefer native speakers. Richardson quotes research that tells us students value professional and personal qualities over the idea of “native-ness.” Students aren’t stupid. They can tell the difference between an unqualified native speaker backpacker and a real teacher.

A Call to Action

The issues outlined above should be considered by everyone involved in ELT.

*School owners need to rethink their hiring practices;

*NNESTs need to be aware of the tremendous benefits they bring to the classroom;

*native speakers working abroad should keep learning more about how their students’ L1 and culture influence their English;

*conference organizers should give more say to NNESTs by offering them the big stage: plenaries and keynote talks;

*students need to see their NNESTs as models of bilingualism and to value what they bring as experienced professionals.

12 Ways to Incorporate Global Issues into Your Classroom

As usual, the world is in crisis. Ecological catastrophes, wars, corruption scandals, financial meltdowns, and politicians with bad hair. Do we keep our classroom insulated from these issues or do we incorporate them? For those inclined to the latter, here are some ways to do it.


1. Show & tell (who, where, when, what, why, how)

Show and Tell can be used with most students above Beginner levels. For homework once or twice a week, the students find an article or topical piece and present it to other students the next day. Provide guidance by showing them how to do it and by getting them to pick out new words and phrases they learned from the article. As a scaffold, ask them to focus on six questions (who, where, when, what, why, how).


2. Time Line

Many stories are long-running sequences. Get students to research the roots of these stories and create a Time Line. Keep the format open: the Time Line could be illustrated, horizontal or vertical, or anything students choose. Two examples of stories that worked well on a Time Line: The Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, and the FIFA corruption scandal.


3. News you can use

Rather than only using the big stories about disasters and scandals, get students to choose articles from supplements on lifestyle topics. For example, they read about health, personal finance, travel and new technology. They then discuss which advice or insights they’d use in their daily lives.










4. Photo speculation

Cut out photos – the more, the better – from the week’s newspapers. The students speculate about what’s going on. As an extension, get them to match the photos to headlines and then choose an article to read. One teacher, Renée Watson, created jigsaw puzzles of the faces of five African American men killed by the police. The students did the puzzles before Watson elicited what they knew about the men. Then the class read about and discussed the killings.


5. Teach-in

Teach-ins are a way to inform would-be activists of an issue at stake. Organize an expert to come into the classroom to talk about an issue. Make sure the students are prepared with key vocabulary and questions. One example: a friend came to my class and spoke about a 6-month sailing trip and what she’d learned about the pollution of the oceans. The discussion veered from pollution to how to survive while cooped up in an 8 x 12 foot cabin space. The main thing was that the students were motivated to listen and interact.


6. Gallery walk

Gallery walks work especially well with photo exhibitions. If there are any in your area, try taking the students along. What did the students like and dislike? Why? What topics or themes are present? What did they learn about the photographer/artist? Several years ago, I took a group of adult students to an exhibition of photos by Sebastião Salgado. They were blown away, as was I, and we ended up developing a global issues map based on all the places and people Salgado had photographed.

Rwandan refugee camp. Salgado

Rwandan refugee camp. Salgado










7. Editorial

Students focus on a topic of their choice and write an editorial or ‘think piece’. This needs to be planned in stages: show a model, highlight the structure, and point out useful phrases. If necessary, help the students to brainstorm the issues pertaining to the topic.


8. Cartoon captions

Collect topical cartoons. Blank out the captions and get students to create their own. This will need scaffolding: first, ask the students what the cartoons are about and do an example. Then have students work in groups. Finally, get them working alone.


9. Readers’ Theater

Readers’ Theater involves developing and performing scripts based on something the students have read. No props, sets or costumes are required. The students read a text and, in groups, turn it into a theater piece with dialogue, characterization, and movement. Some kind of conflict is essential. As preparation, students need to see what a script looks like, know how to highlight parts, read expressively, and use ‘the stage’. One group of young adult learners enacted a scene from the story of the Chilean miners trapped underground in 2010. Another staged a mock trial after a celebrity murder case.


10. Problem/Solution poster or Cause/Effect chart

For more visually oriented students, posters and charts are motivating and immediate. A basic kind is a T-chart with columns that match problems and solutions or causes and effects. But posters and charts can take almost any form: clouds, leaves, trees; the only limit is our imagination. After showing students examples, have them create their own chart or poster to represent a news story or issue.


11. News sources comparison

High level students can compare the treatment of a news story by different newspapers or media outlets. Which words are commonly used in both reports? How do the articles differ? Think about tone, length, detail, point of view, and language. A Venn diagram is a good tool for showing similarities and differences.

Venn diagram







12. News article transformation

An interesting exercise is to get students to change the genre or the length of the article or to inhabit the story and rewrite it from the protagonist’s perspective (e.g., I instead of she). This requires higher-order processing and various subskills such as synthesizing, adapting, and extending.


How do you incorporate global issues into your classroom? Do you have any activities to share? Let us know!



“How We Speak”: Some Observations on Ebonics, Identity, and Language Ideology


In the 1970s, U.S. educational psychologists devised a program to ‘correct’ children’s language ‘deficiencies’. A documentary was made about the program. Here’s the transcript from one scene:

White Teacher (showing coffee cup): This is not a spoon.

Small Black girl: Dis not no ‘poon.

Teacher: No. “This is not a spoon.”

Child (softly): Dis not a ‘poon.

Teacher (annoyed): “This is not a spoon!”

Child (exasperated): Well, dass a cup!

So who’s the deficient one that needs ‘correcting’: the kid whose language communicates its message efficiently or the adult who says stupid, self-evident things to help the kid conform to standard grammar rules?

Image from Rethinking Schools Online: Reflections on the Ebonics debate

Image from Rethinking Schools Online: “Reflections on the Ebonics Debate” by Theresa Perry













Ebonics – sometimes known as African American Vernacular English or AAVE – has a bad reputation among the self-appointed gatekeepers of the English language. They use a number of arguments to denigrate the dialect: people won’t take you seriously; you don’t know the rules; no one will understand you; if you want to get on in life, you need to speak real English.

These arguments are spurious and bound up with questions of power. Who decides what real English is? Invariably, it’s the elite – those with their hands on the levers of the media, the political scene, and the publishing industry – and ‘elite’ in America and the UK usually means white and wealthy. Why is “Dis not a poon” inferior to “this is not a spoon”? It isn’t. “Dis not a poon” is entirely logical and comprehensible, as is Ebonics in general. AAVE is rule-driven, structurally complex, and more than adequate for expressing ideas. In fact, the richness and vitality of the spoken word is central to African American life, and linguistic ability is a prized asset. This is the demographic that gave us rap and hip-hop, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.



The problem lies not with Ebonics itself but with the gatekeepers – Steven Pinker calls them language mavens – and what they deem to be acceptable. But acceptability is context-driven. Walk into a Detroit tenement or a Johannesburg shanty town or a Milton Keynes tower block and try speaking the Queen’s English. “Acceptable” and “standard” are culturally loaded terms.


Language Colonization

The problem also lies in a lack of intercultural competence and a colonial attitude towards minority languages and dialects.

Take this anecdote from Suzanne Romaine’s Language in Society:

A senior professor of education visited a London comprehensive school and discussed with one class the languages they spoke at home. One boy put up his hand and said that his family spoke a French Creole. In an unguarded moment the professor replied, “That’s nice.” “What’s nice about it?” asked the boy.

This paternalistic view of the ‘other’ language is all too common. Some regard the home language as a cute game for children, while English, with its Shakespeare and Chaucer and the New York Times and the BBC and CNN, is the language of the grown-ups.


Language Ideology

Ideology is at its most powerful when it’s invisible, when unsubstantiated ‘facts’ go unquestioned. When any form of oppression has worked completely, the oppressor doesn’t need to act, because the oppressed have internalized their ‘inferiority’. This happens in relation to language use as much as any other form of human interaction. It’s one reason why first-generation immigrants dissuade their offspring from speaking the mother tongue. They have internalized the idea that English is good and the mother tongue bad. It’s why African American parents are sometimes heard scolding their children for speaking AAVE. It’s why John Prescott, a British politician known for mangling his sentences, apologized for not mastering the grammar of his own language. It’s why arbitrary ‘rules’ survive and thrive, such as the ridiculous notion that one should never end a sentence with a preposition.

John Prescott

John Prescott








Communication and Comprehension

How then should we approach regional and ethnic variations of English? The first stage is openness. When Native Speakers are confronted with someone addressing them in English as a Second Language or in a dialect, they have a choice: listen to comprehend or do the opposite.

All communication works two ways. Listeners need to empathize, find common ground, and mentally turn the speech signals they hear into plausible propositions. As we listen, we constantly make judgments about these signals, from the phonemic level (the most basic of sounds) up to the pragmatic level (what the speaker is actually trying to achieve). We use everything we know in order to comprehend the incoming noise, and we reject all options but one. The ‘one’ is what we ultimately believe we heard. This process requires openness of both the ears and the mind. As the saying goes, ‘a wise man listening to a fool will learn more than a fool listening to a wise man.’


The Oakland Ebonics Controversy and Identity








Twenty years ago, the school board in Oakland, California controversially allowed some education to be conducted in AAVE. In the furor that followed, the TESOL organization (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) offered a voice of reason: “Research and experience have shown that children learn best if teachers respect the home language and use it as a bridge in teaching the language of the school and wider society.”

How we speak reflects our life story: our upbringing, education, class, social status, ethnicity, gender. It’s an essential part of our identity. When we demean another person’s speech, we demean that person and their history. We also perpetuate false assumptions about the superiority of one way of speaking. The truth is: everyone has an accent. It’s just that society values some accents more than others.

Dream Writers: Authoring Fiction and ELT materials

The English teaching profession is full of would-be James Joyces and JK Rowlings. Lots of us are closet writers, working quietly on our masterpiece after a day of teaching and grading papers. Many teachers are also interested in publishing ELT materials. They may already write these for their students, and wish to unleash their creativity on a larger audience. Here’s a brief comparison of the processes involved in both types of writing.


Publishing plans: research and guesswork


ELT publishers plan years ahead to release a course. They need a constant flow of new products to sell to schools and universities, and they do lots of market research prior to commissioning the work. They speak to Directors of Studies, teachers and students, in an attempt to find the magic USP (Unique Selling Point) that will make the product stand out. The great enemy is uncertainty. Publishers spend years in the commissioning/writing/editing process. With all the add-ons – videos, apps, Teacher’s Books, photocopiable worksheets, dedicated websites – to produce a six-level course can cost well over a million pounds.



In fiction, publishing plans are different. The decision of whether to publish a novel or not is largely based on a Commissioning Editor’s experience and/or a blind hunch. Predicting the next bestseller is a guessing game. Reading fads arrive in the same way as fashion and food fads: suddenly and without warning. And they sometimes disappear as quickly. Twenty years ago, misery memoirs were huge (Angela’s Ashes, A Child Called It). Shortly after that, chick-lit took off (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Waiting to Exhale). Now Young Adult fantasy is having a moment. Next year … who knows? This means fiction publishing is fraught with unknowns and insecurity. And that’s before we factor in the rise of other types of entertainment to compete with reading, and ebooks, which drive down book pricing.


Commissioning: author and publisher (a love story)


In the (good?) old days, ELT publishers would put the word out that they were looking for authors. Ambitious teachers and teacher trainers would send a sample, meet with the publisher over a plate of dry sandwiches or a gourmet lunch (depending on how much the publisher loves you), and then get commissioned to write a book. For this, the author would receive a royalty of somewhere between 7 and 10 percent. These authors were possibly already known to the publisher through writing Teachers’ Books, Workbooks, or reports on materials-in-progress. The model has changed in the last couple of years. More likely now is that writers are asked to write parts of a course for a fee instead of royalties.



The process for fiction is far more daunting. You write on spec, maybe spending years honing your work. You then send the first couple of chapters along with a letter either to an agent or directly to a publisher. Unless you are already famous, your submission will go into a “slush pile”. This is the pile of manuscripts a junior editor will read on the train back home from the office. Or, rather, will NOT read. Editors are inundated by manuscripts – dozens every day. They look for any excuse to reject them. A single typo or a misspelled name on the covering letter can get your manuscript binned.


If, by some miracle, the editor likes it, they will recommend it to a committee which consists of personnel from Publicity and Marketing, Sales, Rights, and a Senior Commissioning Editor. Together, they decide whether to publish your masterpiece or cast it into Outer Darkness.


The biggest change in this traditional model is the self-publishing industry, which has grown rapidly over the last decade. With it, there are now many companies that assist authors in the process. You take your manuscript to them, pay a fee, and they turn it into a book – cover, design, back cover copy, ISBN number, the works. It’s a quick way to get published, but the chances of your book selling to anyone beyond family and friends are minuscule. Why? Because most self-publishing companies won’t help you market the book. Without professional marketing, your book is one of tens of thousands published every year. Also, for self-published authors it’s almost impossible to get reviewed in any of the big media outlets or placed on the shelves of a bookstore.


The Writing Process: templates, teams and typos


ELT publishers often provide a template for the author. For example, each lesson is two pages long, has one grammar point and one vocabulary section; texts are, say, 400-500 words, etc. The author follows this template religiously and turns in the work according to a tight schedule. Lack of inspiration or a terrible bout of writer’s block is no use. You make your deadline or you get another job.


Once the work is turned in, it gets edited, piloted and critiqued by teachers, rewritten (draft 2), re-edited, and then rewritten again (draft 3). After that it goes into production. Designers, copy-editors, sound engineers, producers, actors, permissions researchers and others become involved.



Literary fiction has no templates. You tell the story as it needs to be told. If you’re serious about your work, you’ll get a professional editor or some highly literate and trusted friends/acquaintances to read the work with a critical eye. You’ll write several drafts and re-read repeatedly, looking for holes in the plot, implausible occurrences, factual errors, stylistic infelicities, wooden dialogue, clichés, typos, and anything that can be cut. Other elements of the process – rights, cover images, etc. – are inconsequential at this stage for the writer, although word count matters. Around 80,000 words is normal for a novel, although some genres – fantasy and multi-generational sagas, for example – may run over 100,000.


The Launch: champagne and backslapping


ELT book launches used to be grand affairs: a stylish venue; champagne; good food; VIPs; music; short speeches; more champagne. Tight budgets have largely curtailed fancy launches. A mini-party for those involved in the book’s production – basically an in-house backslapping session – is now more likely, although some ELT publishers still do it in style.



For fiction, a launch is important for creating some razzle-dazzle, a vital publicity-generator. Local media outlets, the literati, and assorted bigwigs are all invited to bring some glitz. The fact is, dozens of novels are published every day. The launch is the moment when your novel is news.


After publication: getting the word out


To promote an ELT book, the publisher may send the author on speaking tours and to conferences. Authors may also be asked to take part in short promotional videos, blog writing, webinars, and other activities.



The promotion of fiction bears some similarities. The author will probably go to book festivals and deliver readings at bookshops, libraries and other venues. Big names will also feature on TV and radio programmes, while lesser-known writers simply take every promotional opportunity going. The main difference between ELT and fiction promotion is that the budget for author travel is tiny for fiction writers unless they are already famous. Many debut novelists, short story writers, and poets have to pay their own way, and speaking fees tend to be tiny or non-existent. Fiction writers are expected to have a website and an active blog. These are part of their “author platform” – how they reach their audience and how the public knows them.


The last word and the bottom line

It has never been easier to become a published author, and it has never been more difficult to make a living from it. Few fiction writers manage it. Most teach, shuttle from one residency to another, or wait tables. Gazillionaire authors like James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer are an extremely rare exception. Even well-established, award-winning novelists struggle to make ends meet. But they do have the satisfaction of stirring the imagination of thousands of readers, of living reasonably flexible lives, and of the possibility of their work outlasting them.


Like fiction writers, not many ELT writers can make a living from the job. The number of bestselling course books is small, and no one gets rich writing supplementary materials like Workbooks or Teachers’ Books. While there are other ways to earn income as an ELT author (e.g., giving talks), anyone that wants to write ELT books for the money is deluding themselves. They may as well play the lottery. But as with fiction writers, materials and methodology writers know their work may be influential around the world. While the shelf life of most course books is short (a few years), very successful books go into second (and third and fourth) editions and can create a legacy.


The common denominator between ELT and fiction writing as a profession is that the author needs to be passionate about the work. She will read prolifically and hone her craft in obscurity, probably for years without reward. When the book comes out, there are no guarantees except the satisfaction of having produced something valuable that may help people to live a better, fuller life.


And finally, of course, JK Rowling and James Joyce were themselves once teachers of English as a Foreign Language. They didn’t do too badly trying their hand at fiction. Now it’s your turn.



(Editor’s note: The author of this blog post has written over twenty ELT books and has recently published his first novel, Damnificados.)

A wish list for ELT in 2016

I asked teachers, teacher trainers, Directors of Studies, materials and methodology writers, and the President of IATEFL to make one wish for the English Language Teaching profession. Here are their wishes:


“Can I have three wishes, please, like in all good fairy stories? (1) I wish we could shake free of the creeping colonialism of testing – help learners learn rather than preparing them for the test. (2) I wish we could restore more decision-making to teachers rather than trying to control them ever more closely. (3) I wish I could live long enough to see my other two wishes fulfilled.” Alan Maley, author

“I’d like language teachers to create stronger links with subject teachers, in order for students to do more cross-disciplinary projects, e.g. EFL and Arts, EFL and Science, etc. I also think it would be good if more teachers (of any subject) were trained in performance arts, improvisational theatre, voice coaching, creative writing, etc. Finally, and speaking more broadly, I wish ELT continues to develop its “T”, what it means, what it does – and does not.” Willy Cardoso, teacher trainer

“My wish is for people to stop arguing about whether we should use course books or not, and accept that, like everything else, they have pros and cons.” Rachael Roberts, teacher trainer, author

“My New Year’s wish for the ELT profession in the coming year is that it becomes more valued by our government, my fellow teachers who lack motivation and by most students who lose sight of the key life changing experience education represents.” Humberto Baltar, teacher, consultant

My wish for ELT in 2016 is that all of us – teachers, writers and publishers – don’t miss the wood for the trees: ED-Tech is a means to an end (maximizing learning), not an end in itself. José Luis Morales, author

“My wish for 2016 is that education is valued more (by governments, institutions, students and teachers), and that we teachers are appreciated more for our contribution to society. Education should not be seen as a luxury but should be free and accessible to everyone. And we teachers should feel and be more respected for offering our services and making an impact on our students’ lives, often for a very low salary.” Vicky Papageorgiou, lecturer

“My New Year’s wish for the ELT profession is that teachers are not considered professionals in name only. Schools, employers and educational authorities need to respect teachers’ professionalism by providing them with the necessary autonomy, valuing them as decision makers, and paying them a salary commensurate to true professionalism.” Daniel Xerri, teacher trainer, author

“My wish for 2016 is to stay in our centre , find and express the gems of love and light from within us. Let’s keep in mind that patience and endurance are virtues which help us all write our story in the book called life. After all, we may be the only book someone else is reading silently. Love, hope and bliss. Let’s evolve from human kind to kind humans.” Vassiliki Mandalou, teacher

“I believe that education must include global citizenship and ethical decision making, therefore my ELT wish is that educators should keep an eye on what is happening in the world today and – although this sounds like an oxymoron – find inspiration in the negativity that surrounds us. Recession, war and its aftermath, crises in civilization and values worldwide, the fear of terrorism, all could be used as excellent opportunities to raise awareness of social issues and help the students promote peace and social justice. My wish is for the ELT community to use creativity and human resources in a conscientious effort to substitute bigotry, intolerance and bitterness with respect, open-mindedness and hope; and I have great faith in our power as educators to achieve it.” Julia Alivertis, teacher

“My wish for the future of ELT in 2016 is a UK based one. I wish that ELT would be acknowledged as a profession crucial to our economy and reputation as a country. ELT in the UK currently generates £1.2 billion yet the situation in the UK at present means that genuine hardworking students keen to learn English and enhance their future careers are being caught up in immigration issues that do not belong to students.” Fiona Dunlop, Director of Studies

“I would like ELT to go beyond ELT. I would like to learn new and interesting things. I would hate to become like those eye-specialists who can only talk about the retina, the sclera and the optic nerve. I would like ELT to learn from advertising. I imagine myself leaving an ELT event, then going to the pub to meet my friends dying to share new, exciting stuff.” Nick Michelioudakis, teacher trainer

“I would like to see more friendly knowledge and understanding being shared between cultures around the world.” Graham Stanley, teacher trainer, author

Let this year just beginning be the year we quiet our urge to be right, set aside our professional differences, and remember that every teacher matters. In this coming year, let us work together in ways that support & encourage teachers everywhere.” Chuck Sandy, teacher trainer

“My 2016 suggestions are for non-native speaker teachers of English working in their own countries; in other words, the vast majority of workers in our profession: (1) If you get a chance to attend a presentation by some old native speaker guru, ask them how much they know about the working conditions in your school system. If they know nothing, enlighten them. (2) Engage in random professional development. Follow interesting trails on social media and see where they take you. (3) Try to read as many ELT-related blogs as you can. You may find some of them boring. If they are, don’t feel obliged to read them a second time. (4) Never EVER feel inferior to a native speaker. Research suggests that teacher enthusiasm is more important to students than ability with the language, so be more enthusiastic than your native speaker colleagues.” Ken Wilson, author

“My wish for 2016 is that we continue to support one another as best we can within the ELT community. Volunteering for a teaching association is a wonderful way to give back and the more people who get involved in this, the better. I hope that the work that has been started such as raising awareness of the importance of gender diversity within the profession, following anti-discrimination guidelines when posting jobs, giving first-time presenters a chance to speak at international conferences, providing a wide range of free-of-charge web events and live-streamed talks to global audiences, and carrying out programmes to provide training to teachers in their local contexts will continue to grow. Initiatives such as these make me very glad to be a member of the ELT community.” Marjorie Rosenberg, President of IATEFL