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An interview with Liz and John Soars

Liz and John Soars, authors of Headway published by Oxford University Press, received MBEs from the Queen at Buckingham Palace on 8th February 2011 in recognition of the contribution they have made to the learning and teaching of English over the last twenty-five years.

Headway was first published in 1986 as a two-level course and its integrated syllabus, explicit grammar rules and user-friendliness made it work equally well in the hands of both experienced and novice teachers.  Now in its fourth edition, its continuing popularity has resulted in 70 million copies sold and it is estimated that more than 100 million students in secondary schools, tertiary and teacher training institutions in 127 countries have learned English using the course.

To visit the Headway website for teachers, click on: http://www.oup.com/elt/catalogue/teachersites/headway/?cc=global

To visit the Headway website for teachers, click on:

http://www.oup.com/elt/global/products/headway/

Ed: Congratulations on being awarded MBEs for services to the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language, clearly a high point in your careers. Could you tell us about some of the other highlights?

Liz: For me, teaching in Tanzania for two years; working at IH; giving training courses to Icelandic teachers; being a co-chief examiner for the Cambridge DELTA for 5 years; deciding to have a go at writing a course book; the fact that Headway has been so well-received; and because of that, meeting teachers from so many parts of the world.

John: For me, being part of International House in the late 70s and 1980s was incredibly exciting. The academic discipline of TEFL was in the process of establishing itself. IH buzzed with innovation and youthful enthusiasm. Another high was being a teacher trainer and watching hundreds of teachers teaching thousands of lessons. On diploma courses you trade ideas and experiences with peers.

Ed: What exactly is your connection with International House?

L: We met at IH! We worked at IH for many years both as teachers and teacher trainers. John was Director of Studies for three years and I was Director of Teacher Training. We worked on the first Distance DELTA courses. We piloted Headway extensively at IH. We will always be very grateful to John Haycraft who was extremely supportive when we first started writing.

Ed: When you were working on the first edition of Headway, did you have a feeling it was going to be a success?

L: Of course not. We were just pleased to have a publisher interested in our proposal. Headway was initially commissioned by OUP as just a two-book series at intermediate and upper-intermediate levels.

J : When these were well received, we were asked to write some more and we chose to go for the advanced level. At the time there weren’t many (any?) courses at this level, we really like high-level teaching, and we wanted the challenge. The rest of Headway grew ‘downwards’, so to speak, ending at beginner level.

Ed: Why do you think the series continues to be such a success?

L: You need to ask teachers why they keep going back to it. They tell us that it’s a series they can trust at all levels. It provides a balanced syllabus, and day-to-day lessons that work. Also, most importantly, at the end of a course of study, they and their students can see real progress. This is easier to judge in institutions where courses last a full academic year.

J: Getting a book right for the different levels is difficult, especially at low levels. It’s tempting to push too hard and drown learners with too much vocabulary and too much information. We try to maintain the degree of interest whilst keeping material accessible. Making something look easy is in fact very difficult.

Ed: You’re now writing fourth editions. How has the series developed?

J: Each new edition has a refinement to the syllabus, or the methodology, or both. Our ideas evolve, and we are always open to new developments. But the core principles which govern our writing remain the same – clear linguistic aims, clear aims for each activity, maximum help for teachers, maximum involvement of students both as people and as language learners.

L: We remain rooted in the reality of the classroom, and have never believed in ‘hitching ourselves to the latest bandwagon’ unless we believe in the worth of it.

Ed: How has the role of technology in the classroom changed the way you develop materials?
J: Digital delivery is an exciting new development in our profession. Teachers are becoming increasingly confident with the new technology and as its use becomes more widespread, both its potential and limitations are becoming clearer. We have to embrace it and explore it but we must never forget that language learning principally takes place in the context of interaction between people.

L: In the writing you have to consider how to distinguish between digital activities suitable for home study and classroom use. Also, they must be worthwhile in terms of language development – the initial excitement of some digital activities can soon wear off if no real benefit is perceived. In our opinion there are some activities that seem like a sledge hammer to crack a nut!

With the latest editions of Headway there is an iTutor which goes with the student’s books. This is for students to catch up and review core content at home.
There is also a new version of iTools, which has materials and worksheets for use in the classroom. Both of these feature brand new videos.

Ed: What advice do you have for aspiring coursebook writers?

L: Most native-English TEFL teachers think they could do better than what they see published. Of course they know their own students best, so they should be ideally equipped to produce a tailor-made course.

All teachers have some great lessons, maybe based on some favourite material. But the course book writer has to try to provide a whole series of lessons which need to cohere. Any teacher can make their own material come alive with a familiar class of students, but will it engage other teachers and students in different countries in different teaching situations? This is no easy task.

J: Our advice to any teacher with aspirations or inspiration to write is ‘Go for it’. But you have to have a view of the profession as a whole. How do learners learn? How do teachers best teach? ‘Be true to yourself’ is a much-applied aphorism, valid nonetheless, but in order to do it you have to know what you believe in.

Aspiring writers should get in touch with publishers, who will have their own ideas of areas they want to develop. You need to see where your intentions overlap. After that, don’t give in! We all think we have a book in us, but remember – writing is 20% inspiration, and 80% perspiration!

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