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Six things we wish we’d known

Six things

Well-known ELT authors Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley have opened a language school – what have they learned along the way?

1. Discipline

We hesitate to simply say it’s important to work hard, because so much of what we do with both our writing and our school is massively enjoyable. That said, there are some aspects of the job that can be a bit tedious, but which are essential. In writing, this might be getting the rubrics right, writing your review units or checking and re-checking work, while with the school it may be admin and finance or arranging and dealing with extras beyond the class. What you have to realise is that all these things need to be done – and done well!

It’s easy to get distracted by the nice things in a job, or drift off on a tangent, but these boring details are actually equally important. If a teacher can’t understand the instructions for your brilliant text or exercise or the explanation of a grammar point, then they will probably get annoyed and won’t do it. If a student doesn’t get the right information before they arrive or if you fail to sort out their accommodation problem, the great teaching they get may be forgotten.

2. Be interested in people

English classrooms are not only a place to learn English, they are also spaces for conversation and sharing of a kind that you don’t necessarily get anywhere else. One of the great joys of our work is meeting a huge range of people and getting to know them. We have put that into a lot of our writing – by sharing stories we’ve heard over the years or making use of the National Geographic resources we have access to. It’s also central to how we try to encourage students to be themselves in English.

But being interested in people is not just about students, it’s also part of forming good relationships with all the other professionals you work with both in and outside your organisation. In fact, we’ve also learnt this from teaching business English. So often when discussing their needs and constructing their courses, you realise that business people want intelligent conversation or networking skills – essentially getting to know people better – but based on their own lives and their business contexts.

3. You need other professionals for success

It’s easy to think of writing as a solitary task, but to get a book published you rely on a host of other professionals – editors provide valuable insights and different perspectives that shape your work, publishers and project managers coordinate the complex parts of a coursebook series, designers help to make clear the route through the material and make it look attractive, and so on.

Once the book has been produced, it then needs to be sold! Salespeople and distributors are essential to writers in the same way that agents are to schools. Finally, you need teachers to interpret your material effectively. Obviously, with a school there are an equal number of professionals that make or break you – from cleaners to accommodation providers, from agents to teachers. What we’ve learnt is that it’s important not just to respect these roles, but also to understand what people need in their jobs and how to help them. For salespeople and agents, that might be providing tailored tasks in response to a school request or being available to talk to clients. And it means being clear in your message and making sure that the ideas you’re promoting match the product you’re selling.

4. Have clear beliefs about language and learning

As anyone who has seen us talk or has read what we have written will know, we have strong beliefs and a passion for what we do. Our writing has always been grounded in our ongoing engagement with students, and writing often leads us to think more about our teaching. At the heart of our beliefs about language is the idea that vocabulary is central to communication, and that words work in complex ways.

In terms of learning, it’s therefore important to give useful natural examples of the words you teach and draw attention to the grammar that goes with them. This is why it’s important to encourage conversation in the classroom, so students can exchange thoughts and feelings and practise the everyday business of life in English. As well as generating useful language, this also means common words and grammar come up more often – and to learn a language, you need to revise a lot over time, and this is best done in varied ways.

These beliefs inform everything we do. When we write, we try to represent natural common conversations, and we choose the vocabulary and grammar we want to teach from them. And for the school, this helps clarify how long and short courses serve different needs, it helps us source teachers who share a similar approach, and it affects how we talk about the quality of teaching and how we write new material for our courses.

5. Light and shade

When we started out writing, we were once told we had too much ‘serious stuff’ in our material and that we needed to have both light and shade. I think this might, in part, have been because the commentator missed our sense of humour. However, it was also an attempt to push the idea of fun games and activities to accompany the focus on learning language. For us now, we take the idea of light and shade to mean embracing the whole of human life in our

writing and in the classroom. Sometimes this is a bit more difficult when writing material because people can’t always judge what is humorous, for example – as noted! – and because publishers don’t always grasp how students may interact and lessons pan out. If given the opportunity, students can easily drift off into discussing, say, the serious issues of old age, but then end up laughing about it because that’s what they do in their own lives.

For us as a school, as well as encouraging intelligent conversation and humour in the classroom, it’s also about how we construct our social and cultural programme and how we integrate it with our courses. We enable students to experience the whole of our city – visiting bits tourists often don’t get to as well at the sights. It means helping people follow their interests in London, whether they are academic, religious or sporting. It means having activities for people who like to go to a pub and for those who prefer to see a film or bake cakes.

6. Be patient, be persistent

Judging by its commercial success, it seems only a few people really liked using our series Innovations, while a few more found it interesting – meaning they photocopied the odd page every now and then! But then we also wrote for a small company with a small sales team and very few people ever actually saw the books. The company grew and wanted us to write another series – Outcomes. A bit more success followed as we had more sales staff and did a lot more travelling and talking at conferences. People got to know us. More people saw our books. The second edition of Outcomes seems to be getting more interest and our methodology book, Teaching Lexically, has added to the mix. Perhaps your time comes – people tire of one kind of book and see the value in another. We’ll see.

What is clear is that when you start something new and try to offer something different, it takes time to gain traction and you need to do a lot of work to get yourself seen. That’s what we’re trying to do with our social media offerings like the Word of the Day feature on our blog. In writing we’ve found persistence has paid off and we hope the same will be true of the school – and, of course, if there is anyone out there who’d like to help us, do drop us a line!