We’re so excited to publish this post from Anthony Gaughan. For those of you who don’t know him, Anthony is a teacher trainer and English teacher based in Berlin, Germany.  He has been TDSIG social media coordinator and SIG coordinator, and occasionally blogs at teachertrainingunplugged.com or gives talks at conferences about minimalist approaches to teacher training.  He also has more books than he has space for. We’re so proud to share this one with you and hope it gets your week off to brilliant start.

Ten books that shaped my teaching

Anthony Gaughan

I have a bit of a difficult relationship with the kind of chain-status-update meme that has prompted this series of blog posts – the problem is, I always feel worried that someone will invite me to contribute and I’ll have nothing to say, or worse, that no one will invite me to contribute.  Is this the modern version of what Oscar Wilde meant when he said “there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about?”

But invited I have been, and a pleasure it is to share ten of the books that, looking back, have had some kind of influence on who I am as a teacher.  I’ve chosen five obviously ELT-related titles, and five others from further afield.

Here’s my list:

1) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

This is one of the first “proper” books I can recall reading, and I have been in love with it ever since I first encountered beleaguered Arthur Dent, lying in the mud outside his house saving it from demolition, before his friend, Ford Prefect, sweeps him off on an intergalactic adventure in which they uncover not only the answer to the meaning of life the universe and everything, but also the actual question itself.

On the surface, this sci-fi romp has nothing to do with teaching, but I list it here because it taught me several life lessons that have stayed with me, directly or indirectly, in my teaching:

– The more things “advance”, often the less practical they become (see Zaphod Beeblebrox and his struggle to tune the spacecraft radio.)

– Contrived stuff is never as satisfying as the real thing (see Authur Dent’s search for a proper cup of tea in the cosmos)

– If you want to survive in this universe, you need to know where your towel is.

I also have one more fond memory for which I owe this book, in part, my thanks: I based the idea for my first ever plenary talk, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Teacher Development”, which I gave at the TDSIG/LAMSIG joint event Developing Teachers in Developing Schools, in 2012, on ideas from the book.

Thanks for all the fish, Douglas.

2) Challenge and Change in Language teaching – Jane and Dave Willis (ed.)

This was probably the first “proper” ELT methodology book I ever read, in preparation for my Delta course at IH London many moons ago.  The thrill I felt in encountering such (for me at the time) new and radical ideas such as the Lexical Approach and Task-Based Learning is something I still sense when I see a copy of this book.  Dave Willis sadly died recently and, though I never met him personally, I owe both him and Jane willis a debt of gratitude for broadening my perspective on my profession through this wonderful collection of keynote articles.

3) Tackle Fencing – Bob Anderson

Many of you may know Bob Anderson – or at least, his work – from films ranging from the swashbuckling Errol Flynn romp The Master of Ballentrae, through The Princess Bride, to the lightsabre duels in the Star Wars movies.  A master fencer and fight choreographer, Anderson through his fight design taught me the importance of narrative, conversation and flow.  This book, however, which I only read quite recently, showed me how minimalist pedagogies which we know in our field under names like Dogme or Teaching Unplugged, with their focus on emergent learning and teaching “at the point of need”, were long anticipated in other fields.  Anderson speaks of letting beginners get on with trying to fence, encounter problems fro which they cannot alone find solutions, then answering questions they pose with sound advice and some training, and letting them get on with it again.  In this manner, the total game of fencing will emerge without the need for a pre-ordained syllabus.  As not only a language teacher but also a fencing coach myself, this made perfect sense and enhanced my understanding of how these two aspects of my professional life have nourished each other.

4) About Language – Scott Thornbury

Scott Thornbury is perhaps most associated in the collective consciousness of our profession with Dogme ELT, but for me Scott Thornbury is the person from whom I learnt that I could actually make sense of language as an academic subject, not just intuitively.  I had started, and abandoned, a course on linguistics at university as part of my degree, giving up after not being able to make sense of the first topic, the noun phrase.  I though I was a language dunce, which makes it remarkable in retrospect that I still dared, a couple of years later, to train to become a language teacher at all.  Through my first years, I made sense of language along the way, but in much the same way I made sense of mathematics: idiosyncratically, unsystematically and quite possibly fundamentally wrongly.  Then I got my hands on About Language and – literally step by step – it all fell into place.  To say that Scott Thornbury has a talent for making the complex accessible and for giving the reader a sense of her or his own intelligence is to woefully under-compliment the man.  Thank you, Scott.

5) Everyday Zen – Charlotte Joko Beck

Zen Buddhism and language teaching do not, on the surface, have much of a connection, but the writings of Charlotte Joko Beck on what Zen is have a clarity, robustness and uncompromising nature which reflects what I think teaching and learning also are: a practice in the truest sense of this word, ones which require and nurture the highest discipline, focus and freedom from ego.  It is from Beck that I learnt, or perhaps freshly understood, that it is not the people as individuals involved, nor, the surroundings, nor the resources, nor the outcomes – but rather the work itself – whether it be meditation or language teaching – that matters.

6) On Education – John Milton

I read this short treatise at university and was both inspired and shamed in the process: inspired by the range and depth of knowledge and learning that Milton believed young minds had the capacity, indoor guidance and encouragement, to gain; shamed at the realization of how far short of his lofty mark my own learning fell.  I have learnt to live with this gulf between the intelligence and reading of this greatest of English poets and that of my own, but I go back to On Education every once in a while to remind myself of the scope of human capacity, especially when I start to think that some new subject or concept is “beyond me”.

7) Children’s Minds – Margaret Donaldson

This book – which I first read while undergoing state teaching training in the UK – was more or less the first attempt to redefine Piagetan notions of children’s cognitive capacity.  Essentially, Donaldson argues – and proves – that Piaget got the limited results he got with younger children not because they were more limited, but because he was asking the wrong question.  Given the right question, framed in terms which made sense to the child, even the youngest of children showed astounding capacity for perspective shift, deductive reasoning and more.  In terms of my teaching, it’s made me very wary of placing the blame for problematic lessons on the learners’ lack of ability – more often than not, I suspect it’s the teacher who needed to ask the right question.

8) Defining Issues in Language Teaching – Henry Widdowson

This book isn’t as seminal as the 1978 classic Teaching Language as Communication, but for me, this most recent (and perhaps last) “grand-sweep” exploration of our profession is a wonderful introduction not only to central issues for our profession, but also a highly accessible introduction to this great academic’s work and thinking.

9) Survival Lessons – Author unknown

This was one of the first books I got pressed into my hands when I started teaching, and the title was an accurate description of the contents: a series of 12-5 lessons, each focused on a different grammatical area, and each following a similar format of contextualised presentation, guided discovery, controlled and communicative practice.  It not only saved me on several occasions when I had to cover a class, it also taught me a good deal about lesson and material design, including the value of clear context, inductive tasks, controlled practice that fed into personalized tasks, and economy.  It was out of print for years, but a couple of years ago a retro-publisher brought out a reprint.  If any of you are short of an idea for my birthday present, you need look no further.

10 Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood

This semi-autobiographical account of the closing days of pre-war Berlin, is a book for which I have a special regard.  Not only was it my first introduction to the city that would become my home, it was also my first introduction to the culture of Germany (albeit at a very particular time) and it was also the first literary encounter I had with an EFL teacher – this was one of the ways the narrator pays his way.  I spent my first years walking around Berlin imaging myself to be a similar itinerant language teacher, slightly on the outside of the local culture, slowly breaking down the barrier of not having a shared language, and eventually feeling at home.  Thank you, Mr. Isherwood.

What’s in your “Top 10”?