by Divya Madhavan
I’ve just had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Thornbury, whose name was one of the first ones I heard when I became an ELT teacher. How did I first hear of Scott? In a small English bookshop in Vienna. I was struggling with teaching English grammar, mainly because it had never been taught to me. English is my mother tongue, I’d successfully studied it to a higher degree, and was a ‘qualified, native speaker’ English teacher. Yet, I kept getting all these questions on grammar from my young Austrian students that I didn’t begin to have answers for. So I turned to methodology books and ended up reading Scott’s ’How to teach grammar’.
Reading it didn’t turn me into an excellent grammar teacher overnight but it did make me want to read everything else he wrote, and to follow his work closely over the years. I also felt instant shifts in the way I thought about teaching, in what ‘teaching’ and being ‘a teacher’ was and how learning happened and the momentum of that change is something that has found its way into various aspects of my teaching. Throughout this interview, I was reminded of Anthony Gaughan’s words that Scott “has a talent for making the complex accessible and for giving the reader a sense of her or his own intelligence”.
We started off by talking about Scott’s first book, About Language, published in 1997 – and which, he reveals, he’s revising. For those who are unfamiliar with the book, About Language is a wonderfully rich resource that provides step-by-step descriptions on how to become familiar with English grammar, phonology, lexis and discourse, how to take the language found in authentic texts apart, observe it, understand it and form new language from it. “I’m going to take into account some of the key shifts in language teaching over the last two decades,” he explains, from Corpus Linguistics and the technological boom in ELT to the recognition of English as a Lingua Franca and the empowering debate on Non-Native Speaker Teachers. “This all relates to breaking down the notion of English as a monolithic block”, he says, “the idea that teaching is about moving learners from a state of error-making to a state of non-error making”.
He goes on to say that, while he celebrates the fact that the CEFR foregrounds language’s communicative purposes, “it nevertheless represent a frozen, reified notion of language, captured by legions of researchers” that is “not pragmatic”. Scott explains that “language is about achieving mutual intelligibility, taking into account all sorts of flows and tensions” and with flexible boundaries, “it is important not to ignore what comes from outside the local context” he says. “Communicative competence”, he asserts, “is not something that can be itemised. There is no one size that fits all”.
We also spoke about teaching unplugged and teacher development. Scott described it as “an unofficial special interest group”, formed by teachers who “used this as a pretext to develop” as teachers. The recent decline in posts to the original Dogme discussion list he attributes to “the proliferation of blogs has replaced the need for a one-stop teaching development site”. He drew the link between this and language no longer being available in “static, local contexts”. He says “we live in a mobile world, in which it is vital to be resourceful and critically eclectic and aware of the transcultural flows, and to become very informed”.
I asked Scott how we, the TDSIG, could best support our network of teachers in making their professional journeys as continuous as possible – he quickly raised the importance of reading as a means of grounding one’s work, “it is so important to not lose sight of reading good journals and books which has sort of been sidelined with all our online teacher development”. He says, “whatever you do, read- read more and more outside the narrow world of ELT”. Scott also described his “Wizard of Oz moment” when he discovered the Education Library at the University of Reading, where he did his MA, “it was like falling into this technicolour land of education as a wider concept, beyond ELT”.
Scott went on to question whether English as a language that belonged to any one group of native speakers ever really existed . He feels that the manner in which teachers are trained should take this into account. “Every initial teacher training course should have a module on English in the World” which, he affirmed that the MA TESOL Program, at the New School in New York, is bringing back as we speak.
Scott also asserts “it’s always important to remain critical. Don’t get stuck in any one thing. Fads and fashions last about three to four…maybe five years and it’s important to read extensively. Don’t get stuck on any one thing”. We talked about the “pedagogy of the type found in airport bookshops” that typically sell educational wares with motivational and inspirational labels “without a shred of evidence to ground these theories”.
“Don’t take anything on trust. Read the critics. Read outside the narrow pigeon hole of of ELT” he says, describing his own early journey into thinking critically about his work “I found myself wondering why is it that my learners aren’t learning what I’m teaching them” he says “and that was when I started questioning my own methodology”. Well, I know that I echo many people’s sentiments when I say that Scott’s writing, work and wisdom as certainly been a big part of how I’ve asked my teacher-self questions.
Scott Thornbury is a teacher and teacher educator, with over 30 years’ experience in English language teaching, and an MA from the University of Reading. He is currently Curriculum Coordinator of the MA TESOL Program at The New School in New York. His previous experience includes teaching and teacher training in Egypt, UK, Spain (where he lives), and in his native New Zealand. His writing credits include several award-winning books for teachers on language and methodology, as well as authoring a number of papers and book chapters on language and language teaching. He is series editor for the Cambridge Handbooks for Teachers (CUP). He was also the co-founder of the dogme ELT group. And, currently, is an associate of the International Teacher Development Institute iTDi, an online campus dedicated to teacher development. The IATEFL Teacher Development SIG is deeply honoured to host this interview.