The history of Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers, an interview with Michael Swan

Heidi Burrows

As part of our series celebrating the 40th anniversary of Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers, we caught up with the original series editor, Michael Swan. In the first of our two-part interview he reveals the origins of the series and reflects on the secret of its success.

You were the first series editor, can you tell us how Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers came about?

The Handbooks Series was originally conceived at a high-level meeting in the mid-Seventies. More precisely, at an altitude of 2,500 metres in the French Alps, where Adrian du Plessis and I were taking time off work. Adrian was starting up the new Cambridge ELT list. I was moving into writing after many years inclassrooms, and was one of Adrian’s first authors. We had discovered a shared love of mountains, and this had led to our undertaking a ten-day hut-to-hut walk in the Dauphiné.

Part-way through, we found ourselves storm-bound for two days, with little to do but doze, drink and talk while waiting for the weather to clear. After covering personal history, women, children, music, literature, food, wine, ambitions, health, hopes, dreams, hang-ups and the state of the world, we were driven back onto professional topics.

Something that concerned us both was the need for a certain kind of book to support the many teachers who had moved into EFL with little or no professional training. There were plenty of recipe books with practical ideas for brightening up this or that aspect of classroom work, but with little or no basis in current language-teaching theory. And there was a growing supply of more heavyweight publications coming out of the new university applied linguistics departments, generally with ‘communicative’ somewhere in the titles, and often written by scholars with little non-academic classroom experience.

But there were few books which bridged the gap, blending practical advice with enough accessible theoretical input to help teachers structure and justify their teaching approaches, while never moving too far away from the classroom. This seemed a promising avenue to explore, and Adrian and I talked a good deal about it before finally drifting off to sleep.

The next day the storm had gone away, and we moved on to the next hut, carried on with the walk, and thought about other things. But when we were finally back at our desks we continued to pursue the idea, corresponded, drew up some rather ambitious plans for a new series, and started moving. The rest is history.

Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers is one of our longest running series, what do you think has been the secret of its success?

There are many reasons for the series’ impressive record, and I cannot possibly identify a single ‘secret’ even in relation to my own period of editorship.  One important factor in the early years was undoubtedly the original conception and its timing: it was clear from the outset that the handbooks were indeed meeting a real need for books that bridged the theory-practice gap in various areas of language teaching.

Another factor in the handbooks’ initial success was, I believe, their overall quality. Adrian and I set high standards, and we were repeatedly able to achieve them, with the help of good in-house support and the dedication of our gifted and hard-working authors.We got off to a very good start, by being able to launch the series with one or two excellent already-published titles which fitted into the framework, such as Maley & Duff’s Drama Techniques in Language LearningAnd we were fortunate in being able to commission, early on, some first-class books from experienced and innovative authors writing in important areas – Ur’s Discussions that Work and Gairns & Redman’s Working with Words are among several that come immediately to mind.

A further important element was the Series’ scope. Our original scheme had involved a long list of books we would like to commission so as to cover all the main aspects of ELT; predictably, this plan for world domination faded rapidly in the face of reality. We had no chance of ticking all the boxes, and with changing conceptions of ELT it became less and less clear what the boxes were anyway. So inevitably, we moved into a more pragmatic stance which our successors have wisely maintained, continuing to look for good Series candidates, but also taking on really good books as they showed up, whether or not they were strictly on our original wish-list.

Our basic principle – not too much theory, and not too little – was crucially important, and has clearly remained so. But where a good handbook stands on the theory-practice continuum necessarily depends on the topic. We were sometimes happy to engage with a book that was relatively low on language-teaching theory, provided its recommendations for practice were not only exciting but also structured in interesting and productive ways.

At the other end of the scale, we welcomed books which were not really practice-oriented, but which mediated a theoretical area in ways that would benefit the enquiring classroom teacher. (I owe virtually everything I know about testing to Arthur Hughes’ Testing for Language Teachers) the first edition being part of the Cambridge handbook series.

While, as I say, I can only speak directly about my own involvement, I find it gratifying to see how far the basis of our original high-level conception is still recognisable today, forty years (believe it or not) later.

Come back next week to read about Michael’s highlights from his time as series editor and discover the inspiration for his bestselling handbook Learner English (which he co-edited with Bernard Smith). In the meantime, watch Scott Thornbury’s interview on the 40th anniversary of the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers.

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