Penny Ur is a former series editor of the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers and the author of a number of bestselling Handbooks. In this post, Penny reflects on the development of Discussions that Work, which was her first Handbook and launched her career as an author.
In the 1970s I was in my thirties with four children, teaching English in a kibbutz rural school in the north of Israel. I was experimenting as I went, and sharing ideas first with my co-teachers in the school and then through articles published in local (and later British) journals for teachers. I became particularly interested in the problems associated with getting the students to talk in English in order to improve their fluency … they tended to run out of things to say, or reverted to their shared mother tongue.
Through trial and error I came up with the idea of putting students in groups or pairs and asking them to complete a task, rather than talk about a topic. The ‘task’ had to be something they could only do by talking to each other: agreeing on a list of priorities, brainstorming ideas to solve a problem, making a committee decision, devising improvements to their institution, dictating changes to pictures to teach others. Unfortunately, I got carried away with this idea and found myself with a piece entitled ‘Conversation classes in English’ which was about 70 pages long: too long for an article, too short for a book.
Around 1977, the late Professor Chris Brumfit came to Haifa with Alan Maley to give a two-day workshop on practical issues connected with the teaching of English as a foreign language. (I remember Chris introducing Alan by saying: ‘Listen to this man carefully: he is a genius!’).
At the end of the workshop there was no time for questions. Chris said: ‘I’m sorry there’s no time for further discussion, but if anyone would like to ask me about anything. I shall be in my hotel at 3 o’clock this afternoon – you are welcome to come.’
So I went, explained my idea and what I’d written, and asked him what he thought. He asked, of course, to see the article; but since this was a spur-of-the-moment thing, I hadn’t brought it with me. He gave me his address at the Institute of Education, London University, and asked me to send it to him.
I went home, typed out the article (remember typewriters?) on airmail paper (remember airmail?) and sent it to him. A month or two later I got a letter from Chris. He said that he thought the material had potential, and had passed it on to Adrian du Plessis at The Press. I still treasure that letter.
Developing the Handbook
Adrian wrote to me to suggest I develop the piece into a book for the newly established Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers series. Of course, he said, it’s too short as it stands, and the writing could be improved; but we have an excellent editor for the new series, Michael Swan, and I’m sure he can help you develop it into a useful book. We met up in London to discuss the idea. (It was somewhat intimidating: both Michael and Adrian six-foot tall and already well-known in the profession; me a five-foot-something relatively inexperienced schoolteacher).
To cut a long story short, the article on ideas for conversation classes developed, thanks largely to Michael’s (mercilessly critical, but consistently supportive) editing into a book entitled Discussions that Work. After it was published, Adrian wrote to me to ask what I would like to write next … and it went on from there. By the time I took over from Michael as series editor, I had written four books for the Series (Discussions that Work, Teaching Listening Comprehension, Grammar Practice Activities, and, with Andrew Wright, Five-Minute Activities).
I will always be grateful to Chris Brumfit for his generosity in taking the time and trouble to read and recommend that original article to The Press. It gave me the opportunity to publish, and eventually develop further as teacher, teacher educator and writer.
To find out more about Penny’s time as Handbooks series editor, read her recent interview.
Browse Penny’s Handbooks and other titles in the series here.