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The interview with Tom Hutchinson ,who's famous for his successful course books such as: "Lifelines" , "Hotline", "Project English" , "American Hotline"

Taken from Oxford University Press

 What was your very first job?

TH: My first job after leaving university was at a shop in London. I was a manager of the toy department which was great fun at Christmas time. Then I went into teaching and it went on from there.

 What made you decide to go into teaching?

TH: Well, basically I was out of a job. I studied history at university and while there, I spoke to various people about what I should do as a job. One of my tutors said, 'Whatever you do, don't become a teacher. Or if you do become a teacher, at least try something else first'. So that's why I ended up as the manager of the toy department in a London shop.

I tried various other jobs and eventually got a job as a history teacher in a school in south London. There was a large immigrant community in the area so I also ended up teaching a bit of English as a second language. The school had an exchange arrangement with a school in Germany, and when I went out there once, I met someone who was teaching English. At the time, I thought 'That's rather a good idea', and a year later I went out there and got into EFL like that. I did that for two years and I liked it, and so I thought 'Well, I'd better get a qualification in this', so I went to Lancaster University and did a MA in Applied Linguistics.

 Where have you taught English?

TH: As I said, I taught in a school in London and then I went to Germany and taught for two years in a school in Germany. I also taught in a night school while I was there teaching adults. Then I came back to Britain and did my MA. After doing my MA, I worked at the Institute for English Language Education at Lancaster University, teaching Iranian students. Then I went out to work in Croatia and was there for about three years. That was from 1979 to 1981, so it was Yugoslavia at the time, but I was actually based in Croatia. After that, I started working again at Lancaster University, teaching groups from various parts of the world, and I also did teacher training in various countries: Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Brazil.

 What made you start writing?

TH: Even as a history teacher, I had always liked writing my own material but I really got into writing after doing my MA. As I said, I worked for a short while at the Institute for English Language Education with a group of Iranian students; they were marine engineers and were going to study in British technical colleges. When it came to teaching them, I found that there was virtually no material available to meet the needs that they had, and so I started writing materials to cope with their particular situation. I quite enjoyed it and, on the strength of that experience, I got a job in Croatia where I was teaching and also writing materials for the Croatian Ministry of Education.

I got into it on a professional basis because while I was out in Yugoslavia, there was a visit from a representative of Mary Glasgow Publications and he wanted to talk to somebody about English language teaching in Croatia. I was out there with the British Council, as it happens. The Regional Director of the British Council phoned me up and asked me if I would come and talk to this man, a man called Clive Baine. I went to speak to him and took with me some of the material that I had been writing to show him what sorts of things we did. It turned out they were looking for an author for a secondary school course and so he took my material back to London and then one thing led to another, and they commissioned me to write a course for them. It was the course that eventually became Project English. After I had been working on it for about two years, Mary Glasgow had financial problems and they sold the course to Oxford University Press.

 You've written several successful course books including Project English and Hotline for secondary, and Lifelines for adult learners. Where do you get your ideas from?

TH: From just about anywhere really! I have found that when you are writing for a particular age group, which I have done - Project English for younger learners, Hotline for teenagers, and Lifelines for adults - you have to immerse yourself in the world of the audience. When I was writing Project English, my own children were fairly young and so it was really just a matter of reading their comics, and watching the TV programmes that they watched, and listening to their stories, and talking to them about what sort of things they did at school, and just listening to the sorts of things they talked to their friends about. In that way, I got a feel for the kind of things that they liked and what they responded to. So it was a matter of adapting those ideas to the language that I wanted to bring out.

Similarly, when it came to writing Hotline, my children had grown a little bit and were into their own teenage phase, and so it was much the same sort of thing. A good example of this is the Victoria Road soap opera. I got the idea from an Australian TV soap opera called Neighbours. Okay, it was a bit hammy and a bit corny, but it was good fun and it was clean and wholesome and the kids really enjoyed it. So I thought 'If my kids and their friends relate to that sort of thing, then that would be a good vehicle for language teaching for kids from other countries, as well.'

 Why did you write New Hotline? Tell us about the background to writing New Hotline.

TH: For two reasons. One of the things about teenagers is, of course, that their world is changing constantly and what is fashionable at one time, is very unfashionable two or three years later. If you want to appeal to teenagers, you have to keep as up to date as you can. There was a definite need to revise quite a lot of the material in the book just to keep it up to date with fashions and so on.

The other reason is that with any book, you only find out how good it is and what problems is has when it gets used. We wanted to revise Hotline to take account of teacher feedback, while still keeping the strengths of it - the project work, learning to learn, learning diaries, the soap opera, and things like that. For example in the first edition, Hotline had project work at every level. What we found in use however was that, although people liked project work in the early levels, as they went through, they had less and less time, and obviously, the projects get bigger and bigger. Teachers also told us that they wanted more attention to developing writing skills. So in New Hotline, project work is still there in the first level and partly in the second, but then it develops into guided writing.

 When it comes to the writing process, how disciplined are you?

TH: Pretty disciplined. I tend to work a normal day. I start work about 9.00am. I work through to about 1.00pm or 2.00pm and then take a break. The main reason for that is if I don't take a break, I just fall asleep anyway. I usually do another couple of hours between 4.00pm and 6.00pm before having dinner. If the pressure is on, I might sometimes work in the evening, but I tend not to these days. When I start work on something, I map out a timetable giving myself a unit in a week, or a unit every two weeks, or whatever it takes.

The funny thing is that my wife is always telling me I procrastinate in my private life. If something needs to be done in the house, I put it off and off, but when it comes to professional writing matters, I don't seem to have a problem with it.

 How do you feel when you have finished a book?

TH: I am not sure I feel anything really. I do feel sort of relieved. The thing is that when you have worked with a book, over and over again, you have seen it through so many different phases that by the time it appears, it is a bit of a non-event really. In a sense, it's like watching your kids grow up. You don't see them change; they always seem to be the same age, whereas if you see someone you haven't seen for a while, you think he looks very different.

With the textbooks, you see them at so many stages - correcting, reading and so on - that by the time the finished thing appears, it is all very nice to have it in your hand, but you don't really study it in great detail because you know what's in it. I usually flick through it, think 'that's nice', it goes on the shelf and on with the new one.

 Do you immediately start thinking about your next project?

TH: Well, I've already done that because by the time the book appears, I'm already well into another project. For example, now I am writing the scripts for the Lifelines video while Lifelines Elementary, which is due out in January 1999, is still being edited.

 What do you like best about being an ELT author?

TH: That's very difficult to answer really. I find it suits my personality and way of working. I enjoy doing it. I don't like working within an organization ­ you know, following through a daily routine in an office. If I can set my own deadlines and work to my own pattern, that's the way I like to work.

The other thing about it, of course, is that ELT is an international business, so I get to meet people from all over the world, talk to them, try to understand their problems, and try to deal with their situations which may be very different from other situations. I find that a challenge.

 What do you like least about it?

TH: The worst thing is checking manuscripts. Everything you produce, you have to check. You have to check it two, or three, or four times and it starts to get a bit wearing after a while. When a huge wodge of papers arrives through the post you think 'Oh, that's the next few days gone.' That's the worst bit.

 What areas of English do you think are particularly difficult to teach?

TH: I suppose the area that I think is most difficult to teach is the future, because English just doesn't have a future tense. It has several ways of expressing the future, but they are all to do with different intentions and certainty, and different perspectives and time frames. That can be very difficult to get across. Often for one situation you can use three or four forms, but each has a slightly different meaning.

 What makes a good ELT teacher?

TH: I think that there are a number of factors, not necessarily in any order. I think that a good teacher has to be very clear, and has to have an ability to put things across in a way which is easy to understand.

The second thing is that I think a teacher has to be a very good manager. There is a lot of evidence from research that the well structured lesson is the most effective lesson. The teacher says 'Okay, we've finished that. We're now going on to this', and they manage the lesson well, so that the students know what they're doing and when they're supposed to do it.

The other thing which is very important is that the teacher must show that they care about the students. All the techniques in the world are no good if you don't have that ability to get across the fact that you care about somebody's development and what they achieve.

 Do you see any big changes ahead for ELT?

TH: No. I think that in the last fifteen years or so, we have been in what you might call a 'paradigm shift'. Every now and again, people question what is being done; they question the current orthodoxy and they try all sorts of new ideas. But you can't constantly keep changing things, so gradually a new orthodoxy emerges. We've now had twenty years or so of experience in all the new ideas that came out in the late 70s and early 80s, and we've found what works and what doesn't work. We've also been able to see what was good about the old ways of doing things. Out of that experience has developed a new orthodoxy and that orthodoxy will, I think, survive for a long time. There may be very minor changes, but I don't think there will be any radical changes.

 How do you see students benefiting from the Internet? And authors?

TH: I think students can benefit a tremendous amount from the Internet, largely because almost all of it is in English. It is a reaffirmation of the importance of English as a global language and it shows students that if they want to be part of the modern global society, English is key to it.

As well as that, it is a means of putting English into practice when you are not in an English-speaking environment. It is all very well learning English in Poland, or wherever, but if everybody you know is not an English speaker, you don't have much chance to use it. Whereas, by giving you access to people all around the world, you can use your English whenever you want. That, I think, is a great thing.

Personally, I don't use it very much. I usually get my kids or my wife to find things for me because they're better at doing it, and they enjoy browsing through it. I use it now and again for finding sources of information for writing.

 How would you sum up your philosophy as an ELT author?

TH: I think that as an ELT author, you have got to try and combine the two aspects of the human psyche. One is the need for structure and clarity and order; the need to be able to understand things. You have got to be able to get things across in a way which is clear to people, and structured, and provides a framework for them to work from. But at the same time, you have got to marry that to the other aspect of the human psyche which is the emotional need for involvement, for fun and creativity. You have to marry up those two sides of the human condition, if you like, so that you are able to get ideas across in a way which appeals to people, which they can relate to their own lives. That's what it's all about.

 What book and what piece of music would you take with you to a desert island?

TH: To tell you the truth, I'm not a big book reader. I tend to read magazines, rather than books, and I would always rather watch a film, or listen to someone, than read a book. I know as an author, I'm not supposed to say that. But I spend a lot of my day reading, so it's not really very relaxing to pick up a book and read it. But if I had to choose a book, apart from the obvious like the works of Shakespeare and the Bible, it would be a collection of P.G. Wodehouse. The reason that I like him is because he's so lighthearted. The world that he creates, with his various characters, is a great escape. There's no malice in it, no evil, and it's all jolly good fun. Lots of laughs, in between lots of good-humoured embarrassment.

Music... I'm a rock and roll freak, so I would take some good old rock and roll. My favourite group is ZZ Top, good heavy funky rock. My favourite track of theirs is Sharp Dressed Man, but any of their albums would do. If I wanted something of a more intellectual nature, I would go for one of Bob Dylan's earlier albums, Blonde on Blonde. There are some great songs in that, particularly Visions of Johanna.

 What famous or historical character would you most like to meet?

TH: All sorts. As I said, I studied history. Though I suppose there would be two. The first would be Lee Harvey Oswald to find out whether he really did shoot Kennedy, but that would be to find out one bit of information. I suppose the character I would most like to meet would probably be Margaret Thatcher, to find out what she was really like as a person. I admired a tremendous amount of what she did, and I disliked a tremendous amount of what she did, but she was just such a phenomenon. She came out of the blue, from nowhere, on to the political scene, and totally revolutionized things and turned everything upside down. She had immense strength of will. It would just be interesting to talk to her long enough to get through to the real person, to see what she was really like and what drove her.

 If you hadn't gone into ELT what would you have done?

TH: Well, I tried all sorts of things in my early days. The interesting thing though was that while I was going through all these various jobs, I kept turning up at the local job centre, and the person in charge there said 'We've got to find you something a bit more permanent' and he sent me to a centre in London where they did personality assessments to find out what kind of job people would suit best. This was a long time ago, back in the early 70s, and I did this questionnaire and the job that it turned out that I would be most suited to was being an author, a writer. At that time, I had no idea what that meant; in fact they suggested that I go into advertising. I tried that for a little while too. Then I went from there into teaching and eventually became an author. I thought it was quite interesting how accurate this test had been, because it was long before I had any ambitions in that direction.

 What are your interests outside ELT?

TH: I play golf. My handicap is 22 at the moment but I'm trying to get it down a bit. I haven't been playing for long. I started about five years ago and have gradually managed to get my handicap down. I try to play about twice a week, but it is a very time consuming game so it's not always possible.

I also play the electric guitar. I entertain the neighbours now and again and give them reason to complain! I play folk music and rock and roll. I am not really a guitarist. I like to sing, but I need something to accompany me so I play the guitar.

I go to the theatre now and again. I usually go and see musicals, or things like that. I don't like to go and see serious things. If I go to a play, I like to come out feeling happy. I don't like going in and coming out feeling I've experienced the turmoil of the world. I would rather just have a good laugh.

But I actually spend most of my time doing things with my kids. I have three kids at home at the moment, five in all. I play taxi driver, although my son's just turned 17 and is learning to drive, so hopefully that will reduce my taxi role a little bit.

 What are you most proud of?

TH: I am quite proud of my writing and like to think I have done something to contribute to making ELT a pleasanter job. But it is my children I am most proud of. They have all done very well at school, all seem to have very interesting lives, and they're great kids. They provide me with a lot of fun and enjoyment.

 What would your advice be to young, aspiring authors?

TH: Deliver the manuscript! I don't mean that totally frivolously. One of the reasons for having a publisher is because they are skilled and knowledgeable people, who can knock a manuscript into shape and give valuable feedback. But they can't do it unless you actually deliver something. And you have to deliver on time, particularly if you are writing for schools because they operate to a school year. Once teachers start to use Book 1, then Book 2 has got to be there a year later, and Book 3 a year after that. So you have to deliver on time.

The other bit of advice I would give is to listen. Listen to people as much as possible. Anybody can have a good idea, but when you are writing for ELT, you are not writing the great novel. You are writing something to make somebody's life and job easier. You are trying to help teachers and students to do something better and more easily than they would otherwise. So you have really got to find out what their needs are.

You also have to learn to listen to criticism. You have got to develop a positive attitude towards criticism and use it to try to make things the best you can. While recognizing that your ideas are just as valid as anybody else's, and you don't have to change things just because somebody has asked you to, you have to have an open mind to feedback and criticism in order to shape things properly.


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