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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.