February, 2016 guest
Luiz Otávio Barros (M.A. Hons, Lancaster University) is an experienced materials writer, teacher, teacher educator and CELTA tutor. Formerly academic coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo, head of research and development at Associação Alumni and BRAZ-TESOL’s second vice president, he is co-author of Richmond’s English ID / Identities series.
Interviewed by Isabela Villas Boas
- You are now a course book writer, currently working on a book for the Advanced Level for an international publisher. What led you to pursue a career as an author in ELT?
I started teaching in 1989 and, even way back then, I always felt the need to create extra material – handouts, flashcards, OHTs (!!!) – to supplement whichever coursebook I happened to be using. Looking back, I think I was essentially taking a stab at doing something I’d always found intrinsically enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. Along the way, I figured out that by writing my own activities, I might have a better shot at meeting my students’ needs and interests, which encouraged me to keep on going. A few years later, at age twenty-four, I became an academic supervisor at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo, a major binational center in Brazil, and part of my job involved developing in-house material. That was when I began to pay closer attention to design, layout, consistency and also to consider the extent to which the activities I was proposing would work with a broader audience. A few years later, at Associação Alumni, another binational center in São Paulo, the bulk of my job was also course design and material development, which helped me hone my skills as a writer even more. In hindsight, it feels as if the 20 years I spent working as teacher, teacher educator and academic supervisor were, to a certain extent, laying the groundwork for the work that I do today.
- Has the fact that you are a non-native teacher and author ever affected your career in any way?
I don’t think it’s ever affected my teaching career in any significant way. I’m not a native speaker of English – nor do I sound like one – but I’ve always gone to great lengths to be a good model for my students, a reliable source of i+1, to use Krashen’s terms. I think I always knew – even instinctively – that my own English was raw material for student learning (I’m using learning and acquisition interchangeably), so I set myself very high standards from the very beginning. I can still remember gasping in shock when someone told me, back in 1993, that I’d been mispronouncing the word Cambridge: “Oh, no! What if students picked it up from me?” Also, when planning advanced lessons, I always made a point of including a handful of new expressions I could use “naturally” in class, even though I might’ve learned them the night before! I think the point I’m trying to make is that when a teacher’s ongoing quest for language-development is ultimately student-driven, it tends to be more focused and more consistent. I was fortunate enough to work for language institutes that realized how seriously I took my own English, so the fact that I’m not a non-native speaker was never a stumbling block way back then. However, the publishing world is a whole different animal.
- How so? Is there really space for non-native course book authors in the international publishing market or do you consider yourself one of the few exceptions? What steps did you take to actually get a contract as an author and what difficulties did you have?
In general, Brazilian authors are consigned to the primary / secondary school markets, where your mother tongue is largely a non-issue. There’s a tacit understanding, however, that only native speakers can write the kinds of international coursebooks used in language institutes. I think this is so for two reasons. One, this is the only model we know. Virtually all the watershed, million-selling ELT classics of our time were written by native authors – the Streamlines, the Strategies, the Headways. Two, publishers and authors want their titles to sell as much as possible, and, other things being equal, a last name like Smith or Jones is easier to market internationally than Barros, Nakamura or Bertrand. Reason one is simply a paradigm we have grown used to. Reason two, real and relevant as it is, feeds into this paradigm, which conspires to perpetuate the current state of affairs.
So, yes, I’m one of the few exceptions, thanks to Richmond International, which a few years ago set out to create a new mainstream series with a truly international feel / look, but targeted mostly at speakers of Spanish and Portuguese. This – and the fact that the brilliant Paul Seligson was the series editor – made a last name like Barros more palatable. As it happened, they were brave enough to go against conventional wisdom and decided to hire a team of Brazilian authors to co-write the series – and the rest is history. Whether this might start a trend toward more diversity in the publishing world remains to be seen. I sincerely hope so.
- How does your experience and identity as a NNES author affect the materials you write?
One, I write from the standpoint of someone who learned English as a foreign language, so I know where the pitfalls are and how to avoid them. I think a non-native speaker knows instinctively, for example, that “I’ve lived here for two years” and “I’ve been there twice” are, for teaching purposes, two different things that should be taught in two different lessons – at least at A2 and B1. Two, when you’ve spent most of your life in an English-speaking country, you might – and I say might – fall into the trap of making too many cultural assumptions. As someone who’s more culturally – and emotionally – detached from both the US and the UK, I think I instinctively tend to go for topics and texts that have broader, more international appeal. Three, being a non-native speaker paradoxically helps me select what lexical items to include in the syllabus. If I’ve never heard a word or expression before, chances are that it’s not very commonly used, which means it deserves further scrutiny – and this is where an experienced editorial team comes in. In the end, it’s all about collaboration. It’s not about who’s better than who, but what native and non-native speakers can do well together.
- Andarab (2014) reviews the work of a number of scholars and concludes that most international course books are still Anglo-American centered. According to Tomlinson (2005, as cited in Andarab, 2014, p. 290):
ELT materials in non-native English-speaking countries should make an effort to help students communicate in English with both fellow non-native speakers and native speakers.
What is your standpoint with regard to portraying non-native speakers of English, English as an International Language (EIL), and multiculturalism in ELT materials? Could you provide an example from your materials to illustrate your philosophy?
It depends on what I’m trying to achieve. If I’m using a dialog to present and practice new language points, which sometimes often involves asking students to repeat sentences, I prefer to use native speakers as models. In these cases, I think it’s fair to assume that most students would probably want to imitate a native speaker of, say, standard American or British English rather than a coursebook character with a noticeable foreign accent. “Standard” is a difficult word to pin down conceptually, of course, but given the amount of exposure students have to authentic video these days, most of them have a pretty good idea of what “native English” sounds like, even at A2 and B1 and this is probably the benchmark against which they measure other accents – especially in an EFL setting, where contact with native speakers is more limited.
Any modern coursebook includes, of course, a lot of dialogs aimed at comprehension rather than production, and this where I prefer to include non-native voices. So, for example, when students listen to, say, Juan and John or Pierre and Tomiko interacting in English, they will be exposed to different accents and reminded of the role of English as a lingua franca. But there’s more to it than that. Zoltán Dornyei, for example, talks about the importance of helping students create a vision for their future English-speaking selves – a new sense of identity, if you will – and coursebooks might have a role to play in this process. By including a variety of characters (and real people!) who learned English as a foreign or second language and are able to communicate both fluently and accurately, we might be inspiring students to create their own future selves in English, which might help to sustain long-term motivation.
- One of my past interviewees, Marek Kiczkowiac, recently wrote an article (Kiczkowiac, 2015) for the IATEFL Teacher Development Newsletter arguing that there is a complicity of silence in ELT regarding non-native-teacher issues. In the article, he highlights the fact that ELT is still imbued with native speakerism, that is, the belief in the superiority of NESs. Do you agree? Please explain your views on this topic.
Yes, I do. I’ve spent some time in the UK, I have an MA in Applied Linguistics from a British university, I’m a CELTA / formerly DELTA tutor and I write international coursebooks. But if I were to move to Europe, the US or, say, China next week, I think I might have have trouble finding a job. When applying for teaching / training position overseas, as a rule, you’re either required or expected to be a native speaker, which seems unfair.
A number of key ELT players are trying to bring things out into the open and the issue seems to be gaining some traction, which may or may not have a real, long-term impact on our profession. We’ll see. But we’ve got to be careful not to frame the discussion in terms of “them and us”, lumping people together in monolithic groups according to language background. It’s one thing to discriminate against a non-native speaker based on nationality alone; it’s quite another to turn down an otherwise qualified non-native applicant because his or her English is just not good enough – and I’m not talking about an unobtrusive accent that gives you away. The former is native speakerism, while the latter seems like a perfectly legitimate reason not to take someone on board.
If we want our space in the sun, we must earn it.
- What tips would you give to an ESL/EFL teacher who wants to be a materials writer for a major publisher?
a. If you want to write material beyond the confines of the classroom, you must have a sound grasp of SLA (second language acquisition) theory and research.
b. You must also, somehow paradoxically, be willing to ignore some of this research if you want your book to be sold across different markets and used by teachers from different background and with different profiles. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years is that coursebook writing is essentially the art of the possible.
c. Be aware of the fact that material design is a skill in its own right. Just because you’re a great teacher doesn’t necessarily mean you can write good materials. There are a lot of specifics to learn – some on the job, some from your mentors and PLN (personal learning network).
d. Be thankful for rather than resentful of negative feedback. You will hear “This doesn’t seem to work” far more often than “This is really good.” You will have to re-write dozens of lessons, usually more than once, until you end up with a final product that’s as appealing, logical and cohesive as possible. Coursebook writing is process writing on steroids. If you’re not open – genuinely open – to feedback and willing to put in lots of extra hours, don’t even think about becoming an author.
e. Make yourself known. Start a Facebook page, build your PLN and create a blog showcasing some of the activities you’ve used or devised. Show the world what you can do.
f. Last but not least, present at conferences – as many as you can, as often as possible. I got my first book deal in 2003 when someone from Pearson attended a talk I gave on task-based learning.
Andarab, M.S. (2014). Calling for English for Specific Cultures-based Coursebooks in English as an International Language Era. International Journal of English Language Education, Vol. 2, No. 2, p. 279-294.
Dornyei, Z. and Ushiola, E. (eds) (2009). Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self. Multilingual Matters.
Kiczkowiac, M. (2015). An NNEST perspective on TD: a complicity of silence? IATEFL Teacher Development SIG Newsletter Issue 73, p. 8-9.