I'm pleased and flattered to have been invited to join the distinguished list of British Council bloggers.

(I have to admit that I didn't know exactly what a blog was when I was asked – yes, there are a few of us left.) They said I should start with some autobiography, so here goes. 

I got into English language teaching half a century ago, quite by accident. After doing a Modern Languages BA at Oxford, I decided to stay on and do a research degree rather than going out into the hard cruel world. But since even postgraduate students have to eat, I picked up a bit of part-time teaching, one summer vacation, at a small Oxford language school that had suddenly lost a teacher. (He had run off to Scotland with one of his students. Really.) I knew nothing whatever about teaching English, but the students were tolerant and my colleagues on the staff were very nice. As time went on I got quite skilled at keeping one lesson ahead of the class, and began to learn the rudiments of the craft – not least because of the advice and encouragement of the Principal, John Eckersley, to whom I owe a considerable debt. Also, as time went on, I found the work increasingly interesting and enjoyable, and discovered that I had a modest talent for it; none of this was true of my academic research into some justly neglected 18th-century German poets. So after a couple of years I finally saw the light and turned into a full-time English language teacher. 

Three years or so working for John Eckersley were followed by a longer period during which my first wife and I ran our own small language school, the Swan School, in Oxford. My involvement in this came to an end when we split up. She continued running the school, very much better than I had (I should never try to organise anything, ever), and I moved to Paris, where I taught English to adults and wrote my first books. Paris in the 1970s was a very good place to be an English language teacher. The Communicative Approach was just beginning to make waves, and the place was buzzing with new ideas, many of them sensible. Most importantly for me, the British Council's brilliant and dynamic English Language Officer, Alan Maley, organised regular seminars, open to all for a small fee, where one could spend a day or a weekend learning from the brightest stars in the ELT firmament. This helped me to fill some of the gaps in my knowledge and thinking – having drifted into the business before ELT training courses existed, I had no formal training at all. (I'm still totally unqualified. If I applied to myself for a job as a research assistant, I'd have to turn myself down.)

By the end of the 1970s, after 20 very enjoyable years teaching, I decided I'd been in classrooms for long enough: spending your working day telling people things you know and they don't is ultimately bad for the character. (Me, dogmatic?) By that time I'd already published several textbooks for Cambridge University Press, as well as a reference book for Oxford University Press (Practical English Usage), based on my long experience of learners' difficulties with English. The following years saw me back in Britain working on the Cambridge English Course series, written together with my partner Catherine Walter. (Warning to anyone contemplating writing a full-scale language course: it's likely to take all your time, including evenings and weekends, for three times as many years as you expected.) And then various other books got written, along with revisions of earlier material. The last three years have gone into a very big project, the Oxford English Grammar Course (Swan and Walter), which will be published a little later this year.

Although I've spent my working life as a practitioner of one kind or another, I've always been interested in more theoretical questions – particularly those relating to first and second-language acquisition, the role of the mother tongue in the learning of a new language, models of grammar, and the nature of language in general. I've written a number of articles addressed to teachers and applied linguists, some of them critical of the conventional wisdom: big ideas in our field come and go, and I'm often sceptical about the value of currently fashionable theoretical views. (Some of these articles can be found on my website: www.mikeswan.co.uk.) However, I have considerable respect for the increasing contribution of academic research to our work (how could one not?), and it's a long time since I used 'Applied Linguist' as a term of abuse. Indeed, for several years I was myself a Visiting Professor of Applied Linguistics at a British university, rather to my surprise. 

As a freelance writer, I spend most of my time working at home. However, I find myself asked from time to time to speak at teachers' conferences in various countries. This gives me a chance to come out of my mole-hole, emerge blinking into the light, and travel to beautiful places, where I meet interesting people, sample the local food and wine, and get to talk to friendly audiences of co-professionals. It's tough, but somebody's got to do it.

Over the years, I've developed a number of fairly clear ideas about what kind of thing works and what doesn't in English language teaching (and a number of less clear ideas beginning 'It depends'). In future blogs I'll let some of these ideas fly around for you to shoot at. In the meantime, I hope to hear from you.

Michael

Michael's now finished his period as our Guest Writer - many thanks to all of you who contributed to the discussion on his blog.

Comments

Thanks for your entertaining biography and thank you very much for ‘Practical English Usage’. Your book has helped me out no end over many years of teaching - and now writing about teaching. You must have had fun writing the section on taboo words and swear words! I’m looking forward to reading your ideas about what kind of thing works and what doesn't in English language teaching. Sally

The biography of Michael Swan's is very interesting and informative with his in depth knowledge in life and English language teaching. I enjoyed it very much by reading it and gained some knowledge.  

Thanks, Michael for the amusing very readable  introduction, and on behalf of generations of German university students and  teachers in training for Practical English Usage. I took part in a very recent discussion on the electronic list TESL-L on grammar, started or certainly kept going by 'dk' from China. Towards the end of the 6-week thread I asked if anyone on the list could recommend what they held to be significant pieces of research that supported the view the the explicit teaching of grammar was beneficial to learners and that they would recommend as "essential reading". As often happens, no-one answered. (Guess what question is coming). What pro-grammar teaching research would you like to bring to our attention? Dennis  Newson

It's great to have you as the guest speaker!!
Looking forward to reading your posts
Mercedes
Arq. Mercedes Viola Deambrosis
Directora
4D Content English
Circunvalación Durango 1429 of. 501
Montevideo - Uruguay
Tel: (598 2) 9161496
www.4d.edu.uy
 

I'm glad to have this opportunity to thank Mr Michael Swan for his easy-to-read & easy-to-understand grammar books. I followed his books which actually helped me very much. When I taught grammar to students in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, they appreciated my teaching, saying that my way of teaching grammar was very good, not knowing that I was just following Mr Michael Swan's suggestions and notes. (I never kept it a secret but they did not mind or some of them did not understand the difference!) I felt it my solemn duty to thank you Mr Michael Swan!!!

Dear Michael,
Your books are great! Congratulations! I particularly like “Practical English Usage”. I can always find the answers I’m looking for in this wonderful book.
Take care,
Isabel
 

 Everybody: very many thanks for your kind words. I'm glad you've found my book useful: that's what I hoped for when I wrote it. (It was what I needed when I first started teaching, and it didn't exist.)    Dennis: thanks for your interesting (and challenging) question. I, too, took part in the TESL-L grammar discussion, but gave up in the end because it seemed to me that the person who was mainly keeping it going had very little interest in learning from what other people had to say.   I'm by no means an expert on grammar-teaching research, but I know that the big metastudy by Norris and Ortega, which analysed a large number of individual studies, found a significant benefit for explicit grammar teaching. (This was discussed in some detail by Keith Folse in the TESL-L discussion.) Rod Ellis's article in TESOL Quarterly 40 is also well worth looking at in this connection. (References below)   My feeling, for what it's worth, is that it's unwise to generalise about grammar and grammar teaching. What we call 'grammar' is a lot of very different kinds of thing, some of them much more teachable and learnable than others. So a piece of research on the teaching of one point of grammar may 'prove' that explicit instruction and practice are beneficial; a study focusing on another point may 'prove' that it has no effect.   I also feel that the whole question – does grammar instruction help learners? – is an odd one. One wouldn't expect people to carry out research to establish whether medical students need to acquire an explicit knowledge of human anatomy, for instance, or whether foresters need information about trees, or whether trainee airline pilots need to be taught how aeroplanes work. For me, it seems obvious that if I'm learning a foreign language, it will speed things up if somebody explains to me how the tricky parts operate – German word order, Japanese topic particles, Russian perfectives or whatever. Explicit knowledge doesn't get you speaking a language, but it can help.   The references: Norris, J. and L. Ortega.  2000.  ‘Effectiveness of L2 instruction: a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis.’ Language Learning 50/3: 417–528. Ellis, R. (2006), ‘Current issues in the teaching of grammar: An SLA perspective’, TESOL Quarterly 40: 83–107.   I'll be blogging again shortly with some opinions on this and that.   Michael   

Dear Mr Swan
I am very happy to read about your biography and to share, in some parts, your teaching experience. Teaching is a very hard job, but it can also be very challenging and rewarding.
I have a question for you about the use of books in a course: do you prefer to use books , to follow from the beginning to the end, or would you rather prepare your own materials, such as handouts, worksheets etc, or does your choice depends on what, whom you are going to teach?
Thank you very much for your reply. I hope to learn that you are coming in southern Italy to held a seminar.
Bye Bye

What a pleasure to have Michael Swan as guest blogger here... I had the pleasure of travelling around Brazil with Michael (and Catherine Walter) a few years ago, when I worked for an ELT publisher... and I was blown away by how Michael managed to keep everyone's attention, with frequent laughs, whilst presenting a plenary on... you guessed it... grammar! Not only that, but his was probably the first and last such plenary which didn't make use of a single powerpoint slide!!
I seem to remember the only visual aids were Michael and Catherine's matching tie and neck scarf!!!
Looking forward to the discussions here over the next few weeks.Graeme.

Dear 'New teacher'Thanks for your question: it's a very important one. Sorry to have been a bit slow to reply: I've been correcting proofs for my slave-driving editor, and have only just come up for air. My feeling is this:What you can do, if you prepare your own materials, is to give your students interesting and motivating texts and exercises that correspond to their interests. These can be very useful for certain purposes: for example to stimulate discussion, or to provide reading practice. What you can't do on this basis is to provide a systematic course that includes all the high-priority new vocabulary, structures, situational and functional language, and so on and so on, that your students need – the input is much too random. This can only be done by carrying out a very thorough survey of what there is to be learnt, choosing the most important elements for your students, and incorporating and sequencing them into a set of engaging teaching materials. This is what coursebook writers do, and it's a full-time job. When I was first teaching, I was so fed up with boring textbooks that I worked entirely with my own materials, which I prepared from one day to the text. I had the impression that I was 'producing my own course'. Later, when I became a full-time course writer and realised what this involved, I wanted to go back and apologise to my students for the disorganised mess that I had given them instead of teaching them properly.I think one's best strategy is to use professionally-designed course materials – the best one can find – but to use them selectively, and to supplement them with one's own materials as needed. To expect a working language teascher to produce a complete course is like expecting the first violinist to produce the orchestra's repertoire on his or her evenings off. It can't be done.Michael  

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