Drama, dialogues and video teaching
When I started teaching English, a high percentage of teachers had a drama background. Some were resting actors, others had drama teaching qualifications, others had education qualifications with a drama speciality. In British ELT, a whole lot more were qualified in English, or in American Studies. My first supervisor was Colin Granger, and at Anglo-Continental we had weekly theatre shows, (see link) with rehearsed play readings once a month. Guy Wellman, Colin Granger, Nick Keeping and me took part. All of us had drama experience. Guy had acted at Cambridge University, Colin and Nick had drama qualifications, I did drama as my degree subsiduary at Hull, and film history for my MA. We were soon joined by Karen (Viney) also with drama qualifications. In the summer, we were joined by Peter de Souza, from the Scottish RADA The next summer, my old school friend, Roy Faithful, lecturing in drama at Winchester, joined us. Sometimes John Curtin, who had been an actor, puppeteer, pianist and singer as well as being a teacher joined us for plays. Chris Owen, another ex-actor, joined our regular company.
The RSA Cert TEFL in Bournemouth was being taught by Robert O’Neill, another ex-actor. We went on excellent short drama courses at International House, run by Doug Case and Ken Wilson. We watched the English Teaching Theatre perform on stage with Ken Wilson and Judy Garton-Sprenger. Other teachers with drama qualifications joined Anglo-Continental, such as Terry Phillips. We ran an ARELS course on Teaching With Drama at Anglo-Continental ourselves in 1977.
The ranks of ELT authors in the mid to late seventies therefore included a high proportion of people with drama training and experience. No one had to tell us the value of role play, or acting out dialogues, or adding dramatic expression with gesture, facial expression and body language. We all believed in it.
I was astonished when I started going to international conferences to realize that for many teachers, drama techniques were totally new. Seminal books on the subject such as Drama Techniques in Language Learning by Alan Maley & Alan Duff (CUP 1978) were, to us, stuff we already did, but were a revelation to many teachers outside Britain.
If we couldn’t get round doing theatre shows everywhere, then video was the next best thing. The English Teaching Theatre (ETT) were early in producing videos of their sketches. Strategies added a video component. We added a video component to Streamline. It all seemed natural, and the route we chose was dramatic. Some went for mystery dramas. We, like the ETT, went for comedy. But it all involved watching people interacting, and using it as a model for work.
Then things changed. In some ways, I suppose it was natural: the foreign languages graduates started to take over from the drama / English graduates. Not that the “drama” oriented were weak on languages. Many had also studied languages at university. John Curtin was fluent, by which I mean near native-speaker level, in at least four languages, and able to hold a conversation in five more. But there were more authors without a drama inclination.
An unexpected side effect of the ‘back to grammar’ movement was text-heavy books with little or no dialogue, such as the first edition of Headway. Books started to look like the books we used learning French or German at school. Long texts, 30 or 40 new words a lesson. Long grammar expositions. Not much snappy dialogue. The enormous popularity and success of Headway meant a quarter of a century of everyone trying to clone it (and Headway itself introduced more dialogue in the later editions). I asked a teacher I’d known for twenty years why she loved Headway so much (because she did) and she said, ‘It’s because you never run out of vocabulary to explain.’ That’s precisely what we had reacted against in the early days of the communicative movement. By the way, communicative didn’t necessarily mean ‘functional.’ I asked what the students were doing during all this vocabulary explanation, and she told me they enjoyed it and wrote it all down. In the 70s, we wanted them to act it out, invent new sentences for themselves, activate, communicate. We never wanted the learner to be passive consumers of vocabulary and grammar facts. Yes, our own books were also structural, getting them to use grammatical forms for communication in a structured way, but not to “learn facts about grammar.”
By the early 21st Century, when we published IN English and the English Channel videos, books with a great deal of dialogue were suddenly in the minority. We liked Touchstone (Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten, Helen Sandiford; CUP) particularly, which also had plenty of dialogue and interaction (based on the American spoken corpus). It came out around the same time as IN English and we hoped the two together marked a reversal of the trend away from dialogue. We were presenting both at JALT in Nara at the same time.
Noticeably, videos to accompany the text-heavy books tended to the documentary style, or vox pop rather than dramatisation. Personally, I found the History of the Morris Minor motor car, or Charles Dickens and Portsmouth dull fare indeed, and a waste of the potential of video. This only reflects real world TV. It’s cheaper and easier. It led to the situation we found ourselves in where so many of our dramatic videos were put out of print. We met a new editor, who it turned out had taught English primary children, but had never taught ELT nor adults. Their task (I choose the neutral pronoun) was to decide on the future of adult ELT video, which they did by asking people. They came back after a year and said “people only want authentic material and the news now.’ We tried to point out that as OUP was not a news producer, they were giving back the field (which they’d taken so comprehensively from the BBC in the late 80s and 90s) back to the BBC. No avail. Most of our videos were put out of print.
Other publishers, none of which had invested as much effort or specialist ELT skill as OUP with its dedicated Oxford English Video department, killed video. They gave it away free with bulk orders of coursebooks, and devalued it. OUP was forced to follow to a degree by sheer market pressure. I still recall going into a head teacher’s office. He didn’t speak English, but in visiting the large college we were expected to shake hands with the boss. The OUP rep presented him with a free video. Only In America, one of mine, as it happens. With a smile of pleasure he added it to the shelf of videos. Twenty of them from four or five different publishers. All still shrink-wrapped. I asked if teachers had access to the videos (via a translator). No, of course not, he said. They’d wear them out. You know what teachers are like. They use that sort of thing, and they’re not careful. OUP was not alone. Publishers treated videos like desk diaries or boxes of chocolates (and incidentally, authors don’t get royalties on “promotional copies” though people who print desk diaries get paid for their labour). And soon that’s the value people applied to it.
Add the fact that too many people see nothing wrong with appropriating someone else’s intellectual property without paying. OUP had copy protection systems, but any protection system you use spawns a program to get around it. I recall a letter from the owner of a chain of 130 schools complaining that he couldn’t copy our videos. Did we expect him to buy 130? he asked indignantly. Well, yes, we did. One copy per school seemed reasonable. The internet has led to proliferation of sites offering pirate versions. We’d add that the places offering pirate copies of our videos work on a subscription sytem. You give them your credit card details. They download. You mean, you want to give your credit card details to professional thieves? Try complaining when it all goes wrong. When you get a level down in their British or American sounding sites, the characters change to the Cyrillic alphabet.
People tell us that with stuff free online, and illegal copying, now is the worst time to start an ELT DVD publisher. We feel it’s exactly what ELT needs again. Fun, humour, lively interaction on screen. Language with all the assistance body language, situation and professional acting give. Video fell right down the scal in the 21st century. It’s time to revive it.
We feel pricing is the key. Originally, each of the four cassettes of A Weekend Away and A Week By The Sea (two per level) cost £60 + VAT. £240 for the lot. I spent a long time on tours justifying those prices. It was equivalent per level then to what people paid to upgrade their copy of Microsoft WORD annually, a fact that was deliberate as well as relevant. It was specifically-designed educational software, not an entertainment video to watch once or twice. It was a classroom tool you could use with hundreds or thousands of students. It was indeed a fair price, but nevertheless, teachers kept telling us that the latest blockbuster cost £12.99. Well, yes, and it sold eight million. We were talking about four figure sales, watching it dozens of times, and the production cost has to be recouped. By English Channel, we had twenty to twenty-five people on location. I don’t think OUP were over-charging.
However, with our earlier videos, production costs have long been recouped (or at worst, written off). We felt they could be sold more reasonably, and in fact cheaply enough to make them suitable for the self-study student as well as the institution.
Anyway, we licensed back our first two from OUP, A Weekend Away and A Week By The Sea. We’ve set a price for a DVD containing both programs of £16.50. We tried them on current students and the appeal of Kevin and Sharon cut through the years. Entering publishing after thirty years as an author has been interesting. It’s nice picking up cartons of books and DVDs. What we didn’t want to do was spend our days fiddling around with PayPal, then standing in line with padded envelopes at the post office, so we wanted a distributor, specializing in ELT, Our distributor is BEBC, who we’ve known as one of their customers since the early 70s too. As well as being the largest ELT distributor, they happen to be based in Poole, Dorset, as are we, and as our printer, CMP, is.