Talking with experts in ELT!

Interviews on education and language teaching

Luke Prodromou talks about ELT its past, present and future

On the occasion of ELT NEWS’s 30th anniversary we are happy to publish a series of interviews from ELT personalities who have left their trace in the Greek and international ELT scene.

Luke Prodromou holds a BA (Bristol University) in English with Greek, an MA in Shakespeare Studies (Birmingham University), a postgraduate Diploma in Teaching English as a Second Language (Leeds University, with distinction) and a PhD (Nottingham University). He is the co-author of over 20 coursebooks (most recent Smash, Flash on, Sprint), the award-winning Dealing with Difficulties (with Lindsay Clandfield) and Grammar and Vocabulary for Cambridge First (Longman). Luke is a founder member of Disabled Access Friendly Campaign and the English Language Voice Theatre.


He has been a plenary speaker at numerous international ELT conferences, including IATEFL, UK. He was for many years a teacher and teacher-trainer with the British Council. He has also worked for ESADE, Barcelona, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Thessaloniki, Pilgrims Canterbury, NILE, Bell Schools et al. He currently teaches ELT Methodology, part-time, on the MA TESOL University of Sheffield International Faculty, City College, Thessaloniki. He also runs English literature courses for Spanish teachers.


Did you always want to become a teacher?

No. My first dream was to work in a library and spend the rest of my life reading Enid Blyton and other children’s books. I had only first-hand experience of one occupation and that was my parents’ fish and chip shop in Birmingham in the 60s - with the Beatles chanting merrily in the background. In comparison, sitting in a cozy library all day, smelling old books rather than fresh fish seemed like paradise. But it was not to be. My significant others decided I should be a lawyer (probably because I was a theatrical type and liked to make dramatic speeches in front of an audience) and I too quite liked the idea. Better than being a priest, which is what my mother dreamed for me - she thought my having a loud voice  was adequate qualification to be a spiritual father and saviour of souls. My mother’s approach to bringing me up had placed her on numerous occasions at the receiving end of my stentorian vocal skills and no doubt she saw the church as a good place to get rid of me.


Being a boy of little faith and even less knowledge about ecclesiastical matters I ignored my mother’s suggestion for a vocation in life and so the legal profession was left to compete with English literature for my chosen academic career.


As it happened, Bristol University got in first with an offer for me to do ‘English with Ancient Greek’ and I was so flattered to be wanted as a student by what I was told was one of the UK’s most prestigious universities that I took the plunge and went to Bristol. I had no plan to teach English on graduating but intended to take up another career which I had always been in love with: the theatre. It was a passion which I would gladly have made my life’s work. But that wasn’t to be either, so deeply disappointed at my dream faded, I came to sunny Greece, like people used to join the foreign legion:  to forget… Teaching English as a Foreign Language was to be a temporary arrangement....45 years on, I’m still here. So, as you can see teaching was not what I wanted to be when I grew up....but no regrets.


What was the situation in ELT when you started teaching?

ELT in 1973 was blissfully simple. Chalk, talk and textbook. There was basically one method to choose from: let’s call it ‘P’ - not for ‘Prodromou’ but for ‘Presentation’. If today we have a variety of approaches, methods and techniques which clamour for attention, all based on variations of PPP (Presentation, Practice, Production, in any order!) in those days - the 70s - the teacher did most of the talking and spent most of the time Presenting,  explaining and checking  grammar, vocabulary and new reading texts. Most of the time was taken up asking lots of comprehension questions. The Direct Method and the Audio-lingual approach reigned supreme so the students did sometimes get the chance to do controlled practice in the form of drills. So there was sometimes PP: Presentation and Practice - of a limited kind. The third P - Production, during which learners get to use language more freely or even communicatively, was even more limited and often non-existent. It was a thing of the future.


The whole system of ELT in Greece then - as now - was driven by the aim of acquiring the ‘lower’ or FCE. One size fitted all.


In the early days of my ELT career the native-speakers - even the backpacking variety – was a mythical awesome figure: he or she was looked upon as the fount of all wisdom and the ultimate arbiter of what was right or wrong in matters of the English language. At one frontisterion at which I had applied for a teaching job I was turned down because my name was Greek. I virtually knew no Greek then and I had lived in the UK from the age of 3 but this wasn’t enough to qualify me as a ‘native-speaker’: that’s how deep the identification of English with the native-speaker ran.  In the classroom, the role of the native speaker was usually to provide fluency or conversation practice (native speakers were not trusted to explain grammar; they had little idea what it was; Greek teachers were the experts in that sphere).


Bear in mind that when I first entered the ELT classroom Communicative Language Teaching (and its many offspring: TBL, CLIL) we’re still a glint in the eye of applied linguists at British Universities and the Council of Europe. A lot has changed since the Threshold Level and the work of the Council of Europe on Notional/Functional syllabuses.


Has teaching changed or do we still teach the way we were taught? How difficult is it to change?

Naturally, things have changed since my antediluvian appearance on the ELT scene. There is huge variety in what we teach and how we teach. The field of ELT has become so professionalized since the mid-70s that teacher training and teacher development as well as diverse business interests ensure that nowadays one size does not ‘fit all’. Many of us were taught foreign languages with various versions of grammar translation and the younger ones may have been exposed to aspects of the direct method and audio-lingual approach which I referred to above. I would say that many teachers nowadays draw on a variety of approaches to suit the needs of the students or at least the institution where they work: the default position is probably an eclectic application of all the methods I’ve mentioned plus a dash of TBL, CLIL and blended learning. The way we were taught will always leave a trace in what we do in class, even subliminally, but the massive training and investment in foreign languages of the last 40 years, in our globalised, market-driven world has had an impact on all of us in the ELT profession. For some colleagues it is more difficult to change but the need to survive in an increasingly competitive market does motivate change – as well as peer group pressure and the expectations of a postmodern 21st century where ‘everything goes’ and ‘anything can happen’. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.


If you could go back what would you change in your teaching?

I would have liked to have adopted a more learner-centred approach, where students engaged in more creative tasks and projects. My teaching was too textbook- and teacher- centred. I would have liked to see the students participating more and even performing more. Teaching was not ‘educational’ enough – it was too technocratic, drily linguistic. I would have liked the language school to be more of a proper school, in the educational sense.


The bedrock of more effective and efficient instruction is setting and maintaining meaningful relationships with students. Do teachers know how to do it?

Some do and some don’t. I agree absolutely that building good rapport in the classroom is fundamental to effective second language acquisition. The issue of meaningful relationships is inseparable from building self-esteem in our students.

Training and constant teacher development can definitely have an impact on interpersonal skills in the classroom. The process of creating and maintaining meaningful relationships with students requires that we first observe how successful teachers achieve this aim, analyse and break down the process into trainable chunks and then integrate these teacher behaviours into a coherent training and development programme. Videos, films and transcripts of actual teachers in action doing rapport well and badly are useful raw material in this respect. I believe the teacher’s voice and body language play an important part in making the teacher more interactive and empathetic.


Have you ever felt embarrassed or insecure in the classroom?

Of course. I think I feel embarrassed or insecure when I am unprepared in any way and so produce a bad lesson - the students feel it and I can see they are getting bored and their attention is wandering. It may also happen when I don’t know the answer to something vital in the lesson but this too is part of being well-prepared. The other source of insecurity is when I fail to engage the interest of the learners.


Does routine teaching make teachers ‘lazy’?

Routine has its advantages but certainly one danger is that when we repeat something which seems to work well or offers easy solutions we lose the will to experiment and to be engaging. It’s a good thing to occasionally try and do things differently. So if you normally stand at the front of the class, try standing at the back. If you begin with a listening task try beginning with a group speaking activity and so on.


What are the appropriate teacher-student boundaries?

These boundaries will differ with different teacher-styles and the huge diversity of contexts we are faced with. But I think from the teacher’s point of view, to be friendly and respectful is the sine qua non and from the students’ point of view, they should at least be respectful - and the teacher should not accept disrespectful behaviour towards herself or other students. R-E-S-P-E-C-T....That’s the red-line as they say nowadays.


How do you see ELT in say…10 years from now?

In 10 years’ time, there will be much less need to teach English and other foreign languages as Artificial Intelligence (AI) devices will have become so sophisticated and cheap that automatic translation from one language to another will be common, effective and efficient. Market forces will rule supreme, as they do not to some extent. We will all have automatic translation devices for the world’s main languages attached somewhere to our body, it could be an ear-phone-type device, a bit like a hearing-aid but it will be an ‘interpreting aid’.   For example, whenever I speak to a Chinese, Russian or Uzbek person we both just switch on our device and we speak in our own language and hear the foreign language of our interlocutor translated into our own language. Thus, in a few years’ time, the ELT classroom will be defunct or on the verge of extinction. . No chalk, talk and textbook. No TBL, no CLIL, no blended learning. No flipped classrooms. Sans desks, sans teeth, sans exams, sans everything.•