Ken Wilson talks about teaching English through songs and drama

Ken Wilson is a teacher trainer, and an author of a large amount of ELT materials; he has published with OUP, Cengage and Macmillan. His most recent series is “Smart Choice”, published by OUP. He has also written more than a hundred ELT radio and television programmes, including fifty radio scripts for the Follow Me series, thirty Look Ahead TV scripts and a series of plays called Drama First. He also contributed material to Extr@ English, an ELT sitcom commissioned by Channel 4. For many years, Ken was artistic director of the English Teaching Theatre, a company which toured the world performing stage-shows for learners of English.

You started your teaching career very young, almost fifty years ago. What motivated you to become a teacher?

Actually, I started my teaching career FIFTY-FOUR years ago, one month after my twenty-first birthday! After graduating with a degree in Philosophy at the University of Reading, I did a short TEFL training course at International House in London, then worked for a year at the Instituto Británico in Sevilla, Spain. I think I always knew I was going to be a teacher of something, probably English Literature, and I wanted to travel somewhere before doing a PGCE (Post-graduate Certificate of Education) and becoming a state school teacher.

Text by: Anastasia Spyropoulou

In fact, I enjoyed teaching EFL much more than I expected, although if I’m honest, I was a terrible teacher that first year, talking too much and telling terrible jokes in class, which the students laughed at in order not to embarrass me. I always feel I should apologise to the students in Seville who had a barely comprehensible novice as a teacher.

More seriously, when I went back to IH London and mixed with some really excellent teachers, I started to see what was involved in good teaching. IH was a goldmine of talent in those days, with Jeremy Harmer and Headway authors Liz and John Soars amongst my colleagues in the first few years. There were many others who went on to become course book authors, like Judy Garton-Sprenger and Gillie Cunningham. And Scott Thornbury worked at International House in Barcelona.

You also became a published author at a very young age. You wrote and recorded a collection of language teaching songs in the 1970s. How did you come up with the idea of using songs as a teaching tool in an era when the grammar-translation approach was dominant?

Well, first of all, I wouldn’t say most of the IH teachers used a rigid grammar-translation method, but you’re right that music and drama, the two things I became involved with, were not commonly-used techniques.

The fact is, the music thing was an accident. I was in a band at the time, with my girlfriend (now wife) Dede and two other friends. We rehearsed on Thursday evenings, so I used to take my guitar into the school on that day and leave it in the Teachers’ Room while I was teaching.

One day, someone said there had been a theft the previous night, so I took the guitar into the classroom. The students got really excited because they thought I was going to play something and they were disappointed when I said the guitar was only there for safe-keeping. I promised to teach them a song the next day - I think the first song I did with them was by the Beatles. This became a regular Friday morning thing. I had the class for ten hours a week, so spending an hour discussing and singing a song didn’t seem like a misuse of time.

A couple of months later, that class was disbanded and I was given an elementary class to teach. I couldn’t use the mixture of pop and folk songs that I had been using with the other class, so I started writing simpler songs for them.

John Haycraft, the founder and principal of International House, heard about the songs and arranged for someone from Longman, the publishing company now known as Pearson, to come and talk to me about them.

The result was that we recorded and published our first album of songs, Mister Monday, in 1971. I was 23 at the time, someone told me I was the youngest-ever published ELT author, although people start writing materials pretty early these days, so I imagine my record has been broken!

In all, I wrote and recorded songs for five albums, and lots of other songs that became integral parts of course material.

Were teachers ready to use other teaching approaches and more specifically songs at a time when people started learning English much later than they do today?

I hadn’t really thought about the age thing, but you’re right, many of the International House students, particularly the Spanish and Italian ones, had had no formal English tuition in their own countries, certainly not in the state system. We had lots of younger students at Instituto Británico in Sevilla, but of course that was a private school.

Yes, teachers at International House were very receptive to innovations. I should repeat that IH was a real hothouse of new teaching ideas. John Haycraft himself was a fountain of ideas, some of them a little bit eccentric, but he was the one who had the first idea of doing drama-based work with students.

Another innovative idea you had was to use drama techniques in the language classroom. Can we say that you were the first to introduce the communicative approach in ELT years before the term was coined?

Well, I can’t possibly take the credit for the introduction of the communicative approach! You have to look at the work of the great thinkers like Chomsky and Widdowson etc. And, as I said earlier, John Haycraft was the first person to explore the possibilities of using drama in ELT.

Again, my personal involvement in these activities was a bit accidental. In 1971 and 1972, John Haycraft organised a group of actors, working with an International House teacher called Jeremy Harrison, to do shows for learners of English during the summer. The show was called The English Teaching Theatre.

In January 1973, I was asked to join the company as a teacher- musician. The aim was to do a tour to Germany. Apart from me, there were three other teachers, although one was a trained actor, and a professional musician in the line-up. We worked for four months on new material, doing a half-hour show every Friday lunchtime for IH students, and then in May, we went off on this extraordinary tour to Germany, where we played in all kinds of different venues, from glorious state theatres to very basic school gymnasiums and cafeterias. It was a baptism of fire.

When we came back, we thought that was it - a lovely experiment that had now ended. We thought in future there would just be summer seasons of shows for UK language schools

In fact, some of the German venues asked us back, and the British Council suggested a tour to Norway. Ben Warren, who ran a group of IH schools in Catalunya, also invited us, the first IH director to do so. By the spring of 1974, it was clear that there was widespread interest for a stage show for learners of English and invitations came in from all over the place.

It was also clear that we had to widen the net when it came to choosing performers, not least because we couldn’t employ anyone full-time, which was quite off-putting for the many teachers who wanted to join the group, who would have preferred a full-time appointment.

The English Teaching Theatre continued to tour for nearly thirty years, and visited 56 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. We probably employed about a hundred actors and musicians during this time.

I recall having used your books Off-Stage! and Further Off-Stage! when I used to teach. Those were glorious years…

Thank you! I’m glad you liked them!

I must pay tribute to Doug Case, my friend and co-author of material for the ETT stage show. He was one of the other teacher-performers on that first tour to Germany, and we continued to work together for nearly three decades until his untimely death in 2001.

Every year, we wrote a new show of sketches, songs and interactive games, trying the material out with summer school audiences, and then taking it on tour in the autumn. In all, Doug and I must have written more than a hundred sketches and, with the help of the musicians in the group, almost as many songs. Some of them were only performed once or twice!

The best sketches ended up being published, originally by Heinemann, in the books you refer to - Off-Stage! and Further Off-Stage, then they were re-packaged as photocopiables, entitled English Sketches 1 & 2, which were published by Macmillan.

And again, were teachers ready to adopt new ideas and change their teaching style? I believe that change is a very long process.

The answer to this question could be the length of a book!

My first reaction is to say that I totally respect any teacher’s decision not to use material or techniques that they don’t feel comfortable with, and this definitely includes anything to do with drama. There are many ways to be a successful teacher, and the way someone teaches has a lot to do with their personality.

There are teachers who come to my workshops and talks who are put off by the word ‘drama’, and I completely understand that. They worry firstly that they will have to learn a whole raft of new skills and secondly that it will expose ‘weaknesses’ in their teaching method.

For this reason, I have stopped using the word ‘drama’ in my talks. I think ‘animation’ is a better word. The activities and techniques that I like to demonstrate are about bringing your class to life and giving students a chance to express themselves in a fun but controlled way, depending on their level.

Having said that, I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by the positive reaction from teachers who have never tried these things when we work on them in workshops.

I only use the sketches on longer training sessions, when the teachers have had a chance to get to know each other.

If you could go back what you would change?

Very little! I’ve had a magical working life and I’ve been very lucky in the things that I’ve had the opportunity to do. In addition to teaching and teacher training, and without actually being trained to do most of these things, I’ve written and recorded songs, I’ve sung and played guitar in recording studios, and I’ve worked as an actor, theatre director and audio producer. I’ve also written radio and TV programmes, and I’ve had a great time doing studio voice work and making videos for teachers to use.

On reflection, I wish I’d had a bit more training before I started work as a teacher. The short introductory course at International House was wonderful, but much too short.

How do you spend your free time?

About seven years ago, I did a Masters in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London, and my dissertation was the first seven chapters of a novel. It was called The Duke’s Portrait and it was eventually published in November 2022. It’s a comic piece set in 1937.

I’ve also written about a dozen short stories which I plan to publish in 2023, and I’m writing another novel called King and Country, a sequel to Portrait, set a year later in 1938.

Otherwise, I love going to the movies and to the theatre, but I’ve avoided doing that too much recently because of COVID. And I’m a season ticket holder at Fulham Football Club.

How do you relax?

My favourite relaxation activity is talking to my four grandchildren. They’re aged fourteen, eleven (two of them, cousins) and seven, and they teach me a lot.

ELT News

ELT News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *