Headway in Harrogate

IATEFL bloggerThis is my first post as a registered IATEFL online blogger. I’ve never actually attended IATEFL but have always found the online sessions a valuable resource and hope to share some over the next week or so.

First up, a session by Liz Soars, of Headway fame.
Headway seems to polarise teachers I’ve met. Nobody can question its success but I know teachers who love it and teachers who hate it. Personally speaking it’s one of my favourite coursebooks and I’ve delivered many successful lessons and courses using it.

In this talk, Liz tries to answer the ten most frequently asked questions she gets about Headway. Inevitably, there is not time for all of them, as she tells anecdotes about the story of Headway from the early days to current editions.

The talk can be viewed below, it starts about 35 seconds in:

Alternatively, the video can be viewed directly from the Harrogate Online website.

Humble beginnings‘An Intermediate Revision Book’
We all look at textbooks and think we could do better, and that’s exactly how Headway began, a couple of teachers having a bash at it themselves. Liz talks about how success isn’t something that you can plan for and needs to be something more heartfelt and this certainly comes across as she talks about how the course came together.

Staying true to itselfA Headway Credo
In the levels and new editions that followed, and in spite of apparent pressure from publishers for a new USP (unique selling point), the books stayed true to themselves. Liz reflects that perhaps this may have caused some teachers and publishers to suffer from ‘Headway fatigue’.
The ‘Headway Credo’ remained however, as the books developed:

  • An integrated course: a skills, grammar and vocabulary package.
  • Clear aims: clear to both students and teachers, both understand why they are being asked to do something.
  • Up Front Grammar: Overt grammar focus alongside skills work, giving students something concrete to take away from the hour and a half they may only have to study English in one week.
  • A book that is useful for teachers: Teachers can dip in and out of it, adapting it to the needs and interests of their students.
  • Rooted in the classroom: Tried and tested by the writers themselves, looking back at what is written and thinking, would I, as a teacher, actually do this with students?

Trying to avoid blandness: Teachers can do with a class what coursebooks writers can’t.
It is increasingly difficult for writers to get permission to include discussion about more contentious issues in their coursebooks, given that they are written for an international market. Teachers, on the other hand, have the luxury of knowing how far they can take things with their class. Liz and John tried to find ways of raising questions without offence, for example, including a unit on restorative justice or immigration. The coursebook looks objectively taking a historical viewpoint while the teacher’s book suggests the teacher looks at what is happening in the world around them to personalise the topic and decide what is appropriate to bring into the class to deal with the subject.

ELT dinosaurs: Entering the digital age
Liz suggests that publishers in a race to become digital, would benefit from consulting teachers and writers about what tools are actually useful. She mentions concerns about certain terminology entering the market: ‘products, content providers and customers’ replacing ‘books, writers and students’. She argues that, in ELT, face to face courses will always be necessary to keep students motivated, maintain a human touch, and allow ideas to develop.

All in all, a fascinating insight into the writing process and challenges coursebook writers face in getting a book out in an increasingly international and digital market.

What I took from this talk

As a teacher, and manager of teachers in a school using the Headway series, I found it fascinating to hear about how the course came together and to understand the vision Liz and John had when writing the books. I agree that the books allow teachers to use them as they want to, moving in and out of the book and personalising material according to the needs and interests of the class. Whilst it may not have the instant ‘pick it up and teach’ ability that some other titles may have, it has as excellent teacher notes which make it accessible for both newly qualified teachers and experienced teachers.

I found Liz’s views on the ‘upfront grammar focus’ interesting and I’d like to discuss this view with other teachers. Working in a community school in a non-English speaking environment, an interesting question we should ask ourselves is ‘how can we best use this hour and a half lesson to give students something solid to take away with them?’ Students in our context don’t have much opportunity out of class to pick up the language so need to be able to leave the classroom having taken away something they can add to and build things around. Liz suggests that grammar does just that.

One of Headway’s strengths in my view is the clear aims that Liz mentions. For example, I believe that Headway deals with receptive skills work really well. Many coursebooks integrate reading and listening texts into grammar and vocabulary lessons while Headway enables the teacher to easily devote entire lessons to developing skills. These receptive skills lessons often have a high communicative focus too, making use of jigsaw texts for example. Most of the skills work lessons can easily be stretched to an entire lesson and I think that this ‘less is more’ approach is really valuable for students.

Had I been in the audience, I would have asked Liz about the characters in the books. Particularly in the lower levels, some of them are really memorable. Teachers and students I have worked with have really enjoyed this aspect of the books and I wonder where the inspiration for these characters came from. I understand many of them are real people, a great example being Seamus McSporran – the man on the Scottish Island with 13 jobs. I read the other day that he has now retired, perhaps that’s why he has disappeared from the new edition of Headway Elementary!

Some questions for anyone reading this:

1.What did you take from this talk?

2.What are your views on the Headway series?

3.What would you have asked Liz?

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2 Responses to Headway in Harrogate

  1. Pingback: IATEFL bloggers: Interview with Jonathan Ingham | Wednesday Seminars

  2. Zhenya says:

    I enjoyed reading this post and of course watching the talk/interview with Liz. I personally started teaching using CLT during my CELTA course in 1999 using Headway Elementary, and much of my first learning about teaching came from the Teacher’s Book notes (which I found really helpful at those times) When I worked at International House we would mention the fact that the authors of Headway came from IH (a special fact to be proud of!) I think it would be hard for me to discuss my views on the series (they have changed so much over the years, and as any course book, have their own pros and cons) I do agree with Liz that teachers can do a lot more in class with their own students. My question to her would be about the process of co-writing the books: what strategies they used with John, how they divided their time and responsibility, editing, help to each other.

    Looking forward to reading more of your blog posts Jonny!


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