Previous Profile
Next Profile

September Main Page
Do-it-Yourself Teacher Training
Featured ESL Professional: Carmelita Ballesteros
Featured ESL Professional: Stephen Krashen
Featured ESL Professional: John Fanselow
Featured ESL Professional: Michael Krauss
Featured ESL Professional: Steve Walters
An Index of ESL MiniConference Stories
Notes and contacts
Search the site

Submit your email,
join ESL MiniConference

ESL MiniConference Online!

Achievement Profile: Steve Walters
Adapting to the Changing World of English and ELT

Steve Walters is an academic director at the Norwich Institue for Language Education (NILE). He has done teacher training in more than 20 countries, and was instrumental in starting the RSA (now UCLES) Certificate in TEFL, as well as being its first Chief Examiner. Mr. Walters recently shared insights from his ELT career in this interview with the ESL MiniConference Online.

Some Steve Walters links:

Norwich Institute for Language Education (
Teaching Practice Handbook , with Richard Gower and Diane Phillips, Heinemann (1995)
University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (

An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Steve Walters:

Steve Walters

What is your main ESL activity now? What are your principal projects, and what is on the back burner?

Almost all of my working time is spent in relation to some aspect of teacher education/development. NILE, which is probably both the smallest and the largest teacher development organisation in the UK, occupies almost all of my working time, and quite a lot of my non-working time as well. It's the smallest most of the year round because there are 5 or 6 of us planning and recruiting for the courses we run in the UK and Dublin in the January-February period and in the June-September period. Of course, outside these periods we have consultants travelling to different countries doing in-country work as well. When we are running courses in the summer, then we expand up to 25 consultants working with us on courses for teachers from around the world.. This is particularly demanding as all of our consultants are respected, published professionals. The summer often turns into, for the consultants and for us, a period of demanding, interesting, professional development, and that's outside the classroom work. So, teacher education/development and how to make it most effective is always at the forefront of my mind.

Outside of NILE, I have been trying to rethink my approach to the classroom. This has been partially prompted by two activities which dominate, or rather have dominated (I have just about got used to the sentence "I USED TO BE a triathlete") my ex-work life: physical (usually competitive) individual sports, and music. I have long been thinking how they have come to be important in my life, how I have learned the skills I have, and how that contrasts with what I have been taught. I believe there is a fair amount of mileage in exploring how people learn/are taught in other areas. I've been considering a few music lessons that I have been having recently, where the emphasis is on me doing the practice outside the class, not inside, as is so often the case, with the British attitude to EFL at least. It's also made me question the parallels between scales and harmonies (broadly the structure and grammar rules of music) and improvisations (at the extreme, the witty conversations of a good conversationalist). Do we expect students to produce conversations (the improvisations) too early or should we be concentrating on the scales and structure earlier.... A series of thoughts to be continued. I have also had other thoughts about parallels with playing instruments (i.e. the physical skills rather than the aural ones of playing music), learning advanced driving skills and so on... All activities which can be seen at a number of different levels, for example in terms of driving, the level of driving a car sufficiently safely to pass a driving test compared to the level of a World Rally Championship driver who pilots a care at apparently insane speeds on loose gravel.

How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced your decision? What were some important formative experiences in the early stages of your development?

Like an awful lot of UK people of my age, purely by accident. A friend left his flat in Norwich and his job at a local language school. I took over both and was unqualified for the job at least. I then went on shortly after that to what was then a standard 4 week course, followed fairly swiftly by a Masters at Essex University. Influences? One of the earliest and possibly most lasting in professional and human terms has to be Ian Bell. We are still in contact and he still surprises with his human qualities whenever we meet. He also encouraged me to get involved with the formation of the RSA CTEFL which has evolved into the UCLES/RSA CTEFLA. A qualification more familiar to the British and Australian ELT cultures, than the US side of things. I was chair of the committee that developed the syllabus and first Chief Examiner: a major milestone in my career. Other influences? Peter Strevens, who probably needs no introduction, and who as well as being involved in part of my Masters, was also my boss for a few years. And Dick Allwright who was a major factor in the way I approached the whole of my Masters and much of my work since. I also have to mention Martin Hollis, who as one of my main philosophy lecturers during my first degree had a profound influence on the way I think about everything.

What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a language learner yourself? What insights have you gained in how to meet the needs of English learners from these cultures and language backgrounds?

My most recent intensive experience with any one culture comes from my recent 8+ years in Hong Kong. Otherwise my experience has been with other cultures coming to me in the UK, or me visiting them for fixed term projects. It would be very easy to generalise about insights in to meeting needs, but they would be just that: generalisations. I think I would echo the sentiments that I think most teachers would have, that you can't start a journey to a specific destination until you know where you are. So, it would be very easy to make general assumptions (albeit based on experience) about particular language/cultural groups, only to find that there were several students within the group that you were teaching who didn't fit the type.

If you had to give three pieces of advice to a new ESL teacher, what would they be?

Listen to your colleagues, but remember there are no right answers.

Listen to your students, but remember they expect you to know more.

Be yourself.

Very trite, but then if this new teacher were sitting opposite me, we would be talking and the answers would be different.

What do you see as the most important issues facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?

On the "highest" level, probably the most significant thing is the political position of English and ELT in the world. The age at which English is beginning to be taught is being lowered world wide, English medium education (even across part of the curriculum) is becoming more common and the English speaking world is becoming smaller, in terms of speed of communications at least, and bigger in terms of geographical and thematic areas, with an increasing number of stakeholders all pulling in different directions. I think the growth of links between members of the profession, in whatever way this can be encouraged, is extremely important. On the classroom level, but also affecting, the higher level, is the teacher's role. There is more and more support for the independent learner in the form of user-friendly materials, either commercially published, or free from the internet or other sources. There are more and more English publications of all sorts available. The role of the learner is changing rapidly, but the teaching side of the equation is not moving quite so fast (in many areas at least). I see, for example, teachers teaching students as if the students had no contact with English outside the classroom and homework. We need, among other things, to recognise that the world of English and English learning and teaching has changed and to think proactively, rather than reactively. We need to think how we can change with it rather than be changed by it.

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online

Previous Profile
Next Profile