IATEFL Conference 10th-13th April 2018 – Brighton

It’s been seven years since IATEFL were last in Brighton. Back in those heady days, England’s cricket team had just won the Ashes in Australia and Kate Middleton was poised to be transformed into the Duchess of Cambridge. So, with another royal wedding looming and Australia’s cricket team once more in disarray (though not because we beat them this time), it was good that they were able to return to us.

The Exhibition Hall teemed with exhibitors. There was competition for freebie of the week: NGL gave out collapsible coffee cups (into which some caterers refused to pour drinks) while TELC, a testing organisation, gave out stress figures and hosted a table football competition. CUP, meanwhile, had an ice cream van, with the items on offer corresponding to coursebooks such as Empower. (English Unlimited did not make an appearance, probably because we could only get one ice cream a day.) Overall there were nearly fifty stands plus pop-up presentations throughout the days.

Meanwhile there were over 750 speakers, with a number of locals leading workshops or other sessions, plus daily plenaries from keynote speakers. Rather than go for a one-word summary of each session, it is probably more productive to focus on one particular talk that stood out.

On Wednesday, Dorothy Zemach spoke at a plenary entitled ‘Sausage and the Law’ – the suggestion being that those who are fond of either of these items should probably not watch them being made. Her session discussed how EFL coursebooks come to be written, and the changes that have taken place in recent years.

Essentially she felt two things have changed for the worse:

  • More and more publishing decisions are made by business people rather than those with an understanding of teaching
  • Writers are underpaid and have less say in the content of textbooks

Dorothy made the point that, while profits have fallen in EFL (partly due to illegal photocopying), it is the coursebook writer who has been hit. Those working in publishing have not had their salary reduced, nor have retail staff, nor have delivery drivers. But to write a coursebook well is a full-time job, and therefore writers need to be paid fairly. She contended that it was near to impossible for a teacher, however talented, to produce a decent EFL coursebook in spare evenings and weekends.

Of course, one response from publishers has been to think of the ‘exposure’. But as Dorothy commented (with a reference to the film The Revenant), you can die of exposure. The implication is that being paid very little for a lot of work on one textbook can indeed lead to further opportunities… to be paid very little for a lot of work.

The result is that coursebooks are becoming more and more uniform and generic, often “cobbled together” by a team of writers working individually on different aspects e.g. one doing the grammar sections for each unit, another focussing on the listening.

The closing appeals to teachers were:

  1. “Pay for your stuff.” In other words, don’t copy illegally as the writer is one of the people losing out.
  2. Tell publishers what you want, rather than accepting what publishers think you want.

The plenary brought a mixed reaction. Interestingly, one writer working for a large publisher felt that the speaker was being anti-coursebook. I didn’t get this impression at all; rather, she was very much in favour of coursebooks, but saying that writers need to be given the time and money (and creative freedom) to do them properly.

By David Spillman