Academic Consultant Karel Cooney had the pleasure of sitting down and interviewing Guy Brook-Hart, author of Complete First Certificate (among other books), on his recent visit to Guayaquil.
1. How long have you been teaching?
A long, long time. I first set foot in a classroom as a teacher at a girls’ secondary school in Sohag, Egypt in 1975 – a wonderful and extraordinary experience teaching classes of forty-five 15- and 16-year-olds – and I’ve been teaching more or less ever since.
2. How did you enter the teaching profession?
By accident really. It was never my ambition to go into teaching, but during my final year at university I applied to VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) because I wanted to experience life somewhere outside Britain and Europe and live abroad for a while. VSO decided that with my meagre qualifications and lack of experience the only thing I might just about be capable of doing was teaching.
3. Do you still teach? Where?
No, not quite. Until last December I taught at the British Council, but now my writing work takes up too much time for me to be able to combine the two activities and especially to devote the amount of attention to teaching and to my students that the job requires.
4. Where do you live? How long have you lived there?
I live in Valencia, Spain, and have been there for more than 25 years, married to a Spanish girl, Paz, and with two children at university, Esteban, 22, in his final year studying psychology and Elena, 19, in her first year studying public relations and advertising.
5. When did you start writing ELT course books?
I started as one of a team of writers on a British Council / Open University project to produce a distance learning course of Business English in 1998. A year later I co-authored an online English course for the Council and a CD-ROM for IELTS. My first book for Cambridge University Press was Instant IELTS published in 2004.
6. How many have you written?
After Instant IELTS I wrote Business Benchmark Upper Intermediate and Business Benchmark Advanced. Then I wrote Complete First Certificate and, together with Simon Haines, Complete CAE which was published earlier this year.
7. What inspired you to write your first ELT text?
I don’t think that writing course books is an art requiring inspiration exactly. It’s much more a craft or a type of technical writing requiring some creativity, a lot of attention to detail, a lot of experience in the classroom and a lot of experience of what does and doesn’t work in the classroom.
It would be lovely to say that my students were my inspiration and it has always been very nice to be able to take material I’ve written into class and try it with my students. However, it might be more honest to say that my inspiration as such, or my motivation, has always been the feeling that I can do something different and better than the existing course books for whatever level I am writing. If we can’t improve on existing materials, there’s no point in writing.
8. You are currently promoting your new exam preparation courses Complete FCE and Complete CAE. They are described as CLC-informed. What is the CLC?
The CLC is the Cambridge Learner Corpus, a joint project between Cambridge ESOL, the examination syndicate and Cambridge University Press. It’s a database containing hundreds of thousands of scripts written by candidates for the Writing Papers of Cambridge exams at all levels.
The scripts are analysed for errors and other information and this permits research into the problems and capabilities students have at all levels of language learning. We can find out, for example, what problems students are having with vocabulary and grammar at First Certificate level and whether or not these problems are caused by first language interference.
9. How is this useful to teachers and learners?
The information is primarily useful to course book writers because it allows us to determine what problems students are having at a particular level and to tailor the course and the syllabus to focus on those problem areas.
We can make sure that the course book is always relevant to students’ needs because the contents are based on research into the areas where students are really having problems and we can design activities and exercises to remedy their problems. Where in the past course book writers had to rely on their experience and their imagination, now with the research arising from the CLC and the Common European Framework we can produce books which are highly focused.
Future course books from Cambridge will have the advantage of a huge new area of research which is the English Profile, which should become available in a year or so.
Cambridge ESOL also uses the CLC to produce more focused exams. For example, there’s no point in designing a task to test an area of language in the First Certificate exam if the CLC shows students don’t generally have a problem with that area because they’ve already learnt it. A task testing a non-problem area would have almost all students getting the answer correct and so wouldn’t sort out those who know more English from those who know less. The CLC allows the examiners to design tasks to examine areas where learning is still taking place.
It’s also worth pointing out that the CLC is exclusive to Cambridge, and that no other publishers have access to this extremely valuable research tool.
10. How did this help you write the Complete FCE course?
I was provided with an enormous and impressive amount of research into every area where First Certificate students were having problems. In Complete First Certificate, I was able to focus on the areas of grammar and vocabulary where FCE candidates are making mistakes, areas where their learning of the language is not complete, but where we can help them forward.
There are frequent exercises and activities dealing with these problem areas and teaching students how to correct and avoid mistakes. Students using the book become more aware of their problem areas and more focused on dealing with them.
The objective is for them to therefore become more responsible for their own language learning and more independent as learners.
11. Could you give us a few examples of common mistakes made by Spanish speakers of English?
The people in Ecuador is very friendly and warm-hearted. (True from my experience, but grammatically incorrect)
I enjoy very much travelling. (A problem of word order)
Pablo has a very hard work in a bank. (Making an uncountable noun countable)
Guayaquil is an important city. (Spanish speakers often use important (importante) where English speakers would use big or considerable.)
Kitty passed her summer holidays in the beach. (2 mistakes and some discomfort!)
I must to phone my grandmother.
Vicente suggested to go for a picnic.
I study at the university.
I’m married from 15 years ago. (several mistakes in this one arising from thinking in Spanish – Estoy casado desde hace quince años.)
Margarita has 20 years and he lives with his fathers. (My favourite, where the subject changes sex during the sentence and one of ‘his’ parents appears to have done so also!)
12. Are you planning to write a further book? Will there be a Complete KET, PET or IELTS?
Yes, I’m already engaged in writing two more books for the Complete series, though not Complete KET or Complete PET. I understand Complete PET is due to be published early next year.