Talking with experts in ELT!

Interviews on education and language teaching

Alan Maley gently unfolds the story of his life which goes side-by-side with the development of ELT

In his long ELT career Alan Maley has seen a lot: blackboards turning white (and now computerized), the emphasis on reading, repeating and memorizing being replaced by the communicative approach, which challenges the notion of grammatical accuracy as the main goal of language teaching, teacher-centered classes, student-centered classes, silent classes, active classes, black-and-white coursebooks becoming colourful and now like glossy magazines, many teaching methods rising and falling like suggestopedia, the invasion of the Internet in our life and in education, digital tools being developed and used… to name just a few. 

He has travelled a lot, lived and taught in many countries, met, worked, inspired (and was inspired) and cooperated with many great ELT teachers and innovators, who established what we now call ‘the ELT field’.

What has ignited him, in the last decade, is creativity, one of the most exciting concepts that currently inform ELT. Creative language teaching is generated, in some way, in every classroom in every country. Each time a language teacher enters a class, a silent experiment in hope and creativity is taking place: hope that the lesson will make a difference to at least one of their learners; creativity in that teachers strive to give the lesson something of their own that goes beyond imitation or compliance.

Text by: Anastasia Spyropoulou

You’ve had a long teaching experience in diverse school settings. What kind of changes have you seen in the way English is taught and learned? Which one is the most significant in your opinion?

I entered the ELT field in 1962, when I spent a year at the University of Leeds studying on a post-graduate diploma course.  At the time ELT was very much a fledgling field – a kind of cottage industry, in fact.  There were very few books on the subject and not much in the way of professional associations, events, training or journals.

So one of the biggest changes has been the sheer growth in the volume of publications, training courses for language teachers, conferences and symposia, research projects and the like.  At the time I started, it was possible to have read all the books on the subject.  Now, you’d be lucky to keep up with the reviews, or even the publishers’ catalogues.

The prevailing models back in the 1960’s were Grammar-Translation, which was used especially in public secondary schools; the so-called Direct Method, which was used in a relatively small number of private language schools, like Berlitz, and the Structural-Situational approach, which was rapidly evolving at the time as a way of bringing together the teaching of form and contextualized meaning.

The arrival of the Communicative Approach signaled a sea-change in the way language was taught.  We now take for granted the primacy of meaning-making in language teaching – but this is the result of the hot-house atmosphere of often acrimonious debate, experimentation, and publication particularly in the 1970’s and 80’s.  Along the way, some highly unorthodox ‘methods’ were developed, such as The Silent Way, Community Language Learning, Suggestopedia, Total Physical Response and Psycho-drama.   And we have since seen a plethora of ideas and enthusiasms, ranging from authentic materials, through humanistic education, learner-centred teaching, the lexical approach, task-based learning, multiple-intelligences, NLP, CLIL, ELF, the flipped classroom and so on.

A few generalisable features do characterise the considerable differences between the early days and the present. 

One is specialization. The ELT community has given rise to communities of teachers with special interests in, for example, English for Specific Purposes, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL), Teaching Young Learners, Testing and Assessment, and the many others reflected in the Special Interest Groups in professional associations. 

Another is professionalization.  A whole structure of professional qualifications has been developed for teachers both in post-graduate courses in universities and in the private sector with the CELTA, DELTA, RSA and others.  And international professional associations such as TESOL and IATEFL, as well as national and local associations have thrived.

One side-effect of this has been the academicisation of teacher education.  Career advancement has gradually become linked with the acquisition of higher degrees, such as the MA and PhD.  In my view, this is unfortunate, as all too often it deflects attention from the human skills of teaching towards an exclusive focus on research and technical expertise.

Another feature is commodification.  As the status of English as a world language has evolved, English has become reified.  By this, I mean it has become a product or package which can be sold.  Hence the rapid development of published materials, course packages, private language schools, university departments of applied linguistics – and above all large- scale, high-stakes testing, all of them intent on generating revenue.  We’ve moved from cottage industry to corporate business.

You have travelled a lot, and you have worked and lived in many countries. Are there any unforgettable experiences both personal and professional or turning points in your career that you would like to share with our readers?

There are really too many to mention but perhaps I could say something about a few people who have influenced or encouraged me.  I learned a lot from Earl Stevick back in the 1980’s.  Previously, I had believed that the harder you teach, the better they learn.  His advice, ‘to stand out of the light and let them learn,’ changed my view of what teaching is, namely a facilitating not a directive process. 

I have also benefitted from John Fanselow’s insights.  His key heuristic in his book ‘Breaking Rules’ was ‘Do the opposite’, which has proven a great way to generate new ways to change old habits.  His focus on making small changes based on close observation of what we actually do (rather than what we think we do) has also been a valuable insight.

I was also fortunate to have worked for eight years with N.S. Prabhu, the godfather of the Task-Based Approach, first in Madras, India, then in Singapore.  Apart from being a radical and perceptive thinker, he had a gift for working with teachers to develop their confidence in their own experience and judgement.  His concept of ‘the teacher’s sense of plausibility’ has been a constant reference point for me when working with teachers.

I would also mention the influence of publishers, such as Adrian du Plessis at Cambridge University Press, who was key to developing a highly innovative list of books for teachers in the 1970’s and 80’s especially.  Creative publishers are now hard to find but he was a shining example.

My writing partner for many years was Alan Duff, now sadly deceased.  He was one of the most creative people I have ever encountered, a brilliant linguist, poet and translator, and a joy to work with.  Without him, I would certainly not have published as much as I did.

Creativity has been your main focus and concern in the recent years. Why did you choose creativity among the other key 21st century skills?

I don’t recall choosing it.  I think it chose me.  I had started to see the benefits of encouraging learners to engage in creative activities like drama and the use of puppets while working with primary school teachers and pupils in Ghana back in the 1960’s.  But it was in France during the 1970’s, working with Alan Duff,  that I really got hooked on the use of drama – based on actor training – as a vehicle for language teaching and learning.  And from there we moved to other areas, such as the creative use of images, new ways of doing listening work - and creative writing.  The interest in creative writing developed further during my time in India, Singapore and later in Thailand and the rest of SE Asia.  That led me to a 30-year involvement with a group of Asian teacher-writers who have produced 20 odd books of poems and stories for use with their students.  And the drama interest led me to realising the need to work on teachers’ voices, which is still an element woefully lacking in training courses.

And choosing creativity does not exclude other 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking skills, communication, organisational and technical skills, social skills and learning skills.  I don’t think it is helpful to separate them out in that way.  Operating creatively will involve all of these skills.

Creativity is mainly associated with other fields such as the arts, music, interior design, architecture, and engineering but not with language learning. Is there room for creativity in the language classroom?

Creativity is not confined to the arts.  It can manifest itself in any field of human activity.  Humans are innately creative.  You have only to watch the play of small children to observe this.  Sadly, the exploratory nature of creative play and learning is progressively eroded and suppressed by formal education.  Of course there is room for creativity in language classrooms – but we have to make space and time for it.

Is creativity teachable?

I am not sure if it is teachable – but it is learnable.  It is also infectious – creativity breeds more creativity.  And to support that learning, I have published a range of creative materials, as have others, like Mario Rinvolucri and his team at Pilgrims, among others.

I certainly believe that we would all benefit from a re-balancing of teacher training and development to give equal weight to developing the personal, human qualities of the teacher, alongside the technical knowledge and skills which currently make up the majority of programmes.  Surveys which I and others have conducted show that what learners look for in their teachers are overwhelmingly their human qualities, not just their technical expertise.

Who is the source of creativity in the language classroom -the teacher or the student?

Both are.  Unless the teacher has a creative mindset and attitude, she will not be open to the creative potential of the learners and will suppress it.  In many ways, opening up to more creative ways of teaching is an act of faith on the part of the teacher – a belief in the capacity of the learners to express their own unique forms of creativity.

Is creativity an elitist approach to teaching and learning? Does it have any practical value?

It is absolutely not elitist.  I think the elitist idea comes from a very narrow view of what creativity is, namely what has been called ‘H’ creativity.  ‘H’ stands for ‘Historical’ and refers to the creation of completely new things – things which have never existed in the world before, that nobody has ever produced before. This is the stuff of genius – Hokusai, Basho, Mozart, Shakespeare, Einstein, ‘P’ (Personal) creativity refers to creative work which may have been done many times before by others – but not by the person who is doing it now.  We are all capable of Personal creativity.

As for ‘practical value’, I believe that learning is facilitated through the creative exploration of the language, and that it fosters other educationally valuable psycho-social qualities in learners, such as self-knowledge, self-esteem, tolerance of difference, the ability to cooperate, the capacity to learn for oneself, and sheer enjoyment when a whole class is ‘in the zone’, what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘Flow’.

How has the pandemic affected teaching and learning?

The Covid Pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works of the ELT ‘industry’. It has caused the flow of students from outside UK and USA in particular to dry up.  Isolation has crippled the testing industry.  Lack of face-to-face learning has reduced the demand for coursebooks.  Given the scale of investment in ELT, this has had severe effects, especially on private language schools, universities and other course providers, testing agencies and publishers – and on the lives of teachers suddenly finding themselves redundant.  All are still coming to terms with the way their world has been turned upside down.

It has also forced teachers to consider how to replace face-to face teaching with online activities.  The ELT community has always had a love affair with technology – but now pretty well everyone has had to invest time and effort in finding better ways of deploying the arsenal of technological invention in online teaching.  Almost overnight ‘Zoom’ became a household word.

I feel lucky to have lived through the most exciting developments of the last 60 years.  And I am grateful that, as a retiree, I do not have to face the new set of demands brought on by the pandemic.  But I am confident our profession will continue to come up with creative options for teachers and learners.  Good luck to you all!

Have you fulfilled all or most of your goals? Is there anything you regret not having done? A challenge you didn’t respond to?

When I lived in France back in the 1970’s, I bought an old house in a remote village.  The village was almost deserted following the large-scale exodus to cities in the 19th century.  So, many houses stood vacant.  I had a dream of buying up a number of houses and equipping them as study cottages.  Writers, poets, teachers, painters would come to spend time there as an artistic community.  Sadly, that dream never came true.

I also had a dream of gathering the most creative practitioners in our field to work together as a group to promote creativity in language learning.  Hence the formation of The C Group in 2014. Sadly, this dream has not been realised.  Though I am sure that many of the members continue to exercise their own creativity independently, very few have shown any inclination to work as a group towards the lofty goals set out in the manifesto in the website. (http://thecreativitygroup.weebly.com/)   Never mind – some you win, some you lose…

What are your main interests now?

Survival comes near the top of the list.  Obviously, physical survival becomes more of a concern as one gets older.  But for me, mere survival would be a poor excuse for being alive.  I need a rich and active life, especially in my mind.

So, although I am retired now, I still keep a toe in the waters of ELT.  I’ve worked on a couple of small personal projects recently. 

One I call Mirror Images. These are pairs of poems on the same subject, which can be used for language and other kinds of comparison.  I now have over 50 files of such pairs of poems – and I am happy to share them with anyone who is interested.  Just mail me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  

Another I call Wisdom Stories. I have collected about 100 wisdom stories from many different traditions (Aesop’s Fables, Nasruddin stories, Urban legends, etc.)  My suggestion is that these can be used to spark discussion in teacher training/development groups. You can check this out in another recent article for HLT Mag.  Again, if you want to see some samples of the stories, just mail me and ask.

And I have become increasingly passionate about the role language teachers can play in action against the Global catastrophe which climate change is bringing about.  Teachers are powerful role models and have an influence far beyond their imagination.  And we need to act now. 

My main personal interest is poetry, especially Haiku, and I write something every day.  Even if it is rubbish, never mind.  The important thing is to get it written.  It can always be improved – but you can’t edit a blank page.  So far I have managed to publish three volumes of haiku, and a volume of prose poems about my years as a child growing up in wartime Britain.  And I’ve edited three collections of poems by many teacher-writers: two of them about Covid, and the latest about the Climate Crisis. It’s called ‘What Have We Done?’  So every day is full and while my energy survives, I hope it will continue to be. 


“As the status of English as a world language has evolved, English has become reified.  By this, I mean it has become a product or package which can be sold.”

“We’ve moved from cottage industry to corporate business.”


Alan Maley will be a plenary speaker at the Foreign Languages Forum in Crete and Athens