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December 2022 - Year 24 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

The Efate Novelists

Brian Tomlinson has worked as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum developer, film extra, football coach, kitchen porter and university academic in Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman, Singapore, UK, Vanuatu and Zambia, as well as giving invited presentations in over seventy countries. He is Founder and President of MATSDA (the international Materials Development Association), an Honorary Visiting Professor at the University of Liverpool and a TESOL Professor at Anaheim University. His most recent publication is SLA Applied: Connecting Theory and Practice, co-authored with Hitomi Mashara and published by CUP in 2021. 


It was a beautiful sunny morning on the island of Efate in Vanuatu. But in my classroom all was shade and gloom. My class of domestic science teachers looked bored as usual at the prospect of another General English lesson. They looked resigned to another meaningless encounter with a coursebook irrelevant to their lives and needs. They were a pleasant group of mainly middle-aged ladies with children of their own and fairly comfortable lives in well-resourced villages. They were enthusiastic about teaching domestic science but reticent to use their English. They lacked confidence in their ability and lacked the motivation or apparent need to improve.

The situation was made worse by a coursebook which couldn’t be blamed for not being connected to the lives of Melanesians living communally in small villages on small islands but could be criticised for lacking excitement, humour and affective appeal. Suddenly I could take it no more.

‘Please stand up everybody,’ I said (or words to that effect). ‘Now pick up your coursebook and carry it with you to the window.’ The ladies looked bemused but complied with my request.

 ‘Please stand in a line facing the window. Put the book in your right hand and hold it above your head. When I count to three throw your book out of the window.’

The ladies looked at each other and some of them smiled. When I counted, ‘One, two, three’, they threw their books out of the window, some reluctantly but many with relish.

‘Now, please go and sit down’, I said. And they did.

‘What are we going to do now?’ I asked. Nobody answered.

‘I know,’ I said, ‘you’re each going to write a novel.’

‘What’s a novel?’ asked one of the more confident ladies on the front row.

‘It’s a long story,’ I said, ‘and you’re going to write one’.


‘OK everybody. Think of your village. See the houses in your mind. See the people. See the kids playing. See the animals. Now think of the most interesting person in your village. It could be an old person. It could be a young child. See that person in your mind. Have a look at their face, at their clothes, at what they are doing. Now write a sentence about this person.’

‘You’re going to write a story. It’ll take place in your village but it doesn’t have to be true. First of all think of a title for your story. What are you going to call your story?’

‘Now take out your exercise books’ (it was the beginning of a new term and each lady had an empty book). Write your title on the front of the book. Then write your name underneath the title.’

‘Now write a short description of your village. Where is it? What does it look like? This is your first paragraph of your novel. Now start a new paragraph on the next line. In your second paragraph write a description of the most interesting person in your village (you can make use of the sentence you wrote earlier). Then write about what they did one day. It doesn’t have to be true. You can change your person a bit and make up what they did if you want to.’

‘When you’ve finished your second paragraph sit with a friend. Swap your stories and then read your friend’s story. Ask your friend questions about their village and about the person at the beginning of their story.’

‘When you’ve finished questioning each other, get your exercise book back and then add more information to your story about your village and about your main character.’

‘When you’ve finished adding to your story, swap it with another friend and then help each other to improve the English you’ve used to write your story.’

‘For homework tonight write a clean copy of the first two paragraphs of your novel.’

The words above might not be my exact words (it was a long time ago) but they capture the content and spirit of what I said. Obviously I didn’t say all this at once. I gave them plenty of time to carry out each instruction before giving them the next one.


At the beginning of the next lesson I congratulated the ladies on what they’d achieved so far and told them that they were going to continue writing their novel in every lesson for the rest of the term. They looked quite pleased. I then told them that they could help each other at any time with ideas for the stories and with advice about their English, they could illustrate their novels with drawings and they could ask me for help at any time. In each lesson I sat at my desk with an empty chair waiting for ‘novelists’ to help. At first the chair remained empty for worryingly long periods and I had to resist the urge to wander around checking on the ladies. Soon though they gained confidence and became eager to show me what they had written and to seek my advice about grammar, about vocabulary and about pronunciation. I was able to reward them with praise, help them to clarify and elaborate and sometimes help them to learn with a little responsive teaching. Occasionally, if I noticed that many of them were struggling with the same problem, I responded with a brief whole-class teaching session (for example, on the conventions of direct speech). And sometimes I collected in a number of nascent novels and then gave brief written support and feedback. But most of the time I left them alone to write, to read aloud to each other, to share their creations and to ask for and provide help. It soon became apparent that most of the ladies were actually enjoying using English to write and talk about what was familiar and significant to them and that they were gaining more confidence, self-belief, self-esteem and ability every week.

By the end of term every lady had completed a novel of at least sixty pages. Many of them were beautifully handwritten, bound and illustrated. All of them were carried with pride back to the villages which featured in them. I wonder where they are now and what the Efate novelists are doing.

I think the project was a success. Looking back though I might have provided more responsive teaching as the ladies gained confidence and belief. I might have provided more help in editing the completed novels so that they were less vulnerable to criticism. And I would have made efforts to get some of the novels actually published (as I did in Zambia when one of my secondary school students had his Lozi novel published by Longman Zambia).

None of the novels were masterpieces. Many were very interesting though and some were well-written. Others contained many errors and weren’t always easy to understand. But all of them represented a major achievement for learners of English who, at the beginning of term could hardly put two sentences together. I should add that no textbooks were harmed during the writing of the novels. They were collected up, dusted off and placed back in the store room where they belonged.

I’m not advocating that teachers should try to solve the problems of lack of confidence, motivation and apparent ability by taking such extreme actions as getting students to defenestrate their coursebooks. But I am advocating that there is little point in continuing to follow a coursebook or a digital course which a class of learners don’t find to be meaningful, relevant or engaging. Some coursebooks can be humanised and brought to life by the teacher making small changes to them (see Tomlinson, in press). For example, in a university in Oman I localised and humanised the coursebook by using the words of the language drills to tell bizarre stories, by subverting and performing the language practice activities and by changing the content of the texts (e.g. a horse race in Siena became a camel race in Oman). In Japan I got students to re-write the coursebook texts in bizarre and localised ways (e.g. one student re-wrote a text about the happiest man in England (a well-off commuter with a wife, two children, a dog and a garden in Surrey) so that it became about a house-husband in Japan married impossibly to a female Sumo wrestler. And in a PhD thesis I examined recently a candidate from Vietnam successfully humanised a coursebook by replacing Hollywood films with Vietnamese films and American food with Vietnamese food. Other coursebooks have needed supplementation or partial replacement. For example, in a college in the UK I got some students to discuss literary excerpts from world literature and then video their prepared performance of excerpts from them and I got other students to write and record their own soap opera in weekly instalments. In Indonesia one of my trainees got her students in groups to find engaging texts to replace the unengaging texts in the coursebook. And in Vanuatu one of my trainees got her primary school students to make puppets to represent characters in the coursebook and then to use them to perform the dialogues from the book. And another one cut out a ‘screen’ from a cardboard box which she had painted knobs on. She then rolled up an English translation of a local myth onto a rolling pin, inserted the rolling pin into the box so the title of the story was on the screen and invited her lined-up students to come and watch their new tv. She then sat them down in front of her box so that they could supplement the diminutive texts in their coursebook by reading the local myth as she rolled the rolling pin. The students were excited and helped each other to understand the text and even if I remember correctly to shout out unsolicited predictions of what was going to happen next.

All of the above examples had a number of things in common. They all treated the learners with respect and they all involved resourceful teachers encouraging learner agency, creativity and initiative in order to increase motivation, engagement and communicative ability. And they all encouraged learners to think about, write about and talk about what was meaningful to them.

As I said above, some coursebooks can be used successfully if they are localised, personalised, humanised and made more meaningful. But the coursebook I was supposed to use with my class of domestic teachers in Efate was calling out for defenestration. It got what it deserved, not because it was badly written but because it was a global coursebook which was totally unconnected to the local learners and was written to be followed rather than made use of as a resource.



Tomlinson, B. (in press). Humanising the coursebook. In B. Tomlinson (Ed.), Developing materials for language teaching, (3rd edn.). London: Bloomsbury.


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Tagged  Creativity Group