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Annie Hughes - Teaching young learners

On the University of York’s MA in TEYL, teaching young learners, music, and The Beatles

An Interview

TEYL consultant, teacher trainer, materials writer, and teacher, Dr Annie Hughes is the creator and programme leader of the award-winning MA in Teaching English to Young Learners at the University of York. It is the only distance Master’s programme offered by a British university especially designed for professionals currently, or about to be, involved in aspects of teaching English to young learners, including children up to 16 years of age at pre-school, primary, and secondary level. Annie’s particular interests in TEYL are the use of meaningful and purposeful activities, story, song and rhyme, the teaching of reading in EYL, and TEYL professional development through action research.

We thank Annie for joining us today and sharing some of her amazing accomplishments in building up a programme that continues to attract many TEYL students and professionals who live and work all over the world, as well as revealing snippets of a musical life.

Hello, Annie and thank you for agreeing to this ETAS J interview. You are a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Education at the University of York and specialize in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Young Learners. However, before asking you more about that, I would like to start this interview by going back to the beginning of your career and asking you what initially interested you in becoming a teacher.

Gosh, what an interesting question, Ruth! Well, I had always wanted to be a teacher. My mother had worked in primary schools and so I had spent quite a bit of time in and around them. I was also interested in English and Drama so I trained to be a primary and secondary teacher in English and Drama and gained my first teaching qualification from the University of London. While I was doing this initial training, I also became interested in the teaching of children with special needs – who up until that time, 1971, had come under the auspices of the National Health Service – so, over and above my training and teaching practice, I spent time in a local special school, to learn about this type of work.

I see that at the beginning of your career you taught primary, secondary, and special needs children. Can you share some of the positive sides of teaching each of these different age and needs groups?

I think all learners can bring some very positive things to the classroom no matter what their starting point is – but the teacher has to look for these, find them and use them in order to work with the learner. I’ve learnt a lot from each of the many different groups of learners I worked with during my career, whatever their background or needs.

I’ve worked in inner city primary, secondary and special schools in Liverpool, primary, secondary and special schools in Yorkshire, primary schools in London, and kindergarten, primary, secondary schools, and adult education in the Middle East.

For the kindergarten and primary learners mainstream, it was always a joy and delight to see the children coming to understand something for the first time and during my experience working with this age group learnt some strategies for helping these learners get to that stage successfully. For the secondary learners, it was always a delight when the learners responded to something they’d never tried before and learnt from this experience – especially given the inevitable peer pressure that surrounded them. For the special learners, both primary and secondary, it was challenging and humbling to work with learners who overcame wide-ranging problems, both physical and cognitive, in order to learn or in some cases, have some sort of fulfilment in their lives, especially when some of their challenges were very extreme indeed.

When working with adults, it was great to work with people who were motivated to learn a new language over and above their other commitments such as jobs and families.

I think the group of learners I feel especially impressed by, and in awe of, are those TEYLers studying the MA in TEYL on a part-time basis while they are also, usually, working full-time and addressing family and social demands. Their motivation and dedication to the study and knowledge accrual are really impressive. I have to admit I generally have a tear in my eye when I see them collecting their degree certificates during graduation as I know how much they have been coping with during their two years of study. They are a very special group of people.

And what was more difficult?

Each group of learners I have worked with has brought its own challenges and issues to the classroom and it has been important to take each problem on a case-by-case basis and find solutions for addressing it – but as a teacher I think you need to think quite laterally to overcome problems for learners. In addition, some challenges were forced upon the classroom and learners from external sources and whilst these made teaching and learning more difficult, we never just gave up and generally found a way round them.

I believe you spent a decade teaching in the Middle East. Can you tell us a bit more about that experience? Is it very different from teaching English as a foreign language in Western Europe?

I really enjoyed working in the Middle East and was lucky enough to have worked in a kindergarten, The British Council, and also with the Palace of the Emir – sometimes all in one day! In my kindergarten class there were 16 different nationalities and mother tongues within the classroom – and through that experience I learnt a lot about communication in general and learners with a need to communicate when not having the language to do so.

I also worked with adults and learnt a lot about the challenges adults can face in the language classroom, too. I loved learning about and experiencing the cultures I was living in and reflecting on my own cultural background through experiencing a different one – it was a wonderful learning experience for me!

And why did you choose to specialize in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Young Learners? Can you share any initial inspirations that possibly encouraged you to follow that path?

That’s quite difficult to put into a nutshell, I have to say, but I really enjoyed teaching any age group and with whatever needs the learners presented. I knew what it felt like to try and learn a language that wasn’t my mother tongue and wanted to support those learners who were also in that position. I found it fascinating to learn and wanted to share this enthusiasm in my work. Young English learners were an emergent group in the Middle East at that time (the late 70’s – late 80’s) and so I was able to use my earlier training, experience, and skills with these learners, who ranged in age from six to 16.

It was also at this time that I started to write materials for young language learners and took part in further training myself, during my holidays, in order to understand more about language teaching. I found I was quite passionate about TEYL and wanted to develop my career in this area.

In 1997 you developed a distance learning Master’s programme in Teaching English to Young Learners for the University of York. Was it the first MA to specialize in this area of teaching?

As far as I am aware, yes, it was, and still is, the first MA to specialize only in TEYL on such a course.

For 15 years, I had been involved with TEYL teacher training, which was carried out in many different countries by The British Council and the University of York. For around 10 years, I served as Academic Director and tutor at a British Council Summer School in the UK for those involved in TEYL worldwide and each year that Summer School was attended by about 50-60 teachers from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, cultures, and countries.

It was during this work, both overseas and in UK, that I came across lots of people who were also passionate about TEYL and who wanted to do more and/or develop their careers. They were committed TEYL language teachers, teacher trainers, curriculum writers, and materials writers but many of them felt they needed more training, at a higher level, to both inform their work and gain promotion and a louder ‘voice’ for this particular group of learners.

I felt an MA in TEYL would be ideal for this group. However, those involved in TEYL are often the last in line for any funding for training or easily able to take a year off to study for a Master’s – so I decided the programme had to be a distance programme that would cater for their needs and which could be studied easily from anywhere in the world.

And how has it developed over the past 15 years? Has it changed much? 

It has changed quite a lot – though the core principles and message about TEYL has not changed. When the course was first delivered in 1997, the teachers who started the programme, a two-year, part-time distance course, had to physically attend an intensive preparatory course at York each summer. Students had to come with empty suitcases and we gave them the four rather fat and heavy hard copy Modules they would be studying during that year, and did the same for their second year. This was very early days in the field of distance delivery!

It was a delight when technology developed enough after a couple of years for us to give the students much lighter DVD’s to carry home with all the study Modules on them.

Now we use the University’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and students download all the Modules from this site and interact as a cohort on this site. We also use this VLE to hold discussions (synchronous and asynchronous), activities, and tasks with students throughout the programme.

As a team, of course, we had to learn how to write materials for the VLE, which meant thinking in a different way about how to do this, but it was an exciting challenge which has, I believe, benefited the students greatly.

 I see that the programme has won international recognition and an award. Tell us more about that.

This was such delightful news to get – especially as we didn’t realize what was happening! An international English language teaching journal carried out a survey amongst its readers who had experience of distance ELT Master’s in the US, Australia, Canada, and the UK. We were informed that of all the responses the survey received, nearly half were about the MA in TEYL at York! We were also told we had come top in the survey – which was fabulous news.

Following this, the programme also won a prestigious Chancellor’s Award for Excellence.

This Master’s programme is offered to several cohorts per year. Singapore and Switzerland offer face-to-face preparatory courses. Why did you choose these two particular countries?

In a way, they chose the programme! Each of these countries has many teachers who are involved in TEYL and our partner institutions in these countries felt a link with our programme would benefit their teachers. Our partners also have personal experience of the programme as they have graduates of the MA in TEYL working in their institutions who know exactly what the programme is all about and how it works.

We have had a cohort in Singapore since 2005 (starting each December) and last summer we launched the Swiss cohort (August), which we were very happy about.

We also run two totally online cohorts each year, one starting at the beginning of October and one starting each March.

And what are your other professional interests, Annie?

The MA takes up a lot of my time, of course, but I am also interested in a few other things linked with TEYL!

I carry out TEYL research with my MA colleagues and I am delighted to also be part of a lovely group of Norwegian colleagues who are researching and writing about TEYL. I am on the Editorial Board of the Edinburgh University Press TESOL series and a member of the MATSDA committee. I am regularly asked to write chapters or articles about TEYL. In addition, I continue to write materials for young learners and their teachers and have recently been involved as a consultant and creator of materials for the Penguin Young Readers series, Mary Glasgow/ Scholastic Popcorn ELT Readers series, and Usborne ELT.

I have also written an online course An Introduction to Teaching English to Young Learners for those new to TEYL for Heinle Cengage, an American publisher.

Throughout your experience in teaching training, particularly in training future Young Learner teachers, what might you say is one of the more difficult or tricky areas to deal with?

Helping teachers involved in TEYL understand how important it is to link the learners’ cognitive, social, linguistic, and physical development to the teaching and learning being carried out and the importance of keeping all teaching and learning meaningful and purposeful for the learners. I think this can be hard to understand and carry out in our classrooms for a lot of reasons, depending on the teachers’ training and experience with language learning.

 If you could give one pearl of wisdom for future YL teachers, what would it be?

I think it is important at every stage of teaching to ask yourself, “Why?” Why am I doing this activity? Why am I using this material? Why am I teaching in this way? Why am I assessing learning like this… and so on. As teachers, it is imperative that we can answer that question “Why?” about any aspect of our teaching and choice of approaches and resources.

And Annie, let’s not forget that you have a life outside the University of York and teacher training. What are your other interests? What do you do in your free time?

There isn’t much free time left, but I do love music of all sorts and going to concerts. I love singing and have been singing with a brilliant Brazilian jazz pianist for a couple of years. In fact, to celebrate my 60th birthday I recorded a personal jazz album with him and a wonderful group of jazz musicians – it was great fun!

And could we finish with a snippet of information not many people know about you?

I am actually in The Beatles Anthology as a 9-year-old! It is in an extract from a BBC documentary made about The Beatles in 1961, which also occasionally pops up on TV when there is a programme about their early lives! Of course, being a Liverpudlian, I love The Beatles and I can remember that whole day of filming in Liverpool being a very exciting day indeed!

Thank you so much for your time, Annie.  

Ruth Benvegnen