Nov 272010

Back in the eighties I taught at a large business English school where amongst other things, I was responsible for hiring and timetabling teachers and developing resources. Materials-lite lessons were often a good way to go in the context we were working in. (Our term for it then was ‘minimum input, maximum output’). Teachers were always hunting for ideas, so I shared some in filing cabinets and some of my colleagues did too. After a few years I sent a batch off to some publishers and they later turned into a book called In at the Deep End (Speaking Activities for Professional People)


The activities and frameworks had no texts or language content when we submitted them. We explained that the content would come from the students, and the teachers would then work with the language that came up. (We didn’t have a term for emergent language back then, either). The publishers insisted that a few functional phrases and grammary-looking boxes were inserted, but they didn’t require us to add texts, so there was no reading nor audio.

Looking back, that was very hard core line to follow and I’m grateful to Oxford University Press for letting us explore it. No dogme-ists today would suggest there should be no texts. It runs counter to an obvious truth: to learn new language, students need to be exposed to it somewhere, so either via listening or reading.


Do I still like to teach lessons that draw on the learners for content today? Heck yes. Obviously it has strong appeal for me, and in the contexts in which I’m working, it’s still often a good way to go. Are there times when I don’t? Why yes. For example, I sometimes prepare students for advanced management courses at the Wharton School where they will need to have read lots of lengthy business case studies and follow lectures. I don’t see how we’d be doing our jobs if we didn’t give those students ‘materials-heavy’ lessons. There’s a lot of specific vocabulary to learn very quickly, and there are features of discourse and genre that I can’t see a way to highlight without extensive listening and reading. Is materials-heavy as enjoyable and motivating for the students or us? Quite possibly not, but we all know it’s our job and get on with it. It sure beats the alternative.


And when you look around the diverse world of ESP, I don’t think this kind of situation is uncommon. Back in the eighties, I thought our student driven conversational approach would be best in all contexts. Twenty five years on, I feel like there are a lot of shades of grey and I’ve learnt more about successes achieved with genre-based approaches, lexical approaches, task based instruction, case studies, CLIL, and other methodologies.

I’ve also met a lot of different stakeholders involved in training. As teachers, I think we may tend to focus on our students’ needs because they are the people we have most contact with. But the students’ company (which is often footing the bill) may have its own rather different needs. I may not have always agreed with some of the other stakeholders, but many have been bright, caring people with legitimate concerns that I think we have to address too. Evan Frendo made a tongue in cheek blog post illustrating this point this week. You can read it here.


 Posted by at 12:44 pm

  17 Responses to “In at the deep end”

  1. Hi Vicki,
    That’s fascinating to hear about your materials-lite approach back in the day. Scott Thornbury is always keen to insist on the long lineage of Dogme, but this is the first time I’ve heard of ancestors in Business English.
    On the wider point, I agree that there is no need to be dogmatic about Dogme – it works for some students in some situations, but not all.

  2. Thanks Tony. I felt a bit shy about writing it, but Evan was getting some stick over at his blog.

    I wasn’t the only business English enthusiast back then. Peter Wilberg was arguing ‘The teacher’s job is not to provide the communicative content… The student provides the content’. Mark Ellis and Christine Johnson were proposing content-free ‘framework tasks’ and no doubt there were others.

  3. We have a lot of books on the shelves in our office, new ones are added every month, one is so tattered and torn from constant use and the title page is so damaged i hadn’t noticed the name of the author.
    The cover is blue, the pages falling out are enough to help you find it among the glossy neighbours.
    chris 2010

  4. Oh, my goodness, I never leave home without my In at the deep end – it set me up in teaching business English – I got my first copy in 1991 (when I started working at Siemens), you, Dear Vicki had just been through with a presentation of the book. And I still love it. Just last weekend a colleague dropped by and took a spare copy off my shelf saying he’d also heard me talk about it and now would like to have his own copy, which I gladly gave him. And perhaps that drew me into ‘dogme’ without even realizing it!I could anecdote on and on about this masterpiece!
    Thanks again for that,

  5. On a ‘merican note: in case you didn’t notice, one of your sentences is highly marked as BrE:

    “The publishers insisted that a few functional phrases…were inserted”

    (AmE would always use the subjunctive here–“insisted that a few phrases BE inserted.”

  6. Chris (Adams) and Joan, thank you both. You’re sweethearts.

    Chris, yes, that sentence construction is interesting. It’s one of those things that I am sort of aware of, but very hit and miss about. ‘Be’ sounds a tad formal to me when I have my British ears on (though less so now, I think). But when I put my ‘merican ears on, I can sort of hear how ‘were’ could sound like it might be the wrong tense. Does it sound uneducated in ‘merican?

    I think the be/were choice might be a good discriminator as an exam question for ‘upper int’ ‘merican speakers, actually. And I’m still intermediate. Ha!

  7. To my American ears “insisted that a few functional phrases were inserted” doesn’t sound uneducated, but it definitely sounds wrong. I can’t imagine an American who would use “insisted”, “functional” and “inserted” but would not conjugate this verb in the subjunctive. The plain ‘ole version of the sentence is something like “The publishers made us put in a few practical examples”.

  8. Kate, you’ve just illustrated something I love about the ‘merican frame – ‘The publishers made us put in a few practical examples’ – yeah! That’s just what I wanted to say! 🙂

  9. Dear Vicki

    I am desperately trying to get a copy of In At The Deep End! A teacher friend sent me a few sample roleplays a few years ago and they were fantastic. I can’t find anything more recent that is as student-centred and easy to use to give business students speaking practice.

    I live near Singapore. Can I find the book anywhere in Singapore? Do you know of any books that good, but more recent?

    Marianna Pascal

  10. Marianna, I’ll write to Oxford University Press right away and see if they can help. Fingers crossed.

    I wrote ‘In at the Deep End’ back in the late eighties – it’s high time I wrote a new speaking practice book.

    Maybe a reader of this blog in Singapore has a copy that they can pass along? Or other recommendations?

  11. Hi Vicki

    Another school with a very tatty, much used copy of IATDE here. We’re big fans. My boss asks if there’s any chance of you writing a new version?
    BTW I’ve also been appreciating your BELF discussion as I’m writing a “BELF” dissertation.

    Best wishes

  12. Oh hi Nina! Thank you so much for writing. Well as it happens we have very recently got the rights back for ‘In at the Deep End’ and I plan to re-write it and include some videos for students with it. Please watch this space!

    Good luck with the BELF dissertation. There’s been some really interesting research in the field coming out recently, so it’s a great topic.

  13. Great news, thanks!

  14. Hello! !! I totally love that book! I use it in my classes! But it’s so difficult to get it nowadays and in México even more (I buy them via Amazon and they arrive almost around 1.5-2 months), what book do you suggest to use that could be easier to find but with the similar characteristics as yours? Thank you so much! ! I love “In at the deep end” and if you have any recent similar material please let me know! 🙂 🙂 🙂 God bless!

  15. Hello Analilia, thank you so much for writing. I’m afraid In at the Deep End has been out of print for some years now so I think it would be hard to find anywhere. It’s an unusual book because it has no texts – it’s just speaking practice, and I can’t think of any similar books. But maybe another reader of this blog can think of a similar speaking practice book? If you can, please suggest one here.

  16. I’m prepared to smuggle photocopied editions to Mexico for a reasonable remuneration and an author’s amnesty.:-)

  17. Ha! Absolutely not Chris, but LOVELY to see you here. Do hope life is treating you well,

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