A must read book about ELT rooted in the classroom by Lionel Billows, a guy who loved classrooms

Michelle Worgan

Michelle Worgan

I first came across Michelle Worgan on May 6th, election day in Britain, when she retweeted an article by award winning journalist Johann Hari entitled “What do we lose if we reject Labour” . I wrote in that tweet that the article had moved me more than any other I had read in the previous month about the British general election.

Britain’s two new Education Ministers

Michelle has been an EFL teacher in Spain for 10 years but like me she also follows the British political scene with great interest and on May 21st she wanted to know how the new schools Tory Minister, Nick Gibb, and other members of the government had actually managed to get into power, herself in a state of disbelief.  On the Friday after his appointment Gibb is reported to have told

Nick Gibb, Conservative MP for Bogner Regis and Littlehampton and appointed Minister of State for Schools in the newly formed Department of Education on May 13th

Nick Gibb, Conservative MP for Bogner Regis and Littlehampton and appointed Minister of State for Schools in the newly formed Department of Education on May 13th

officials in the Department of Education that he would rather have a physics graduate from Oxbridge without a PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education, a one year teaching qualification) teaching in a school than a physics graduate from one of the rubbish universities with a PGCE. I guess he would have preferred someone teaching EFL from Oxbridge without a PGCE than me with my PGCE in TEFL from Manchester University.

I, myself, am still in a state of disbelief about what has happened since May 6th and naively believed that the Lib Dems would never go into government with the Conservative Party. It remains to be seen what will happen, but unfortunately a historic opportunity for the re-alignment of British politics has been missed.

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education

The new Minister of Education, Michael Gove, is looking forward to  “ensuring that  the curriculum teaches the proper narrative of British History – so that every Briton can take pride in this nation.” I wonder what that proper narrative of British History will turn out to be? After working for 12 years with the British Council on British Studies projects the one thing I learned was to be sceptical of  “the proper narrative” of anything.

Later today the Queen will announce new education policies, including the hiving out of schools to private entrepreneurs, but whatever is revealed in that speech education carries on and whatever new policies are introduced, teachers will interpret and re-interpret any new guidelines handed down from above and as always will make decisions about what is most appropriate in their own classrooms according to local contexts and conditions.

F.L. Billows The Techniques of Language Teaching

F.L. Billows The Techniques of Language Teaching

EFL life goes on and teaching is still a great profession to be in!

I am sure that Michelle is as disappointed as I am about the outcome of the election but life goes on and life in ELT goes on and yesterday she asked us to contribute to a new blogpost of hers on a list of ELT books that everybody should read. It struck me that it would be appropriate to mention the one book that has fascinated me ever since I laid my hands on it and one I have been re-reading regularly since I bought it on Amazon. In fact. I was so impressed by it that I even enthused about it at a recent Oxford Teachers’ Academy seminar in Lisbon.

Alan Maley

Alan Maley

The Techniques of Language Teaching

It is a little book called ” The Techniques of Language Teaching”, published in 1961 by Lionel Billows.  How did I first come across it? Well it was back in December when I was doing a workshop for OUP in Budapest on Alan Maley and Alan Duff’s Literature book in the OUP Resource Book series edited by Alan Maley. I wanted to read as much about Alan Maley as possible for the introduction of the session and came across an obituary that he wrote in 2004 on the death of Lionel Billows.  This is what he wrote about him.

Lionel Billows was a larger than life character, who lived his life with enormous gusto, enthusiasm and energy, which communicated itself to everyone he came in contact with. It is hardly surprising that a man endowed with such energy and intuitive flair was not always regarded with favour by some of the institutions he worked for. He was not, by nature, an ‘organisation man’. He was emphatically his own person, who scorned the bureaucratic trammels he so often encountered. This may account for the relative neglect of his legacy to English Language Teaching.

It is unfortunate that his book, The Techniques of Language Teaching has been so long out of print, and very good news that it is soon to be re-published in facsimile format. For those of us who started our careers in the early sixties, it was virtually the only source of sound advice available at the time. And even today, it is a constant surprise to find the seeds of current ideas buried in the practical wisdom of this book.

Lionel Billows

Lionel Billows

One of the book’s most striking features is its basis in classroom experience. As can be seen from Richard Smith’s outline of Lionel’s life, he had an enormous breadth of experience, both geographically and in terms of teaching contexts. And one of his most admirable characteristics was his enduring passion for the classroom. I recall
him telling me with relish of a 36-hour overnight trip by train from western Germany  to Lvov in the Ukraine to give teacher training workshops ~ and this was while he was in his eighties!

Two qualities stand out in my memory of him. Firstly, his humanity ~ his genuine interest in his students and trainees, and his knack of tapping into their potential, not just as students but as individuals. Secondly, his commitment to education in its broadest sense, not merely the technicity of ELT practice. He was a true educator. I count myself fortunate to have known Lionel, and to have had intermittent, but always valued, contact with him over recent years. It is a source of great regret to me that his legacy to our profession has not been more widely recognized.

We are Lilliputians who walk in his shadow, full of our own importance and supposed originality, and oblivious of the fact that we owe so many of our current ideas to pioneering precursors such as Lionel Billows.

Richard Smith, founder of the ELT archive at Warwick University, also wrote very movingly about Lionel.

On the death of Michael Foot in November last year I wrote a blogpost both about Michael and about A.S.Hornby ,somebody who was a towering figure in our profession and to whom we are indebted to enormously for his Advanced Learners Dictionary, a book I first came across in Rostock in the GDR in 1980.  I asked people to name people in our profession who are longer with us and who have made great contributions to ELT: Rod Bolitho was one the people I wrote to and he replied with this:

Rod Bolitho

Rod Bolitho

“I’m not much of a blogger (no time!) but was pleased to see the pieces about Hornby and Foot, both people I admired.  Two people in ELT worthy of a mention in that sequence are Lionel (F.L.) Billows and Chris Brumfit.”

That was it, I had to get Lionel Billows’ “The Techniques of Language Teaching” and wondered why I hadn’t come across it before. I’m very interested in the history of our profession and the people who have shaped it as well as the methods and ideas, I teach the history of language teaching methodology but I still hadn’t come across Lionel Billows.

So what is so special about the book? In the Introduction Lionel Billows writes that it is “the book of a practising teacher who has had opportunity to see the work of a great many other teachers and  has been engaged in training teachers for some years.  it is not written from the point of view of the linguist nor of the psychologist….Nothing here is based on theoretical considerations alone; everything has been tried, and most of it has been evolved in the classroom.  Some teachers concern themselves a great deal with the arrangement of the material which they wish to teach, and this is certainly important, but of limited value if they do not also concern themselves with the minds that are to receive the material… My practice  has been to observe success in learning, whether in my own classes or those of others, and try to abstract the cause of the success from the complex of what was done.”

There are so many gems in his book I don’t know  where to begin really but I’d like to highlight three areas and just ask you to get hold of the book written by a man whose love for what he does just leaps out of the pages.  This is what he has to say on the plannng of a lesson.

The planning of a lesson

Roots and Branches

Roots and Branches

Every lesson must have its roots in the preceding lesson and its branches and flowers in the succeeding lessons. No lesson should be an isolated entity for itself alone: yet every lesson should be complete in itself, introduced, brought to its climax and concluded, all as if the class were to have no other lessons.  Just as there are no individual people with no relationships to others, so there are no unrelated lessons; to ignore the relationship is to deceive oneself. The good teacher avoids waste and confusion by making the relationships clear; the language is a seamless robe which never comes to an end once we take up one end of it; to call one lesson Grammar, another Composition, another Prose and another Poetry and isolate them from one another is to atomize the language and cut up the mind into unrelated segments. Education should produce minds capable of finding and establishing relationships.

Drawing on the board

lots of fun drawing on the board

lots of fun drawing on the board

I have always found drawing on the blackboard a sure way of rallying the scattering attention of a class unaccustomed to concentrate; it is a way of giving point and focus to the spoken word. As I draw very badly, it at once puts me on a level with the class, and brings out their sympathy and friendliness. I was once able in this way to make a very unruly class of sixty-five little girls attentive and quiet. Their teacher’s voice and physical presence were insufficient to silence or to overawe them. But I was able to get their attention by drawing pictures of cats and inviting members of the class to outdo my cats, and then telling a jury to number the cats in order of excellence. The fact that I was having an  off-day in my skill at representing cats with a few conventional curves did not seem to affect their value as a focus of attention.

After a time I went over to dogs, but my first dog was universally shouted down as more like a sheep; eventually we achieved a fine quantity of good quality dogs, some with spots, some with short tails and some with long; there was scornful rejection of the notion of a dog with stripes, and cats with short tails were also not tolerated.

By the end of the lesson we were able to agree, with some surprise, that we had got used to hearing and using, if we had not yet quite learnt, the ordinal numbers, first, second, third, fourth and fifth, and expressions such as better than, worse than, the best picture of a cat, that dog’s more like a sheep than a dog, dogs with short tails, dogs with spots, stripes etc, and a great deal that had been half-learnt before had been well practised and made quite clear and conscious.

The importance of the incubation period

A new word or expression needs to sink into the mind and remain maturing there for a definite period, like a seed in the earth or an egg in the nest, until it emerges as an independent and living unit of speech. Plugging away at a new word or expression during this incubation period may produce only exasperation or staleness. I have noticed again and again that a class which seems slow to respond in speech to what I say, but waits and listens to my prolonged use of a new expression until the pressure becomes too great for silence, achieves fluency with accuracy in a shorter time than the class that begins to speak before the heard expressions have matured in the mind. I have learnt therefore to wait for the moment when a class has reached that degree of ripeness which produces a spontaneous bursting of the skins of reserve.

ripening peaches

ripening peaches

“Wenn die Zeit gekommen ist, platzen auch die Pfirsiche im Schatten.” (When the time has come even the peaches in the shade burst.”)

This last extract reminds me of research I read on my MA in Lancaster of examples of students who say very little in class but learn by “eavesdropping”.  And maybe we shouldn’t be urging our learners to speak, speak. speak all the time.

Basically it was a joy to read the book, it is fifty years old now and Lionel refers to the teacher as he rather than she and more to boys than girls but it is written from the heart and it is based on classroom observation and as such is a valuable contribution to our profession and a book that I highly recommend.  It predates Jeremy Harmer and Jim Scrivener’s books by a long way but  whether you agree or not with the content it is rooted in the classroom and is motivated by discovering quality of life in the classroom and I am very happy to have it here on my blog. Thanks Michelle for prompting me to write about it.

Billows, F.L. (1961), The Techniques of Language Teaching, London: Longman (unfortunately out of print)

One of the best books that have been written about language teaching – if not THE best. A classic – and more modern than some which have been published since. An eye-opener for a whole generation of English teachers all around the world. Still a must for any language teacher who wants to enjoy teaching and make his or her learners enjoy learning. An enjoyable and fascinating read, never dull, full of practical advice and sound theory, bursting with life – like it’s author.

“On rereading Billows’ The Technique of Language Teaching (1961), one is immediately struck by its modernity and by the freshness of its insights. Much of what has occurred in English language teaching since it was written is foreshadowed in its pages. Billows’ ideas, submerged in the structural trough, have resurfaced in the communicative wave.” (Alan Maley (1990), Visuals and imagination, Cross Currents CVII (2), p. 155)

“I have always thought Lionel’s book was a trail-blazer and deserves not to be forgotten. When I was starting out in 1962, it was about the only really useful thing on the shelves. Parts of it have retained their freshness and vitality, and still have something important to say, especially to new teachers, I think.” (Alan Maley (1998), Personal communication)

Richard Smith, founder of the ELT archive at Warwick University

Richard Smith, founder of the ELT archive at Warwick University

[I have been informed by Richard Smith that ‘out of print’ is only half true. Dr Smith has republished the book together with Michael West’s Teaching English in Difficult Circumstances (first published in 1960) in

Smith, R.C. (ed.) 2005. Teaching English as a Foreign Language, 1936-1961: Foundations of ELT, Volume 6: West and Billows. Abingdon: Routledge. ISBN: 978-0-415-29969-5]

And finally for those who understand German, a story from one of his former students taken from Burkhard Leuschner’s website  http://burkhard-leuschner.de/billows/billows.htm

Eine ehemalige Studentin erinnert sich

Im großen Hörsaal der Erziehungswissenschaftlichen Fakultät  war eines Tages eine Schulstunde zu sehen. Eine 5. Klasse sollte die Präpositionen in, on, under, among, between, etc. verstehen und am Ende der Stunde anwenden können.

Mr. Billows gelang es, die ca. 20 Schüler in Bann zu halten, obwohl ca. 200 Studenten als Zuschauer anwesend waren. Er hüpfte auf die Schulbänke, kroch unter Tische, arbeitete mit Gestik und Mimik – am Ende der Stunde konnte jeder Schüler diese besagten Präpositionen anwenden, richtig aussprechen und Sätze damit bilden. …

The Merchant of Venice, a play Lionel Billows loved acting out with his students

The Merchant of Venice, a play Lionel Billows loved acting out with his students

Er schauspielerte gerne … Der Merchant of Venice wurde von ihm in allen Hauptrollen dargestellt und interpretiert. Wir Studenten hatten im Literaturseminar unterhaltsamen Unterricht, der uns das Englischstudium mit viel Schmunzeln verbinden ließ.

Und wer kennt einen Englischdozenten, der einer frierenden Studentin im Hörsaal sein Hemd leiht?

Er selbst unterrichtete im Unterhemd weiter.

What a man!

11 thoughts on “A must read book about ELT rooted in the classroom by Lionel Billows, a guy who loved classrooms

  1. ‘A spontaneous bursting of the skins of reserve’. ‘Peaches in the shade’. I love these images. One more thing though. The German ain’t so hot (never was) so, any chance of a translation of the story at the end? Pretty please. Ah, go on!

    • Hi Patrick, glad you liked the peaches images and the German is basically this

      “In the big hall of the pedagogical institute there was a lesson where the students were supposed to understand the prepositions in, on, under, among, between etc and be able to use them at the end of the class. Mr Billows was able to keep the 20 students under control OK although there were about 200 students observing. He jumped onto the school benches, crept under the table, and worked with gestures and mime.

      At the end of the class each of the students could use these prepositions, pronounce them correctly and use them in sentences.

      He liked acting and “The Merchant of Venice” was depicted and interpreted by him in all the main roles. We had fun classes in the literature seminars which were always bound up with loads of smiling.

      And who has heard of a lecturer who lends a freezing student his shirt in the lecture hall and then carried on teaching in his vest?”

  2. Hello Mark

    Thank you for writing this post – it gives us a wonderful insight into the hidden gems (currently a fashionable term on Twitter!) of this book. After seeing when the book was first published I was surprised to see how up-to-date the ideas and principles it provides are. The extracts you have included here could appear in any recent methodology book. You have definitely made me want to read it!

    • that’s a pleasure Michelle. And yeah there isn’t a linear movement towards better and better methodology, is there? And some things that people did a long time ago might be a damn sight better than some things that go on now! Looking forward to seeing your list of books that people came up with and thanks for promting me to write about Lionel Billows!

  3. About Billows.

    He was my tutor on a Language Assistants’ Course at Koenigswinter-am-Rhein at the start of my ‘year abroad’. He spent most of the time subverting official British Council messages about our cultural role in schools, and also, memorably (I still have my notes somewhere), informed us that our business as language assistants was to encourage fluency in our classes and to leave accuracy to the main teacher. This was in 1965, at least 20 years before Brumfit came out with the distinction.

    Years later, when he was at Erlangen University and I was at Konstanz University, I invited him down as a guest speaker to our primary English project group. When I asked him if he needed handouts he said he didn’t, but he would like a big empty cardboard carton, a plastic sheet, two hundredweight (Zentner) of sand and loads of plasticine or modelling clay. I took all this to the university’s requisitioning dept who probably thought I was bonkers. Anyway it all arrived on time and Lionel himself arrived a little late on the train from Erlangen. The audience of 25 primary teachers was just getting restless and then he arrived, spent a minute or two testing the consistency of the sand, then cut the box into four corners, spread the plastic sheet between them, emptied the sand into the space in between and gave bits of plastiscine to all the teachers. He told them to creat a village they would like to live in and to talk about it in English as they did so. After initial hesitation, they got down to business, divided roles, landscaped the setting and talked non-stop for 20 minutes. Did I hear someone out there muttering about TBL? Lionel used this to illustrate the value of fluent talk and co-operative enterprise in the language classroom (the German title of his book was Ko-operatives Sprachenlernen).
    Later, in the bar at Konstanz station and waiting with him for his train over a beer, I asked him why in his late seventies, he was still working so hard. One of the reasons is not for sharing but had to do with financial responsibilities. The other one was simple – he loved it.

    • What a story Rod! And reading it reminds me of how much I love a bit of eccentricity in teaching. What makes something memorable has so much to do with the very individual ways teachers work in classrooms and the way we relate to our students. If anyone else has any stories like this please add them in the comments.

  4. I’m glad Billows wrote about “incubation period”, and the importance of time in learning a language. Our lives are so hectic sometimes, it affects our teaching. I used to tend to urge my students to talk when I first started teaching, but now I see how important it is to wait for the peaches. Encourage, never urge, that’s my motto. Create the conditions of talking and wait. Silence is not an enemy, it’s the secret works of the mind in progress.

    • yes Alice sometimes instead of getting people to talk more and more, sometimes it’s better to invest time into trying to understand why people might be silent. And rushing peope into things is often based on very behaviouristic views of learning which might not always be productive…

  5. Dear Sir
    Your interpretation of Mr. Billows’ “Techniques for language reading” is like resurrection of life in the classroom…… like learning ‘life’ on the banks of Danube. I too had a similar experience of learning on the banks of Ganges, a holy river in India. I saw some beautiful lamps, and marigold flowers floating in water.
    Sir, I believe that a practicing teacher is more passionate of teaching, and more resourceful, and full of surprises. I too have a lot of fun by drawing on the blackboards. It helps the kids to understand things better, and they have a lot to express, bubbling with ideas. Thanks for the post, sir.

  6. I have been on holiday and have only just read the thread on Lionel Billows. I was privileged enough to be personally acquainted with Lionel Billows and he stayed with my wife and I in North Germany a couple of times. He also used to ring me regularly for two or three years on Sunday evenings at about 7 o’clock.
    I have a fair amount of bits and pieces from him and Andrew Wright also sent me some of his correspondence with Lionel over the years, in fact I got to know Andrew, I think, through Lionel. Since Lionel’s death I have also been in contact with his son, William, though not recently. I mention William because I contacted him to ask if I could put on the internet about 300 short TEFL pieces Lionel wrote – light biograohical, often amusing in character – that he originally wrote for some project or other that never saw the light of day. They are exquisite. William said I could publish a few but the family were interested in publishing the whole lot, so I did nothing.
    I did make a recording of a short BBC programme featuring Lionel available on one of my lists:

    The Glass and not the wine

    BBC Radio 4

    Here it is:


    Feel free to write to me at:

    tag/subject: Billows

    anyone who is particularly interested in the collection of passages or in the correspondence to me or Andrew. Lionel himself told me I could do what I wanted with his material, but I would not feel justified in making everything public without the family’s permission. I think it would be in order though to make some of the material available to individuals.

    Enjoy The Glass and not the Wine and Lionel’s wonderful voice and laugh.


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