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C.E. Eckersley's life and career

Charles Ewart Eckersley (1892–1967) grew up in the North of England and attended Manchester University, where he gained an M.A. in English. He served in the Royal Artillery during World War I and later gained his first civilian job as a schoolmaster. He was appointed to the staff of the Polytechnic Boys’ School in Regent Street, London, in 1921 (Quinault 1967: 2). The school was associated with the Polytechnic Institute, which specialised in technical education and language teaching, and provided classes in English for foreigners. It was a frequent occurrence for Boys’ School masters to be asked to help with the Institute’s evening classes, and so it was that Eckersley gained his first experience of teaching English as a foreign language. The methods used by a French master at the Boys’ School, H.O. Coleman (who was a friend of Harold Palmer’s), appear to have been particularly inspirational for Eckersley in his transition from teaching English as a mother tongue to English as a foreign language.

As Quinault (ibid.) reports, ‘He tackled this new work with such enthusiasm that by 1929 he was put in charge of the ‘Poly’ evening classes for foreign students’. Finding existing textbooks unsuitable for such classes, he had set about preparing his own materials, and, starting in 1932, they began to be published for wider use. That year saw the appearance of his first book, England and the English, and this was followed, in rapid succession, by A Concise English Grammar for Foreign Students (1933), and his first attempt at a course book, A Modern English Course for Foreign Students: An Intermediate Book (1935). All of these were issued by Longmans, the publishers of Michael West’s ‘New Method’ materials for school pupils overseas, and Eckersley was increasingly to take on board the ideas on vocabulary limitation of West, Harold Palmer and Lawrence Faucett, in particular following the publication of their jointly authored Interim Report on Vocabulary Selection in 1936. Eckersley’s materials were for a different (adult) market than West’s, and by the end of the 1930s he was beginning to become as well-known an author as West. In 1937 he published a simplified book of short stories, plays and poems titled Brighter English and a course book, Everyday English Course for Foreign Students. This was the prototype for what were to become his best-known books, the four volumes of Essential English for Foreign Students, which were issued from 1938 to 1942. Following the same pattern as Faucett’s Oxford English Course, the course was divided into four stages of five hundred new words each, from which the learner could then go on to acquire ‘full English’.

Among Eckersley’s students were groups of refugees from the Continent, including Walter Kaufmann, a Jewish German businessman with whom Eckersley became friends, and who was later to collaborate with him on several successful texts for business English: A Commercial Course for Foreign Students (Eckersley and Kaufmann 1947), English Commercial Practice and Correspondence (Eckersley and Kaufmann 1952) and English and American Business Letters (Eckersley and Kaufmann 1954). After the war began there were also allied servicemen from various countries stationed in Britain who were anxious to learn English quickly. Eckersley was asked to write a course, English for the Allies (1942), which addressed the needs of these ‘soldiers, sailors and airmen of the united nations’.

By now, the popularity of his books had led Longmans to encourage him to become a full-time materials writer, and in 1943 he gave up school teaching altogether. He compiled a bilingual learner’s dictionary for Spanish learners (Eckersley and Picazo 1946) which was later adapted for Polish (Eckersley and Corbridge-Patkaniowska 1951) and Turkish (Eckersley and Balkan 1954). He also wrote several bilingual introductory versions of his Essential English materials which were all published in 1947–48, in Spanish (Eckersley and Sarmiento 1947), Polish (Eckersley and Corbridge-Patkaniowska 1947), Yugoslav (Eckersley and Subotic 1947), Dutch (Eckersley and Bongers 1948) and Turkish (Eckersley and Gatenby 1948). The last of these was compiled with E.V. Gatenby (q.v.), with whom Eckersley was also to collaborate on a set of wall pictures with accompanying teacher’s handbook and pupil’s workbook (Gatenby and Eckersley 1955–57). In 1948 Eckersley was invited, along with A.S. Hornby (q.v.), to write a new ‘English by Radio’ series for the BBC. Eckersley’s series for beginners centred on ‘the Brown family’, and involving a ‘combination of English conversation and vernacular commentary’ (Quinault 1948: 49).

In the post-war years, Longmans promoted Essential English as a ‘system’ to rival Oxford’s ‘Progressive English’, and Eckersley contributed a number of Essential English Readers as well as the dictionaries. In 1953 there was a new book with exercises designed to make learning grammar fun, titled Brighter Grammar (Eckersley and Macaulay 1953), which went through several later editions and is still in print in Africa. Indeed, there were many new editions of his books, up to the 1970s. As Quinault (1967: 3) wrote:

[T]he popularity of Eckersley’s books has continued: there have been repeated reprintings of Essential English and its characters, the teacher Mr Priestley and his family, and his students, Jan, Lucille, Olaf, Pedro, Frieda and Hob, have become familiar to generations of learners in every continent. What was the secret of this popularity? It was, I think, the product of a warm and lively personality with a natural flair for English teaching and a ready sense of humour. As Eckersley wrote in one of his prefaces, it was his constant endeavour ‘to cover the pill of learning with the jam of gaiety’.



Notes The above account by Richard C. Smith (uploaded here in 2007) is adapted from Smith, R.C. (ed.). 2005. ‘General Introduction’ to Teaching English as a Foreign Language, 1936–61: Pioneers of ELT, Volume 1. Abingdon: Routledge. Sources: Interview with John Eckersley (C.E. Eckersley’s son), 7 April 2004; Quinault, R.V. 1948. ‘BBC English lessons for foreign students’. English Language Teaching 3/2: 47–52; Quinault, R.V. 1967. ‘C.E. Eckersley, M.A.’. English Language Teaching 22/1: 2–3.