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W.R. Lee and the IATEFL Newsletter (1967-1984)

Looking at early editions of the IATEFL newsletter, one gains an overwhelming impression of the extraordinary activity of its editor. Dr W.R. (‘Bill’) Lee founded ATEFL in 1967 (it became ‘International’ in 1970), and was to serve as its chairman, as well as the editor of its newsletter, until 1984. For twenty years of this period (1958–1981), Lee also served as editor of the ELT Journal. Peter Strevens, writing a tribute to Lee’s editorship of that journal in 1981, describes how he ‘solicited articles, cajoled reluctant authors into writing, spurred the delinquent into meeting deadlines’, and ‘identified professional issues needing to be written about’. When he died in 1996, Henry Widdowson’s obituary instanced his many roles as ‘adviser, consultant, examiner, author and editor’.

For over two decades Bill Lee laboured intensively at the very centre of British TEFL, a lynch-pin connecting a number of its most important projects. In many ways the trajectory of his career as a ‘mover and shaker’ parallels that of the ELT industry itself, which underwent massive transformation and growth over the same period. From the perspective of the present, the 1960s and 1970s now appear as decades of enormous change, as TEFL evolved to find its feet as a fully-fledged enterprise. Lee was, as Widdowson says, ‘in it from the start’.

The first ATEFL newsletter was published in October 1967, and consisted of three stapled sheets. Even so it managed to fulfil its objectives. The organisation’s first ever conference was announced, and this was duly held later in the same year in London, attracting ‘as many as 125 participants’. The tiny bulletin, whose subscription cost ten shillings (£1 for UK members), also included a formulation of the new association’s aims; ‘to promote better teaching of English as a foreign language or second language by concentrating on the language-learning process as a many-sided educational problem’.

In newsletters from the early 1970s an ongoing concern appears to have been the scarcity of interesting news items. In one edition Lee resorts to a making a direct appeal to readers. ‘Many people’, he complains, ‘are reluctant to give news of what they are doing in the field of English as a foreign language. Why? Other people working in this field would like to hear about what is going on. The circulation of news is the main purpose of this Newsletter, and we would like to be sent many more items than we are receiving at present’.

Nevertheless, each bulletin is crammed with information: announcements of upcoming conferences, readers’ letters, lists of new ELT-related books received, and updates of the latest industry news. Announcements of (what we now identify as) landmark events jostle with notices of local meetings or revised postal charges. A brief glance at just a few of the bulletin’s ‘News’ items reveals how it tracks the history of the profession over this exciting period. The British Council announces its new contracts with the King Abdul Aziz University; John Haycraft, the charismatic founder of International House, is congratulated on his CBE; UCLES launches a new exam. Much of the history of British, Commonwealth and European ELT is in these pages.

As the size and popularity of conferences increased, so too did the amount of space dedicated to reports of their proceedings. These summaries tell us a great deal, not only about the ELT pre-occupations of the period, but also the ethos of the organisation itself. Early conferences brought together ELT practitioners working in very different fields. At the sixth conference, as an example, presentations were given by leading academics such as Pit Corder and Peter Strevens, but also by language school entrepreneurs including John Haycraft (IH) and Paul Lindsay (St Giles). The list of guests reveals, too, how complex and widespread, by 1973, the affiliations of the organisation had become. Representatives of TESOL, described as IATEFL’s ‘sister organisation’, as well as FIPLV (Fédération Internationale des Professeurs de Langues Vivantes) are present, as are visitors and members from numerous countries.

For Bill Lee, an important role of the newsletter was to make these proceedings available to members who, ‘living far away, cannot attend these conferences. For them, therefore the Newsletter is an essential record, and it is in fact chiefly by means of the Newsletter that we have built up our membership’. D.H. Spencer, writing a fifteen year ‘Retrospect’ for the Newsletter in 1982, makes a similar point: ‘The members who were unable to attend the conferences, perhaps because of the cost of travelling, would at least be able to follow the main preoccupations of the whole and to keep up to date with what their colleagues in other places were doing or talking about.’

Over the seventeen years of his editorship, Bill Lee strove to ensure that the newsletter served as a forum for the opinions and concerns of ‘frontline’ teachers. The original intention of the founding members of IATEFL, Spencer explains in his retrospective article, was that the organisation ‘should be basically devoted to the practical interests of classroom teachers of children and adults’. The priorities of academics and publishers should not take centre stage. This was certainly true of the organisation’s newsletter. Lee explains, ‘over-crudely’, in the October 1983 issue (one of his last), that it ‘exists so that EFL/ESL teachers of various nationalities can come together to exchange their arguments and news, ideas and information with no attempt by any superior body at stopping their mouths’.

Duncan Hunter, 2008