Great ELT heroes (1) – AS Hornby

Cleve Miller right), with me, Vicky Saumell, Shaun Wilden and Cecilia Lemos at the Southern Cone conference, Curitiba Brazil, July 2011

Last month, I was stuck at Guarulhos Airport São Paulo for six hours, waiting for a flight back to London. The wait was actually a very pleasant one, because I spent it in the company of Cleve Miller, one of the driving forces behind English 360. Cleve had missed his connection to New York and had even longer to wait than me.

A plate of sushi similar to the one we ate at Guarulhos 🙂

During a long and enjoyable sushi lunch, we shared information about various things to do with the wider world of ELT.

One of the things I told Cleve about was the Hornby Trust.

AS Hornby, with vintage BBC microphone (or possibly room heater)

AS Hornby wrote what was to become known as the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English a very long time ago. He then made the extremely generous decision to place a sizeable slice of his earnings from the project into a trust fund that would finance teacher training. More than half a century later, hundreds of English teachers worldwide have benefitted from his generosity and continue to do so.

Cleve, an American, thought it was very amusing when I told him that Hornby was ‘embarrassed’ by the amount of royalties he received. I hope this is true – it was how someone who knew Hornby once described to me his reaction to the riches which were suddenly thrust upon him. Cleve thought that this response was ‘SO British’.

Even though the Trust is well established and well known, I think it deserves a twenty-first century honourable mention, so that’s what I intend to do here. So – for those of you who don’t know much about it – a bit of background.

The Hornby Trust, in association with the British Council, funds an MA scholarship scheme for English language teachers and teacher trainers from countries in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. There are ten scholarships a year in total.

In addition, and possibly of greater importance because of the vast number of teachers who benefit from it, there are regional summer schools and workshops for teachers all over the world.

Hornby was born in 1898. He studied English at University College London, graduating in 1922. In 1923, he went to teach English Literature in a small provincial college in Japan. When he got there, he realized that what his students really needed was language training, and he threw himself enthusiastically into this work. News of the young teacher’s good work in language development spread.

Eventually, he was contacted by Harold Palmer, the director of the Tokyo Institute for Research into English Teaching (IRET). Palmer invited Hornby to work with him on a vocabulary research programme. They worked together at IRET for many years and Hornby took over the department when his mentor left. The work he did there led directly to the compilation of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

What I love about the Hornby story is that it hinges on a chance meeting and subsequent collaboration. I think these things happen to lots of us in ELT and probably in other fields too. These meetings often cause massive changes in career and work options. It should make people rejoice that having a clear career plan from an early age and sticking to it isn’t the only – or even an advisable – way to go about your working life.

Even if he wasn’t actually embarrassed by the money he was making from the project, Hornby clearly felt that the teachers who bought the book deserved to benefit from his good fortune, so he set up the Trust.

By doing so, he set a standard of altruism that most of us who make a living out of writing ELT materials are unlikely ever to match. But I think that more of us should nevertheless try to follow his example and plough something back into the business that has made us a good living.

ELT conferences, both national and international, are a great place to meet and share ideas with people who do similar work but who come from different backgrounds. Contact with like-minded people from other countries can have a really profound effect on the work that teachers do. And teachers who don’t have the wherewithal to fund a visit themselves, should at least have the chance to apply or compete for grants to help them do it.

And let’s face it – conferences these days are a lot of fun. Attendees may write their reports about the talks and workshops that they attended, but their strongest memories are more likely to be the parties and other less formal social events that they were at. And quite right, too!

Some of the participants at my IATEFL Brighton talk - some life-long friendships were made there (at the conference, not at my talk)

IATEFL UK has a series of grants available to its members, so well done to that organization for making sure they continue. I was also very pleased to discover recently that there’s a Headway Scholarship Trust, funded by the Headway authors themselves. John and Liz Soars choose a different country every year, and the local OUP people there find four or five teachers who get the chance to come to the UK for a summer school.

There are many millions of English teachers in the world – more than eleven million in China alone – so these might seem like very small gestures. But they are important gestures nonetheless, and more are needed.

I look forward to a time when I feel I’m making enough money to start the Smart Choice Fund. I would love to be able to sponsor future generations of teachers to attend conferences and help them have a memorable time at karaoke nights at talks and workshops well into the 2020s and 2030s. 🙂

You can find out more about Hornby here –


13 thoughts on “Great ELT heroes (1) – AS Hornby

  1. and he also acknowledged that he could only have put together that dictionary with the help of all the teachers “at the chalkface”. I taught on several Hornby courses in Hungary and Romania when they were exported outside Britain, which also enabled many more people to take part in them in different parts of the world. There are many people in ELT we owe an enormous amount to and A.S.Hornby is one of them.

    1. Looks like more and more of the Hornby money will be devoted to the regional training initiatives, and I think that’s a good idea.

  2. I loved reading every word in this post, Ken. Your guests posts are always excellent, but I have to admit that when I see that you’ve written a post on your own blog I can’t wait to read it! I’ll never forget the tip I read on your blog a while back about only writing when you really have something to say or share. You found the perfect topic here.

    This was my favourite line: “What I love about the Hornby story is that it hinges on a chance meeting and subsequent collaboration.”

    1. Thanks, Tara – knowing how important writing is to you, I’m very touched by your comments. Also glad you picked up on that line – when I researched this piece, I was so pleased to see that even someone as venerable as Hornby had his life changed by chance!

  3. Great post Ken. I’m with tara that I love your guest posts but miss having you write posts too 🙂 Loved reading about Hornby and am with you 100% on the importance of conferences and these training courses where you have a great mix of ELT professionals from all over the world. I’ve seen it, experienced it – and hope to do much more.

    The sentence Tara pointed out also had a deeper impact on me. So many things have happened to me because of chance meetings, collaboration… I also had a drastic change of career and am fortunate to have found my true calling 🙂 Oh! and I feel special, because I am in two of the pictures of the post!!!!

    Looking forward that Smart Choice Fund 😉

    1. Thanks, Ceci! I think the key to a good conference experience is that it renews people’s enthusiasm for what they do. And, as I pointed out in my ‘Ten things’ talk, research shows that teacher enthusiasm is the key to classroom success. 😛

  4. What a pleasure to read !
    I’ve been an avid user of “Hornby’s dictionary” ever since I started teaching, and I had a definite feeling of lèse majesté when other publishers started bringing out their own learner’s dictionaries in the late 80s 😉

    1. And the prize for the best loan French expression of the day goes to Elizabeth Anne!

      For anyone (like me) who wasn’t sure what lèse majesté means, it’s an offence against the dignity of a reigning sovereign. I’m sure Hornby would have been far too modest to see other publishers’ learner’s dictionaries in this way. 😛

  5. In addition, the following comments appeared on my Facebook page:

    Luke Meddings: Think our shared history is very important Ken – thanks for this one

    Karenne Sylvester: Wonderful post, Ken – didn’t know anything about Mr Hornby and it was heartwarming (and heartwarmingly written)

    Grzegorz Śpiewak: Loved the post on AS Hornby, Ken. OALD was my very first ‘bible’ when I started learning English seriously. But you are right, the Trust is in an important sense a larger accomplishment than AS H’s outstanding academic work.

    Luz Begoña Tocino Hernández: Thanks for bringing AS Hornby “alive”, Ken. My ¨acquaintance¨ with Hornby is his dictionary, a best-seller for learners of English, which I bought when studying for the FCE exam back in London in ’83. Its price, £6.50 handwritten in pencil, can still be read on the top-right corner of the 1st of its yellowish pages. It brings back sweet memories any time I open it to check the usage of a word. I’ve actually done it when writing this comment!

  6. Dear Ken,

    These chance meetings are magical. I’m very very sorry not to have been able to attend conferences for a while, and hope to rectify that next year, …. but I did have the wonderful opportunity to meet and team-teach with a teacher from Mexico this past month, as part of a course, and wouldn’t have missed it for the world! TEFL is absolutely fantastic in the way it brings us together, and I’ll be saving up for that trip to Mexico, for sure.

    Great collaborations and learning are possible between people who have never met face to face, sure; but face to face just can’t be beat.

    1. Absolutely agree about face to face – but I do think twitter, blogging etc means that a lot of ELT people don’t feel as isolated as they used to – particularly ones whose colleagues don’t agree with them about the basics of teaching – there are always like minds out there in cyberspace somewhere 😛

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s