Penny Ur, English Language Teacher and Author
In 2013, Penny Ur was awarded an OBE by Queen Elizabeth II for her services to English language teaching. She is a bestselling author who has written extensively on the subject, and has over 30 years experience in classrooms in Israel. It’s hard to believe that Ur almost gave up during her first year of teaching.
“By the grace of God, I didn’t. I’m still here,” she tells The PIE. However, the experience allows Ur to empathise with those dipping their toes in the ELT water for the first time.
“For a young teacher beginning their first year, the first year is always tough. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t go as brilliantly as you hoped.
“Relax. It’s not just all about you. It’s about the students,” she advises.
Originally from England, Ur emigrated to Israel to begin her career as an elementary teacher, however, she found that there was a real need for English teachers.
It wasn’t long before she started writing articles on the subject and in 1981, Ur published her first book with Cambridge, whom she is still publishing with today, including having written several bestselling methodology titles for Cambridge University Press & Assessment.
She looks back fondly on seeing her name in print for the first time, and admits she has now lost count of how many titles she has written.
During her professional lifetime, the sector has evolved and for Ur one of the biggest changes has been a huge swing from English as mainly the language of the English-speaking nations to the language being a tool of international communication.
When pressed on the importance of English as a lingua franca, Ur highlights that she prefers the use of the acronym EPIC – English for purposes of international communication.
“I think this expresses what English is doing today and that who uses it doesn’t really matter so much, whether they’re coming from one of the English-speaking communities or they’re coming from one of the communities who speak other languages. The point is that English is being used by everybody primarily for international purposes rather than intra-national purposes.
“I think it is really important that teachers are aware they are teaching international English, rather than any one of the native varieties.”
Similarly, Ur seems to reject the term ‘English as a Foreign language’, instead preferring the use of ‘English as an International language’.
“Today English doesn’t belong to someone else. It belongs to all of us”
“The word ‘foreign’ implies that it belongs to someone else and today English doesn’t belong to someone else. It belongs to all of us.”
Ur, retired, is still based in Israel still finds herself being rewarded for her contributions to the sector. In 2013, she was awarded an OBE and more recently in 2022, she received the award for Outstanding Achievement at the British Council’s ELTons Awards – both of which she describes as career highlights.
“The nice thing about both of those awards was how many people were happy about it. There was lots of sharing of delight.
“People always ask me if I’m proud about it. I think proud is the wrong word. No false modesty, I think I earned the awards fairly. But at the same time, I’m aware that there are a lot of other people out there in ELT who have contributed at least as much as I have and some of them more who should have got priority over me perhaps before. I’m aware of that at the same time as I’m grateful for having got the awards myself.”
For those more experienced teachers, who want to emulate the success and longevity of Ur’s career, “keeping it fresh” is the key, she says.
“I’ve met teachers who keep their lesson notes year after year and teach the same thing year after year. That’s not the way to move on.”
Treat each lesson as a new one, seek feedback from students and learn from other teachers, advises Ur.
The digital transformation of the ELT sector is happening, and although Ur embraces the volume of materials readily available to teachers, she advises them to proceed with caution and consider which tools are effectively raising the standard of English teaching.
“Sometimes I get the feeling that some teachers are doing things just because they’re up to date and not because they’re necessarily good for the learners.
“Learn about all you can but then having learned the new methods, the new digital tools, you need to look at them with a cold beady eye and and ask ‘Is this going to help me? Is this going to be successful? Is this going to help my students learn or isn’t it?’
“Using digital tools is not a value in itself. It depends on how you use it. It depends on how you choose it.”
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