The JALT Material Writers SIG Newsletter: Vol. XV No. 1. Summer 2007. (p. 4 - 7)
Keypoint Contacts

An Interview with Allen Ascher

by Tim Newfields

Allen Ascher, c. 2004 Allen Ascher, co-author of Top Notch and Summit series (Pearson Longman), has been a teacher and teacher-trainer in China and the U.S. He served as academic director of the International English Language Institute at Hunter College in New York and later, as vice-president of publishing at Longman, he played a key role in the creation of hundreds of widely used ELT textbooks for adults. Mr. Ascher has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Ohio University and has presented ELT workshops throughout Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East. This interview was conducted on November 19, 2006 in Tokyo.

Q: How did you become interested in ESOL materials development?

A: It came out primarily from the various experiences I had as a learner, and in the field as a teacher, teacher trainer, and administrator. These experiences all contributed to my becoming a materials writer and publisher. My first book, Think About Editing, came out of my experiences as a teacher – seeing students continue to make the same basic grammar errors in their writing. Later, as a publisher, I worked with a lot of new authors, helping them develop their ideas into published products. In the process of doing that, it became clear to me that materials creation was what I wanted to do most.

Q: So you've worn many hats. From your experience as an editor, what is one point you feel authors often neglect to consider?

A: In retrospect, after having been an editor, I would have written Think About Editing quite differently if I had known then what I know now. As a publisher, you look for what we call "transparency", that is, the ability to write in such a way that anybody can pick up the book and know what to do with it. First-time writers often write what works for them in their own classroom. This unfortunately doesn't always translate easily to other teachers' classrooms. So one of the key points is to be able to think about what you can do to help teachers be successful rather than holding too tightly to your own practices.

Another point is maintaining a good balance between content and pedagogy. Lacking that, you either end up with a dull book or one that doesn't work successfully in the classroom.

Q: What was the main idea behind the Top Notch series?

A: The goal that Joan Saslow and I had was "making English unforgettable." We wanted to address the lack of English outside the classroom for learners in the EFL environment-to help those learners remember new language from class to class. One way we do that is by providing multiple exposures to new language, so that students see and hear that language in a variety of contexts. We also provide lots of opportunities to practice that language while speaking or writing. So a decision was made to systematically recycle language from unit to unit and from level to level. As Joan and I wrote units, we would give each other feedback about where we thought there were opportunities for recycling. We also did this by using different media very carefully: the video, songs, and art are all designed to serve a pedagogical purpose – none of it is just there simply for entertainment or decoration.

Q: What is the hardest as well as most rewarding aspect of working on educational materials?

A: It is a very humbling experience as a writer to discover that everything you write isn't golden. There are a number of other people involved in the process and whose opinions about what works and doesn't might not match your own. You need a bit of a thick skin to write and to be open to criticism. With Top Notch, we were lucky to have a great editorial team who we encouraged to be honest and blunt with us in their criticisms. If they did not like something, they didn't hesitate to tell us it was "lame." And fortunately they also told us what they liked, which is just as important.

So you have to have a lot of humility in writing: stubbornly resisting feedback can keep you from making positive improvements. It's not that you have to give up your personal vision by any means, but you have to be open to the feedback that is offered and in doing so you end up with a much stronger product. It helps a lot to try and pay attention to the need that is being expressed, rather than getting too caught up in the specifics of the critique. Then you can work together to figure out how to best address the need, which can be very rewarding.

It is also challenging to create something that works universally for people who teach and learn in tremendously different situations. To do this you need a wide range of feedback. One teacher will tell you one thing, and another teacher will say something else, and you have to balance all of the comments with your own experience. But again it can be very rewarding coming up with those solutions.

Q: In the process of developing the Top Notch series, how have your ideas about materials development changed?

A: Dealing with a course the size of Top Notch is tremendously complex and a lot of people need to be involved to make it work. You have to be vigilant about errors and learning gaps and, to do that well, many eyes are needed. At the same time, it needs a clear vision to keep it on track and from turning into a patchwork of different styles and ideas. You can't just spit a course like that out without a great level of care. As an editor, I think I knew that. But having experienced creating a course as an author has opened my eyes further to just what huge undertaking it is.

Q: What is the overall research and writing process for a large-scale EFL text book such as Top Notch?

A: Research on a project like this begins way before any writing starts. We learned a lot about teacher and learner needs by traveling and speaking with EFL teachers and students in a lot of places. We kept our ears to the ground to hear what they thought was working – and not working – with their current materials. We also analyzed a lot of those materials ourselves to explore what we might do differently or more effectively.

After this research phase, we wrote a sample unit and sent it out for review. We also took it with us in our continuing visits to schools. The feedback we got enabled us to confirm what we got right and revise what we didn't and helped us refine and finalize a unit design.

Then after we wrote each manuscript, we sent it out for review. Top Notch had consultants around the world who read entire manuscripts and gave us detailed feedback for each unit, written both as details in the margins of the manuscript and in as general comments in a separate report. In addition, we sent out sample units for teachers for either review or pilot test in the classroom. We still have piles and piles of these reviews on our shelves.

Q: What incentives do you offer these reviewers?

A: We had about 25 consultants who provided detailed comments about all of manuscripts and they were paid for their contributions. Teachers who reviewed or pilot tested sample units were either provided materials or some other remuneration.

From a publisher's perspective, a course like Top Notch is a huge investment, so it is worth spending the money to make sure you are doing it right. If you don't do it right and the text book orders drop the next year, it is a tremendous loss of time and money.

Q: How is the lifespan of an educational textbook actually decided?

A: ELT titles have always tended to have pretty long shelf-lives. I think we all know titles that have been out there for ten years or longer, some twenty years or longer. Successful titles like New Interchange have been used for quite a few years before second editions were published. However, there seems to be a trend in ELT in which the market expectation for new editions has shortened. Single-title ELT books are generally revised no more than every seven years or so. But we are seeing revisions of multi-level courses occurring in less time than that. Considering the investment and time required to produce large courses, this is a real challenge for both publishers and authors.

Q: When you get contradictory responses from reviewers, how do you respond?

A: In the case of Top Notch, we tried to balance responses from reviewers with what we learned ourselves in the field. For example, there was a unit in Top Notch 3 that was criticized by a reviewer in one country because she thought the topic was too sensitive for students there and she suggested we replace it. The unit goals included talking about and asking about politics and discussing controversial issues. Well, we then spoke to two of our editors were from that country. After a lot of discussion neither they, nor we, felt the lessons were controversial enough to cause problems in class. However, we revised a number of the activities to try and avoid some of the problems this reviewer was concerned about.

Q: This brings out an interesting issue. Don't you think the role of a text book is to ask critical questions rather than just deal with the bland or comfortable topics? Shouldn't textbooks be pushing the edges a bit and encouraging students to consider controversial issues?

A: Yes and no. I don't think it's the role of a language textbook to push the author's agenda on teachers or learners. However, that doesn't mean topics need to be bland or "comfortable." I feel that a good language course should provide the raw material and the opportunities for teachers to play that role if they see fit. I also don't think it's the role of an ELT textbook to ask critical questions exclusively from a US / European / Western point of view. In Top Notch we try to maintain an international perspective and to provide opportunities for critical thinking. Admittedly, with some topics, there's a balancing act you have to play in respecting the huge investment a publisher is making in the product. So far, we've had very positive feedback about the topics raised in Top Notch and Summit.

Q: Is there such a thing as an 'agenda-less' textbook?

A: Ultimately, probably not . . . But I don't think your agenda needs to hang out. As an author I want teachers and learners with differing views to feel comfortable using my materials. And I definitely want them to be interested in the topics.


Allen, A. (1992). Think about editing: A grammar-editing guide for ESL writers. Boston: Thomson.

Saslow, J. & Ascher, A. (2006). Top Notch: English for today's world. White Plains, NY: Pearson /Longman.

Saslow, J. & Ascher, A. (2006). Summit: English for Today's World. White Plains, NY: Pearson/Longman.

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