To all practitioners

Jane Willis



Who is she?

Jane Willis was born in the UK in 1944. Coming from a family of teachers, Jane Willis never wanted to be a teacher, and after graduating from university, she applied to do Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), hoping to be sent to South America so she could learn some Spanish. VSO sent her to Ghana, where she started her career teaching French and then started to teach English there.

Professional life

Jane has since worked extensively overseas (Cyprus, Iran and Singapore). She began writing in Iran with Teaching English Through English, originally written for local teachers of English who found it difficult to use English as the medium of instruction. During the 1960s and 1970s, she worked for the British Council as a teacher and teacher trainer. She has run teacher development courses and taken part in ELT consultancies in many parts of the world, including China, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Middle East, South America and Europe.

In the 1990s, Jane Willis joined Aston University, Birmingham, where she tutored for twelve years on their Distance Learning Masters programmes in TESOL and TESP and taught English one day a week. Although she retired from Aston University in 2004,  she continues to speak at conferences and run workshops for language teachers, and for the past six years has been involved in the Hands Up Project, a charity trust connecting children around the world with young people in Palestine.

In May 2022 at the conference in Innsbruck of the International Association for Task-Based Language Teaching (IATBLT), Jane received the Association’s Distinguished Practitioner Award.

Jane especially enjoys working with teachers of Foreign Languages who want to adopt a task-based approach. She speaks French well, some Spanish and German, and a little Greek, Italian and Farsi.


Jane’s main area of professional interest is classroom interaction, putting the focus on learners doing tasks, prioritising meaning and learner-centeredness over form, which is dealt with at a later stage of the task-based cycle. A highly influential and committed practitioner, mainly concerned with the development of task-based learning and teaching, extensive work overseas has provided her with a wide range of cultural references and contexts which have fed into a variety of publications as author and co-author. These include The Collins COBUILD English Course (a task-based course with a lexical syllabus), written together with her late husband, Dave Willis. In 2015 she completed and published Dave Willis’s last book, Winning the Grammar Wars – What Grammar Really is and How we Use It,  which describes English in a holistic way – a broad overview for teachers, parents and educators.

Jane lives in Kendal, a small town in the English Lake District, where she enjoys hill walking with friends and family; she also teaches Tai Chi.

Jane Willis

Recommended books

Towards an Analysis of Discourse

John McHardy Sinclair, Malcolm Coulthard

1975, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (source)

Sinclair and Coulthard’s research into the English used by teachers and pupils led me to research the language of TEFL classrooms, where I found very controlled teacher talk and hardly any instances of meaning-focused learner talk. Learners were getting a very impoverished experience of English in everyday use and little chance to communicate freely.

Memory, Meaning and Method: Some Psychological Perspectives on Language Learning

Earl W. Stevick

1976, Rowley MA: Newbury House. (source)

The book that really started me thinking about how to teach

Second Language Pedagogy

N. S. Prabhu

1987, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (source)

The person who introduced me to TBLT was N. S. Prabhu in 1983, who later reported his research in this book. The COBUILD project started us thinking about what we should be teaching, and the importance of words and their collocations. [See Dave Willis. 1990. The Lexical Syllabus Honely: Collins ELT, available free at › lexical-syllabus]

Rules, Patterns and Words: Grammar and Lexis in English Language Teaching

Willis D

2003, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (source)

Represents an amalgamation of all the above and demonstrates how TBLT – a meaning-focused approach – can incorporate a focus on form.

Place in HLT

While I was delighted to be asked to contribute a paragraph “to encapsulate Jane Willis’s relationship to HLT in her work, particularly with respect to TBLT”, the request created a dilemma. I’ve never been able to see the unique contribution of Jane and Dave to TBLT as anything other than a partnership, and so my comment here is applicable to both. One aspect of the Willises’ approach to TBLT that resonates with HLT is its emphasis on the concept of the resourceful learner. Too often, whether consciously or not, we project a deficit view of our learners, reminding them what they can’t do. Jane and Dave’s approach challenges the deficit view that TBLT exceeds lower-proficiency learners’ resources. They demonstrate that by collaboratively drawing on and pooling all their semiotic resources, learners can rise to the communicative challenges posed by TBLT.

— David Nunan
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