Who was she?
Susan Holden († 2023) was born in Great Britain in October 1941. Having developed a love of language and literature, she gained a degree in English Literature and Linguistics. At university, she discovered an innate ability to explain complex linguistic concepts in a simple and engaging manner – a skill that would later define her career. She first studied and taught drama, and her ELT career began when she joined a small publishing house as a junior editor, and soon found herself involved in the creation of ELT textbooks and materials. Her approach to crafting content that was not only instructive but also inspiring to learners of all ages earned her recognition within the industry.
As an ELT writer, Susan’s portfolio included a diverse range of materials, ranging from grammar books to interactive language games. Her creativity knew no bounds, and she always sought innovative ways to make language learning an enjoyable and effective experience. Teachers and students alike found her work to be relatable, comprehensive and infused with a real passion for language.
Susan’s exceptional writing skills also led her to become a sought-after consultant for various language schools and educational institutions. Her insights into the art of effective communication in teaching became the foundation for countless educational programmes and language curricula worldwide.
Susan travelled widely, living and working in Italy, France, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Brazil. It was through these diverse experiences that she became increasingly concerned with context and affect in language learning.
As a publisher, always aware of the centrality of interaction, she shifted the focus of attention in language teaching materials from grammar and vocabulary to communication. She was also convinced of the importance of cultural differences when designing teaching and learning materials. She firmly believed that the same methodology could not be used indiscriminately in any given country, and that features of local life and culture must be included so that the learner can identify with the content. For Susan, culture and language were inextricably bound together.
Travel and her work as an editor and publisher brought Susan into contact with well-known authors such as Mario Rinvolucri, Alan Maley and Donn Byrne, all connected in different ways to HLT.
Susan Holden’s work continues to influence the ELT landscape as a testament to her life’s work. Her textbooks and resources are used in classrooms across the globe, helping teachers create dynamic and immersive learning environments. Her dedication to promoting the joy of language learning has inspired educators to approach teaching with enthusiasm and creativity.
Susan worked initially as a teacher and teacher trainer, often with the British Council, and was for 15 years editor and publisher of Modern English Teacher (MET).
She became Publishing Director for Macmillan ELT and as an author, wrote a number of ELT titles, several in collaboration with Donn Byrne. In 1996 she founded Swan Communication, and devised the criteria for textbook evaluation for the International Baccalaureate Programme DiplomaI (IBDP) and the Russian Ministry of Education, organising the initial training for their implementation.
Over the course of her long and varied career in ELT, Susan wrote and published various coursebooks, readers and methodology titles. In the 1990s and early 2000s, she focused on writing and co-publishing textbooks for Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and for Mexico and Brazil. The Criss Cross series for CEE, which she developed with Péter Medgyes, was a particularly original concept at a time when former Soviet bloc countries were unable to fund country-specific coursebooks: the series comprised a core student’s book accompanied by completely localised workbooks for Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, co-written by UK authors and local writers. This wealth of experience is reflected in the content and design of her last book Teaching English Today: Contexts and objectives (2021), co-written with Vinicius Nobre.
Susan was dedicated to projects that she believed in, bringing her publishing experience to idiosyncratic projects when called in as an advisor. One such project was the development by a group of sixty teachers of a Bulgarian cultural studies syllabus, Branching Out (1998), co-published by the British Council with a local company as a loose-leaf folder because Susan respected the writers’ wish to produce a document that teachers could customise and enrich with their own contributions. Again, a few years later, she enabled a group of thirteen Hungarian teachers to realise their personal vision of a textbook, Zoom In: Looking into Britain through Hungarian Eyes (2001) which ignored conventions of layout and house style, by giving each of the authors the freedom to use their own visual and textual materials, collected on a study trip to the UK.
Susan was also responsible for rescuing, re-publishing and reviving interest in an influential book that had long been out of print - Péter Medgyes’ The Non-Native Teacher (1994; 2017). This was a labour of love, undertaken not for commercial gain, but because she believed passionately in the justice and rationality of the author’s stance on the value of the so-called ‘non-native’ teacher.
Until late in her life, Susan continued to travel around the world, combining work and tourism. Where possible, she preferred to do this on her own, travelling by car, which gave her flexibility of route and itinerary. She often stopped to enjoy local cuisine (cooking and eating were major passions) and to get to know the people and the culture of the places she visited.
Having started out as a drama teacher, Susan retained her love of the theatre, and she often drew on her drama training when creating teaching materials. She felt that the dialogues found in textbooks focused on grammar and vocabulary, not on the people, what they might actually say, or how they might use language in given situations. From drama, Susan applied the principle of focusing on people first: it is from their individual interaction with the environment and with their own feelings, from the communicative needs of the situation and their emotional responses to it, that language emerges.
Place in HLT
From a personal conversation with Susan:
“I first visited a foreign country (France) while preparing for my A levels, working as an au pair in two different families, one of whom I liked very much, the other … I left after a week. No doubt the feeling was mutual!
This experience made me want to explore other countries and societies. A French Government scholarship to Paris to research French medieval theatre gave me another au pair experience - and improved my French. It also made me realise how ‘family French’ and ‘child French’ are very different from ‘textbook French’. People and context are the key factors.
A visit to Venice (to do some theatre history research) convinced me this was the place I wanted to spend more of my life - so I did a training course at IH London to supplement my drama teacher training, and was given a DoS job in IH Latina, between Rome and Naples, and then a training course based in IH Rome but travelling all over the country. My Italian improved, but living in Venice still seemed far away. I did manage to get married in Venice City Hall, during a school November holiday, to a partner who had moved to Latina with me - the school principal thought two foreigners living together without being married brought the school into disrepute! Again, cultural differences were important. So was a growing awareness of the differences in the Italian used in Venice, Rome and Latina - language is local and has different degrees of localisation, depending on the context and speakers.
Another experience of different cultures (and languages) occurred when I had a year in Montreal, teaching at Concordia University. This involved observing teaching practice in schools in the French part of the city. A comment to an adolescent that it must be so useful to have TV channels in English and French provoked the response (in Quebecois) ‘My Dad would hit me if he caught me watching a programme in English’. Again, people and context (and politics) affect language.
Returning to the UK, and editing MET [Modern English Teacher] magazine, was a further reminder, through the articles they submitted, of the different concerns, possibilities and limitations of teachers working in different contexts. They were writing about their own experience which they thought would be of interest to others. As editor, my task was to read, judge, decide … and to convey that decision, with or without suggestions for changes, to the writer. The decision may have been based on academic or readership criteria, but it had to be conveyed to the writer in a way that was sympathetic, objective and appropriate. The personal and professional elements are equally important.
These kinds of judgements were equally important in the wider publishing world, first in my own small company, Modern English Publications (MEP) and then later in a large one, Macmillan, working as Publishing Director for Europe and parts of Latin America, where sensitivity to local language learning needs and contexts, while working with authors, had to be matched by an equal awareness of financial investment and likely sales. Again, the personal and the professional coloured and shaped each project.
When the part of Macmillan for which I was responsible was sold to a large US-based company, I encountered a totally different publishing culture. One in which a visiting director could ask ’Why do you need different editions for different countries in Europe? They all have McDonalds…’.
The result? After 2 years, realising the new colleagues and I spoke totally different languages (albeit varieties of English), I left to set up a new company, Swan Communication, determined to use it to publish culturally-aware materials for specific contexts and users. Another firm decision was to keep the company small - and to be responsible for all the decision-making (with help from trusted freelance colleagues) and results. In fact, it was set up, in 1996, with just one director/employee: Susan Holden. The responsibility is huge, but the opportunity to make decisions quickly, and be flexible, is an invigorating way of producing materials with a ‘voice’.
Many of the materials developed since then, whether published by Swan Communication, or when working as an author, or as a teacher training consultant, have been based on experience in two very different areas: Central Europe and Latin America (notably Brazil and Mexico).
The former was affected by developing history: after the fall of the Berlin Wall, English could suddenly be taught as a first foreign language in schools - but the existing ‘international’ courses produced by UK publishers, often full of pictures of red letter boxes, Westminster Abbey and the London Underground were far from the reality of their prospective users - students and teachers who had not yet travelled to experience this world and communicate with its inhabitants. So, there were opportunities for materials based in the reality of Central Europe, and involving local teachers as writing teams. Place, culture, teaching experience and learning context were all as important as the language syllabus.
Ongoing consultancy work in Brazil had involved extensive travel to various parts of this huge country, with its different climates, history and populations. Observing classes and talking to teachers in a prestige language institute in Rio or São Paulo was a very different experience from doing so in a state sector secondary school in a small town where the class size might be 40 and the teacher had limited English. Again, the need for different types of materials (and training) was apparent. People and context … it seems so obvious!
The main results from these regular visits to Brazil were the Portfolio/Topics series of highly illustrated magazine-type material, aimed at providing topic-based input through photos and text in order to encourage users to explore the topics in their own environments, and to produce their own texts and photos based on their own reality. Many teachers liked the idea but were nervous about the practicalities of doing project work, so supportive text and video material was produced for them. Listening and observing feeds into the creation and production of appropriate materials. For this series, I was the author.
I was also the author of Encounters. This was born out of the realisation that Brazil would be hosting the 1996 World Cup, and people working in the Service sector (taxi drivers, bar, hotel and restaurant staff, police, people working in shopping mall stores) who might never have learned English effectively at school, would suddenly have to interact with a range of foreign visitors, often using English as the means of communication, in contexts where either party could be stressed, appear rude, or simply give up. Extensive observation of these kinds of service encounters showed the problems and provided the framework and methodology for this four-level series for Brazil.
So where do Susan Holden and HLT come together?
Not through academic writing, but probably through a lifelong conviction that communication starts with people and context, is shaped by the relationship between these, and that any teaching/learning activities and materials should take this as the starting point. Humanistic? You decide!”