A short history of writing ELT audio and video scripts

So you think writing dialogues and scripts for ELT is new?

This post is adapted and abridged from the introductory chapter of my ebook ‘How to write audio and video scripts.’ (See end of post for details).

It’s easy to think that the scripts we use as teachers or write as materials writers are a new phenomenon. Because audio and video is delivered using modern technology (sound files, podcasts, downloads etc) we tend to associate ELT script writing with the recent world of ELT. But in fact scripts and especially dialogues feature in some of the very earliest materials written for language learners. Here’s a five-minute history of how scripts have evolved in materials writing over the last five centuries and the influence on modern materials writers.

Early scripts in language learning materials

In A History of English Language Teaching, Howatt and Widdowson provide examples of language learning materials taken from early handbooks written for learners of English. Many of the earliest extracts take the form of scripted dialogues on the page; for example, the following dialogue from is set at a dining table and appeared in handbook published in 1554 called A Very Profitable Book. Written specifically for Spanish learners of English, the English version and the Spanish translation would have originally been placed side-by-side on the page:

Hermes: John, I pray God send ye a good day.

John: And I, Hermes, wish unto you a prosperous day.

Hermes: How do you?

John: Ask you how I do? I fare well, thanks be to God, and will be glad to do you pleasure. I say, Hermes, how go matters forward?

Hermes: Verily I fare well.

(Howatt, A.P.R & Widdowson, H.G. (2004) A History of English Language Teaching Oxford, p15)

Although the English is clearly of its time, the actual context and rationale behind this text feels quite contemporary; after all, it provides students with the language for meeting people for the first time and making small talk so if updated it wouldn’t feel out of place in any modern business English coursebook.

What’s interesting about the early examples of scripted ELT materials in Howatt and Widdowson’s book is how they focus on the learners’ needs and provide functional and useful phrases in a context; much in the same way that the modern ELT writers try to do today; the only difference being that they were not recorded but probably read aloud by the teacher and the students had to memorise the dialogues by heart.

Later textbooks also include scripted dialogues which weren’t necessarily functional but were used in a question-and-answer approach in order to explain points of grammar or other areas of language. This example of such a dialogue is from a Russian textbook published in 1795 (p71):

Teacher: When is g pronounced?

Pupil: G is pronounced soft when it precedes e, i, and y, for example, gender, ginger, gipsy.

Teacher: Are there exceptions?

Pupil: The letter g is pronounced hard before e and i in the following words: gelderland, gibbons, gilman …

Howatt and Widdowson also report on another book published only two years later in 1797 designed to aid pronunciation by listing sets of words (including nonsense syllables) for the student to practise such as lip, nip, pip, rip, sip. This kind of listing of words for students to pronounce is not greatly different from what modern ELT writers do when they script simple ‘listen and repeat’ type pronunciation exercises for low-level materials.

After a period of materials writing for grammar translation texts when script writing seems to take a bit of back seat, the Direct Method and the Natural Method the end of the 19th century brings back dialogues back into materials writing with gusto! Maximilian Berlitz’s First Book (first published in 1906 with many new editions printed in later years) illustrates how important dialogues were. Many of these scripts are formulaic and artificial language teacher-student drill exercises, like this one in the ninth lesson of the book:

Me, him, her, us, them

I give you a book. What do I do?

Give me a pencil. What do you do?

I give a box to Mr White. What do I give (to) Mr White? You give him a box.

M.D. Berlitz First Book (333rd Edition 1924), p27

In the second half of the book, there is a section of reading passages which often take the form mini-conversations. Unlike the language drills earlier in the book, these scripted conversations have a strong context, like this one on travel:

The arrival

1.– We shall soon be at the station. We had better roll up our rugs and get our valises down.

2. – At what hotel shall we stop?

3. – We can stop at Charing Cross, because it is so centrally located, not expensive, and it will be very convenient when we leave for Paris, as it is connected with the station.

4. – The train is stopping. What an immense station! Shall I call the porter?

5. – If you please.

6. – Here, porter! Take these two bags to a cab. You can carry the rugs also.

7. Porter – Here is the cab, Sir. Have you anything besides your hand-luggage?

M.D. Berlitz First Book (333rd Edition 1924), p67

Again, it feels dated – obviously – but the context would suit the growing number of number of students who needed English for business and travel purposes in the early part of the 20th century.

The introduction of recording technology in the classroom

As the Direct Method ‘metamorphosed into audiolingulaism’ (Thornbury, S. (2006) An A–Z of ELT Macmillan Education, p66) by the fifties, classrooms stressed the value of having students listen to and repeat sentences in a continuous drill pattern. And by the seventies you have scripts being written for language laboratories with students in rooms of cubicles, each with a set of headphones.

The script below is from a text used in language laboratories. In it, the student has listened to model versions of questions and sentences based on a series of small pictures of grocery items bought while shopping. Next he/she listens to a prompt, replies and then checks the reply with a model version.

Voice: Good morning. Can I help you?

Student: I’d like five oranges. How much is that?

Look at picture 2.

Voice: Good morning. Can I help you?

Student: I’d like half a dozen eggs. How much is that?

Look at picture 3.

Voice: Good morning. Can I help you?

Student: I’d like two loaves of bread. How much is that?

Dakin, J. (1973) The language laboratory and language learning Longman, p124

Despite its lack of authenticity, it’s easy to see the influence of this kind of audiolingual scripting on modern language learning materials, especially those sold for self-study such as ‘listen-and-learn-a-language-in-the-car’ type audio recordings or teach-yourself computer-based programmes. In other words, many present-day ELT materials writers produce this type of script for online self-study materials.

Writing scripts for communicative language teaching (CLT) materials

Towards the late 70s, there was a growing demand for materials to include audio recordings which, if they weren’t entirely authentic, at least reflected the need for learners to achieve communicative competence. Coursebooks started to focus on skills development; in other words, the contents page of a book might include a column on developing the skills of reading, writing, speaking and – most relevantly – listening. So the tape cassettes which were sold with these books not only included dialogues and mini-conversations but also longer spoken texts which were scripted to develop listening sub-skills in some way. Many of these listening scripts were written in the style of news broadcasts or journalistic interviews but graded to the target level.

The emergence of video

In the late eighties and nineties, no language school was complete without one enormous video player and TV which lived on a cumbersome set of metal wheels. I even worked for a school which advertised that every term students would have at least one ‘video lesson’. Teacher’s rooms had shelves of VHS video and publishers brought out whole courses based around learning from a video, or producing video as an add-on to a coursebook. The author Ben Goldstein in his article A History of ELT Videcomments on one such early attempt to teach English via video:

Follow Me, the BBC video crash course from the late 70s, is a revealing way to see how video was used in the beginning. The series commonly showed functional language contexts with heavily scripted and rather unnatural dialogue. The purpose of the video was language focus. Learners would watch the sketches and use them as a model for their own output. In fact, the video was exploited no differently to audio.’

Other ELT video courses such as the Grapevine (OUP) videos became very popular. In an interview with the co-author of the successful Grapevine videos, Vicki Hollett asks Peter Viney to look back at his period of video and script writing and he remarks that, ‘For years I’d tell [teachers] that in the future teachers would use video in every single lesson and I was completely wrong. It didn’t happen.’ You can watch an extract from Vicki Hollett’s video interview here.

In the period that Viney is describing, video tapes were relatively expensive and the cost of the equipment to play it on was a significant amount for the average language school, which may explain why video remained the ‘fun’ lesson and not a common feature of any lesson. However, the arrival of YouTube in 2005 and the increase of digital projectors or IWBs in classroom suddenly made it more possible that teachers might use video in every lesson.

The present day

So that brings us to the present day more or less. Materials writers are probably creating more and more video and audio content to keep pace with the YouTube generation of learners. I’m still writing scripts with dialogues and listen and repeat exercises but increasingly I’m writing scripts with much stronger visual elements such as animated sequences or kinetic typography. I’m also finding myself working more closely with production teams to develop video content such as documentaries with a narrator or doing an interview with someone in the street to get authentic text mixed with scripted graded language. Anyway, for more on that, and how to write scripts for modern ELT materials take a look at my ebook ‘How to write audio and video scripts’ published by eltteacher2writer and available from any of the these links: