30 mins with Jo Tomlinson from Target English

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure to sit down with ELT materials writer Jo Tomlinson from Target English to discuss some of her written works, experiences within the world of TESOL, doing Delta, and her outlook for the coming years. Below is a summarised version of Jo’s responses, however if you wish to listen to the whole interview, follow this link. Enjoy!

Jo headshot

I’m here today with Jo Tomlinson, an award-winning ELT author, course developer, teacher trainer and English teacher with over 16 years experience in the industry. Jo, alongside Fiona Aish, has written many ELT books including the titles Grammar for IELTS, Listening for IELTS, and Lectures, which won the ELTons 2014 award for innovation in learner resources. Together they have also established Target English, which provides EAP and test preparation support services for learners, teachers and companies. On top of all this, Jo has studied extensively, having completed both the Cambridge Delta and an MA in language testing. Hi, Jo, thank you very much for being with us today!

My pleasure!

So, Jo, let’s start at the beginning. What first got you into ELT?

It was a complete accident actually! I got an admin temping job at Kings College during summer school. I was mixing with a lot of the teachers and heard what they were doing in the classroom and thought that it sounded fascinating! So, I decided to do my CELTA in Seville in 2001, and the first time I stood in front of a class I said, yep, this is something I can do. And I’ve been here ever since.

From Seville did you stay in Spain or did you go back to the UK?

I stayed in Spain for a while, but then I went back to the UK and taught in private colleges and universities.

I’ve noticed a preference within your teaching for EAP… does this seem correct?

Yeah, well Fiona and I both have our skill sets – Fiona did her MA in applied linguistics and worked in EAP for quite a long time, and I’ve worked in testing for quite a while. So, we put those together and it’s kind of just happened naturally. It seemed to be a natural progression after doing Delta.

Do you think there’s a big difference between university teaching and academy teaching?

Yes, I do. But, I controversially don’t think it’s any more difficult – I think it’s just different. I think a lot of ELT teachers feel intimidated by EAP, but you have to think on your feet in academies (and private schools) – you have a whole range of levels and reasons why people are there – you’ve got quite a lot going on. To manage that is a skill in itself! But, when you go into EAP, generally the learners are all quite highly motivated because they’re doing it for their studies. I think the major difference is the type of language covered, however, as a teacher working with the language, it’s not going to be particularly difficult to move into this genre of language.

Have there been any remarkable experiences in your career that you’d like to share?

Hmm, I don’t know about remarkable experiences, but probably the biggest learning curves I’ve had have come when I found something really difficult and had to find a way to deal with it. Like many people when they move into ELT, I found advanced grammar quite a dangerous area. I think I was about two or three years into teaching and I took on an advanced grammar course and I just worked really hard for it. I did a load of work for each lesson, however I came away from it thinking I know that now!

Together with Fiona, you’ve written an impressive amount of ELT titles. Firstly, why and how did you get into materials development? And secondly, do you have any tips for those looking to move into this area?

Well, Fiona and I decided to focus on a test called IELTS, because we had worked with this test quite a lot. And what generally happened is that you would have a general IELTS class (covering all skills). We decided to break it down because normally people have quite a jagged profile – they’ll be better in one area and not as good in another. So, we offered courses based on this, using some of our materials. And, really the rest was luck. We set up a website with our materials and an outline of our ideals behind them. This was then seen by Collins, who approached us with regard to writing Listening for IELTS. In short, we built up a website with some of our materials and someone saw it!


  • Think about why you want to get into materials development – it’s a completely different job to teaching, it’s often solitary, you are working to market demands and you can’t always write exactly what you want, and you’re (probably) not going to be making much more money.
  • Start by creating materials and then sharing these online.
  • Have a look at ELT Teacher to Writer – a site that looks at materials development and, more importantly, moving into materials development.
  • Join or have a look at MaWSIG – a materials development interest group.
  • Go to ELT conferences and approach publishers with your ideas.

You are developing materials for teachers to use in the classroom, but you also recommend that teachers develop their own materials.

Yes, one hundred percent. If you’re doing this, you can personalise the materials and this means so much more to you and your students. You are the one that knows your learners and you are able to write materials for their needs. The only thing you need to check is that your materials actually work! On the MaWSIG site, we have an article coming out about writing tasks in general and the rules to follow – this might be useful.

Looking back at Lectures. How did it feel to be the winner of the ELTons 2014 award for innovation?

Yeah, it felt great! It was part of a six-book series focused on EAP and a lot of work went into it. When we were approached to write it, we knew we wanted to use authentic lectures, and Collins spent a lot of time sourcing these lectures for us. We were then able to break them down and use them practically. I’m really proud of the end result.

How long do your books take to write?

Depends on the scope of the book. Anywhere from four to eight months for a first draft (sometimes more).

Wow. A lot of work! And, the name of your latest book?

We have two! They are not course books, rather guides that both teachers and learners can read. The first is All About IELTS, an e-book covering the ins and outs of IELTS. The second is All About Lecturing in English, a book designed to help lecturers better present their lectures to an international cohort.

Any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

We have a listening book in the pipeline by an amazing author – that should be out by the beginning of next year. I’m not allowed to say who the author is yet, but needless to say, I’m quite excited! Apart from this, we are really focusing on content development and looking at EMI (English as a medium of instruction), i.e. lecturing in English. We’ve been working with a university on practical ways to coach lecturers in this area and we have a number of presentations on this coming up.

Many of Sponge ELT’s readers are taking or thinking of taking Delta. Could you tell us a little bit about your Delta experience?

Well, I took the Delta twelve years ago and I believe it was a different structure – now it’s modular. I like the idea of modules because you can take your time. When I did it, it was all one big shebang, teaching at the same time – It was incredibly stressful. I remember I was profiling a young Mexican girl over a series of weeks with a tape recorder, and one session the tape chewed up. In front of her, I burst into tears! The poor girl then grabbed this tape and started winding it back in the tape. I would hate to give advice on doing the Delta now as it was so long ago and all I have are memories of stress! Just don’t do it as I did it! On a side note, I don’t think you need a Delta to be a great teacher, but if you are a great teacher and you do Delta, you become much more confident in your knowledge base, and there are many more avenues that you can go down career-wise.

You’ve also completed an MA in Language Testing. Why did you choose this MA and how has it benefitted you so far?

I chose this partly for the business. Fiona had an MA in linguistics, we did a lot of test prep, so it seemed to fit. Also, I was really interested in the field. I worked with a company that dealt with testing, and I found that what I knew about language testing was just the tip of the iceberg – there was so much more to it and I wanted to learn. So, I did the MA and I learnt a lot. Now, I’m much more confident as a test developer and item writer.

And do you find there is a lot of new research happening with regard to testing?

Yes, especially with regard to testing and technology. For example, the Pearson Test of English is computer-based and computer-marked for speaking and writing. This caused a controversy when it first came out, but this is one area where new research is happening. Now, with regard to large-scale testing, personally, it has its place in EFL. That being said, it looks at reliability over some other factors, and I find, as with many things in EFL, there’s a lot about localization and looking at context (that we as teachers and testers need to be thinking about), and I think that testing should be done like that as well. So, rather than using a large test all the time, use something different to suit your context. I also think to achieve this, there needs to be a lot of upskilling people in testing so that they are able to create tests for their contexts. This is something I would like to see more research and development in.

In terms of taking the MA, do you have any tips?

Oh, yes!

  • Be prepared to do a lot of statistical analysis, if you’re going into language testing – don’t be afraid of stats!
  • There are many areas of specialisation in ELT, so choose carefully – language testing is one in which you are likely to find work.

What major differences would you highlight between doing the Delta and an ELT-related MA for people deciding which to choose?

First, think about your context – what are the requirements where you are? For example, you may choose to do an MA, yet in some countries, this is meaningless compared to doing the Delta. With regard to how it’s done, the MA is obviously more theoretical, the Delta more practical – a lot more teaching practice. I would say if you want to firm up your teaching, go for the Delta. If you’re into learning more about theory and thinking about other avenues within ELT, go for the MA.

You’ve been in the industry for nearly twenty years, and I imagine you’ve some very interesting changes in ELT. What do you think has been the greatest change so far?

For me, the greatest change so far has been technology, but not like it is often talked about – the buzz of using tech in the classroom. Rather, I think technology outside the classroom has been the biggest change. For example, resources – blogs like Sponge ELT – there are so many – when I started there was almost nothing! Now there are many social networks with sharing, helpful sites, etc. I think these networks and the dialogues that teachers have now are completely different, and for me, that’s the biggest change.

Definitely agree – materials now are at your fingertips when and where you want! What about future changes in the industry? What do you see?

I do see change, and one that needs to happen is to get rid of this non-native teacher bias. There has been a lot of talk about this recently, and we know that it’s not fair nor right. With the amount of focus on this topic, I think this will change in the future. I also think that ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) and EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction) will change things – and this links together with my previous point. The experience of English used to be that it was a language from a limited number of countries and you learn it THIS way. Now, however, it has changed and people are realising that there is an international language, and the more you speak to people who use English for work, the more you realise that they can understand almost every non-native English speaker, but when they speak with native English speakers they find it difficult. English doesn’t belong to the English, the North Americans, the Australians, the Canadians, etc. – it belongs to loads of people. Everyone in this industry needs to be aware and act with this in mind – especially teachers and materials writers.

One-hundred percent agreed! Well, Jo, thanks for your time – it’s been an absolute pleasure!

My pleasure, thank you!

Jo’s works

You can get also samples of the lastest e-books All about IELTS and All about lecturing in English from Jo and Fiona here.  

Jo can be contacted at: jo@target-english.co.uk


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