Photo: Robert O'Neill in the early 1980s at 5 Bentinck Street, then Longman's London offices. Reproduced with kind permission of Pearson UK.
Robert O'Neill, teacher, teacher trainer, and writer, was hugely influential in the world of English language teaching. He died on 29 July, 2014 at the age of 81.
With his gift for story-telling and writing, Robert is fondly remembered as a man of wide-ranging interests, encyclopaedic knowledge and controversial opinions, who took great delight in his ability to shock and surprise. Fellow ELT author, Professor Alan Maley, who knew Robert for over 40 years, remembers him as 'eccentric, brilliant, outrageously unconventional but, in the words of the song, with a 'heart as big as a whale'.' He believes 'the profession owes Robert an enormous debt for his trailblazing publications, his professional enthusiasm and his exceptional generosity to younger colleagues.'
Robert was born on 21 January 1933 in Chicago, and worked first as a teacher and then in the Research and Development Unit of the European Language and Educational Centre in Bournemouth. He taught extensively in Europe, and wrote more than 30 books. As a respected ELT author, he lectured all over the world, talking at conferences and giving workshops.
Marion Cooper, ELT Publishing Director at OUP said 'Robert's contribution to the world of English language teaching is legendary. In particular, he will be remembered for his pioneering textbook English in Situations, which was published by OUP in 1970 and remained in use for over 35 years. He co-wrote English Grammatical Structure for Longman, which proved to be the grammar 'bible' for many teachers, and introduced extensive reading in Longman's Kernel Lessons series. He was also the co-author of one of OUP's bestselling courses, Success at First Certificate.'
His first book for OUP, English in Situations was based on the principle: 'What would you say in a particular situation and how would you say it?'. Peter Viney, writing in his blog, recollects that 'English in Situations set a whole approach and its strong influences can be seen in the selection and ordering of structures in a wide range of current intermediate textbooks.'
Robert held strong views on the role of textbooks in language teaching which he set out in his paper, Why Use Textbooks?, published in ELT Journal in 1981.
'Since language is an instrument for generating what people need and want to say spontaneously, a great deal must depend on spontaneous, creative interaction in the classroom. Textbooks can help to bring this about, and a great deal in their design can be improved in order to do this. If that creative interaction does not occur, textbooks are simply pages of dead, inert written symbols and teaching is no more than a symbolic ritual, devoid of any real significance for what is going on outside the classroom.'
Marion Cooper recollects the challenge of writing textbooks that led to the creative interaction that Robert wanted to achieve: 'Robert's approach to writing ELT materials was unique. His initial focus was always on the characters and the story and only when he felt they were right would he focus on the syllabus and sequencing. As the language came to the fore, the characters and story would evolve, and completion became an ever elusive goal. Meeting publishers' deadlines was never one of Robert's strong points. His writing had brilliance however – no one could write exercises for beginners like Robert could – a subtle story woven into even the simplest of practice drills.'
Robert himself was as unique as his writing. Neil Butterfield, formerly ELT Publishing Director at OUP, sums Robert up as 'impossible, brilliant and a wonderfully engaging human being. Robert was a trailblazing educator to whom everybody in ELT, teachers and students alike, owes a huge debt'.
Did you teach - or learn English – with one of Robert's books? Or perhaps you attended one of his memorable talks? We'd love to hear your recollections of Robert.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Robert O'Neill".