Writing in Portugal

In the second of our mini-series of posts from ELT writers based in non-Anglophone countries, Vanessa Reis Esteves shares her perspective as an EFL coursebook writer based in Portugal.

The Portuguese are generally thought to love football, ‘fado’ (a typical melancholic style of music), good food and, I’d personally add, to be fluent and extremely hospitable English speakers. Sounds like a match made in heaven, doesn’t it? In my defence, it should be noted that the latter attribute is validated by the many tourists that come to visit us every year, rather than the subjective opinion of one who has been living in the country for the last 24 years. One might then ask what makes the Portuguese such fluent English speakers in comparison to their Spanish neighbours?

Although the answer to this question is beyond the scope of this post, that English is a mandatory subject from the third year of primary in the Portuguese Educational System must play its part. It should also be noted that students are obliged to remain at school until they reach the age of 18, which means that they’re exposed to English for at least 8–9 consecutive years. Consequently, the EFL market in Portugal divides into four main target segments: primary (with an estimated 369,855 students), middle school (with an estimated 212,262 students), lower secondary (with an estimated 348,312 students) and upper secondary (with an estimated 202,580 students). Whilst this may not be one of the world’s biggest and most profitable markets, it is an exciting market to work in. Read on to find out why.

There are two major publishing groups that produce tailor-made coursebooks for Portugal, namely, Porto Editora (based in the north of the country) and Leya (based in the capital, Lisbon). These publishing houses are valued and respected by teachers – hence the majority of Portuguese state schools adopt coursebooks produced by these two publishers year after year. The main international publishers (Oxford University Press, Pearson, Express Publishing, Macmillan Education and Cambridge University Press) account for 20% of the market, a mix of both state and private schools. This is important as it reflects the overall quality of the Portuguese educational system, if one assumes that international publishers produce coursebooks which are of a higher quality than local publishers – a position which I personally do not subscribe to. In my opinion, there’s been a notable improvement in the quality of coursebooks made in Portugal over the last decade. Nowadays, close analysis of the products on the market reveals that local publishers invest more in providing teachers with additional resources for the language classroom that meet the real needs of Portuguese students than their international counterparts.

What, then, are the implications of the EFL Portuguese publishing world for a coursebook writer? I’m pleased to be able to report that in Portugal, the majority of EFL authors are NNS (non-native speakers) who are still teaching in the Portuguese state system. This means that local publishing houses fully acknowledge the fact that they’re producing books for a very specific market, and that they therefore need writers who fully understand the needs and wants of that particular market, rather than hiring NS (native speaker) writers who parachute in to produce a coursebook with an international flavour. Yet, one might argue, this is a risky choice, as NNS authors won’t be as fluent and therefore won’t produce language which is as natural as that of NS writers. So in order to maintain the linguistic quality of the materials, Portuguese publishing houses invite NS editors to review all draft materials to make sure they have a NS feel. This means that coursebooks are made to meet the Portuguese curriculum rather than a broader international curriculum that suits various markets and which consequently doesn’t fit any national curriculum like a glove. A further advantage of using NNS writers is that the pedagogical methodologies that underpin the coursebooks have been tried and tested in the Portuguese classroom. As such, teachers can make an adoption confident in the knowledge that the course’s approach will meet their needs and produce satisfactory results in the classroom.

As a result of the market-specificity of locally produced materials, authors in Portugal have free reign to be as innovative and creative as they like. By this, I mean that Portuguese authors are given a blank canvas rather than filling in a template developed through international market research. Most authors will agree that a writing ‘stencil’ can stifle creativity as space often dictates non-negotiable limitations and limited task types, frequently causing one to go for a less effective pedagogical option that fits nicely on the page.

There is a well-known saying that says that not all that glitters is gold. This saying is true of the EFL publishing industry in Portugal. Although there are many positives in this industry, there are a number of drawbacks too. The biggest is the fact that each level of a series has to be produced in approximately seven months! This is to meet the annual adoption windows for each level; the other five months are for trialling, design stages and book production. So that’s one level of a student’s book, workbook, teacher’s file (with lesson plans, additional worksheets and a meaty pack of tests), project games, digital and video resources, audio recordings, etc. – all of this in seven months. As time is so scarce, authors work around the clock in an attempt to meet ‘impossible’ deadlines, which in the best-case scenario is a stressful and physically exhausting experience. It’s fair to say that these extremely tight deadlines can negatively affect the overall quality of the materials. As such, publishing houses are beginning to outsource the production of additional complementary materials. Although this strategy considerably lessens the production pressure, it doesn’t solve the need to trial materials in various classrooms around the country, a practice which authors and teachers continue insist is valuable and necessary. However, publishing houses often argue that doing trials on a large scale is simply not feasible if the project is to be produced in time for the adoption period.

When all is said and done, what’s it like to be a coursebook writer in Portugal? I guess it’s like the metaphor of the half-filled/half-empty glass of water. You can choose (or not) to see the silver lining in this profession. Personally, I think that being a coursebook writer in Portugal is an addictive pleasure, which allows me to make baby-step contributions to improve the state of education and to make both teachers’ and students’ lives just a tiny bit more interesting!

Vanessa Reis Esteves has been teaching EFL in Portugal for the past 23 years and is currently teaching at Escola Superior de Educação in Porto. She holds a Master’s degree in Anglo American studies and is involved in teacher training in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Romania, Turkey, Croatia, Slovenia, Malta, Portugal and Egypt. She presently writes course material for EFL students and has recently written ETpedia: Young Learners, full of practical ideas on teaching YLs, for Pavilion Publishing in the UK. Her areas of interest are teaching YLs and (pre-)teens, as well as critical thinking and 21st century skills.

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