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Last updated at 16:37 BST, Tuesday, 10 September 2013

70 years of BBC Learning English


9 September 2013

The BBC's English by Radio service started in 1943.

Catherine Chapman reflects on the way educational broadcasting has changed.

Two presenters in a BBC recording studio in 1943

Has educational broadcasting changed since the 1940s?


Click to hear the report


Click to hear the 1945 programme


It only takes a few seconds of the original 1943 'English by Radio' theme tune and I'm dreaming about 1940s Britain. Crackly violin melodies build to a strong, confident finale, reassuring the listeners that we are safe in the hands of the BBC.

'Now, are you familiar with such things as prepositions?' asks a woman in a 'Queen's English' accent. 'Prepositions,' responds her co-presenter, 'Prepositions are in a position before the noun.'

He sounds like a typical old-fashioned BBC gentleman, who I imagine to be wearing a tweed suit and smoking a pipe, speaking into a square BBC 'Type A' microphone, as he illustrates: 'Inside the room; outside the door; above the roof.'

After a few more examples, it's time to practise. Our gentleman begins a sentence, and his co-presenter completes it. 'What are you waiting... for; What are you talking... about; Which house do you live... in!' We are given some advice about using prepositions when writing, then some more practice and we finish on our theme tune once again.

It's an enjoyable and informative programme - and I begin to wonder, as a modern-day writer of ELT materials here at BBC Learning English: which elements of the early 'English by Radio' programmes are still found in today's output - and why?

Unsurprisingly, those 'Queen's English' accents have gone - and not just because 1940s BBC presenters are hard to find nowadays. It's generally agreed - in these days of international business and travel - that learners need to hear a variety of English accents. So, if you listen to a current BBC Learning English programme, you'll hear a range of English speakers with a range of regional accents: from Orkney to Portsmouth and beyond.

What's more, we're on first-name terms these days: download an audio programme from our website, and you'll usually find a warm welcome from Finn, Rob, Feifei and everyone.

But I must admit: I'm amazed at how little the basic language practice activity has changed. Listening to an episode of a more recent series, 'Grammar Challenge', I'm almost back in the 1940s as Callum, the presenter, challenges a student of English to use the correct preposition. 'Let's meet... at seven o'clock,' she says. 'Well done, excellent,' praises Callum.

So my question is: why so little change in the basic language practice task, despite over 70 years of innovation and development? Are those listen-and-complete activities in 'Grammar Challenge' there because 'We've always done it that way', or is it because they work - and audiences like them?

A quick look around reveals plenty of different activities: games, videos, puzzles, dialogues, and more - suggesting that the Learning English producers haven't been asleep on the job.

My guess is that the popularity of 'Grammar Challenge' is, at least in part, because the learners' enthusiasm for simple listen-and-complete language practice activities hasn't changed - even over 70 years!

But Grammar Challenge isn't all 'same old, same old'. The student 'Challenger' allows you, the listener, to identify with the learner in the programme - placing 'Grammar Challenge' firmly in the 21st century. And It's exactly this type of learner-centred programme that is so central to the modern, communicative method of language teaching, which values personalised, meaningful learning experiences.

The 'explain - practice' approach of 'English by Radio' still has its place in BBC Learning English's 'store cupboard'. But now, as a writer, I can cherry-pick 70 years of advances in methodology, innovation and technology. From games, to interactive activities, social media and more - there's plenty to choose from.

But, as I click on 'listen again', I realise that what I like most about 'English by Radio' is that it delivers a solid language lesson in just 4 minutes. And in these days of short attention spans, that's well worth digging out of the archives. Jolly good!


theme tune

a short piece of music that is played at the beginning and/or end of a TV or radio programme or film



a person who is part of a team of 2 or more people who introduce a television or radio programme



a piece of equipment that a person speaks or sings into in order to record the sound or make it louder



gives examples of something to explain or show what it is like



giving lots of useful and helpful information



(short for) English Language Teaching



the basic and most important parts



(here) the radio, television and online programmes and materials that are made and broadcast


regional accents

ways of pronouncing words that are found and used in a particular geographical area


on first-name terms

having a friendly or informal relationship so that it is appropriate to use people's first names instead of Mr / Mrs / Miss / Sir / Madam etc.



to move information from one computer system or the internet to your computer or device



sound that is broadcast or recorded



one part of a series of radio, video or television programmes



a new idea, invention or way of doing things that is often very different and better than before



(here) people whose job it is to make radio and television programmes, films, plays etc.



a method of teaching whereby the student participates actively in lessons



expressing thoughts, feelings and ideas, often through language



a chosen way of dealing with something



choosing only the best items from a group



the principles, ideas and methods that (here) English language teaching is based on


attention span

the length of time that someone can concentrate on something for



the place where collections of old or historical items (here, programmes) are stored


Jolly good!

an expression (often thought of as quite old-fashioned) that means the speaker is pleased


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