Tim Johns, 1936 - 2009

Tim at ESU
English Speaking Union conference, 1983
Tim watches as Professor Randolph Quirk tries out one of his programs on a Newbrain

Tim Johns was appointed as lecturer in the English for Overseas Students Unit (EOSU) of Birmingham University in 1971. He remained in that post until his retirement in 2001. He developed innovative approaches to what is known as EAP (English for Academic Purposes) by collaborating with subject teachers, concentrating at first on two disciplines, Highway Engineering and Plant Biology, later extending the team-teaching approach to other areas. In this he collaborated with Tony Dudley-Evans, and the pair published two influential articles at the end of the 1970s.

A dominant theme of this and later work was that the learners should work with text rather than with single out-of-context sentences of the kind common in the remedial grammar workbooks of the time. A related theme was that the text should be authentic in three ways, which he called authenticity of script, authenticity of purpose, and authenticity of activity.

The most obvious of these is authenticity of script. The use of unsimplified texts with learners does not, of course, mean that the traditional helping role of the teacher is withdrawn: rather, it is transferred from the stage of text preparation to the stage of text presentation, the teacher helping learners to explore the limits of what they can discover at their individual level of ability. That approach can, of course, present difficulties if students believe or have been led to believe that to understand anything they should understand everything.

Authenticity of purpose means that the text should be of value to the learner quite apart from its use in a language-teaching context, and that the part played by the teacher should be to help to make that value available to the learner. Here most teachers have to play a game of make-believe with their students: “Let us read this text as if you had to find the salient facts/write a summary/learn how to imitate it. ” In our work we are fortunate that we can often get the students to identify and provide the texts that they are having to work with on their courses or in their research, and to base our work on what they and their subject teachers tell us they have to do with those texts. In that situation, "as if you had" is replaced by "because you have".

The third concept, authenticity of activity, implies that what is done with the text should be transferable to the situation outside the classroom where the learner is trying to make sense of the language without the help of the teacher or of teaching materials. From this point of view, multiple-choice questions and other quiz-like activities seem to have low transferability, while others such as task reading and diagramming of text have high transferability.

During the 1970s he developed an interest in using computers or language teaching, perhaps inspired by the way Birmingham was becoming involved in concordance research to develop language teaching materials via the COBUILD (Collins and Birmingham University) project. He used mainframe termnals but was quick to adopt personal computers when they became available, including the ZX80 and ZX81 on which he created useful learning activities in spite of the tiny memories of these machines. His software fell into two main categories which he labelled 'analytic' and 'generative'. The analytic activities involved mutilating pieces of text by deletion or reordering and having learners rebuild the text using guesswork and collaborative discussion. The generative programs involved making the computer produce language, eg by inflecting verb forms or suggesting ways to ask for money or apologise; the learners' task was to observe the output and see if they could force the machine to make a mistake.

In 1983 he was asked by Annette Capel of Collins to collaborate with John Higgins on a book about computer-assisted language learning describing some of the innovative software he had pioneered. This appeared in 1984 and was influential until the spread of the world-wide web in the early 1990s made some of the specific content out of date.

Tim Johns is strongly associated with an approach he called data-driven learning, which has persisted, indeed flourished, since his death. The origins of this go back to his 1982 paper in ELT Documents, where he writes:

“ a refinement of CAI which we should like to look into [is] a blurring of the distinction between research programs and teaching/learning programs. What I have in mind here is an interactive program which would give the language-learner a user-friendly tool for investigating problems in the target language— for example, the use in context of a problem word, or the vocabulary of a certain type of text.

This became concrete in work he did in the 1980s, using concordance output with students both interactively on screen and with paper printout. It is exemplified in web pages he called Kibbitzers, accounts of meetings with students in which he got them to correct errors in their own writing by looking at concordance data.

After retirement he spent an increasing amount of time pursuing an interest in the works of Arthur Ransome. He contributed many pages to the website of the Arthur Ransome Sopciety and a resource derived from it called All Things Ransome" which includes a tribute to him. His last publication was in support of two of his Chinese students who had used extracts fron the Swallows and Amazon books by Ransome as concordance data for EFL learners.

Tim Johns’s publications

Johns, T.F. and Dudley-Evans, A. “An experiment in team teaching of overseas postgraduate students of transportation and plant biology.” ELT Documents 106, 1980. Reprinted in Swales, Episodes in ESP, Pergamon Press, 1985.

Johns, T.F. and Dudley-Evans, A. “A team-teaching approach to lecture comprehension for overseas students.” The teaching of listening comprehension, special issue of ELT Documents, 1981.

Johns, T.F. “The uses of an analytic generator”, the computer as teacher of English for special purposes. ELT Documents 112. 1982.

Johns, T.F. "Exploratory CAL: an alternative use of the computer in teaching foreign languages". Paper given at the BC conferen Computers in language teaching, Paris, December 1981. Reprinted in Computer-assisted language learning; British Council inputs, 1982.

Johns, Tim and Davies, Florence. "Text as vehicle for information: the classroom use of written texts in teaching reading in a foreign language." Reading in a foreign language (University of Aston), Vol 1 No 1, March 1983.

Higgins, John and Johns, Tim. Computers in language learning. Collins. 1984.

Johns, Tim. "Micro-concord; a language learner's research tool". System, 14, 2. 1986.

Johns, T.F. "Whence and whither classroom concordancing?"" In Bongaerts, T., et al. Computer applications in language learning. Foris.1988.

Johns, Tim. "Should you be persuaded: two examples of data-driven learning." ELR Journal (Birmingham), Vol. 4, 1991.

Johns, Tim. "From printout to handout: grammar and vocabulary teaching in the context of data-driven learning." ELR Journal (Birmingham), Vol. 4, 1991.

Johns, Tim. "Contexts: the background, development and trialling of a concordance-based CALL program." Teaching and language corpora, ed. Wichmann, Fligelstone, McEnery and Knowles. Longman. 1997.

Johns, Tim and Wang Lixun. “Four versions of a sentence-shuffling program”System, Vol 27-3. 1999.

Johns, T, Hsingchin, L, Lixun, W. "Integrating corpus-based CALL programs in teaching English through children's literature." Computer-assisted language learning: an international journal. Vol 21/5, 2008, p. 483-508.


A collections of Tim Johns's Kibbitzer pages has been preserved at


and a version of the CONTEXTS program adapted for Windows is available at