Obituary: W. R. Lee

Click to follow
The Independent Online
W. R. Lee had probably the best-known address in the English-teaching world. For many years he ran the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) from a private address in Hounslow, and combined that with editing English Language Teaching (now ELT Journal) for Oxford University Press. Almost single-handed, without any institutional base, he turned round amateur traditions (familiar to us through Isherwood in Berlin or Burgess in Malaysia) and established the EFL profession that we know today as one of Britain's greatest exporters of services.

Bill Lee graduated from University College London, having studied under the phonetician, Daniel Jones, in 1933. He trained as a teacher at the Institute of Education in London, and taught in schools in Britain until the Second World War. During service with Military Intelligence, a crash from his motor-cycle caused every button to be stripped from his uniform.

After the war he taught in Czechoslovakia, married Zdena, obtained his PhD in Prague, and began a long connection with Eastern European foreign language teaching. One offshoot of this was the authorship, jointly with his wife, of Teach Yourself Czech. Another was a long-standing concern for English as an emancipatory activity, and for the needs of English teachers in countries without freely negotiable currency. Returning to Britain, he taught at the Institute of Education where he had trained, and took an MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

But his prime concern was the international profession of English teaching. For 20 years from 1961 he edited ELTJ, and during the same period founded IATEFL and ran it with a small and dedicated team of volunteers. Bigger organisations, like the British Council, publishers, and the London Institute of Education became increasingly active in EFL, but none of them matched his vision of a world-wide, altruistic and professionally informed teaching force. He was prepared to be a thorn in the flesh of any institution that blocked (as he saw it) support for teachers. Equally, he criticised teachers who lacked respect for ideas and for serious analysis of their task.

The needs of language- learners themselves were Lee's central concern. Textbooks and dictionaries for students, books of ideas and principles for teachers (on topics as diverse as language-teaching games and technical English) supplement-ed his work as an examiner. Only when new generations of professionals were ready to take over the institutions he had created did external recognition come, though the transition to newer leadership required considerable persuasion of someone whose energy and appetite for work had by no means diminished. His appointment as OBE in 1979 was a just reward for selfless effort, but he was prouder of passing his driving test in London at the age of 70.

In his mid-eighties he was still campaigning to ensure recogni-tion by the British government for supporters of the English language overseas. He lived to see both the journal and IATEFL thrive in new hands, and gave support to writers and teachers right up to the end.

An enthusiast for many of H.G. Wells's visions, he was also an active supporter of the World Wildlife Fund, for which he performed a sponsored walk every year until his last.

Christopher Brumfit

William Roland Lee, teacher, educator and internationalist: born Hillingdon, Middlesex 3 April 1911; married 1948 Zdena Pausarov (two daughters); OBE 1979; died Beverley, Yorkshire 5 February 1996.