February: I started my first website! Channel Z Television is English Banana.com's sister site. It was my first attempt at creating a website from scratch. I was inspired to start doing it in February 2002, after my mum took a computer course but failed her exam because she forgot to close a link, and her complete article acted as a link to the next page (instead of a single word). I vowed to learn HTML (HyperText Markup Language - the code that I used to make all of the web pages) to avenge her fail.
Actually, it was more out of boredom and also because I couldn't afford a mega WYSIWYG website package like Front Page (though I looked at it longingly in the shop for a bit). I bought a book called HTML Complete and it really did live up to its name. It taught me how to make a page. The reason that my websites look a bit home-made compared to more shiny and polished sites is that they have been created using mainly handwritten HTML coding. Rather than this being a problem, I soon realised that there were potential benefits; the pages are very quick to load in browsers, and I also feel that my sites stand out a little bit and are unique because the code has been handwritten rather than generated by a software program that thousands of other web designers are using.
From the start, it was fascinating to be able to change the colours of page backgrounds and add links, and save them all in one folder. It was really exciting. I 'ooohed' to the novelty of adding pictures, and 'aaahed' to the fun of creating tables. In the end I finished up with a basic page shape that I liked (see example here). A colourful page, with a links bar at the top, a heading, a site logo .gif (image), a small .JPEG photo, and a white table in the centre with the text in. I stuck with that style of page, and then later copied the idea (and coding) for English Banana.com.
Channel Z started out on local radio. Back in 1998, I had a friend at university called Lucy who did a one hour show every week dubbed "The L Zone" on local radio station Radio Ceredigion. We got together some other drama students and actually performed the first six scripts live on air, the first episode going out on 14th January 1998. Did anybody hear it? Yes, statistically, they must have done. (Although that person no longer lives in Wales!) We had a lot of fun doing it, usually without even a cursory rehearsal; just reading from the scripts into the studio mic. After Channel Z I started writing a sit-com set in the time of the English Civil War, which also didn't get very far. That was called 'Evening Playing' and was really enjoyable to write. I suppose it was a sitcom inspired by Blackadder, but without any funny gags. Later that year I graduated from university and got a sensible job with the British Civil Service. (Although not long after that, in early 1999, I took a one-month intensive TEFL training course, with the hope and expectation of teaching English abroad.)
Channel Z is still floating about online, as a subsection of English Banana.com, on the same server. I hardly ever update it, and never get any feedback about it. It feels a bit like a neglected tea towel, half hidden out of sight in the laundry cupboard of my life. I would like to get my hands on it one day, gather all of the characters and plot strands together, and make a book or play out of them. Re-reading some of it recently, ten years down the line, I was hooting with laughter. But maybe that's just me... There is a proper story outline somewhere, with a conclusion to the whole plot, so if you would like to know what happens in the end to Rodney Clambake and Michael Macintyre, please do get in touch!
Making the Channel Z site - which was essentially recycling and embellishing old content that I had lying around - was a really useful learning curve for me. It's where I first learned the basics of how to make pages with content and link them together; how to make images and banner ads; how to create a unified whole out of a group of pages and images; how to code and, most importantly, how to promote a site online - both with the search engines and through exchanging links with other sites and directories.
December 17th: I registered the englishbanana.com domain name.
Though I had had some good feedback for Channel Z and I enjoyed writing stuff for it, it was still mainly all about reading from a monitor. (Which is not that much fun at the best of times, is it really?) I had learned so much from doing Channel Z, but I wanted more of a challenge. I really wanted site visitors to be able to interact with the site - to have a deeper experience than simply reading text. I began working on English Banana.com in the autumn of 2002.
English Banana.com first went online on the free Lycos Tripod server as part of the same domain as Channel Z (members.lycos.co.uk/mattpurland/), a few weeks before Christmas 2002. (For the first six months of the site's history, the domain name englishbanana.com was pointed to this free hosting package.) The first ever index page (click here to see it!) had a nice picture of Crich Stand in Derbyshire, and a windswept field, until a helpful student at work pointed out that this was "boring" (he was quite right) and suggested that there should be pictures of people on the front page, rather than a field. (He was right again - although he did specify that all of the people on it should be "fit" women...) Notice how the sentiment of the original site - "Feel free to copy as much stuff as you want from this site..." - is still alive today.
While I wanted the site to be interactive - I wanted to create a more tangible relationship with my site visitors - the other aim at the outset was for it to offer something of real value to students and teachers of English and Drama. I wanted it to appeal mainly to adults, but realised that some of the material could be useful to teenagers and children too. I also wanted the site to be a bit more compact and user-friendly than the rambling mass of pages over at Channel Z. Thatís why I designed a template page that could be used again and again, with the same main links on it. I copied the design (and colour) from this page on Channel Z, and decided to kit out the whole site in the same salmon red colour, rather than use different colours for different sections, as I'd done on Channel Z.
This was one of the earliest home page layouts, when there wasn't that much content on the site. I owe a debt of gratitude to these unknown faces (whose pictures came from a stock pictures CD-ROM) for lending the site a certain gravitas and studiousness. (Especially the older chap who wasn't even looking at the camera, he was so cool.)
This page had the familiar titlebar that had been with the site since it started in 2002 and would continue on the home page until 2007. Also prominent were banners for Channel Z Television, and Sites for Teachers, a site which really helped English Banana.com to get off the ground by providing lots of great teacher traffic that has - wonderfully - continued to this day. Note the links for adding to favourites and making the site your home page - which also helped the site to become more established, as people saved the bookmark and began returning to English Banana.com again and again...
The site really began to take off, though, when I invested in Adobeís Acrobat software in March, which enabled me to start adding printable worksheets as .PDF files that could be downloaded and used freely. I learned the important lesson that web traffic goes up - big time! - once you start giving away free stuff.
The worksheets started to build up slowly, from 50 to 100, then 150, then 200 and so on. I had excellent support from the Sites For Teachers website and I quickly realised that it was necessary to integrate links to them into the key pages of my site. I added a new set of sub-heading links to all my main pages, including basic stuff like the facility to 'set as homepage', 'bookmark this site', and other peripherals like a polls page, tell a friend, guestbook (all free add-ons from Bravenet.com) and an awards page. I had an early boost when my site was added to the now-defunct web directory Yahooligans ("The Web Guide for Kids") in February 2003:
and also when my site won Site of the Month at the influential and well-established English Club website one month later:
Whilst the English Club award really meant a lot - coming as it did from a highly credible source - it was quite fashionable at this time to apply for and get "awards" from all sort of websites, that were sometimes no more than a way for the awarding site to acquire a free link on your page, in return for lending an air of credibility to your site. One of the most common "awarding bodies" around was "The Golden Web Awards", and Channel Z and English Banana both won a brace each, for example:
Throughout 2003 I kept on plugging away at building up the resources on the site - worksheets, quizzes and games - and the monthly traffic continued to grow steadily. It wasnít until September 2003 that the site started getting above 1,000 page views every day, with 38,164 pages viewed in total in that month. After that things just started getting plain silly, with 61,188 in October and 91,353 page views in November. By the end of the year I was staggered when I realised that the site had had over 200,000 page views in the whole year; in the same way that I now feel surprised and amazed when the site gets over 4 million page views in a single month! I was enjoying writing the resources - the topics for which sprang from the needs of my learners at work at the time, who were more than happy to test out my ideas and the worksheets that would then end up online.
Teachers and students are always hunting for fresh materials online. I know they are, because I've done and still do the same myself, so when you find a great site on the web with lots of free content, itís a happy day indeed! I felt like this when I first clapped eyes on all the free downloadable material that was freely available on Macmillan Publishing's One Stop English site. In general, it seems that many people view the internet as a free resource - a kind of virtual treasure trove of downloadable stuff that they can share with their friends whenever they like (e.g. music, films, games, pictures, and so on). The nature of the web allows them to do this.
Why should online materials be free? It seems that we expect stuff from the internet to be free. Maybe it's because we know that the distribution costs are so much lower than for physical products. Or maybe it's because free is just better than paying for something. When searching online for free worksheets for my ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes, I had been getting annoyed by the all-too-common experience of finding great teaching sites which offered high-quality educational materials, getting excited about using them (getting my hopes up), and then slowly realising that there was a catch of some kind. That you could only access a few pages, or that you had to sign up to receive something, or worse still - pay...! As a teacher using the web, I knew what I wanted, which was high-quality, free, useful materials to give to my students. It was my aim to provide this on English Banana.com. (I also got a kick out of being different from many other sites in not charging or making visitors sign up for the materials.)
Like Channel Z Television, the drama scripts and poems were material that I already had lying around. The poems had already been added to Channel Z in 2002 under the title "Playing in the Snow", and I added the drama scripts to the site in order to increase the amount of free content for visitors. I don't know whether anybody has performed any of the scripts because I have never received any feedback about them. I studied Drama at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, and wrote and produced "An Elephant's Memory of Cakes Once Thrown" as a student production in 1996 whilst in my second year. I wrote "Waterfall - A New Version of Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale" the following year, with an eye on producing it, but ran out of time at uni. The "poems" were mostly written between 1994-1996 and were originally songs that I had composed on my acoustic guitar. Yes, there are original tunes for each of them!
June: I upgraded the website to paid hosting - on a Lycos server. This felt like a big step because I was investing money in the site for the first time, but I was hugely encouraged by the growing number of site visitors and wanted to see how far English Banana.com could go. Also I wanted the site to look more professional, without all of the Lycos Tripod ads on every page, which came automatically with the free hosting package.
May-November: I sent out unsolicited copies of a prototype English Banana.com workbook with a covering letter to a few ELT publishers, including Macmillan and OUP. Here's an extract from my letter to Macmillan Publishing:
"Dear Sir/Madam, I am writing to enclose a copy of a book that I have written - "English Banana.com - the second book". I wondered whether Macmillan Publishing would be interested in publishing it. The book has its own website - www.englishbanana.com - where the worksheets have been originally posted for free download by surfing teachers and students. The book brings together some of the best recent worksheets, along with answers. It is aimed at ESOL and EFL teachers, although it could by used by students themselves as a self-study tool. It is divided into skill sections, with each page being an individual worksheet, suitable for photocopying for class use. All the material is original work, and at present the book is in prototype form..."
Like any writer I wanted to get my work published - properly published. I had some correspondence with them, but nothing came of it. It became clear that photocopiable worksheets of the kind that I was producing weren't part of the business plan for this kind of publisher, which makes its income largely from volume sales of books to language schools, rather than selling a single book to each school that can be photocopied.
By August 2003 I was in a position to be able to put together as a free download an 80 page .pdf book containing some of the best worksheets and activities so far. This is from the introduction:
"Hi there!...and welcome to the first ever English Banana book! This book brings together some of the very best worksheets for teachers and students of English from the English Banana.com website. Whether you are a teacher or a student we hope that you will find something here to inspire you and make English language learning fun and relevant. The worksheets can be photocopied freely and are primarily intended for use with Entry Level students, although they will also provide useful practise for learners at all levels..."
"The Second Book" followed soon afterwards, containing material for students at intermediate level. Material from both books was redistributed into the three books that followed over the next two years - the Big Grammar Book, Big Activity Book, and Big Resource Book - along with lots of new material. At 88 pages long and with full answers and notes for use "The Second Book" - like its predecessor (above) - represented something really worthwhile for teachers to download for free, and both books soon became very popular on the site. From the introduction:
"While the first book was aimed primarily at Entry Level students, this one is aimed at higher level students, either Intermediate Level or Level 1 (ESOL Core Curriculum), depending on how you choose to label them."
At the time I was teaching adult learners from many different countries at a private training provider in Derby, UK - students who, for one reason or another, were living long-term in the UK, rather than foreign language students who were visiting on holiday. The name of the subject that I taught was ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and it's clear from the jargon in my introduction that I was trying not to limit the usefulness of the material to one kind of teaching situation. As time went by, as I received feedback from site visitors, I realised that the material had wider appeal and was being used in all sorts of situations, and countries. In prisons, schools, with adults, with children, with teenagers. I tried to make the material as neutral as I could - without lots of culturally-specific pictures - so that it was just for "learning English", rather than for students of any particular age, nationality, or acronym (ESOL, ESL, EFL, TOEFL, and so on). I think that this helped to widen the appeal of the worksheets.
November: The Big Grammar Book (ISBN: 0954698509) was published. It was effectively self-published. I applied for the ISBN number; I made arrangements with the printer, and for distribution via my website; I sold copies to friends, and packed and posted them to customers from the site; I set up a business account as a "sole trader". Nobody told me I couldn't do it: I just did it! The Big Grammar Book was really a compilation of all the grammar worksheets from "The First Book" and "The Second Book", plus some new material. I was writing all different kinds of worksheets - Vocabulary, Spelling, etc. - but the grammar ones were proving most popular (so the site stats were telling me), so I felt that a compilation of the best grammar worksheets would be the best commercial prospect. The original price was £8.95, which gave me a small profit after the printing costs. I sold a few of the first copies to friends, and gamely my manager at work bought a copy for our department, which I really appreciated!
The Big Grammar Book has always been the most popular of all the English Banana.com books and materials, and I think that that is really due to the word "Grammar" in the title. Simple as that. So why not produce a "Big Grammar Book 2"? Well, I like variety in all things in life and I was happiest writing different kinds of worksheets under the headings that I used from "The First Book" through to the Big Resource Book: Grammar, Spelling, Vocabulary, Reading, Speaking & Listening, and Research. The truth is that I get bored when working on the same kind of thing for too long.
They wrote: "This site has a wealth of language arts games along with solutions. Complete with grammar rules, quizzes, punctuation tips and links to utilizing the site in different languages, the site serves as a digest, with games for students from elementary through high school level.
"Free worksheets by subject might prove most useful for educators, leaving the games links for students to explore on their own time. A vast list of topics (in .pdf or .jpg format) are available for download including reading, writing, flash cards, vocabulary, listening and speaking, to name a few. For those wishing to use the text version only, that option is available."
November: We were awarded The Busy Educator Award by Marjan Glavac, editor of The Busy Educator's Guide to the World Wide Web. It was awarded exclusively to "sites which benefit Busy Educators."
At about the same time we were nominated for the New Statesman - New Media Awards 2003. Well, self-nominated! For these awards site owners could nominate themselves - so I lost no time in doing just that - two years running. It made English Banana.com look really good - and provided a free picture link for the New Statesman's site into the bargain!
2003 had been a really productive and positive year on English Banana.com. I had produced three books - the third being a "proper" publication. The number of pages and visitors easily outranked anything I had achieved with Channel Z Television, and this, combined with positive email feedback and site awards, spurred me on to write and add more worksheets, quizzes, and games. Everybody likes to be liked! The aim was all the time to increase the content on the site, and to make it quality content - something really useful for teachers and students, that would encourage them to tell their friends and increase the number of visitors to the site.