Don Porter, 1938-2020

Tributes paid to ‘an extremely significant figure’ in the assessment of academic English

November 12, 2020
Don Porter

A pioneer in the development of language testing has died.

Don Porter was born in Peterborough on 4 November 1938 and took a first degree in languages at UCL and later an MPhil in scientific English and general linguistics. He worked as an immigration officer in London and Newcastle and then spent 15 years with the British Council teaching in universities everywhere from Syria to Sudan, Pakistan to Poland. In 1978, he found a permanent position at the University of Reading’s Centre for Applied Language Studies, where he remained until he retired as a senior lecturer in 2000.

Although Reading already had a strong reputation in applied linguistics and teaching English as a foreign language, Mr Porter played a crucial role in developing language testing as a major new field. He brought the Test of English for Academic Purposes to the university and twice ensured that it was revised to reflect changing times. He single-handedly founded and edited the Language Testing Newsletter, which in 1984 became the internationally renowned Language Testing Journal. And he formed part of the steering committee that led to the creation of the International Language Testing Association and later served on its executive board.

Barry O’Sullivan, head of assessment research and development at the British Council, described Mr Porter as “an extremely significant figure in the development of the British approach to communicative language testing in the 1980s”, whose collections of conference papers “had a powerful influence, particularly on the testing of English in academic and work contexts, and on the testing of speaking”. He was also “a hugely generous and supportive friend, colleague, supervisor and mentor” who had transformed Professor O’Sullivan’s own life. Although Professor O’Sullivan had left school at 15, worked as an apprentice fitter and had no plans to continue beyond a master’s degree in English as a foreign language, Mr Porter had spotted his potential, decided he should do a PhD and “simply refused to listen” to any objections, “even to the extent that he signed the application form in my place”, said Professor O’Sullivan.

After retirement, Professor O’Sullivan went on, Mr Porter decided to do a degree in archaeology and, “displaying his usual focus, drive and intellect, graduated with a first! While Don’s interest shifted from the language testing world to that of Roman sewerage systems and how Roman citizens knew a slave when they saw one, his erudition, sense of invention, mischief and humour never left him.”

Mr Porter died after a fall on 8 September 2020 and is survived by two sons, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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