English Language Teaching: Now and How it Could Be

I’m very grateful to Paul Walsh who recently interviewed me about the book. Our publisher has asked me to plug it, so here’s a quick summary.

The most important “rationale” for the book is our belief that to teach languages well, you need to know how people learn them. Not only does current ELT practice largely ignore robust findings from 60 years of SLA research, it relies on systematic and deliberate misreprepresentation of these findings, in order to defend the inefficacious teaching practices required by the use of General English coursebooks.

So Section One of the book consists of six chapters which offer an up-to-date, accessible discussion of recent developments in knowledge about second and foreign language learning.

  • We describe Interlanguage development and the pathways that learners follow, and offer an explanation for such trajectories.
  • We then discuss questions relating to the rate of L2 development, the vexed issue of ultimate attainment, and the latest research findings on the long term aeffects of various types of insruction.
  • In Chapter 5, we offer an overview of the cognitive processes and products involved in SLA, paying particular attention to the roles of implicit and explicit learning and knowledge.
  • Finally, in Chapter 6, we look at the implications of research findings in SLA for instruction. Most importantly, we stress the need to prioritize incidental and implicit learning through the use of an analytic, rather than a synthetic syllabus, thus challenging the twin foundations of explcit teaching and synthetic syllabuses on which coursebook-driven ELT rest. 

Section 2 takes a detailed look at how adults are taught EFL and ESL and at how we got to the lamentable situation we find ourselves in today. Beginning in the early 1960s with  Situational Language Teaching, we trace the development of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and describe how the bright sparks of CLT were effectively snuffed out by the emergence of the modern General English coursebook. A critique of the domination of coursebook-based ELT is then offered, which leads to Chapter 8: “How English could be taught much better: TBLT”. Chapter 9 examines immersion approaches to ELT, particulalry “Content and Language Integrated Language Learning” and “English as the Medium of Instruction”. Three “pre-CLIL” empirical studies and three “post-CLIL” empirical studies are given detailed attention, leading to a discussion of three important new research questions.

Chapter 10 deals with how teachers are trained and evaluated today, and how it could be done better. This is a particularly important area, in our opinion, bringing together many of the criticisms I’ve made in this blog of the way in which Second Language Teacher Education (SLTE) is organised and carried out.

Section 3 is dedicated to the way that English language learning is evaluated. A historical overview of how language testing has changed leads into a discussion of “The dark side of language testing”, where the Cambridge Assessment Group, the IELTS tests, the English Testing Service and the washback effects of high stakes English proficiency tests are examined and critiqued. The section ends with suggestions on how assessment could be done much better.

Finally, Section 4 deals with political and socioeconomic issues. Here’s a bit from Part 2 of my interview with Paul Walsh .

The ELT industry has an annual turnover of close to US $200 billion. Apart from the huge profits made by publishers, examination boards, teacher training outfits and public and private educational institutions, there is the enormous “soft power” exerted by nation states through language policies.

To paraphrase Chapter 12 of the book, most language teaching involves the language of powerful nations being taught to speakers of less powerful ones. English has been the principal language of the two most economically dominant nation states of the past 300 years – first the UK, and then for the past 150 years, the USA – and not coincidentally, of the most powerful armies required to procure and maintain those colonies and economic dominance.

As a result of this history of savage imperial conquest, there are now roughly 400 million native speakers of English in the world, and over four times that number, 1.75 billion, for whom English is a second or auxiliary language. Already huge, the second group is growing fast, with more than two billion speakers projected by 2025. The ability to determine which shall be a country’s national language, or in the case of many multilingual societies, its lingua franca, is a vital source of power for nation states and for elites within them.

This is the single biggest reason why ELT is so important. When one country invades or annexes another, it is common for command of a particular, standardized form of the invader’s language to be required, officially or unofficially, of any members of the subjugated population seeking access to political power, employment, and key social services, especially education, or even for immigrant visas or citizenship. The newly imposed standardized form of the language sometimes not only displaces indigenous languages, but drives them, and often their speakers, close to extinction, as happened, for example, with Hawaiian, and many native-American and Australian aboriginal languages.

The book concludes with Chapter 13: “Signs of struggle: Towards an alternative organization of ELT”. We discuss:

Despite Mike Long’s clout, it was difficult to find a publisher for this book. We’re grateful to Cambridge Scholars for taking it on, and I hope it will conribute to the fight for a better future for ELT. The fight is a practical one. It involves organisation which begins at the local level and slowly builds an international network uniting progressive workers in the ELT industry who share a common political viewpoint.

Here in Catalonia, I look forward to the next meeting of the SLB Cooperative on July 1st., where I’ll give a 10 minute presentation of the book and join in the always convivial, sparky, conversations that ensue. See the SLB twitter feeds for more information and the chance to win a copy of the book.