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70 years of ELT Journal: continuity and change

Business meeting

Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.

There are few things in ELT which are quite as long-standing as ELT Journal. This year marks its 70th anniversary, and, over those 70 years, the Journal has published well over 2,000 articles, over 1,000 books reviews, and countless other feature items (in 1967, for example, we find the announcement of a new venture, the Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, now known as IATEFL: issue XXI: 3).

So what continuities can we see between the first issue and ELT Journal in 2016, and what has changed over time to stay relevant to teachers today? One constant is the overall aim of the Journal. In the language of the times, the opening editorial in 1946 stated that ‘our new periodical, it is hoped … will enable the teacher in the classroom to know what has been done and is being done to help him in his task and to exchange with fellow workers his own experiences and findings’ (issue 1/1). And today, the Journal ‘aims to provide a medium for informed discussion of the principles and practice which determine the ways in which English is taught and learnt around the world’ (ELT Journal’s aims are outlined in more detail on its website). That first issue also created the template for all subsequent editions – an editorial (although now, in the interests of space and readers’ patience, not in every issue!); a range of articles; book reviews; and a feature item.

Of course, there are also differences between ‘then and now’. As well as providing the editorial, the then editor A.S. Hornby also wrote two of the articles; this reflected the relatively small number of people involved or interested in ELT at that time, in comparison to today’s global profession. And the papers and reviews themselves – with their focus on Britain and British culture (by British authors), on the work of de Saussure, and on ‘Books you should know’ – strike a different tone to those in today’s ELT Journal; they aimed to chart a course and establish a field, perhaps, whereas today we hope to share knowledge and draw on common understandings, albeit as we engage in our professional discussions, debates and disputes.

From 1946, let us fast-forward 35 years, to 1981. A key event in ELT Journal’s development was its reconfiguration that year, to reflect the growth of our field and the increasing range of insights from relatively new academic disciplines such as applied linguistics, sociology and psychology. In his editorial (issue 36/1), incoming editor Richard Rossner, reflected upon the increasing diversity of the profession and the range of contexts in which English was taught, and emphasised that it is not ‘good for the profession if individuals see themselves as mainly concerned with ‘theory’ or only involved in ‘practice’ ’. The Journal aimed, overtly, to bridge the ‘theory-practice’ gap; similarly, today, ELT Journal ‘links the everyday concerns of practitioners with insights gained from relevant academic disciplines’.

And what of the content of ELT Journal 35 years ago, half way through its 70 year span? In issue 36/1, both the topics and titles of articles and of books reviewed are perhaps more familiar – debates surrounding the role of teaching materials, student autonomy and authenticity appear; language skills as well as language structures or systems are discussed; different learner age groups are recognised. And authorship throughout the publication is more international and no longer solely the preserve of men. We can see these trends maintained and developed further in the Journal today.

So in fact, this year marks two notable points in ELT Journal’s development – its founding 70 years ago, and its re-launch 35 years ago in 1981, when it became even more recognisably the journal we see today. To celebrate this, both the first issue of English Language Teaching (1/1; 1946) and the first re-launched ELT Journal (36/1; 1981) are freely available on ELT Journal’s website throughout 2016, and, if you have the opportunity to read them, you can track the developments I have briefly summarised here. You can also compare these past issues of the Journal with papers from the present day, through the online ‘Editor’s Choice’ feature, in which an article from each recent issue of the Journal is made freely available online, in many cases alongside short videos in which their authors discuss their paper and the ideas behind it.

Join us at IATEFL, Birmingham for the annual ELTJ Debate, taking place Thursday 14th April. The motion of this year’s debate is: This house believes that teacher training is a waste of time. Proposing: Peter Grundy / Apposing: Penny Ur.


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Catherine Walter on the #ELTJ Debate at #IATEFL Liverpool

Catherine WalterThe ELT Journal debate at IATEFL Liverpool was a lively and well-attended affair. Thanks to the British Council, you can see the whole event online on the IATEFL Liverpool website. Here, Catherine Walter, who opposed the motion, gives her round up of the debate.

Scott Thornbury claimed that Published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners. Surprisingly, he did not repeat what he’s been saying for years in his Dogme / Teaching Unplugged strand – that teachers should not bother with course materials. Instead, he started from the weaker premise that course materials need improvement. Scott began by showing images of early twentieth-century books – hardly germane to the discussion, as if the nutritional value of deep-fried Mars Bars gave a picture of the contemporary diet. He maintained that there is a prevalence of employed, white, heterosexual male middle class characters in current materials. This doesn’t correspond to the regular exercises I do with students to count and classify representations in materials, where some materials do very well indeed. Scott also suggested that vocabulary syllabuses are not based on frequency, and that spoken grammar is not well represented. I would argue with both these points.

My view:

There are high quality materials available today from international and national publishers. Most learners globally learn from materials in countries where English is not a dominant language, in large classes that meet two or three times a week, where access to other materials or the internet may not be good. The book is still a valuable technology here; and it is also often doorway to different possible combinations of supplementary materials and activities, in whatever media the teachers and learners can access.

What about reflecting the lives of learners?

When I was learning a foreign language as an adolescent in a semi-rural working-class industrial town, I did not want language teaching materials to reflect my life – I wanted them to take me out of it, to show me other lives and other ways of living. Further, if materials are too firmly anchored in the here and now of the learner, how will that prepare them for the future?  Of course, there are some ways in which course materials should and do reflect learners’ lives – for example, by being based on knowledge about how people learn at different ages, or by comparing learners’ lives to those in other places.

What about learners’ needs? 

  • Learners need to learn the language, not just those bits of the language that might happen to emerge in a lesson. Teams of course developers think very carefully about the range of language learners need, and make sure this range is covered.  Individual teachers don’t have the time or resources for this.
  • Learners need classroom time to be used effectively, because typically there isn’t much of that time.  Course materials offer clear, efficient ways of teaching language – and Norris and Ortega’s (2000) and Spada and Tomita’s (2010) analyses show that this works, and results in lasting acquisition.
  • Learners need materials that will help them with the next English language situation they will meet. Course materials provide structures and contexts for out-of-classroom situations.
  • Learners need access to extra resources that can be tailored to their needs. Modern courses offer pathways and activities to suit different learners.
  • Learners need clear goals and records of progress, and they value materials because they give these.
  • Learners need teachers who are well supported: course materials scaffold teachers, giving them a base from which to replace, reinvent, innovate and fine-tune materials for learners.
  • Learners need teachers who have access to professional development activities. Few teachers around the world can come to an IATEFL conference. Teachers in the majority 3-hour-a-week context, and not only there, regularly report on how they benefit from the teacher’s materials in their course books and in their development as professionals.

There is an unprecedented choice of materials available today; teachers don’t need to feed their students deep-fried Mars Bars. Materials can give teachers something to depend on, and something to kick against; they can give teachers frameworks and ingredients to depend on and to improvise from. How teachers nourish their students’ learning will always stem from the teachers’ creativity and their awareness of learners’ needs and lives.

You can also read Scott Thornbury’s take on the ELT Journal Debate in his post “R is for Representation” and watch the recorded debate online. Which of the speakers would have won your vote?

Catherine Walter writes English language teaching materials and lectures in applied linguistics at the University of Oxford (UK). She is the convenor of the low-residency Postgraduate Diploma / MSc in Teaching English Language in University Settings (on which there are still a few places available for the coming academic year!).

References

Norris, J. M. and L. Ortega.  2000.  Effectiveness of L2 instruction:  a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis.  Language Learning 50/3:417-528.

Spada, N. and Tomita, Y.  2010.  Interactions between type of instruction and type of language feature:  a meta-analysis.  Language Learning 60/2:1-46.


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This house believes that published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners

Young woman public speakingAhead of the ELT Journal debate at IATEFL Liverpool, Graham Hall, editor of ELT Journal, presents his arguments for and against the need for published course materials.

Teaching and learning materials of one form or another are almost, but not quite, universal in ELT classrooms. And, obviously, the materials available to teachers and learners vary widely according to context; teachers and learners may also use similar materials in different ways depending on, for example, their beliefs, knowledge and skills, and wider social and institutional expectations.

But over time, changing ideas about language learning combined with developments in technology lead to changes in ELT materials. ‘Older’ materials are often replaced by newer resources which, in turn, eventually become outdated or unfashionable. So it can help us as teachers to think through some of the debates surrounding teaching and learning materials to make up our own minds about their strengths and weaknesses.

By way of example, let’s look at some of the debates surrounding textbooks (and here I mean textbooks generally, rather than evaluating a particular book or series). Textbooks are the main source of teaching ideas and materials for many teachers around the world; indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine ELT without textbooks. But whether they are a help or hindrance to teaching and learning is often a source of heated discussion.

Well-designed textbooks have a number obvious benefits for teachers and learners. They provide language input for learners; they can provide interesting and motivating material, organised in an appealing and logical manner; and they provide a written record of what has been studied, allowing for revision and continued study beyond the classroom. Textbooks also reduce the amount of time teachers’ require for preparation. So, one way of thinking about textbooks is that professional materials writers and teachers have different areas of expertise which complement each other. Using well-presented, professionally published textbooks frees teachers to deal with the day-to-day business of actually teaching.

But there are a number of criticisms of textbooks. Perhaps they create a ‘dependency culture’ in which teachers avoid responsibility and just do ‘what they are told’ by the textbook writers. As a result (so the argument goes), teachers may become ‘de-skilled’, losing their ability to think critically and work independently in the classroom. Textbooks are also said to fail to cater for individual needs, lead to material- rather than person-centred classes, and constrain creativity in the classroom.

However, criticisms of textbooks extend beyond these classroom-focused concerns. As well as being an teaching resource, textbooks are commercial products, which, it is claimed, are innately conservative in order to sell as widely as possible. This caution might be methodological, or it might be reflected in the cultural images that textbooks present. Most textbooks, for example, continue to focus on native-speaker lives, lifestyles and language varieties, and images of successful L2 learners are absent from many ELT materials; likewise, images of poverty, disability and many other aspects of ‘real life’ are difficult to find in many textbooks. Thus, it is argued, textbooks are not ‘neutral’, but reflect a particular view of social order and particular sets of values.

Of course, it is would unfair to suggest that textbooks writers and publishers are not aware of, or concerned about, these issues; yet producing a marketable product which does not ignore global and local realities and contexts is a difficult challenge.

These issues will be discussed and debated in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Liverpool on Thursday 11th April (17:05-18:20 UK time). There, Scott Thornbury will propose the motion ‘This house believes that published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners’; Catherine Walter will oppose the motion. For more information about the conference, and to access the debate via Liverpool online, go to http://www.iatefl.org/.

Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.