Tony Gurr

The “New Orthodoxy” of ELT

In ELT and ELL on 19/02/2011 at 9:07 am

Like many language teaching professionals I am always intrigued by new trends in language and language learning.

Trends have a way of clarifying “where we are” and “where we are going” – and help us spot the “driving forces” that will shape how we “do business” in the future.

However, in looking at trends or patterns it is important to remember that we cannot simply jump on the “flavour-of-the-month” band-wagon. As educators, we need to reflect critically on how underlying trends and changes will develop over time and impact the types of “living educational philosophies” and “lived missions” we use to design learning opportunities for our students and the planned experiences we take into our classrooms.

One interesting set of trends I saw recently were presented in a “think piece” prepared to help educational leaders and teachers better understand current trends in language education. In the monograph, Global Trends in Language Learning in the 21st Century, Eaton presents an innovative list of “what’s in” and “what’s out” for the language classroom:

What’s OUT

  • Vague, hollow promises that can’t be proven.
  • Saying that learning languages is easy.
  • Authoritative teacher attitudes.
  • Complaining about cutbacks and lack of funding.
  • Language labs.

What’s IN

  • Clear, provable demonstrations of learning.
  • Frameworks, benchmarks and other asset-based approaches to assessment.
  • Individualized, customizable, learner-centred approaches.
  • Proving the value of language learning through stories and speech.
  • Using technology for language learning.
  • Linking language learning to leadership skills.
  • Showing funders the impact their investment has on our students, our communities and our world.

At first sight, her list of “ins” and “outs” does not seem to offer many earth-shattering insights.

It is certainly true that behind Eaton’s list is a more powerful message on the purpose of language learning: the focus in language education in the twenty-first century is no longer on grammar, memorization and learning from rote, but rather using language and cultural knowledge as a means to communicate and connect to others around the globe. However, this should not be news to many of us – as is her suggestion that more old fashioned “authoritarian models are giving way to gentler, more collaborative models” and the fact that “geographical and physical boundaries are being transcended by technology”.

What is different, however, is her emphasis on the fact that that we need to reconceptualise how we “do business” in ELT around the notion of “walking our talk” and knowing exactly “what that talk is all about”.

One of the most comprehensive discussions of trends in language education is presented by David Graddol, in his excellent monograph “English Next”. In this, he builds on his innovative analysis given in The Future of English (1997) – and also offers a great deal of insight into helping us understand where the business of ELT is going.

Graddol’s main purpose is to explore a wide range of trends from demography, economy, technology, society, education and languages. Ultimately, he arrives at the same conclusion as David Crystal and recognises that English has become “the” de facto global language. In much the same way that Crystal notes, he also claims that the current, apparently unassailable, position of English as the world’s lingua franca, is the result of the unprecedented social, technological and economic global changes we face today.

Some of the economic trends to which he refers have already become a reality. This month saw Japan’s 42-year ranking as the world’s second-largest economy come to an end – as she was finally eclipsed by China.

Graddol draws on some mind-boggling statistics, generated by a computer model developed by The English Company (UK) Ltd to forecast potential demand for English in the education systems around the globe.

  • There are now over 5 billion people globally who do not speak English as either their first or second language.
  • Around 1.9 billion of these are between the ages of 6–24 (the key age group for education and training).
  • The total number of non-English speakers is expected to rise slowly and peak in 2030 at just over 2 billion.

In 2000, the British Council estimated that there were around 750 million and 1 billion people that were learning English. If Graddol and The English Company are correct, almost a third of the world’s population is trying to learn English – as I write this.

This is great news for ELT professionals – we all get to keep our jobs for the next 20 years. Well, not such great news for native speakers. This is because, as Crystal notes, the spread of English is not as stable and permanent as it once was. Graddol suggests that the rise of “Global Englishes” and Teaching and learning English as a lingua franca (ELF) is changing the traditional face of ELT and EFL – but that’s for another conversation!

It is this last point that distinguishes Graddol’s work from that of Crystal.

Graddol also focuses his attention on the impact these changes and the rise of “linguistic post-modernity” are having on the world of ELT and uses this to introduce what he describes as the “new orthodoxy” that is shaping the world of ELL.

For Graddol, this new orthodoxy is built on four pillars:

(1) Start teaching English at primary school – preferably Grade 1 but at least by Grade 3.

(2) Begin teaching at least part of the curriculum through English at secondary school. Possibly provide specialist support by English teachers.

(3) Require students to be proficient in English at entry; reduce support for English teaching within university to specialised subject knowledge.

(4) Teach more courses at university through English, or at least expect students to be able to access study materials – such as textbooks – in English.

In his earlier monograph Graddol suggested that “the future was bilingual”, however, in his sequel he talks more of how English has become a “basic skill” (as is the case with literacy, numeracy, technology and learning how to learn) in today’s globalised world – and about how this is having a profound impact on who is learning English.

So, what does this new orthodoxy mean for YOU?


The Language Revolution (Themes for the 21st Century) by David Crystal

The English Language: A Guided Tour of the Language by David Crystal

Redesigning English by Sharon Goodman, David Graddol, and Theresa Lillis

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  1. I wonder how many of the 1/3 of the learners of English do have access to the internet. Nice post, Tony. Once started, you seemed to spare time on it:)

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