ELT: Past, Present, and Future
Willy A Renandya & George M Jacobs, 10 Dec 2023
The past 75 years or so have witnessed paradigmatic changes in the way we view second language teaching and learning. These changes have shaped the way we teach our students and support their learning. We outline below some of the most distinct eras that many of us have witnessed in the past and share our thoughts on how key ideas from these eras contribute to our understanding of the present and future trends in ELT.
The era of conditioned learning
One of the key figures during this era is B.F. Skinner who famously said “Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything.” Early methods of language learning that involved memorization, repeated drills and practice characterized this era. One language teaching method associated with this era is the audio-lingual method, which was widely used in the 60s and 70s. Remnants of this method can still be seen in the language classroom, but most teachers now believe that memorization and other mechanical practice play a less important role in language learning.
The era of natural learning
Two key figures here are Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen who believed that humans were endowed with an in-born capacity to acquire language. Given a sufficiently rich linguistic context and a motivating language learning environment, language acquisition would happen quite smoothly and naturally. The main job of a language teacher was to immerse students in compelling and comprehensible target language materials, provide language support when needed, and foster students’ intrinsic motivation.
Krashen and Terrell’s Natural Approach was an attempt to translate the natural learning theory into the classroom, but its implementation was fraught with a lot of difficulties right from the start. For one, teachers were not used to a teaching approach that requires little or no explicit teaching of language rules. Additionally, full immersion of the target language is just not possible in EFL contexts where English is rarely heard or spoken.
In recent years, however, some aspects of Krashen’s Input Theory have found their ways in the language classroom. Teachers, for example, are becoming increasingly more aware of the importance of giving students access to large amounts of enjoyable and comprehensible reading and listening materials. Many have now been using extensive reading/listening methods to immerse students in the target language, thus potentially allowing them to reap the numerous language learning benefits of these methods.
The era of information processing
John Anderson is perhaps one of the most well-known cognitive scientists who developed a theory of learning based on how a computer processes information. The three steps of machine processing, i.e., encoding, storage, and retrieval became popular during this time. In the language classroom, language teachers were expected to teach in ways that could help students to encode language knowledge efficiently, store it well in the long-term memory, and retrieve it effortlessly when the opportunity for use arose.
Applications of the information processing theory can be seen in language as well as non-language classrooms. In ELT, for example, the theory suggests that students are likely to understand and remember new words better when they are engaged in a deeper level of processing. This can be done by connecting the meanings of new words with previously learned lexical items, and by generating mental images via visualization and by regularly finding opportunities to use the target words in a variety of meaningful contexts. Another example is when teachers begin their reading lesson by inviting students to make predictions of text contents by utilizing their prior knowledge and then encouraging them to actively make inferences about how the different parts of a reading passage are interconnected.
The era of socio-cultural learning
The key figure here is Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, who claimed that learning is socially and culturally situated and that learning happens optimally when students receive the right kind of support from the more knowledgeable others, i.e., the teacher and their more capable peers. The term ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development) became a buzzword during this time; students learn best within their ZPD in the presence of their peers and nurturing teachers.
It is not difficult to find applications of Vygotsky’s theory in the language classroom. To support student learning, teachers use a variety of group-based learning activities (i.e., cooperative/collaborative learning activities) to get students to learn from each other in a nurturing social learning environment. In recent years, ELT scholars (e.g., Jacobs & Renandya, 2019) have also advocated the use of collaborative learning methods to promote the spirit of diversity and inclusivity in multi-ethnic and multi-lingual classrooms. For example, by using heterogeneous grouping methods, students from different social and cultural backgrounds can work together and support each other in their language learning journey.
The era of engaged learning
This is the era that we find ourselves in now. Engagement, as Sarah Mercer pointed out in her excellent presentation on learner engagement recently, is the holy grail of learning. Learning happens optimally when students are holistically engaged, i.e., when they are kinesthetically, emotionally, cognitively, and socially engaged.
It is not hard to confirm her observation about the importance of learner engagement. Experience tells us that one of the key characteristics of a good language teacher is their ability to engage most, if not all, of their students during a given lesson, although some students can be particularly challenging. The good language teacher believes that when students are engaged, they are more likely to develop a more positive learning experience, more inclined to put in more efforts in the learning process, and more willing to invest more time doing autonomous learning beyond the classroom. Repeated observations show that engaged students shine in the language classroom and are more successful in developing a higher level of proficiency in the target language.
The era of digital learning
This era is still at its infancy but lots of language teachers are already embracing tech-mediated learning approaches. Tech tools such as Google Translate, Text-to-Speech apps, automated feedback technologies, online extensive reading and listening, for example, have made their inroads in the language classroom. Going forward, we can expect to see new and exciting AI-based applications that can dramatically change the way we teach language and assess student learning.
There are hundreds of tech tools out there and new ones are coming out every day. As language educators, we need to keep abreast of these new tech tools and choose those that can truly support teaching and enhance learning. But how does one select tech tools for teaching, learning, and assessing students?
We suggest consideration of two sets of principles. The first set flows from general education principles; the second set is based on second language learning principles.
- General principles
- Does the tech tool improve student participation?
- Does it increase learner motivation and engagement?
- Does it promote deeper learning?
- Does it facilitate student-student and student-teacher interactions?
- Does it help clarify hard-to-explain concepts?
- Does it allow teachers and students to monitor, evaluate, and reflect on students’ learning?
- Does it provide students opportunities to use a variety of intelligences?
- Does it link education with the world beyond?
- Does it increase teachers’ effectiveness and efficiency?
- Do students and schools have the necessary hardware, software, and bandwidth?
- Is it easy to use?
- Is it worth the cost?
- Language Learning Principles
- Does the tech tool provide students with rich, interesting, meaningful and comprehensible language input?
- Does it provide students with multiple exposures to target language features?
- Does it promote noticing of important target language features?
- Does it provide students with frequent and meaningful practice of previously learned language?
- Does it promote multimodal processing of target language materials?
- Does it encourage students to access their abilities in other languages?
- Does it improve students’ communication skills (i.e., speaking, writing, reading and listening)?
- Does it create greater awareness of the social purposes of language use?
- Does it build skills for greater student independence, or does language acquisition stop if the tool is not used?
- Does it provide exposure to a wider range of language varieties?
As we brace ourselves for the next wave of change in education, it is important that we continue to reflect on our own teaching philosophy. Is our teaching philosophy based on dated pedagogical principles that characterized the eras of yester years? Are we continually updating our teaching philosophy and practices in response to recent thinking and scholarship in language education? Are we willing to make non-trivial changes in the way we teach and assess our students? Have we been leveraging on the affordances of digital technology to address the diverse needs and interests of our students? These are some of the questions that modern language educators need to be asking ourselves.