P is for Predictions (part 1)

3 09 2017

I’m regularly asked to make predictions about the future of ELT: it’s one of the liabilities of being on a conference panel, for starters. I seldom feel comfortable in the role. Perhaps the safest prediction is of the order:  Any prediction that I make now about ELT in X years’ time will be laughably wrong when the time comes.

It came up again when I was guesting on a DELTA course recently: the teachers were understandably  anxious about the future of their chosen career. However, I decided to re-frame the question – not in terms of predictions (‘What will ELT be like in 10 years?), but in terms of identifying some of the on-going tensions in ELT, the outcomes of which (following a dialectic mode of thinking) will surely determine the shape of ELT in 5 or 10 or however many years’ time.

delta course

The IH Barcelona DELTA class: Teachers with a  future! (courtesy @sanchiadanielle)

These are some of the tensions I discussed:

  1. The tension between the local and the global

Incontestably, English is a global language (although its reputation may have taken some knocks recently – see E is for English). It therefore lends itself to the kind of commodification and marketization that we associate with other items of mass consumption – such as fast foods, trainers, and cell-phones. These processes of ‘McDonaldization’ (Ritzer 1998) are evidenced in the way textbooks are produced, marketed and distributed globally, and in the ‘branding’ of high-stakes exams – such that an English class in Thailand is likely to be using the same materials to prepare for the same exam as is a class in Chile.  Or Armenia. Or anywhere.

Countering this ethos of ‘one-size-fits-all’ is what Kumaravadivelu (2001, p. 538) calls ‘a pedagogy of particularity’, i.e. one that is ‘sensitive to a particular group of teachers teaching a particular group of learners pursuing a particular set of goals within a particular institutional context embedded in a particular sociocultural milieu.’ Because, as Pennycook insistently reminds us, English is a global language used locally: ‘Everything happens locally. However global a practice may be, it still always happens locally’ (2010, p.128).

Attempts to ‘particularize’ English teaching include the production of locally-authored, culturally-specific curricula and materials, implemented by means of an ‘appropriate methodology’ (Holliday 1994). Arguably, digital technologies have made the production of such home-grown materials a lot easier, while resistance to the uncritical importation of ‘Western’ methodologies is voiced frequently (e.g. Burnaby & Sun 1989; Li 1998). But it is not clear how the global vs local tension will play out.

  1. The tension between teaching and testing

Driven by the aforementioned globalizing forces, but also fuelled by the neo-liberal obsession with accountability and standardization, and lubricated by ever more sophisticated data-gathering mechanisms, high-stakes testing now dominates many educational contexts, English language teaching not the least. The numbers speak for themselves: the IELTS test, for example, was taken by nearly 3 million candidates in 2016 – at around $200 a go, this is big business. It is also a nice little earner for language schools, with the result that many teachers feel that they are now simply in the business of test preparation.

‘Teaching-for-the-test’ has also seen the rise of standards-based, or competency-based teaching (also known as mastery learning), where the syllabus consists of an inventory of bite-sized ‘competencies’, each one taught and tested in isolation, on the assumption that all these bits will magically coalesce into a whole. (These bite-sized learning chunks also lend themselves to [teacher-less] online delivery).  This has led to a culture of testing that is the despair of many educationalists, Diane Ravitch (2010, p. 16) being one of the more vocal: ‘How did testing and accountability become the main levers of school reform?  …  What was once an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy’. And she adds, ‘Tests should follow the curriculum. They should not replace it or precede it.’

Will the tide turn? Will teaching and learning reassert their rightful place in the curriculum? Don’t hold your breath.

  1. The tension between classroom instruction and self-study

Learners have always learned languages through self-study packages, whether by means of books (of the Teach yourself Swahili type); long-playing records, cassettes or CDs; video, in combination with any of the above, and, of course, more recently, online and via apps such as Duolingo. In July this year, for example, Duolingo was boasting an estimated 200 million ‘active’ users[i], although what constitutes ‘active’ is a moot point. Nevertheless, the availability, ease and low cost of many self-study tools (Duolingo is of course free) means that they constitute a real threat to traditional classroom teaching.

Their single biggest drawback is, of course, the lack of any real face-to-face interaction, including personalized instruction and feedback (where ‘personalized’ means ‘mutually intersubjective,’ not ‘individually customized by an algorithm’). That is what classrooms offer – or should. But, of course, such ‘human’ interactions come at a cost. Will language learning in the future be primarily app-mediated, with classroom teaching relegated to a high-end, niche status? And/or will classroom teachers be compelled to migrate en masse to call-centre-type facilities in order to provide the much-needed human interaction that these apps will offer as a premium add-on? Watch this space.

There are at least three other tensions, the outcome of which I suspect will shape our collective futures. But I’ll deal with those next week.


Burnaby, B. and Sun, Y. (1989) ‘Chinese teachers’ views of western language teaching: context informs paradigms’. TESOL Quarterly, 23/2.

Holliday, A. (1994) Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Li, D. (1998) ‘”It’s always more difficult than you plan or imagine”: Teachers’ perceived difficulties in introducing the communicative approach in South Korea’. TESOL Quarterly, 32/4.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2001) ‘Towards a post-method pedagogy.’ TESOL Quarterly, 35/4.

Pennycook, A. (2010) Language as a local practice. London: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. (2010) The death and life of the great American school system: how testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.

Ritzer, G. (1998) The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and extensions. London: Sage.

[I] http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/business-directory/24390/duolingo-stats-facts/



23 responses

3 09 2017
Patrick Julian Huwyler

Hello Scott, thanks for this post.
Yes, I’ve often wondered about the future of EFL…
When I did my waiter’s apprenticeship (before I trained as an English language teacher) someone once told me that waiters will always be needed because people will always want to be served – especially in fine-dining. The guest would always want to have face-to-face interaction with a seasoned professional who could not only give recommendations and describe food but also entertain and deal with any psychological issues. A lot of guests do not merely go to a fine-dining restaurant because they are hungry but because they also want to have a nice time – to be pampered – to enjoy this luxury… and as Dale Carnegie would say, to feel important. Robots, as yet, cannot fulfill these functions…
Perhaps we could say the same for ELT? Language learners do not merely come for clarification, study and testing but also for the face-to-face interaction, the feeling of learning a language from a seasoned professional who can make them feel good, feel important – and feel that they are learning a living language in a real situation and with real classmates and a teacher who they’ll remember many years later.
So I guess classroom teaching could very well become the ‘fine-dinning’ of language learning… Perhaps indeed a high-end niche status, as you pointed out.

3 09 2017
Kyle Dugan

I take your point, Patrick, but I wonder how long we’ll be able to say “Robots, as yet, cannot…”. And I also wonder if one day in a world in which robot/computer do control many service interactions (like chat bots are beginning to do now) that learning from a robot will actually seem more natural than learning from a human. Or will be justified in the sense that it’s “more like the real world” (i.e. the world of their own interactions). Just as Native Speaker hegemony may be on the wane, human mediated instruction may one day be as well!

4 09 2017
Patrick Julian Huwyler

I see what you mean, Kyle. I think computers/machines will certainly do a lot of the mundane work… As Oscar Wilde said, ‘… all work of that kind should be done by a machine…’
As long as humans remain humans, having a real human teacher in a face-to-face lesson will triumph over the android.
Human beings, for the most part, want to experience real, genuine feelings and emotions – empathy and understanding (try picturing an android replacing Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society). You see, robots could very well take up the grammatical areas of language instruction but would be limited in terms of being creative – think of Creative Writing for example.
Great teachers have great character, something which I don’t see a computer doing within my lifetime.
Take chess, for example. Who really enjoys playing against a computer? Computers are better than humans at chess – but people want to play against people. Humans are not perfect – perfection has something ugly and boring about it. Humans want character and real emotions. And language is not merely about communication, it is also about establishing social relation (I think Halliday or Chomsky said that).
Nobody likes plastic flowers as Jason Fried might say, at least not the people I know.

4 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Patrick. The waiter analogy is an interesting one – not least because for many purposes and in many contexts, waiters have been dispensed with: I’m thinking of fast food outlets. This is obviously for reasons of cost – but there may be people who don’t actually like the human contact involved in something as personal as choosing a meal, and prefer a ‘waiter-free’ experience. As Kyle suggests, there may be language learners who feel the same – that, for example, there is less threat-to-face being a bad learner with a machine as opposed to being a bad learner in a classroom.

4 09 2017
Patrick Julian Huwyler

Thanks, Scott. Excellent point. But that could also be the other way round… Even so, what happens when these ‘bad learners’ improve/gain confidence? And what if they are required to take exams which might still have human oral examiners? There are indeed many needs to be catered for. My argument is that the high-end of EFL will need the human teacher for not only emotional needs (inspiration, encouragement etc.) but also for creativity (creative writing for example)

3 09 2017

Thanks for this Scott. I agree that predictions are inherently problematic and not just in language education, but more generally too – Trump, president of the USA, UK leaving the EU etc.! However, as you say there are narratives and dialectical relationships at work and arguably these can be useful ways of looking at trends and issues. The tension between the local and the global is spot on. A colleague and I did some small-scale research into this a few years ago – the context was international students and their speaking skills in social settings whilst on a pre-sessional EAP summer course at a UK university. We argue that “when developing listening and speaking skills in the classroom we need to recognise the importance of English as a local language (ELL) and include tasks which contain examples of such language if we are going to adequately equip our learners”. The full open access paper which may (or may not) be of interest to readers of your blog is available from http://www.tesl-ej.org/pdf/ej55/a1.pdf

4 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Huw. Looking forward to reading that paper.

3 09 2017

Hi Scott,

Apologies for foregrounding the awful trending of verbing nouns, but did you really have to say that you were “guesting” recently???

Anyway, you raise two very central issues here (1 & 2), which come together in Pearson’s Global Scale of English project, The GSE comprises four distinct parts “to create an overall English learning ecosystem”: Here’s what their own website proudly proclaims:

“The scale itself – a granular, precise scale of proficiency aligned to the Common European Framework of Reference.

GSE Learning Objectives – over 1,800 “can-do” statements that provide context for teachers and learners across reading, writing, speaking and listening.

Course Materials – both digital and printed materials, aligned to the selection of learning objectives relevant for a course/level.

Assessments – Placement, Progress and Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) tests, which are placement, formative/ summative assessments and high stakes tests aligned to the GSE.”

Pearson’s promise to neatly package the whole of our teaching lives for us is the most audacious realisation so far of an on-going attempt to standardise ELT. Glenn Fulcher (2010) notes that the CEFR, which the GSE hopes to replace, has been indiscriminately exported for use in standards-based education and assessment in non-European contexts, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan; that it is manipulated by centralizing institutions which use it to define required levels of achievement for school pupils and adult language learners; and that it is likely to lead to “reducing diversity and experimentation in research and language pedagogy”.

What’s missing from your post, ias usual, s the political analysis.You talk about “tensions”; you say things like “Will the tide turn? Don’t hold your breath”; but you don’t join up the dots. We need to identify those who benefit from the commodification of education in general and of ELT in particular: the British Council (despite their FCO status, they are aggressively competing with other UK providers and own 30% of IELTS), the big publishing companies, those who control testing and teacher training & certification, etc., and we need to discuss where they are taking ELT more openly, publicly and critically. There are local, more democratic, more ethical, more educationally rewarding alternatives – like Dogme, for example – but they don’t stand a chance against Pearson until we raise awareness of the drawbacks of Pearson’s plan and the advantages of those alternatives. We also need to protest against the appalling pay and precarious conditions of so many who work in ELT, and to organise at every level to fight for change.

And when I say “we”, I include the very influential Scott Thornbury.


Fulcher, G. (2010) The reification of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and effect-driven testing. In “Advances in Research on Language Acquisition and Teaching. Selected Papers.”

4 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Geoff. How about ‘The IH Delta course hosted me’? 😉

Yes, for reasons of space I deliberately didn’t mention the Global Scale of English, although I have critiqued similar schemes elsewhere (see, for example, G for Granularity). Thanks for elaborating on it.

And your point about the political (indeed, ideological) substrate to these ongoing tensions is also well made. Maybe that is a tension in itself: the political vs apolitical dimension to ELT. Hmm.

4 09 2017

You mean “hoisted”, I think. How is your petard, by the way? 🙂

6 09 2017

“guesting” is ghastly, but “foregrounding” is unforgiveable

3 09 2017

A great post!

I think future learners will be hard pressed for time. They (especially adults) won’t have enough time to attend classes. So there have to be ways which can enable learners to manage their own learning themselves. There will be a focus on technology and learner strategies.

Due to concerns to meet the needs of learners in particular contexts, there has already been a movement towards localisation. This will include designing materials based on local needs and locally driven approaches to language teaching.

To narrow the gaps education systems and local concerns, Kumaravadivelu (2003) proposes three pedagogical parameters, namely, particularity, practicality, and possibility. Most teaching approaches will be informed by these three parameters. In addition to particular contexts, students and teachers, through reflection teachers will assume more important roles in developing their own teaching strategies rather than adopting the ones developed by others. In fact, they theorise what they practice, and practice what they theorise. Language teaching should also address the educational inequality which exists ( will probably exist in the foreseeable future) in many developing and underdeveloped countries.

4 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Shahram. I suspect Kumaravadivelu is arguing that curricular decisions should be informed by those three parameters, although in many contexts they seldom are.

4 09 2017

I agree. Kumararavadivelue simply suggests that curriucular decisions could be made on the basis of these parameters.. However, Today most curricular decisions are based on political considerations rather than theoretical premises . Of concern are the interests of stakeholders. This occurs not only at macro but also micro levels. those are my own predications. I should have used ‘might” or “may’ to spell them out.

3 09 2017
Richard Wilson (@ritchartwinson)

Unfortunately, teaching to the test and the standards-based teaching described in 2 limit the possibility for the personalised feedback described in 3. The desire to jump on the exam prep money train means that many classrooms won’t offer the qualities that apps fail to replicate. If this is not addressed, then the teacher you described in “C is for Commodification”, reading from the standardised e-reader script, will be made obsolete by free apps.

4 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Richard. I fear you may be right.

3 09 2017
Kyle Dugan

Hello Scott — I really enjoyed your definition of personalization as “mutually intersubjective” because it acknowledges the active role a teacher plays as a human being, not just some sort of McNugget (to borrow your term) shuffler. It seems that the “person” in personalization should encompass both teacher and student.

I wonder if in your next post you’ll mention the role that computer-based instant translation (a la Skype and Google) may have — imagine a world in which foreign language learning itself becomes obsolete!

4 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Kyle. I have to admit, I struggled with that defintion – but wanted to include the reciprocal nature of personalized learning. For more on intersubjectivity, see I is for Intersubjectivity . And for more on machine translation, see M is for …. etc.

4 09 2017
Kyle Dugan

Thanks for the ‘further reading’ — I’d missed your thorough treatment of machine translation!

4 09 2017

Mmm… but a student who can teach themselves is good, right? Criticisms of teacherless online learning should surely made from the point of view of whether it’s good for the learning process, not whether it’s good for the teaching profession. The rise in such courses may force us to define exactly what the teacher brings to the classroom that online materials cannot (I know this blog, and its comments, are constantly engaged in doing just that).

I actually do most of my ELT teaching online, and just because it is technology – enabled, just as a call centre is, doesn’t mean the 2 are the same – that would be lazy thinking. Still, being on the end of a Skype call does not give the same degree of human interaction, just as Skyping your loved ones is not as good as being with them.

Also wondered how online learning relates to ‘minimally invasive education’, outlined positively in this earlier post:

4 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, R. You’re absolutely right, and I could just as well have titled that tension as being the one between classroom learning and autonomy – where autonomy has better connotations than simply self-study (compound words beginning with self- can have tricky associations!).

And, yes, thanks for reminding me of my earlier post about Sugata Mitra and the notion of minimally invasive learning through self-organized learning environments (SOLEs) – there’s another ‘self’ word! Since I wrote that post, Mitra has himself come out more explicitly against the value of having teachers at all – notably at an IATEFL Conference a few years back – where he alienated many of the people in the room by saying as much. I don’t know how much research has been done on self-organized learning initiatives generally, but I expect that the vast majority of them peter out through lack of cohesion, leadership, shared goals etc. That is to say, I don’t really see SOLEs as such a threat to teacher-led classrooms as, for example, Duolingo is.

6 09 2017

The main drivers for the shape of ELT have historically come from outside of ELT. I imagine that’s likely to continue.

For example, with reference to your Barcelona trainees who prompted the post with their concerns about job security and opportunities: I guess there will soon be a much-reduced supply of British teachers in Spain (and elsewhere in the EU), which must be good for Spanish teachers of English in Barcelona.

Something about known unknowns and unknown unknowns…

15 09 2017

Hello Scott

Just to say that Duolingo gets you to about an A1 level…with pretty boring exercises. There are some newer ones-actually quite a lot of them-which ask for money,and are inter reactive to a point, and are really quite motivating!

Most, are way better than students sitting in a school with a class of 30 others!
with a teacher worried she’ll lose her job if the kids don’t pass the exams.

Please finally don’t forget that all those Diploma TEFL students will have to go and work in some school and teach from dire books like English File. So perhaps English teachers deserve to be replaced by apps which will have ‘artificial intelligence’ in the future???

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