Around 25 years ago, when I worked at International House London, I used to teach a course called ‘Current Trends in ELT’. I no longer have records of the time so I can’t be 100% sure what was included in the course, but task-based learning, the ‘Lexical Approach’, the use of corpora, English as a Lingua Franca, learner autonomy / centredness, reflective practice and technology (CALL and CD-ROMs) were all probably part of it. I see that IH London still offers this course (next available course in January 2021) and I am struck by how similar the list of contents is. Only ‘emerging language’, CLIL, DOGME and motivation are clearly different from the menu of 25 years ago.

The term ‘current trends’ has always been a good hook to sell a product. Each year, any number of ELT conferences chooses it as their theme. Coursebooks, like ‘Cutting Edge’ or ‘Innovations’, suggest in their titles something fresh and appealing. And, since 2003, the British Council has used its English Language Teaching Innovation Awards to position itself as forward-thinking and innovative.

You could be forgiven for wondering what is especially innovative about many of the ELTon award-winners, or indeed, why neophilia actually matters at all. The problem, in a relatively limited world like language teaching, is that only so much innovation is either possible or desirable.

A year after the ELTons appeared, Adrian Underhill wrote an article about ‘Trends in English Language Teaching Today’. Almost ten years after I was teaching ‘current trends’, Adrian’s list included the use of corpora, English as a Lingua Franca, reflective practice and learner-centredness. His main guess was that practitioners would be working more with ‘the fuzzy, the unclear, the unfinished’. He hadn’t reckoned on the influence of the CEFR, Pearson’s Global Scale of English and our current obsession with measuring everything!

Jump just over ten years and Chia Suan Chong offered a listicle of ‘Ten innovations that have changed English language teaching for the British Council. Most of these were technological developments (platforms, online CPD, mobile learning) but a significant newcomer to the list was ‘soft skills’ (especially critical thinking).

Zooming forward nearer to the present, Chia then offered her list of ‘Ten trends and innovations in English language teaching for 2018’ in another post for the British Council. English as a Lingua Franca was still there, but gone were task-based learning and the ‘Lexical Approach’, corpora, learner-centredness and reflective practice. In their place came SpLNs, multi-literacies, inquiry-based learning and, above all, more about technology – platforms, mobile and blended learning, gamification.

I decided to explore current ‘current trends’ by taking a look at the last twelve months of blog posts from the four biggest UK ELT publishers. Posts such as these are interesting in two ways: (1) they are an attempt to capture what is perceived as ‘new’ and therefore more likely to attract clicks, and (2) they are also an attempt to set an agenda – they reflect what these commercial organisations would like us to be talking and thinking about. The posts reflect reasonably well the sorts of topics that are chosen for webinars, whether directly hosted or sponsored.

The most immediate and unsurprising observation is that technology is ubiquitous. No longer one among a number of topics, technology now informs (almost) all other topics. Before I draw a few conclusion, here are more detailed notes.

Pearson English blog

Along with other publishers, Pearson were keen to show how supportive to teachers they were, and the months following the appearance of the pandemic saw a greater number than normal of blog posts that did not focus on particular Pearson products. Over the last twelve months as a whole, Pearson made strenuous efforts to draw attention to their Global Scale of English and the Pearson Test of English. Assessment of one kind or another was never far away. But the other big themes of the last twelve months have been ‘soft / 21st century skills (creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, leadership, etc.), and aspects of social and emotional learning (especially engagement / motivation, anxiety and mindfulness). Three other topics also featured more than once: mediation, personalization and SpLN (dyslexia).

OUP ELT Global blog

The OUP blog has, on the whole, longer, rather more informative posts than Pearson. They also tend to be less obviously product-oriented, and fewer are written by in-house marketing people. The main message that comes across is the putative importance of ‘soft / 21st century skills’, which Oxford likes to call ‘global skills’ (along with the assessment of these skills). One post manages to pack three buzzwords into one title: ‘Global Skills – Create Empowered 21st Century Learners’. As with Pearson, ‘engagement / engaging’ is probably the most over-used word in the last twelve months. In the social and emotional area, OUP focuses on teacher well-being, rather than mindfulness (although, of course, mindfulness is a path to this well-being). There is also an interest in inquiry-based learning, literacies (digital and assessment), formative assessment and blended learning.

Macmillan English blog

The Macmillan English ‘Advancing Learning’ blog is a much less corporate beast than the Pearson and OUP blogs. There have been relatively few posts in the last twelve months, and no clear message emerges. The last year has seen posts on the Image Conference, preparing for IELTS, student retention, extensive reading, ELF pronunciation, drama, mindfulness, Zoom, EMI, and collaboration skills.

CUP World of Better Learning blog

The CUP blog, like Macmillan’s, is an eclectic affair, with no clearly discernible messages beyond supporting teachers with tips and tools to deal with the shift to online teaching. Motivation and engagement are fairly prominent (with Sarah Mercer contributing both here and at OUP). Well-being (and the inevitable nod to mindfulness) gets a look-in. Other topics include SpLNs, video and ELF pronunciation (with Laura Patsko contributing both here and at the Macmillan site).

Macro trends

My survey has certainly not been ‘scientific’, but I think it allows us to note a few macro-trends. Here are my thoughts:

  • Measurement of language and skills (both learning and teaching skills) has become central to many of our current concerns.
  • We are now much less interested in issues which are unique to language learning and teaching (e.g. task-based learning, the ‘Lexical Approach’, corpora) than we used to be.
  • Current concerns reflect much more closely the major concerns of general education (measurement, 21st century skills, social-emotional learning) than they used to. It is no coincidence that these reflect the priorities of those who shape global educational policy (OECD, World Bank, etc.).
  • 25 years ago, current trends were more like zones of interest. They were areas to explore, research and critique further. As such, we might think of them as areas of exploratory practice (‘Exploratory Practice’ itself was a ‘current trend’ in the mid 1990s). Current ‘current trends’ are much more enshrined. They are things to be implemented, and exploration of them concerns the ‘how’, not the ‘whether’.
  1. Peter Pun says:

    Interesting stuff, cheers. I like the recce of publisher blogs and the crossover you noticed (topics and authors). I loosely mentioned current trends in ELT materials writing on my blog last year, and it’s just CLIL, CLIL, CLIL!
    Re: ‘innovation’, this is a great marketing word. I reviewed a video-based platform recently which won an ELTon for innovation in teacher resources. At the time I was subscribing to a very similar platform that had been around for years! It might be worth mentioning that with ELTons you nominate your own product, plus it is people like me who judge it. When I was at the BC we used to get an email asking if we wanted to be an ELTon judge – anyone could do it. I don’t know what that says about the judgement of what’s innovative, just that it’s not exactly an ‘expert’ opinion in some cases.

    • nmwhiteport says:

      “It might be worth mentioning that with ELTons you nominate your own product, plus it is people like me who judge it. When I was at the BC we used to get an email asking if we wanted to be an ELTon judge – anyone could do it.”

      That’s really interesting – did not realise that, or only partly realised that.

  2. nmwhiteport says:

    Reading the Macro Trends at the end, I wonder to what extent this might represent a shift from an ELT industry focussed heavily on the needs of private language schools, or chains of schools, staffed mostly by ‘native’ speaker teachers to a heavier weighting towards the needs of primary and secondary schools, whether public or private, staffed mostly by ‘non-native’ speaker teachers?

    That might help explain why your list from 25 years ago and today’s IH course are strikingly similar since both were addressing the same issue – the need for further professionalisation of teachers whose career for the most part would have begun with a 100/120 hour crash course in language education.

    It might also help explain the shifts in tone in the blogs of the publishers (especially Pearson).

    Large scale digitial projects are ‘solutions’ in search of large scale problems to solve – even the largest chains of private language schools are dwarfed by size of a state’s Ministry of Education and, of course, government contracts are not only lucrative but usually represent guaranteed incomes, if a bid is successful, over a span of at least 5 and more likely 10 years.

    Hence the publishers wanting to push digital the most are also the ones who want to appeal to governments most and that largely involves speaking the language of governments and electoral promises.

    “We must give our 21st children a 21st century education!” works as well as whether it’s from a sales pitch from a digital platform consultant or from a politican speaking from a podium at election time.

    Just speculating there, obviously, but still …

  3. Svetlana says:

    Hey Philip, interesting stuff, as usual. Lots going on down here. ELT has taken different dimensions in Brazil…
    I am interested in reading more about your thoughts on what you think, or what your experience has taught you (in terms of effectiveness in teaching), since your time at IHL.

  4. Tyson Seburn says:

    Interesting observations, Philip. It’s purposely limited imho being that it solely uses publisher blogs to compile current trends. I guess that makes sense for a certain perspective on what’s a current trend, but also worth noting that it doesn’t capture what might be considered bottom-up trends. Maybe they’d be the same. Maybe they’d be different. One might suggest it perpetuates the power of publishers on what’s happening in ELT.

    • Tyson Seburn says:

      I guess I’ll add though that the writers from these blogs are or at least may have once been the bottom-up teachers themselves, so are they describing what the trends are but just on the platform of the publisher blog or are they representing the publisher perspective on what the trends are/should be to sell product? I guess I’d hope for the former but assume the latter to some degree too.

      • philipjkerr says:

        Blogs are an important strand of the publishers’ marketing. Posts are commissioned, paid for and vetted by the marketing people. So I’m afraid it’s more of the latter than the former.

    • philipjkerr says:

      I added (UK) to the post title because I needed to limit it in some way. I think it’s easy to underestimate the influencing power of publishers who sponsor many of the ‘main’ speakers at most conferences (even at the UK IATEFL, it’s interesting how many speakers are sponsored by publishers … even if this is not always evident) and who run very well attended ‘trainings’ in so many other countries. I’m not sure that it ever makes much sense to talk about ‘ELT’, as it’s so many things. I don’t think that many of the trends I identified would resonate much with many English teachers here in Austria.

  5. Susan Holden says:

    Really interesting and thought-provoking. Made me think back over the last 25 years and more, and will go on doing so. Immediate impression is the shift from the ‘starting with the personal’ to the ‘measure everything and put it on a spreadsheet’. Possibly nostalgia!
    On the publishing front, I know the pressures only too well. Reflect the ‘now’, predict 5 years ahead, do the sums…..not easy.
    Might try this exercise myself. Thanks.

  6. […] Kerr recently wrote about Current Trends in ELT, including mentioning the British Council ELTons awards for innovations in English Language […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s