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Language Selection: An Evolution

November 24, 2013


It’s 1995 and I’m working for IH Timisoara in Romania. I’ve been teaching for a couple of years, and I’m now able to implement a lot of the techniques I picked up on my initial training course. The courses I work on follow a set coursebook, unit by unit. I frequently supplement with those photocopiable spiral bound resource books (you know the kind), but the language items I teach and the order I teach them in are essentially selected by the coursebook writers. This suits me fine – I’m too focused on classroom management techniques and the formation of effective CCQs to question the syllabus.

My lesson planning activity tends to involve looking at the coursebook and working out how to make it more engaging. I spend a lot of time cutting up bits of paper and creating mingle or jigsaw activities.

While in Romania I learn about something called “The Lexical Approach,” which criticises the teaching of individual grammar items in order of linguistic complexity. I think there is something in this, but it isn’t my place to judge.


It’s 1999 and I’m working at IH Budapest. I’ve recently completed my diploma and I think I know it all. As part of the DOS team, I’m involved in a project to develop a new syllabus for our intensive courses. This involves using multiple coursebooks and chopping them up to create modules. So one module might include units 1, 7 and 11 of Headway, units 9, 2 and 6 of Cutting Edge, and units 3 and 14 of True to Life. Other resources are also available to supplement this. Each module is designed to include a range of language that is normally taught at that level. Students do as many modules as they need to at one level before they “bubble up” to the next level.

Some teachers don’t like the idea of teaching unit 9 before unit 2, and students are also bemused by this. But I like the fact that it allows us to have more ownership of the syllabus. Rather than relying on something provided by strangers who have never met our students, we are influencing language input by selecting coursebook content. OK, language items are still largely presented through coursebooks and other published materials, but the order of input is different, which is significant to me.


It’s 2003 and I’m working at an FE college in Glasgow. I’ve recently completed a masters in applied linguistics and realise that I don’t know it all. The courses I teach follow a set syllabus which is essentially topic-based. It draws on a range of sources – the Cutting Edge series, the Skills for Life materials that were produced for the English ESOL curriculum, and the usual various photocopiable supplementary books. I can still use Headway if I want, as well as a number of other coursebooks.

The syllabus allows me to dip in and out of books according to the topic being taught. So for example, if the topic is “things in the home”, I’ll go to the module in Cutting Edge that covers this topic and select materials from there that I think the students will benefit from. If the topic isn’t covered by one book I’ll find it somewhere else – occasionally I use authentic materials. In terms of language content, I have considerable freedom to select which items I want to focus on (lexical, grammatical and phonological) based on what I think the students need. Rather than language being selected by a coursebook writer, it is selected by me, the teacher. I’m very comfortable with this, as I feel that I am better placed than materials writers to make decisions about what language to focus on, and how.

Despite this, I can’t help feeling that I’m missing out on something. I have heard about “Dogme ELT”, and I assume that the rest of the world is busy developing new approaches to learner-driven language teaching that are passing me by.


It’s 2011 and I’ve decided to give myself a bit of a kick up the backside by getting a job at the British Council in Malaysia. I arrive there and find that the courses follow a set coursebook, unit by unit. The language items I teach and the order I teach them in are essentially selected by the coursebook writers. I spend a lot of time cutting up bits of paper and creating mingle or jigsaw activities.

Strangely, it is in this context that I first hear the term “emergent language teaching”. I find out what it is, and how it relates to Thornbury and Meddings’ ideas about Dogme and Teaching Unplugged. I throw my copy of Cutting Edge on the fire (metaphorically of course – they don’t have fires inside Malaysian apartment buildings).


It’s 2013 and I’m back in Glasgow, teaching in an FE college again. My teaching is all project-based; the course covers topics related to living in the UK, and I set projects for students to work on that focus on these topics. I hardly ever use published ELT materials. Instead, I make up my own, use (mostly web-based) authentic materials, or have long stages where the learners generate materials rather than work with existing ones. Occasionally I select a language item in advance that I think the students should know about, but most of the time I allow the language focus to be dictated by the students. The materials I’m using and the discussions they generate are rich sources of language – I try to exploit this by clarifying new language as it comes up. However, it’s the students who decide which items are actually of use to them. I’ve started including lesson stages where students reflect on the language that has been covered, decide which items are both new and useful, then preflect on how they will use them in the future.

I’ve gone from relying entirely on a coursebook writer to select the language for me, to having my students select the language that they need and are ready to learn. It’s been a gradual process, as the stages above illustrate. Reflecting on how my approach to language selection has evolved is now raising a lot of questions:

How come I’ve ended up doing this? Am I doing the right thing?

Would I be better just relying on a coursebook to select the language for me? Does what I do actually work any better?

Do I need 20 years’ experience to be able to teach in the way I teach, or did it just take me 20 years to work it out because nobody trained me to teach this way?

Could I have been trained to react to emergent language and facilitate student-driven language content from the start?

Assuming that this isn’t the end, what will I start doing in the future? How will I continue to evolve?

  1. Perhaps the next step will be to conclude that it really doesn’t matter how you teach or what they learn? Perhaps you will conclude that teaching English is not really empowering people and that it is more about linguistic imperialism? Perhaps you will conclude that language teaching does not belong to the stifling field of linguistics and that it should take place in the enriching and nutritious air of psychology or of neuroscience?

    In any event, I hope you continue to blog about it!

    • Yes, well, who knows what I’ll get into next. I think it’s important for us all to realise though that there’s no holy grail in teaching. We need to keep developing and we can’t expect to ever get to a stage where we’ve finally cracked it. That may seem depressing to some people but I like the fact that learning and teaching are dynamic – I don’t like staying still (as my post probably suggests).

  2. paulwalsh permalink

    Great post! You really get the sense of your journey. These stages are what I’ve gone through also and I’m trying to slowly ‘elbow’ or minimise coursebook use and document it on my blog

    Your question ‘Could I have been trained to react to emergent language and facilitate student-driven language content from the start?’. I think the answer is ‘YES’ and personally I think that initial teacher training courses should adapt to the times – I also think there’s a obsession with the ‘one’ lesson achieving aims and objectives without looking at the broader curriculum and learner development.


    • Hi Paul,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree that initial training courses (some of them anyway) don’t seem to take account of new developments that have taken place in language teaching in recent years. There seems to be this pervasive feeling that reactive teaching, dealing with language as it comes up etc can only be done by experienced teachers. I’m not so sure. I have had conversations and read posts from people who don’t have that much experience and they are able to employ these strategies easily enough. In many ways I envy them.
      Thanks for the link to your blog – “Decentralised” teaching and learning certainly resonates with me, as I feel specific learning contexts need to play a far more fundamental role in what we do.
      Thanks again,


  3. ksrao permalink

    I get a feeling that these questions naturally arise in a serious practitioner’s mind as long as the teachers are forced to keep themselves abreast of the teaching methods based on numerous nebulous theories and research findings based on unrelated propositions. Since ELT is a market driven product it is inevitable. I mean everything from methods to materials keeps changing as the needs of the markets keep changing and the teachers are compelled to dance to the demands of the context.

    • It’s true that ELT is big business for private language schools. English is also taught in other, less money-driven contexts, of course. But that doesn’t take away from your point that teaching needs to move with the times and adapt to changes in learner needs. We need to be aware of this as teachers, and we shouldn’t expect the same old stuff to keep working year after year and from place to place.
      Thanks for sharing,

  4. Elisabeth permalink

    Hello again, and thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    This is interesting! In Norway we have two official written languages. That means that the students are obliged to master them both. Even though they are quite similar in several ways, there is a difference both in vocabulary and grammar. If we without consideration worked our way through the workbooks, we would stumble quite a bit. We are blessed to have a various set of dialects spread all over our country. Some of them are quite similar to “bokmål”, and some are similar to “nynorsk” (the two written languages we have). The third group (where I belong) has a dialect somewhere in between. When you gather 30 students – with different dialects – in a room, they will obviously have different starting point in their language learning process. The workbooks can be brilliant, but the authors can’t put together a program, unit by unit, that will suit all students. Some students will capture the essence of verbs (for example) quite fast, some will not.
    I do believe that workbooks are a good tool for a meaningful education, but the teacher should not be to stuck in the preset way. The teacher should also be free to use other equipment for planning a good lesson. In the school where I work there is a culture of sharing, using different methods and working together with the students. We have our goals we need to reach by the end of each term, and I believe that the teacher, who knows the students, are the best suited person to do so – not the workbook authors.

    I guess this is problems existing in most classes, not just Norwegian.

    (I had planned for commenting on your post, not educating you in Norwegian language. Sorry. Looking forward to read more here on this blog)

    PS: I know that my grammar isn’t spotless. Sorry.

    • Hi Betta,
      Thank you very much for this. I had no idea that there were two written forms of Norwegian. Am I right in thinking that the different dialects are mutually intelligible? Are there big differences between the ways in which they are written? I wrote a little about Norwegian and other Scandinavian languages in this post:
      I hope I didn’t say anything that isn’t true. If I did, please let me know!
      Anyway, back to the topic of this post. Effectively what I think you’re saying is that, based on the varieties of language that your students speak, you find your classes are quite differentiated. This is always going to be a problem with using a published text. The text expects everyone to start at exactly the same point, learn exactly the same things at exactly the same time, and finish having learnt the same (amount of stuff). This just doesn’t tie in with most theories of language acquisition, which means that teachers have to find ways to adapt the book, or supplement it with other things, or leave bits out. Or avoid following a book altogether! I suppose that’s the essence of how my approach to language selection has changed over the years. The teacher needs to have the responsibility (and the ability) to select language as appropriate for the students. Or, as I described about my current experience in Glasgow, the teacher can provide an environment where the students select the language they want to learn. Published books can certainly be used with any of these approaches, but the teacher needs to make considered choices about how to use the materials.
      Having said all of that, the sequential approach entailed within a published book may be OK if you are dealing with an academic subject – the presentation of a series of facts, if you like. This is something I need to think about ore, and I’ll probably blog about it this week.
      Thanks again for sharing your experiences, and don’t worry about your grammar – it’s really good!

      • Elisabeth permalink

        Hi, again.

        Yes, this is correct. The different dialects are mutually intelligible. So are the written official forms.
        One example: Let’s use the sentence: My name is Betta, and I am a Norwegian teacher.

        In bokmål: Jeg heter Betta, og jeg er en norsklærer.
        In nynorsk: Eg heiter Betta, og eg er ein norsklærar.
        In my dialect: E heiter Betta, å e e ein norsklærar

        You can see the difference, but for a Norwegian person there would be no problems with the understanding. The only reason for us to have these differences are culture and tradition. Some counties have the one form as their official and some have the other. If I had worked in an office for the Government (or other types of official offices) and received a letter, I would have to answer the letter in the same written language as the one I received.

        My students are furious. They don’t understand why on earth they have to learn both forms, and receive a midterm grade in both forms.

        What you write about dialects and varieties is both correct and interesting. The Scandinavian language are a dialect continuum, and we can all understand each other even though we are speaking our own language. For the Norwegians it’s easier to understand the Swedes than the Danes (actually its easier for me to understand a Swede than a person from Setesdalen in Norway). But it is easier to read Danish than Swedish. Back in the history (Denmark-Norway-union) we used the Danish written language in Norway. “Bokmål” is very similar to Danish. Our sound and tone in our oral language is similar to Sweden. This is because of geographical factors. Complicated or understandable?

        Oh, I love these things. Language, varieties and dialects are very interesting.

  5. Crackin post Steve,

    I am just catching up on some comments I meant to leave last year so sorry for the sudden appearance of my comment here (and no expectation of a response on my part). Your thoughts here gave me a lot to think about. It was also interesting to see some similarities in our paths.
    (by the way, here is something where I shared my experiences and changing thoughts related to lesson planning:

    A few random thoughts on your post:

    Assuming that you are on the “right” track now (and not just because our thoughts seem to line up a bit), I am wondering if there is a way (or would have been a way) to speed things along. I am not sure this exists. I think I am saying that all your shifts in thought are the result of the experience and associated thoughts.

    I loved your line, “I’m too focused on classroom management techniques and the formation of effective CCQs to question the syllabus” and again I’m wondering how/if training courses could be address this. Or again is it just the natural progression that some (not all) will take.
    (I sat and stared at this word “progression” for a while and wondered if it is the right word. I am not sure it is)

    The idea of believing we know it all (and then the opposite) at various stages really spoke to me. I remember teaching a class after just starting my MA and being freaked out at how little I know. I was almost frozen.

    I have a feeling you are familiar with this book:
    I thought about at few times while reading your post. Mostly about how our experiences can impact our development. Sometimes a new situation is a great push to new insights and skills and all the rest.

    I am not thinking about what sort of shifts I require at the moment.
    I think I will stop here.

    Thanks very much for this post and all your great posts on the year.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Language Feed and Language Focus | The Steve Brown Blog
  2. Out with the old… | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  3. Concerning coursebooks | The Steve Brown Blog
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