Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

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The history of ELT: A different perspective

I am willing to venture that, at some point in their careers, all the readers of this blog attended some kind of ‘Approaches and Methods’ module, which most likely traced the development of language teaching as a progression of methods, ranging from Grammar-Translation to Task-Based Learning. This sequence of methods, which -after a flash of inspiration moments ago- I call the progression narrative, is so familiar and uncontroversial, that one might argue that it forms a core part of our profession’s collective knowledge.

But is it really uncontroversial? I just read an article by A. P. R. Howatt (author of the canonical A History of English Language Teaching) and Richard Smith, which challenges the way we have tended to think about the history of the profession. I’ve copied some of the key points below, in case they are of interest, interspersing them with my own comments:

What’s wrong with the progression narrative?

Taking a critical stance on the progression narrative, Howatt and Smith remark:

[O]versimplified ‘procession-of-methods’ views of the past have remained common (Hunter & Smith, 2012: 432). ‘Potted histories’ have tended to prevail which reproduce a kind of mythology intended to set off the past from the present, itself viewed as superior (ibid.). Highly influential in legitimizing this kind of approach, we would suggest, have been Richards & Rodgers’ book, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, first published in 1986 and in its fourth edition already, and Larsen-Freeman’s (1986) Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching, an even more reductive, ahistorical account, also in its fourth edition (p. 76).

There are three problems with such a reductive account of the profession’s history, they argue. First, it tends to construct a historical outlook that foregrounds paradigm shifts, while de-emphasising continuity. In my own thesis, I showed that there was considerable overlap between approaches, noting that transmissive methods, such as audiolingualism, seemed to co-exist with ‘modern’ communicative teaching in the Greek context. I think it would be rare to encounter any of the methods that make up the progression narrative in their pure form; rather, actual practice seems to be a blend of older and newer influences, and the progression narrative isn’t all that helpful in showing that.

The second problem with the progression narrative is that it appears to assign equal prominence to all the methods described, irrespective of their historical impact. To wit, in my copy of Richards and Rogers (the second edition, 2001), influential methods, such as Total Physical Response and the Lexical Approach, seem to take up as many pages as odd ‘designer’ methods, like Suggestopedia and The Silent Way. This is not necessarily due to poor authorial judgement; rather, it stems from a perspective that privileges the description of aims and procedures over historical understanding.

Finally, the progression narrative cannot be globally relevant, because it is based on a succession of methods that were used in parts of the Western world. At minimum, this means that alternative narratives from outside the Western World are ignored, leading to a selective reconstruction of our profession’s history. At its worst, uncritical adherence to the narrative could result in ahistorical narratives, including at least one doctoral thesis that purports to discuss the history of ELT in Greece without reference to Greek education.

A periodization approach

To counter what they describe as a “constant paradigm shift” and demonstrate the continuity of methods, Howatt and Smith put forward a “periodization” approach. This involves broadly carving up the history of ELT in four periods:

  • The classical period, spanning from the mid-18th to the late 19th century, included what were later defined as the grammar-translation and classical methods. This period was typified by a concern to emulate the teaching of classical languages and thus deflect the criticism that the study of modern languages was an easy or ‘soft’ option.
  • The reform period, which roughly covered the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, included a number of teaching methods, variously described as the Reform Method, the Berlitz Method, and the Direct Method. The key concern at that time was the emphasis on teaching the oral language.
  • The scientific period, which began after WWI and went on until the 1970s, included trends such as the Oral Method and Multiple Line of Approach (both advocated by Palmer), Hornby’s Situational Approach, Fries’ Oral Approach and the Audiolingual Method. The common ground shared by all these, methodologically diverse, ways to teach was the imperative to ground language learning on scientific evidence, which was provided by linguistics and psychology.
  • The communicative period, which has been continuing since the 1970s, comprises the diverse manifestations of communicative language teaching, including English for Specific Purposes projects and English for Academic Purposes. Despite differences in outlook, methods and terminology, teaching during this period generally aimed at emulating ‘real-life’ communication.

While the shift from a multitude of methods to a progression of ‘periods’ that Howatt and Smith propose does not obviously address the fundamental problems of the progression narrative that were outlined in the previous section, the authors claim that…

…by illustrating an argument that ‘method’ can be replaced by ‘period’ as the main way of conceiving of the professional past, we have opened up a space for other kinds of historical research work. (p. 93)

Such work, they argue, should be able to stress the continuity in teaching, and at the same time situate the paradigm shifts within “broader social, political, economic and cultural transformations”.

A caveat

It goes without saying that the reservations about the global relevance of the progression narrative apply equally to the Howatt and Smith’s ‘periodization’. That is to say, the four periods that Howatt and Smith define are mainly relevant to the UK/Western European context, but one should be cautious about using them to describe the history of ELT in other settings. Any projects that aim to trace the development of ELT around the world might draw from Howatt and Smith’s article a useful example of how to approach the task, but not a ready-made model to uncritically apply to their setting.

The article can be accessed by clicking on the following link:

Howatt, A. P. R. & Smith, R. (2014) The History of Teaching English as a Foreign Language, from a British and European Perspective. Language & History 57(1), 75-95. doi: 10.1179/1759753614Z.00000000028

Featured Image by the University of Nottingham @ Flickr, CC-BY-NC 






7 responses to “The history of ELT: A different perspective”

  1. eflnotes avatar


    your point about not being blinded by the parochial nature of a field is well made. i was reminded of this danger of limited vision by a paper on the differences between education research in Anglo-speaking world and the German speaking world and how that has affected the priorities of educational research in the respective communities, another informative read by Gert Biesta –

    is there a significant difference in the Greek ELT world that parallels those in the German speaking educational research world?


    1. Achilleas avatar

      Thanks for the link Mura! It’s quite interesting! I think that, by-and-large, mainstream Greek education has tended to orient itself towards German educational thinking. By contrast, ELT has tended to be influenced by Anglo-American theoretical developments. Actual teaching practice, it seems, is something of a melange of these different traditions, expectations and aspirations. Sadly, much research in the context has tended to overlook this, in favour of more simple explanations.

  2. Joanne avatar

    Yes! Thanks to drawing our attention to this and clarifying some problems with textbook descriptions of ELT history. I am still recovering from my unsuccessful attempt to describe ELT theories, methods and approaches for one of my very first TESOL essays a few years ago. I couldn’t bring it all together in a logical, convincing way at all for pretty much the reasons outlined. For my final essay, I went on to critique an article which delved beyond methods by B Kumaravadivelu and found that experience much more rewarding.

    1. Achilleas avatar

      I know what you mean, Joanne! There’s much good work, by Kumaravadivelu and others, about striking a workable balance between basic guiding principles that should always inform practice, and their local, context-specific implementation. If you haven’t already read it, may I recommend Language Curriculum Design (Kumaravadivelu 2009)?

  3. Nicola avatar

    I came across this looking for a timeline of ELT methodology/history. I don’t suppose any such thing exists now I’ve read this but any ideas of where I could find key dates or notable innovations/ideas? Thanks!

    1. Achilleas avatar

      Hi Nicola,

      If you can get hold of Howatt’s ‘History of ELT’ (2004, OUP), it’s a great resource. Hope that helps!

      1. Nicola avatar

        Thank you!

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