Challenging Boundaries: Extending English Language Teaching Theory

Those of you who have been following this blog will already know that I am editing a book called Challenging Boundaries in Language Education. As the title suggests, the collection of chapters that make up the volume invites readers to rethink language teaching and learning, for example by examining how the borders between curricular areas might be disrupted, or how transnational mobility is making geographical borders more permeable and less meaningful for language education.

I am happy to announce that one more set of chapters has been submitted and is being processed. These chapters, which make up the first part of the book, aim to map out language education theory and practice and discuss how these can be extended.

A guided tour through the world of language education

The town and subburbs of methods, the clouds of theory and the mountain of teacher education are just three of the highlights of this tour

The first of these chapters, by Janez Skela, is entitled “A journey through the landscapes of (foreign) language teacher education”. In this chapter, Skela invites readers through a virtual tour of the salient features of language education. Using a rich set of metaphorical images, he outlines how teaching practice is slowly moving from the certainty of well-defined methods to a more fluid post-method condition. The next aspect of the description looks into the interaction between teaching practice and theory, and problematizes the way in which applied linguistics has ‘hijacked’ language teacher education. The metaphorical tour concludes with a description of teacher education models, which looks into diverse approaches to preparing language teachers. This chapter functions as a staging ground or baseline, aimed to orient readers and help them to engage with the content of the following chapters.

Four principles for thinking about ELT as an interdisciplinary field

ELT is best viewed as an interdisciplinary field that synthesises Applied Linguistics, the Psychology of Language Learning and general pedagogy

The next chapter, “Repositioning English Language Teaching: From boundaries to connections?”, is authored by me. The chapter, which builds on an invited plenary talk I did at the ELT Connect 2017 conference, is an overview of how I conceptualise ELT theory. While more some theoretical perspectives have tended to conflate applied linguistics and ELT, or view the latter as a sub-discipline of the former, I argue that ELT is best viewed as an interdisciplinary field that synthesises Applied Linguistics, the Psychology of Language Learning and general pedagogy. Building on this, I go on to propose four principles that should guide theorisation in ELT, namely that: (a) ELT theory is synthetic, not additive; (b) ELT theory should be open to influences from the feeder disciplines; (c) ELT theory should retain its grounding on practice; and (d) the interface between ELT and adjacent disciplines should be bi-directional. The purpose of the chapter is to provide readers with a set of epistemological guidelines that can help them to extend their own thinking about ELT, and also to make principled appraisals of new contributions.

How to act critically in the complex ecology of language education

Critical perspectives that focus too narrowly on the disenfranchised and oppressed are unlikely to have empowering effects

Coming next is “An ecological perspective for critical action in language education”. In this chapter, Juup Stelma and Richard Fay suggest that all activity in language teaching take places within an ecology, which is made up of multiple actors and diverse activities in many different levels. Because of this, they argue, critical perspectives that focus too narrowly on the disenfranchised and oppressed are unlikely to have empowering effects – rather, a broader understanding of critical action throughout the ecology is likelier to trigger and sustain change. To facilitate this, the chapter discusses salient features of the ecology of language education, including mutuality, affordances and situations, intentionality and intentional dynamics, power, agency and diversity, and the emergence of critical action. The perspective that is advanced in the chapter is intended to help readers think about ELT in ways that go beyond ‘mere teaching’ and understand how ‘ordinary’ teaching activity shapes the ELT system in which they are embedded – and how it can change it.

Theorising ELT bottom-up through classroom enquiry

This chapter demonstrates how theoretical boundary crossing is done

The final chapter in this set is “It’s time for understanding(s): The recursive cycle of language pedagogy and classroom enquiry”, by Anna Costantino. In the chapter, Costantino discusses how her reflective engagement with her practice helped her to develop richer understandings of her professional context. The chapter includes a discussion of three complementary epistemic frameworks on which the author drew in this process, namely practice theory, a transdisciplinary complexity-informed perspective and exploratory practice. Guided by these frameworks, Costantino then presents the outcome of her theorisation, a re-defined model of language education that goes beyond technocratic understandings of teaching and learning. Costantino’s contribution complements the other three chapters in the set, by demonstrating how the process of theorising language education can lead to acts of boundary crossing.


Working on the chapters that make up this volume has proved to be an immensely rewarding experience for me, and although I only have access to early drafts at this stage, I am very excited about the way the book is shaping up. I am already looking forward to seeing the final versions, and I hope that you will share my excitement when the book is finally published, in the second half of 2019.

Until then, I am looking forward to any comments or feedback you might want to share, either in the comments section below or by contacting me directly.

3 Replies to “Challenging Boundaries: Extending English Language Teaching Theory”

  1. Hi Achilleas,

    The book sounds great. I think Applied Linguistics seems to be moving in a more interdisciplinary direction, which is very interesting, in my opinion.

    I do think that the ELT field is much like you say in the blog posts, though it does appear to have a ‘lack’ to some extent. For me, this lack would be media and cultural studies; the hermeneutics of communities represented in materials (websites as well as books); the semiotics of the words we choose, including teacher jargon; how we represent and construct teacher identity as an abstract concept which we feel all teachers buy into, and are penalised for transgressing from, and the construction of our individual identities as both the same and different. Anyway, thanks for making me think about this. I’ve let this brew for a few days. Always food for thought.

    1. Hi Marc! These are all great points, thanks for sharing. These could also be seen from a critical perspective, i.e., how all of the points you raise connect to power, and how power is sedimented in the practices and structures of ELT. Not sure everyone would like that, though ;)

      1. Haha! I’m sure that speaking truth about power is going to raise hackles somewhere when there’s money to be made.

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