By Chia Suan Chong

27 October 2021 - 08:48

Group of youngsters in a park, reading on an iPad
English is a tool for our students to express themselves – a tool not unlike the language of art, music or social media – a tool used to communicate with the world.” ©

Poyraz Tütüncü/Pinhole Istanbul, Author MAHMUT CEYLAN

What has inspired your teaching and teacher development this year? Chia Suan Chong, writer, communication skills and intercultural skills trainer, who will be reporting live from the ELTons awards on Monday, 15 November 2021, lists her top six.

The announcement of the finalists of the ELTons, a.k.a. the British Council ELTons awards for innovation in English language teaching, has always been an interesting and revealing time. It is a time when teams and individuals are celebrated for their innovation in the courses, books, platforms, apps, projects, and more that they’ve contributed to the world of English language teaching. It is also a time when we get to learn about the current trends of our industry and the directions we are heading in.

As I excitedly clicked through the lists of finalists for the 19th year of the ELTons, here are some of the trends that became apparent.

Using the real world

One exciting thing about language teaching is the flexibility of the content of our materials. Science teachers teach scientific theories and facts and history teachers have historical events and stories as the subject content, but English teachers can use a variety of topics as vehicles to present the English language. We can teach English using fairy tales, workplace rules or quirky homes around the world. Some of the ELTons finalists have discovered the value in using real world events and acquainting learners with real-world scenarios where they might be using English. Sensations English (UK) for example uses news-based video and articles to help students learn about real-world events while improving their language skills. Immerse Virtual Language Experience Platform (Immerse VR, USA) puts students in a 3D world as they experience language and culture in real-world scenarios. And Vlogger Academy (Digital Learning Associates Ltd with The Weirdos and Creatives Collective, UK) uses real-life YouTubers and authentic content to expose learners to the global English used in the world today.

Using English to communicate with the world

There is no doubt that English is an indispensable tool for international communication today. Whether our learners are posting on social media, creating videos on video-sharing platforms or working in international project teams, the English language provides them with the opportunity to communicate not just with people who use English as a first language, but also those who use English as a second or foreign language. 

This reality is reflected not just in products like the already-mentioned Vlogger Academy, but also Converse Across the Universe: Managing Cross-Cultural Communication (Yelena Golovatch, Margarita Kochan, Yauheni Radzetski, Belarus), where students develop critical thinking and communication skills in practical everyday situations where they might encounter different cultures and different attitudes and ways of behaving. 

Even in Online English Pronunciation Course (Luke Nicholson, Improve your accent, UK) that is written for learners based in the UK, the emphasis is on intelligibility, i.e. being understood, and not only becoming someone that learners are not. 

As Our Languages (Stand For/FTD Educação, Brazil) very appropriately describes it, English is a tool for our students to express themselves – a tool not unlike the language of art, music or social media – a tool used to communicate with the world. And like these different forms of expression, learners need to feel a sense of ownership of the English language and own their language learning experience. English will serve to express their identities – a theme that is explored in Communicating Identities (Routledge, UK), a teacher’s guide that supports learners in their exploration and reflection of the different aspects of their identities.

Life skills 

As we provide our learners with opportunities to practise communicating in English, there is flexibility not only in the content of the texts we use but also in the tasks that we get learners to perform. Through these tasks, learners not only have the chance to enhance their language skills, but they are also able to develop other life skills. We saw the development of intercultural skills in the already-mentioned Converse Across the Universe: Managing Cross-Cultural Communication. This focus on expanding the learners’ knowledge of the world is also seen in Talk about China with Oxford (OUP China Ltd with Jingban Beijing Education Culture Media Co. Ltd, China), a series of courses that enable young learners to learn about China via the English language.

Other life skills that feature heavily among the finalists are problem-solving skills and collaboration skills – common features of materials that make use of a task-based learning approach to language learning. Escape the Classroom (Perceptia Press, UK/Japan) for example, requires students to work together in teams to figure out ways of solving puzzles and breaking codes in order to escape a room. Oxford Discover Futures (OUP – English language teaching, UK, Egypt, Mexico, Turkey, Spain and the Middle East) promotes critical thinking and collaboration skills through thought-provoking questions. And English Code (Pearson English, UK) uses code-breaking activities and creative tasks to help nurture the spirit of experimentation, collaboration, resilience and curiosity in primary school students. 

Included in life skills are higher-order thinking skills and exam-taking skills, and this can be done in innovative ways. Literatu Scribo for IELTS Writing Success (Literatu Pty Ltd Australia, Australia), for example, uses an online platform to help students improve their core English writing skills. The approach that Fun Skills (CUP and Cambridge Assessment English, UK) takes to this is perhaps reflected in its title, as children prepare for the exams they need to take in the future through songs and entertaining stories. 

The power of stories

Learning through stories is another clear thread that we see in many of the finalists this year. Fiction Express (Fiction Express, Spain/UK) develops literacy skills through well-supported reading texts while BOOKR Class (BOOKR Kids, Hungary) uses a gamified library app to provide interactive books from the classics of world literature and original stories. 

In this age when we have access to an incredible selection of stories in the form of TV shows we watch through online streaming services, Days Crossing (Chasing Time English, New Zealand) provide learners with original TV series that are specifically made for English language learners. 

Inclusion and wellbeing

Perhaps Link Online Learners a.k.a LOL (hundrED, Finland, with volunteers and educators from 13 different countries) is an example of how the trends of life skills, using real world content and helping learners to English to communicate with the world can all be embodied in one product. LOL provides a platform for teachers and students as a way of connecting with a diverse global youth network in order to develop curiosity, empathy for other cultures and an understanding of different perspectives and ways of life. The volunteers and educators involved in this project are from a diverse range of countries, demonstrating the inclusive nature of this project. 

The importance of diversity and inclusion in English language teaching was highlighted at the ELTons 2020 when the British Council created the new judge’s commendation category for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion – celebrating finalists whose resources bridge educational inequality, reflect diversity and promote the inclusion of typically underrepresented groups. (Click here to find out more about last year’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion winners)

This year, we continue to see the importance of this theme as we look at the finalists across the different categories of the ELTons. From English competency courses for Para Powerlifters (World Para Powerlifting, Germany, with International Paralympic Committee) and grammar for the deaf and hard of hearing (General Directorate for special education and continuous education, Ministry of Education in Sultanate of Oman with AI ROYAA NEWSPAPER, Sultanate of Oman), to Helping Matters – an English course for social workers (Perceptia Press, UK/Japan) and guides for volunteers at conversation clubs (Learning and Work Institute with Learning Unlimited, UK), we see products that are catered for learners and teachers with a wide range of needs and backgrounds.

The importance of inclusion can also be seen in CIELL-Comic for Inclusive English language learning (Lancaster University, UK, with AKTO Art & Design College, Greece, Innovation in Learning Institute, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität, Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany, Language Centre, University of Cyprus, Cyprus) and many of the finalists in the category for Local Innovation awards, such as Mosaik Dogme Toolkit, a toolkit that helps English teachers of refugees make learning communicative and engaging.  Teaching in challenging circumstances (Cambridge University Press, UK) is another example of support provided to teachers involved in formal or informal teaching in areas with a growing number of refugees and displaced people.

Many of these projects focus on including diverse student groups and providing support for both their learning and their wellbeing. But in the process of doing so, we should also remember to look after ourselves. Teacher Wellbeing (Oxford University Press, UK) provides teachers will a variety of practical ideas to support and maintain teacher wellbeing as teachers while nurturing the professional relationships they have.  

Our next normal  

The last couple of years have no doubt presented teachers with new challenges, and so it is no surprise that these new challenges are reflected in several ELTons finalists this year. The Teachers’ Classroom App (PeacheyPublications Ltd, UK) makes the transition to online teaching easier by offering teachers training of common digital tools and ready-made lessons that teachers can launch and deliver from their desktop. LearnCube Homework Application (LearnCube, UK) provides a digital solution to teachers who have to or want to manage homework and give personalised feedback for their online classes. Engaging language learners in contemporary classrooms (Cambridge University Press) recognises the distractions that learners face today and helps teachers consider the aspects of learner engagement that they have power to influence more directly. And the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary App (OUP, UK, with Paragon Software, Germany/Russia) gives learners to autonomy to improve their vocabulary and pronunciation anytime, anywhere as they navigate flipped learning, online learning and blended learning. 

Previous-ELTons winner, The HandsUp Project, also adapted in response to the school closures in 2020/21. Their Facebook Live Team teaching for the Palestinian English Curriculum (The Hands Up Project, UK with UNRWA, Gaza) delivered daily live team-taught classes remotely, led by a Palestinian English teacher and a teacher in another country. This push towards online lessons in the past couple of years has also resulted in us embracing global communication and increased learner autonomy.

As we reflect on the current trends of our industry through the ELTons finalists of 2021, we realise that the events of 2020/21 might have fast-forwarded some of the trends that were already developing in our industry, but none of them come as a surprise. If anything, this serves as confirmation as to where English language teaching and learning is going and will be going in the years to come. 

Watch the ELTons live online on Monday 15 November 2021 to find out the winners. Chia will be reporting live from the event alongside teacher, writer, editor, and conference speaker Callie Massey.

Chia will also be guest tweeting live using the username @BCEltons. Join in the Twitter discussion using #ELTons.

Teachers, visit our TeachingEnglish website for lesson plans and activities.