By Chia Suan Chong

28 November 2022 - 12:00

Five clear glass trophies, in a rough hexagonal shape, with white lettering that says: ELTons winner Local Innovation. Trophies sit on a black ground, against a purple background.
ELTons trophies ©

Dave Poultney, In-Press Photography Ltd courtesy of the British Council

Writer and teacher, Chia Suan Chong, had a sneak preview of this year's finalists for the ELTons Innovation Awards and she found ten key messages that she wants English language teachers to know about. 

The often-asked question in the English language teaching industry is 'where are we going'? With the increase in online and blended lessons, the rise of language learning apps, and the fine-tuning of digital translation programmes, there is no doubt that English language learning and teaching is changing rapidly. So what does the future hold for English language educators?

This year marks this 20th anniversary of the British Council ELTons Innovation Awards –  our industry’s equivalent of the Oscars, where we celebrate innovation in our field. As I read up on the finalists in the six major categories of the ELTons, ten hidden messages about the future of the ELT industry become apparent to me. 

1. Learner motivation is not limited to varying our lessons and making them interesting for the learners. Learner wellbeing, resilience and self-confidence all impact on learning and cannot be ignored.

The language learning journey is not a short one, and learners require a certain level of persistence to stay on the journey. Teachers have all experienced intermediate learners who might have lost confidence or motivation along the way, or learners who might score highly on grammar and vocabulary tests, but lack the confidence to speak in English. We have also experienced learners who are not afraid of making mistakes and who manage to express themselves despite a lack of language knowledge. 

The pandemic has shown us the importance of learner wellbeing, resilience, and confidence, and ELTons finalists CNA Labs and May Moo and Me are examples of resources that put such emotions at the forefront of language learning courses. Another Brazilian finalist TansFor.Me Kids Series is founded on a principle of developing creative trust in children, helping them to overcome their fear of making mistakes.

This direction in ELT is perhaps best described by finalist Psychology in Practice, suggesting that “insights from the field of psychology can help teachers make informed decisions about getting students into the most positive frame of mind to succeed in language learning…while equipping them with valuable life skills.”

2. The use of drama and performance is not only a creative way to help learners experience the use of English, it can also heal, engage and develop learners.

The use of drama in ELT is not a new thing, but with advancements in technology, we can now work on drama projects with others remotely, supplement our lessons with video clips of performances, and create highly-interesting video lessons that learners can access on their own. 

Finalist in the category of Local Innovation Project W – Veterans, Volunteers and William is a drama and theatre project aimed at helping veterans of the 2014 Ukrainian-Russian conflict. Encouraging interaction between the actors and the audience, this project serves as inspiration for others who want to use drama, not just as a teaching tool, but as therapy for its participants. 

Finalist in the category of Innovation in Learner Resources The Helbling Shakespeare Series makes use of drama and performance to encourage reading and critical thinking. The series also includes videos of performances, engaging students who are used to being visually-stimulated in an age where we are spoilt for choice with numerous video sharing platforms and streaming services. 

The nature of video-sharing platforms and streaming services today means millions of videos are demanding students' attention and our learners are becoming used to shorter videos, more action-packed narratives, a chance to interact with others about what they watch, and more engaging hooks to capture their attention.

BBC Learning English’s Father and Son provides the full package for the video-streaming generation with a TV-style whodunnit with short four-to-five-minute episodes, podcasts and videos discussing the story as it unfolds, and a chance to comment, predict, and interact with other viewers.

3. A picture can tell a story and stories can uncover a dozen perspectives. And our learners need different forms of literacy skills to exploit different forms of story-telling media.

Story-telling has been around since the start of human civilisation, and continues to thrive in different forms. Today, stories are told through drama, performance and videos, through texts, through human story-tellers, and through pictures and photographs. In this digital age, digital literacy and visual literacy are crucial to helping learners think critically about what they are exposed to and what they can create to express themselves.

Local innovation finalist, Picture This! understands this well and unlocks the hidden narratives of ESOL learners by getting them to take photographs and write poetry as a way of telling their personal stories and sharing their perspectives of the world. In contrast, Dau Dau, another finalist in the same category, uses visual arts, stories and folklore more as a chance for learners to explore other cultural backgrounds and discover other viewpoints. Meanwhile, National Geographic Learning’s Academic English course for teens and secondary school students, Lift, uses both fiction and non-fiction stories to encourage critical thinking and a thirst for exploring, researching and discovering the world. 

4. The increased shift to online learning only highlights our need to interact, to collaborate and to connect with other people.

Technology might have made it possible for language learning to happen remotely, and asynchronously - at our learners’ own time. But we know that interaction and communication is necessary for language learning to happen. And we know that human connection is the foundation of why students want to communicate in English. 

Finalist in Innovation in Teacher Resources Breaking Through the Screen: Practical Tips for Engaging Learners in the Online and Blended Classroom recognises this fact well. Offering teachers tips and strategies to engage learners in the online environment, this book has a strong focus on making human connections, bringing the real world to the online classroom and the importance of building an online community so that students can interact and connect. 

We also see the finalists of the Digital Innovation category trying to go beyond grammar and vocabulary drills, and include ways of simulating or facilitating that interaction. Aylee Learns English uses algorithms to personalise learning and a speech recognition engine to enable learners to interact with the AI built into the app. Talk@Ease also uses AI speech recognition and includes real-life scenarios where the AI acts as learners’ conversation partners. EF Hyper Class makes use of technology to create immersive virtual environments that serve as a background to collaborative live experiences and real-life communication simulation. And Virtual Reality for Language Learners has learners collaborate virtually on tasks, helping each other to locate a hut or escape a room.

But it isn’t only our students who have a need for collaboration. Teachers and educators too thrive and develop from collaborating with each other. And technology now allows us to create a teachers’ network virtually. We are the Authors of Our Own Stories is one such finalist that aims to improve the quality of teachers’ professional development and teacher training by building a network that facilitates such collaboration between teachers.

5. Our learners are learning English to communicate with people from different countries out there in the real world.

We see this emphasis on real-life communication scenarios in the finalists mentioned above, and this is a trend that is prevalent throughout all the award categories. Brain Juice, in the Excellence in Course Innovation category, focuses on preparing primary schools students to thrive on a global scene. It dedicates much of its course to giving learners opportunities to discover the world and developing transferable skills like global awareness, self awareness and personal autonomy. 

Many of our students are learning English to communicate with not just people from the United States or the United Kingdom, but with people from all over the world. When my Peruvian student interacts with a Korean friend she meets outside the classroom, she is most likely to be using English if they can’t speak each other’s first languages. 

Classroom Practices: English as a Lingua Franca, a finalist in the Local Innovation category, recognises that this will be the most common use of English and details ways for teachers to incorporate English as a Lingua France theories into teaching practice. We also see projects like Speakout for Sustainability providing students with opportunities to communicate with other students from around the world and using their English as tool to communicate about important global issues.

6. We still need to go beyond helping students put together a grammatically-accurate sentence and help them mediate concepts and communication. 

The concept of Hyme’s (1966) communicative competence has made a huge impact in the English language teaching world, helping educators to recognise that the goal of learning English is to help learners communicate in English out in the real world, and not just to answer grammar and vocabulary questions in exams. In 1980, Canale and Swain further defined communicative competence as comprising of four parts: linguistic competence, discourse competence, strategic competence, and socio-cultural competence. 

Forty years on and many educators are still focused on linguistic competence (accurate usage of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation). Many teachers however see the new CEFR guidelines on interaction and mediation as a call for change. And through the innovative finalists, we can see that change has been happening. 

Delta Publishing’s Ideas for Action: Activities for Mediation offers teachers ways of developing students’ mediation skills, including tasks that offer students opportunities to mediate concepts and mediate communication, and honing their strategic and sociocultural competence. Meanwhile, Oxford University Press’s Synchronise uses mediation activities that get secondary school learners to practice facilitating communication, and improves understanding in their interactions.  

English is Context, in the Innovation in Teacher Resources category, encourages teachers to see that vocabulary and grammar do not exist in isolation. Language use in the real world is full of implied messages and contextually-dependent meanings. As such, we need to examine how language is used in the real world in order to truly understand how we can help learners with their discourse competence and their sociocultural competence. 

7. There is a temptation to teach the way we were taught. But what we educators do needs to be based on research. And we need knowledge to put aside erroneous beliefs about teaching and learning. 

It is a well-known fact that there is a big gap between recent research findings about language learning and what actually happens in practice.  Teachers often teach in ways that are familiar to them and a shift in approach can be tricky. However, by making findings and theories easily understood by teachers, we can encourage approaches that are based on evidence and on research.  

And this is what Pavilion Publishing’s An Introduction to Evidence-Based Teaching in the English language classroom: Theory and Practice tries to do. While we teachers emphasise the importance of critical thinking skills in students, we need to also employ critical thinking skills when considering our teaching methods and approaches.  

With the help of technology, we can now have easier access to research findings and to big data, for example, to understand how language is being used in the real world. The Prime Machine HD, a finalist in the Digital Innovation category, is an app that uses frequency data and corpus examples to help learners understand patterns of real language usage. In this way, we can base what we do on available knowledge about language use and language learning, and less on hearsay and out-of-date practices.  

8.  English is a tool and not necessarily the destination. We can use English to deliver meaningful content and provide opportunities to collaborate on meaningful projects and tasks.

In last year’s ELTons awards ceremony, Professor N S Prabhu was presented with the Outstanding Achievement Award for his contributions towards Task-Based Learning and Teaching in ELT. In his Bangalore project, he found that students were able to improve their English by focusing on a task with a non-linguistic outcome. 

However, for many teachers who are used to putting grammar and vocabulary centre stage, it can be a challenge to move the focus to tasks, projects and non-linguistic themes. But judging from the many task-based and project-based finalists in this year’s ELTons, there is no doubt that this is a direction we are heading towards.  

Finalist in the Local Innovation category Famous Talking Portraits Museum is a prime example of this. A year-long project that gets primary school students to find out more about famous pieces of art, synthesising their research, and creating short videos for their very own museum.  

In the Innovation in Learner Resources category, we have Helping Mother Nature Compost Faster: Using Chemistry to Transform Trash into Treasure a project pack that focuses on developing students’ problem solving skills and raising awareness of sustainability issues.  Also, focusing on sustainability issues the previously-mentioned Speakout for Sustainability gets learners participating in a worldwide project to raise awareness of environmental issues.  

And under Course Innovation, we have English Experience: Richmond Solution that emphasises the development of our learners to be better-equipped citizens, focusing on global issues through their student book, but also providing a separate CLIL activity pack for more task-based and project-based learning and teaching to take place.  

9.  Authentic content can not only increase learner motivation, it can provide opportunities for more exploration and inquiry-based learning. 

As a materials writer, I know the ease with which writers can grade the language and include the necessary grammar and vocabulary when creating content from scratch. However, with a focus on real world content and real world communication scenarios, the texts we writers create has to be based on real people, real issues, and authentic content.  

The finalists focused on sustainability projects mentioned above are examples of using such real world content to engage learners, raise awareness and encourage more curiosity about the world outside the classroom. Courses like finalist Lift, uses National Geographic explorers to engage and to promote critical thinking, the Helbling Shakespeare Series uses videos of real performances to promote creative thinking, while Dau Dau uses storytelling and visual arts to promote diversity, inclusion and equality. In doing this, we develop our learners’ curiosity, which allows for more exploration and investigation.  

10.  We need to prepare our learners for the skills they will need in the future. 

Transferable skills, life skills and 21st century skills might be buzzwords that have featured repeatedly in ELTons finalists over the last few years, and this year is certainly no different. But why are they so important and what do they actually mean?  

There have been many studies done in recent years about the types of skills that our students will need in the future. One of them is The State of Skills 2021 report. It highlights leadership and management, communication and negotiation, project management, creativity, critical thinking and decision making as some of the top skills that will be needed. Another is the OECD PISA study that gave particular attention to global competence and the skills of engaging in effective interactions across cultures, understanding and appreciating the perspectives of others, and the ability to examine global and intercultural issues. 

To sum up!

We are no longer simply in the business of helping students understand the different uses of the Present Perfect. 

We are in the business of preparing students to communicate internationally and connect with others in English. 

We are in the business of helping students build relationships with people from different cultures. 

And we are in the business of helping students to develop the necessary skills to prepare for conversations they will have out there in the real world. 

We can definitely see that clearly through the finalists of this year’s ELTons awards.  

Watch the ELTons online here as Chia Suan Chong reports live from the event alongside Callie Massey. 


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