Voices

What's new in English language teaching?

By Rachael Roberts

29 May 2015 - 08:09

Rachael Roberts looks at the latest trends ahead of the ELTons Awards for innovation in English language teaching resources, live-streamed on 4 June 2015.

We are accepting applications for the ELTons 2016 until 6 November 2015.

This is an article about new trends in English language teaching (ELT) resources, but none of the trends that follow are, strictly speaking, new.

Take, for example, the idea of spaced repetition, which is a buzzword at the moment. Back in 1885 (I told you it wasn’t a new idea), Hermann Ebbinghaus carried out an experiment designed to measure how quickly we forget. He discovered that, unless new information is reinforced, we quickly forget what we have learned. In the 1930s, other researchers followed this up by looking at how often we need to reinforce new information, and found that spacing out repetition – revising the information every two days, then every four, then every eight, and so on – was most effective.

So, we’ve known about spaced repetition for quite a while, but it has been difficult to implement, as it involves keeping track of an awful lot of words. However, this is something that a language-learning computer programme or app can do brilliantly. And so we’re starting to see more and more language-learning apps which use the principles of spaced repetition, such as Lingopolis or Olive Green – two nominees for the ELTons awards this year.

Another way in which digitalisation is affecting ELT resources is in the way it's connecting learners with the outside world. Students nowadays have access to an incredible amount of English-language material online. But while this is clearly beneficial, it can also be a bit overwhelming. Students don’t always know where to go for the most appropriate material. For teachers, the amount of time needed to find, select and prepare materials can be off-putting.

As a result, more and more sites that adapt materials for students are appearing. Easier English Wiki, for example, provides students (and teachers) with free materials based on articles from New Internationalist magazine. Newsmart is an app that uses daily, up-to-date content from the Wall Street Journal to teach language and develop reading and listening skills.

More traditional learning materials are also following this trend by joining up with outside companies. Unlock is a new series from Cambridge University Press, which uses content from Discovery Education. Pearson’s Speakout series, a previous ELTon award winner, has partnered up with the BBC.

Another effect of our increasingly online world is the growth in more specialised ELT materials. While publishers continue to produce large, globally oriented courses, there is more and more scope for niche, local products written for specific groups of learners. Dr Chris Lima’s EAP Shakespeare materials, nominated for the Macmillan Award for New Talent in Writing, is one such example.

Teachers are starting to create materials in ways that would have been impossible some years ago. Nearly every student now carries a powerful mini-computer, video camera and audio recorder in their pocket (otherwise known as a mobile phone) and teachers are finding new ways to use this technology in the classroom for learning English.

Web tools and unprecedented access to authentic materials online mean that teachers can create courses tailored to the specific needs and interests of their students.

But not all the latest trends rely on technology. A very noticeable trend is towards more creativity in the classroom. This probably started with Ken Robinson’s talk, How schools kill creativity. Viewed millions of times, it has definitely brought creativity back to the forefront of teaching and materials design. There are other signs too, such as the setting up of The C Group: a group of ELT teachers and materials writers dedicated to encouraging creativity in the classroom.

Quite a number of the nominees for this year’s ELTons reflect this creativity. For example, Mytera’s Fortress and the Atama-ii set of graded readers, both of which draw on fantasy role-playing games. Or Creative English, which uses soap-opera scenarios, and ARM Cubes, which encourages learners to interact with language by working with audio and video.

Creativity is often about seeing things from a new perspective. This brings us to my final trend: 21st-century skills. Some people might say this isn’t new either, as people have been talking about 21st-century skills since the start of the century. However, I think the idea is still developing, not least because not everyone entirely agrees about what we mean by 21st-century skills. Generally, it is used to refer to skills that are felt to be of particular importance in today’s world. For example, critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration.

But weren’t these skills always important, you may ask? Yes, of course, but in a world where people are unlikely to stay in the same job for life, and interpreting and using information is becoming more important than memorising it, the emphasis on these sorts of skills needs to be greater.

With this in mind, we are seeing ever more materials that teach these kinds of skills as well as the language. Oxford Discover is one such series, based on the 'four Cs' (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity). Another example is the Macmillan Life Skills series, which treats broader soft skills such as raising self-awareness, and influencing and managing others.

While none of these five trends may be exactly new, they are tremendously exciting. ELT resource creators are not just producing the same old stuff year on year. Teachers and their students have a lot to look forward to.

Join Rachael Roberts on 4 June 2015 to find out who will be the winners of the prestigious ELTons Awards. Rachael will be live-blogging throughout the ceremony.

Join the discussion on Twitter at #ELTons2015.

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