Number one for English language teachers

Challenges in ELT: ELT in the 21st century

Type: Article

Christina Lorimer, Director of Step Stone Languages, discusses some of the challenges teachers face in the 21st-century classroom and how they can overcome them.

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Introduction

The traditional metaphor of a swinging pendulum works quite well to portray the history of second and foreign language teaching. In the past, the field held on for dear life to the grammar-translation method, where the ability to communicate in the target language was of little importance, then rebelled against it with the direct method, where the same ability became the ultimate goal. For centuries, we’ve debated opposing views regarding the role of teachers, methodologies, and materials, and to what extent the English language decides who or what is privileged in modern society. This history is the foundation of current English teaching practices and provides perspective for ELT professionals to evaluate new approaches and innovations in the 21st century.

But while TESOL has always been a dynamic field, we’ve recently faced challenges unique to our time, such as resistance to change, limited access to technological resources, and a rapidly changing ELT classroom. In this article, I’ll discuss how these challenges affect us today, as well as present balanced approaches that benefit learning institutions and systems while also positioning teachers as the most significant contributors and changemakers to student success.

Challenge 1: Resistance to change in methodologies and materials

It can sometimes seem that English language teachers have to do and have to be a lot more than in the past. For example, many institutions are asking teachers to modify traditional methodologies and implement blended or completely online learning. Teachers must be proficient in a variety of information processing activities, as well as have the know-how to effectively teach the type of 21st-century global communication required of an international language. These new technologies challenge not only pedagogical certainties but also professional identities as teachers become discouraged and frustrated if the software or skill required has a high degree of complexity.

Now, one could argue that the communicative language approach continues to be the dominant ELT method and that print textbooks are still default learning materials in most learning institutions. But because the concept of communication itself has shifted and print media continues to decline as digital increases, the 21st-century demands change. For most, change brings up a mixture of negative and positive feelings. On the one hand, it tends to bring up fear, defiance, and even panic. On the other, it can excite and energize. For ELT professionals, change does all this and more.

Solutions

While formidable, there are many effective ways to address this challenge. An important starting point is the understanding that methods are not mutually exclusive. Teachers have been conditioned to believe they have to choose: It’s accuracy versus fluency; teacher-centered versus student-centered; a focus on productive skills versus receptive. As a result, many view digital technologies as ‘other:’ a choice of analog versus digital. But rather than hold steadfast to these opposing dichotomies, believing teaching must be one or the other, programs and teachers can gradually incorporate new methods and materials into the ELT classrooms on their own terms, considering what is relevant and appropriate for their unique teaching context.

In order to make these decisions, it’s important that learning institutions include teachers in their planning processes: a move that also increases teacher recognition and therefore decreases resistance to change. They should also offer more relevant support services, such as paid professional development opportunities that are not only skills-based but also involve case studies and roundtable discussions that analyze these 21st-century challenges. Additionally, teachers can schedule in-house sessions to exchange and validate a variety of skills. For instance, one group trains colleagues in best practices with handwritten error correction symbols, while another teaches how to give writing feedback via a learning management system (LMS).

Challenge 2: Limited access and lack of resources

A lack of resources in the language learning classroom isn’t unique to the 21st century, but this challenge seems to have intensified in recent times due to the pressing need for technology tools and reliable access to internet-based communication within the English language classroom. Telecommunication has become increasingly important across all ELT contexts: teachers ask students to interact, access information, and share information on their phones; programs ask teachers to manage homework, grades, and attendance via online learning management systems (LMS); and publishers ask programs to buy learning materials that have digital classroom presentation tools.

Yet a lack of resources within schools and among the students inhibits the kind of technology integration needed to take advantage of these opportunities for language use and learning. Even when the resources are there, we find that incorporating devices into a lesson can highlight inequalities in the classroom and potentially cause generational tensions.

Solutions

As such, it’s imperative we seek creative pedagogical and technical approaches for teaching 21st-century skills and reducing technological inequality in the classroom. The first step is to understand if technology is even context relevant. For example, it is common for people to view technology as the solution to every education problem, whether it’s training teachers in new software to create more efficient assessments or teaching students via computer-assisted learning (CALL) to prepare them for the workforce. But while recently launched programs have powerful analytics to track student progress, they can also be difficult and time-consuming to manage for both teachers and students. And although CALL can help students become more tech-savvy, digital literacy might not be the most important skill in that local context or in their professional field.

Historically, successful solutions to overcome a digital divide in English language classrooms have been collaborative projects where students work together and share available resources. If possible, these can include digital communication and collaboration, with students sharing even one cell phone or computer. If not, teachers can still foster 21st-century communication skills using multimedia materials based in debates, teamwork, and presentations. One example is Macmillan’s Employability Skills Resource bank, launched in 2016. Here, teachers can access resources and activities that teach students interviewing, discussion, and presentation skills, with or without digital technology.

Challenge 3: Classroom management issues and decreasing student engagement

Blended learning models like the flipped classroom have changed the face of the traditional ELT classroom, and implementing web-based technologies via powerful internet connections can increase student autonomy and motivation. These models provide students with opportunities to simultaneously learn 21st-century English language and employability skills, as well as use platforms and materials relevant to their modern lives. They also connect international students and migrant learners with far away families and friends, allowing them to quickly resolve family matters and maintain a culturally-derived sense of self.

At the same time, any teacher will tell you that it’s harder than ever to get students to focus. Research affirms that the onslaught of smartphones, videos, and social media is having an effect on our brains, consciousness, and certainly on our attention span. In the language learning classroom, this translates into students incessantly checking their phones and using a number of mobile apps to displace meaningful learning. For example, I’ve had students hold cell phones up during class to simultaneously translate what I’m saying rather than take real-time notes or ask clarification questions. If teachers don’t take a specific and systematic approach to digital technology from day one, the modern ELT classroom can feel like a constant battle for students’ attention.

Solutions

The following are strategic solutions that can increase student focus and discipline. First, given the brain’s critical role in language learning, teachers should subtly teach students how they work. We’re not talking neuroscience – just, perhaps, a lesson or two on the basics. For example, an activity about how our brains require a hefty amount of focus, time, and repetition to commit new words to long-term memory. Teachers should also promote the importance of sleep and find creative ways to show students how dangerous multi-tasking is for meaningful learning.

Behavioral changes in study habits, and digital organization and distractions, should also be taught and practised in class. Here is an example of a routine that helped me curb cell phone distraction: students enter the classroom, put their phone on silent, and leave it in a designated cubby or similar spot located at the back of the classroom. During class, we follow an adapted Pomodoro technique, which states that students shouldn’t work for more than 25 consecutive minutes or be sitting down for more than five. At the end of five minutes, students get up and move around for a minute or two before returning to the task. After 25 minutes, they get a five-minute break to check their cell phones. Whatever the system, it’s important teachers make it a daily routine.

Conclusion

Overcoming these 21st-century challenges begins with the work of individual English teachers in the more than 40,000 language learning institutions worldwide. We are rooted in local communities around the world, but should think and act globally in practice. Let’s start by sharing our experience here. So, tell us: Which of these challenges do you most identify with, and what other solutions have you created to address them?

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