Modern English Language Teaching – some core principles

In this section, we’ll look briefly at how methodology has developed over the years and what kind of approaches are put forward on courses and expected by employers in the world of EFL / TESOL today.

A little history

Most institutions and courses put forward an approach we could broadly refer to as ‘communicative language teaching’ or CLT. From the beginning of the EFL industry, new techniques and approaches have been implemented; some have been discarded as research or experience has proved them to be less useful, while others have been adapted, developed and added to. As a result, today it could be said that EFL mostly operates through a kind of principled eclecticism. In other words, we have collected together all the things that are proven to be most helpful, and applied these techniques and approaches to suit our learners and contexts. Below are some of the main principles you would be expected to follow in most modern EFL classrooms.


Here are some tips to take into your teaching which take into account some of the current underpinning principles. After each section, there are key points to apply to your teaching, highlighted in bold.



Ask yourself a question – Why do people learn a language? The answer could be to get a better job, to be able to progress in a career, to talk to in-laws – there are many possible answers. But the one thing all answers will have in common is communication, whether written or spoken. The person who wants to use English in their job may need to write e-mails (written communication) or attend meetings in English (spoken communication). Ultimately, learning a language is about communicating, and we need to be mindful of this in the classroom. Learning a language is learning a practical skill – learning how to do something, more than learning facts about something. A good analogy might be learning to drive a car. Of course we need some instruction on what the gear stick does, which pedal does what; but once we know those things, the main way we are going to get better at driving a car, is by driving a car! In other words, we need some instruction, but we also need a lot of practice communicating, followed by feedback, followed by more practice where we can try and implement the feedback. This means maximising time for students to do – to communicate – in the lesson.

Maximise communication.


Interaction and engagement

Taking the previous point into account means we have to think about interaction in the classroom. Who should students be communicating with? In a more traditional classroom, the answer would be the teacher. But in the EFL classroom, since we want to maximise communication, we need to ensure students are speaking to each other. Consider a class with one teacher and 15 students. If most of time is spent with communication from teacher to student, in a 60 minute lesson, how much time would each student have spent communicating? Even being generous and assuming equal participation from each student, we are probably only talking about 4 minutes!! If however, we have students working in smaller groups, we can see that immediately, each student has significantly more time to use their English.

Of course there are times when it is appropriate for the interaction to be teacher to student. For example, when the teacher is clarifying a language point or giving instruction. But when it doesn’t need to be teacher-centred – make the interaction student to student.

Now consider this question – what happens if we are ensuring that students get plenty of time talking to each other, but that they always work in the same pairs? Would this be a good or bad thing? In general, it isn’t going to be helpful. Perhaps a stronger student sits next to a weaker student meaning they never get challenged. Or the weaker student doesn’t say very much because they feel intimidated by their better partner. If the class is multi-lingual, it would also mean that each of the pair doesn’t experience the variety of accents that is common in the real world, meaning they can easily understand their partner, but are thrown when they hear someone speak in a different way. Can students only work in pairs? No – of course we can also very the interaction patterns, again to try and reflect the situations in real-life where people communicate. Students can work individually, in pairs (which we can regularly swap), small groups, large groups and they can also mingle, as if at a party, speaking to several different people in one activity. All these techniques will help ensure we maximise student-talking time (STT) and bring variety to the classroom.

We also want to make sure students are actively engaged. Most people learn more when being active rather than passive. Think about all the different ways you can provide variety and interest in your lessons, to make them active and enjoyable.


Increase student to student interaction

Minimise teacher-centredness

Vary interaction patterns

Use visuals and realia

*  Try to elicit information from students rather than telling

Consider the use of guided discovery in language lessons


Meaningful and relevant

Imagine you are studying / practising the past simple. Would you rather compare what you and your partner did yesterday, or make sentences about a fictional person’s day yesterday? The answer is probably the former. We can see that discussing our previous actions with a friend or colleague is something we might actually want to do in real-life. Most people find it more relevant and therefore more motivating to talk about their own lives and opinions. Therefore, we can increase motivation and participation by personalising where possible and giving students contexts and tasks that they can readily identify with.

Use situations and tasks that allow for personalisation and which students can relate to.

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