Teaching, methodology, and English as an international language: Lessons for one MATESOL program

Our small university in northern New England has a 60-year tradition of preparing students to teach English in the USA and around the world. For several decades, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) has been our stated approach, while we acknowledge that the term itself is rather loosely defined and is perhaps best seen as a methodological umbrella that reflects several key cognitive, affective, and linguistic principles such as student-centered instruction, relevant and comprehensible input, balancing accuracy with fluency, and integration of productive and receptive skills. The CLT approach has allowed for flexibility of teacher styles and adjustments to the perceived needs of our students, both native (NS) and non-native (NNS) English speakers. However, in recent years we have realized that those needs are shifting in a direction that claims English as an International Language, rather than as a Foreign or Second Language. Acknowledging this shift has motivated us to revisit certain premises of the CLT approach that has served us well for so many years.1

International English

Despite its eclecticism, there is no denying the underlying assumptions of CLT that English “belongs” primarily to NS, and that the goal of English language learners is to communicate with NS, hoping eventually to sound as much like them as possible. These assumptions have been refuted in a growing body of literature from associated fields, which I collectively refer to as English as an International Language (EIL), but which include World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). Drawing on Kachru’s (1992) original metaphor of three concentric demographic circles in the English-speaking world, this literature points out that NNS (i.e., speakers from the “Outer” and “Expanding” circles) have taken ownership of the English language in the sense that they now outnumber NS three to one. Their language-learning purposes are domain-specific rather than generally communicative, including for example international business transactions, public policy statements, academic scholarship, or the global tourist industry. Within these domains, interaction takes place both with and without the inclusion of NS.

As the ownership of English is changing, so is the shape of the language. On the one hand, ELF corpora reveal a regularization of idiosyncratic features such as the –s suffix for plural nouns, or the substitution of difficult pronunciation features like the initial sound in think with more universally common variants like /s/ (Jenkins, 2015). This movement may suggest a new standardized grammar for EIL. On the other hand, Graddol (2006) and others note the localization of English into regional varieties or World Englishes (Indian English being a notable example), much as Latin diverged into the dialects that later became Romance languages. In these contexts, grammatical or phonological accuracy as defined by NS norms becomes less relevant than “a capability of effective use … exploiting whatever linguistic resources are available” (Seidlhofer, 2011, p. 197).


These findings send an explicit signal for change to “Inner Circle” TESOL programs such as ours. But first, in order to check the real-world strength of this signal, we conducted two surveys, one in 2005 and another still ongoing in 2016, of alumni who graduated from our MATESOL program within the previous ten years and who have taught all around the world. Our Survey-Monkey questionnaire asked whether respondents perceived a NS advantage in their profession, how the purposes of their teaching had changed over time and contexts, which aspects of their methodological training they had found most useful, and which professional skills they most needed to develop. Both surveys also offered prompts and open-ended questions to elicit suggestions for improvement of our program.

For the first survey, we received 75 responses; and so far, we have received about half as many for the second. Although these numbers represent only a small sample of our hundreds of graduates, they generally confirm the scenario presented by the EIL literature, with some interesting contrasts between 2005 and 2016. Across both surveys, alumni reported experiences from a total of 31 countries, covering a range of developed and developing countries across the Outer Circle (where English has official status, as in Pakistan) and the Expanding Circle (where English is a lingua franca, as in Switzerland, Tajikistan, or francophone Africa). About half the respondents were NNS. Remarkably, both surveys revealed a majority perception (64% averaged across both populations but slightly stronger with NNS) that NS still have a hiring advantage, suggesting that the global English teaching market has not yet acknowledged the demographic realities of NNS ownership.

More reflective of the literature were the perceptions of English learning goals. In 2005, ranked on a Likert scale, presentation skills took first place, followed by conversation and last, critical thinking. Ten years later, critical thinking and presentation skills both share the highest weighted average on the Likert scale (4.31). From a list of six approaches, CLT was identified in 2005 as the most useful, followed by content-based and grammar-based instruction; but in 2016, CLT (4.38 weighted average) is challenged for top place by English for academic purposes (4.33), while grammar-based instruction—the standard bearer for NS norms of ‘correctness’—comes last (2.91).

Asked which language skills they most often taught (Oral Skills, Reading, Writing, or Grammar), alumni in both surveys placed oral skills first, but grammar has slipped from second to fourth place over the last ten years. As for professional development needs, curriculum design topped the list in both surveys; but English for specific purposes has replaced “fun ideas” for second place.

Most interesting are the 2016 recommendations, from 13 prompts, to improve our MATESOL program. The strongest recommendations were to

  1. Offer more off-site practicum placements (4.31 average)
  2. Focus on classroom management (3.92)
  3. Focus on assessment methods (3.92)
  4. Focus on pragmatics and cross-cultural awareness (3.77)
  5. Encourage research related to prospective teaching situation (3.77)

Prompts related to English internationalization (e.g., allow more exposure to NNS, or focus on EIL) were the lowest-ranked, suggesting again that our respondents’ teaching contexts have not yet conceded ownership of English.

Conclusion: Directions for MATESOL

Our 2016 survey continues, but results so far reinforce the importance of our offering a MATESOL curriculum that respects shifting demographics but that focuses on the core pedagogical skills that can transfer to any teaching context. While we certainly see content-based methodologies catching up with CLT and leaving grammar-based methodologies behind, the recommendations above signal that “method” itself is less important than the ability to adapt to the diverse teaching situations that our graduates will encounter. In their open-ended responses, alumni mentioned the ongoing need for professional development in such areas as leadership, institutional management, and implementing new approaches, all reflecting employers’ assumptions, as one respondent stated, that “people with MAs should be the coordinators of groups of instructors, work on curriculum design, create computer-based tests” and otherwise take charge from the start of their careers.

Thus, our findings support directly Penny Ur’s call for a truly post-method approach where we prepare teachers to “design their own ‘situated methodologies,’” (2013, p. 470). With this mission in mind, our curriculum reform is under way. Our revised list of student outcomes does not abandon the principles of language learning and teaching that inspired CLT. But we have adjusted our methodological focus to emphasize versatility and self-empowerment of our graduates in a global teaching context. Four key modifications are summarized here.

Course plan: The knowledge and skills of curriculum design and appropriate instructional technology are now woven more deliberately into the fabric of our required coursework, bearing in mind that many developing countries have easier access to computers and the internet than to physical teaching materials.

Grammar instruction: For several years, our program has balanced the traditional sentence-level approach with a functional perspective, using the framework of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), which explores the resources of grammar for constructing meaning on different levels. This strategy has proven effective in content-based contexts, specifically for our alumni teaching in USA public schools where the priority of English learning is academic literacy for grade-level standards in different subject areas. Our survey results suggest that a functional approach to grammar is similarly appropriate for teaching EIL. Our graduates should certainly be able to answer sentence-level grammar questions, especially in those settings where English is taught primarily for passing grammar-based examinations. But they must also be able to help their students unpack or construct meaning effectively for a variety of purposes such as understanding a complex scientific report, finding the right voice for an international business presentation, or checking the coherence of a political argument.

Practicum: Four of the five major recommendations listed above concern the practicalities of teaching in diverse situations. Our best response is to diversify our opportunities for practicum placements. Hitherto, we have placed most of our student teachers in local settings such as our Intensive English Program. These placements have offered a valuable learning experience. However, lessons about classroom management, appropriate curriculum design and assessment, or cultural responsiveness are best learned in those settings where our students intend to teach. We are therefore expanding our overseas practicum possibilities to include more representative sites. Some examples include

  • bilingual immersion schools in Colombia and Puerto Rico;
  • a technical college in Japan;
  • a commercial language institute in Morocco;
  • a non-profit community school in Tanzania;
  • a high school in China

Thesis topics: Several of our students know exactly where they are going after graduation. For example, those supported by government scholarships are pre-assigned to return and improve English teaching curriculum in their countries. They are also expected to complete a thesis during their program. The needs of such students are reflected in the recommendation for research related to prospective teaching situations. In response, our thesis advisors are encouraging action research topics rather than more abstract explorations of theoretical or linguistic issues. The following examples of recently chosen topics suggest we are on the right track.

  • The comprehensibility of Yemeni-English speakers
  • The impact of online recording tool Voice Thread on interaction for Taiwanese college students
  • Moving toward a functional grammar approach in Palestinian classrooms
  • Conditions for introducing CLT in high schools in Iraq

Good teaching has always been about responsiveness to the needs and situations of learners. To the extent that CLT promotes this awareness, its principles are timeless. As we balance the counsel of the EIL literature with the teaching realities reported by our alumni, our MATESOL program will sustain those principles that emphasize the who and why of English teaching, while challenging the assumption of ownership by NS over the what and how.


Graddol, D. 2006. English Next. London: British Council. http://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/sites/ec/files/books-english-next.pdf

Jenkins, J. 2015. Global Englishes: A resource book for students. NY: Routledge.

Kachru, B. 1992. The other tongue: English across cultures. Urbana, Ill: University of Illinois.

Seidlhofer, B. 2011. Understanding English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ur, P. 2013. Language teaching methods revisited. ELT Journal, 67(4), 468-474.


1. This talk is based on a talk given at the 2016 TESOL Convention.

Published In:
Contact Fall 2016

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