What are we thinking in ELT?

24 Jun

If you were about to start thinking about a dissertation or thesis in ELT, what would you write it about?

There’s a number of ways of looking at this:

  • Practicality
  • Passion
  • Previous

Practicality – what’s easiest and most practical to write about?  How are you going to find the answers to your research questions?  Is it possible to find out what you want to know?

Passion – what do you care about?  There’s no point in being pushed into writing about a topic you aren’t interested in.  If you’ve been teaching for a while, there’s probably something you enjoy doing in the classroom more than the rest.  And if you’re going to read about it, research it and write about it for anywhere between three months and a year, you need to have a topic that can sustain you throughout that time.

Previous – has it been done before?  What other research has been done in the area?  Are you going to add to the general body of knowledge in the area or are you going to duplicate existing research?  What can you find to help and inform your own research process?


It seems that a lot of ELT writing, research and conference presentation comes about because of a perceived lack in practice.  A writer or presenter has a belief about what an aspect of professional practice should be and sees that either in their own practice or in that of colleagues around them, professional practice is not as it should be.  These beliefs are therefore often highly personal and highly contextualised, but in writing about them or presenting them, the lessons learned from attempting to deal with the lack are shared with the wider ELT community.

This means that is it possible every now and again to get a snapshot of the community zeitgeist:


This word cloud (made with wordle) is from the presentation titles as given at the back of the IATEFL 2015 conference brochure.  In total, it works out at over 7000 words of text and in all honesty I’m not sure how useful it is, because the word cloud doesn’t recognise the collocations or noun phrases that are so common in session titles.  So I took the old-fashioned approach and skimmed through them to see what topic areas appeared most common.

My completely unscientific approach may well include my own personal frequency illusion bias, so interested readers are recommended to do the same thing themselves by downloading the brochure and referring to pages 249 – 270.

However, my thoughts are that in the ELT community we are mostly thinking about and writing about:

  • Action Research & Evidence based practice
  • Critical thinking in the classroom
  • Corpora research and using it in the classroom
  • The role of Coursebooks
  • Digital materials and learning technologies
  • The EdTech vs Humanistic approaches debate
  • Flipping our classrooms
  • Developing learner autonomy

Obviously, some of these are huge categories in their own right.  Learner Autonomy has something like thirty six separate talks listed in the IATEFL brochure.

Equally, some of these are perennial debates.  The role of coursebooks in the classroom, especially when contrasted with Dogme-style approaches, has been contentious since ever there were coursebooks.  Proponents of humanist approaches worry that Edtech supporters tend to lose focus on the person inside the learners, while the EdTech supporters worry that the humanists…..  actually I’m not sure what they worry about.  Possibly that humanist approaches aren’t easily replicable or applicable in wider contexts and therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously when developing larger scale policy?  Not sure.  Help me out readers – how would you characterise the debate?

Anyway – it seems to me that the community zeitgeist reflects a view of what we want our classes and our learners to be, what we try to engage with in our teaching, and that we actually have a new “standard model” in ELT:  digitally engaged, independent, thoughtful human beings who know what they want and how to go and get it.  And their teachers.


My thanks to Dr. Andrew Kerrigan at the University of York for asking me the question and thus inspiring the post – I’d be interested to hear alternative answers to Andrew’s original question:  What’s your take on some of the buzz topics in ELT writing and research these days?


9 Responses to “What are we thinking in ELT?”

  1. Achilleas Wednesday 24 June 2015 at 13:27 #

    That was a very useful and wonderfully written post! Thanks for sharing!

    I’d rather avoid commenting on specific topics, but the advice I was once given, and pass on to anyone who cares to take, is to consider three criteria: the dissertation topic should be useful, enjoyable, and feasible. At the MA level, ‘useful’ really means something that will be helpful a student’s future career. In my context, making a contribution to the profession is another, but only secondary, aim.

    ‘Enjoyable’ means something that will sustain a student’s interest for months, and keep the project from stagnating. This seems to overlap with your ‘Passion’ criterion.

    The third criterion, ‘feasibility’ is similar to your ‘practicality’. This brings together considerations such as whether the student has access to a suitable research site, literature, and supervisory expertise, and of course whether the project can be completed in the assigned timeframe.

    Of these, I explain, the first two criteria are for the student to decide on their own, and supervisor’s input comes into play with the third one.

    So it would seem that our reasoning overlaps – I wonder what others might think 🙂

    • David Petrie Wednesday 24 June 2015 at 15:25 #

      Hi Achilleas,
      Yes, I guess being useful is also a primary consideration! I do think though, that at MA level there is such a lot of duplication of effort with people across the world broadly writing about the same sorts of topic areas, mostly because they are accessible and practical. It would be nice for there to be more of a focus on adding to the general body of knowledge. But perhaps that belies a shift in the purpose of Masters level courses these days (from the perspective of the universities).
      Thanks for commenting,

  2. kehfinegan Wednesday 24 June 2015 at 16:51 #

    Thank you for this post! I’m just beginning to look at PhD programs, and I’ve also just recently gotten into blogging and tweeting, so this was very timely for me. From conferences I’ve gone to this year, I’d say that you definitely found some of the hot topics in TESOL right now. It’s an exciting time to be in this profession.

  3. eflnotes Wednesday 24 June 2015 at 22:30 #

    hi all

    readers may be interested in this list of titles from IATEFL2015 – https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7FW2BYaBgeiaFR0bHl1V29sSU0/view and from TESOL2015 – https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B7FW2BYaBgeiWGgzNXgxR1Zjb0E&authuser=0.

    they are fairly clean i think!

    also i did a fairly quick word bundle analysis you may want to read here – https://eflnotes.wordpress.com/2015/03/29/what-is-the-ideal-title-for-a-talkposter-at-iatefl-and-tesol-2015/


  4. eflnotes Wednesday 24 June 2015 at 22:40 #

    oh forgot to add http://textisbeautiful.net is neat to get a bit more sophisticated visualisations than wordle

  5. huwjarvis Thursday 25 June 2015 at 14:21 #

    Thanks for this insightful blog which will be particularly useful for my MA TESOL students, and many others, who are about to embark on their dissertations. I have retweeted it (@tesolacademic) and added it to our FB page. You raise the question of edtech and humanistic approaches and invite comments so here goes …. I certainly wouldn’t characterise it in the way that you suggest, but I DO worry about edtech being stuck in a “PPP and CALL\MALL paradigm”. I have described and illustrate what I mean by this in a recent paper, and with some helpful inputs from Rod Ellis I have proposed an alternative of task-based teaching and Mobile Assisted Language Use (MALU). I think that the example lesson given here would fall within what you characterise as “humanistic” See http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume-19/ej73/ej73a1/ What do other people think?


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