Defining Issues in English Language Teaching

Title: Defining Issues in English Language Teaching
Author: H.G.Widdowson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: Kaithe Green
Review date: February 2005

This is a small book written by a teacher for teachers. It's small enough to put in your pocket and carry around. It is arranged in chapters which are both complete in themselves and part of a coherent continuum of informed argument. For these reasons it is not as intimidating as some larger academic works, and is well worth reading simply out of interest and for the sheer pleasure of reading well-written and reasoned argument.

What is different and particularly useful about this book is that it is largely composed of a number of papers produced by the author over the preceding ten years. However, this is not just a compilation of papers, he has reworked his own work into this one edition which provides us with a collection of interesting and useful information without becoming a dry academic tome which demands a period of serious study. The author states that "The purpose of this book is to activate critical thinking about the subject, English, and so to make a contribution to this continuing process of enquiry". This purpose is more than adequately met by the manner in which he addresses the issues that define English as a subject, and considers the ways in which learning objectives are set and activities and language are selected.

I found the entire book both interesting and informative; and it certainly did stimulate my critical thinking faculty. I particularly loved the strands of humour and insight that ran through the topics covered. For example, chapter one, which is about the relationship between theory and practice, includes an interesting discussion about the commonsense of teaching, and such little gems as "experience teaches you nothing directly: you have to learn from it, indirectly" and "Teaching, we might acknowledge, is ultimately an art. But it is also a craft."

I confess that the discussion of Proper words in proper places, chapter three, whilst being a meaningful and erudite piece of work reduced to me giggles by creations and quotations such as "Have you put out the small domesticated furry feline animal?" and "a nice derangement of epithets". I was also considerably amused by questions like "Not accepted by whom?" in relation to the quotation "Fry-pan is not accepted as standard English" and the equally pithy comment that "Mrs Malaprop has the habit of producing impressive sounding words which make no semantic sense, but bear a phonological resemblance to those that do". This sound remarkably familiar.

Another aspect of this book which kept me engaged, and created personal relevance throughout, was the constant and frequent reference to such diverse authors as Shakespeare, William Golding, E.M.Forster and Oscar Wilde; not to mention Walters & Swann, The British Council and The Independent on Sunday.

Overall, I have to say that the only thing I didn't like about this book was that it was written by someone so obviously cleverer than me! So, if like me, you enjoy a good read, and would like to learn more about ELT without having to do the hard work of in depth research and study, this is the book for you.

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & ArticlesKaithe Greene will shortly be joining the select ranks of MA qualified English teaching grandmothers.