A History of English Language Teaching (Second Edition)

Publisher: Oxford University Press Authors: A P R Howatt with H G Widdowson Despite the fact that I could obviously judge the topic of the book from the title, this history of TEFL and TESOL was in no way what I expected before I started reading it. How that was a good and bad thing […]
Reviewed for Teflnet by Alex Case

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Authors: A P R Howatt with H G Widdowson

Despite the fact that I could obviously judge the topic of the book from the title, this history of TEFL and TESOL was in no way what I expected before I started reading it. How that was a good and bad thing for me is examined below, along with some ideas on who else this book might be of interest to and a summary of some of the most interesting information in it.

Perhaps the greatest surprise for me was the fact that Section 2 (Aspects of English Language Teaching since 1900), which already takes me back further than almost anything I thought touched on my teaching today, takes up only 140 pages of a 417 page book- and that includes 20 pages of A Perspective on Recent Trends by H G Widdowson. With 50 pages being taken up with the Introduction, A Chronology of English Language Teaching, the bibliography and the index, that leaves 220 pages for the teaching of English as a second and foreign language before 1900, a time that I had hardly knew our job existed in. This is dealt with in two parts (1400-1800 and 1800-1900), divided in sections on Practical Language Teaching, On ‘Fixing’ Language, English Language in the Empire, and English Language Teaching in Europe. The post-1900 part is divided into sections on “…the Making of a Profession” and “Aspects of…”. Each section is further divided into chapters, with 21 chapters in total in the book.

The first chapter (Practical Language Teaching- The Early Years) and the story of English Language Teaching starts with most people in England becoming monolingual in English, with French needing to be learnt as a foreign language for the first time, the earliest surviving book to that purpose dating from 1396. The author explains the first grammar of English (for native speakers), the “catechistic method of language teaching”, and the first textbooks solely to teach English as a foreign language. These textbooks sprung up after the arrival of the French-speaking Huguenot refugees in England in the 1570s and 1580s, following “double-manuals” meant to teach (mainly) French to English speakers as well as English to speakers of French, which had been printed from the time of William Caxton. A lot of detail is given on these double-manuals, which seem to have been quite similar to modern phrasebooks but with additions such as bilingual prayers, including the first EFL teacher we know by name, Gabriel Meurier (although he probably mainly taught French).

The second chapter (Refugiate in a Strange Country) takes up the teaching of Huguenot refugees in more detail, with an examination of the lives and works of three refugee teachers of English (although again they spent more time teaching French), Jacques Bellot, Claudius Holyband and John Florio. It includes the interesting idea that teachers of this period taught with translation because there was no analysis of English available that would have allowed them describe it all otherwise, perhaps an interesting parallel for the knowledge of the language and the use of translation all over the world for non-native and non-specialist teachers now. Like the earlier double-manuals, language textbooks at this time were based on full (imaginary) dialogues containing the practical language people needed day to day, whether that be commercial vocabulary or language for day to day life. They also included things such as some grammar, pronunciation (including the first appearance of what is probably still the most famous minimal pair- “ship” and “sheep”!), vocabulary lists, examinations of typical vocabulary confusions, substitution tables and semi phonetic transcriptions. It seems proverbs and sayings were standard at that time (something that seems to carry on every time someone somewhere with no training tries to design an English course) including, bizarrely, a list of the mystical meanings of plants and flowers. Although some of the textbooks by these three authors continued to be used into the next century, no evidence is given here of an influence on the next generation of language teachers and textbooks- let alone on English teaching, as all three taught and wrote about mainly if not only other languages.

The third and fourth chapter also more relevant to the teaching of foreign languages in the UK than to the teaching of English to foreigners, including “what must be the best-selling language teaching textbook ever written” (despite the small world population at the time?) “A Short Introduction of Grammar”, a Latin textbook also known as “Lily’s Grammar”, published in 1509 and still in occasional use in the 19th century. In this case the relevance to ELT is made clearer, as the “mindless rote-learning and the custom of writing sample sentences” was something that affected the teaching of all languages and the reactions against these methods. These reform movements started as early as a century after the publishing of this book, although it takes a leap of imagination to see methods like ‘double-translation’ as a forward looking methodology from our present point of view. The philosophy of Joseph Webbe, however, who wrote in 1622 that “no man can run speedily to the mark of language that is shackled and ingiv’d with grammar precepts”, seems amazingly modern. In fact, the author draws an interesting parallel with the Henry Sweet and, on the other side, the Direct Method teachers in the late 19th century. Unfortunately, there is again no evidence on Webbe having a direct influence on the next generation of teachers and textbook writers.

In the next chapter the author explains the life story (in some detail) and professional life of Comenius. In this case the author seems to be claiming that he had more importance, indeed to have been a “central and complex figure in the history of language teaching” and was “a genius, possibly the only one that the history of language teaching can claim” (pg 44), although as he taught Latin rather than English and “his educational plans were too ambitious and unrealistic… and they were never put to a real test” (pg 44) and “it is doubtful whether his methodological ideas exerted much influence until they were re-discovered in the 19th century”, I could not work out from this book why his story and methodology, while interesting, was relevant, different or important. A quote of his will quite possibly echo down the ages to our students though- “the complete and detailed knowledge of a language, no matter which it be, is quite unnecessary, and it is absurd and useless on the part of anyone to try and attain it”!

As should be obvious from the description above, a lot of the information given in this early part of the book is not directly related to the Teaching of English to Foreigners (as was long the official, non-PC, name for TESOL in the UK). Having said that, most of the rest of the information included was interesting, both as history and as a completely different (for me) way of looking at teaching. The author sometimes explains the relevance of such things to the history of ELT, but at other times seems to be following a personal interest that made me think that it was based on original research originally by author, something that in my experience is often the case with books that more or less stand alone in their subject area. This is true throughout the book, and I often found myself thinking “Well, that’s very interesting, but how is it relevant?” or “Why write about that piece of information/ person/ movement rather than any other?”

As someone who has never read a book claiming to be about the history of ELT (although books about TEFL methodologies I have read are a little similar), when the author wrote a few times that the interesting but apparently obscure person whose entire career had just been described “should be better known”, I personally would’ve been happier with my first book on the subject sticking mainly to telling me more about facts and people I already thought I knew something about or would be showing my ignorance by not knowing about. To give some examples, as a practicing language teacher I was surprised to find little or nothing about the importance (or not) of Mario Rinvolucri and the other Pilgrims School HLT authors, John and Liz Soars’ Headway, Streamline Departures, Michael Swan, Jeremy Harmer’s The Practice of English Language etc, Recipes for Tired Teachers or English Teaching Professional magazine. If my surprise was due to me being too focused on recent history or on classroom teaching rather than Applied Linguistics I am not sure, but as with the teaching of other kinds of history I often thought that it would be easier to understand, remember and see the importance of the information if it was more obviously tied closely to things I already knew. There were quite a few examples of this, however, such as information on the person who Doctor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady was based on, the background to the setting up of what became the CELTA, and the early history of the British Council and the much more central role it used to take in ELT.

To look at the things the book does mention that are closer to us in time and maybe relevance, let’s take a look at the last few chapters. The last chapter is a summary of recent trends and some ideas of where they are going in the deep but slightly rambling style that was also true of the other H G Widdowson books I have read. The last chapter by the main author of the book, A P R Howatt, deals with “The Notion of Communication”, and is a surprisingly successful attempt to tie together the trends of CLT, ESP, the Threshold Level Project, discourse analysis, decolonisation, immigration in Britain, and the general progressive atmosphere of the 60s and early 70s, things that I had no idea were connected. It also explains some of the earlier roots of these things, including referring back to earlier chapters, and looking back I might have enjoyed the book even more if I had read it backwards starting here.

Before that we have “Old Patterns and New Directions”, starting in 1945 and dealing with things I had heard of like the Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (OUP, 1952), A General Service List of English Words (1953) and the Audiolingual Method, plus plenty of stuff I had never heard of but found interesting and occasionally thought provoking about the present state of ELT. And so it continues until we meet reach the year 1900 60 pages and three chapters earlier.

The book claims that “the basic intention of this book is to try and illuminate the teaching of English to speakers of other languages by exploring some of its origins and some of the ideas that have influenced and moulded it over the years” (Introduction pg 1), i.e. it should be of interest to every working English teacher. It is partly successful in that aim. By showing the long history of ideas and old debates that seem very recent it can help you get some perspective on the theories being discussed now, and by taking them away from the context and personalities that are associated with them now it can help you look at them in a new and more rational way. For most people, though, a more detailed account of the recent history of ELT, if it is available, might be of more use or interest. I would, however, recommend this book for people who, like me, are interested in history at least as much as ELT and can therefore combine their two areas of interest. Otherwise, it is basically just a textbook for people studying a course on the History of ELT or Applied Linguistics (perhaps I was naive to expect more?), but also of interest to anyone who is doing any kind of academic writing who would like to include some details of the background to their topic with a broader than usual historical scope. If you think you might be interested in any of the topics I have mentioned (or any of the ones in the 300 years of history I had to leave out of this review due to lack of space), this book is certainly easy to read and understand, bar a few parts, easily skipped, where there is assumed knowledge that I, for one, did not have.

Reviewed by Alex Case for TEFL.net July 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.


  • LILY says:


  • Berhane G says:

    wow really this article is very interesting. personally l found it very important for my master’s term paper. And thank you very much.

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TEFL.net : TEFL Book Reviews : Linguistics : A History of English Language Teaching (Second Edition)