That's the big question that English Out There's friend and colleague Jason R Levine (AKA Fluency MC) asked 34 fairly well-known English language teachers (see image from his blog post). We were asked to contribute as one of the 34, which we were very happy to do on the basis that we felt we knew a little bit about the topic and we wanted to encourage others to take part and give their best suggestions.
We don't feel we need to prove anything to anyone because we already provide proof of what we can do to help English learners to quickly become more fluent. You just need to listen to the real case studies on this site, on our podcast or on our Youtube channel to hear the before and after recordings of real learners who were desperate to improve.
English Out There has always been about taking English teaching and learning outside of the classroom to make spoken learning interactions as real and effective as possible. We always tell it like it is and always keep pushing the boundaries of what is technically possible (look at Free Range English our low cost, tech enabled, street English course in London that uses no classrooms at all, ever).
Ever since we started EOT in 2001 we have experienced steadily increasing levels of scepticism about the English language teaching (ELT) industry. We have found it hard to equate the amount of failure that is exhibited by learners taking long and expensive programmes with the size of the ESL industry and the apparent credibility of those who sit at the top of the ELT tree.
In our reading we have discovered that a thousand hours of classroom ESL in Canada produced the same spoken improvement as a thousand hours of no ESL (see ref. to Canadian government LINC program research) but very few English teachers seem keen to know, share or act upon this information. Instead the primacy of the classroom as the vessel of knowledge and skills transference continues to be reinforced by most experts in ESL. This is clearly illustrated by the fact that the word 'classroom' is never far away from the focus of any discussion and that online English teaching, despite the potential, is still focused on reading and writing, groups in virtual classrooms or one-to-one lessons (basically the offline taken online, as is). Teachers still seem to think that the options for the use of technology are either self-study adaptive learning applications with little to no teacher contact or the options mentioned in the previous sentence. Worse still learners are still being conditioned to think that traditional methods will help them to achieve their goal of fluency. This is simply not true and there is no evidence to support it. Seriously.
So, Jason Levine's big question posed to so many respected English teachers and teacher trainers took on hugely intriguing importance to us. Firstly, because we thought it would be fascinating to see if there was any kind of broad agreement or thematic consensus in the answers. Secondly, to see if any people blogged or wrote about the results of the exercise. And thirdly, to see if those that did elaborate also noticed any consensus and if they did how they framed it in the context of their own professional English teaching and then wider global ELT provision and effectiveness. Therefore we thought Jason's big question might get us some big and interesting answers to the questions we'd been exploring and pondering for many years.
Reading the answers it was clear to us that there was fairly broad agreement that learners needed to engage in careful preparation for focused speaking practice with English speakers in as close to real situations outside of the classroom. Which was a huge endorsement for English Out There and how it helps people to learn to speak English. Then we looked to see who had analysed and developed the conversation on their blogs and how they framed it.
Jason West founder of English Out There used his personal blog called Selling English by the Pound to post English Fluency and How to Achieve It which applauded the outcome as full vindication of the way English Out There helps learners to speak more fluently.
Jennifer Lebedev of English with Jennifer (sponsored by Pearson) blogged Is Fluency Achieved in or out of the Classroom? and also highlighted "the striking overlap of viewpoints" and stated "With so much value placed on real language and meaningful interaction, one might begin to question the need for a teacher or instructional publications. Is fluency achieved in or out of the classroom?". But then went on to mount a defence of the use of the classroom that seemed a little unsure and slightly apologetic, "Ultimately, we want our students to be independent learners. We hope to guide them to a point where they need our instruction less and less. Good study habits can be taught and practiced. This is my final defense of formal instruction. The ESL classroom isn’t an alternative to real-world practice and communication. It should be seen as a bridge. The wonderful thing about that bridge is that it doesn’t have be burned at any point."
Well, we at English Out There used classrooms to teach the first part of our lessons until 2013, then we ditched them completely because theywere causing a conditioned response in our young adult learners that told us they didn't want to be in a classroom at all. We weren't wrong when the feedback and results came in.
Then the third expert to expand the topic and analyse the results, Rob Howard of Online Language Centre posted FLUENCY: Fact, Fiction or Farce stating "Not everyone can achieve a goal without the proper actions" and suggested that to get there learners needed to "Try, experiment, speak, make mistakes, use the language and communicate.". So Rob was onboard with the idea that we had reached a consensus too. But he then ruined it all by, maybe predictably for someone with an online language school writing, "Should you choose to improve, there are many ways out there. First and foremost, find a professional course or a professional teacher that can help you with the basics, your doubts and your mistakes. The old adage “you get what you pay for” applies here."
Both Jennifer and Rob were brave enough to acknowledge the truth, as provided by the obvious "overlap" of the answers of the 34 experts and for that they should have our respect. However, they still felt the need to bring their readers back to the conventional use of a classroom or expensive qualified teacher.
What does this show so far? That even when faced with a clear conclusion that cannot be disputed and which obviously undermines the whole modus operandi of most of the formal English language teaching in the world today, only three out of 34 experts were prepared to admit it in public. And then two felt the need to defend the status quo at the same time (somewhat illogically).
Now we wait to see who else out of the 34 will post something to their blog and expand on the clear outcome of Jason Levine's challenge to ELT.