Ellie Colegate spent five years studying French at a school in Kent, England. However, she chose not to pursue it beyond Year 9. According to her, language education failed to appeal to her because it was purely academic, and her teacher only made her copy and complete exercises from books. Despite being a top set French class, her teacher never spoke the language much, and only a few of the best students spoke in class. This experience resulted in Colegate losing interest in language education.

After three or more years of studying foreign languages in secondary school, the majority of British school leavers fail to read, write, speak, or understand the language. Instead, they know only a few phrases, repeated without understanding, in parrot fashion.

Meanwhile, Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is thriving and seeing increasing success worldwide. The industry teaches English to people whose first language is not English. Many accredited course providers across the globe offer TEFL courses or Teaching English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL). According to the British Council, there are 1.55 billion English learners and at least 10.2 million English teachers worldwide. China alone has more than 100,000 native English speakers teaching English.

Why is the TEFL industry booming while the British language learning system is in crisis? Deena Boraie is the president of the TESOL International Association and the dean of continuing education at the American University in Cairo. She believes that TEFL’s emphasis on methodology is what makes the industry different and successful. "The field of teaching English to speakers of other languages really is a unique discipline with its pedagogy", says Boraie.

Italian student Caterina di Mascio has learned most of her English through TEFL-based techniques. According to her, "Learning English with a native teacher isn’t like formal education. It’s fun and interesting, and your teacher becomes your friend." The emphasis on spoken language quickly breaks down inhibitions and forces each student to pay close attention during the lessons.

Benny Lewis, a travel blogger who teaches English, has created an entire brand by examining different ways to master languages with his website Fluent in 3 Months. He believes that the TEFL approach succeeds because it emphasizes alternative elements of language learning. "TEFL teachers are forced to step outside of a failed academic system that never helped them speak a language at school and do things completely differently," he says.

The secret to TEFL methodology is creating natural situations for students to interact in. Every student speaks throughout the lesson, and physical movement is exploited to avoid boredom and fatigue. TEFL learning is entirely different for students, as traditional grammar tables and confusing linguistic terminology are often abandoned. However, grammar is explained through use of examples in a communicative context.

TEFL teachers design classrooms allowing direct communication between teacher and student, and interaction between students. They aim to create a democratic atmosphere, organizing desks in a horseshoe or "café-style" rather than arranging a classroom in monotonous rows. Teaching sometimes doesn’t happen in a classroom at all. TEFL targets an inclusive, friendly, and open working space.

Nevertheless, TEFL methodology depends somewhat on the delivery by a native speaker who speaks English fluently and is confident in speaking the language. "TEFL methodologies are absolutely for native English speakers," says Johnny Harben, a TEFL teacher who has taught English as a foreign language in the UK and abroad for the past five years.

The success of TEFL can be attributed to its immersion approach, which has gained support from both teachers and students. This was highlighted in a report by SCILT on the Early Primary Partial Immersion (EPPI) program that was implemented in Aberdeen in 2008. The EPPI initiative involved teaching primary school children in two languages from their first year, representing the first application of the model in a UK school.

EPPI participants consistently surpassed national reading standards and achieved superior academic results compared to their non-participating peers. Further, students showed enthusiasm for language learning, with many expressing a desire to continue studying French. Despite this success, the program lost funding following its initial three-year run. However, schemes like this hold the potential to significantly transform language education in the UK.

Having taught in South Korea for two years, Hannah Garrard believes that communication and temperament are key factors in language instruction. "Communication can be a source of embarrassment for students and teachers alike in TEFL, and so you must bring your personality to every lesson," she explains. "I got to know my students and determined their goals for language learning, helping them to acquire technical language skills from there."

The concepts of immersion and communication are crucial in driving the UK’s language education forward. "Immersion pushes students to think creatively when solving problems," Garrard adds. "They must consider how to communicate effectively, leading to natural progress in problem-solving and communication skills."


  • rhysgraham

    Rhys Graham is an educational blogger and professor who writes about topics such as literacy, mathematics, and science. He has written several books, including one on the history of science. He is also the co-founder of the website Learn Out Loud, which helps educators create and share classroom activities.