ELF #4: Orienting your class to ELF

Finally then, my eagerly awaited (by at least three people) post on how I believe one could go about orienting one’s classroom to English as a lingua franca (ELF). If you’re interested you can read parts 1, 2 and 3 too.

In order to write this post I read a fair bit of literature with titles that refer to teaching ELF or an ELF pedagogy, only to find that they deal with culture in rather broad terms (McKay 2002), critique methodology  (Holliday 2005), or provide rough frameworks for teaching (Dewey 2012). So far it seems that in 12 or so years of intensive research, the ELF field has produced one book aimed at the practical teaching of ELF, Robin Walker’s (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. While Dewey (2012) may rightly decry the devotion to norms and interlanguage still present in the Delta syllabus, this is perhaps partly a product of the lack of any practical help for teachers who would like to prepare  their students for ELF communication, and researchers themselves should perhaps bear some of the blame. I strongly suspect that the take up of ELF would be helped as much by a book of decent classroom techniques and activities as by advocating for its inclusion in in-service training programs. It is with a toe in the researcher camp, and the other 9 in the teacher camp, that I write this post.

It might be helpful here to state a few things that I believe, and that the suggestions that follow rest on:

  • There is a thing that people do called English as a lingua franca, that involves communication between speakers of different L1s in English (leaving aside native speakers (NS*) and same L1 non-native speakers (NNS) for the sake of simplicity).
  • This ELF communication will be different from communication between NSs in grammatical, phonological, syntactical and lexical forms. In addition these forms will vary between individuals and contexts. This variation is natural, and not deficient in terms of native speaker norms.
  • This variation means that there is no such thing, nor will there likely ever be, as an ELF model or variety.
  • A student’s own conception of the language is more important than a model is anyway. Students are exposed to multiple models in every class.
  • We can’t teach ELF, but we can help to prepare students for meeting English in this kind of context (and others) by simulating it in our classrooms. 
  • The decision to orient, or not, your classroom to ELF should be taken as part of a reflection of your students’ needs (the macro-context).

It might also be helpful to say here that these suggestions are things that I have done, try to do now, or may try to do in future in my classroom. For those not familiar with this blog, that means groups of first year engineering and design students at a university in South Korea.

Decentering Intelligibilty

If ELF can be said to have an ideology (and for the record, I would say that it does), it could be viewed as one of decentralization. This is in the sense of removing native-speaker English from the center of (often criticised) models such as Kachru’s. From a teaching point of view it means removing yourself from the center of the classroom. The change in role of a teacher from a dispenser of knowledge to a co-constructor has long been a tenet of CLT in general, but where ELF is concerned this is especially relevant in matters of intelligibility.

In an ELF oriented classroom, a native speaker teacher simply cannot be the sole judge of students’ intelligibility. Firstly, a native-speaker tends to approach meaning-making from the top down rather than the bottom up (Jenkins 2000). While Jenkins talks in relation to phonology only, I would argue that it applies in general. In other words, NSs try to match the whole of a student utterance to a range of possible meanings, before working back to the constituent parts. NNSs, on the other had, tackling individual signals (words, sounds) first, building them into utterances, and finally looking for meaning**. Secondly, in a lot of English teaching, intelligibility is bound up with native speaker norms, with the inference that learning these norms will make the student intelligible to native speakers. For students who will use English as a lingua franca, this seems untenable.

So the big question then. What can I do about it? Well, it’s pretty simple. Your students are better judges of intelligibility to other NNS than you are. This means getting them involved in judging it at every level, and by every level I mean the one that really matters (in Korea at least), testing. My classes loosely follow the Willis & Willis conception of TBLT, which means each week ends with students presenting a “polished” version of whatever task I set them for that week. This is evaluated to give their weekly quiz score, as required by our program. During one group/person’s performance, other students listen and grade them on their intelligibility.

I am aware that grades are important, and the concept of students giving each other grades may well be a new one. In general however, my students have taken to this quite well. Here are some reasons why I think it might be so:

  • I explain the reasoning for doing<span style="ages or my preferred path of numbers of breakdowns in misunderstanding.
  • I always have a good number of students evaluating so that an average can be taken and no one person can inflate or deflate a grade too much.
  • I make sure the teacher and performing students have a right to ask why a certain grade was given.
  • I don’t ask for examples of misunderstanding. While this would be useful, it tends to drive students down the path of least resistance, which is to tick 100% so they don’t have to provide examples.  

This also has the extra bonus of freeing up time and attention for me to concentrate on grading other things.

As I said, this works well for me, but it tends to happen in well-structured groups using institutionalized processes. This minimizes the face-threatening nature of evaluating misunderstanding. However, no such neat and sanitized methods for signalling non-comprehension exist in more open pair or group work, and students are fond of adopting the “let it pass” strategy. This is definitely an unresolved problem in my class, so this solution falls into the things I might try in future category mentioned above.

My solution would be to try to partly institutionalize and sanitize the process of signalling non-comprehension. One unrealized ambition of mine is to introduce a load of “classroom chunks” for functions such as giving an opinion, politely disagreeing and showing that you don’t understand. NS-like chunks could simply be given, but a truly ELF-oriented approach to this would probably involve negotiating the chunks with input given in the form of NNS examples drawn from corpora such as VOICE. I suspect that some of the face threat involved in showing that you don’t understand is exacerbated by being stripped of L1 based politeness strategies. Having a recognized and validated (by the students) system for situations like this may go some way to restoring these strategies, as well as perhaps legitimizing misunderstanding as a natural part of classroom life (something which may have been drummed out of the students through their previous experience of English at high school). My other solution for sanitizing the process slightly is to change the medium, and have students complete written feedback forms for each other. In theory removing the need to give face to face feedback removes some of the potential for that face to be threatened. I’d hope that employing one or both of these strategies might help miscommunication to be signalled more often and more easily.

It might seem that I am getting slightly distracted from ELF here. After all, signalling non-comprehension is pretty crucial to any classroom, and presumably is the first stage in Long’s (1983) Interaction Hypothesis, a fairly important concept in second language acquisition. However, in a ELF classroom, it’s perhaps the most important thing. Here’s why. I said in a previous post that ELF draws it’s standards/ideals from people, not norms.*** What this might mean in practice then, is that your students should be the sole arbiters of intelligibility in a ELF oriented activity. In other words, if it works, it stays, if it doesn’t, it goes. I’m sensing that there may be gnashing of teeth and throwing of toys out the pram here, but stay with me for the rest of this post at least. Your role  as a teacher during this then, is to decenter yourself completely, and I mean go sit in the corner – I do, and WATCH! Note here, I say watch, not listen, not monitor (hearing is ok though). Let them get on with it, and intervene only in the following cases:

  • Students are not doing the task. It’s probably best to politely ask why this is so. Perhaps they didn’t understand the instructions?
  • Students are using the L1 to discuss. In this case, I usually ask them what they’re trying to say and we look at how it could be done in English.
  • Students are looking a word up in a dictionary. At the very least, this becomes useful vocabulary/teachable moment for later. It’s also a good chance to help them choose the most understandable word and understand the usage.
  • Student understanding breaks down, and is not being repaired by the students.

I put the last bullet in boldface as it is the most important part one, and the one where intervention may be most necessary. Firstly, figuring out why understanding broke down is important, but tricky. My suggestion, in a monolingual class,would be to let the students talk about it in L1. This has the advantage of speed, so students can get back on task, and exactness, as well as being able to deploy L1 politeness strategies in a high face-threat situation. Once the students understand where the misunderstanding occurred, the first thing to do is try to get them to figure out a repair strategy themselves. If they really can’t, then I suggest at least negotiating a strategy with them. The idea is to get them to rely on their own communicative resources. “This is how I’d say it” should be your very last resort.

Outside of the above cases, however, your role as a teacher is not to interfere. This means not monitoring, not taking notes, not recasting. The students, and you should tell them this, are responsible for deciding what is intelligible and what is not. Go make a cup of tea and let them get on with it.

Right then teeth grinders, it’s proviso time. Firstly, the ideal situation for this is a multi-lingual class. Not a reality for most of us in Korea. Still, I think it has value even with a mono-lingual class. It still gets students considering their interlocutors and levelling their language accordingly, especially with a range of levels in one class. This is an incredibly important ELF skill. However, there is the potential for language that follows L1 syntactic patterns to be more understandable to a fellow L1 speaker than a speaker of a different L1, plus there is the possibility of Korean English loan words appearing that would be unintelligible to a non-Korean resident (including, potentially, an NS of English). My solution to this would be to have the students record themselves, and then listen back and try to identify parts that sound especially Korean, or include loanwords. More on this reflexive approach to stuff in further posts.

Finally, addressing the toy chuckers again, I want to make very clear what I am not saying here. Note that I am talking about ELF oriented activities above, by which I might mean giving instructions in pairs about how to do something (perhaps topically engineering or computer based). This means:

  • I am not saying that you should do this all of the time. In fact, I think I’d say that you should NOT do this all of the time. You may have noticed that this provides little in the way of pushing (norm-based) accuracy, nor much in the way of complexity. In monolingual classes you’re also probably running the risk of reinforcing L1 phonology transfer errors****.
  • I do not do this all of the time (for reasons stated above).
  • In general Standard English norms provide a useful reference point for teaching. The imperative, for example, would provide the basis for the activity above. However there has to be some tolerance of variation in these norms.
  • There is no reason why you can’t/shouldn’t teach the norms in an ELF classroom, but you might want to think about how rigorously you insist on accuracy in producing them.
  • I am not saying that this approach is suitable, appropriate or useful for everyone. Many students want/need to acquire native speaker norms. I’d also say that it’s perhaps not the best use of the qualities that a native speaker can bring to the classroom, and if that’s what students have paid for then they may be disappointed with this approach.

That said, I’ll finish this post by going back to my students. They come into my class fresh out of high school, where they have spent three years learning fairly insignificant native speaker norms in order to pass the most significant exam of their lives, and wind up apologising to me if I recast one of their utterances. This cannot possibly be a good attitude for someone who wishes to speak a language, and so an approach that relaxes attitudes to NS norms, gets the NS out of the way for a bit, and allows students to get on with making meaning with each other, can surely only be empowering.

More ELF orientation to come. Cheers,


* I’ll acknowledge here that “native-speaker” is a problematic term. As this post largely concerns teaching in Korea, I’m taking the Korean immigration definition of someone who holds a passport and a degree from one of the “big seven” English speaking countries.

** Actually, in writing this, I’m not sure that’s quite how it works. I would say that my L2 listening process worked on a whole range of levels depending on the situation.

*** This is not to say that there is no room for people in the meaning-making of English as a native language.

**** This will happen in almost any meaning-focused activity with a monolingual class, regardless of orientation.


Dewey, M. (2012). “Towards a post-normative approach: learning the pedagogy of ELF.” Journal of English as a Lingua Franca. 1(1) 141-170.

Holliday, A. (2005). The struggle to teach English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Long, M. H. (1983) ‘Native speaker/non native speaker conversation and the negotiation of comprehensible input’. Applied Linguistics. 4(2) pp. 126–141.

McKay, S. L. (2002). Teaching English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the pronunciation of English as a lingua franca.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


7 responses to “ELF #4: Orienting your class to ELF

  1. hi alex

    i guess as ELF as a research topic is relatively “new” so getting the basic data nevermind practical applications in class is still ongoing.

    your approach seems eminently sensible though i wonder how sts english level will affect sts notions of intelligibility?

    as u mentioned resources like VOICE can help, e.g. see my comments to this googleplus post about using contractions https://plus.google.com/u/0/116825946161038087072/posts/GPPuM8U5KYM


    • Hi Mura,

      Thanks so much for your comment.

      You’re certainly right about the newness of ELF, but personally I wonder whether the basic data will ever reveal anything truly useful for class. I’m presuming that you’re talking about corpus data here. From most of the studies I have read, there are at best trends and these still show significant variation. It’s this variation that makes me doubt that there will ever be an ELF model at all, and certainly not one that would lead to anything pedagogical. It’s why I tend to talk more in terms of “orientation” than “teaching”.

      The level question is a good one, and certainly will affect students intelligibility. When I wrote the post I was thinking of my classes here, which are levelled to some extent, so there’s a good chance that they will understand each other. Also, due to the education system here, my students’ receptive skills are way higher than their productive ones which ameliorates a lot of the problems. I think the most important thing though, is that exercises like the ones I described force the speaker to consider the listeners competence, and adjust their speech accordingly, which is pretty much ELF skill #1.

      Finally, congratulations on responding diplomatically to the Google plus post. I’m not sure I would have been so restrained…



  2. Hi Alex,

    A few cents from an ELF researcher and NNS practitioner:) My apologies for overlaps with a previous post.

    Many thanks for your pedagogical enthusiasm and valiant effort to integrate ELF into the English classroom. I very much agree with your decision to give collaborative peer feedback a prominent pedagogical role. This clearly makes students more responsible for the course of their learning.

    In terms of the lexical means of expression students should have available for these activities, you seem to suggest that NNS chunks taken from e.g. VOICE would be preferable to NS/SE chunks. Does that mean teaching ELF is (should be) about teaching ELF as a language? I don’t think so. Teaching ELF is first and foremost about teaching ELF as communication. This concerns raising awareness for ELF (communication) as well as developing ELF (communication)-specific comprehension and production skills.

    While comprehension skills training includes e.g. getting used to unfamiliar NNS (and NS!) accents and ELF-specific “messy performance”, production skills training aims to enable learners to express certain communicative functions particularly relevant in ELF communication such as the ones you mentioned (e.g. “giving an opinion, politely disagreeing and showing that you don’t understand”). In comprehension practice, exposure to (deviant) manifestations of ELF communication are quite naturally of key importance. As regards production practice, however, why should a pedagogically adapted NS/SE role model be problematic? When you practice high-jumping, you need to know in which direction to jump:) For a number of reasons, a NS/SE role model seems to be the common denominator in our educational systems – and it is perfectly compatible with an ELF orientation in our classrooms (Kohn 2011).

    What learners do with a pedagogically mediated NS/SE orientation is quite a different matter though. From a constructivist perspective, learning towards a certain model should never be seen as a cloning /copying process but rather as the collaborative creation of one’s own version in one’s mind, heart and behavior (Kohn 2011). In this connection, I find it helpful to distinguish between a “strong” (behaviorist) NS/SE oriention and a “weak” (constructivist) NS/SE orientation (Kohn, to be published). While in most ELT classrooms a strong NS/SE orientation seems to prevail subconsciously (even among teachers who are otherwise fond of learner autonomy, authenticity etc.), a weak NS/SE orientation is required for implementing a truly “pedagogical space for ELF in the English classroom.

    There is yet another, even more demanding, ultimate dimension of ELF pedagogy, which concerns enabling NNS to explore and trust their own NNS creativity in their endeavor to develop their own English voice (Kohn, to be published). For this objective, it is crucial to reach out beyond communicative interaction in the classroom – involvement in RELEVANT communication matters – my personal favorite is REAL-LIFE communicative interaction in web 2 environments.



    Kohn, K. (to be published). A pedagogical space for ELF in the English classroom. In: Y. Bayyurt & S. Akcan (eds.). Current perspectives on pedagogy for ELF. De Gruyter Mouton.

    Kohn, Kurt (2012). “My English – Second Language Acquisition as Individual and Social Construction”, TESOL Convention, Philadelphia, 28-31 March 2012.
    Youtube: http://youtu.be/yCfpD49YhSg

    Kohn, Kurt (2011). English as a lingua franca and the Standard English misunderstanding. In: A. De Houwer & A. Wilton (eds.). English in Europe Today. Sociocultural and Educational Perspectives. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 72-94.

  3. Hi Kurt,

    Thanks so much for your patience in keeping up with these posts, and your great comments. You’re a great help in moulding my own thoughts.

    In asking for collaborative feedback I hope that, as well as giving students responsibility, I’m also helping them to accommodate speakers who are of a similar level. That’s the main reason I’d say I’m doing this.

    As for the VOICE thing, I suppose that part of the post was a bit of a musing as to how far the ELF concept could be pushed, and how you would rebuild understanding without resorting to NS norms. However, your suggestion is eminently sensible, and practical, and probably more reflective of what I’d do in reality.

    As for your last post, the skill of real, relevant communication, you might be interested in a good friend of mine’s (@alexswalsh on Twitter) “linked classrooms” project aimed at promoting intercultural exchanges and the use of English as a lingua franca. You might even want to get involved 🙂




  4. Pingback: KELTChat Preview – 2nd June 2013: ELF in Korea | #KELTChat

  5. Pingback: A(nother) beginner’s guide to English as a lingua franca! | The Breathy Vowel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s