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The Three Most Critical Factors in ELT
by Neil McBeath
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Introduction

This paper demonstrates my belief that the three most critical factors in ELT are the learners, materials and teachers. It was inspired by Manuel Martinez-Pons (2006), and has been influenced by Brian Tomlinson and Hitomi Masuhara’s work on the importance of affect.

Finally, I was interested in Michael Swan’s (2006; 45) statement that “two out of three ain’t enough”, so I will begin by exploring the implications of that statement.

Two out of Three

If we accept my premise about the three most critical factors, then we have to see how these factors interact, and examine the different scenarios that arise when only two of the three factors are satisfactory.

In the situation of weak learners, but good materials and good teachers, then some kind of result from the teaching process can be expected. Educational history is full of examples where this has happened.

At one end of the spectrum there are people like Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Lane: 1975) and, more famously, Helen Keller, who both overcame extraordinary physical, mental and social disabilities because of the diligence and care of a particularly dedicated teacher.

At a different level, in Britain, The English Speaking Board has been able to pioneer oral assessments with inmates in Young Offenders institutions, often giving them their first formal qualification, and a tool with which to diffuse potentially threatening situations.

The second scenario occurs when good students and good teachers work with sometimes inadequate, frequently downright bad, materials.

I received my secondary education in a highly selective boys’ Grammar School in Scotland. The students at that school had been chosen because they were going to succeed, and go to University. Simply getting a job was regarded as failure.

This was despite the materials. In the 1960’s we were still using recycled, dog-eared “War Economy Standard” texts. One of these was English Today (Rideout 1947), a book crammed with print, devoid of illustration, and principally devoted to clause analysis. Readers were Nelson Classics, small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, printed in minute type on flimsy paper. Worksheets, printed on Roneo machines, had gaps in the text and invariably omitted either the first or last line on every page (and sometimes both).

In the third scenario, where there are good students and good materials, then some of them will learn even without good teachers. Autodidacts like Frederick Douglass prove this point, but again, I noticed this at my Grammar school.

As the students got older, they were given increasing responsibility for their own learning. That is a good thing. On the other hand, this policy was sometimes reduced to the distribution of Roneo worksheets with the instruction “Be quiet. And get on with your work.” That cannot be classified as “good teaching”. That approach only works with students who are prepared to focus on long-term goals.

So what do these three scenarios show us? They demonstrate how it is possible to get by. They prove that it is possible to compensate for weakness, which is interesting, but not satisfactory. We can do better. Each of these scenarios can be improved, and so we must now examine the component parts.

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