Travelling Back Through Our Profession

by Sandy Millin

In keeping with the retrospective nature of this edition of the IH Journal, I thought it might be interesting to share some of the wealth of resources available on the Internet connected to the history of English language teaching (ELT), and of the English language itself.

A Different Kind of English History

Starting off on a very light note, the Open University put together a fun series of ten one-minute videos called ‘The History of English in Ten Minutes’. It serves as a good introduction to the history of the English language, complete with entertaining illustrations:

To explore this history in much more depth, the History of English podcast goes right back to the Indo-European roots of the language, far beyond the more standard starting point of the Anglo-Saxons arriving in what is now England. Each episode is 45-55 minutes, and includes countless fascinating examples of the etymology of words, many of which have surprised me. The accompanying website has maps, texts, a list of books to help you find out more, and downloadable transcripts of the initial episodes (for a small fee), with more being added all the time

ELT History

Moving on to teaching, the most extensive collection of historical ELT material that I am aware of is held at the University of Warwick in the ELT Archive. According to their website, “The Warwick ELT Archive is a stand-alone, browsable historical collection of published and unpublished materials relating to the teaching of English as a foreign language and the development of applied linguistics, c.1880–c.1980.” You can find out more here:

Dr. Richard Smith is the founder and director of the archive. In this 53-minute British Council seminar, he gives a short history of ELT, looking at how ELT has developed over time and what people and factors have influenced this development.

‘Milestones in ELT’ is an example of one of the collaborations which has been made possible through the archive. As part of their 75th anniversary celebrations in 2009, the British Council made various publications available online which were previously only in print. They are divided into various categories, for example ‘Research papers’ and ‘Milestone publications’, all to be found on the right of this page:

I first came across Dr. Smith and the ELT archive thanks to the TEFLology podcast, which featured a 35-minute interview with him in June 2015: TEFLology publish their podcast in two main strands: interviews and regular episodes. Each episode features the story of a TEFL pioneer, covering people as diverse as St. Augustine of Hippo (episode 30), Mario Rinvolucri (episode 13) and IH’s very own John Haycraft (episode 6). The full archives are available here:

A History of Methods

When we think about the history of ELT, we tend to focus on methodological fashions and changes. If this is something you’d like to find out more about, Chia Suan Chong’s December 2012 webinar ‘A trip down the memory lane of methodology’ is a good starting point: In it, Chia introduces you to many of the main methodologies of the last 100 years or so, and talks about how these have influenced the teaching we do now.

Scott Thornbury is also fascinated by ELT history. At the 50th IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) conference in April 2016, he presented a plenary entitled ‘1966 and all that: A critical history of ELT’ in which he reviewed developments in English teaching since the 1960s, with particular focus on the Communicative Approach. He shared key points in the development of communicative language teaching, including examples of materials used to teach learners. The talk also made predictions about how the profession might develop in the future:

A History of IH

Finally, why not take a look at to learn about the history of International House? If you’ve had enough of screens by this stage, I’d highly recommend taking a break to read John Haycraft’s autobiography Adventures of a Language Traveller. In my experience, you’ll find a copy in most IH schools. I found it a fascinating insight into the roots of an organization which has been so influential in so many people’s lives, as well as just a good read.

I hope you enjoy exploring the history of the language we teach and the way that we teach it as much as I do!

Author’s Bio: Sandy Millin is the Director of Studies at IH Bydgoszcz. She is also a teacher trainer and materials writer, and has recently published an e-book with The Round called ‘Richer Speaking’, a project which came about through the connections she has made through the online community. She blogs at and tweets @sandymillin.