ESL History 101: ESL teaching in North America and Beyond

ESL History 101: Where it all began

Your teaching style may change with every class, or every student. Every teacher has a favorite method. Where a teacher learned to teach can have a massive impact on their favorite teaching theory. ESL is a field without a single, unifying, theory behind it. One of the main reasons for that is it’s short history. ESL History in the USA only goes back a few hundred years. It was only taken seriously in the 20th century. While complex math goes back to the early Greek civilization, ESL doesn’t share that long of a record. In order to understand the current state of ESL, we need to go back to to the beginning.

And Literacy For All

ESL History
“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” ~Cicero

ESL History in the United States is almost as old as the country itself. The first whispers of ESL in the New World started in the Massachusetts colony. The colony leaders saw the importance of universal literacy. It wasn’t enough that the elite could read. Everyone needed to be able to understand the literature that leaders were writing. If you couldn’t read, you couldn’t participate in the community discussions. In New Amsterdam (New York), The Dutch colonists were attempting the same movement. It wasn’t about teaching everyone English at first.Rather, they wanted a benchmark for this new society. As wave after wave of native English speakers arrived, English quickly became the dominant language of literacy. As the New World edged toward new nation status, the push towards literacy fell away. This wasn’t about reading anymore, it was about national pride. You weren’t an immigrant anymore, you were American.

English as an Educated Language

ESL History in the United States begins as soon as Europeans landed on this continent. One of the first things a new country has to do is establish a national spirit. People from all over the world were flooding into the United States. They held hope of a better life than they left behind. But crossing an ocean wasn’t the only difficulty. There was also a language barrier. It can be difficult to educate adults, but kids soak up information like sponges. Early public schools either only taught English, or bilingual in the native tongue of the community. Most main European languages were represented in this new wave of education. The original idea was that the children would learn, and come together as a community in the next generation. Unfortunately, best laid plans weren’t enough. As time went on, societal factions continued to form and grow.

A New Century, a new approach to ESL:

Theodore Roosevelt signed the Naturalization Act in 1906. This law stated that an immigrant had to learn to speak English if they wanted to become a citizen. Around 1914, The Ford motor company started offering ESL classes as part of the employee program. This allowed all of Ford’s workers to speak freely and easily, in theory. The practice was still very much in its infancy. When the economic boom of the 20’s hit, most schools in the United states were English only, educating newly immigrated children completely in the target language. When the World War 2 came around, the United States rediscovered a world that didn’t speak the same language. They needed a way to educated their soldiers in a new language, and a new method.


World War 2, English 0:

ESL History

As American troops went to war around the world, the government realized how unprepared they were to speak with people. In a rush to train soldiers and workers in foreign languages, teachers tried a bunch of different methods. One of the more common ones was “Audio-Lingual.” This method is probably most commonly known. It tries to teach a new language by one method of learning. At first, it used tapes, then CD’s, and now MP3 tracks. For one type of learner this worked very well.  But teachers hadn’t discovered other methods of teaching. It turned out that “Audio-lingual” learning isn’t a bad way to go, but it isn’t sufficient for total learning. After World War II, dozens of different methods of language instruction flooded the halls of universities and schools. Some have managed to stand the test of time, while others have remained in the pages of history books.A

Give it a shot! ESL in all forms:

ESL History gets a shot of adrenaline between the 1950s and the late 1980s. During this time,  the United States was buzzing with new ideas in the field of learning languages. Every academic in the field had a different idea of how language should be taught. The Direct Translation method was the go-to method for decades. Directly translating from one language to another works in short bursts, for short messages. But if you want to actually understand what is going on in a situation, you need more.

Total Physical Response was a very popular method to teach actions. However, it only allowed limited vocabulary to be taught TPR is popular among children’s teachers. Kids like to follow the leader, and learn new games. TPR teaches both of these aspects very efficiently.

The Silent Way came around in 1963. This method provides maximum student time, and brings teacher talk to a minimum. However, it can very easily frustrate the students. If the teacher missuses this method, it turns every class into a pop-quiz.

There are dozens of other teaching methods out there (I’m putting together a series on different styles. Coming soon!)
Today, great teachers understand when to use each of these methods. If you’re still learning, don’t be afraid to try something new.

English in the 21st Century and Beyond

ESL History around the world

English is not going anywhere quickly. Even though Mandarin Chinese has more native speakers, Mandarin Chinese is confined mostly to the borders of China. Globally, more than 700 million people speak English as a foreign language. The major language of the internet is English. In the world of data and texts, English still accounts for 3 out of every 4 messages sent. The world is inching towards one global language, and English is leading the way. Teaching ESL has a short history, but in the right hands, it can have a bright future. .


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