Historical TEFL Research: Toward a Data-Informed Approach

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

Research on how foreign languages were taught in the past is very important; mainly, perhaps, because it can help us avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’. More specifically, it is of crucial interest to avoid black and white-thinking which can easily result in misinterpretations or an unjustified depreciation of formerly wide-spread, generally accepted, and (arguably) successful classroom practices.

In a number of research papers I have read recently, the past is depicted as being in conflict with the present (and the future?) of foreign language teaching and learning, as if former conceptualizations of instruction were clashing with present-day approaches. While this may be justifiable from a purely theoretical (or administrative) perspective, it does not adequately reflect foreign language education in praxis, simply because teachers and learners are not ahistorical beings. They all have their specific (learning) biographies, values, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations they bring with them, and these are shaped and reshaped in daily school life, depending on a large number of classroom internal and external factors. This is, of course, also true for the many other stakeholders that (want to) play a role in education (see also Bonny Norton’s highly interesting research on Language and Identity (2010), or the documentation of the 33rd Annual German Spring Conference on Foreign Language Education which focuses on the issue of ‘Identität und Fremdsprachenlernen” [Identity and Foreign Language Learning, my translation]; see Burwitz-Melzer, Königs & Riemer 2013).

‘Historically-sensitive’ TEFL studies often refer to A.P.R Howatt’s brilliant book on the history of English language teaching (1984, second edition 2004 with H.G. Widdowson), but Friederike Klippel’s “Englischlernen im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert. Die Geschichte der Lehrbücher und Unterrichtsmethoden” (1994) [English Language Learning in the 18th and 19th Century. The History of Textbooks and Instructional Methods; my translation) and Werner Hüllen’s “Kleine Geschichte des Fremdsprachenlernens” (2005) [Brief History of Foreign Language Learning; my translation] (2005) are equally important and valuable (not only, perhaps, from a German perspective).

At any rate, till now there is little – if any – historical research based on empirical data gathered in EFL classrooms decades ago. In two previous posts, I have already referred to the Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE) (Kurtz 2013) and to the Flensburg English Classroom Corpus (FLECC) (Jäkel 2010). I am glad to let you know that both corpora – there are almost 40 years of EFL classroom practice in Germany between them – are now available online as open access data for further, evidence-based historical and, perhaps, transcultural FL/SL classroom research. Both corpara are too small in size to be representative, and they do not fully meet current standards of corpus-based research, but they are nevertheless quite interesting and important for comparative and diachronic qualitative case research. As Hunston (2008: 155) points out, “(…) there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ corpus, because how a corpus is designed depends on what kind of corpus it is and how it is going to be used”.

If you are interested in taking a look at the DOHCCE, click here (this is a large file, 608 pages). Both corpora, the DOHCCE and the FLECC are also stored and available on the Flensburg University webserver (please follow this link).


Burwitz-Melzer, Eva; Königs, Frank G. & Riemer, Claudia (eds.) (2013). Identität und Fremdsprachenlernen. Anmerkungen zu einer komplexen Beziehung. Tübingen, Narr. [Giessener Beiträge zur Fremdsprachendidaktik – Giessen Contributions to Foreign Language Education, edited by Eva Burwitz-Melzer, Wolfgang Hallet, Jürgen Kurtz, Michael Legutke, Helene Martinez, Franz-Joseph Meißner and Dietmar Rösler]

Howatt, A.P.R. (with H.G. Widdowson) (2004). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: OUP.

Hüllen, Werner (2005). Kleine Geschichte des Fremdsprachenlernens. Berlin: Schmidt.

Hunston, Susan (2008). “Collection strategies and design decisions”. In Anke Lüdeling & Marja Kytö (eds.). Corpus Linguistics. An International Handbook: Vol.1. Berlin, New York: de Gruyter, 154-167.

Jäkel, Olaf (2010). The Flensburg English Classroom Corpus (FLECC): Sammlung authentischer Unterrichtsgespräche aus dem aktuellen Englischunterricht auf verschiedenen Stufen an Grund-, Haupt-, Real- und Gesamtschulen Norddeutschlands. Flensburg: Flensburg University Press.

Klippel, Friederike (1994). Englischlernen im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert. Die Geschichte der Lehrbücher und Unterrichtsmethoden. Münster: Nodus.

Kurtz, Jürgen (ed.). (2013) The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE). Flensburg: Flensburg University Press.

Norton, Bonny (2010). “Language and Identity.” In: Hornberger, Nancy H./McKay, Sandra Lee (eds.) (2010). Sociolingistics and Language Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 349-369.


2 responses to “Historical TEFL Research: Toward a Data-Informed Approach

  1. I never knew Germany had ~40 years of EFL training! No wonder almost everyone in Germany I met during my stay in Munich a few years ago spoke great English. If anything, that’s proof to me that the EFL training was effective.

  2. What a great post! It really got me thinking and reading.

    I think there is a lack of data on the effectiveness of methods and approaches due to the fact the industry wasn’t taken so seriously some years ago. In fact, the word “industry” is starting to fall out of fashion and more and more you read about the “profession”, which is probably due to the ever growing scientific nature of ELT.

    Despite the lack of an historical record, I think we can use current practices to inform us of what is and isn’t effective in the classroom. Would you agree?

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