Vol. 8. No. 3 R-9 December 2004
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A History of English Language Teaching, Second Edition

A. P. R. Howatt with H. G. Widdowson (2004)
Oxford, UK: Oxford University. Press
Pp. xix + 417
ISBN 019-4421856 (paper)

A. P. R. Howatt's second edition of A History of English Language Teaching is slightly larger than the first, documenting the history of methodology and writing about it, and again reminding us that this "new" field, exploding in its five minutes of fame in history's big picture, has had a long fuse and a cyclical past.

The second edition is divided into three parts, covering roughly 1400-1800 in the first, 1800-1900 in the second, and 1900 to the present in the third; however, each section is divided differently. In the first part, section one deals with early years of English teaching in England and Europe, while the second deals with various writings that aimed to explain or change the language. Part Two is divided geographically, with the first section dealing with the British Empire and the kinds of English education found in various parts of it, while the second deals with English language teaching in Europe and the development of various language teaching philosophies. Finally, Part Three is divided into a section that is an expanded narrative covering change through time (three phases of modern English teaching); then, the final section deals with "aspects" of English language teaching in the modern period, taking a closer look at four crucial movements in the field. The second edition omits a translated nineteenth-century work by Edward Vietor which is now more available, but includes an essay by H. G. Widdowson which provides important insight.

As in all histories, one meets a splendid array of characters, people who have traveled the world, mostly dead white men, of course, but interesting dead white men, who at one point stumbled onto teaching English, and then contributed to it in one way or another, usually through writing. For example, among others, we meet Florio and Holyband, teachers of refugees in England, and Comenius, who "was a genius, possibly the only one that the history of language teaching can claim" (p. 44); we meet grammarians and spelling reformers of the early days like John Hart (1566) and Ben Jonson; other characters like John Wallis, who tried to free the description of English from excessive Latin influences; and Noah Webster, founder of American English; we see reformers of the nineteenth century, such as Marcel Prendergast and Otto Jespersen; we see Henry Sweet and the rise of phonetics, and along with it the idea of the primacy of speech and the importance of a scientific approach to language teaching; we see a dispute between Michael West and Charles Ogden over Basic English, and the work of Harold Palmer, who could also be said to promote basic oral fluency.

Howatt brings a historian's delight in pointing out that trends and tensions in the field are not only reflected in earlier writings, but presaged by them. Holyband, for example, wrote about the tension between inductive and deductive learning in the sixteenth century; Jacotot (1770-1840) was the first to write about the "irrelevance of explanation," and the function of the teacher "to respond to the learner, not to direct and control him by explaining things in advance" (pp. 169-170). We see the beginnings of the Natural Method and its "true roots . . . deep in the art of teaching itself" (p. 215); we also see the roots of the Direct Method, the Grammar Translation method (named by its detractors for the features they disliked most), and Task-based instruction. The author carries us through the 1960's, a "decade of acronyms" (p. 246) in which the field of TEFL/TESL came into its own, documenting the founding of ATEFL, later IATEFL, TESOL, and a host of others, leading us into the modern era and its methods, along with the dominance of the communicative approach. [-1-]

I came away from Howatt's work with a sense of disconnect between theory and practice, expressed in Widdowson's essay: that "the actuality of practice is for the most part unrecorded, and indeed to a large extent unaffected by the shifts of thinking that have been charted here" (p. 369). In the sense that method theory is covered completely, while teaching practice cannot be, the book should refer to the history of teaching theory, rather than the history of teaching itself (though, as Howatt points out, "ELT" as an acronym has been used in several ways). This gap is only heightened by the obvious: that while the documenters of thinking in the area of ELT for the most part appear to have been European men, going down through the ages, certainly the vast majority of practitioners have not been; and, though we get a tour of the colonies as a way of seeing how different environments (and purposes for teaching) can affect what happens in the classroom and what subsequently develops in the world of theory, we seem to be missing pieces of that larger puzzle, the center of which may have shifted from Howatt's UK, or at least become more decentralized, in recent years. Another example is his treatment of Krashen, whose enormous influence among teachers in recent years has belied the scorn directed at him by acquisitionists and theorists; Howatt characterizes him only as one "who put all his money on one specific process: the comprehension of meaning" (p. 257) and doesn't address the gulf caused by the proliferation of his theories.

I have also long felt that some of the tension in language teaching springs merely from the setup of the classroom: that while learning is by nature inductive, the classroom is by nature deductive, or at the very least, tending toward exploration and understanding of the structure and rules of the language, rather than toward use and mastery of it as a system.

A final source of tension in the field is its certain sense of self-denigration, which has seemed to follow it around in spite of its phenomenal success, and it's hard to decide whether to accuse Mr. Howatt of causing it (his comment about Comenius being an obvious example), merely perpetuating it, or rather getting caught up in it, in the sense that it is certainly larger than just the common teacher's sense that we could be getting more respect (if not remuneration) teaching something else, or doing something else. Howatt carefully shows us English as a language, struggling for a sense of self as it grows in the shadow of French and Latin; while it is not entirely possible to separate the teaching of English from the teaching of other languages, it is also probably true that a survey of early writing about language teaching would be as free of Latinate influence as Esperanto. We see the field stumble through years in which the learning of English is merely a prerequisite for learning, but not really part of it, into the modern era, in which the methods of teaching carry enormous weight in terms of their influence, not only on the teaching of other languages, but also on what happens throughout the world in a number of fields. The gap between its enormous importance today and the stunning indifference it was offered in the past shows through clearly, in spite of Howatt's careful research and attention; his early research has to cover grammars of English and attempts to reform it, as there simply isn't much on methods of teaching it. [-2-]

A final irony in the situation is that, while linguists have spent decades looking for "universals" in world languages, or any languages, young English teachers have spread out across the globe, almost accidentally finding what little the language may have in common with others, in order to help so many others make sense of it; thus, what actually happens in these classroom situations may be closer to those mystical universals than one would think. To look in the rearview mirror at one's own language and the way it's put together is, in that sense, of utmost importance. At the same time I felt a little put down by the idea that the teaching of English was not always considered as important as it could have been, I also realized that in fact, the best descriptions of it, the clearest view of it, was usually offered by those who had in fact seen it from other eyes, the eyes of outsiders:

It is not, perhaps, entirely inappropriate that the best grammar of English in the seventeenth century should have been written with foreigners in mind, or that the best grammars of the twentieth century . . . should be rooted in the same soil. (p. 101).
In our field, as in most others, best understanding of the subject matter can be achieved through the widest array of perspectives, and this alone is, in spite of all else, the most important characteristic of this modern era.

Thomas Leverett
Southern Illinois University-Carbondale

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