Katherine Bilsborough

The Impact of ELF on Teachers and Materials Writers
by Katherine Bilsborough.


Where are all the ELF books? 

If you write “ELT books” in the search box of a well-known online bookstore, you’ll get pages and pages of suggestions, from grammar books to resource books, course books to methodology books and everything in between. The same is true for “ESL books”, “EAP books” and “ESOL books”. But type in “ELF books” and, perhaps unsurprisingly, you get a range of elf-themed picture books for very young children. And while “101 Things to Do with Your Christmas Elf” looks quite charming, it has nothing whatsoever to do with English as a Lingua Franca.  

A few questions about ELF from a teacher’s perspective …  

How does the growing acceptance of ELF impact on the role of a teacher? Do we have to focus on different aspects of the language? How do we know what we need to teach and what we don’t need to teach?  

 … and from an author’s perspective 

What kind of things might need to change in teaching materials in order to make them appropriate for an ELF context? Do teachers need specific ELF materials? If not, how might they use traditional resources differently? Which aspects need to change? And how? Is there a need for self-published ELF materials to supplement resources that teachers create themselves?  

A teacher’s focus 

If I was working as a teacher today and my students were going to be mainly using English as a Lingua Franca, I’d probably start each new course with these three steps. 

Step 1. Conduct a simple needs analysis and include a question asking your students who they think they are most likely to be using their English with in the future. In all likelihood you’ll have at least some students who think they’ll be mainly speaking English with people whose first language isn’t English either: students collaborating on joint university research projects from around the world, businesspeople at international conferences where English is the official language, or even would-be travellers who see English as a language of communication in destinations from Scandinavia to Patagonia.  

Step 2. After establishing that your students will most likely be using English with other speakers of English as a second language, set up a class discussion with a list of statements or questions to make them think about what would be helpful and what might be a waste of time.  In my experience, students don’t always realise what it is they need. They just remember and repeat what they’ve heard others say over the years. This means their reasoning can be underpinned by a spurious premise. Some will be passionate about grammar. Others will insist on learning lists of vocabulary. And for many the goal will be to speak English like a native English speaker – whatever that might be.  

Some suitable discussion questions could be along the lines of: 

a) Which is greater – the number of people who speak English as a first language or the number of people who speak English as a second language?(More than a billion people speak English as a second language, while around 400 million speak it as their first language.) 

b) How many different accents are there in your language? Are some better than others? Should a learner of your language try and adopt a particular accent?(When students think about people learning their language, they are able to step back and see learning English from a different perspective.) 

c) If communication is the ultimate aim of a language learner, which skills are important to develop in your English lessons?(Hopefully, a discussion will help students realise that some things, like having perfect grammar, are less important than, for example, developing their listening skills so as to be able to understand a range of accents. While they need to learn how to speak clearly, they certainly don’t need to have any particular accent.) 


Step 3. I’d look for the best possible materials for my students. This might mean checking the audios that come with traditional course books to see what kind of speakers have made the recordings. I’d choose the one with a variety of accents and reject the ones that only include native speakers of English. I’d look at the pronunciation sections in the course book and see what kind of things are being taught and focused on. If I wasn’t sure which features of pronunciation were important for speakers to communicate intelligibly, I’d find out! The “Lingua Franca Core” (LFC) has, along with a lot of other interesting content, a list of these features and it’s a useful list for teachers to familiarize themselves with if they really want to help their students become competent communicators in English. You can find out some of the key points from the LFC and read more about it in a post on Katy Simpson and Laura Patsko’s Elfpron blog here. Robin Walker’s book ‘Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca” is another excellent resource and a practical guide to the LFC. It comes with audio recordings of non-native speakers and lots of classroom suggestions.  


An ELT author’s perspective 

  1. In general, many of the teaching materials we write are based on native speaker models of English so parts of them might not be relevant for ELF. 
  2. There is a need for Listening materials with a variety of accents in the audio components.  
  3. We should write pronunciation materials after consulting the Lingua Franca Core to ensure that the aspects of pronunciation we are teaching are the most useful. 
  4. Digital materials might be better than print materials for ELF teachers because they can be more easily adapted for more specific needs.  
  5. There might be scope for writing “wrap around” materials that can be used alongside existing videos and audios1 with speakers from different countries speaking English well. Some of these could be generic, others more specific. 


As the number of people who speak English as a second language continues to grow, it’s inevitable that a growing number of teachers and students will turn to ELF as the most appropriate form of English to teach and learn. It’s my belief that in a few years time when we write “ELF books” in the search box of that well-known online bookstore, we’ll start finding the kind of books we’re looking for. 

Published by

Katherine Bilsborough

Katherine Bilsborough is a freelance ELT author and teacher trainer. She has written more than thirty coursebooks for many of the top ELT Publishers as well as online courses and mobile learning materials for the BBC and the British Council. She writes monthly lesson plans for www.teachingenglish.org.uk and is the author of ‘How to write primary materials’, published by ELT Teacher 2 Writer.

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