Six books that could revolutionize how you think about ELT

Roll on the guest posts! This time we are joined by Sara Hannam. Sara is an articulate, passionate and perceptive colleague whom I met via Twitter and on various blogs. She always brings a critical eye to things and has recently started her own blog Critical Mass ELT. Sara and I have “crossed swords” on issues before, and I am really pleased she agreed to contribute a list for me. Here then, are six books or articles that could forever change the way you think about the profession/business/industry/racket of English language teaching!

Thanks Lindsay for asking me to choose six books that influenced me as a teacher. A very tall order for me, as there are so many great books out there, so I would like to apologize to all those writers who I have missed! Those I list below have helped me see the bigger teaching picture, which as I have gained more experience as a teacher, has become more important.  They answer questions like what is my role as an EL teacher both within and outside the classroom, how should I relate to my students as real people and what is the impact of the development of English as a global language? The insights they have given me have changed my teaching practice and me as a person, and have been a wonderful addition to the reading I did in the earlier part of my career which focused more on refining teaching skills (don’t get me started on that, as I could do you another six if you want for part II – pretty please?!).

*Extracts available at Google books from the following publications

1. Changing Teachers, Changing Times – Andy Hargreaves, 2000*

Why are teachers asked to produce better and better results with fewer and fewer resources, and how does this influence our individual performance in the classroom?  This book answers key questions about how teaching in the new millennium is a very different ball game – many changes for the better such as increased sensitivity to individual learners, but some for the worse, such as the constant measurement of “success” rather than emphasis on building relationships, communication and shared questioning of the world.  It also addresses the concept of teacher guilt, or the fact that for all the amazing pleasure that teaching brings, it can seem difficult to clock off at the end of the day due to extra-curricular responsibilities such as a concern for student welfare.

2. English and the Discourses of Colonialism – Alistair Pennycook, 1998*

If I hadn’t read this book, I don’t think I would really know very much about the development of ELT/Linguistics as a discipline or how so much contemporary practice has its roots in the colonial legacy. With meticulously compiled historiographies from India, China and Hong Kong, this book provides an antidote to the much circulated accounts of our profession which tend to gloss over the ways in which the English language was initially spread and learned alongside the violent expansion of the British Empire.  It confirms the importance, in this post-colonial era, of teachers (particularly NESTs) understanding how they are implicated in this legacy and encourages the exploration of the roots of many taken for granted assumptions in the field today – not least of all the myth of the superiority of the ‘native speaker’.

3. English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity – Jennifer Jenkins, 2007

A fascinating insight into how identity is crucial in shaping feelings about language use, and, more importantly how this informs individual tolerance/intolerance of other people’s English, often at an unconscious level. Jenkins’ research is truly groundbreaking for ELT, and provides a perfect combination of rigorous investigation into the views English users have about their performance, and further explanations as to why the belief that sounding ‘native’ is best continues to be so prevalent in teaching methodologies and materials.  When teaching practice ceases to be determined by mainstream Second Language Acquisition theory, with its emphasis on standard varieties of ‘native speaker’ English as a goal, a different sort of classroom emerges which is led by the celebration of meaning, diversity and the new and exciting forms of English currently being documented by ELF researchers, including Jennifer Jenkins.

4. The Politics of English  – Marnie Holborow, 1999

Many a teacher may think that teaching English has nothing to do with politics – this book goes a long way to questioning whether that is really the case.  Marnie Holborow reveals the less attractive side of the billion dollar industry that is English Language Teaching, and how this is led by a money-driven global economy at almost all levels.  Holborow shows how as EL teachers we are in a position to really notice and question the way access to opportunity is being structured around us, as English is increasingly being used as a gate keeping device through language testing and policy development.  Holborow also argues that there is nothing inherently different about men’s and women’s language use and that perception of male/female-specific language is more a reflection of gender inequality in society than gender-based language forms or styles. This sets her apart from many socio-linguists, who argue the opposite in relation to politeness or assertiveness – Holborow locates the source of the inequality in society rather than in the individual or group. Finally someone who celebrates our similarities rather than focusing on our differences!

5. Values in English Language Teaching – Bill Johnston, 2003*

My second to last choice provides a more practical emphasis on putting some of those ideas in the previous selections above into practice.  It examines a range of situations where EL teachers’ individual values and morals will dictate how they respond.  Johnston explores typical scenarios which may cause teachers to react in a diverse number of ways, such as testing and assessment or managing diversity and conflict in the classroom, and looks at possible outcomes, as well as exploring how to work towards becoming a more ethical practitioner in behaviour towards colleagues, students and self.  All this is done through personal stories and experiences which really illustrate the kinds of dilemmas teachers face every day.

6. ‘Teaching Peace through English: Utopia or Reality?’. Radmila Popović (Paper presented at the International Association for Teachers of English as a Foreign Language Annual Conference: Exeter 2008 available in the proceedings).

My last choice is an article, rather than a book.  Radmila’s talk at IATEFL conference looked at how she dealt with carrying on her teaching during the NATO bombardment of Serbia.  It really moved me, particularly because so much of my own field work and research is based in Serbia and the Balkans.  This paper explores what it means to teach ‘peace’ from the perspective of a teacher trying to make sense of war with her students, and demonstrates how teachers and students can discuss and understand difficult subject matter in genuine partnership and trust. The reason I chose this paper to finish off my selection, is because it demonstrates how a teacher who uses critical theory to inform practice, can produce really remarkable results – Radmila’s balancing of the two in her teaching of peace under the most difficult circumstances is as poetic as her rich and interactive plenary talk that involved the audience in activities alongside the theoretical discussion.  As an English teacher, I also think we require theory with practice, and practice with theory, and neither one is more important than the other – they are both essential.


Sara Hannam is the Director of the English Unit at City College, Thessaloniki, Greece. Sara was the Associates’ Representative for IATEFL from 2006-9, and Vice-President of TESOL Northern Greece from 2003-5.  Sara has a BA (Hons), MEd ELT, CTEFLA, DELTA and is currently completing her PhD with the School of Education, University of Sheffield, UK.  Sara is also involved in EL teacher development at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. In her spare time, Sara likes to blog (her blog is called Critical Mass ELT twitter, listen to music, dance, spend time with family and friends and is the co-founder of the Campaign for Birth Choices in Greece

Twitter: @sjhannam  Email:

Published in: on September 16, 2009 at 9:10 am  Comments (15)  
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15 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Lindsay thanks for much for your lovely introduction, and for such a postitive appraisal of my contributions (it is really humbling to hear these adjectives attached to my name so thank you so much!). I have always really enjoyed our blogging discussions, and you have also influenced me to rethink quite a number of key things. And you’ve always been up for and open to a good discussion! So right back at you. I really appreciate you giving me the chance to write this and share some of the books that have influenced me. Thanks again.

  2. Great list, Sara. I’m defintiely going to order the Marnie Holborow. On the subject of (the myth of) male vs female language, and on political correctness in language generally, there’s no better read – to my mind – than Deborah Cameron’s “Verbal Hygiene” (Routledge 1995). In fact, ANYthing by Deborah Cameron is a good read, for my money.

  3. I absolutely agree! I think “Verbal Hygiene” is a great read and certainly puts the ways that people are pressured to control what they say by social forces firmly into perspective. BTW…now that I have the chance, can I just say that a book missing from my list (well I did say that there were *so* many others) would be Scott’s “Teaching Unplugged: DOGME in the English Language Classroom”. As you know I am a DOGME fan, albeit a critical DOGME with a judicious use of technology thrown in, and if people want to learn what its all about, in all its diversity – maximising classroom interaction and providing chances for language development – then this, and the DOGME discussion list which offers a range of perspectives. DOGME discussion list here
    Enjoy Marnie’s book Scott!

  4. Sara,

    Thank you for sharing this great list! I see you mixed some older publications with newer publications. Thank you for doing this. Looks like I have some reading to catch-up on!

  5. You are more than welcome Shelly. Hope you enjoy them!

  6. What a great list… as much as I enjoy a good “how to…” and “1001 great ideas for…” type book, I also want to think more deeply about our profession, its impact, and what I am doing in it.

    The Oxford Applied Linguistics series, from which the Jenkins book comes from, has quite a few meaty and tooth-sucking reads. And speaking of Jennifer Jenkins, there is a woman who seems to elicit a fairly vitriolic response from her naysayers – I’m a big fan, myself.

    Glad to see Andy Hargreaves too. As the body of literature in ELT grows, we can neglect important messages from “mainstream” education and other fields.

  7. Thanks Darren – yes I am very much with you on widening reading into mainstream education as much as possible. ELT separates itself too much – there is a need of course for precise input (and research) in our own world, but also linking it to issues in education in general of which we are part. And wider still, work on identity in language touches on sociological studies, Pennycook’s work engages with political and critical theory. My own research is also inter-disciplinary as I don’t feel I can possibly answer all the questions by reading what is available in ELT only (which isn’t to undermine that some of it is great). I always feel that sometimes the reaction to new ideas in the field says more about the refusal of those who are violently opposed being able to remain open to the need for development (returning to your point about Jenny Jenkins’ work). So actually reactions to ELF say more about how important such developments really must be to me – and are an indiction of the criticisers themselves refusing to change (esp when some of the most vocal (in terms of published works) opponents are actually NEST teachers….hmmm…the word protectionism springs to mind). Its always hard to swim against the tide, but I wouldn’t have it any other way and ELF is gaining momentum daily in ELT as it becomes evident that it is ELF that is being used whether we like it or not in most contexts where English is now spoken (i.e. outside the control of its ‘native’ speakers). That doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t plenty of room for evolvement and refinement of what ELF means to ELT and how best new models can be taught or how that works in practical terms, but discussion needs to first accept the ‘right’ for other ideas to have equal status. We still have a way to go there! We may as well get used to it! I think Andy Hargreaves work is brilliant – try “Teaching in the Knowledge Society: Education in the age of insecurity” (2003) – really interesting and worth a read!

  8. I’m sorry Sara (and others), but I just don’t buy this “a different sort of classroom emerges which is led by the celebration of meaning, diversity and the new and exciting forms of English”.

    This is just the sort of meaningless tosh that appeals to under-employed middle class tossers who have nothing better to do with their lives than attend awful EFL conferences.

    Can anybody give me an example of just HOW “a different sort of classroom emerges” and some examples of “the celebration of meaning, diversity and the new and exciting forms of English”? I can’t see any link between lowering your aim towards simplified English (=ELF) and getting into the groove with ‘celebrating meaning’ (of what?) and ‘diversity’ – whatever that might be?!

    Come on, Sara – you know it’s crap, WE ALL know it’s crap; so why do you continue to pretend otherwise?

    • Hi Sandy,

      Only just found this contribution in the thread. I don’t think ELF is simplified English so I guess that is why we might not see eye to eye on the outcome of teaching it.

      Thanks for your thoughts – illuminating as always!

  9. Not read that one, but I will now ; D

  10. Dear Sara, it’s a real pleasure reading your writings querying the underpinnings of our profession. And I must say it’s a breath of fresh air to have you writing at length on these complex issues, whereas conventional wisdom is that posts must be short und punchy – and superficial or instantly transcendental or god knows what. Anyway, I’ve got quite a lot on my reading desk now. Warm regards to you from Munich!

  11. Thanks Anne,
    That is really nice to know. Glad you enjoyed and hope the reading is fun.
    Greetings from Thessaloniki

  12. I haven’t read any of these but will remedy that soon. Thank you.

  13. […] I love books, and I’ve had some great responses and feedback on posts about books that could revolutionize the way we think about ELT, books about critical ways of looking at images, about dialogues or about words you never knew […]

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