Uncharted Tesol

ESL: An Ecological Perspective

“With ever greater demand for ESOL classes and a high level of insistence from governments that migrants learn English for purposes of integration, the job of ESOL teachers goes way beyond teaching the forms and structure of the English language.” This quote from The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching was the epigraph for Scott Thornbury’s IATEFL ESOL Special Interest Group webinar, “ESL: An Ecological Perspective” on February 28th.  

Thornbury emphasized that this quote holds true in all contexts, although “there’s a sense of urgency” for refugees and migrants. It is unfortunately true, however, that national curricula tend to focus on forms and structure. In Great Britain, for example, the national ESL standards were adapted from adult literacy standards, and focus solely on learners’ proficiency with understand words, sentences, and texts. This type of curriculum “sits uncomfortably” with the functional needs of adult ESL learners. For many immigrants, a desire for formal correctness is a distant second to the desire for participation in the community of practice.

As an antidote to forms-focused teaching, Thornbury recommends taking an ecological perspective. Ecology, in this case, means “the context in which the classroom is embedded.” This ecological metaphor has of course been used for a long time, but Thornbury encouraged his audience to take a broad view of what makes up one’s context. Classrooms are housed in institutions, which exist within local communities, which are part of nations, which have a place in the world alongside the learners’ home countries. Every layer of this ecology provides affordances for learners, and their success depends on their creating relationships with every part of their environment.

Thornbury described 5 different models of ecological learning, all of which allow learners to get involved in their own learning. The 5 models were presented roughly in order of when they were first developed, although he noted that they all coexist and are available for use now.


  • Task-based learning grew out of the strong form of Communicative Language Teaching. The goal was to have students learn English by using it in tasks that were relevant to their goals. TBL has been dismissed as ineffective by some practitioners, but Thornbury pointed to success stories from Belgium, where it has been applied outside the language classroom. In Flanders, TBL has been used to serve historically-underprivileged groups in schools, by assigning learners scaffolded tasks that directly correlate to their future needs outside the classroom.
  • Dogme was developed by Thornbury himself about 20 years ago. In this approach, teaching is done using the resources, needs, and interests of “the people in the room” –i.e. the teacher(s) and learner(s). While many institutions have been reluctant to do away with textbooks, Dogme has seen success in situations where curricular materials are unavailable. Thornbury cited the example of a British teacher working with Sudanese refugees who live in Jordan and are hoping to either study or settle in Anglophone countries. That example blends EFL, ESL, EAP, and forced migration, resulting in a context for which there are no appropriate textbooks. The teacher has used Dogme as a low-budget way to adapt to his students’ needs.
  • Language in the Wild is a project that promotes the study of Nordic languages in Nordic countries, but the learners are visitors, not immigrants. Learners complete classroom work in conjunction with community projects. Crucially, the organizers have enlisted the help of fluent speakers in the host communities. When a learner is sent to buy pastries at a bakery, the bakery staff is under instructions not to code-switch, but to speak slowly and negotiate meaning with the learners. This allows the learners to get realistic practice in the target language.
  • Genre-based teaching, also called text-based teaching, has become particularly popular in Australia. Its core idea is that all language occurs as a text, and every text represents the way things get done in a certain situation. Therefore, language teaching is based on having learners produce and decode texts.
  • Participatory pedagogy is, according to Thornbury, “the nearest thing to a synthesis of the other four” ecological approaches. It has its roots in adult literacy pedagogy, and has recently become influential in British community-based ESOL classes. The point of participatory pedagogy is to turn pupils into participants, turn lectures into dialogues, and situate all learning within the lived experience of the learners. Classes are held in venues that are convenient for the learners; content is negotiated among all participants; and every session is designed to prompt discussion.


Thornbury noted that all 5 of these approaches overlap with one another, in both goals and format. Overall, the point of the ecological approach is to let learners go beyond producing grammar and into using language for their own purposes, in their own ways, and with their own authority. Thornbury closed with a quote from the 1956 book Spoken Language: “Language is not a sterile subject to be confined to the classroom….Either life must be brought to the classroom or the class must be taken to life.”

Author’s biography: Claire Marinello is the current MA TESOL research assistant at The New School, as well as the Student Ambassador for the MA program. She teaches at Nile Language School in New Jersey. Claire will graduate in May 2019.

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