Review: Big Questions in ELT, Scott Thornbury (the-round, 2013)

Unknown-1Back in 2006, Macmillan published An A-Z of ELT, a Scott Thornbury volume that aimed to outline the key concepts, terms, approaches and issues in English language learning and teaching in an accessible way for the practising English language teacher. The simple ‘dictionary/encyclopaedia’ approach of the original book evolved into a hugely popular blog of the same name, which quickly took on a life of its own. From late 2009 to earlier this year, when Thornbury finally called time in order to focus on other projects, the posts from this blog lit up the online ELT community on an almost weekly basis, not only in terms of sharing, but also in terms of the fascinating and sometimes heated debate that inevitably opened up in the comments – some 7000 over the the lifetime of the blog.

Fortunately, for those feeling the tumbleweed blowing through their brains now An A-Z of ELT has retired, Thornbury has revisited some of the most interesting posts, and reworked them into a 21-chapter e-book with the irresistible title of Big Questions in ELT. The old alphabetic titles (“A is for Aims”, etc.) have been reframed, naturally, as questions, and surely ones that have crossed many a teacher’s mind, for instance: Are there different learning styles?, Is the use of the learners’ mother tongue a good idea?, Is there anything wrong with rote learning?, and How does identity impact on language learning? Of course if you’re looking for “big answers”, you won’t find them, but what you will find is an engaging and well-considered discussion of the issue, mixing anecdote with reflection and more than a sprinkling of relevant reading which draws on seminal works, popular articles, and the latest research and developments in the field.

While most of the chapters are fairly similar to the original blog posts online, and indeed the whole e-book could be read through in a hour or two, one of the key differences is the addition of eight ‘questions for discussion’ after each entry, which aim to help curious readers to create links between their own experiences and the research findings, to refine their stance on an issue, to explore grey areas, and to refocus their future practice. These questions make an excellent springboard, in short, for reflection, research and professional development.

However, whilst the time-poor will appreciate the bite-size nature of the chapters, which are just a few pages long, others might feel frustrated; brevity works well in the blogosphere, but do (e-)book buyers expect more? It’s a shame, perhaps, that some of the original comments could not be included as these fleshed out the arguments and uncovered many more perspectives. Obviously it’s impracticable to seek permission to reprint hundreds of individual comments; however, Thornbury has done the next best thing and included the the original link so interested readers can explore further if they wish, and I would strongly recommend this – the number of incredibly knowledgeable and self-aware teachers out there is phenomenal, and comments also come from well-known names such as Stephen Krashen, Jill Hadfield and Jane Arnold.

Having said that, Thornbury’s reworkings of the original posts do take into consideration the ways the discussion developed, an evolution that is also reflected in the discussion questions and the reference list. Again, this latter comprises only of texts mentioned in the chapter and so is generally limited to between three and eight references, a fact which may disappoint the more academically-focused. However, it must be remembered that Big Questions in ELT isn’t meant to be an in-depth, cover-all-angles view of a particular issue, but rather a starting point, something to provoke, to spark interest, and above all, to raise questions in readers’ minds.

One thing I have always liked about Thornbury’s writing is that he combines wide-ranging reading and intellectual discussion with actual classroom practice; he has never forgotten his roots as a EFL/ESL teacher and trainer. Accessible, intelligent, engaging writing remains a rare commodity in any sphere, but particularly perhaps in ELT, where there often seems to be a great divide between theory and practice, researchers and teachers. Bridging this divide with ease and clarity is Thornbury’s great strength. I would absolutely recommend this book to any teacher who is interested in understanding, exploring and questioning what we do in the classroom, and who wants a springboard to direct their reading of recent, relevant research in the field. It would also be an ideal starting point for workshop sessions or professional development discussion groups. And at just a fraction of the cost of a typical ELT resource book, this is professional development that’s within every teacher’s thinly-lined pocket.

This review was first published in the English Australia Journal 29(1). To find out more about the English Australia Journal, or to contribute, please click here.