Learner-Centred Education and Communicative Language Teaching – is it appropriate for all contexts?

01st December 2016

Learner-Centred Education and Communicative Language Teaching – is it appropriate for all contexts?

By Wendy Arnold

Director and Co-founder ELT-Consultants


In the 20th Century and up to this point in the 21st Century, English language teaching (ELT), along with mainstream education, has been dominated with education practices led by a ‘learner-centred’ approach, based on constructivism (Bruner 1978; Piaget 1952; Vygotsky 1978). But how has it been received and does it work in all contexts?


‘Learner-Centred Education, (LCE) is what Schweisfurth (2011:425) describes as a ‘culturally nuanced perspective (which) raises questions about how teaching and learning are understood in different may be inappropriate for application in all societies and classrooms. Holliday (1994:175-177) agrees,  and says it is because ‘it presupposes that we know a great deal about the learner’, which is not true. So learner-centredness and CLT (communicative language teaching) are not understood or accepted. What’s the evidence?


There are multiple references in research to querying the application of CLT for TEYL (Teaching English to Young Learners), which include over-capacity filled classrooms, education systems with very traditional teacher-centred learning, and perhaps the most basic problem that teachers do not understand CLT because they have received inadequate or  no training at all. Adding to which the concept of LCE is not considered to be appropriate in some cultures (Garton, Copland and Burns 2011:9). It is not surprising therefore that CLT has not embedded despite it being considered the leading approach for so long.

This is very concerning as the majority of young learners in ELT are now in developing countries (Rixon 2013) and the age to start English is increasingly getting younger. The most worrying of these is the number of teachers who have little or no training before they start to teach English, so it’s not surprising that approaches and methodologies are unknown, as well as not being implemented.



Arnold and Bradshaw (2012:5) caution that a ‘top down, aspirational, prescriptive’ curriculum has a direct impact on the materials designed for the learners, which could end up with materials that are too complex to either be delivered by the teacher or understood by the YL. They argue for a ‘bottom up, pragmatic and experiential’ curriculum that is relevant to the needs of the YL and the abilities of the teachers. Morevoer, Arnold and Rixon say that the speed that TEYL has been introduced has ‘outpaced the teacher education and creation of suitable materials’, materials need to be both ‘child-friendly’ and ‘teacher-friendly’ so that they can support teachers who may be inexperienced in TEYL (2008:39-40). And


What is very concerning is seeing these ‘aspirational’ curriculums being produced by developing countries as if that’s all that’s needed! The level of planning for successful implementation seems to get forgotten. The people who will deliver these educational reforms also get forgotten! Another very expensive way to push forward Education Reforms is developing materials, as if the materials on their own will do the job of educating the children. Publishers are usually only contracted to deliver 3-5 days of training for either national trainers or teachers on how to use their materials. When this might be the sum total of the teacher’s CPD (continued professional education), it is woefully lacking. It is NOT the Publishers responsibility to provide all the training teachers of English need, their training in ONLY meant to provide instruction on the use of their publications. The core problem is that the ‘teacher’ might not have received TEYL specific training at either pre or in-service training.


Teacher education


Rixon’s (2015:41) findings in the global survey  (2013:18-28) found that there was a mismatch between ‘acceptable’ qualifications of teachers for YL and the category of teacher which actually existed in the primary schools. In Enever and Moon research problematic gaps between the ‘supply of qualified TEYL teachers and the demand for these professionals as programmes expand the wide gap between supply and demand suggests that expansion of TEYL has often not been adequately prepared for’(2009:10) are identified. This gap seems to be evident in both developing and developed countries and correlates with Emery’s findings that many teachers of English had not been trained to teach the language or the level, and the concern that is that ‘younger or inexperienced teachers tended to teach the early grades’. (2012:18).


So it is not at all surprising that teachers in some of the contexts where they are not adequately prepared for teaching fall back on what they know, which is usually a more traditional approach to teaching and learning.




Holliday (1994:175-177) argues for a ‘learning-centred’ with ‘culture-sensitive features’ approach, which could lead to becoming appropriate classroom methodology. But how would this look? And who would be responsible to develop it? Well the teachers are the obvious sustainable resource. The teacher should be THE ‘go-to’ resource as they are the constant, their values and beliefs and practice leads the learning in the classroom. But without adequate teacher training an exposure to different approaches, in both pre-service and in-service training, they will resort to what they are most comfortable with and that is falling back to their own education.




In conclusion, due to the possible resistance to an LCE approach it is critical that teachers and learners are exposed to different approaches and are given time to understand the benefits.  It takes considerable time to embed changes in education systems because some of them necessitate a change in roles of both teachers and learners. Encouraging the BEST candidates to become professional teachers with a rigorous and appropriate teacher-training programme is needed urgently!




What do you think? Please go to the ELT-Consultants Facebook page to continue a discussion.


Further reading


Note: some of the arguments used above have been taken from the draft of a forthcoming publication:


Arnold, W., Bradshaw, C., Gregson, K. (forthcoming in 2017) Learning through Projects in F.Copland and S. Garton (eds) The Routledge Handbook of Teaching English to Young Learners. London :Routledge


Wendy Arnold is one of the co-Founders of ELT-Consultants. In 2015 we invited other consultants to become Associates. ELT-consultants website is a showcase of the wide range of experiences ELT professionals brings to TEYL. Wendy taught English for 15 years in a state primary school in Hong Kong, she was invited to write a coursebook by OUP (now in 2nd edition), she went on to write and co-write two further coursebooks for Macmillan Education. She has also written for mainstream education (HarperCollins). This combination of grass roots, chalk-face teaching and writing led her to teacher and then trainer-training for publishers and Ministries of Education. Her passion is supporting longitudinal Education Reform, as well as, YL who do not have an alphabet writing system and early literacy.




Arnold, W., Rixon, S. (2008) Materials for Young Learners. In B.Tomlinson, Ed. English Language Learning Materials. London:Continuum International Publishing Group


Arnold, W., Bradshaw, C. (2012). A balancing trick between curriculum materials design and teacher ability. MA in TEYL Module materials. York: University of York, Department of Education.

Bruner, J. (1978). The role of dialogue in language acquisition. In A. Sinclair, R., J. Jarvelle, and W. J. M. Levelt (eds.) The Child's Concept of Language. New York: Springer-Verlag.


Emery, H. (2012). A global Study of primary English teachers’ qualifications, training and career development. In ELT Research Papers. 12 (08). London: British Council. (Retrieved 18 Nov 2016)


Enever, J and Moon, J. (2009). New global contexts for teaching primary ELT: Change and challenge. In J. Enever & J. Moon (Eds) Young learner English language policy and implementation: International perspectives. Reading: Garnet Education and IATEFL

Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garton, S., Copland, F., Burns, A. (2011).  Investigating Global Practices in Teaching English to Young Learners. In ELT Research Papers. 11 (01). London: British Council. (Retrieved 18 Nov 2016).

Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: Viking.

Rixon, S. (2013). British Council survey of policy and practice in primary English language teaching worldwide. London: British Council. (Retrieved: 18 Nov 2016).

Rixon, S. (2015). Primary English and critical issues: A worldwide perspective. In J. Bland (Ed). Teaching English to Young Learners. Critical Issues in Language Teaching with 3-12 Year Olds. London:Bloomsbury.


Schweisfurth, M. (2011). Learner-centred education in developing country contexts: From solution to problem? In International Journal of Educational Development. 31(5), September 2011, 425-432. (Retrieved 18 Nov 2016).

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. London: Harvard University Press.


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