Everything, Anything, Something, Nothing

Everything, Anything, Something, Nothing


“If you can’t do everything, do something.”

In the words of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who has been recently declared a saint, minimal goals are better than no goals. Sometimes, when we think we cannot achieve everything, we do nothing. Mother Theresa devoted her life to feeding the poor on the streets of Calcutta, India. As she said on another occasion:

“If you can’t feed one hundred people, feed one, then another, then another.”

How does this relate to English language teaching? Should we attempt to teach everything? If we can’t teach everything, what should we teach? Does every learner of English as a foreign language aspire to achieve native speaker equivalency? Of course not.

How can we define the slices of English which are most useful for our students to learn?

Dr. Michael West[1]

In Britain’s colonial past, teachers were sent overseas in order to teach local people to become clerical workers, post office workers and minor colonial administrators. A knowledge of English, alongside their fluency in the local language was seen to be essential for these rôles.

In 1919, Michael West joined the Indian Education Service and was appointed to the province of Bengal (now Bangladesh). On arrival, West examined the educational materials, the teaching and the results. He found that the school lessons were not effective and that many students abandoned their courses before reaching Matriculation stage.

The lessons consisted of a number of reading texts often about British Kings and Queens or taken from English literature. Students were asked to ‘prepare’ at text using help from an elder brother before the lesson. During the lesson students would be asked to read long passages aloud, before the teacher would ‘go through’ the text explaining difficult words. At that time, the English-only Direct Method was in fashion. English teachers from Britain would attempt to coax their students through these reading texts before translating or answering comprehension questions. Then students could move to a higher level and another reading text.

Many students would abandon their studies before Matriculation because they could not pay for the lessons, because of changes in family circumstances, because they wanted to get married, or because the lessons were neither interesting nor useful. Too many students failed to reach Matriculation level and West felt that without achieving this level, their earlier efforts were wasted and useless.

From the world of business, West introduced the idea of “surrender value”. If a student only achieved level 2, what was the student able to accomplish with that language? Significantly, what more was the student able to accomplish after achieving level 3 or 4?

Michael West’s research led to the publication of the New Method English Readers[2] series which contained fables, animal stories, fairy tales and other simple stories. Although these were popular and were re-published by Longman around the world, Michael West wished that the texts had more practical value with titles such as ‘How to repair a plough’, ‘Fertilise your land’, ‘Crop rotation’ or ‘How to stay healthy’.

Michael West’s later work included the first dictionary[3] for learners of English and his involvement in The General Service List of English Words [4]which listed the 2,000 most frequent words in English.

Surrender value

Considering the period and context of Michael West’s work, surrender value should be considered amongst his most influential achievements. If you cannot teach everything, then teach something and that ‘something’ should be of practical value for the learner.

Common European Framework of Reference

Moving forward to the creation of the European Community, one of the Community’s key aims was the free movement of labour. This required the harmonisation of professional qualifications and definitions of language competence.

By this time, we had overcome the confusion of competence with knowledge. Teaching syllabi were less grammar based and more functional and through functionalism, our focus moved from knowledge to communicative competence. But early functional texts were hindered by their complex meta language. There are two tables in the room became ‘describing the existence of objects within a defined space’. The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), with its inventory of ‘can do’ statements, replaced the vague terms Beginner, Elementary and Intermediate with six clearly defined levels of competence. It became easier to describe the ‘something’ which learners might achieve.

Of course, the CEFR is not a magic bullet. It was designed to describe the language competence of working adults; it was not written as a teaching syllabus. The CEFR was created for the national boards creating language exams. It was for testers, not teachers.

The beauty of the CEFR and the ‘can do’ statements is that the levels and statements can be applied to English, French, Flemish, Hungarian or any other language because they describe human activity rather than language knowledge.


Returning to our original theme, we know that we cannot teach the entirety of the English language, but the small part which we can teach, should of practical use to our learners.

[1] See Warwick University ELT Archive

[2] New Method English Readers Longman Calcutta 1927

[3] West Endicott, New Method English Dictionary Longman 1936

[4] The General Service List of English Words, Longman 1953




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s