New Trends in Global Issues and English Teaching

Kip A. Cates Tottori University

The last ten years have seen an explosion of interest in global issues and global education by the international English teaching profession. This can be documented in the journals and conference programs of international English teaching organizations such as TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) and IATEFL (the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language), as well as in the pages of the Global Issues in Language Education Newsletter of JALT's Global Issues Special Interest Group.

While this new interest in global education has manifested itself in a number of ways, I'd like to focus on five specific areas where the influence of global education has made itself felt: (1) new thinking about the aims and mission of the English teaching profession; (2) new ideas about the content of English language teaching (ELT); (3) out-reach efforts by ELT associations to global issue speakers and organizations; (4) the growing emphasis in ELT conferences on global issue themes; and (5) the formation of global issue interest groups within the English teaching profession.

Rethinking Aims

One key trend in the English teaching profession linked to the growing interest in global education is a rethinking of basic educational goals, the "why" of English education. Perhaps most people know the old joke about English teaching acronyms which says that, of all the different types of English teaching -- TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language), TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and so on, the most common type of English taught in classrooms round the world is TENOR (Teaching English for No Obvious Reason). In other words, English has always been on the syllabus, so that is why we teach it. Because it is so common to get tied up with the teaching of grammar, literature and communication or with the daily routine of classrooms, textbooks and tests, it is all too easy for English teachers to forget fundamental questions of purpose -- the question "What's it all for?"

A growing number of educators are now beginning to discuss what the aims of English language teaching should be -- given the serious global issues that face our world. The American educator H. D. Brown (1990), for example, phrases this in terms of the mission of the profession:

What are we doing for the Earth? What are we doing to save it? What are the issues? And what on earth does this have to do with you as an ESL teacher? It has everything to do with you as an ESL teacher. Global, peace and environmental issues intrinsically affect every human being on earth. These issues provide content for your content-based humanized teaching of the 90's. We teachers have a mission, a mission of helping everyone in this world communicate with each other to prevent the global disaster ahead. The 90's are in your hands.

Other educators prefer to talk about the moral dimension of English teaching and the need for an approach to language education which aims at fostering a sense of social responsibility in students. This idea was discussed in a keynote speech by William Kirby, Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, at the 1989 international convention of the English teaching organization TESOL:

What good is it to teach our students to read if they only read degrading pornography? What good is it to teach students to write if they use their knowledge to write racist graffiti? What good is it to teach students arithmetic if they use their skills only to embezzle others?

The implication here is that we can't call our English teaching successful if our students, however fluent, are ignorant of world problems, have no social conscience or use their communication skills for international crime, exploitation, oppression or environmental destruction.

International Content

In addition to a rethinking of goals, the "why" of English teaching, the new interest in global issues has also led to a rethinking of content, the "what" of education. This is related to the growing interest of the profession in content-based language teaching (Silver, 1991). Content-based teaching argues that language is most effectively learned in the context of relevant, meaningful, motivating content which stimulates students to think and learn through the use of the target language. Content educators such as Brinton, Snow and Wesche (1989) and Mohan (1986) stress that language is a means of learning about the world and recommend the use of motivating themes and authentic materials in classroom teaching.

If one accepts this thesis of content language teaching, then the next question that arises is "What content is worth teaching?" A growing number of educators are proposing world problems or "global issues" as subject matter which can both meet the need for more meaningful content, and address the lack of educational relevance of much of the general English education in schools around the world. This view has been voiced, among others, by the British educator Alan Maley (1992):

Global issues are real issues: the spoliation of the rain-forests, the thinning of the ozone layer, acid rain, nuclear waste disposal, exponential population growth, the spread of AIDS, state violence and genocide in Kurdistan, Tibet and Bosnia, ecological disaster compounded by war in Ethiopia and Somalia . . . the list is depressingly long. What has this to do with the teaching of EFL? English language teaching (ELT) has been bedeviled with three perennial problems: the gulf between classroom activities and real life; the separation of ELT from the main stream of educational ideas; the lack of a content as its subject matter. By making Global Issues a central core of EFL, these problems would be to some extent resolved. (p. 73)

Global Outreach

In order to bring real world content into the classroom, teachers must step outside the field of English language teaching to access materials and information from outside sources. A further trend related to the growing interest in global education, therefore, concerns the efforts by English teaching associations to reach out to global issue experts and organizations for ideas, stimulation and resources. This outreach has taken a number of forms.

The English teaching organization TESOL, for example, has appointed an official liaison to the United Nations who writes articles on the UN and the global issues it deals with for the TESOL newsletter and its 20,000 subscribers worldwide. TESOL has further shown its commitment to promoting global education through a series of conference workshops which introduce English teachers to experts, resources and ideas from global issue fields. These have included "TESOL Day at the United Nations" (TESOL'91, New York) at which UN personnel instructed English teachers on how to integrate global issues into their teaching; "TESOL Day at the Carter Center" (TESOL'93, Atlanta, Georgia) where teachers attended workshops on conflict resolution by peace experts from former President Jimmy Carter's staff; and "TESOL Day at the Rainforest" (TESOL'94, Baltimore) at which English teachers were shown how to integrate ecology themes into their lessons by environmental experts. Similar initiatives have taken place in Japan where experts in areas such as peace education, human rights issues and environmental problems have addressed English teachers at JALT conferences about how best to teach these global issues in their classrooms (Casey, 1994).

This outreach can also be seen in the kinds of featured speakers invited to international conferences. JALT's recent 1996 international conference in Hiroshima, for example, featured UNESCO expert Felix Marti speaking on Linguapax, language teaching, and world peace. Featured speakers at other international conferences have included US civil rights leader Andrew Young (TESOL'93), international educator and human rights advocate Mary Hatwood Futrell (TESOL'94), Vietnamese peace activist Le Ly Hayslip (TESOL'95), and cross-cultural expert Milton Bennett speaking on tolerance and intercultural understanding (Korea TESOL'95). The invitation of outside speakers such as these to international ELT conferences underscores the commitment of English teaching organizations to link English education to the outside world, raise awareness of global issues, strengthen commitment to socially responsible teaching and remind teachers of the wider social context of their classroom work.

Conference Sessions

English teaching organizations around the world are increasingly featuring global education and global issues in their conferences. One way this can be seen is through the conference themes being chosen. Examples include conference themes such as "Language and Social Justice" (ATESOL Australia, 1989), "Global Age: Issues in Language Education" (CDELT 1993, Egypt), "Bridges to Better Understanding" (Mexico TESOL, 1995), and "World Peace and English Education" (Japan Association of College English Teachers, 1986). That this trend is not limited to English education can be seen in the organization of an entire conference on the theme "Global Issues in Foreign Language Education" by the Modern Language Association of Poland (September, 1996).

Over the past decade, there has also been an explosion of conference presentations focusing on global education themes at ELT conferences round the world. JALT's 1986 conference handbook, for example, reveals no presentations at all on global issue themes, yet its JALT'96 Hiroshima conference ten years later featured over 50 such sessions. These included presentations on such themes as international awareness through video, global education and the Internet, AIDS awareness activities, and teaching about human rights. JALT's annual conference now regularly features conference colloquia, roundtable discussions, and workshops featuring English educators from countries such as Russia, Germany, Thailand, and Australia speaking on topics such as global issues, peace education, environmental awareness, and international understanding as they relate to teaching methods, textbooks, and curriculum design.

The same trend can be seen at other international ELT conferences around the world. IATEFL's 1996 conference, for example, featured a first-ever global issues conference strand with presentations on global issues: these included project work in Brazil, a One World Week event in Portugal, peace studies in Hong Kong, and ESL for international understanding in California. TESOL's 1996 conference in Chicago featured a peace education breakfast seminar, plenary talks on social responsibility and "subversive teaching" for a better world, an academic session on peace education and materials writing, and over 100 presentations by teachers from countries as varied as Poland, Canada, France and Korea with titles such as Global Issues E-mail Projects, Social Issues and the Language Class, Teaching Strategies for Reducing Prejudice, and Integrating Global Cultures into EFL Materials.

Special Interest Groups

A final trend within the profession is the formation of global issue special interest groups within major international organizations. The first such group to form was JALT's "Global Issues in Language Education" National Special Interest Group (N-SIG) in 1991. Its aims were defined as (1) to promote the integration of global issues, global awareness and social responsibility into foreign language teaching; (2) to promote networking and support among educators dealing with global issues in language teaching; and (3) to promote awareness among language teachers of developments in global education and the related fields of environmental education, human rights education, peace education, and development education.

Since then, similar groups have been formed in other organizations around the world. These include a Peace and Health Education Interest Group in TESOL Italy (1994), a Global Issues SIG within the Korea TESOL organization (March, 1995), a Global Issues SIG in the UK-based IATEFL association (April, 1995), a Global Education Study Group in the Japan Association of College English Teachers (April, 1996), plus ongoing efforts to establish a Global/Peace Education interest group within the US-based TESOL organization.

The establishment of these groups has enabled English teachers around the world who are involved with global, peace and environmental education to receive funds, begin projects, issue newsletters, hold workshops, obtain conference time to share their research and teaching experience, and to further promote global education within their organizations. The existence of these groups serves to validate global education as a legitimate goal of English teaching and to highlight the social responsibility of the profession.


The rapid growth of interest in global issues and global education within the field of English education over the past decade has helped to stimulate the profession in many ways. It has encouraged a reconsideration of the basic aims of English teaching, sparked a debate about the mission of our profession, and promoted a healthy discussion about meaningful content and educational relevance. It has spurred outreach efforts to global issue experts and organizations, provoked a sharing of classroom experimentation and research through conference presentations, and led to the formation of special interest groups devoted to promoting global awareness and action to solve world problems through effective language teaching. What is clear from these various trends is that the new commitment of English language teaching to promoting peace, international understanding, and global awareness is firm and growing stronger each year thanks to the work of thousands of English educators in countries around the globe.


  • Brinton, D. M., Snow, M. A., & Wesche, M. B. (1989). Content-based second language instruction. New York: Newbury House.
  • Brown, H. D. (1990, March). On track to century 21. Plenary talk at the 24th Annual Convention of TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), San Francisco, USA.
  • Casey, B. (1994, October). Basic questions on global issues: Ask the experts. Roundtable discussion at the 20th Annual International Conference on Language Teaching and Learning of JALT (Japan Association of Language Teaching), Matsuyama, Japan.

  • Kirby, W. (1989, March). Keynote speech at the 23rd Annual Convention of TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), San Antonio, USA.
  • Maley, A. (1992). Global issues in ELT. Practical English Teaching, 13 (2), 73.

  • Mohan, B. (1986). Language and content. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Silver, R. (1991). "Content-Based Language Teaching: Introduction". The Language Teacher, 15 (11), 2. 

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