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ELT and The British Council, 1934-2014: Research notes

This is the home page of the (April 2014-September 2015) research project 'Documenting British Council involvement with ELT (1934-2014)', which follows on from a previous (2010-2011) project ‘Building an archive and a record of the history of British Council involvement with ELT, 1934­-2009’. The following outputs will contribute to recording 80 years of British Council involvement in ELT: A briefing document for British Council internal purposes on the history of British Council involvement in ELT (1934-2014); Enhancement of the 'Milestones in ELTLink opens in a new window section of the British Council's TeachingEnglish website; Manuscript of a printed book and pdf publication, taking the form of a bibliography with commentary.

The previous (2010-11) project involved systematically increasing the stock of knowledge relating to the overall history of British Council involvement with ELT, 1934¬-2009, by means of: review of sources in the Warwick ELT Archive and other collections; recording, transcription and analysis of interviews with selected informants; and continued updating of the UK-funded ELT Projects database. The project also contributed to development of the British Council’s Milestones in ELT Link opens in a new window initiative.

Some key findings from research carried out so far are presented below (last updated: 2015), together with selected documents uploaded from the Warwick ELT Archive collection.

Richard Smith

Since its foundation in 1934, the British Council has played an important role in the development of ELT, that is (as defined for the purposes of this project), the British tradition, industry and/or brand of English language teaching for speakers of other languages. Indeed, in a very literal sense, The British Council can be said to have ‘invented’ ELT, though 'branded' might be a better word to use in this context. English Language TeachingLink opens in a new window was the name of a journal published by the British Council from 1946 onwards. Later it was taken on by Oxford University Press and renamed English Language Teaching Journal, subsequently shortened to ELT Journal (see Smith 2007Link opens in a new window for more on this history). A.S. HornbyLink opens in a new window (1898-1978) - at the time working in a newly created post as 'linguistic adviser' within The British Council - was the founder and first editor of the journal, whose focus was firmly on teaching English in overseas contexts. Thus, in the main title of the new journal no explicit reference was seen to be necessary to English as a second or foreign language (as might have seemed important if the journal had been targeted at a UK-based readership). On the other hand, what was (it seems) being emphasized implicitly in the title was a distinction with literature - that is, it placed a new, indeed at the time 'modern-sounding' emphasis on the teaching of English language to speakers of other languages.

Just prior to the outbreak of World War II, the British Council had begun to take a serious interest in problems of EFL teaching in the regions it was mainly focused on, that is the Near East, the Balkans, the Baltic, Portugal and South America. It was primarily under its third Chairman, Lord Lloyd, from 1937 to 1941, that the Council expanded its activities in these regions, with Lloyd’s major preoccupation being ‘to increase British influence in areas vital to her interests in the event of war’, in response to Fascist cultural penetration in the same areas (Donaldson 1984: 55). Major British Council activities at this point consisted in the support of existing British Institutes (in Florence, Paris, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Montevideo) and the use of these as models for establishing further Institutes, for example in Athens, Bucarest, Malta, Cairo, Alexandria and Lisbon (Donaldson 1984: 60). By 1940 the Council had established around twenty-five British Institutes in areas of strategic importance and was ‘continuously in touch with’ over 200 Anglophil Societies throughout the world, providing lecturers, books, newspapers, gramophone records and miscellaneous information and taking an active role in selecting or providing teachers of English for them (British Council 1940: 4). An overview of courses offered by the British Institute in Cairo for 1941-2 is viewable hereLink opens in a new window, and a report on the first year (1940-41) of operation of the Tel-Aviv School of English, which was 'subsidised and controlled by the British Council', is hereLink opens in a new window.

The Council had also begun to establish the links with British publishers which were to underpin ‘centre’ to ‘periphery’ ELT exports in the post-war era (ibid.: 8). As yet, there was only one overseas office, that in Cairo, which oversaw all activity in the Near and Middle East, but the regional organisation in Turkey was also said to be strong (ibid.: 19). It was into this developing professional framework that A.S. Hornby was to be incorporated following his return from Japan in 1942, first as a teacher trainer in Iran, then in the influential position of ‘linguistic adviser’ to the Council in London after the war had ended. Despite these developments, the British Council largely confined its pre-war and wartime efforts in the English as a foreign language field to its own and affiliated British Institutes.

During World War II, the teaching of English as a foreign language began to receive increased attention in high places. In his famous ‘empires of the mind’ speech in acceptance of an honorary degree at Harvard University in 1943 (reported in the 7 September issue of The New York Times), Winston Churchill praised C.K. OgdenLink opens in a new window’s Basic English, and in 1944 a White Paper recommended its promotion by British government agencies abroad.

It is significant, however, that neither the BBC nor the British Council was overly affected by the push for official recognition of Basic English which had been instigated by Churchill, although the White Paper of 1944 seemed to predict a Basic English-dominated post-war era. Indeed, given Hornby’s frequently stated opposition to Basic English during his time in Japan, and his association with one of Ogden's chief opponents, Harold E. PalmerLink opens in a new window, Hornby’s appointment as ‘linguistic adviser’ to the Council in 1946 indicates the extent to which the British Council was willing and able to resist political pressure to promote Basic, although Churchill's defeat in the General Election of 1945 must, of course, have significantly lessened the 'pressure'.

Underlying and surrounding the instigation of the journal English Language Teaching in 1946 (see above) were other events which indicated a new status for the teaching of English as a foreign language, and which further justify the identification of the end of World War II as a turning point. Among these was the creation of the new post of ‘linguistic adviser’ at British Council headquarters, presumably in 1945, a post which was filled by A.S. Hornby (see above; the post was in all probability not only filled but also named by Hornby, in imitation of the title his mentor Harold E. Palmer had invented for himself as adviser to the Japanese government from 1922 onwards). As Hornby later recalled, initially his job 'meant chiefly desk-work: the reading of reports from British Council centres in many parts of the world, much correspondence, and dealing with files’ (Hornby 1966: 3). During the wartime years the number of British Institutes set up by the Council, particularly in the Middle East, had increased dramatically, and Hornby had himself been Acting Director of the Anglo-Persian Institute in Teheran. In the area of English teaching, the Council’s focus at this point was firmly on its own centres overseas, and English Language Teaching –– Hornby’s own brainchild (Hornby 1966: 3) –– was presumably intended, or at least justified mainly as a way for teachers in these centres to keep in touch with one another and with headquarters. The journal may also have been conceived partly as a form of ongoing teacher-training for the Institutes. Certainly, the tone of most articles throughout the late 1940s and 1950s was prescriptive, and the contents were usually practical and non-academic in tone.

In the first few years of its existence, the journal also served as a way to inform the world of further developments in the UK which were signalling a new status and base for the teaching of English as a foreign language, namely at the University of London Institute of Education (Gurrey 1947), BBC ‘English by Radio’ programmes (Quinault 1947), and UCLES (Wyatt and Roach 1947). The main publishers of English learning and teaching materials (Oxford University Press, Longmans and, to a lesser extent, Macmillan) were also given good publicity via book reviews and, from September 1947 onwards, advertisements.

There was close cooperation in the immediate post-war years between the British Council and the BBC, as shown by ‘English by Radio’ editor René Quinault’s (1947, 1948) articles for English Language Teaching. Additionally, a special supplement of ‘Times and wavelengths of BBC English lessons for foreign students’ was produced to accompany the November 1949 issue, which, considering the economic constraints of the time, seems also to have reflected a deliberate British Council strategy to promote BBC ‘English by Radio’.

‘English by Radio’ was, like English Language Teaching but in spoken form, an important new medium by means of which British ideas about the teaching of English as a foreign language could be propagated on a worldwide scale. Indeed, the importance of BBC English by Radio programmes in reaching learners around the world has been neglected in past accounts of ELT history (e.g. Howatt 1984, Phillipson 1992). The fact that René Quinault was invited, as Programme Organiser for the English by Radio Section, to the Makerere Conference in 1961 (see below) shows the importance which was attached to BBC English by Radio at the time; indeed, Makoni (1995) highlights the impact of the BBC overall in Africa, claiming in opposition to Phillipson (1992) that ‘the position of the mother tongue speaker of English has been strengthened less through the British Council’s activities and more by the BBC and the Voice of America’.

A small number of people were centrally involved in what might be termed the ‘establishment’ of ELT in the immediate post-war years. They played cross-over roles, linking the main pillars of the new enterprise: Hornby’s part-time work for both the University of London Institute of Education and the BBC, and Institute staff involvement writing courses for the BBC were particularly striking examples, but the reciprocal links extended further. Some British Council officers (Stannard Allen, Hornby, Gatenby) developed fruitful relationships with the major publishers, together constituting a ‘new wave’ of materials writing expertise, while the already established authors West and Eckersley were called upon to provide materials for the BBC (in Eckersley’s case) and advise the Council (in West’s case - he was a member of the British Council English Studies Advisory Committee which first met on 22 January 1952 (Minutes, English Studies Advosory Committee, 22 January 1952, BW 138/1, in Public Records Office, Kew).

In 1950 Hornby resigned from the British Council and from the editorship of English Language Teaching to become a full-time author for Oxford University Press, and an Editorial Board for the journal was constituted for the first time. Its members, apart from Hornby himself, were members of staff at the Institute of Education: Elliott, Noonan, Pattison and Mackey. West, who had retained his own links with the Institute due to his continuing work on a final version of the Carnegie Report on vocabulary selection (West 1953), replaced Mackey on the Board when the latter departed for Canada in 1951. In 1952, R.T. Butlin, the new editor, lamented ‘the very limited number of experts available to contribute to the journal’ (Minutes, English Studies Advisory Committee, 22 January 1952, BW 138/1, in Public Records Office, Kew.

Indeed, my own analysis shows that out of a total of one hundred and forty-four separate articles in the first five volumes of the journal (1946–51), half had been written by just nine contributors – A.S. Hornby himself (20), R. Kingdon (10), E.L. Tibbitts (10), E.V. Gatenby (9), M. West (7), D. Abercrombie (5), D. Hicks (4), R. Manvell (4) and W. Stannard Allen (3), almost all of them (with the exceptions of Abercrombie and West) British Council employees. It should be noted that Tibbitts’ ten articles were all on the same theme of ‘Pronunciation difficulties: corrective treatment’ and that both J.C. Catford and G.H. Phelps had, like Allen, contributed three articles each. Overall, fifty-eight different contributors were represented, with twenty-six writing two or more articles. To extend the analysis further, in volumes 5 to 10 (1951–56), there were fewer contributors overall – thirty-five – but with only twelve contributing two or more articles (those writing three or more were M. West (8), F.T. Wood (5), D. Abercrombie (4), H.A. Cartledge (4), W.E. Mackey (4), A.S. Hornby (3), P.A.D. MacCarthy (3) and R. Manvell (3). In volumes 11 to 15 (1957–61), forty-nine contributors were represented, with eleven contributing two or more articles (those writing three or more were L.A. Hill (8), M. West (8), and H.A. Cartledge (4)).

In this situation of extensive mutual relations among the small number of men at the head of the new ELT endeavour, it is perhaps unsurprising that a large degree of consensus emerged early on regarding its ‘ethos’ and methodological underpinnings (situational language teaching, or 'S-O-S', for more on which see below). What is remarkable, however, is the way this methodological consensus maintained its hold on British ELT throughout the 1950s and relatively turbulent 1960s, continuing largely unchallenged right up to the brink of the mid-1970s communicative ‘revolution’.

In May 1950 the British Council organized an eleven-day conference in Mahableshwar, near Poona, India. The 54-page reportLink opens in a new window of this first ever British Council summer course to be held in India (Phillips 1956: 88) has now (July 2015) been made accessible via the 'Milestones in ELT'Link opens in a new window page on the British Council's EnglishAgenda website. E.V. Gatenby, the main speaker at the conference, was at this time the Council's 'linguistic adviser' in Turkey, the same title Hornby had had in London (Hornby had in the meantime left the Council to devote more time to his materials writing and lexicographical work for Oxford University Press.) Hornby and Gatenby had themselves collaborated intensively in compiling what was to become the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary - published originally in Tokyo in 1942 and reissued in 1948 by Oxford University Press.

The oral, direct, classroom situation based language teaching methodology both Gatenby and Hornby favoured was strongly influenced by the pre-war work of Harold E. PalmerLink opens in a new window in Japan, where both had spent a considerable number of years prior to World War II (even the term 'linguistic adviser' that Hornby and then Gatenby used to describe themselves at the British Council was one borrowed from Palmer, who had been 'linguistic adviser' to the Japanese Ministry of Education in the period 1922-36). In post-Independence India the approach favoured by Hornby and Gatenby was presented as 'neutral' (not being literature-based) and modern (being practically focused and linguistically oriented). Indeed, the 'Structural-Oral-Situational' (S-O-S) method (Prabhu 1987) was to become widely diffused and practised in India up until the 1970s, often being known (again according to Prabhu) as the 'Independence Method'. Gatenby's speeches at the 1950 conference can be seen as the beginning of this process of diffusion, and of a new 'ELT-focused' relationship between the UK and India following Independence. The relationship was still rather one-way, being based on a premise that UK expertise was necessarily of relevance (this is clear from the prominence given to Gatenby's ideas at the conference and in its recommendations, as opposed to those of the Indian educators who also attended). Nevertheless, the following eyewitness account also seems to ring true:

I well remember the atmosphere of scepticism in which that conference started, and the way in which Professor Gatenby’s kindly informed insistence changed that atmosphere to one that was as friendly as it was sincere. The final speeches of the delegates, and their expressions of thanks were a very moving testimony to the influence that Professor Gatenby had spread over the whole conference during those very pleasant and rewarding days. (Phillips 1956: 88)

One of the conference's recommendations was to establish an 'Institute for Research in English Language Teaching'. This recalls the Institute for Research in English Teaching founded by Palmer in Tokyo in 1923, of which Gatenby had been an active member. In 1958 CIE (the 'Central Institute of English') was set up in Hyderabad (in 1972 renamed 'CIEFL' - Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, and since 2007 designated as the English and Foreign Languages University - EFL-U). This had been preceded by the first English Language Teaching Institute, also set up with the support of the British Council, in Allahabad in 1954 (Krishnaswamy 2006: 126).

In 1954 a magazine for English teachers in India was set up, being titled Teaching English - A magazine devoted to the Teaching of English in IndiaLink opens in a new window (co-published by The British Council and Orient Longmans). Volume 1, no. 4 (1955) is the earliest issue of this magazine that we have in the Warwick ELT Archive. The issue contains a long article by F.L. Billows (see Smith and Maley 2004Link opens in a new window), the Council officer who was to be mainly responsible for the Madras-based MELT campaign which spread S-O-S throughout Southern India, and which was the precursor of the 'cascading' model of teacher training still favoured by the British Council in India and elsewhere. During the 1950s the British Council also facilitated the writing of structural syllabi for various States in India, with Institute of Education (University of London) staff and former students being heavily involved.

The apparent success of constructive, neutral-seeming (because linguistically- not literature-focused) efforts in post-Independence India, combined with the establishment of applied linguistics as a discipline in the UK (a move which was strongly encouraged and facilitated by The British Council), both contributed to the way British ELT expertise was confidently promoted abroad during the 1960s. An extract from the 1960-61 British Council Annual Report reprinted as a pamphlet titled The English Language Abroad Link opens in a new windowindicates this strongly. There were several other reports and position statements published around 1960-61, including the Makerere report discussed extensively by Phillipson (1992), which proclaim a similar new-found confidence in British ELT expertise at a time when 'winds of change' were blowing through the remainder of the British Empire. Indeed, in the 1960s the British Council became much more actively involved in curriculum development work and teacher-training overseas (see Phillipson 1992: 145–52).

Through ELT, it must have appeared, relationships and a benign influence could be maintained with the newly emerging 'Commonwealth' nations. At the same time, the 1960s were to see a a major expansion of UK university-based provision in the field of applied linguistics / ELT. This trend was heralded by the report English Teaching Abroad and the British Universities (edited by H.G. Wayment, Deputy Controller of the Council's Education Division at the time, and published by Methuen in 1961), which was itself based on a conference arranged by the British Council at Nutford House in London in December 1960 (relevant papers hereLink opens in a new window). Feeding into the conference itself was an earlier set of recommendations produced by the Council's own 'Linguistics Panel' in 1959, entitled University Training and Research in the Teaching of English as a Second/Foreign LanguageLink opens in a new window).

Between 1959 and 1969 Arthur King was Controller of the Education Division of the British Council and exerted considerable influence (Donaldson 1984: 273):

Largely through him, the old system of the British Council Institute and the direct teaching of English as a preliminary to knowledge of the British culture and people fell out of favour [. . .]. [H]e believed, as one of his colleagues put it, that ‘it was a mistake to carry the luggage of literature’ into the sphere of language teaching. He recognised correctly that not everybody wants to learn literature and that it is not necessarily the best methodological approach to what has become known as English for Special Purposes (ESP). (Donaldson 1984: 218)

King presided over the closure of ‘[d]ozens of small Institutes and Council-subsidised Anglophile Societies’ in Europe and the Middle East to make way for ‘multiplier systems’ with a focus on teacher training, the preparation of materials and curricula, and cooperation with universities (Donaldson 1984: 273). Thus, paradoxically, King was the man most responsible for the British Council’s shift away from literature and ‘cultural propaganda’ and to language in the 1960s, in a conscious espousal of the kind of ‘modern’, technical approach advocated by Hornby and others influenced by Palmer's pre-war work.

This constituted a remarkable turn-around for King (and is testament to the power of influence of Hornby and Gatenby, and behind them Palmer), since he had objected strongly to just such a language-oriented, 'technical' approach in two 1949 articles for English Language Teaching (King 1949a, b). These reflect a more 'old-school' type of British Council philosophy which - now the pendulum has shifted away from S-O-S - comes across in some respects as strikingly, and paradoxically, 'modern'. For example: ‘less concentration on accuracy and more concentration on the culture of the country concerned will increase the eagerness of the pupil in learning a language’ (King 1949a: 5); ‘we should teach languages more as means to ends and less as ends in themselves; [. . .] we should teach the ends to which they are means; and [. . .] we should find time for such teaching by making our language-teaching functional, taking as our criterion not so much correctness as comprehensibility’ (1949a: 11); ‘the English-language teacher should regard himself less as the perfector of a skill, and more as a cicerone to the cultures of the English-speaking countries’ (1949b: 29); ‘the moral task of the teacher of a foreign language is the same as that of the teacher of the mother tongue’ (1949b: 31); ‘If your pupil’s English is comprehensible, why change it? If you or he can communicate something new by giving ‘standard’ English a twist, why should you not? That is what has vitalized English in the past’ (1949b: 36).

The ‘Hornbyan ethos’ came to prevail in the 1960s because it chimed so well with the overall shift away from British Council cultural propaganda via its own Institutes and towards ELT as ‘development aid’ (with a focus on teacher-training for the former colonies) which has been charted by Phillipson (1992) and referred to by Pennyook (1994). Thus, in 1957, Firth, reporting to the British Council on a trip to India and Pakistan,

underlined the central problem there, that of freeing English studies from their old literary trammels in order to provide scientific and technical workers with a clear and efficient type of English suited to their needs. The Indians and Pakistanis themselves were of the opinion that they could look after literary studies, but they did need help with the English language, which would have to be their medium for both teaching and research for many years to come. (Minutes, Linguistics Panel of English Studies Advisory Committee, 9 December 1957, BW 138/1, in Public Records Office, Kew.)

In 1960, at the beginning of a new era of ‘intense cultivation of ELT’ (Phillipson 1992: 113), Bruce Pattison reported somewhat regretfully that ‘Literature had tended to be pushed into the background in recent years by the rapid development of language teaching’ ( Minutes, English Studies Advisory Committee, 9 November 1960, BW 138/1, in Public Records Office, Kew.).

Unprecedented funding was put into the promotion of ELT during the 1960s, a decade which saw the establishment of yearlong postgraduate training programmes at Bangor, Essex, Leeds and Manchester (alongside the Institute of Education and Edinburgh), which were attended largely by British Council officers and Commonwealth scholars. Pamplets produced yearly by the Council for the period 1963-67 on academic courses in the UK relevant to the teaching of 'ESL' [sic] provide insights into the development of provision (compare the pamplet for 1963-64Link opens in a new window with that fofr 1966-67Link opens in a new window, for example).

Early in the 1960s the Council established an English Teaching Information Centre in London to serve as an archive and to produce bibliographies of research and of published materials (notably, a series of English-Teaching Abstracts was begun in July 1961 which later turned into the journal Language Teaching (published by Cambridge University Press). Issue no. 1 of English-Teaching Abstracts can be viewed hereLink opens in a new window, and the final (1967) issue before the title was changed to Language-Teaching Abstracts and publication taken over by Cambridge University Press is hereLink opens in a new window.

Beginning in 1971, ETIC began to produce a mimeographed newsletter (ELT Documents) which, even in its earliest issues, began to give evidence that a new 'communicative' trend in language teaching was being worked out in the UK context (the newsletters contain seminal contributions by Dick Allwright, Chris Candlin and others). Having been produced between three to six times per year until 1976, these newsletters metamorphosed in 1978 into a series of book-length publications bearing the same title (ELT Documents), beginning at no. 101 (1978) and ending with no. 134 (1990). Several of these books have already been uploaded to the British Council's 'Milestones in ELTLink opens in a new window' web-page. Up to no. 113 the books were published solely by The British Council, from 114 to 124 by Pergamon in association with The British Council, and from 125 to 134 by Modern English Publications in assocation with The British Council). By the end of this period Chris Brumfit had become series editor. Then, from 1991 until 1996 he continued as a overall editor of a successor series (still published by Modern English Publications in association with The British Council) titled alternatively 'Review of English Language Teaching' (in paperback with volume and issue numbers) and (same content but in hardback) 'Developments in ELT'. There were 14 of these volumes, the last being dated 1996. Prior to his death in 2006, Chris Brumfit donated his own copies of these volumes to the Warwick ELT Archive, and we also have a complete series of ELT Documents, partly from the Dakin Collection, partly received via British Council donation. In 1997 the series became 'English Language Teaching Review' (published by Longman in association with The British Council). Chris Kennedy was series editor of these, with 11 volumes being published up to 2000 when the series was discontinued.

ETIC itself was closed in the 1980s, as one consequence of a severe cut in the government's grant-in-aid to The British Council, and its archival holdings were either dispersed or (in many cases) discarded. A number of former ETIC items which were not thrown away have, via various routes, found their way 'back together' to the Warwick ELT Archive, and we are always interested in possible further donations, particularly of unpublished or otherwise hard-to-obtain material (see notes on donating material hereLink opens in a new window).


References and other sources

Donaldson, F. 1984. The British Council: The First Fifty Years. London: Jonathan Cape.

Krishnaswamy, N. and Krishnaswamy, L. 2006. The Story of English in India. Delhi: Foundation Books.

Phillips, L.R. 1956. ‘Professor E.V. Gatenby, C.B.E., M.A.’ (Obituary). English Language Teaching 10/3: 87–90.

Phillipson, R. 1992. Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Prabhu, N.S. 1987. Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Also available online: opens in a new window

Smith, R. 2007. 'The origins of ELT Journal'. Oxford University Press ELT Journal website. Online: opens in a new window

Smith, R.C. with A. Maley. 2004. 'Lionel Billows (1909–2004): In memoriam'. English Language Teacher Education and Development 8: 83–87. Online: opens in a new window

Wayment, H.G. (ed.) 1961. English Teaching Abroad and the British Universities. London: Methuen.

Fisher, A. 2009. A Story of Engagement: the British Council 1934-2009. London: The British Council. Available online: opens in a new window