Innovation in Language Teaching #1: What does it Look Like in Practice?

Hayo Reinders

In the first of a new series on innovation in language teaching, Professor Hayo Reinders asks how we can recognise genuine innovation.

The word “innovation” is often used to describe a product or development that is “new” or “enhanced” in some way. As a marketing term, it is intended to evoke the idea of a product being “better” than others. In practice, however, the term is used so widely that it has lost much of its meaning. Nonetheless, true innovation does exist and can be recognized, but it is a complex and relatively rare phenomenon that is context-specific. What may be innovative in a rural primary school in a developing country may not be so in a university laboratory, and (although we often forget this) vice versa. In this brief article, I will look at the meaning of innovation and give some examples of what innovation looks like in practice. The key point for teachers is to be able to decide for themselves what truly counts as innovation in their own teaching contexts.

What is innovation?

Can a new teaching method or course book be good, even if it’s not innovative? Based on the claims made by authors and publishers, one would think not. Almost every new product is said to be innovative in one form or another. It is therefore important for teachers who make purchasing decisions to know how to recognize true innovation. Unfortunately, that is not easy, as the word “innovation” carries so many meanings. Here are some common connotations:

An innovation is:

  • an improvement a change
  • something new;
  • something that did not exist before
  • something that is new in a specific context
  • all of the above combined
  • any of the above, but only when successfully implemented


Needless to say, different people will use the word “innovation” with one or more of these meanings for different purposes. In addition, there can be an emphasis on product, or process. In change management literature, for example, innovation is usually thought of as a process of research and implementation in order to achieve tangible benefits. Innovation in this view is not just the result of a development, but includes the path toward achieving that development, as well as its successful integration into its intended context. To give an example from the field of language teaching, new technologies are sometimes promoted as “innovations” without regard for their use or the context in which they are to be used. For example, in the past, many schools bought expensive computers and software, which ended up being underused. Interactive whiteboards, tablets, and ebook readers are wonderful devices that offer many new functionalities that did not previously exist. They may suffer a similar fate, however, if their benefits to learning and teaching in specific contexts are not carefully considered.

A more useful view of innovation incorporates this idea of integration in some form.

Delano, Riley, and Crookes’ definition (1994) does this by considering the impact on how learning and teaching are perceived:

“An innovation in a second language teaching program is an informed change in an underlying philosophy of language teaching/learning, brought about by direct experience, research findings, or other means, resulting in an adaptation of pedagogic practices such that instruction is better able to promote language learning as it has come to be understood” (489).

This definition highlights the role of the teacher, whose philosophy and pedagogic practices play a key role in the process of innovation. In the next section, we will look at some examples of innovation that place emphasis on the actual classroom experience of teachers and their learners.

Delano, L., L. Riley, and G. Crookes. 1994. The meaning of innovation for ESL teachers. System 22(4):487–496.

This post originally appeared as part of a white paper published in connection with the Cambridge Discovery Education Interactive Readers series.

If you’ve been inspired and want to learn more, you can read the second instalment in Professor Hayo’s 4 part series, where he discusses motivating 21st Century learners!

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