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Working with Emergent Language: A Shift in ELT

Since the publication of Richard Chinn and Danny Norrington-Davies’ book Working with Emergent Language in 2023, the term “emergent language” has become a buzzword in English Language Teaching (ELT). This article delves into the concept of emergent language, its implications for the TEFL industry, and how it is reshaping the role of the teacher.

Emergent Language: A New Perspective

For some, the idea of helping students reformulate their language is nothing new, particularly in the field of one-to-one business and ESP training. However, for others, emergent language represents an exciting opportunity to shift from a form-focused target language production and error correction approach to a meaning-focused approach to classroom-based language development.

In this new paradigm, the role of the teacher evolves to become more of a facilitator, encouraging students to express meaning and sharing success among the learners when communication is successful, and encouraging reformulation when the language produced needs adjustment.

Emergent Language vs. Target Language

The traditional approach in ELT has been to focus on the target language – predetermined language items that students are expected to learn. In contrast, emergent language is not pre-selected by the teacher or the coursebook. Instead, it arises during the course of interaction, driven by the learner’s need to express meaning.

This shift towards emergent language provides a rationale for a more learner-centered approach. It acknowledges that language learning is a dynamic process and that the language that emerges in the classroom is a product of this process.

Working with Emergent Language

Working with emergent language involves being responsive to the language that students produce in the classroom. It requires the teacher to be attentive to the learners’ language, to identify language items that can be developed, and to provide feedback that helps students to reformulate their language.

This approach offers a range of possibilities for classroom practice. For instance, teachers can use tasks that encourage students to use language creatively and spontaneously, provide feedback on the language that emerges during these tasks, and then use this language as the basis for further learning activities.

Implementing Emergent Language in the Classroom

To help busy teachers implement this approach, here are three classroom contexts to try out emergent language:

  1. Task-Based Learning: Use tasks that encourage students to communicate meaningfully and spontaneously. The language that emerges during these tasks can then be used as the basis for language focus and feedback.
  2. Feedback Sessions: After tasks, hold feedback sessions where students share their language use, and the teacher helps them to notice and reformulate their language.
  3. Language Awareness Activities: Use activities that raise students’ awareness of language patterns and help them notice the gap between their language use and the target language.


Emergent language offers an exciting opportunity for a more dynamic, responsive, and learner-centred approach to language teaching. For those interested in exploring this approach further, we invite you to watch the workshop that Neil Harris, a seasoned ELT professional and Director of Marketing at CELT Language School, has produced for GTEFL on Working with Emergent Language.

We hope this article has provided you with a deeper understanding of emergent language and its potential to transform ELT. As we continue to explore and implement this approach, we look forward to seeing how it will shape the future of language teaching and learning.

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