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Review of  Approaches to Teaching the History of the English Language

Reviewer: Corey J. Zwikstra
Book Title: Approaches to Teaching the History of the English Language
Book Author: Mary Hayes Allison Burkette
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 29.4883

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This edited collection includes 29 essays on the teaching of the history of the English language (HEL), offering a range of approaches and a wealth of practical suggestions. Contributors are mostly senior scholars of English or linguistics with the requisite publications and experience. Most work in the USA, with others in the UK, Canada, South Africa, and Finland. Their expertise and experience help the volume succeed in mapping how the history of English is and might be taught in the twenty-first century.

In their introduction, editors Mary Hayes, a medievalist, and Allison Burkette, a sociolinguist, remark on the interdisciplinary expansiveness, chronological scope, variety, and complexity of HEL and on the difficulty of teaching HEL to students with different backgrounds, abilities, interests, and goals. Though challenging, it remains an important subject full of opportunities and rewards. No teacher can master everything, and so these commissioned chapters focus on practical pedagogy, giving examples, anecdotes, suggestions, and advice, and providing description or theory as needed.

Six parts structure the book. Part 1, “Reflections on Teaching the History of the English Language,” contains 4 chapters. In “German, Handwriting, and Other Things I Learned to Keep in Mind When Teaching the History of English,” John McWhorter shares lessons learned from mistakes made teaching the class as a bit of an outsider: make HEL, especially its Old English components, meaningful to today’s students through participation and practice, and focus on writing issues since students think of language more as written than spoken. He also successfully began class periods with etymologies and suggests HEL teachers not spend too long on World Englishes, which can potentially devolve into lists that bore students. Thomas Cable’s “Restoring Rhythm: An Auditory Imagination of the History of English” stresses that contrary to students’ expectations, HEL should involve imagination and performance, focusing not on charts of sound changes but playfully on the “auditory imagination” and the diverse and changing sounds, rhythms, and music of the language. Rajend Mesthrie’s “Teaching the History of English: A South African Perspective” explains a crash-course that teaches students Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English through language lessons coming from set texts in each period, with built-in repetition of material to reinforce grammar. He notes that traditional HEL courses are inadequate. Language courses inevitably involve social and political questions about identity and belonging, and HEL courses must therefore include topics such as creoles that problematize neat historical narratives in authentic and productive ways. In “How Is HEL Relevant to Me?” Sonja L. Lanehart reminds us of the diverse interests of contemporary HEL students. Her HEL course prioritizes students’ personalized goals and self-regulated learning. She facilitates their progress and gives occasions for them to connect the course to their goals and lives, with lots of activities and practice. Emphasis, she asserts, should be on skills and continuous learning, not on historical linguistic facts.

Part 2, “The Value of Teaching the History of English: Rethinking Curricula,” contains 3 chapters. Matthew Giancarlo’s “Philology, Theory, and Critical Thinking Through the History of the English Language” argues that old-school philology and new-school theory can work together to benefit HEL students, particularly in areas of critical inquiry and knowledge construction. Students learn that HEL is not merely a body of knowledge but “a mode of knowledge-creation” (p. 64). Such theoretical mindedness allows students “to use the concepts of theory to establish an overall pattern of self-reflexive critical engagement” (p. 66). In “The History of the English Language and the Medievalist,” Seth Lerer explains that HEL has sometimes been turned into a legend, with a focus on origins and change over time, appropriately taught by medievalists. He investigates these associations to argue that literary and linguistic history are connected. Ultimately, as medievalists themselves have had to change with the times, so too should HEL, opening to other kinds of teachers with more varied approaches to the subject. Michael R. Dressman’s “English and I: Finding the History of the English Language in the Class” suggests that HEL instructors use to advantage the language histories that all students, especially non-traditional ones, bring to class with them. Early in the course, he assigns a thirty-minute diagnostic “English and I” essay in which students describe their individual relationship with English and reveal what they hope the course includes. Instructors can use such essays and similar types of personalized assignments throughout the semester, but especially early on, to help students get comfortable with the subject, connect to the material, and achieve their personal goals.

The longest section in the book, Part 3, “Research Paradigms and Pedagogical Practices,” contains 6 chapters. In “Historical Pragmatics in the Teaching of the History of English,” Leslie K. Arnovick describes the hybrid field of historical pragmatics (meaning in use in contexts over time) and explains ways instructors might incorporate it into HEL courses. Students, already users of language in context, could thus gain perspective and practice analyzing written texts using digital historical corpora and other new technologies. Graeme Trousdale’s “Using Principles of Construction Grammar in the History of English Classroom” recommends the principles and methods of construction grammar (conventional pairings of forms and meanings) to help students understand elements of language change typically taught in a HEL course. Using these methods, students analyze large data sets to recognize recurrent patterns and see variations. In “Addressing ‘Emergence’ in a HEL Classroom,” William A. Kretzschmar, Jr. applies a term more familiar in science and economics to the study of language as a complex system in which various patterns emerge and re-emerge, without specific causes or controls, as users participate in a history that changes. He says HEL teachers must teach the contingencies and variations that arise in language because of social factors, not focus on normalizing or top-down processes that promote a teleological history of Standard English. This approach shows students how delightfully messy English has always been on the ground when used by real, social human beings. Jukka Tyrkkö’s “Discovering the Past for Yourself: Corpora, Data-Driven Learning, and the History of English” extols the use of corpora but suggests they have been underused in teaching HEL. A corpus-linguistics approach to HEL in the classroom reveals that diachronic variation is complex and always ongoing and must be studied alongside synchronic variation. Students need to work with data first-hand and consider their approaches to those data, imitating real research and learning and discovering on their own. “Word Classes in the History of English” by David Denison also champions the use of corpora in teaching HEL, here with an emphasis on parts of speech and morphology. He, too, asserts how students must learn for themselves by using data on their own and testing or challenging received wisdom. Michael Adams’s “Dictionaries and the History of English” proposes the utility of looking at dictionaries, as well as in them, to learn about HEL. Such an act of seeing connects internal and external linguistic history and several disciplines, insofar as dictionaries are material cultural artifacts, as well as repositories of linguistic information. Instead of writing traditional term papers, students might write etymologies or word histories or compile annotated glossaries. Again, students in the contemporary HEL course might do original and personally meaningful research, not merely regurgitate facts and others’ opinions.

Part 4, “Centuries in a Semester: HEL’s Chronological Conventions,” contains 4 chapters. Timothy J. Pulju’s “English Is an Indo-European Language: Linguistic Prehistory in the History of English Classroom” ponders how much Indo-European an HEL instructor should include. A necessary inclusion, rather than historically dumped at the beginning of the course Indo-European should be spread throughout in the context of several aspects of the language, for example, the past tense of strong verbs in contemporary English. In “Serving Time in ‘HELL’: Diachronic Exercises for Literature Students,” Mary Hayes relates how focus on a diachronic textual tradition, here different translations of Psalm 22, helps students manage the vast historical coverage of the course and problematize traditionally oversimplified periodization. Haruko Momma’s “What Has Beowulf to Do with English? (Let's Ask Lady Philology!)” uses the familiar but often misunderstood poem Beowulf, and contrasts the writings of scholars Samuel Johnson and John Mitchell Kemble, to describe advances made by nineteenth-century philology in changing our approach to HEL. Joan Beal’s “Starting from Now: Teaching the Recent History of English” follows the pioneering approach of Barbara Strang (A History of English 1970) in teaching HEL backwards, suggesting that focus on recent English helps students learn HEL, piques their interest, and if done properly gives them transferable workplace skills.

Part 5, “Including ‘Englishes’ in the History of English,” contains 7 chapters, the most of any section in the collection. Benjamin A. Saltzman’s “From Old English to World Englishes” wonders how medievalist teachers of HEL, who typically deal with the linguistic past and with the dead, can do justice to contemporary World Englishes. We must be careful since the teaching of World Englishes carries “complex ethical weight” (p. 245), wrapped up as the subject is in contemporary politics and the fortunes of living people. He proposes a course concentrate in some detail on one specific variety of World English, instead of hastily surveying all varieties, and begin and end with World Englishes, not just end with them. In “An Ecological Account of the Emergence and Evolution of English,” Salikoko S. Mufwene stresses that “language contact ecologies” (p. 253) are too often ignored and English is too straightforwardly considered Germanic. He shows that a more accurate understanding of HEL emerges if we study English as a creole, examining the influences of external history on internal language history and change. Carol Percy’s “Researching World Englishes in HEL Courses: Neologisms, Newspapers, and Novels” also considers how World Englishes fit into HEL. She tends to take a thematic approach and to give students assignment options that can be readily applied to elements of World Englishes, for instance, in newspapers, novels, even movies. She, too, encourages students to critique materials as they work. Rakesh M. Bhatt’s “Situating World Englishes into a History of English Course” notes that because English has proliferated globally among non-native speakers it has become “pluricentric” (p. 274): We have English languages, rather than the English language. This change has seriously affected the study of HEL. Today’s World Englishes demonstrate much variety, innovation, and creativity in their respective contexts, often taking precedence over Standard English. Accordingly, HEL students learn that English has many voices, many identities, and many standards, not one universal norm applicable to all everywhere. Allison Burkette’s “Incorporating American English into the History of English” recommends targeting a theme or two to manage the large subject of HEL. Her example themes are contact and persistence, which have enabled her to successfully connect aspects of American English, and its varieties, to broader HEL narratives and concerns. In “Teaching Diversity and Change in the History of English,” Rob Penhallurick suggests diversity comes naturally to HEL and highlights the importance of dialects and other kinds of linguistic variety. In the classroom, he frequently begins with real examples before moving on to theories and explanations. One assignment exposes students to a text, written or oral, and asks them: Is it English? Matthew Sergi’s “Our Subject Is Each Other: Teaching HEL to ESL, EFL, and Non-Standard English Speakers” states that to teach students more about English we must first make them less familiar with it. What they know, or think they know, because of overfamiliarity might not be the whole story. Such a defamiliarizing approach creates a classroom environment where non-native and non-standard speakers of English feel more comfortable and are even in positions of expertise and authority regarding language variation. These students, whose numbers are growing and who often struggle, have a lot to offer a HEL classroom. Using various student-centered assignments, Sergi “encourage[s] students to speak up about and talk back to HEL” (p. 314) through use of multi-vocal examples of the language, critiques from various perspectives, and consideration of HEL as “a history of conflict and power” (p. 315).

The final section, Part 6, “Using Media and Performance in the History of English Classroom,” contains 4 essays. Jonathan Davis-Secord’s “Approaching the History of English Through Material Culture” grounds HEL in material culture to prevent it from becoming overly abstract and so off-putting and confusing to students. He writes, “Manuscripts give the students something to hold onto—literally, conceptually, and metaphorically—which then helps them to process the linguistic abstractions necessary for understanding the history of English” (p. 328). Various educational theories support such grounding of the abstract in the physical. Students work with manuscript texts in hands-on, practical ways, and these activities can be duplicated for more modern periods in HEL with printed books, including the assigned textbook. David Crystal’s “Teaching Original Pronunciation” indicates new interest in the reconstruction of historical pronunciations. An experienced consultant and coach in this area, Crystal relates how methods used to teach actors reconstructed Shakespearean English might be adapted for other older-pronunciation projects, including those that might inform HEL assignments or classes. In “Engaging Multimedia in the HEL Classroom,” Natalie Gerber gives the perspective of a modernist who teaches HEL. Through trial and error, she learned that the use of podcasts and other multimedia sources such as television improved and humanized students’ learning, enjoyment, and general engagement with the course. These media sources are fundamental to the work of the course, not mere supplements or fun digressions. Philip Seargeant’s “Teaching the History of English Online: Open Education and Student Engagement” notes that today’s educational landscape has shifted with the advent of online education and open access materials. He explores the teaching of HEL in such contexts, giving as an extended case study the online video series ‘The History of English in Ten Minutes.’ Such multimedia texts have the potential to reach and engage large, non-traditional audiences interested in the subject. At their best, these texts can be both entertaining and rigorous, and they may encourage viewers to become more expansive and critical in understanding HEL and perhaps compel them to seek more formal education in the subject.

As a sort of conclusion, the editors provide an “Appendix: Resources for Teaching,” an annotated list of thirty books of a rather general nature that could be adopted as textbooks or used as supplemental materials in teaching HEL classes. Brief guidance and evaluations are provided concerning audience and pedagogy. Notes to the respective chapters follow the appendix. There is an extensive bibliography and a usefully detailed appendix.


This is a welcome and needed collection that achieves its intended goals and will serve its audiences well in practical terms.

Implicit dialogues and conversations permeate the book and help it cohere. For instance, Saltzman’s idea that a HEL course focus in detail on one variety of World English responds nicely to McWhorter’s concern that covering too many varieties may result in boring lists. Mesthrie and Mufwene speak together on the necessity of teaching about creoles in teaching the history of English. Davis-Secord and Adams agree on the effectiveness of a material approach to English using manuscripts and dictionaries as objects that engage students and connect linguistic and social history. Like Beal, Sergi works backward from contemporary English, and like Bhatt he helps students see the perennially pluricentric nature of English. Similar to Lerer’s essay, Hayes’s approach allows students to see literature as language. And like the essays by Tyrkkö, Denison, and Adams, her essay foregrounds students learning by doing for themselves, with structure and guidance provided by the instructor. World Englishes inform many conversations in the collection, as do essays about technological tools such as corpora and multimedia (Gerber and Seargeant). Mufwene is not a lone voice in advocating for skepticism and critique of received opinions and for a more complex and political understanding of HEL. Several contributors (McWhorter, Davis-Secord, Gerber) admit to learning successful techniques for teaching the subject after having made mistakes. Readers will find many other points of contact across the collection. One paramount conversation nearly all essays are having is this: Contemporary HEL courses must focus on the student, not the subject. HEL courses, like most successful courses, are about what students do and learn, not what teachers teach.

Currency and variety recommend the volume. One learns how HEL is taught today. Several authors emphasize that it cannot and should not be taught the way it used to be. As the many chapters on World Englishes and new technologies attest, the English language and the social worlds it participates in have changed and so should the teaching of HEL. The book reiterates that today’s students need relatability and tailored instruction as they learn and must (to use the buzzwords) engage in active learning and acquire transferrable skills. Historical and technical content knowledge presented in only one way will no longer do, if it ever did. Other major strengths of the book are its variety of viewpoints and the wealth of its suggestions. These make it a deep pool of resources into which HEL teachers can dip to adopt, adapt, or avoid as needed. In its multiplicity, the book highlights and responds to the challenges of teaching HEL due to its complex and ever-widening subject matter and the diverse students who take the course for various reasons. While no HEL course can be all things to all students, this collection enables teachers to make it more things to more students. As for weaknesses, some readers might want more examples and strategies for teaching technical points of the internal history of English. It is perhaps in these areas that many teachers today feel less well prepared. At times big-picture views, those about language diversity and Word Englishes, for instance, seem more than well represented and perhaps presentist.

While many HEL textbooks and popular books on the history of English exist, there are not many books on teaching the subject. What pedagogical help there is often hides in various teaching journals, unlikely to be found by most instructors. As the subject is commonly taught, most importantly perhaps to future English teachers, in differing institutional contexts, such a practically minded book fills a gap and will be profitably used by many. Most essays are quite readable, rarely getting mired in jargon, technicalities, or abstractions that would work against the volume’s serving as a teaching manual. (Giancarlo’s essay might be an exception.) The essays share stories, provide contexts, describe approaches, and above all suggest tested examples of classroom tasks and assignments. The collection deserves a wide and reflective audience. Use of the book will make our classes better and our students better off.

In short, this is a sound, readable, coherent, and useful book, stimulating in practical ways, genuinely pedagogical, and a current representation of many possible visions of HEL.


Strang, Barbara M. H. 1970. A History of English. London: Methuen.
Corey Zwikstra is an Associate Professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, where he teaches a variety of courses on medieval literature and the English language. Currently he is collecting his thoughts on a possible book about aesthetics in Old English poetry.

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