Conference report: TESOL 2009 in Denver, Colorado

Kip Cates, JALT GILE SIG Chair


The 43rd Annual International Conference of TESOL was held 26-28March 2009 in the city of Denver, Colorado, on the theme Uncharted Mountains, Forging New Pathways. The conference brought together 6,000 English language educators from more than 100 countries to take part in over 1,000 educational sessions and view displays by over 150 exhibitors.

TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) is a global association for English teaching professionals with headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. It encompasses a network of 59,000 educators worldwide, including 14,000 individual members and 45,000 educators, representing 100 TESOL affiliates worldwide. TESOL’s annual convention is a major event for the English teaching profession worldwide. In addition to a rich program of talks and workshops, it gives educators the chance to see the latest teaching publications, meet leading theorists and writers, and exchange ideas with colleagues from around the world.

The event kicked off with a set of pre-conference workshops on topics such as teaching reading, multicultural education, content-based language teaching, podcasting, literacy, ESL course design and CALL. The 3-day conference itself featured dawn-to-dusk presentations—45 simultaneous sessions each hour—as well as a newcomer orientation, breakfast seminars, business meetings, award ceremonies, a leadership-training program and a Graduate Student Forum. Social events included poetry gatherings, storytelling, and musical performances. The site for the convention, the mile-high city of Denver, made a scenic setting, despite an unusual 2-day snowstorm, which suddenly arrived on the scene.

The six conference plenaries covered a wide range of topics, including critical pedagogy, digital networking, brain research, sustainability, and educational reform.

Allan Luke, Professor of Education at Queensland University of Technology, gave the opening plenary on “Unpacking the Schooling of Linguistic and Cultural Minorities.” In his talk, he discussed the need for teachers to think of themselves as cosmopolitan world citizens, critiqued neo-liberal education policies, gave a sociological analysis of current schooling, and contrasted high quality/high equity school systems (Finland, Canada) with high quality/low equity systems (US, UK). He discussed TESOL tribalism and the social marginalization of ESL learners, and called for an informed professionalism aimed at improving the educational experiences of linguistic and cultural minorities.

The second plenary, by Glenda Hull of New York University, was entitled “Beyond Kith and Kind: Expressing Obligations to Others in a Global World.” In her talk, she stressed how the increased connections of people, texts, and images brought about by globalization provide exciting opportunities for language educators to promote international understanding by stimulating youth to explore and express their moral obligations to “strangers” by communicating in multiple modes across languages and cultures.

Other plenaries were given by author and teacher trainer Jack Richards, who talked about the changing face of TESOL, by Janet Zadina, a cognitive neuroscientist who discussed current brain research on language acquisition, and by TESOL President, Shelley Wong, who spoke about sustainability in TESOL, the contributions that indigenous and immigrant learners can make to debates on social issues, and the role language teachers can take in promoting environmental awareness and a sustainable future.

The final plenary, by Andy Hargreaves of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, discussed three historical approaches to educational reform: a First Way of ad-hoc teacher autonomy, a Second Way of standardization and accountability, and a Third Way of political performance targets and educational testing. After criticizing how the tyranny of targets has stifled teacher creativity, he introduced a Fourth Way aimed at combining innovation, inspiration, and sustainability in ESL/EFL program design.

A key destination for many conference-goers was the Exhibition Hall, which featured more than 150 ESL publishers and exhibitors presenting the latest books, instructional materials, and programs in EFL teaching. Other highlights of the conference included:

  • The Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) Electronic Village, which featured demonstrations of instructional software and Internet applications for EFL learning
  • The Job MarketPlace, which provided conference-goers with opportunities to interview for positions and get information about current marketable skills
  • The TESOL display area, which featured display booths run by TESOL affiliates, by TESOL’s 20 different Interest Sections and by TESOL Forums such as Black Professionals and TESOLers for Social Responsibility.

Further information about TESOL and its 2009 Denver conference can be found at the TESOL website: <> JALT members are invited to attend TESOL’s 2010 conference to be held 24-27March in Boston, Massachusetts, on the theme Re-imagining TESOL. The deadline for presentation proposals is 2 June 2009.

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