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📊 5 ESL Trends that Teachers Need to Know in 2021

The ESL industry was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic as schools all over the world shut their doors. Many teachers were forced to move to online zoom lessons without the proper infrastructure to facilitate the move, creating a stressful environment and a sensation of flying by the seat of their pants.

But apart from the mega shifts caused by Covid-19, there are other ESL trends that were quietly ticking away before the pandemic hit, such as the growing use of gamification and artificial intelligence.

We’re going to be looking at the latest ESL trends in 2021 that will be of particular interest to ESL teachers and language academy owners.

We’ll be looking at:

  • The growth of blended and online learning
  • Gamification of ESL education
  • The impact of Artificial intelligence
  • Social Media as a form of micro-learning

ESL Trend #1: The Growth of Blended & 100% Online Learning

The move to online ESL classes hit many teachers hard. Not all students were prepared to make the move online, and some children are too young to be left unsupervised during lessons which provided another point of friction for teachers and parents.

But the growth in online learning has been extraordinary nonetheless.

The whole online language learning market is expected to grow by 18.7% from 2020 to 2027 and reach $21.2 billion by 2027.

But what do we mean when we talk about online language learning? Online learning and education is a huge umbrella term that can be broken down into smaller components and different learning platforms.

Types of Online Learning

  • Self-paced online courses without any teacher feedback
  • Asynchronous courses whereby students get feedback from teachers
  • Online tutoring/teaching with live classes
  • Language Learning apps
  • Learning Management Systems that centralise content, allow teachers to track student progress and students to upload assignments and homework

We can expand the list even more by adding things like virtual and augmented reality.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has been responsible for a huge spike in online learning, it definitely isn’t the only cause.

One of the main reasons online learning has boomed so much in recent years is that it provides a great opportunity for both educators and students.

Why Online Learning is a Great Opportunity for ESL Educators

  • Abundance of online technologies: with software available to do everything from create graded quizzes, flashcards and even record voice notes for speaking assessments, ESL educators can make their assignments more creative and engaging for students.
  • Centralised content: using something like a Learning Management System such as Google Classroom allows you to upload material once and save time on things like printing or having students lose notes & forgetting textbooks. It also gives you one centralised space to keep assignments & built in quizzes for quick reference.
  • More flexibility: by moving to teaching online independent ESL teachers can move beyond their local market to find more students from other countries and work from home, meaning they save time on things like commutes.

It’s not only ESL educators who can benefit from this shift to online learning, but ESL students also benefit from the trend.

Benefits of Online Education for ESL Students

  • More flexible hours: traditionally, students who worked unsocial hours or who had other responsibilities such as family duties were at a huge disadvantage when it came to learning. Self-paced online courses with asynchronous feedback can help them get the education they may otherwise have missed out on.
  • Cheaper Costs: another factor is that it’s much more expensive to study in traditional language academies, universities or go abroad to study. The boom in online English courses gives students more options, especially with the expansion of MOOCs (massive open online courses).
  • Ability to learn ‘on-the-go’: as modern life makes stronger demands on our time, any course or learning platform that allows us to learn on-the-go is a huge asset. Things like apps, audio lessons etc allow students to fit some learning time into their busy schedules.
  • Access to teachers: many students live in areas where they might have limited access to teachers. Online lessons via technology like Zoom allows them to connect with qualified teachers all over the world.

However, while online learning can bring all these benefits to students, we have to also recognise its downsides.

As Nik Peachy has pointed out, “many students enjoy coming to class to meet and make friends and find out about and share experiences with each other. This aspect of socialisation is often neglected in the remote classroom where students aren’t having the kinds of shared physical experiences they have when they come to a school.”

So it’s important that ESL teachers have this in mind as the online learning trend continues to grow and make a special effort to create bonds with their remote students.

As the online learning trend shows no signs of slowing down, it’s imperative that teachers and educators equip themselves with the resources they need to adapt to this new world.

Here are some free + paid courses to help you learn how to deliver great online ESL lessons

ESL Trend #2: Gamification of Language Learning

Gamification is of particular interest to anyone who teaches young learners as the aim of gamification is to make learning feel like…well, a video game! It’s a feature that’s incredibly popular with language learning apps, to the point where now we can’t imagine using a language learning app that doesn’t have gamification features.

But what does gamification mean?

ESL teachers know only too well what gamification is, because we’ve been baking a low-tech version of it into our lessons for decades! We know how to blend games and entertainment into our lessons, but gamification goes a step further.

Gamification is when students learn in a video-game-like environment. There is usually a points-based system, levels, badges of recognition and tournaments where students can battle their friends.

We’ve seen gamification grow in language learning with the development of apps and other online platforms, but is it effective for learning and will it continue to grow beyond 2021?

First of all, gamification can impact different personalities differently depending on what feedback they get.

For example, students can be mostly driven by affiliation, achievement and power. Those motivated by affiliation will be mostly motivated to engage and learn via gamification if there’s a strong community element. While those who are more motivated by achievement will be most interested in things like badges and passing levels and those who are motivated more by power will enjoy the elements of competition and winning.

So as long as the gamification experience associated with a language learning technology is able to provide the proper motivations for different personalities, then it can provide a great learning experience.

What’s more is that some scholars suggest that learners can overcome shyness using their L2 thanks to the help of gamification and that it can boost learners’ core skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening.

We think the gamification trend in ESL will only continue to grow, especially as more learning moves online.

One very popular language learning app, Duolingo, reports that their users soared by 67% globally in 2020, with a 132% uptake in users from…the UK!

Our partners over at LearnMatch have also seen significant growth with nearly 3 million downloads since the launch and 10 million

So, we’re pretty sure that gamification is an ESL trend that’s here to stay.

graph showing an upward keyword trend for aprender inglés app from 2004-2021
Trend data for people on Google searching for “learn english app” in Spanish from 2004 – 2020

ESL Trend #3: Use of Artificial Intelligence


When we think of artificial intelligence it’s easy to get paranoid and imagine that the robots are coming to take over.

But artificial intelligence has a lot less to do with robots taking over the world and more to do with intelligent machines who can perform what is traditionally thought of as human functions. These include things like visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages.

But how does this look in relation to the ESL world?

One exciting development for our industry is the use of pronunciation feedback for students. Apps and ESL software are already making use of this to allow students to speak into the microphones of their devices and receive feedback on how well they’ve pronounced the target language.

The major benefit of AI in ESL education is that we are fostering more independence from our students by trusting them with tasks that would usually require a teacher’s supervision. Not only this, but it encourages them to have a more proactive attitude when it comes to their learning.

Will AI Replace ESL Teachers?! 😰

We understand that AI can make teachers a little squeamish, it seems like the robots are out for our jobs when in fact, they will just complement your amazing teaching. AI will simply free up more time for teachers and allow them to spend more time guiding their students in their learning rather than spending time on things like pronunciation drills.

Not to mention that students will still need qualified teachers who can help them overcome their specific obstacles. For example, most AI technologies will simply give an error message if they receive what they believe to be an unclear pronunciation. This is helpful in highlighting problems with pronunciation to students, but the students will still need the help of their teachers to understand their problem. This is because teachers are able to pinpoint exactly what sound the student is struggling with and provide them with the advice and tools to overcome it.

A typical scenario might be that a student practices their pronunciation with the help of AI and then gets an error message. They may try a few times and still not get it right, then they’ll ask their teacher what the problem may be. This not only frees up some time for the teacher spent doing pronunciation drills, but they can immediately get a feel for what their student(s) are struggling with and focus specifically on that.

It also means that the teacher doesn’t have to spend time going over sounds that their students can already pronounce well, as demonstrated by the use of AI.

So don’t worry: humans and robots can be friends.


ESL Trend #4: social media as a medium of language learning

A lot of students and learners of English may be in countries where there is a scarcity of high quality English language training, and social media can be a source of immersing themselves in English.

There has been a huge boom in ESL teachers moving to platforms like Instagram and TikTok to share bite-sized English language content aimed at helping learners. It’s become so popular that hashtags like #learnenglish and #learnenglishonline have millions of posts on Instagram.

Social media has closed the gap between learners seeking native English content and the English teachers trying to reach them. It also helps those who cannot afford to spend money on courses or private lessons gain access to English language instruction in bite-sized chunks that easily fit around their day.

It also removes a barrier to those who simply cannot pay for courses or tutors because online payment methods like PayPal, VISA etc aren’t available in their country. This is the case in Iran where you can’t use PayPal, VISA or Mastercard.

Online English teachers can also benefit enormously from this latest trend. Many have built up sizable followings and are able to either get students directly from the platform or partner-up with companies who want access to their audience, earning money in the process.

Stew Sensei is an English teacher in Japan and he’s found great success leveraging social media to grow his business:

“This year, I left my full time job and started my own company because I put time and effort into building a community on social media. I now have a thriving business built from clients from various platforms that allows me a lot more freedom in my approach and gives me a lot more family time.”

Check out Stew’s Instagram page!

Make sure to follow ELT Songs on Instagram too!

ESL Trend #5: English being introduced earlier in schools

We’re excited that ESL is being introduced to a younger group of students compared to 10 years ago. It’s been shown time and time again that babies and young children are incredibly adept at learning a second language and every measure should be taken to take advantage of their language learning capabilities.

“Science indicates that babies’ brains are the best learning machines ever created, and that infants’ learning is time-sensitive. Their brains will never be better at learning a second language than they are between 0 and 3 years of age,” Patricia Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS and a UW professor of speech and hearing sciences.

Mostly because of this realisation and parents’ growing desire for their children to learn English at a younger age, many countries have changed their curriculums to include ESL instruction to younger children.

Spain has been one of the first countries in Europe to introduce compulsory English language training to children as young as 6.There has also been a boom of bilingual kindergartens in Spain and language academies who offer ESL teaching to children as young as 9 months old.

We’ve also seen a growth in English language teaching to young learners in Asia. In China many children are taught English in kindergarten before they start school. Adele Bai, president of Kids & Teens at EF Education First China, said 40 percent of Chinese children now start learning English before school age.

We believe this trend will continue to grow, especially as English continues to be the dominant language online by far, incentivising the new Gen-Z generation to improve their English to take part in these online discussions.

This graph shows that English is by far the most used language online with 61.1% of the content online being written in English.

So, what’s the future of ESL?

We think it’s safe to say that technologies like AI and the gamification of the learning experience will be crucial in the coming years. We welcome this change and believe that the educators who try to work with these new technologies will thrive in the new era of ESL teaching.

We’re also excited to see future generations improve their language skills to better take part in online life and be competitive in the job market.

Our role as a company is to keep up with new technological developments and also meet children’s expectations when it comes to audiovisual content. That’s why we’ve pushed hard to make sure our music video resources are professionally produced and mirror the type of quality pop music kids are always listening to.

Our own belief is that content is becoming increasingly important to young ESL learners who want to be entertained as well as educated, as the trend of gamification and social media shows.

And while you’re here, don’t forget to to contact us for a special FREE trial of ELT Songs so your class can sing and dance their way to English fluency with our pop music videos.

Here’s to the future!



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