Artificial intelligence and English language teaching: Preparing for the future

How is artificial intelligence (AI) being used for English language teaching and learning (ELT/L) worldwide? What are the opportunities, issues, and challenges? Educational technology experts working with the British Council looked at the current literature and consulted a range of people to understand their views on this subject.

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This page includes a summary of our findings.

AI can be described as computer systems that mimic human intelligence and can understand human language. However, AI means different things to different people and clear definitions are needed. AI technologies can be: 1) used by pupils to learn, 2) used by teachers to help in teaching activities e.g., grading, and 3) used by admin staff to manage learner data1.

What the literature says

Experts at the British Council and Dr Helen Crompton from the Research Institute of Digital Innovation in Learning at ODUGlobal examined 43 research studies about this topic. They found: 

  • AI tools are being used to improve speaking, writing, and reading skills. It can provide new ways of teaching and supports students with goal setting and managing their own learning. AI tools don’t seem to be used much for improving listening skills.
  • AI tools can help learners practise English outside class. They can also lessen learners’ fear of speaking in English. But we need more research to see if these benefits last without the continued use of AI.
  • Even with rapid changes in technology, traditional lecture-style teaching is common.
  • There are four main challenges with using AI: 
    1. sometimes, the technologies don’t work as they should 
    2. AI has limited capabilities
    3. some learners fear using AI 
    4. use of AI may reflect biases about ‘appropriate’ language use. 

As ELT is the most common discipline for AI use in education2, English language teachers must develop their AI literacy skills. Teachers should also develop learners’ AI literacy so that they can understand its limitations and risks. Experts should think carefully about which AI models to use, as models may not include all varieties of English. Clear rules on data privacy and ethics statements for AI in ELT are needed.

Future research should include more geographies and learner groups, particularly K–12 (school-level education) and adult learning. We need more research on how AI can help with developing receptive skills, particularly listening. We also need to know more about the specific challenges around AI use in ELT. Finally, we need more studies on how AI can be used for assessment.

What teachers say

The British Council surveyed 1,348 English language teachers from 118 countries and territories to understand their views on AI in their teaching. 

Which AI-powered tools do teachers use? 

The survey found that the most-used AI tools by teachers were as follows. These are listed in descending order:

  • language learning apps 
  • language generation AI 
  • chatbots 
  • automated grading 
  • speech recognition software 
  • text-to-speech tools 
  • data and learning analytics tools 
  • virtual and augmented reality tools

Interestingly, 24 per cent of teachers said they did not use any AI tools.

What tasks do teachers use AI tools for? 

The survey found that teachers used AI powered tools for the following tasks. These are listed in descending order:

  • creating materials 
  • helping students practice English 
  • creating lesson plans 
  • correcting students’ English 
  • grading or assessing students 
  • administrative tasks

However, 18 per cent of teachers said they didn’t use AI for any of these tasks.

1,112 teachers rated a number of statements about AI in English language teaching. Some teachers also wrote comments to explain their ratings. Here are the key findings: 

  • Teachers are using AI-powered tools for a range of tasks in English language teaching. 
  • Teachers feel AI benefits the development of all four English language skills fairly equally.
  • Teachers have mixed feelings about how AI affects learning. Some think it impacts their learners’ English development negatively, others see it more positively. 
  • Many teachers feel they haven’t had enough training on how to use AI. Only some felt they had received enough training on AI. 
  • Teachers are split on whether AI will change their role. Some are worried about the effect of AI, others are not worried. 
  • Many believe that English language teaching will continue to be done by humans, not AI.

However, many teachers gave neutral responses to the statements, showing that they are unsure about how AI will affect ELT. As one teacher noted: 

Any teaching tool can have a negative impact if not used correctly.

What our key witnesses say

The British Council also interviewed 19 participants from 12 countries and territories to get their views. They included academics, ministry of education representatives, CEOs of EdTech companies, training institute directors, and teacher educators. Eleven themes developed from these discussions. These are: 

  1. Definitions: There is a clear need for a set of agreed definitions so that when we discuss Al in ELT, we are talking about the same type of technology.  
  2. Pedagogy: AI may have the potential to be transformative, but the question remains if it will it be held back with outdated learning theory. 
  3. Big Tech and neoliberalism: While some expressed concern about how large, mostly US-based tech companies could influence ELT classrooms, it is not all Big Tech. There is both a place and a need for local, grassroots and more context-sensitive AI. 
  4. Replacing humans: The majority view is that AI will not replace the need for human teachers any time soon and may never.  
  5. Relevance for ELT: There is some evidence that AI will be more usefully deployed in ELT than in other disciplines, but not all are convinced by this idea. 
  6. Bias: Bias is evident in Al and needs to be addressed. Regulatory frameworks can help to manage bias from the top down, but these may be difficult to enforce universally. 
  7. Teacher readiness: There is already a huge knowledge gap around digital literacies. Addressing Al literacy will be a massive challenge. 
  8. Motivation: Motivation remains a barrier or enabler to learning. AI does not appear to be changing that, yet. 
  9. Inclusion: The digital divide is likely to worsen if AI has significant, positive impact on learning outcomes.   
  10. Assessment: More research is needed into AI and assessment in ELT. Preventing cheating with AI may mean use of new and better assessment tasks. 
  11. Ethics frameworks and regulation: There is a need to review all international, regional, and national AI ethics guidelines. 
What next?

Our findings point us towards future activity. First, we need to agree on definitions of AI so we can be sure we are referring to the same technology type. Then, principles for ethical use of AI in ELT/L can be drawn up. It would also be helpful to list how AI may or may not be used for specific teacher tasks. In the future, AI will likely transform many aspects of how we live. Education tends to lag behind other sectors for many reasons, good (safeguarding, protecting the learning process) and bad (resistance to change, power structures, revenue concerns). Whether or not these new technologies will bring the widespread change in education systems is an ongoing debate.

References

[1] Pokrivčáková, S. (2019). Preparing teachers for the application of AI-powered technologies in foreign language education. Journal of Language and Cultural Education, 7(3), 135–153. https://doi.org/10.2478/jolace-2019-0025

[2] Crompton, H. & Burke, D. (2023). Artificial intelligence in higher education: The state of the field. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 20, 22 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-023-00392-8

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