The Evolving World of English Learning

“We’re trying to find a balance between just knowing stuff and knowing how to apply the knowledge into effective learning and things to do in life.” Coordinator, Private High School, Mexico 


In 2021, we spoke with over 60 people in 19 countries at different schools teaching kindergarten to high school. What these schools shared was a goal of implementing some or all their curriculum in English. The information we shared drew on the experiences of the educators we interviewed charting their struggles and successes as they implement their chosen curriculum in English. 

Our working definition of private K12 is private institutions that deliver some or all their curriculum in English or are making efforts to move in this direction. They have a firm commitment to developing proficiency in English because: 

  • English is prized as a lingua franca and is a passport to further education and a global career, 
  • English is a vehicle for acquiring other values and skillsets critical to students’ future success, and  
  • Parents want their children to be prepared for international careers. 

Worldwide there are over 12,000 private English-medium schools – including bilingual schools – with over six million students. Over 80% of students are local, multilingual learners of English attending a school in a non-English speaking country. This will double in the next 10 years. The need for English is growing in these institutions. As more multilingual learners of English study some or all their curriculum there is a strong need for English language instruction.  

The model for English Medium Instruction – for English language learners who live in a non-English-speaking country and are developing social and academic English skills – hasn’t kept pace with social and economic development over the last two decades. 

Beyond English language preparation, students joining from more traditional educational backgrounds need help to make a transition to pedagogies that require more of them as learners. English language instruction is also a vehicle for developing learner competences necessary for their academic success across the curriculum, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and active and constructive participation in discussion. 


Our research findings are summarized under two main headlines: goals and challenges. Let’s consider the implications for English language instruction. 

GOAL 1: Curricula 

Schools want to integrate English more deeply into the curriculum; this can mean adopting a bilingual or international curriculum.  

Interviewees commented that the increase in the student population of local, multilingual learners at bilingual and English-medium schools has made it harder to deliver an entire or part of an overseas curriculum – such as IB, Common Core, IGCSE, et al – in English effectively. An overseas curriculum can be hard to implement in its entirety, and requires intervention and support, especially in language. We learned that even when implementing an overseas curriculum, it needs lots of adjustment with language and literacy, and cultural awareness. ​ 

Schools should consider four factors when implementing an international curriculum: 

  • Students’ English proficiency, 
  • teachers’ ability to deliver the curriculum in English, 
  • local policy and the role of national curriculum, and 
  • the ultimate learning goals for students. 

GOAL 2: Educational outcomes in English 

Schools focus on the learning outcomes they wish to achieve, and which skills and competencies they need to equip students with to reach them. 

The learning outcomes educators seek to develop increasingly link to students’ future lives and aspirations and beyond the classroom. Common needs include: 

  • English as a tool for global communication, 
  • the ability to navigate between a range of cultural contexts, 
  • and the communicative skills for interaction in academic environments as well as functional, everyday language to be able to manage everyday life in another country.  

Academic attainment is the main goal for most institutes. This includes academic literacy and – in high school – a working knowledge of the academic process and an awareness of academic research. These are academic skills that enable access to prestigious universities overseas. 

GOAL 3: Global mindset 

A priority for many schools is to prepare students to study overseas, or to work in an international context. 

Global mindset is generally taken to mean an openness towards other cultures and peoples. At its heart is the ability to adapt and to navigate international environments and be equipped with skills that help communication with people from diverse backgrounds. 

Interviewees reported that global mindset also means helping students to see the connection between the English they are learning in the classroom and the English they need in their future. In published materials, they want to see interactions in international contexts and the modelling and practice of soft skills that students need in the future.  

Many teachers associated interpersonal and intercultural skills, such as self-awareness, empathy, and adaptability, with having a global mindset. They also equated it with ‘social confidence’ when operating in English. We heard of academic high achievers entering universities abroad, who found themselves unable to make the most of the experiences available because they struggled to navigate social interactions and adapt to the unfamiliar environment. 

CHALLENGE 1: Implementing the curriculum 

For a range of reasons, schools are often not able to implement the curriculum in the way that allows them to achieve the objectives of their chosen curriculum. 

The rapid increase in the number of schools offering a private education has challenges. Schools told us they were not always able to implement their chosen curriculum. We heard several common reasons: 

  • The school had chosen an international curriculum which was more demanding than students were capable of.  
  • We heard that students coming from a more traditional educational background – a local state school – found it hard to adjust to the teaching and learning styles in their new school. 
  • Inconsistencies of language ability or academic skills, especially when students had come in from a state school or from a different background.  
  • Students didn’t have the required level of English to take part in and carry out the needs of the curriculum. 

Educators reported that they were unable to truly implement the curriculum as intended. In the words of a coordinator at a bilingual school in Kuwait, “When an organization says that we are following a certain curriculum, it does not mean necessarily delivering or, or living up to those expectations. They say, “we use the American curriculum or the common core curriculum,” but when it comes to application, they touch on the easiest parts of the curriculum because that’s what can be taught, rather than challenging the students.” 

CHALLENGE 2: Teacher and student proficiency 

There is variation in student and teacher proficiency which affects many schools’ ability to implement their chosen curriculum.  

There is great variation worldwide in the competency and experience of the teachers and students. Private English-medium schools have proliferated, and the supply of trained teachers based locally or able to relocate is limited. 

We spoke with schools unable to implement specific academic subjects in English because they could not hire teachers able to teach that subject in English. Other schools had to hire teachers of English to teach a subject area they were not familiar with, such as science. There is no easy solution to either dilemma in the short term. If the school has promised an international education in English, that is what parents expect. 

For more takeaways from our research, watch the recording from our recent webinar.

Author: Ian Martin

Ian Martin is the Director of Global Marketing for National Geographic Learning based in Boston. For seventeen years he has lived and worked extensively throughout Asia and Latin America. He has been a teacher, teacher trainer, syllabus designer, and director of a language school. His special interests include the teaching of reading and vocabulary. He is the holder of an RSA TEFL Diploma.

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