A Brief History of IFTE: 1966 to 1992


By Ken Watson*

The beginnings of the International Federation for the Teaching of English are to be found in the Dartmouth Conference of 1966. This meeting – seminal for the development of English teaching over the next twenty years – brought together representatives of the profession from both the USA (NCTE and MLA) and England and Wales (NATE), with a sole Canadian, Merron Chorny, having observer status.


The Dartmouth seminar was funded by a grant from the Carnegie Foundation. At the close of the seminar, it was determined, at the suggestion of James Squire, secretary of NCTE, that the small amount of money left over should be used to further develop cooperation between the National Associations for the Teaching of English in Canada, the United States and England and Wales. An International Steering Committee (ISC) was set up, its chief aim being to initiate, promote and facilitate international exchanges. It was hoped that the ISC would meet annually.

It should be noted that the Modem Languages Association (USA), which had co-hosted, with NCTE, the Dartmouth seminar, was involved in the formation of the ISC, and remained active in the Committee until the mid-1970s. The Canadian Council of Teachers of English (CCTE) did not formally come into being until the year after Dartmouth; indeed, the first post-Dartmouth meeting of ISC was at the Vancouver conference which established CCTE.

At this stage the only one of the founding organisations with any money was NCTE, and this led to Jim Squire (and after him, Robert Hogan) becoming Secretary/Treasurer of the ISC. In the first few years, meetings were irregular. Money was found from NCTE funds to support the occasional attendance of the Secretary/Treasurer at the conferences of the other member associations, thus enabling ISC meetings to be held in conjunction with these gatherings. The other associations were represented by whoever was present at the time.

The first major international gathering after Dartmouth was the Walsall conference, entitled The Language of Failure, held in 1968 under NATE sponsorship. It was the brainchild of Esmor Jones, the then Secretary of NATE, and while it cannot be considered as an outcome of the formation of ISC it did show what could be achieved as a result of international cooperation and seems to have played a part in encouraging the ISC to promote NATE's 1971 Conference held in York, as the first official successor to Dartmouth.

A number of meetings of the ISC were held during the York Conference. The significant figures at this point were James Britton and Anthony Adams, respectively President and Secretary of NATE, Merron Chorny, representing CCTE, Michael Shugrue of the MLA and Bob Hogan, ISC's Secretary/Treasurer, representing NCTE. It seems that without the enthusiasm of these five, and of Jim Squire, the ISC would have languished, for there appears to have been little interest within the executives of at least three of the four organisations for promoting international links.

In 1972 UNESCO sponsored a seminar on the teaching of English in Sydney, the principal overseas speakers being James Britton and Roger Shuy. As a result of prompting by Jimmy Britton, Bob Hogan wrote to the seminar's organisers drawing their attention to the existence of the International Steering Committee and inviting the Australians to appoint a representative to the Committee in time for its 1973 meeting. The invitation was referred to the executive of the AATE, which was delighted to accept.

A further international event was planned for Canada in the mid-1970s, but the promised funding did not materialise and the project was abandoned. The ISC itself was short of funds; no meeting could be held in 1975 and from 1976 onwards the affiliates agreed to make annual contributions of $100 to enable its work to continue.

Jimmy Britton had previously started an occasional newsletter in an endeavour to cement the rather shaky international links, but at the 1977 ISC meeting there was considerable anxiety that the work of the Committee was in jeopardy because of lack of money. As a means of increasing funding, it was proposed at that meeting (held in Winnipeg in conjunction with the CCTE conference) that a new category of international membership be created through which individual members of the national bodies would become international members (later called Agents International) and have certain benefits made available to them. Since the benefits of such membership were few, and since none of the national associations could be said to have promoted the idea vigorously among their members, the number of Agents International remained low, and the hoped-for increase in funds did not occur.

In a quite separate development, NCTE had, in 1976, set up an International Assembly. This, the brainchild of Robert Shafer, was conceived as a means of promoting an international voice at NCTE conferences and of facilitating the exchange of research information throughout the international English-teaching community; like all Assemblies of NCTE, it was open to non- members of that Organisation. Soon the International Assembly had over a hundred members and was producing its own newsletter; inevitably, confusion developed in the minds of some between the International Assembly and the ISC, particularly since the aims of the two bodies overlapped to a degree. The problem was discussed at some length at Winnipeg in 1977, and was the subject of a paper circulated to ISC affiliates by Anthony Adams, Vice-President of NATE, in December, 1978.

Tony's paper was written after lengthy discussions with Bob Shafer, and indeed the two also took the opportunity to devise and incorporate into the paper a proposed constitution for the ISC. (This constitution was formally adopted by the four affiliates at the Montreal meeting of 1983.) Tony argued that, since the ISC was basically a supranational committee of the member bodies to promote their work on an international front, it was a mistake to promote individual membership in the form of Agents International. He proposed instead that ISC should make it easier and more natural for non-NCTE members to join the International Assembly, and that ISC cease both the production of the newsletter and the recruitment of Agents International. He asked that the member associations consider setting up divisions of the International Assembly (to be known as International Assembly-NATE Division etc.). The Division would not itself be a separate Organisation; its members would be members of the International Assembly of NCTE. In other words, each national association would act as a recruiting agent for the International Assembly.

While the suggestion that the newsletter and Agents International be abandoned was agreed to at the next ISC meeting, the second part of Tony's proposal was not adopted – or if adopted, not acted, upon. (I have been unable to locate the minutes of that meeting.) At this point the focus of attention of the ISC delegates was on the next international event – the Third International Conference in Sydney in 1980.

This conference was an outstanding success, particularly in the fact that it attracted a large international contingent, especially from New Zealand and the USA. The presence of so many New Zealanders naturally led to the suggestion that New Zealand join the ISC. At the time, there was no New Zealand Association, but the New Zealanders at the conference took the decision then and there to form the NZATE. As soon as this body was formally established it became a member of the ISC.

At the ISC meeting held in conjunction with the Sydney conference, it was agreed that CCTE be invited to host a fourth international conference in the mid-1980s. It was also agreed that the ISC should sponsor an international publication, under the editorship of Jimmy Britton. This publication was to consist of articles previously published in the journals of the member associations and their affiliates, and to this end the national associations were asked to appoint associate editors to make preliminary selections. This book was eventually published by Heinemann in 1984 under the title English Teaching: An International Exchange.

Proposals circulated in 1981 by the then Chairman, Rob Eagleson of AATE, for a small-scale international seminar in 1982 and for ISC workshops to be part of the affiliates' national conferences came to nothing, though a seminar on assessment was planned to take place in conjunction with the CCTE conference in Montreal in 1983. The minutes of the 1982 ISC meeting, held in Saskatoon, show the continuing concern of AATE (and now of NZATE as well), about the cost of getting delegates to the annual meetings, and contain a proposal from AATE that contributions to ISC be on a per capita membership basis so that ISC could make a contribution towards the cost of delegates' travel. This proposal was rejected, on the grounds that the financial state of member organisations was such that they could not meet any larger burden than the current dues, now standing at $US 350 a year.

When the ISC meeting of 1983 took place in Montreal, the Australian Association, represented by Garth Boomer, voiced the criticism that very little was being achieved. Indeed, Garth indicated that AATE was seriously thinking of pulling out of the Organisation unless it could be seen to be genuinely pursuing its aims. As a result of his prompting, it was agreed that every two years there would be an international event, and every four years an international conference. Further, the ISC newsletter should be revived, and a more vigorous publication policy pursued. One publication suggestion adopted at this meeting was that an international collection of favourite short stories be prepared. Stephen Tchudi, President of NCTE, undertook to organise the first international event in 1984, and the date and place for the Fourth International Conference were firmly established as 1986 in Ottawa. It was further proposed that the Fifth International Conference should take place in New Zealand in 1990, and that NCTE be the host for 1994.

Stephen Tchudi also suggested that the ISC consider soliciting and publishing an exchange of teaching practices from classroom teachers in the five countries. This proposal was warmly greeted, and under Stephen's editorship the book was finally published by Boynton/Cook in 1986 under the title English Teachers at Work. The proposed anthology of short stories, however, has never appeared. A further recommendation of this meeting, that an annual series, International Studies in English in Education, be established, also came to nothing.

In 1983 meeting also confirmed a change of name from International Steering Committee to the International Federation for the Teaching of English. Garth Boomer was installed as Chairman for the next two years, and undertook to produce the newsletter, to be entitled International Digest.

The first International Digest appeared in January, 1984. Since then there have been usually two issues a year. The current editor is Joe Belanger, of CCTE, who took over from Elody Rathgen, of NZATE, in 1988. Unfortunately, the Digest has a very limited circulation, generally not beyond the executives of the member associations. Nonetheless, its value has been demonstrated on a number of occasions, as when, for example, NATE was able to draw on some Australian documents reprinted in the Digest when preparing its submission to the Kingman Committee.

In November, 1984, the International Seminar on Language, Schooling and Society took place at Michigan State University. This was attended by delegates from all member countries, and also by two delegates from Scotland. The participation of the Scots raised the question of Scottish membership of IFTE, but the stumbling block then, and still now, was that Scotland had no English teachers' association. The highly successful seminar led to a further IFTE publication, in association with Boynton/Cook, Language, Schooling and Society, edited by Stephen Tchudi.

In 1986 the Fourth International Conference was held at Ottawa. This was the most widely representative of all ISC/IFTE events, with delegates from places as far apart as South Africa, Barbados, Kiribati and Vanuatu, as well as strong contingents from the five member countries. Particularly significant was the number of classroom teachers present from around the world, a contrast to previous international gatherings, where representation of classroom teachers tended to be limited to the host country. As a result of this gathering, organised for CCTE by Ian Pringle, who had succeeded Garth Boomer as Chair of IFTE, Barbados became the sixth member of the Federation.

In the view of Margaret Gill, the incoming Chair, the Ottawa conference represented a significant shift in that IFTE at last became an Organisation owned by English teachers in general, and not simply an Organisation functioning in support of those (mainly academics) who could get funding to overseas conferences, or who were sufficiently eminent in their field to gain invitations to closed seminars like the one at Michigan State University.

IFTE was now firmly on its feet. In the period 1987 to 1989 there were small, annual international events held in conjunction with affiliates' conferences in Melbourne, St. Louis and Swansea. The growth of IFTE necessitated a re-drafting of its constitution, a task undertaken by Margaret Gill of AATE – IFTE's President (as the Chair was now called) from 1987 to 1990. This new constitution tried, amongst other things, to resolve the problem of small affiliates like Barbados, which, with fewer than 200 members, clearly had difficulty in affording the annual levy. (Jamaica and Zimbabwe were also showing interest in joining, but were in no position to pay $350 a year.). Thus a provision was made for associate membership, which would keep such associations in touch but would not involve them in a substantial outlay of funds. Jamaica opted for associate membership, with no voting rights.

A proposal for a sliding scale of membership was adopted at this point, overturned later, and a modified version agreed to at the 1992 meeting. The sliding scale, which still holds, is as follows: NCTE $1500, NATE and AATE $450, CCTE $300, NZATE $225, Barbados $200. Figures are in $US. IFTE now supports delegates to its meetings with a grant of $750.

Elody Rathgen of NZATE took over as Chair of IFTE in 1990 at the time of the Fifth International Conference in Auckland. NZATE brought to the IFTE Council a concern about participation by South African delegates in the 1990 conference. The IFTE Council voted that it was NZATE's responsibility to decide on the issue. NZATE made the decision to exclude South African delegates based on New Zealand's position as a signatory to the Gleneagles agreement.

The tyranny of distance meant that the Auckland Conference was less well attended than its predecessor, but it appears to have stimulated a great deal of debate on issues relating to culture and identity. At the conference a new publication with royalties paid to IFTE, Teaching and Learning English Worldwide, edited by James Britton, Robert Shafer and Ken Watson, and published by Multilingual Matters, was launched.

Since then the pattern of annual international events has continued, with a gathering in Adelaide in mid-1993, and with the successful Sixth International Conference in New York in 1995.



* My thanks are due particularly to Tony Adams, Jimmy Britton, Garth Boomer, Margaret Gill, John Hutchins, Ian Pringle, Elody Rathgen, Bob Shafer, Jim Squire and Stephen Tchudi for their help in preparing this brief history.

Ken Watson