Two Models Situating English Language Teaching Contexts and Cultures

After submitting a manuscript to the TESOL Quarterly, I received some very helpful feedback regarding various ways to frame or contextualize sojourning English language teachers.  Since I began this research agenda, I have been using Adrian Holliday’s Host Culture Complex, which was published in 1994, as my framework.  However, one of the manuscript reviewers informed me that Sandra Lee McKay offered a somewhat similar framework in her book, Teaching English Overseas: An Introduction, published two years earlier. The purpose of this blog post is to provide a brief overview of McKay’s model and compare it to Holliday’s.

The image above is a figure I created based on McKay’s organization of her book. I thought a visual representation of her model works best when comparing it Holliday’s model.  Since I’m having difficulty embedding a working Prezi on a WordPress blog post, I’d like to direct the reader to it here:

The image above shows the first of two layers of McKay’s contextualization of teaching English overseas.  Within the circle “Larger Context,” you will see a smaller circle with content that is too small to read.  The content of that smaller, inner circle is shown below.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 9.19.47 AM

Figure 2. Educational Context of Teaching English Overseas (McKay, 1992)


For purposes of explaining and comparing it to Holliday’s model, I have provided his model below.

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 10.25.55 AM

Figure 3. Host Culture Complex (Holliday, 1994)

Because the perspective of the sojourning English language teacher, especially the newer sojourning English language teacher, was important for my dissertation study, I found Holliday’s appealing because it somewhat centered the classroom culture.  My study looked at culture more than context, although those terms can be used interchangeably even though they refer to very different yet interrelated concepts.

Since Holliday’s model is centered around the classroom culture, I will start looking at the educational context rather than the larger context of McKay’s model.

Educational Context

Institutional Context

The strongest overlap between McKay’s and Holliday’s models is with the (host) institution culture/context.  Holliday’s model shows that the host institution culture almost completely contains the classroom culture and contains most of the student culture. McKay’s model shows that there are different types of institutional contexts. Furthermore, it takes the ELT’s perspective in terms of securing employment. In her book, McKay uses this section as guidelines for ELTs before accepting a position overseas.  They are as follows:

  1. Why does the institution exist? What are its goals and objectives?
  2. Who are the people who make up the institution? Who administrates, staffs, and attends it?
  3. What is taught? What curriculum guidelines and textbooks are used?
  4. How does learning proceed? What methods are used? What schedules are implemented?
  5. Where does the learning take place? What are the facilities like? Where, and in what size community is the institution located? (McKay, 1992, p. 118-119)

In my study and in my personal experience, I have found that many sojourning ELTs do not ask these questions because they are more excited about living overseas. From my experience, if I would have known the answers to these questions, I may have been more intimidated to teach overseas. Naivete helped me become a teacher, just not a good one at first. I am confident enough to say that this was probably true for many new sojourning ELTs in East Asia before the internet made it easier to access all or most of this information.

Language Education Context

This section in McKay’s model is not clearly found in Holliday’s model mainly because it’s not directly related to culture.  Therefore, this is a good example of the difference between cultural learning and professional learning. McKay’s model shows that it’s important for teachers to gain awareness and knowledge of the policies, curriculum, and English language varieties.  Granted, policies are usually strongly linked to cultural norms and values.  To learn about the policies, ELTs need a greater understanding of the national cultures and the professional-academic culture from Holliday’s model.  To learn about the curriculum, ELTs need a greater understanding of professional-academic culture and the host institution culture. To learn about the varieties of English, ELTs need a greater understanding of cultures beyond the national boundaries,  including the international-education related cultures.

Larger Context

Cultural Context

Just like the (host) institution culture/context, the two models overlap a lot here as well, and that’s evident in the name “cultural context.”  The first category is central to my research interest, but has the misleading name of multicultural.  I say misleading because in the United States that refers to racially and ethnically diverse group of students.  McKay is referring to the cultural differences between the sojourning ELT and their students, specifically cultural views about the role of education, teacher behavior, student behavior, and their implications for language teaching.  For me, this is the heart of my research interest.  This is clearly represented in Holliday’s model in the classroom culture, which arises from a synthesis of the host institution culture, the teacher’s culture and the students’ culture.

In terms of ethnography, McKay suggests that the ELT take on the role of ethnographer to better understand the culture or cultures (as represented in Holliday’s model).  In this case, I believe Holliday’s model can be used as an ethnographer’s tool to better learn the various cultures represented in and influencing the classroom culture and students’ cultures.

Finally, McKay raises a point that is not clearly represented in Holliday’s model, culture in materials. The materials can represent the culture of the host country, the teacher’s home country, or various other cultures as the host institution or publisher sees fit.  For new sojourning ELTs, most of the time they do not get a choice of what to use as the main textbooks.  Sojourning ELTs may bring materials that represent their own culture.  In the case of my first EFL teaching experience, we used an old textbook in Japan intended for immigrants in the United States. That textbook contained pop culture references from the 1980s and assumed that most students were from Latin America.

Sociocultural Context & Economic Context

I’m lumping these two together because these do not receive the immediate attention from most new sojourning ELTs and they are less associated with culture. Even though the term “sociocultural” is used for one type of context, it refers more to sociopolitical contexts, such as language planning and social beliefs and attitudes towards one’s nation and one’s national identity.  This clearly is similar to Holliday’s national culture in his model.

Economic context also falls under national culture when referring to the motivation and attitudes of English language learners abroad.  However, it expands beyond national borders when referring to English language spread.  Through my study, most new sojourning ELTs are not completely aware of the relationship between the economic context and their jobs.  Although many are interested in and have broad guesses in learner motivation, it takes a while for new ELTs to get the whole picture.  Getting the whole picture is even more difficult when applying the history of the English language, specifically its spread to teaching English at a specific location overseas.


So that’s my brief overview of McKay’s contextual model of teaching English overseas and how it compares and complements Holliday’s host culture complex. After reviewing the two together, I find that they are stronger together and I may work on a synthesis of the two models combined with my own findings. My goal is to update these models to address teaching English in an unfamiliar context instead of “overseas” or “abroad” because that references a time when English was not a global or international language.


Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

McKay, S.L. (1992). Teaching English Overseas: An Introduction. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.


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