Charles Fries

Charles C. Fries, founder of the English Language Institute

On the occasion of its 65th birthday, June 21, 2006.

In June 1941, by action of the Board of Regents, the English Language Institute was established at the University of Michigan. The charge to the ELI was twofold: to conduct research in teaching English as a foreign language and to test new scientifically-based materials for the teaching of English. In the first year, it inaugurated an intensive course in English as a foreign language, the first ever offered on a university campus in the Western Hemisphere. Prior to WWII, there were a handful of foreign students in U.S. universities. By 1948, there were 25,000. Our ELI, which started as an experimental program in 1941, would become a key player in the effort to teach English to the large numbers of international students who come to this country annually. The fledgling English Language Institute at the University of Michigan was to become the model for programs of its kind across the country.

Founded by Professor Charles C. Fries with a grant of $3,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation, the ELI, with its dual function of teaching and research, was indeed a first. At its initial session in the summer of 1941, there were thirteen participants, all from Latin America. The students were predominantly professionals—in medicine, law, engineering, finance, and psychology—who wished to do advanced study in their fields. The following year there were 22 students, and in 1943, 45 were enrolled. By 1945, there were as many as 80, and in 1946 Professor Fries reported to the Foundation that 750 students had passed through the ELI.

During the war years, the ELI, with the support of the State Department, worked to build Western Hemisphere solidarity through English language teaching. In fact, Michigan was chosen to set up a special language institute whose mission was to develop language and cultural programs for Latin American professional personnel and students as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor Policy."

By the end of the war, the Institute was welcoming students of public health, engineering, forestry, machine shop practice, and aviation. At this time the ELI's reach began to expand beyond U.S. borders, with Charles Fries serving as chair of a new government committee on English language teaching in Latin America.

In 1946, Robert Lado spearheaded the emerging ELI English Testing Program, eventually used worldwide.

In 1948, the first journal in the world in applied linguistics was published at Michigan'sLanguage Learning: A Journal of Applied Linguistics, with Betty Wallace Robinett, who was later to become provost at the University of Minnesota, as its first editor.

In 1949, Fries published his first book, English Word Lists, along with the teaching materials and method that were being developed around it. These materials, called An Intensive Course in English for Latin American Students, included volumes entitled "Oral Pattern Practice," "Lessons in Vocabulary", and "English Sentence Patterns," among others. This was the beginning of the Michigan Method, which influences the ESL/EFL publishing industry to this day. Programs began springing up in universities all over the country, in imitation of Michigan's English Language Institute and its renowned teaching method.

In fact, programs at Georgetown, UCLA, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Minnesota, and other universities were all founded by leaders who had been associated with ELI/Michigan. Under contract to the United States Information Agency (the USIA) in 1953, the ELI developed the "Examination for the Certificate of Proficiency in English" (the ECPE) for use abroad. By the late 1950s, ELI had international language development programs in countries on five continents.

During the 1960s and 1970s, our Institute truly developed into one of the world's leading institutions in the field of second/foreign English language teaching and testing. Throughout these years, the ELI developed four clear lines of endeavor and opened two special programs. One focus was on the practical day-to-day work of direct language teaching. This was characterized by continuous experimentation with instructional methods and materials in both the language classroom and the language laboratory. Another ELI focus was on teacher training and the development of methodologies for training future ESL/EFL teachers. A masters of arts degree was developed as well as an intensive teacher education program—a certificate program largely for international teachers developed for the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

A third area of enterprise at the ELI during the 1960s and 1970s was large-scale research and the development of teaching materials including textbooks and audiotapes. Books and other materials were marketed through the University of Michigan Press. During this same period of time, a fourth area of focus, ongoing experimentation within the ELI Testing Division, resulted in more and better testing instruments. Michigan tests were adopted by an ever-increasing circle of schools and institutes, nationally and internationally.

In the 1960s, the ELI administered a large English training program in Southeast Asia for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Three Centers were established in Bangkok, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and one in Vientiane. And in 1961, the ELI was selected for participation in the U.S. government Peace Corps training program.

In the 1970s, the ELI offered a Teacher Education Program in the summers, for those interested in teaching ESL or EFL, and this continued into the early 1980s. Around this time the ELI Library was given a boost by its merger with the Linguistics Department collection, and was cataloged for the first time by librarian Betty Benford.

The 1980s and 1990s were an era of significant and challenging developments for the Institute. From 1983 to 1985, the Linguistics Department and the ELI were experimentally united under one roof in the Frieze building, as one department. The marriage soon broke up because of disciplinary differences. Applied Linguist John Swales became Director in 1985, leading the development of our EAP program and encouraging research in this area.

Also during the 1980s, U-M students and their parents became more vocal in their complaints about the language problems of international teaching assistants. In 1983, LSA mandated the ELI to provide screening examinations for its international teaching assistants, which later became the OET or Oral English Test. Beginning in 1986, supported by LSA and administered by the ELI and CRLT, special intensive summer workshops for potential GSIs were provided, which in the last two years evolved into a credit course. Also, around this time, the Testing Division began creating the Academic English Evaluation Test for the language screening of almost all international students newly admitted to the University of Michigan and for placement of some of them into appropriate ELI courses.

In 1987, the ELI phased out its intensive program, and the curriculum was reconceptualized, with a new emphasis on the language skills of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and pronunciation. At the same time, a shift was made from non-credit bearing courses to ones which carried full academic credit. By the time of its gala 50th anniversary celebration in 1991, the ELI was offering over 30 courses, including ESP courses for students in business, law, and dentistry.

The ELI further diversified its EAP offerings at this time, with the establishment of the Summer Programs, courses for Visiting Scholars, the Morley scholars program and our speaking and writing clinics. Most recently, diversification has resulted in our offering a continuing series of very popular workshops, year round.

In addition, the Spaan Fellowship program was started to honor Mary Spaan and to make awards to language testers who wish to work on research projects related to second or foreign language assessment and evaluation.

1997 saw the inception of a major research project which culminated in the creation of the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English in 2002. A second corpus project, the Michigan Corpus of Upper-level student papers or MICUSP, was begun this past year.

Also in 2002, Diane Larsen-Freeman became our director. Shortly after her arrival, Professor Larsen-Freeman oversaw the Institute's move from the North University Building to the McKinley Towne Centre. [**addendum: In April of 2007, the English Language Institute moved to 500 East Washington Street in downtown Ann Arbor.]

Since 2002, we have experienced a renewal of our teacher education efforts, culminating in the inauguration of an ESL Endorsement Program for pre-service and practicing teachers who work with English Language Learners in the public schools. The ELI collaborates with the University of Michigan's School of Education on this program. We also have for some time taught a number of native English-speaking undergraduates in the applied linguistics subconcentration for the Department of Linguistics, in our own migrant workers program, which trains and sends students to migrant worker camps to teach English to family members, and in service learning courses.

In recent years, our Testing Division has continued to grow, doubling the number of tests and test takers it serves and multiplying our number of test centers around the world. Testing staff have also expanded their services in a number of ways, including revising existing constructs (grammar), creating new testing formats (speaking), devising new test score reports that give more diagnostic information, preparing annual reports and new teaching materials, etc.

Finally, with the arrival of Nick Ellis and the establishment of our new research and teaching lab, we are increasing our capacity to make a contribution to the understanding of second language acquisition. Professor Ellis has also taken over as general editor of Language Learning, maintaining the Michigan connection of that distinguished journal.

From this brief tour through the decades, it is clear that the ELI is not on the verge of retirement, despite its 65 years. On the contrary, it is today a thriving and visionary institution of English language teaching, learning, and assessment, in applied linguistics research, and in teacher education at the University of Michigan and throughout the world.