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Let there be light

June 1, 2013

[This article was first published in English Teaching Professional, Issue 85, March 2013. A number of the issues addressed in this article have come up again in other posts and comments on my blog, so I thought I should post it here as well. ]

In Issue 82 of ETp, Adrian Underhill and Alan Maley put forward the suggestion that we, as English language teachers, are perhaps not placing enough importance on the ‘dark matter’ of teaching, that is to say the unpredictability of the classroom situation. In practice, lesson plans tend to act merely as a starting point, and the ‘real’ teaching exists in the teacher’s ability to improvise. Most experienced teachers will be familiar with scenarios where unplanned lesson segments become critical in terms of maximising learning.

Real learner engagement

The idea that teachers need to consider, value and respond to student contributions has been widely accepted for many years. Many well-known approaches like the Silent Way, Community Language Learning and Task-based Learning and, more recently, Dogme all rely on learner input for course content, and they all encourage the teacher to allow the students to use language first before reacting appropriately to the moment. More recent ideas, such as the use of ‘future-self guides’ (proposed by Zoltán Dörnyei and Ema Ushioda and by Jill Hadfield) and ‘demand-high’ teaching (described by Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill), also support the need for students to be more involved in the development of their own learning and, crucially, for teachers to focus actively on this.

Essentially, what all of the above ideas have in common is the importance of real learner engagement. We need to ensure that learners are involved, and that the teacher is giving them what they need. Again, we go back to the dark matter of teaching: the importance of the moment, the teacher’s ability to identify what is going on with the learners and also to know how to respond.

Principle versus reality

If we consider Underhill and Maley’s article along with the ideas that have preceded it, we can conclude that the following principles need to be valued highly in ELT:

  • Learner needs and goals are of primary importance in a programme of study.
  • Classroom dynamics are key elements in a successful learning environment.
  • Course content should be dictated (or at least informed) by learner needs.
  • Teachers need to value learners’ contributions within lessons.
  • What is learnt during a lesson cannot be predicted.
  • Teaching skills lie less in the ability to plan, and more in the ability to react.

However, in many (perhaps most) English language teaching contexts, what tends to happen in practice is the following:

  • Courses follow pre-determined syllabuses which are often very prescriptive in terms of content.
  • Courses tend to be driven by the need to cover language points and practise skills, with little priority given to developing classroom dynamics.
  • The relationship between course content and achievement of individual learning goals is not always clear.
  • The production of lesson plans with clear aims and logical, linear stages is regarded as good practice.
  • The success of a lesson is determined by the achievement of a set of pre-determined aims.
  • Global coursebooks, which are by nature generic and not specific to anyone’s needs, play a major role in course content.

So perhaps we need to ask ourselves why we are still doing all of this. Why are we spending so much time planning lessons when good teaching practice entails digressing from the plan and reacting to the moment? Why decide our aims in advance when there’s no way of knowing what the students will actually learn? Why follow a syllabus that doesn’t take the needs of the learners into account? Why use materials that were written by people who don’t know anything about our students? Why place so much importance on the teaching of specific language points when, as Underhill and Maley point out, ‘We cannot predict over the long term what, or when or whether, any given learner or group of learners will learn from our teaching’?

The reality of the reality

Here are three reasons why valuing unpredictability has so far only had a limited impact on teaching practice:

1 It’s not how we’re trained.

Cambridge ESOL, Trinity and other TESOL qualification-awarding bodies place lesson planning at the forefront of good practice. Trainees are actively encouraged to spend hours identifying lesson aims, sourcing materials that contribute to their achievement and creating a set of stages that follow a linear progression, culminating in a stage where the students demonstrate that they are able to use the language that is being taught. Aims tend to be very narrow, often focusing on a single language item. Any deviation from the plan is generally seen as a bad thing. If something comes up that was unexpected, the implication is that the trainee didn’t ‘anticipate problems’ sufficiently.

Other criteria, such as adhering closely to timing, preparing concept checking questions and even planning what your whiteboard will look like, all contribute towards the development of teachers who regard the prediction of lesson content not only as possible, but as being fundamental to good teaching practice.

When teachers complete these training courses, it is understandable that they continue to plan lessons in the same way, despite the time constraints that are put on them. Teachers are so conditioned to value planning during their training experiences that the idea of walking into a class without a plan is regarded as daunting, or even irresponsible.

2 It’s not easily measurable.

In a world where everything needs to be evidenced, it is hard to argue a case for valuing the unexpected. As described above, TESOL qualification-awarding bodies expect to see ‘evidence of learning’. The idea that a teacher can write a plan and follow it through, showing that the students learnt what was taught along the way, fits nicely into this construct.

Many English language teaching organisations find themselves having to meet criteria set by accrediting or inspection bodies (British Council, HMIe, Ofsted, ISI, etc). Such bodies look for evidence of good practice and the inputting of quality measures. As a result, inspectors expect to see syllabus documents, lesson plans and folders (either paper or electronic) containing course materials.

Teaching institutions that value unpredictability are very difficult to measure in terms of quality; if success hinges on how teachers react at individual moments, how can this be documented? And, perhaps more importantly, how can it be standardised? Syllabus documents and materials folders are a means of ensuring that teachers stay ‘on-message’ in their lessons and that each course can be seen to cover a particular range of language and skills. However, the more a course is standardised, the less flexibility there is to ensure it caters for its students.

When it comes to assessment – the most common way of measuring progress – standardisation plays a big part in ensuring tests are both reliable and valid. All stakeholders prefer an assessment that allows the candidate to say ‘I have achieved this level’. This lends itself to the creation of assessments that are pre-designed and pre-approved and which, inevitably, wash back into course content. The focus then turns towards what the students need to do to pass the course, rather than what the course needs to do to support its students.

3 It’s not commercial.

It goes without saying that there is a lot of money in English language teaching, and publishing companies are among the main beneficiaries. One of the reasons for this is the phenomenon of the ‘global coursebook’.

There is a general acceptance that it is OK to have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to course materials – the same books are used all over the world, with all kinds of students. Maybe this is because it is convenient for us; as language teachers, we can go anywhere in the world and still be familiar with the materials being used, and we can use the same tried and tested activities no matter who is sitting in front of us. However, there are also clear benefits to publishing companies in creating a single book that can be marketed and distributed globally.

Whatever the causes or motives, we now have a situation where the most commonly used materials have been carefully designed to be suitable for everyone and are therefore specific to no one. John Gray says of global coursebooks: ‘… content is limited to a narrow range of bland topics … “one size fits all” means the exclusion of the local.

It may be convenient and, on the surface, useful for teachers to have such a range of published materials to employ in their teaching. However, what often happens in practice is that published coursebooks provide us with a safe option, stifling creativity and any desire to exploit teaching moments that digress from the materials. Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings pointed out these limitations in this way: ‘If … you take the view that language [learning] is contingent on the concerns, interests, desires, and needs of the user, then the argument for coursebooks starts to look a bit thin.’

We should also consider the commercial success of teacher training courses. The most widely respected TESOL qualifications are, in business terms, very successful brands. A major overhaul of these qualifications (eg placing less focus on planning and more focus on post-lesson reflection) would be costly and could also jeopardise the success of the brand.

To a large extent, Communicative Language Teaching has become a victim of its own success. It is now very much part of the establishment, and teaching practice is bound up with so many other factors that we have become limited by the constraints placed on us by trainers, employers, inspectors, publishers and broadly held misconceptions.

The importance of reactive teaching and being able to respond to learner contributions has been acknowledged and widely accepted for some time now. It is also true that these ideas occasionally find their way into TESOL courses, learning programmes and published materials. But any such focus tends to be on the fringes of a framework that prioritises planning and pre-determined programme design.

To get to grips with the ‘dark matter’ of teaching we need to bring it into the light and, for this to happen, the whole organisational approach to English language teaching needs to be re-examined.


Dörnyei, Z and Ushioda, E Teaching and Researching Motivation Longman 2011

Gray, J ‘The global coursebook in English language teaching’ in Block, D and Cameron, D (Eds) Globalization and Language Teaching Routledge 2002

Hadfield, J ‘A second self’ English Teaching Professional 78–82 2012

Scrivener, J and Underhill, ‘Demand high ELT’ accessed 17/09/12

Thornbury, S and Meddings, L ‘The roaring in the chimney (or what coursebooks are good for)’ Modern English Teacher 10 (3) 2001

Underhill, A and Maley, A ‘Expect the unexpected’ English Teaching Professional 82 2012

  1. Glad to see this article posted here – never get round to reading journals (has the recent proliferation of EFL started to negate their usefulness)’ and I think you’ve hit three hammers nicely on the head here.

    It is somewhat worrying (to me at least) that despite the fact that TBL, Dogme and the like have been around for a number of years now, they seem to have had relatively little impact on most teachers’ lives (except perhaps as part of a DELTA ‘experimental practice’ lesson).

    I wouldn’t disagree with any of the points you make, (except perhaps the implication that methods such as TBL aren’t logical in their staging), but for me one the other main factors for the lack of change is the sense of safety the emphasis on planning gives teachers. By sticking to a plan, and not allowing students to ask questions that aren’t relevant to the aim, I also limit the amount of ‘knowledge’ I as a teacher need to express.

    Unless we stick purely to the ‘that’s just the way it is’ approach to teaching, reacting to students questions, or dealing with whatever language that happens to come up or be needed in a lesson requires a teacher with confidence and knowledge. Enough to make the students feel confident that they are in a class with a professional who knows what she/he is doing.

    There’s often a belief that it’s ‘impossible’ for us to deal with language we have prepared for. We’re not walking dictionaries/grammar books, and it’s ridiculous for students to think otherwise. But I think we should aim for this. As ‘professionals’ ELT teachers get relatively little training, are fairly poorly paid, and often don’t see the profession as a long term prospect. Why go to the effort of having the degree of knowledge that other professions need? I’d argue that’s what we should be aiming for (especially after a number of years), and certainly the energies spent producing fancy materials and lesson plans would be better spent getting to know our subject and our learners.

    • Hi James, and thanks very much for sharing your opinions here.
      Your point about many people working in ELT without intending to make a “proper” career out of it is an interesting one. Initial training courses like earlier incarnations of the CELTA were set up primarily to provide native speakers with the basic wherewithal to go abroad, teach English in a private language school and more or less get away with it. If you think of how a course like this can transform people from knowing nothing about language or teaching into relatively competent (by most standards) language teachers in the space of 4 weeks, it’s pretty impressive.
      But, like you say, what other profession expects its members to be fully qualified after just 4 weeks? Should we (and I’m including employers here) perhaps be more honest and accept that it takes a lot more than 120 hours for a teacher to acquire many of the skills and competencies that are really important in teaching? Asking effective CCQs, grouping students, using timelines and (of course) writing lesson plans might allow you to get away with being an English teacher, but there is a lot more to it than that – would you agree?

  2. Sure. The CELTA is pretty amazing at what it does, but ultimately a 120 hour course can only do so much. The problem then is how willing are both employers and teachers to ensure that their development is genuinely continued. In too many cases, it’s not enough to allow the wholesale change that you (and others, including myself) would like to see.

    As you point out, Cambridge/Trinity and the publishers (and, I’d add, the majority of schools and teachers) are happy with the status quo, so it’s difficult to really see where that change can really be driven from.

    Perhaps it’s time for a disruptor. Disruption generally doesn’t come from within an industry, but outside. Waiting for Cambridge/Trinity and the publishers to instigate the change is going to be a long wait.

    Any takers?

  3. juergenkurtz permalink

    Reblogged this on Foreign Language Education in the 21st Century and commented:
    Reblogged by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

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