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Don’t blame us: the real problem with ELT

February 8, 2015

There’s been a little flurry of blog posts about Demand High ELT over the past week. I think it was Geoff Jordan that started it with two posts in quick succession, prompting me to write one of my own, but there have been some other interesting posts like this one from Luiz Otavio Barros and this one from Mike Harrison. There seem to be quite a lot of people with criticisms or reservations about Demand High – what exactly is it, is it anything new, do we actually need it anyway, that sort of thing. In this post I’m going to try not to write too much about Demand High itself, and more about the interesting questions that it is raising. Presumably one of the reasons some teachers are reacting negatively to Demand High is that it is based on the premise that there is a problem with our profession. Not just that there’s a problem with our profession, but that the problem lies in the way we teach. A natural reaction to this would be to ask “Who says there’s a problem? What evidence is there?” Then, if we focus on the “solutions” being offered by Demand High ELT, a lot of teachers seem to be saying “This is what I do anyway. You’re telling us to solve a non-existent problem by doing what we already do. It’s all a big fuss about nothing.” Now, it’s true that there are a lot of very good teachers out there, people who care about their students and do everything they can to maximise the classroom experience. They understand the need to individualise learning and to identify opportunities for language input as they occur in the lesson. They realise that students acquire language in different ways, at different speeds, and in different orders, and they plan lessons that take all of this into account. They appreciate that the materials they use and any plan that they take into the classroom are subsidiary to what happens with the learners during the actual lesson itself. For these teachers, Demand High is a bit of a non-event. They don’t need it. It is natural then that a lot of teachers around the world, good teachers, are a bit put out by the suggestion that they are doing it wrong when they are quite clearly demanding as highly of their students as Scrivener and Underhill suggest they should – if not higher. But how did these teachers get to be so good? Was it because the world is awash with materials that facilitate this type of teaching? Was it because they did a training course that gave them the skills to do this? I would suggest that in most cases the answer is no. In our profession good teachers become good teachers in spite of the system they work within, not because of it. Let’s look at the initial training courses on offer, the most reputable ones being the Cambridge CELTA and the Trinity CertTESOL. OK, I know that these courses vary a lot from centre to centre, and it’s possible for a centre to interpret the criteria in a number of different ways, but these courses still tend to contain these characteristics:

  • A candidate’s teaching ability is assessed on the basis of their ability to teach one-off lessons for a maximum of 60 minutes.
  • Within these 60 minutes a candidate needs to demonstrate a range of techniques.
  • Candidates need to provide a very detailed lesson plan in advance of an observed lesson.
  • This lesson plan needs to state the candidate’s pre-determined aims.
  • A key criterion to measure success is whether or not the lesson achieved these pre-determined aims.

The first problem with these features is that they create a construct for lesson observation that doesn’t reflect real teaching situations. In real life most lessons are more than an hour long and time available for planning is a small fraction of the time trainee teachers tend to spend writing their observed lesson plans. What happens on these courses then is that a very artificial and unrealistic situation is created, and trainee teachers are assessed on their ability to meet pre-existing criteria within this artificial situation. But the other problem is that these courses lead trainees to assume that lesson success is all about stating clear aims in advance and then going in there and achieving them. There is a presupposition that all students learn the same stuff at the same time – all you have to do is create a meaningful context, clarify the language and then give them an activity that shows them using it. This is what trainee teachers become competent at, and courses like the CELTA and CertTESOL allow them to believe that this is all there is to it. Good, experienced teachers know different. They know that the furious pace and the multitude of stages that they crammed into those 60-minute observations can’t be maintained throughout a three-hour lesson. They know that good lessons can only exist within a good course, and that the most wonderful lesson is worth very little if it doesn’t build on prior learning and lead on to something else of value. They know that teaching a piece of language once does not mean that your students have all learnt it, and that a single lesson observation cannot be used to determine whether the students actually learned what the teacher wanted them to learn. Not only that, but they also know that it’s folly to expect all the students to learn the same thing at the same time. They know that their own aims are a lot less important than their learners’ aims, and that some of the most successful lessons are the ones where any pre-determined teacher aims are shelved completely in favour of learning opportunities that they identify after the lesson has started. Basically, what I’m saying is that initial training courses in ELT do not prepare their candidates to become effective teachers. They provide a lot of low-level classroom management techniques, and maybe that’s as much as anyone should expect from a 4-week course. But they also instil beliefs that have widely been discredited in the world of applied linguistics. Languages are not learned in a linear fashion, which basically means that a lot of what trainee teachers are encouraged to do is completely out of step with received wisdom about language acquisition. If you are a teacher trainer you may well be reading this and thinking “That may be the case on some courses, but mine aren’t like that. I produce good teachers.” Which is great. I know that it’s possible on a CELTA or CertTESOL course to get trainees to understand that language learning is a chaotic process, to value learner input and to encourage them to react more to their learners rather than just teaching the plan. But it isn’t easy to be one of those trainers, because you still have to work within the confines of the course, and the course is not designed to facilitate this type of teaching. Again, you are a good trainer despite the course you are teaching, not because of it. Once people finish their initial training course and start teaching, they find that they can’t spend all those hours planning their lessons, so thank goodness the school they’re working in gives them a coursebook to follow. That reduces planning time and allows them to pretty much get away with doing a full-time teaching job armed with a rudimentary understanding of the subject and a few strategies for setting up activities and clarifying language. But hang on, what does the coursebook do? It provides a structural syllabus, presenting language items atomistically in order of linguistic complexity. Again, it presupposes linear, lock-step learning. Not only that, but it presupposes that the same content will be of equal interest and value to all learners across the world. Surely that’s preposterous, and yet it’s still seen as a perfectly acceptable idea. So, if we go back to the original questions that people are asking in relation to Demand High, I would argue that yes, there is a problem in ELT. But teachers aren’t the problem. It’s not our fault that we were trained to teach in a way that contradicts how people learn. It’s not our fault that our managers make us teach courses using books based on outdated principles. Telling teachers to demand higher might help to turn a few not-very-good teachers into slightly better teachers, but they will still be teaching within this ineffectual and potential damaging construct. It’s not the teachers that are the problem, it’s the system that they have to work within. Of course, nothing that I am saying here is new. A lot of the problems with coursebooks were exposed by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings back at the turn of the millennium. Jane Willis was railing against atomistic language teaching even longer ago than that. And yet task-based learning and Dogme are still on the fringes of ELT, with the global coursebook still dominating the content of most language courses. Perhaps this is the most worrying thing of all; that the hegemonic forces (Cambridge, Trinity, Oxford, Pearson, MacMillan etc.) are still managing to control what we teach and how we teach it – not because it’s the best way to teach (on the contrary – it very obviously isn’t) but because they have made a lot of money and they want to continue to make a lot more. That’s not a good enough reason – not for me, and not for any teachers who want the best for their students.

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106 Comments
  1. geoffjordan permalink

    Hi Steve,

    No more from me on all this, but Mura Nava recommends we read “Global Textbooks in Local Contexts: An Empirical Investigation of Effectiveness”. https://www.academia.edu/10498454/Global_Textbooks_in_Local_Contexts_An_Empirical_Investigation_of_Effectiveness . While I don’t think the study in any way “disproves” arguments against the tyranny / hegemony / domination /… of the coursebook, it makes interesting reading.

  2. I reviewed the collection of papers in which the above article appears, for ELT Journal (the latest issue) and I had this to say about it:

    Turning to the Consumption section, I have made the point already that there have been relatively few studies into the impact of coursebooks on learning, either in the short or the long term. Hadley’s six-year study of curriculum change in a Japanese tertiary institution (Chapter 7) deserves our attention, therefore. He produces some impressive (and reassuring) evidence of student progress over time, but, since we do not know the extent to which different teachers are using (or not using) the coursebooks that he was instrumental in mandating, and since (as Hadley himself acknowledges) there was no control group where coursebooks were not used at all, any conclusions as to how the coursebooks contributed to this progress is purely speculative. Hadley’s study offers a riposte to the anti-coursebook lobby but it is not the coup de grâce.

    • geoffjordan permalink

      An excellent short summary, Scott.

    • And Scott’s critique is a good one. Problem is, in many of these tightly controlled neoliberal universities, where everything is standardized, measured, and controlled, one is often not allowed to have one class that is different from the others. All I can say is that the majority students in the groups studied for over five years, for the most part, do not seek out English language study outside of class. They had English classes in the programme for five days a week, and for most, this was enough. The paper didn’t provide conclusive proof, but it was a riposte, and I believe that more studies in this vein are needed. All that said, in my new post, I am much freer, and I don’t use global textbooks. I am joyfully teaching unplugged!

      • Thanks for the response, Gregory – and for the update. Good luck!

      • Yes, thanks for commenting here, Gregory. Interesting to hear that now you have the freedom you are choosing to teach without a global coursebook. It seems that most teachers, at some point in their careers, start to feel that this is more effective. But does this realisation (which runs counter to how we had previously been encouraged to teach) have to come with experience or could people be trained to do this much earlier? That’s what I’m wondering about.
        Steve

  3. Thank you, Geoff, for referring us to this article, and thank you Scott for sharing your comment on it. I’m in no doubt that people can still learn languages by using a global coursebook, in the same way that people can play football using a water-melon. A comparative study might be more revealing. Has this been done yet, does anyone know?

    • Mujahida Lunceford permalink

      Exactly! You have a lot of fun and make a huge mess and somebody might score a touchdown on a rare occasion (oh sorry, have i got the wrong game?) and somebody might even get a bite of watermelon…..but there surely must be a more efficient way! Throwing out coursebooks is not going to work for many/most teachers and schools….but the fact that we haven’t replaced all those best-seller grammar-based coursebooks says something about a general absence of a will to change. Still, I’ve always maintained I’d rather have a good teacher with a bad book than a bad teacher with a good book.
      And as to the CELTA… I was never so relieved as when I heard a colleague — a long-time CELTA trainer/assessor — mumbling under her breath one day “x@!*&**?! stupid 4-week course!” .Makes you wonder, when the missionaries have lost their faith, what hope for the converts? CELTA ‘succeeds’ because it trains teachers to be organized, be entertaining, and have interactive and lively lessons. Full stop. A common complaint of Delta candidates I’ve worked with is ‘…..but this is the opposite of what they told us to do on the CELTA!” . Which it often is. Those who have a high tolerance for ambiguity get their Delta and survive and sometimes become much better teachers but not always and not necessarily.
      Maybe the best teacher training course would be something like Cardinal Newman’s idea of a university, with the learning taking place not so much in the classroom as in the togetherness and informal exchange of ideas. So perhaps we ought to focus on creating teachers’ rooms where the level of pedagogical discussion is high — a genuine learning environment?

  4. A second opinion on lesson observations: https://www.academia.edu/2759711

    • Hi Costas,
      Thanks for sharing this interesting article. It’s true that lesson observation is potentially a very rich source of information and has great potential for facilitating teacher development, but there are a lot of complexities which you highlight very clearly. Observers need to be aware of the differences that necessarily exist between observed and non-observed lessons, and to be realistic about what can be gained. It’s interesting that you added a qualifying statement when you mentioned the need to use the lesson plan as part of the triangulation process. My own feeling about CELTA/CertTESOL-type courses is that too much emphasis is put on the plan. There’s an assumption that learning can be “imposed” on the learners through the execution of a plan. I would suggest that there should be more focus on developing trainees’ ability to deal with opportunities for learning as they arise during the lesson. Much of this can be done in post-lesson reflection and analysis – also an instrument that you suggest we use for triangulation.
      Learning is complex and chaotic, and trainers need to make sure their trainees are aware of this and have the skills to maximise learning opportunities as they arise.
      Thanks again,
      Steve

  5. Yolanda permalink

    I see the point with the TEFL /TESOL/ CELTA courses…like I wouldnt go to a dentist who has had a 4-week course, and I dont know any GP who’s done all their theory and training in 1 month….

    • Ha yes, neither would I! I’m sure one could argue that there’s a lot more at stake when you visit the dentist or doctor; teachers have less potential to inflict lasting damage. Or do they..?

  6. You’re absolutely right of course that introductory, four week, teacher training courses are inclined to be both superficial and artificial in their content, but that is exactly because, as you also suggest, they are indeed introductory, four week courses. What else would you expect? To become a secondary school teacher typically requires a degree in the subject to be taught (with the consequence that those who go on to undertake teacher training already have considerable subject knowledge) and a full-time, year-long, post-graduate teacher training course following that. Obviously a four-week course delivered to trainees who not only in many cases lack any background in teaching but also in many cases lack any background in languages or linguistics will be superficial and artificial in comparison. Actually, this is generally a feature of training programmes. In a driving test you are not told to ‘get to Ingleston,’ but rather to ‘take the next left,’ – this despite the fact that I think we can agree that the need to get to Ingleston is more represenative of a real driving situation. Nonetheless, there are good reasons, arising from constraints, mostly to do with time, why driving tests are the way they are. Newly qualified drivers are rarely particularly competent. Still, they get better with time. Likewise, as you clearly state in your third paragraph, many teachers. When you say that good teachers are good teachers ‘in spite of the system they work within, not because of it,’ I am not sure what you mean by ‘the system.’ Do you mean the various bureaucratic and managerially imposed imperatives that come into conflict with our classroom practice? If so, I will heartily agree (though there are doubtless good reasons for these, too; after all any teaching institution exists in a social and economic environment and will not survive if it does not take that environment into account.) If, though, by ‘the system’ you mean their teacher training, which seems to be what the first part of your post suggests, then your claim amounts to the claim that, without such training, those teachers would have been better and not worse, i.e. that there is a correlation between teachers lacking training and their possessing the virtues that you clearly identify in your third paragraph. I am unconvinced by this. Certainly I’m not aware of any evidence of any such correlation. I still stand by my remarks about driver education but would not feel safer on the roads if the requirement to pass a test before taking the wheel was removed.

    • Hi Patrick,
      Yes, it would be rather unrealistic to expect a 4-week introductory course to provide trainees with all the knowledge and skills they need to become competent and effective teachers. And yet in many parts of the world a CELTA is the only qualification you will ever need – it’s regarded as a rubber stamp confirming that you know what you’re doing. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it’s because employers like the fact that they can say they only employ “qualified” teachers, but the fact that the qualification was just a 4-week course means the people they employ still don’t feel totally competent and are therefore prepared to accept a low salary.
      My comments about the system do relate partly to the type of training that new English language teachers get. Of course teaching competence is something that develops over time, but I do feel that there are some things about introductory TESOL courses that instil the wrong ideas or beliefs. The last time I was running CELTAs (at the British Council in Malaysia) I was interested to see how the trainees reacted to observing experienced BC teachers. We would send them in there with an observation task – make notes of how the teacher positions herself, or analyse how they organise their boardwork. The bemused trainees would reconvene and share their experiences: “She just sat in her chair for almost the whole hour!” Or “He didn’t even go near the board!” The fact was that these experienced teachers were simply not teaching in the same way that we were training our trainees to teach. I can’t help thinking that if initial training courses focused more on the things that experienced teachers focus on, it would take less time for an inexperienced teacher to develop some of the skills and understanding of the learning process that teachers end up acquiring over time. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t do an introductory TESOL course, I’m just saying that these courses are still set up for a style of teaching that conflicts with received wisdom on second language acquisition.
      I like the idea of a task-based driving test, by the way. Rather than waiting for the examiner to tell you when to make an emergency stop or do a hill start, you would have to make judgements like this for yourself, employing the different techniques as and when appropriate. This would be far more authentic.
      Always a pleasure to get comments from you, Patrick.
      Steve

      • But isn’t the issue exactly that experienced teachers focus on a tremendous number of things and a four week course cannot hope to do justice to them all. It’s not as though the stuff on existing certificate courses is regarded by experienced teachers as irrelevant. Any selection of things from among the things that experienced teachers focus on would be vulnerable to the charge of being narrow and limited. The present selection is not obviously worse than some alternative selection. I still remember being a newly certificated teacher. The main thing I remember is unalloyed terror. What I needed above all was a basic toolkit that would enable me to survive. Sure, initial teacher training courses foster a play-it-safe sort of approach. The phrase ‘to play it safe’ is usually used rather disparagingly, but safe is good. I like it when my dentist plays it safe, much less so when I see a copy of The Dogme Guide to Dentistry on top of her filing cabinet. I suspect that the reason that Dogme never really entered the mainstream is that it is incredibly nerve-racking (wracking? I never know.) Today when I go into a class I hope for exactly the kind of productive, spontaneous, dialogic sort of thing that Dogme, as I understand it, recommends. Sometimes it happens. I always have a lesson plan in my back pocket, though, along with some prepared materials, in case it doesn’t. For an inexperienced teacher to go into a class unarmed with such a back-up I would regard as utter madness.

  7. I’m really sorry to carp but I just read your piece again and was struck by the following.

    ‘these courses still tend to be based on the following principles:

    A candidate’s teaching ability is assessed on the basis of their ability to teach one-off lessons for a maximum of 60 minutes.
    Within these 60 minutes a candidate needs to demonstrate a range of techniques.
    Candidates need to provide a very detailed lesson plan in advance of an observed lesson.
    This lesson plan needs to state the candidate’s pre-determined aims.
    A key criterion to measure success is whether or not the lesson achieved these pre-determined aims.’

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘principles,’ but all but the last of these appear to be simply descriptions of how evaluation of the candidate’s performance is to be carried out. I’m not sure that ‘principles’ is the best word for this. I’d love to say that I hate to be pedantic but that would be disingenuous. I love to be pedantic.

    • Hi Patrick
      Yes, I agree – principles isn’t really the right word. I’ve changed it now and am using “characteristics” and “features” instead. Is that better, do you think?
      Steve

      • Yes, but I hope I wasn’t making a stylistic recommendation (I hope I wouldn’t be so presumptious.) Rather, I think it significantly changes the argument. If a teacher training programme contains features we may find regrettable but those features are not principles, nor even arise from principles, but arise instead from simple practicalities, then it is pointless to object to them as though they were principles. I have little doubt that the designers of certificate courses would fully agree that a lengthier programme focussing on how teachers interact with learners over a longer period and in a greater variety of situations would be preferable. So there’s no point in objecting that this is the case. The limitations you rightly refer to in certificate courses do not, I suspect, arise because the designers of the courses are misled in their attitudes to learning and teaching, but from practical considerations. I fear that a lot of ELT critique is like this, that we attribute beliefs to something called ‘the ELT establishment’ that nobody in that establishment holds (for instance, the belief that languages are learned in some very tidy additive order; have you ever actually heard anyone express this belief?) Instead we identify some feature of language teaching or teacher training that is less than ideal, attribute it to some mistaken belief about the nature of language learning, and then attack it as such, when in reality it was never informed by any such belief but emerged from various practical constraints.

  8. Yolanda permalink

    Therefore since no physical lasting damage is inflicted on the patient/student, it is ok? We are allowed to accept it. No parent would accept their children to have a primary teacher with a 4-week course, I wouldnt call a plumber with a 4-week course to fix my pipes, but in the English teaching profession it seems to be ok. In July you were a carpenter in your country of origin but by the end of August you are a ‘qualified’ English teacher, come on, who do we want to fool?

    To quote some of the words used in here about such courses: ‘superficial and artificial in their content ‘ , ‘introductory’ ‘it’s regarded as a rubber stamp’. And that’s what it is. A rubber stamp to allow employers to find ‘qualified’ teachers rapidly. Teaching English as a Foreign Language is a great way to travel the world and pay for my expenses during my gap year before I get back to my country and get a 9 to 5 job in my real profession. It doesnt come as a surprise that there is a need to talk about Demand High therefore.

    I believe the TEFL courses are pretty well designed and contents are as good as it can be expected : grammar lessons, methodology & approaches, how to teach this and that, pronunciation, YL, Business, observing experienced teachers, assessed teaching practice, ( whether realistic or not, seems another issue ) and so on. It includes all correct elements…with a slight problem: it is all crammed in 4 weeks. There is no time for assimilation, for real learning to take place, for the feedback to be taken in, there is no time to offer a deeper view of each subject.

    Seems to me that we are all quite aware of the flaws such courses have, these flaws have been pointed out in previous comments, however, seems that the financial/business side to these courses weighs more. Why havent these courses become a one-year course, Oct to June at least? Because nobody would be interested? As long as TEFL couses last for a month, there is no way to improve what they currently offer, and many people in this profession will care enough to further their studies and develop professionally, but many will be content with their stamp on the piece of paper that allows them to travel the world, pay for their beers over the weekend, and chat to some students in English Mon to Fri.

    • Hi Yolanda, and thanks for this interesting comment. The fact that these introductory courses are so short certainly limits what can be done on them. Of course, Patrick has already pointed out that these are just introductory courses and therefore we can’t expect too much. Perhaps the problem is that in many parts of the world these qualifications valued much more highly than they perhaps should be. Cambridge and Trinity do still market their Cert qualifications as pre-service, introductory courses but they don’t exactly go out of their way to dispel any perceptions that having one of their qualifications will magically make you a good teacher.
      Lengthening these courses would certainly make them more substantial, but it would also make them less marketable; a lot of their appeal comes from the fact that you can do them over a summer holiday or in the evenings, and the short length also makes them reasonably affordable. Maybe this is the financial/business side that you are referring to?
      I would still suggest though that the content of these courses could be improved. I don’t think it’s just that there isn’t enough time to cover everything (and this refers to Patrick’s point as well). The CELTA and CertTESOL do manage to achieve a lot of good stuff in a short time, particularly in terms of developing classroom management techniques. But they also develop some skills and instil some beliefs that I think are actually damaging to teacher development. For example, the heavy focus placed on writing detailed lesson plans, and the way that lesson success is measured against the achievement of predetermined aims, embeds a belief that the students are all learning/acquiring the same language at the same time. A lot of language acquisition research tells us that this is not the case.
      Anyway, we certainly both seem to agree that these qualifications need to be re-evaluated. Thanks again for your comments here.
      Steve

      • This is a fascinating discussion, and one that’s making me think a lot.
        At the moment, what I’d most like to know is more concrete information about how you believe the content of the courses could be improved. What would you take out? What would you add? What would you change? And if trainees don’t have to produce detailed lesson plans and there’s less of a focus on achieving pre-determined aims, how would you assess the trainees instead? How would you support them? How would you help them to progress between one TP and the next? What underlying beliefs do you think the trainees should go away with which they don’t at the moment, and how would you go about instilling these?
        Another question is where does the problem lie: the courses themselves, or the way that they are followed up on afterwards? If it is the course, then it needs to be changed. But if it’s an introductory course, that implies there’ll be something afterwards, and these structures seem to be missing in a lot of places.
        Thanks,
        Sandy
        (training in week two of my current CELTA course)

      • Mujahida Lunceford permalink

        Well, I’m not quite so ready to let Cambridge/Trinity and British Council off the hook that easily!
        You say ‘certain parts of the world’ but it’s mostly British institutions in those parts of the world that are demanding the CELTA. In most of the post-colonial world a much longer and more formal qualification would be required to teach English in their own local institutions, and people in those places are constantly shocked to discover that someone with a degree in economics or anthropology or astrophysics has become an ‘expert’ English teacher by virtue of a 4-week course.
        It’s all a little too cozy — we created the qualification, we created a demand for it (no matter what cautionary disclaimers on the back of the certificate) by making it the single most important qualification for becoming a teacher in BC or IH, and oh yes, we created an enduring market for our English language schools/exams/educational system (along with tea, cotton, jute, opium….)
        When Monsanto creates Roundup and markets it aggressively and then it gets used everywhere to the detriment of everybody/thing, we’re not inclined to let them off the hook just because they warned us in exceedingly fine print about the limitations and dangers, are we? So yes, if we know that the course is a rather stupid paint-by-number thing we should either change it or make sure that it doesn’t get used wrongly.

  9. Neil McMillan permalink

    I agree with the general points being made here – also of relevance is Mike Chick’s research referenced here: https://fiveagainstone.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/an-alternative-uk-pre-service-second-language-teacher-education-course/, and in Ferguson and Donno’s article “One-month teacher training courses: time for a change?” ELT Journal Volume 57/1, which is also discussed on the same blog.

    However, I don’t accept that “As long as TEFL courses last a month, there is no way to improve what they currently offer” (sorry Yolanda). Given the widespread popularity of the format and its acceptance as a qualification by schools, and the amount of money it generates, extending pre-service courses significantly will be a hard task. But if we applied a flipped learning approach to the month-long cert, extending it sneakily by creating a pre-course module with required reading/viewing, lauage awareness stuff plus awareness of teaching & learning, with exercises/assignments and a summative and relatively rigorous assessment, so much more of the time during the month itself could be better spent.

    If, for example, I could take a group of proficiency-level Spanish-only trainees on the cert I currently work on, I could do so much more because I wouldn’t be having to spend hours of input explaining grammar and vocabulary points, I could actually focus more on how these points could be taught or integrated into lessons. We might even have time to look at some theory and methodological principles, to examine more how learners learn, to focus less on planning and more on the stuff Steve talks about. But I don’t have those trainees, well I have a smidgeon and then I have the Brits, the Americans, the Irish, the Australians, who, by and large, have to be spoonfed – or should that be breastfed – daily doses of conditional structures and the difference between long and short infinitives. I don’t blame them, it’s not their fault, but if they want to do this job they need to come up to some kind of scratch. So make them do the dogwork pre-course, and don’t let them in until they pass muster.

    Post course it’s up to schools (and students) to demand more – hell, demand High! – an A or B on the Cert, then, if not the Dip, a commitment to work towards it with appropriate support in the meantime. Those students who want such teachers and can pay will do so, those who can’t or don’t want to will end up, unless they’re lucky, with more questionable quality. With plumbers and dentists as with teachers.

    Disclaimer: I read something somewhere about raising pre-course requirements for certs, I just can’t remember where. I know some cert courses have done it, but as far as I know neither Cambridge nor Trinity require it.

    • Hi Neil,

      Thanks for drawing attention to that piece by Mike Chick – it’s very relevant to the discussion here and covers a lot of the issues very thoroughly.
      Flipping the course so the language stuff is done outside class is one way of making more time, and CELTA courses do tend to include a pre-course task which could be beefed up a bit. But another approach would be to take out some aspects of the course and replace them with something else. All those hours that trainees spend writing lesson plans, for example. That time could be more productively actually in the classroom, teaching. Trainees do 6 hours of observed teaching practice, and how many hours of lesson planning? About 50 maybe? That can’t be right.
      I feel we need to stop forcing trainees to agonise over the wording of their aims or the timing of their stages, and encourage them instead to really reflect on what they are actually doing DURING lessons to maximise learning opportunities. I think this would make them become better teachers more quickly.
      Best,
      Steve

    • Mujahida Lunceford permalink

      On the contrary, I think everyone involved with the Celta knows that standards have been deliberately lowered. The argument for that is that non-native speakers with limited proficiency in English ARE going to teach English so we might as well train them. I have some sympathy for that argument, though somewhere in the back of my head there’s a little voice saying ‘is it really out of goodwill or is it about the money?” But the result is, as you’ve observed Neil, that the trainers end up spending a lot of time teaching grammar rather than teaching how to teach grammar.
      I like your idea of a flipped CELTA classroom and think it would be a good start. But so much of the CELTA is hopelessly outdated now that I think real change would require substantial changes in focus as well

      • Neil McMillan permalink

        I think you have misunderstood me. My point was about native speakers of English having very poor language awareness compared to their non-native counterparts. In my experience, and admittedly I’m generalising, natives slow the courses down, not non-natives. And I’m really talking about native speakers who have never seriously studied a language, whether their own or another. So making pre-course tasks that deal with language awareness rigorous and summative could go some way towards resolving this. But of course you are right, it’s all about the money, so having anything which raises the entry bar is not going to be acceptable to most course providers.

      • Mujahida Lunceford permalink

        Well, yes, you’re right about that Neil(and sorry, I did misread that) Both are a problem and heaven help the trainers when there are 12 Celta trainees half of whom are native speakers with no language awareness and no formal knowledge of grammar and the other half are non-native speakers who have mastered quite a lot of grammar but are at a high B1 or low B2 level. I wasn’t referring to non-native speakers per se, but just those whose language level isn’t high enough. And of course officially it is supposed to be higher but so often isn’t especially when a few extra bodies are needed to make up the magic number for a Celta course to fly.
        Steve as to your suggestion about encouraging more reflection — is that even possible in a four week course that is fast-paced and generally considered by trainees to be very stressful? I worked in a center where teachers had had basically no further training or mentoring post-CELTA and what I saw in the classroom that first year was pretty discouraging. They all adhered religiously to the PPP framework, and never failed to pre-teach vocabulary, or set gist listening tasks followed by detailed listening tasks etc….but didn’t seem to really understand the purpose of any of those things…. it’s like someone baking a cake and following the recipe very carefully but having no idea of how the chemistry works or ways of varying the recipe or even maybe…what a good cake tastes like and looks like when it’s finished.

  10. Patrick, can I just go back to your comment about principles or practical constraints. Even if the things I mentioned are “just” features of initial training courses, I think it’s legitimate to object to them because they encourage new teachers to adopt outdated principles of teaching. You can trace these features back to the origins of pre-service TEFL courses. The first such course was created at a time when it was generally believed that language should be taught atomistically, and that students would learn it in a lock-step fashion. It was therefore natural to assume that trainees could identify a lesson aim in advance, plan a detailed lesson in with they introduce and provide practice in using the language item, and that their competence in doing this could be measured through observing them doing this for an hour.
    Now, beliefs about language acquisition have changed, yet the courses still force trainees to work within this paradigm. It’s not about practical constraints, it’s about taking certain features (like the ones I mentioned) and assuming that a TESOL course has to contain them. I think things like lesson planning are greatly over-valued on initial training courses.
    I would suggest that one reason you were so scared about teaching when you first became a teacher was that your initial training course hadn’t taught you not to. You spent hours and hours writing lesson plans, and only 6 hours actually teaching. These courses do not develop (in fact they actively discourage) the skill of improvising or reacting appropriately to situations as they arise. They produce teachers who can’t teach unless they have a detailed plan to follow. When they get a job and realise they can’t spend as much time planning as they were trained to, they are dependent instead on coursebooks, which have done the bulk of the planning for them.
    I do feel that the whole system is designed to produce teachers who are discouraged from taking ownership of their lessons and encouraged instead to rely on pre-packaged materials written by people who have no knowledge of their students. This may be by accident or design, depending on how much of a conspiracy theorist you are, but it’s not just an inevitability. If your initial training course had given you more classroom experience, and developed your ability to listen to students, value their contributions, and use their input to drive lesson content, you would have probably experienced a lot less terror when faced with the prospect of walking into a classroom.
    Don’t you think?
    Steve

    • “… beliefs about language acquisition have changed… ” If only, Steve. Knowledge about language acquisition may have changed (thanks to several decades of research) but it has scarcely impacted on beliefs – at the level of course designers, materials writers, testing bodies, and (as you point out) training organizations. The default setting, belief-wise, is that second languages are best learned in incremental stages through form-focused instruction and where the primary pedagogical goal is verb grammar. (The fact that these beliefs accord with the needs of institutions to manage learning in a lock-step and assessment-driven manner may or may not be accidental).

      • Thanks for this, Scott. It is very odd and perplexing that this level of cognitive dissonance should exist across an entire profession. And it’s been like this for so long! I feel that the things I’m writing about in my blog are just going over the same ground you covered when you came up with Dogme. ELT seemed to me like a very progressive profession for about the first 8 years of my career (1993-2001). Then nothing much happened. Things like the lexical approach and task-based learning have had a minor impact on the content of materials (e.g. High Dellar and Andrew Walkley’s coursebooks are a bit more lexical than previous ones) but by and large it’s business as usual.
        It’s hard to understand how we can all be aware of accepted theories of language acquisition and yet still continue to work within a paradigm that conflicts with these theories. Either it’s all about hegemony, with global corporations controlling what we do, or it’s about teachers preferring to believe in a paradigm that means they don’t have to think too much when they’re teaching. Or a bit of both. Maybe teachers don’t feel they’re paid enough to work that hard. I don’t know.
        It’s a bit depressing though – don’t you think?

    • Hi Steve

      Admittedly, I’m only slightly involved in teacher training and so am not in the habit of thinking about it as much as I am about teaching itself. I’ve been thinking a lot about it today, though, and am growing more sympathetic to your views. Typically, early on in a teacher training programme trainees attend a lesson in a language unknown to them and then are asked to reflect on the experience. The lesson is usually of a standard, vanilla, PPP type (or else there are several such lessons each of which is supposed to exemplify, say, suggestopedia, or grammar-translation, or whatever.) If, instead, trainees were involved in an ongoing engagement with an unknown language in which they encountered authentic material and were encouraged to develop habits of noticing as they engaged with it and as they explored the new language together, and if the insights gained from this then formed the basis of the work they then did in classes with ELT learners then the result might indeed be teachers with a more enquiring, flexible and attentive attitude to classroom practice. What is certainly depressing is the number of ELT teachers who seem themselves to have little interest in learning other languages. I’m still sceptical about whether this could be done effectively in four weeks, however. With so meagre a preparation I think that what new teachers will still need above all is a toolkit. Moreover, the various elements in the ELT industry (teacher training, conventional classroom practice, and instruments of assessment, and in particular the most prestigious instruments of assessment) are all intermeshed. A radical change to one will have to entail a radical change to all (if I have understood you aright you will have little objection to this idea.) Probably it’s at the assessment end that such a change will have to begin After all, isn’t conventional classroom practice the way it is because assessment is the way it is, and teacher training the way it is because assessment is the way it is?

      • I should add that one of my reasons fro doubting whether this could be done in four weeks is that trainees usually already face a steep learning curve in coming to terms with various features of the English language itself. To add to this the additional burden of a serious engagement with another language will be a tall order. There are degrees less demanding than this.

  11. Neil McMillan permalink

    OK, but requiring trainees to write a plan doesn’t preclude more focus on some of the things you mention. I tend to agree with Patrick on this – I would be worried about how most trainees would cope with the teaching environment if they hadn’t carefully thought through what they were going to do beforehand, as much as that may clash with our current ideas of responsive teaching. It’d be a bit like sending someone into the cairngorms in January with no map, compass or protective clothing, expecting them to apply some survival skills you’d shown them the day before.

    But in lesson reflection, which on the Trinity cert at least can heavily influence grading of TP, the plan can be related to what actually happpened, what went right or wrong ( and what went right may not have been in the plan), why, were the aims appropriate, why/why not, and , indeed, did the trainee listen and respond to the students – with the hope that this feedback will influence future lessons ( and if not, so much the worse for the trainee). It’s not planning that’s the problem, it’s the type of planning and how it’s assessed. Lessons don’t need to be judged solely on whether or not the pre-conceived aims were met.

    E.g. In Trinity, trainees are graded on (1) appropriateness of aims (relating to needs analysis and awareness of the group) then (2) learning outcomes. 2 can be successful without 1, and vice versa. Rather than “did they learn what I wanted them to learn”, focus can be placed more on “did they learn anything at all, what was it and how did it come about?”.

    The ideal situation for me would be to start with quite detailed plans, then via feedback and growing awareness of student level and interest/needs, place less emphasis on the plan and have the last couple of lessons where the only requirement is a lesson outline, of the sort many of us scribble on the back of bus tickets.

    • “…and have the last couple of lessons where the only requirement is a lesson outline, of the sort many of us scribble on the back of bus tickets”. Or, indeed, base the lesson around the bus ticket, perhaps?

      • Yes of course, Scott – but maybe it should/could be based on the students’ bus tickets rather than (or as well as) the teacher’s..?

      • Neil McMillan permalink

        Yes, and if the bus ticket was the plan and the material, so much the better for the school’s tree-saving policy! It’s not just the plans that dominate certs, is it – it’s the countless bits of paper that prop up every lesson stage.

    • Yes Neil, I agree completely that it’s the type of planning that is the problem, and the way it is used to assess teaching practice. Of course there’s nothing wrong with putting some carefully considered thought into what you do before going ahead and doing this (I’ve previously used the term “preflection” for this), but that’s not the role that the planning process plays on most training courses, and that’s a big problem in my view.
      Might I suggest that there may be situations where it is OK to send someone out into the Cairngorms without a map or a compass. These items would only be necessary if they had to get somewhere, but if the aim is simply to make use of survival skills to maximise the experience, a map may not be necessary. It’s not the best analogy, but if the lesson plan is your map that shows you how to get from one place to another place that you have previously decided you want to go to, it’s going to be very useful. However, focusing on the straight line of that journey cuts off the possibilities that might exist if you were to go in a different direction, or simply to stay in one place for a while. I think a lot of very useful work could be done on initial TESOL courses to encourage working with learners and their contributions in the lesson, rather than trying to herd them all towards some fixed destination.
      Thanks again for your comments,
      Steve

      • A map gives information useful to anyone who wants to get anywhere on the terrain represented by the map. A better analogy for the limitedness of a lesson plan is a list of directions about how to get to a particular place. Such a thing is indeed unhelpful if for some reason we decide we want to go somewhere else. However, neither the map nor the list of directions is actually restrictive. Either can be left in your rucksack. I can’t think of anything that can be done without a map, or a list of directions, or a lesson plan in your rucksack that can’t equally well be done with one. Slavishness to the plan is certainly limiting, but escape from that only comes from well-founded confidence (as distinct from the ill-grounded over-confidence typically found amongst the privately educated) and I think that that this well-founded confidence can only come from either genius (which is vanishingly rare) or very considerable experience.

  12. Matthew permalink

    Steve wrote: “Trainees do 6 hours of observed teaching practice, and how many hours of lesson planning? About 50 maybe? That can’t be right. I feel we need to stop forcing trainees to agonise over the wording of their aims or the timing of their stages, and encourage them instead to really reflect on what they are actually doing DURING lessons to maximise learning opportunities. I think this would make them become better teachers more quickly.”

    As someone who (like Sandy, above) is smack in the middle of Week 2 of a CELTA course I don’t have much time to wade deeply into these waters but lordy has this been a great read! Thanks to one and all and I hope it keeps building.

    I picked the above quote out of the big ol’ pile of fascinating and thought-provoking statements above. Here goes some thoughts:

    I absolutely agree that when you just stare the fact down: 50 hours planning vs. 6 hours teaching! it just seems utterly ridiculous. Here’s the thing, though, and the way I try hard to help my trainees understand it: guys, it ain’t SUPPOSED to be realistic. This is not what you’ll be doing as a teacher. As a teacher you may teach for 6 hours your first day on the job! But it’s cartoonishly skewed for a reason: when approached in the right way, this detailed, layered, (ideally) systematic *process* of planning is DEVELOPMENTAL (sorry for the caps, it’s borish but I’m too exhausted to be at all eloquent or subtle)…this is *your* controlled and somewhat freer (in later TPs) practice as a trainee learning not only to speak but think in the language of…teacher. So in this sense, Steve, I’d posit that it *can* be right.

    My job is to do more than “force trainees to agonise over the wording of their aims”. If that’s what’s happening, I’m not a very good trainer. You go on to suggest that we should encourage them to “really reflect on what they are doing DURING lessons to maximise learning opportunities”. Would you be shocked if I told you this is a central concern of mine in my practice as a CELTA trainer? In the daily hour or so that I spend in rapt communal feedback after TP classes, do you imagine it impossible to establish a nuanced and flexible view of stage timings in the light of a prioritized concern for learning opportunities? I don’t mean to challenge your statements as particularly presumptuous (I’m sure you understand!), but I did find myself sensing a bit of….well….I was reminded of some of the recent reaction to Demand High, actually!…with Mike Harrison and others taking exception to the perceived characterization of teachers generally (including them) as limited, limiting underachievers when it comes to ‘learnING-centered teaching’ as they call DH (and I wish they’d use instead). I don’t happen to think it should be taken ‘personally’ so to speak, but…I sense a similar feeling arising in me now, bristling at your seeming belief that a CELTA trainer (including me) must be so constrained, so limited, and ultimately so unenlightened as all that!

    So where does that leave it? What’s my position? What’s my point? I’m just trying to animate and narrate my inner experience, actually. In the service of understanding through dialogue without polemic.

    As I was writing the above paragraph one of my trainees emailed me his lesson plan and language analysis pages. He’s teaching his first grammar lesson (at TP4/9) to the Upper-Int group tomorrow afternoon. It’s due tomorrow morning at 9:45am, but I know he’s just leaving the center as it’s closing right now (at 9pm) and has worked his butt off this evening attempting to get it done and dusted in time to ‘sleep on it, let it breath’, perhaps as per my suggestion after previous TPs were marred by last-minute stress-outs and time crunches the morning of. So he’s been sitting in the TP classroom since I left him and the others there after TP feedback at around 5pm working on this. Sure, as an experience teacher I have a completely different process. Sure, I can imagine (I loooove to imagine!) the possible alternatives to this kind of training regimen…but I’ll stake my life on this: there is some THERE there here, just the way it is. Maybe I’m blinded, a bit, by ego, by professional pride, by defensiveness, but that’s how I see it from this side. And I try to see both sides. Listen I’ll be the first one jumping up when the Steve Brown Teacher Training Course opens its doors 😉

    Back to my trainee though, the one who is just now, Tuesday evening of Week 2, really SINKING IN….during our GLP time this morning he looked up from his planning notes and exclaimed, sincerely, spontaneously, as if having just made a fascinating realization: if you really analyze the language, the lesson more just kind of…comes to you!

    Moments like this give me some consolation that my constant insistence on and reminders about how “all this paper is just a record of what’s hopefully really being ‘written’ in your braaaaain during all these hours and hours” perhaps is worth the effort.

    I feel like there’s a lot more to say, and I’m quite unsure whether what I *have* said is worth anything, or even really comes across. I’m grateful for this discussion, these ideas, the challenge, the sense of being challenged, and the trust that we truly can be in honest and compassionate dialogue because we care, sincerely, and so can understand and be understood in kind. It’s getting late and I have a few assignments to grade for double-marking tomorrow morning so I’m gonna press ‘post comment’ with that trust in my sights. 🙂 Don’t get me started on the assignments, ugggh!

  13. Matthew permalink

    BTW, Steve, after posting the above comment I went back up and gave your post another read and realized I’d completely missed the part where you pretty much anticipate my reaction! 🙂 You’re a bit of a genius I tell you:
    “If you are a teacher trainer you may well be reading this and thinking “That may be the case on some courses, but mine aren’t like that. I produce good teachers.” Which is great. I know that it’s possible on a CELTA or CertTESOL course to get trainees to understand that language learning is a chaotic process, to value learner input and to encourage them to react more to their learners rather than just teaching the plan. But it isn’t easy to be one of those trainers, because you still have to work within the confines of the course, and the course is not designed to facilitate this type of teaching.
    “But it isn’t easy to be one of those trainers, because you still have to work within the confines of the course, and the course is not designed to facilitate this type of teaching. Again, you are a good trainer despite the course you are teaching, not because of it.”

    And I suppose that final statement can’t really be argued with fundamentally. Ain’t that the rub? Are we not living in the Matrix though, basically? 😉 I would like to say that yes “the course is not designed to facilitate this type of teaching” but it’s also not particularly well-designed to shut it down. 🙂

    You continued: “Once people finish their initial training course and start teaching, they find that they can’t spend all those hours planning their lessons, so thank goodness the school they’re working in gives them a coursebook to follow. That reduces planning time and allows them to pretty much get away with doing a full-time teaching job armed with a rudimentary understanding of the subject and a few strategies for setting up activities and clarifying language.”

    Two things: 1) as I mentioned, it’s essential that the teacher training experience includes some handing down of the hard-fought wisdom regarding ‘the truth about coursebooks’! I’m not saying I myself succeed at pre-empting the acceptance of harmful illusions, but I am quite sure I consistently try (no, I don’t ‘rant dogme’, simply expose them to the possibility-slash-recommendability of a critical evaluation of materials) 2) the problem of NS novice teachers being sought after despite their ‘rudimentary understanding’ of the subject to be taught is a function, I believe, massive and nearly universal misconceptions about the nature of 1st-language awareness as a pedagogical resource. It’s as if there’s nobody at all to blame, in the same way that you couldn’t “blame” a flat-earther for that certainty before a particular time.

    “But hang on, what does the coursebook do? It provides a structural syllabus, presenting language items atomistically in order of linguistic complexity. Again, it presupposes linear, lock-step learning. Not only that, but it presupposes that the same content will be of equal interest and value to all learners across the world.”

    Which isn’t THE hardest thing to explain to teachers in training, but hey…SIT isn’t run by a part of one of the big publishers…maybe after admitting here that I’m a demand-high dogme revolutionary mole in their teacher training beehive prison I’ll be banished to the hippy commune across the way. Say, it may end up mirroring my experience as a trainee…CELTA, then two years later SIT TESOL.

    This is for another post (in the works) but I actually *made my own* CELTA extension program. This is how I planned it, then did it: CELTA, two years experience teaching in varied context, then a second CELTA (or the closest thing available, for me the SIT). So if I’m in the mood to, maybe I should say: if you want/need a certain training that isn’t offered, DIY! Anyway, I said I was off to work. Thanks for reading…

    • Hi Matthew, and thanks for these interesting thoughts. In some ways I’m lucky not to be doing any teacher training at the moment, as it’s allowing me to reflect on the whole thing in a different way. When you’re working on CELTAs it’s sometimes hard to think beyond the content of the course, and because everything seems to fit nicely and the trainees clearly learn a lot, it’s difficult to see why anyone would want to criticise them. The low level classroom skills are important – I’ve got no problem having them on an introductory course. But in terms of getting an understanding of learners and their processes of learning an introductory course needs to set people off on the right path, and I think that in some ways these courses set people off the wrong way. Patrick mentioned his feelings of terror as a new teacher, and I remember those feelings as well. I was scared of being asked difficult questions, scared I might run out of time, scared I might have too much time and wouldn’t know how to fill it, scared I would do things in the wrong order. Maybe if my training had focused me more on how to engage effectively and meaningfully with my students, teaching lessons that allowed them to direct their own learning, I wouldn’t have been so terrified.
      It’s an interesting idea, having a CELTA extension course – but some people might argue that there’s the DELTA for that. Come to think of it, maybe I should be directing these comments at the DELTA and DipTESOL. Surely by that stage in their careers teachers should be ready to engage with ways of teaching language that actually correspond to how students learn it. But then that does lead me back to wondering why we train them to teach according to different language acquisition principles in the first place.
      Thanks again for your comments,
      Steve

      • Matthew permalink

        Thanks Steve! Your reply really has me thinking! Also, I feel like I did speak from a (naturally?) defensive place there, and your perspective is helping me balance that out more with objectivity.

        I’d be really interested to learn more about the history of initial certs’ development/evolution (I have read a couple handfuls of articles from various pubs, but it’s not extensive)…tracing, in particular, sources of change.

  14. Sandy, the threads are all messed up so I’m pasting your comment here again:

    This is a fascinating discussion, and one that’s making me think a lot.
    At the moment, what I’d most like to know is more concrete information about how you believe the content of the courses could be improved. What would you take out? What would you add? What would you change? And if trainees don’t have to produce detailed lesson plans and there’s less of a focus on achieving pre-determined aims, how would you assess the trainees instead? How would you support them? How would you help them to progress between one TP and the next? What underlying beliefs do you think the trainees should go away with which they don’t at the moment, and how would you go about instilling these?
    Another question is where does the problem lie: the courses themselves, or the way that they are followed up on afterwards? If it is the course, then it needs to be changed. But if it’s an introductory course, that implies there’ll be something afterwards, and these structures seem to be missing in a lot of places.
    Thanks,
    Sandy
    (training in week two of my current CELTA course)

    These are all great questions, and I won’t pretend to have all the answers. I suppose the starting point for me is how people learn languages. We need a course that takes into account the fact that learning is non-linear and pretty chaotic. Whatever methods and approaches that the courses endorse and develop need to be the kind of approaches that allow learners to acquire language at the point of need, which tends to mean different learners learning different language within the same lesson (this happens anyway, but we pretend that it doesn’t). To me this requires an approach to lesson preparation that is more open and holistic in its presentation of language. I spoke about alternative approaches to lesson preparation at IATEFL last year (you can listen to it here: https://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/my-iatefl-2014-presentation/ )
    In the classroom, I’d like to see trainees encouraging learners to select phrases from texts that they would like to learn, and then setting tasks that allow them to practise using this language. Observations could be longer, or multiple lessons could be regarded as a single observation “event”, to allow more time to generate more reliable evidence that real learning is taking place. More emphasis could be placed on the reflection process, with longer stages for discussion pre- and post-lesson. Teaching practice needn’t be about measuring the lesson against the plan. If there was no plan to measure it against, maybe it would be easier to assess the lesson for what it actually is (the students don’t get to see a lesson plan, but they are still able to form a valid opinion of the lesson).
    In terms of balance of content, I think most introductory courses have 3 main areas of focus. There’s the language input, there’s the development of teaching skills, the technical stuff, and then there’s the bigger picture that looks at different approaches and beliefs about language learning and teaching. Introductory courses don’t devote much time to the last area, and I think they probably should do a lot more. I don’t think it’s possible to be a good teacher without some kind of firm understanding of the implications of what you’re doing – not just as an English teacher, but as an educator.
    I think my ideas still aren’t very concrete – I don’t have an alternative CELTA up my sleeve or anything. But if there is an effective way of teaching that concurs with widely held views on second language acquisition (and most experienced teachers feel there is) then it shouldn’t be that difficult to devise a course that develops trainees’ ability to teach in this way. What seems to be the tough part is getting the process of change started.
    Great to see you in here, Sandy.
    Take care,
    Steve

  15. The proposal that ‘more emphasis could be placed on the reflection process’ is obviously a very attractive one, but in my experience both of taking an initial teacher training qualification and of mentoring candidates taking one it seems to me that they are pretty panicky affairs, in which candidates mostly feel extremely anxious. High levels of anxiety are not conducive to fruitful reflection. That certificate courses cause so much anxiety is caused, it seems to me, chiefly, by the large amount of stuff trainees have to do and the very limited time in which they have to do it, i.e. from the intensiveness of the course itself. It is clearly regrettable that courses focus on sentence level grammatical structure, to the detriment of, for example, sub-sentential lexical features of the language, or supra-segmental discourse features, but asking trainees to develop an awareness of these things will add to, not reduce, their workload. It will increase, rather than decrease, the levels of anxiety they feel. It seems to me that there’s no getting around the fact that for these courses to be significantly more satisfactory they will have to be much longer, and therefore, unless trainers are happy to take much lower salaries, much more expensive. Both of these things, of course, will make them much less accessible.

    You also say, interestingly, that, ‘I’d like to see trainees encouraging learners to select phrases from texts that they would like to learn, and then setting tasks that allow them to practise using this language.’ This seems to me to be an excellent example of the sort of highly responsive classroom practice that can reasonably be expected only of very experienced teachers. For one thing, it entails, if I’ve understood you, improvising practice activities, without preparation or materials, ‘on the hoof.’ Perhaps I have a gene missing but when I was a brand new teacher I was certainly in no position to do that. The idea that such a thing would be expected of me would certainly not have alleviated my terror. Rather, I’d have been more terrified still.

    • Hi again Patrick,
      I was actually thinking with that example that they could have a pre-prepared task that is generic enough for them to do irrespective of the language they have selected. So for example the learners could do some kind of reading task, post-reading they select language from the text that they feel will be useful for them, the the trainee gives them a writing task that is open enough to allow them to use the language they selected. It could even be a discussion task where they tell each other situations where they think they will be able to use their new language, then for homework they go away and use it.
      The challenge for trainees would be in devising appropriate tasks, which is what the planning (preflection) process would be all about, but the focus throughout this process (including the actual teaching bit) would be on creating a learning environment that allows individual learners to achieve separate aims – their own aims. That’s what current teacher training courses don’t allow trainees to do.
      Going back to your comment before about introductory courses being stressful affairs. Maybe they are stressful because the courses are designed to be stressful. All this box-ticking and signature-gathering and deadline-hitting and the constant feeling that you’re being assessed all the time. I know a lot of that is to try and maintain standards and the course does manage to pack an awful lot in, but I question whether it packs in the right stuff.
      Steve

  16. Hello, thanks for writing this. Very interesting blog.

    I recently completed the CELTA course, with a year’s teaching experience prior to that. A lot of what you say resonates. On my course, we were introduced to PPP and TTT, and guided discovery was briefly mentioned. I think they are good tools for introducing and practicing language, but as you say, assumes that “at this level, and this stage of the course, learners should learn X and Y, and by the end of the lesson, they will all be able to do X and Y”; it doesn’t take into account their needs or individual differences in the speed at which they acquire the new language, and it doesn’t mean that they will use this language effectively outside the classroom.

    I am interested in task based learning and other techniques that move away from this approach. Can you recommend anything I should read? Also, what advice would you give to a new teacher who wants to try techniques other than the “PPP, TTT” presenting language type of lesson? What advice would you give to new teachers who want to do the best for their students? What steps should they take in their first year of teaching?

    Your help would be much appreciated!

    • Hello, Anon,
      It’s interesting hearing the viewpoint of someone who is a recent CELTA graduate. It’s all very well for experienced teachers to say what we think new teachers need to know or can cope with knowing, but what do you think?
      Task-based learning is certainly an approach that I use quite a lot. I’m lucky in that a lot of the assessments I prepare my students for are task-based in that they require learners to perform real-world-type tasks and are assessed on their skills. So I spend a lot of time getting students to perform tasks and then analysing language that comes up from it. At my workplace students also do a lot of project work, which is basically performing extended tasks, sometimes in groups and sometimes alone. I’m thinking of writing a post on project based learning soon, and I’ll be speaking about it at IATEFL.
      If you haven’t read A Framework for Task-Based Learning by Jane Willis then I recommend you do. Teaching Unplugged by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury will give you some good ideas for how to focus your lessons on the students themselves, to maximise them as sources of input and then to maximise opportunities for learning that arise from their input.
      It sounds like you’re already thinking in this way though so that’s encouraging.
      Best wishes,
      Steve

      • Hi Steve,
        Thanks for your reply, and for recommending those books. I will be taking a look at them shortly 🙂
        As for my opinion as a recent CELTA “graduate” with a little bit of experience and a reasonable (but by no means good enough) knowledge of English grammar, what I learnt was very helpful in terms of managing a classroom and structuring a lesson so that students get practice in some language point or skill. For a four week course, in which none of my fellow trainees had any EFL experience and few had any knowledge of English grammar, it felt like it was equipping complete novices to teach in a classroom as well as a four week course could. As I said, I have a little experience and a reasonable knowledge of English grammar, but from what I have read about task based learning (and tonight, dogme) I would feel nervous about my ability to deal with language as it came up. But perhaps part of this anxiety is a result of how I was trained? One thing I felt during the course was that my attention was not on the students enough. I was anxious, and my brain was full to the brim with the details of my lesson plan. It wasn’t until the last couple of TPs that I felt a bit more like I was doing what I should be; focusing on the students, not on my ability to perform the lesson I had planned. I don’t have much experience, but I just can’t imagine most trainees, with the level of experience/knowledge they are required to have to complete the CELTA, could cope with these techniques. But I think that is saying more about the standards of the industry than TBL or dogme.
        Also, I can’t fault my tutors. They were so dedicated to helping us become better teachers, and encouraged us to throw away the text book to come up with more suitable contexts/tasks/activities. They were always encouraging us to think about the students and their needs, not about what we wanted to put in the lesson. But maybe they were constrained by a syllabus Cambridge says they have to follow, and by their own feelings that we trainees, with only 4 weeks to train, needed basic skills and easy to implement techniques more than something that seems it would take a good amount of time to master.
        Also, maybe context plays a part. I read your “about” section and saw that your are(were?) teaching in a HE college. I can really see the benefits of these approaches in this context. But with a class of beginners in Japan who are expecting to learn a new item of grammar every week? Do you think it would work? I’d be interested to know what you think.
        Those are my uniformed thoughts! Thank you for inviting me to put my two cents in.

      • uninformed *

      • *FE !

  17. Another little worryette that has been a-rattlin around in my head since this discussion started is that a description of how language learning or acquisition happens that will be capable of providing a theoretical underpinning for a change in our practices will have to be one which identifies what characteristics language learning has. At the moment we’re very good at saying what characteristics it doesn’t have (linearity, predictability and so on) but a purely negative description of how language learning happens cannot be used to justify any approach to teaching. If that’s all we’ve got then we may as well stick with the approaches we’ve got since we have no reason to suppose that any other will be any better. Of course it cannot be that we have no positive beliefs about how languages are learned. We need to start stating those positive beliefs, so they can be discussed and, ideally, tested.

    • Patrick, there’s a very good article by Diane Larsen-Freeman called Chaos and Complexity Science and Second Language Acquisition (‘Applied Linguistics’ 18/2, 1997) which you might like. If we can apply chaos theory to second language acquisition would that help to reduce your niggling doubts?

      • geoffjordan permalink

        Sorry to be the bearer… etc., etc., but the article you refer to has Larsen-Freeman splashing around out of her depth in a sea which has so far produced no tasty fish to fry for those trying to explain SLA. .

  18. I’d like to read it, nonetheless. Sadly, i don’t get up to the Mitchell Library all that often. The history of attempts to apply glamorous notions borrowed from mathematics and physics to the humanities has certainly not been a happy one. In any case, I’ve always imagined that when we describe language acquisition as ‘chaotic’ we are using the word in something like its everyday sense (i.e. ‘unpredictable,’ or ‘not subject to any discernible order.’) The use of the term in mathematics and physics, so far as I understand it (which is not very far) is much more specific than that, and is to do with the outcomes of certain processes counting amongst the causes of certain other processes and the outcomes of the latter processes counting amongst the causes of the former processes, with dispiriting consequences for our attempts to predict the outcomes of either process (like I said, not very far.) I can certainly imagine that the theoretical apparatus used to describe this may usefully be used to describe language acquisition. What I struggle to imagine is any practical implications of this for classroom teachers, and also, therefore, for teacher trainers.

      • The Guardian article I found following your helpful suggestion, Steve, that chaos theory might have some useful application for SLA has helped me greatly in that it has confirmed for me that, for my sins, I work in an industry in which much that presents itself as thought is not thought at all but merely vogueing, merely presenting a repertoire of poses.
        https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=GuJQSAiODqI

    • If you Google the title and Diane Larsen Freeman you will find it online. I accept that, as Geoff says, she’s probably a bit out of her depth in her attempt to apply chaos and complexity theory to language acquisition. She makes some rather rudimentary connections though, which are about as much as I can manage to get my head round anyway.
      I know what you mean about an apparent lack of thought going into things that are presented to members of our profession as ideas, or truths, or facts. This was what Russell Mayne was talking about at last year’s IATEFL conference in Harrogate, which you have probably seen by now. I think that this lack of substance frustrates you and me for different reasons though. We are both annoyed by people who present their spurious ideas as facts, based on scientific research etc. We don’t like them pretending to have an answer when they don’t. However, I think this annoys you because you want there to be an answer – you’re looking for a theory that is actually based on robust evidence, something that you can comfortably rely on. I, on the other hand, don’t really mind if there is no single theory of language acquisition. I’m quite comfortable with language acquisition being chaotic in the non-scientific sense, as you describe:
      “when we describe language acquisition as ‘chaotic’ we are using the word in something like its everyday sense (i.e. ‘unpredictable,’ or ‘not subject to any discernible order.’)”
      For me, the problem is that for decades (centuries in fact) people have tried to systematise language and then they have assumed that the acquisition part can be systematised too, in the same way. Accepting that language acquisition isn’t systematic is a very important step that English teachers need to make. This is why I have a problem with TESOL courses and many popular materials.
      I may have made a mistake in my presumption of your view on this, in which case I apologise.
      Steve

      • I too am fine with there being no established answer on the question of how languages are best acquired but would reiterate that the absence of a theory about something, or a theory only about what characteristics a thing does not possess, cannot serve as the basis for any particular programme. As I said, if that’s all we’ve got then there’s no reason to change; what we’re doing now is unlikely to be any worse than whatever we end up doing if we change.

      • https://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/13328543/2070154282/name/article%5B1%5DLarsen-Freeman.pdf

        Is this it? She’s wrong on the first page. The point about chaotic systems is that they are unpredictable despite being perfectly deterministic and so wholly consistent with the universe as Laplace asked us to imagine it. If she’d read the first paragraph on chaos theory on Wikipedia she’d have known this.

      • She appears also to hold that Darwinian natural selection contradicts the second law of thermodynamics. I think it is safe to conclude that Diane Larsen Freeman is having a laugh at our expense.

      • Hi Steve

        This is an old itch, now, and I know I shouldn’t be scratching it but I was feeling bad about my immoderate crabbiness over the your chaos theory suggestion so I read the Larsen Freeman thing again and have become extremely cross all over again. It really is the most egregious bollocks. What angers me most is that it is published in a reputable journal and is taken seriously by people, such as yourself, who are not idiots and should know better. This effect is achieved, it seems to me, by two means.

        1. an entirely unnecessary use of impressive sounding jargon, and
        2. an incontinent, and also unnecessary, use of names followed by dates in brackets

        I think that you and I can readily agree that in ELT form should be considered subservient to meaning. I’d like to suggest that we should apply the same principle to discourse about ELT. Let’s not use fashionable academic terms when a plain term will do and let’s only resort to academic protocols of referencing when not to do so would be plagiarism.

        All regards and apologies or going over the whole thing again

        Patrick

      • I mean ‘for.’ Sorry. ‘or going over the same thing’ is obviously daft.

  19. Can I suggest a belief about how languages are learned, one which I’m going to stick my neck out and say that every contributor to this discussion will probably assent to – the belief that language is more effectively learned when encountered in situations in which the learner feels a need for it. Something like this surely underpins the whole notion of communicative language teaching. Hence the centrality of information gap activities in CLT. The value of information gap activities is well recognised in current classroom practice, and in teacher training programmes. Indeed, information gap activities are pretty much our stock in trade. Nonetheless, it is widely felt that we are reverting to something like a reliance on structural syllabuses The reason for this is surely that we have become very adept at devising information gap activities for practising what we now call ‘target language.’ Perhaps we feel that a communicative ‘need’ contrived by a teacher or a materials designer specifically to practice particular ‘target language’ is not a ‘real’ communicative need and that instead of setting up tasks that create these artificial communicative needs we need to address learners’ real communicative needs, the ones they have already before the teacher intervenes and contrives a new one. It seems to me that this is exactly what teachers who still care do, but that it is difficult, not least in the depth of the linguistic knowledge that it requires, and that teachers who lack experience, if they’re anything like I was when I was a new teacher, will need a bunch of techniques to get by with when their sensitivity learners’ linguistic needs fails them.

    • ‘to’ learners’ linguistic needs, I mean. ‘sensitivity to learners’ linguistic needs’ Sorry.

    • Yes, I agree that putting learners in a situation where they need to use the language is absolutely central to English language teaching. Scott Thornbury has a nice post on his A-Z blog about “The point of need”, i.e. feeding language to students when they need to use it, not when the teacher decides to teach them it.You can read it here: https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/11/14/p-is-for-point-of-need/
      Information gap activities are a good way of creating a scenario where there is a need to communicate, but perhaps the problem, as you suggest, is that these activities have become very contrived ways of getting students to use specific language items. The focus of the task is on producing certain language, rather than on completing the task successfully or achieving some kind of communicative purpose. I think it was Henry Widdowson who first made the distinction between Pedagogic Tasks and Real-World Tasks. While these task types exist on a continuum, I think there’s a tendency these days to focus mostly on pedagogic, language-focused tasks rather than real-world tasks. Recently I’ve been getting into project-based learning, as this gives both a context and an authentic purpose for the learners to use language. Sometimes I identify in advance some language that will be useful for the learners when they work on their project, other times I feed language to individual students at the point of need and get them to record it later. But in both cases, the purpose of using the language is real and has consequences – this seems to be motivating and goes back to what you’re saying about learners being given a need to use the language.

    • Hi Patrick,
      I seem to find Larsen-Freeman’s article a lot less offensive than you do, but I freely admit that this is probably because I know a lot less than you about the scientific principles behind chaos and complexity theory. I’ve never really read much about it before and so I don’t have any knowledge for her ideas to conflict with. If it really is as bad as you say then it raises questions about how it got published in the first place, and also how she’s managed to maintain/retain credibility on the back of it.
      Maybe this takes us all the way back to Geoff’s original critique of Demand High – how he feels that certain people are feeding us “half-baked” ideas and how there’s a need for greater criticality in our profession. Thank you for providing some of this.
      Steve

  20. An interesting take on the pedagogy (am I using that word right…never sure..) of teaching a language. After many years of teaching I still can’t pin down what makes a good ESL teacher. I’m glad there are proactive approaches being considered.

    I’ve enjoyed lurking and reading your thoughts on here also. I am on my way out of the teaching profession now (back to accounting). As a last hurrah I put together a website of ESL videos (free) I’ve made/used to get students speaking more fluently. Please share it with your community if you think it’d be help out instructors =)

    http://www.easytalkenglish.com

    Sunil

  21. Thanks for this, Sunil – you’re welcome to lurk, but I’m pleased you wanted to comment as well. I’m sorry you’re leaving our profession, though I wish you well in the world of accounting. Thanks for sharing your materials – the fact that they’re free means I’m quite happy to post the link here. I can’t seem to download them however, but it’s maybe just a software thing.
    Best regards,
    Steve

  22. I think I disagree with this comment, Patrick:
    “What we’re doing now is unlikely to be any worse than whatever we end up doing if we change.”
    If we know that there is no clear order or system to language acquisition, but we teach as if there is, any learning that goes on is accidental. Jane Willis said this:

    “Spending twenty minutes on presenting and practising one single structure to perfection is likely to benefit only the very few learners who happen to be ready to use it. Some may know it already and it might be beyond the grasp of the rest. For these students, such practice is largely a waste of time.”
    Willis, J. 1996, A framework for task-based learning, Harlow: Longman. (p.15)

    If we go into the classroom accepting that different learners will be at different stages of learning, that they are motivated and ready to acquire different language items, and if we create a learning environment that allows them to do this (i.e. select and use what they are actually ready to learn), then surely this is better.
    Steve

  23. geoffjordan permalink

    Knowing that SLA is not a linear process, that learners don’t acquire the target language by learning a sequential series of atomised bits of grammar wrapped up in impoverished input counts for a lot in my opinion: it’s enough evidence to show that most courses offered in the ELT world are profoundly misguided. And while we don’t have a complete, generally-accepted theory of SLA, there is widespread agreement on many areas which makes it possible to evaluate teaching methodologies and syllabuses and say that some are better than others. So I think Patrickamon’s suggestion that “if that’s all we’ve got then there’s no reason to change; what we’re doing now is unlikely to be any worse than whatever we end up doing if we change” is unwarranted.

  24. Hi Steve and Geoff

    Perhaps I haven’t made myself particularly clear. What I mean is this.

    We have good empirical evidence to suggest that simply putting an adult male and an adult female panda in an enclosure together is not as efficient as we would like a way of producing panda cubs. This is a well-founded belief about what doesn’t work. I’d like to suggest though that simply separating the pandas is unlikely to improve matters. To be sure, there may be other things we can do, but they will have to be informed by beliefs about what does work, not just beliefs about what doesn’t. In the absence of such beliefs the best thing we can do probably is to leave the pandas in the enclosure together and hope for the best. Similarly with ELT, a change in our practices will need to be mandated by beliefs about what does work. I’m not saying we don’t have any such beliefs All I’m suggesting is that we need to start being explicit about what those beliefs are. I suggested one and am looking forward to hearing of some more.

  25. What I also think would be helpful is a good definition of ‘linear’ since the word is bandied about so much. All I can think of is ‘of or pertaining to a line,’ which I suppose we can agree doesn’t really get us anywhere.

  26. Steve

    You object that ‘If we know that there is no clear order or system to language acquisition, but we teach as if there is, any learning that goes on is accidental.’ But if language learning is ‘chaotic’ then ‘accidental’ learning is the best we can hope for. Anyway, is there something wrong with ‘accidental’ language learning? If language learning is ‘chaotic’ then isn’t ‘accidental’ language learning the only kind of language learning there is?

    • What I understand about the process of language learning is that there is no clearly identified order of acquisition, that is to say each individual will acquire different language in a different order. Additionally, after acquiring a piece of language they might forget it again or get worse at using it before they get better at using it again. An approach to language teaching that assumes everyone learns the same stuff at the same time, and that once they have been taught it there’s little need to teach it again, therefore, actively runs counter to the acquisition process. This is the problem I have with common practice in ELT.
      Steve

  27. geoffjordan permalink

    Hi Patrick,

    If you agree (with Popper) that we can’t know if a statement or hypothesis or theory is true, but we can know if it’s false, then you’ll agree that we progress in our understanding of SLA by testing and falsifying theories. Establishing that a statement or theory is false is thus of fundamental importance. On this basis, we dismiss Skinner’s theory of learning because it’s falsified by empirical tests, and we dismiss Krashen’s Monitor model because its constructs are so poorly-defined as to make the argument circular.

    The theories which offer the best (partial) explanations are those that have stood up best to scrutiny and to testing (i.e. attempts to falsify them).. Most of these theories belong to a cognitive view of learning which adopts a “processing of data” kind of metaphor and have “interlanguage” as a central construct. But there are also sociocultural models which see language learning as the appropriation of a tool “through the shift from inter-mental to intra-mental processes” as Myles puts it. Learners benefit from the help of experts in order to ‘scaffold’ them into the next developmental stages and learning is seen as a quintessentially social process, in which interaction plays a central role, not as a source of input, but as a shaper of development.

    Combining cognitivist with sociocultural approaches to SLA, we arrive at the conclusion that the stages all learners go through when acquiring the second language remains largely independent of both the learner’s mother tongue and the context of learning (e.g. whether instructed in a classroom or acquired naturally by exposure), but that the learning process can be helped and speeded up through teacher intervention. This leads to the well-known claim that teaching can affect “rate but not route”.

    Research has provided glosses on this essential view of SLA, and led to the development of proposals for ELT methodology and syllabi which are in line with SLA research findings. As I suggest in my series of posts on TBLT ( https://canlloparot.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/task-based-language-teaching/ ), over the last 30 years Long has developed a methodology and syllabus which is based on 10 principles fashioned in the light of such research. These 10 principles, and Long’s (2014) book on TBLT should satisfy your demand for an “explicit statement of beliefs” and for practical consequences that flow from these beliefs. Likewise, I think Thornbury and Meddings have given a clear statement of both the beliefs which inform the Dogme approach, and the implications for classroom practice. Despite their many differences, Long’s TBLT and Thornbury and Meddings’ Dogme agree that the use of coursebooks inside the framework of a product-based syllabus offends both SLA research findings and principles of humanistic teaching. These 2 proposals also show that there is no justification for your argument that since nobody has come up with anything better, there’s no good reason for teachers to change the way they teach. At the risk of protesting too much, I can’t resist adding that Long’s TBLT and Thornbury and Meddings’ Dogme also serve to highlight the weaknesses of Demand High.
    .
    Myles, F. (2011) SLA research: its significance for learning and teaching issues https://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/421

    Long, M. (2014) SLA and TBLT. Wily.

  28. Thank you, Geoff – you said it much better than me. Both Task-based learning and Dogme create a classroom environment that is conducive to what we know about language acquisition. Unlike coursebook-based atomistic teaching which, as you say, “offends” these widely-held beliefs. Your point that this approach also runs counter to principles of humanistic teaching is also interesting. Basically, when you think about it, the way we are trained and the way we are encouraged to teach using global coursebooks actively goes against what Communicative Language Teaching is supposed to be all about. And it’s not that we don’t have alternatives – we do. The only thing is that these alternatives are not commercial, so the big corporations would rather persist with an ineffectual approach that makes them money.
    Steve

  29. Thanks Geoff for your review of recent research, of almost all of which I freely admit I was quite unaware. I’ll look into some of it when I get the time. I’d still want to maintain that while establishing the falsity of some claims is certainly key to establishing the truth of others, still a programme of action cannot be mandated only by the recognition that some or other belief is false. Anyway, you’ve now provided plenty of positive material that we can work with.

  30. I’d only add that the view I was trying to express, perhaps poorly, was the view that if (not ‘since’) we have no positive grounds for favouring some alternative approach but only negative ones for doubting the efficacy of the present one then our grounds are insufficient to warrant a change. I was making a plea for a clear statement of what those positive grounds are, a plea which you have in very large measure answered.

  31. Thanks, too, Steve, for your link to the Thornbury blog. Certainly there’s nothing there to object to. I’d only say again that the responsiveness that it correctly calls for in teachers is a demanding requirement and one that I was in no position to meet as I anxiously chain smoked outside a language school in Seville eighteen years ago. I doubt whether anything that could be done in a four-week course could have remedied my shortcomings.

    • Or alleviated my anxiety.

      • Then, again, I did make a suggestion, a long time ago now. Somewhat narcissistically I’m going to repaste it here, because I’d be very interested to hear what you think.

        ‘Typically, early on in a teacher training programme trainees attend a lesson in a language unknown to them and then are asked to reflect on the experience. The lesson is usually of a standard, vanilla, PPP type (or else there are several such lessons each of which is supposed to exemplify, say, suggestopedia, or grammar-translation, or whatever.) If, instead, trainees were involved in an ongoing engagement with an unknown language in which they encountered authentic material and were encouraged to develop habits of noticing as they engaged with it and as they explored the new language together, and if the insights gained from this then formed the basis of the work they then did in classes with ELT learners then the result might indeed be teachers with a more enquiring, flexible and attentive attitude to classroom practice.’

      • Thanks for this, Patrick. I agree that my argument tended to focus on the problems with current common practice ion ELT, rather than offering more positive solutions. I do feel that convincing people that we have a problem in the first place is a very important stage in the process of change, and it seems to be very difficult to overcome. Maybe they would be more likely to accept that there’s a problem if the solution was more obvious. I’ll try to introduce some more constructive ideas in future posts.
        The idea you have about using the unknown language lesson(s) of an introductory course to encourage trainees to engage meaningfully with the language they are learning is a constructive idea in itself. Trainees would be learning the unknown language in a way that we would want them to encourage their learners to learn it. They could then reflect on the process, identify what works and what doesn’t work for them, discover that they each have different interests, preferences and levels of ability, and that they progress in different directions and at different rates. These would all be very valuable things for trainee language teachers to discover about the language learning process.
        Best wishes,

        Steve

      • Thanks, Steve. It seems to me though that when people recollect their schooldays a complaint that we often make is that the content of the lessons bore little relation to our own personal lives and concerns. Certainly, almost anyone who has made any serious effort to learn a language other than their own will readily accept that it is not a matter of, well, I’ve done lesson one so now I know x, and now I’ve done lesson two so now I know y and there is a finite number of things like x and y that I need to know so all I need to do is to continue to attend lessons until all those ‘things’ have been ‘covered.’ If I’m right about this then persuading people that there’s a problem with a language learning programme that proceeds as if that were the case shouldn’t present an insuperable difficulty.

      • I’m still struggling a bit with what’s meant by ‘linear’ in this context. Is it something like the caricature I’ve just presented?

      • In this, admittedly bite-size, summary of Dogme, Scott Thornbury distinguishes, it seems to me, various degrees of Dogme The first two are surely the bread and butter of a jobbing teacher; we do these things every day. The third we do more rarely. The fourth, admittedly, more rarely still, and the fifth, well, I grant, in most cases, never.

        http://www.theguardian.com/education/2003/apr/17/tefl.lukemeddings

      • Sorry. That was stupid. He doesn’t ‘seem to me’ to do this. He just plain does it.

      • Oh, and apologies to Luke Meddings. I just looked again at the credits.

  32. I want to take the time to read through all these comments properly, but I’d be keen to hear some thoughts on a blog post I wrote a while back (in between the numerous balls of tumbleweed):
    https://learningcentredteaching.wordpress.com/2014/07/29/is-the-celta-already-a-dogme-course/

    The gist of the blogpost is that the CELTA itself could be seen as reflecting an unplugged approach based on emergent needs, given that TP and feedback are seen as much more useful by trainees than the input sessions. After reading some of the comments here, it made me think perhaps another way to encourage trainees to let go of the coursebook is to make this (the way CELTA works) explicit, so as to show them their lessons don’t need to be so rigidly pre-planned, but rather more responsive to Ss needs and open to whatever learning opportunities come up.

    I’m a big fan of evidence-informed approaches, SLA etc, and I’d love to incoporate these principles more into the CELTA, but it’s a slow process! “My” CELTA courses are still more mainstream than I’d like, so hopefully the comments above will help me along. Thanks for a great read,

    Magnus

    • Hi Magnus, and thanks for the link to your post. It’s an interesting idea that you could describe the CELTA as a Dogme course, and I see what you mean when you draw an analogy between TP and the student practice stages of a Dogme lesson. However, what most (not all – most) CELTAs don’t do is prepare their trainees to become effective Dogme teachers themselves. It’s still all about press;acted language items, predetermined aims, and getting the students to use the language that you want them to use, rather than giving them space to find the language that allows them to express themselves.
      I think it probably is possible to design a CELTA in such a way that it does encourage effective Dogme or Task-based teachers, or certainly teachers who prioritise the values these approaches uphold. However, designing such a course would very much be an exercise in bashing a square peg into a round hole. I suspect that a lot of CELTA tutors out there would also say that their courses are more mainstream than they would like them to be, but it’s hard to meet all the course requirements if you move too far from the traditional, atomistic, coursebook-based approach that is nothing like the way we teach ourselves.
      Keep trying though!
      Steve

  33. Yes, there are a few CELTA criteria that you could interpret in those ways if you wanted (providing appropriate practice, awareness of Ss needs etc), but in practice you’re right that the main ones relate to being able to analyse and present individual language items in one-off lessons, rather than maximising/exploiting learning opportunities, recycling and consolidating material from previous lessons, providing communicative tasks etc.

    Coincidentally, tomorrow I’m doing a session on “Using coursebooks” (not because I’m a huge fan, more because most teachers will be expected to use them and I don’t want my trainees just to mindlessly march through them), so we’ll see if I can get across any of these ideas as things to consider when evaluating published materials. We’ll see how it goes.

    As for your promise above of future posts with suggestions, I was rather idealistic when I first became a CELTA trainer, thinking I could revolutionise the course and do it just the way I want it (with principles from Dogme, TBL etc), but now the disillusionment is starting to set in, so I look forward to those!

    Thanks,

  34. Patrick, you said this:
    “Certainly, almost anyone who has made any serious effort to learn a language other than their own will readily accept that it is not a matter of, well, I’ve done lesson one so now I know x, and now I’ve done lesson two so now I know y and there is a finite number of things like x and y that I need to know so all I need to do is to continue to attend lessons until all those ‘things’ have been ‘covered.’”

    I’ve had students before who have done exactly this. I remember a Chinese student arriving late to a lesson just as I was doing some clarification on the meaning and form of the present perfect. I then set up a practice activity and went over to check he was going to be able to do the task. He looked at me dismissively and said “I do the present perfect already”. He genuinely believed that, because he had attended a lesson that focused on the present perfect in the past, he didn’t need to bother with it again, even though he had demonstrated that he couldn’t actually use this language item in context.
    A lot of teachers feel the same way. They teach a piece of language and then they are surprised when their students are unable to use it a couple of weeks later. The coursebooks that are still popular around the world, which follow a structural syllabus, compound this belief.
    I think we still have quite a way to go to convince people that, just because it seems to make sense and fits in with more general traditional models of education, this isn’t actually how languages are learnt.
    Having said that, not a single person has commented on this post to suggest that traditional, course book-based teaching is the way to go. Maybe the tide is turning, or maybe it’s just that people who believe such things don’t read my blog.
    Steve

    • You’re probably right. I’m taking too cheery a view. It’s because of my sunny disposition.

    • Interesting you mention the ‘course book’ approach. Frankly speaking, we started the language centre with our own syllabus which we thought was brilliant and innovative, trained our teachers to follow it, and eventually ended up going back to the established course books. Why?

      Well:
      1. The students wanted it.
      2. The teachers wanted it.
      3. The textbooks were current, interesting and kept everyone on track.
      4. We could upgrade every time a new edition came out.
      5. We as a school could ensure that every student got pretty much the same quality every month.

      I personally prefer the course book approach and I never thought I would say that. Our students learn well because we use the books as the backbone of the course and the teachers have the freedom to give the students additional supporting exercises to help them if they want.

      We have living proof that the students who start with us from Elementary and finish at IELTS, and are keen hard-working students and apply what they learn both inside and outside the classroom, pretty much always do well.

      Just our experience.

      • Hi Aiyshah, and thanks for sharing your experiences. I’d like to comment on the reasons you gave for going back to using coursebooks, if that’s OK:

        1. The students wanted it.
        In my experience students often like having a coursebook as well. It’s often what they are used to; it certainly fits with more traditional approaches to education and is therefore familiar. It also gives them a sense of direction. The idea that language learning is a linear process that starts at page one and finishes at page whatever is comforting for students. It’s just a shame it isn’t true.

        2. The teachers wanted it.
        Why was this? Was it because they didn’t like your syllabus, or because they didn’t like having to find their own materials? Or maybe they just wanted something that allowed them to plan and teach without thinking too much. OR, maybe they had originally been trained in a way that was conducive to coursebook-based teaching and so they were more comfortable with this.

        3. The textbooks were current, interesting and kept everyone on track.
        As current as this morning’s news? As interesting as materials that the students bring to class themselves? And what kind of track is everyone on? Just because the students are being taught the same stuff at the same time it doesn’t mean they are all learning the same stuff at the same time.

        4. We could upgrade every time a new edition came out.
        The stakeholder that benefits the most from this is the publishing company. That’s why they keep producing new versions of the same books.

        5. We as a school could ensure that every student got pretty much the same quality every month.
        Yes, but what level of quality? A book that is designed appeal to everybody is, by definition, designed for nobody in particular, and therefore can never be more than mediocre for any particular group. I wrote a post bout this a couple of years ago: https://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/2013/04/21/universality-and-mediocrity-part-1-the-great-coursebook-swindle/

        I know that people can learn English while using a coursebook, but SLA theories would suggest that they are not learning English because of the coursebook. Just because people like something it doesn’t mean it’s good. You’ve given some solid practical reasons for using coursebooks and I wish you and your school every success, but it’s important to be aware that the course book-based syllabus you are following goes against widely held knowledge about how people learn languages.

        Steve

      • Thanks for your reply, you have made some interesting points. The only thing I can say is that here in Malaysia I personally don’t know any language school that doesn’t use a course book – even the British Council (not that that is a necessarily a good sign), but I believe we at our school have one of the best teaching teams in the country and though there have been times when we have created our own syllabuses for other courses we have run, the teachers are always compliant and interested but at the end draw a huge sigh of relief when we begin thinking about some kind of resource book to make it the back bone…Also the final result of the students English at our school is better than 99% of the other schools in this country. Honestly that is the truth. I don’t put that down to the textbook we use (as many other schools use the same textbook), I put it down to the quality of teachers we have and what they can do with the textbook and what else they can bring to the class with other resources…just speaking from years of experience.

      • Actually also I have to add, our students are all adults, I have over 25 years teaching ESL to children also and I would never advocate a textbook for children in the same way as I do for adults. I think they have very different styles of learning.

  35. My feeling is that it all comes down the the school itself, if it values their students progress it will value their teachers performance, let’s face it, that’s just plain good business.

    At our school we base our assessment on 6 monthly peer observations and student assessment of the teachers. We evaluate teachers based on CELTA criteria, which all have achieved, so they should know what they are supposed to do. We also understand that sometimes when you are left alone in the class for too long, you can start swerving off into a direction you don’t realise, so that is why 6 monthly check-ins are really worthwhile, just for quick reminders and of course with peer observations it does put the pressure on to perform well for your colleague, and of course you know they have to perform well for you too, plus you never know, you may learn something from that other person too!.

    If there is a particular problem with a teacher, we do an observation based on the CELTA criteria and evaluate and give retraining if necessary, or sometimes it’s just people have lost their ‘enthusiasm’ and need a pep talk. But ultimately we are there to help people improve. If someone doesn’t appear to show any interest in improving….well….they will ‘get the message’..

    For us if the students are happy and they all pass their exams, then something is going right.

    • It’s good that you value highly the teaching performance of your staff, Aiyshah. Can I ask why you choose to use the CELTA criteria to evaluate their performance though? It’s interesting that you are concerned about teachers “swerving off into a direction they don’t realise”. This swerving off, focusing less on what you’ve been told to do and responding more to the situation you are in, could in fact lead to some very productive lessons. Are staff in your workplace encouraged to try out new ideas or approaches? For me this is a very important part of staff development.

      Steve

      • Thanks for your point. Actually when I say ‘swerving off’, I mean they may start doing all the talking in the class rather than letting the students talk, or end up just going through the motions and not letting the students discuss or bring something new to the class. I know for a fact if I am not watched from time to time in the classroom I end up giving less. Peer observations are just one way to keep yourselves looking at your teaching practice and what others are doing and perhaps there are some other practices that are useful that you hadn’t thought off.

      • We must always keep learning, and from our peers is a great place to start.

  36. Aiyshah, it certainly sounds like you have an effective school with clear standards that meet the expectations of your learners. You haven’t really addressed my point though that following a structural syllabus, based on the assumption that learners acquire the language that the teacher chooses to focus on when the teacher chooses to focus on it, actually goes against accepted principles of second language acquisition.
    It could be that successful learning in your classrooms has nothing to with the coursebook or the syllabus, as you said yourself:
    “I put it down to the quality of teachers we have and what they can do with the textbook and what else they can bring to the class with other resources.”
    Maybe it’s what your teachers do to supplement, adapt or augment the coursebook that works best..?

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