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What do I think I’m doing?

October 20, 2018

You may have noticed that Geoff Jordan has been blogging quite a bit recently about teacher training in ELT. Geoff has a lot of concerns about the way people are trained to become English language teachers – most of which boil down to a fundamental mismatch between how languages are learned and how languages are taught. I share Geoff’s concerns, and have used this blog (and other places) to rail against various underlying assumptions that inform ELT practice and which are, for one reason or another, flawed. Of course, it’s easy enough to have a pop at teacher training courses and teacher trainers when you’re not actually doing any teacher training yourself – and I haven’t done much in the last few years. But I’ve started a new job that involves working on an MEd TESOL programme, so I now have to start walking the talk, so to speak.

In his blog What do you think you’re doing? Geoff presents the views of a range of applied linguists and concludes that much of what teacher training courses prescribe is not congruent with these views, and therefore promotes a model of English Language Teaching that isn’t as effective as it should be. He calls for some serious, critical reflection on the part of teacher trainers, and recommends that we all start asking ourselves some fairly basic questions. As someone who is returning to structured TESOL after some time away from it (during which my views have evolved considerably), I feel it’s particularly important for me to consider these questions as a form of recalibration, a way of establishing a basis upon which to determine my praxis. This is what I intend to do here.

Before I address Geoff’s questions directly though, I want to raise the semantic issue of what we call ourselves, and what we do – are we teacher trainers or teacher educators? When it comes to TESOL, we tend to speak of teacher trainers who work on teacher training courses, but it’s important to know that this implies a rather archaic view of teaching. In practically all other subject areas, dealing with all forms of teaching and learning (primary, secondary, tertiary or lifelong), the preferred term is teacher education – so much so that if you describe a teacher educator as a teacher trainer, there’s a good chance that they will be offended. This article by G. Patrick O’Neill, from as long ago as 1986, bemoans the continued use (even back then) of Teacher Training to describe Teacher Education. O’Neill uses even older literature to make a clear distinction between the two: Teacher Training is essentially concerned with the low-level, procedural skills that are required in order for teachers to transmit knowledge and/or skills in a specific subject, without focusing on or referring to knowledge in any wider sense. Teacher Education, on the other hand, doesn’t just seek to develop knowledge of a subject and a person’s ability to transmit that knowledge, but also seeks to develop skills, abilities and awareness about learning and teaching more generally.

Given the content of many popular TESOL courses, it’s perhaps understandable how the term Teacher Training has endured. Much of the content of both pre-service and in-service TESOL programmes is concerned with what can only be described as low-level, procedural techniques – giving instructions, checking understanding, grouping students, sequencing and staging lessons, correcting errors etc. The same courses neglect to focus on some of the wider issues that are hugely important for ELT professionals. I’m talking about exploring the whole purpose of education in the first place – what it means, why it’s important and who benefits (or should benefit) from it, as well as more contextualised issues such as the role of English in the world, how this impacts on learner motivation, and what role ELT can/could/should play in making the world a better place. These issues are often absent from TESOL programmes and, while I don’t want to diminish the importance of the low-level technicist stuff – particularly on initial TESOL programmes – I feel it is remiss to deliver programmes in “teacher training” without bothering with “teacher education”. We now have large numbers of English language teachers around the world who struggle to think beyond their highly prescriptive lesson plan with its linguistic aims and meticulous staging based on externally-imposed standards. The fact that the most popular TESOL courses in the world can still quite accurately be described as teacher training programmes rather than teacher education programmes is a large part of the problem, in my view.

So, anyway, I regard myself as a teacher educator, I am working on a teacher education programme, and I approach Geoff’s questions from this perspective. Here are my answers to his questions.

 

  1. What is your view of the English language? How do you transmit this view to teachers?

Like almost all languages, English is a means of communication that consists of a system that determines its structure, a lexicon that determines its content, a series of phonological features that determine what it sounds like and an orthographic system that determines what it looks like. Importantly though, English is different from other languages in terms of the role it plays in the world. Its prevalence as a means of communication in disparate geographical regions and between/among non-1st language users has resulted in it becoming heavily influenced by other languages, resulting in an increasingly rich vocabulary and a certain ambivalence towards the application of its own “rules”. The range of varieties of English has made standardisation difficult, and questions have been raised in recent decades about where standards should come from, what they should be, and who (if anyone) has the right to impose them (Kachru 1985, Seidlhofer 2005, Pennycook 2017). The reasons behind the spread of English as a global language, and the ways in which it is used today, raise many issues related to power that are important for English teachers to be aware of, as they impact massively on their learners and their learners’ learning.

English is increasingly recognised as a passport to opportunity – an employability skill, or a study skill, or a life skill. It is increasingly becoming a requirement for certain jobs, or for access to further/higher education, and in today’s globalised world is often necessary to facilitate communication, or even to allow access to knowledge. This means that people rarely learn English these days because they actually like learning English; motivation for learning English tends to be instrumental – a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Learners are therefore preoccupied with acquiring the skills to use English in order to do the other things they want to do. This means that teachers need to know what these things are, to understand why they are important to their learners. Long discussions about the uses of the continuous and simple aspects are unlikely to be motivating for someone who needs to pass a specific exam in order to keep her job as a Geography teacher, or someone who does a low-paid job in an English-speaking country and can’t get a promotion, or an engineer who needs to be able to read scientific journals.

One way of transmitting my views about English to teachers is to encourage them to explore their learners’ backgrounds and needs. This allows them to see for themselves that, for most learners, English is perceived less as an academic subject and more as a vehicle for something else. For any TESOL programme that includes a practical element, where course participants work with real learners in the classroom, I present the need to understand learners’ backgrounds and contexts as being fundamental to, and a prerequisite for, developing a learning programme that will be appropriate for these learners.

I think it’s also worth making teachers (or would-be teachers) aware of the importance of English as a source of power. Our MEd TESOL programme includes a module entitled Language, Identity and Power, which explores the ways in which language – and English in particular – can be a source of empowerment, but can also be used to exploit, to dominate and to exclude.

 

  1. How do you think people learn an L2? How do you explain language learning to teachers?

It’s a while since I actively studied applied linguistics and I don’t regard myself as an SLA specialist, but I think that most differences between L1 and L2 acquisition relate to the fact that people learning English in a language classroom tend not to be toddlers. They already have a first language and the ability to analyse it, allowing them to apply certain cognitive and metacognitive skills to the new language they are learning. There is scope therefore to exploit this. However, just because learners have the capacity to use their L1 as a basis for scaffolding L2 learning, that doesn’t mean that the best way to learn an L2 is through translation and contrastive analysis. It can come in handy at certain stages in the learning process, but I still think that language learning takes place best when it is used for authentic, meaningful purposes, in authentic, meaningful contexts. It’s the communicative value of language that gives it any meaning, and learning is always more effective when the process is meaningful.

An important point to consider, therefore, is that meaning is subjective – the “meaningfulness” of any classroom activity will be perceived differently from student to student. This point naturally raises questions about the validity of any approach to language teaching that assumes all students will learn specific items of language at the same time, when the teacher presents it to them. Language acquisition doesn’t happen at the same speed, at the same time and in the same order for everybody, and we certainly don’t acquire language in order of linguistic complexity. This of course means that any syllabus that assumes all students will acquire language items in a predetermined sequence is fundamentally flawed.

I see language acquisition as incredibly messy, unpredictable and difficult to assume anything about. I try to encourage teachers to accept the fact that their learners will learn different things from a lesson, identifying and acquiring linguistic features that they, individually, happen to be ready to acquire. Effective lesson planning, therefore, is not about identifying language in advance that you want to teach to your learners, and then creating a context that allows you to introduce it. Instead, it’s about identifying a context first that is useful/relevant to the students, and then identifying a range of linguistic features that learners might be ready to acquire while functioning within that context. Teaching moments occur when opportunities for learning are identified (by the teacher or the learners), and then exploited by the teacher to maximise those opportunities. But this is something that has to emerge during the lesson. There’s no point in teaching something that none of the students are ready to learn – it’s about being aware of your students and what they’re ready to learn at any point in the lesson, and then exploiting those opportunities as they come up. I suppose this what I meant when I was banging on about Preflection a few years ago.

 

  1. What types of syllabus do you discuss with teachers? Which type do you recommend to them?

I feel that many TESOL courses lack sufficient critical analysis of the ELT syllabus. I think it’s important to look at a range of syllabus models in order to identify their strengths and weaknesses. This is particularly important with regard to the more common approaches to syllabus design that you get in ELT. There’s a real lack of congruity between widely accepted SLA theory and the types of syllabus that drive popular, published learning programmes. Any syllabus that assumes a linear model of progression and the incremental acquisition of individual language items (pretty much all popular ELT coursebooks) runs counter to theories of language acquisition, as Geoff mentions in his posts.

Problems with popular models of syllabus design aren’t just limited to organising principles and assumptions about language acquisition, though. The lack of focus on PARSNIP topics means that they often have huge holes in their content. Censoring these topics from the ELT syllabus denies our students access to important and incredibly useful language, ensuring they are unable to use English to talk about some of the most talked-about and divisive issues in the world today and effectively ensuring their voices go unheard in the English-speaking world. Allowing this to happen is, in my view, a very irresponsible thing for ELT professionals to do. I therefore encourage teachers to approach syllabus design by considering what content will be most useful, empowering or emancipatory for their learners, and working from there.

I also feel it’s important to point out how some syllabus models look good but can still be poorly implemented. For example, task-based or project-based syllabuses, or in fact any syllabus that relies on non-linguistic outcomes, can lead to teachers neglecting to focus on language at all. A negotiated syllabus, which uses the expressed needs of learners to derive its content, can turn into a kind of structureless, unbalanced, “what-do-you-want-to-do-today?” sort of course that is more concerned with entertaining the students than ensuring they actually learn anything. A syllabus can be based on sound principles, but it’s how it is implemented that really matters.

 

  1. What materials do you recommend?

I understand the importance of ensuring teachers and would-be teachers are familiar with the sorts of materials they might end up having to use in their everyday professional practice, so I do focus on some of the big coursebooks and other published materials. However, I certainly don’t recommend that they are simply accepted uncritically as legitimate teaching materials and followed in the same way as the teacher’s book prescribes. Instead, I recommend some critical analysis and evaluation of these materials in order to identify their assumptions about language learning, about “appropriate” content and also about underlying values that are being promoted in these materials. Being able to follow published ELT materials is a lot less of a skill than being able to adapt them so that they’re more effective from an SLA perspective, or more inclusive of/for minorities, or less indoctrinatory in their promotion of white western values, etc.

I also think it’s really important for teachers to be able to develop their own materials. This might involve selecting authentic materials and using them as a basis for devising tasks, but might equally involve getting learners to exploit their own existing knowledge, learning experiences and contexts to identify materials that can create learning opportunities in the classroom. So this is really about recommending that teachers develop a knowledge of the types of authentic texts that their learners engage with, or aspire to engage with, and developing appropriate materials from there.

 

  1. What methodological principles do you discuss with teachers? Which do you recommend to them?

Communicative Language Teaching has become such a catch-all that it is almost meaningless; pretty much any activity could conceivably be described as “communicative” as long as it involves the learners engaging somehow with the language being taught. When it comes to methodology, then, I feel it’s a question of exploring (or exposing) the principles that underpin certain methods. Looking at SLA theory to establish the effectiveness of a particular method can be very useful, but I also feel that relying exclusively on language acquisition theory to inform your practice naturally leads to a very narrow view of ELT, and the failure to consider wider principles can be quite damaging. For example, PPP (and other methods whereby the teacher decides in advance what learning will take place) applies the principle that the teacher knows what the learners want to know better than the learners, and that learning takes place best when knowledge is dispensed unidirectionally, from teacher to students, and deposited into their brains. Paolo Freire (1996: 52-67) described this type of methodology as a ‘banking model’, and was critical of (among other things) the power dynamic that it creates between teacher and learners.

I tend to be quite critical of methods that assume, accept or promote any form of inequality or power imbalance. I’m more in favour of participatory methodologies – methods that require the learners to be involved in all aspects of the process, from selecting content to identifying opportunities for learning, right through to selecting criteria for assessment. Of course, it’s not always possible to follow fully participative approaches to ELT within the performative and prescriptive paradigms that ELT professions usually find themselves having to work within, but it’s the responsibility of teacher educators to make sure the limitations of existing paradigms are exposed.

 

I’m not sure what Geoff was expecting when he asked these questions, and I’m not sure what he’ll think of my answers either. I’m not even sure what I think of my answers. Maybe it’s because of the position I’m in as I write this – starting to get back into working on a teacher education programme after a break from it, but not into the swing enough that I can give fully-formed concrete answers about what I do on a regular basis. It would probably be a useful exercise for me to revisit these questions after some time, as this will probably allow me to identify specific examples of what I actually do, rather than what I think I do or what I think I want to do. Please remind me to do this.

 

 

References

Freire, P. (1996), Pedagogy of the Oppressed (revised edition), London: Penguin.

Kachru, B. B. (1985), ‘Standards, Codification and Sociolinguistic Realism: the English Language in the Outer Circle’, In R. Quirk and H.G. Widdowson (eds), English in the World: Teaching and Learning the Language and Literatures, pp. 11-30, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Neill, G. P. (1986), ‘Teacher Education or Teacher Training: Which is it?’, McGill Journal of Education Vol 21:3.

Pennycook, A. (2017), The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Seidlhofer, B. (2005), ‘Key Concepts: ‘English as a Lingua Franca’, English Language Teaching Journal, 59:4, pp. 339-341.

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5 Comments
  1. geoffjordan permalink

    A very interesting post, Steve.

    Your answers highlight important political issues,and I completely agree with the views you express. Those of us who teach English should appreciate how English has been, and still is, used to wield power, and why most of our students are learning it. We should also appreciate that English teaching is a huge global business where most teachers are exploited by their employers, and where a certain ELT elite, including materials writers and the best known teacher trainers, are paid well to promote the interests of big business and to persuade everybody that coursebook-driven ELT is a thoroughly good thing.

    My own concern is that teachers are not getting the training, let alone the education, they need to decide for themselves how best to help their students learn English as an L2. They’re shown how to teach using a coursebook, without getting the chance to look at how people learn languages and then at alternative ways to organise courses of English which respect learners’ interlanguage development. By asking the 5 questions, I invite teacher trainers to say how they see language, language learning and language teaching, so that we can all get a clear idea of their views and so that we can all join in a conversation about them. Your answers provide lots of food for thought and discussion; thanks very much for taking the time to express them so eloquently.

    • Hi Geoff,
      Thanks for your comment, and for motivating me to write the post in the first place. I think the point you make about the scale of the ELT industry is very important. On our MEd TESOL course at UWS we are introducing a new module this year called ELT as a Global Profession, which focuses on the locations of power within the industry, how these locations impact on teachers and learners, and, perhaps more importantly, teachING and learnING. I’m really looking forward to delivering that module.
      You raise an interesting issue when you describe an “ELT elite” who “promote the interests of big business”. I think you’re probably right that many coursebook writers and methodologists (for want of a better word) naturally end up serving the needs of big publishing companies because it’s those companies who publish their books. I’m not sure that we should direct our anger towards them though, as they only have as much power as their paymasters are prepared to afford them, and if they were to stand up against the big businesses that control them they would simply be cast aside and replaced with someone else. Some are more influential than others though, and I guess what they say does matter to many people.
      I think it’s a really good idea to be encouraging teacher educators to ask these questions. A lot of us use coursebooks on TESOL courses because this practice reflects what teachers will have to do in their actual jobs. However, that doesn’t make it OK. It’s the uncritical acceptance of coursebooks and everything that is wrong with them – in terms of assumptions about SLA, topic selection, focus on profitability over efficacy, and the values they promote – that I have a particular problem with. Teacher education programmes, in my view, need to problematise these aspects of the profession, to demonstrate how current approaches, methods and materials lack congruence with almost everything that should happen in the language classroom. That’s how we produce better teachers.
      Thanks again for raising these questions. I hope they continue to raise useful discussions about what we all think we’re doing.
      Steve

  2. geoffjordan permalink

    Steve,

    I didn’t mean to encourage anybody to direct their anger towards the materials writers, teacher trainers and conference stars who support coursebook-driven ELT. I strictly limit myself these days to encouraging more critical discussion of their views. They promote the interests of powerful commercial companies and they get well paid for persuading people that CELTA, and CEFR, and coursebooks are perfectly respectable, tried and tested pillars on which to found ELT. I think there’s a derth of open discussion about this.

    Those of us who regard current teacher training programmes like CELTA, the granular approach to proficiency taken by the CEFR, and the general use of coursebooks as evidence of the increasing commodification of ELT, which leads to inefficacious teaching and to deteriorating pay and working conditions among teachers, need to speak up and to find a way of being heard. We should invite those who do their bosses’ bidding by defending coursebook-driven ELT to stop denying us oxygen and to join in the conversation.

  3. I’ve really enjoyed reading the handful of responses to Geoff’s questions. In your wonderfully articulated response, Steve, your comments on lesson planning, in particular, stood out (for me at least):

    “Effective lesson planning, therefore, is not about identifying language in advance that you want to teach to your learners, and then creating a context that allows you to introduce it. Instead, it’s about identifying a context first that is useful/relevant to the students, and then identifying a range of linguistic features that learners might be ready to acquire while functioning within that context.”

    Cheers for that! Great food for thought and plenty to ponder.

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