F is for Forty years on

29 03 2015
IH Shaftesbury Avenue - where it all started

IH Shaftesbury Avenue – where it all started

It came as a slight shock today to realize that I started my career in TEFL forty years ago last month. So, forgive the somewhat indulgently autobiographical nature of this post.

February 1975: newly arrived in London and eager to return to Greece under whose spell I had fallen en route from the dominions, I enrolled in a four-week course at IH London — in those days housed in its quaintly labyrinthine headquarters in Soho. It cost £65 – probably the best £65 I ever spent.

I was instantly captivated by the ‘IH method’, a Direct Method derivative, where ‘grammar points’ were presented using ingeniously contrived situations, and vocabulary was taught through mime, realia, visual aids – anything, of course, but translation. The fact that we were plunged into teaching practice from day one made perfect sense, but ratcheted up the intensity of the experience to a degree that might have been insupportable had I not had a background in children’s theatre.

The Monday after the course finished I was already teaching – at the International House affiliate in Hastings. I still cringe when I remember some of those first lessons: presenting countable and uncountable nouns using a painstakingly assembled bag of groceries, drilling the present simple instead of the present continuous to narrate a picture story, being challenged (and failing) to explain the grammar of ‘I wish’ to a group of insolent Iranian naval cadets, walking my class through Hastings old town in order to reinforce the learning of those same countable and uncountable nouns…

Hastings 1975 - writing my application for a job in Cairo

Hastings 1975 – writing my application for a job in Cairo

Four months on, with my visa due to expire, I applied to join the teaching staff of a new IH affiliate in Cairo. I’d wanted to go to Greece, but Egypt seemed close enough. My original teacher trainer, who happened to be in Hastings at the time, urged me on: ‘It’s a new school and expanding rapidly. Stick it out and in a year’s time you’ll be assistant Director of Studies. And then … who knows?’

Which is more or less what happened.

So, looking back, what has happened to TEFL in those forty years?

Only a year into teaching and the first waves of the communicative approach started breaking on the methodological shore. I’ve written about that elsewhere, so I won’t say more now, except that its advent was perfectly timed to provide a humane alternative to the ‘drill-and-repeat’ methodology I had been trained in and which, I have to say, I had perfected to the point that my classes had an almost military rigour.

This trend was reinforced by serendipitously coming across a book by Earl Stevick, which – like Chapman’s Homer – opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about teaching – in fact, not thinking about teaching at all, but about learning.

This undercurrent of early CLT and humanistic principles permeated my subsequent teacher training career at IH Barcelona, reinforced by my reading on task-based instruction, along with a heavy dose of Krashen – all of which bubbled to the surface as Dogme ELT (aka Teaching Unplugged) – a rearguard action to salvage communicative principles in the face of a grammar-driven materials tsunami.

By now I was starting to go to conferences, where my thinking was further moulded by luminaries too numerous to mention. The first major conference I dared to speak at myself was at IATEFL in, uniquely, Lille, France – on the subject of reflection, which had been the focus of my MA dissertation at the University of Reading.

Teacher training, IH Barcelona 1986

Teacher training, IH Barcelona 1986

It was at one of these early conferences that I was approached and invited to submit a proposal for a book of language awareness tasks, which became About Language – now in the process of being re-written for its long overdue second edition. The rest is not exactly history, but it is of perhaps less consequence in terms of my overall development.

So, what is different in TEFL now compared to 1975? For a start, the very notion of EFL itself has succumbed to the complexity and diversity of globalized English, where the distinctions between English as a foreign, or second, or international language are blurring to the point of illegibility.

And those who confidently and even imperiously ‘owned’ EFL in those days – the (mainly white) inner circle native speakers like myself – are slowly relinquishing their authority to the majority outer and expanding circle non-natives – although not without a struggle. And, of course, technology has radically changed the way that language is used and learned – although its benefits for teaching, and its unintended consequences, have yet to be fully understood.

But that’s enough of me. What’s changed since you started teaching?



21 responses

29 03 2015
Gary Walton

I’ve been teaching on and off since 1992. The biggest change I have seen is the reasons why people wish to learn English.

Globalisation and the demand for English as the de facto buiness lingua franca means that many learners learn English without any meaningful knowledge of the culture of native speakers beyond the standard superficial sterotypes and seemingly do not have any desire to do so. So, whereas in the past, I could give some insight into use of English based upon my experience as a native speaker, I now do so less so as I sense a disinterest from some of the leaners in a class.

It might be, in fact, that this was the always the case I just didn’t notice as I was unconciously pushing my own agenda of what I think they should learn about onto the students but I am convinced that learners do seem to increasing know what they wish to gain from classes and my native speaker status has somewhat declined. As Scott has intimated, perhaps this is a good thing but I do feel a little sad about this.

On a related theme, non-native teachers of English do have a tough time dealing with attitudes and perceptions of the students. One Indian colleague I know who teachers in Europe (where many of his students need to communicate with colleagues in India and Indian English), asked me how he could deal with ‘racist attitudes’ towards him. The best I could say is that it is an extra-burden he has to cope with and women also have to deal with prejudicial attitudes to them as teachers too.

To sum up, I survive as a teacher by keeping it simple as to why learners learn English: to get what they want by using another language and by listening to them (thanks Dogme). This is, of course, potentially empowering to the learners but often I feel slightly redundant quite often and probably only feel useful when I help them with pronunciation and intonation where my implict and explict knowledge is at a premium. Even then, I know that my native varieity of English is proportionally declining relative to the other varieties of English in existence and I’m wondering if this so-called demand is also going to decrease. For example, Indian English easily has the potential to be more useful than British English in the forthcoming years so should the Standard English phonemic alphabet be revised as a teaching aid? What do I as a native speaker of English bring to the table? Am I missing the point in my existential funk?

30 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Gary, for your thoughts. I’m not sure that there is a lot of that native speakers of English ‘bring to the table’, apart from perpetuating the myth that English still ‘belongs’ to its NSs. Unhappily, many non-native speaker teachers still subscribe to that view too, judging mby research carried out by Jennifer Jenkins (English as a lingua franca: Attitude and Identity, 2007, Oxford). Old habits (and old myths) die hard.

Regarding the ‘racist’ attitudes towards non-native English speaker teachers – this initiative may be of use:

http://teflequityadvocates.com/ From its mission statement:

TEFL Equity Advocates was set up in April 2014 in order to speak out against the discrimination of non-native English speaker teachers (NNESTs) in TEFL/TESL industry.

29 03 2015
Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

I would argue that it’s my own understanding of our industry and its potential for professionalism that have changed the most for me. When I began in early 1998 in Seoul, I perceived language teaching only to be a backpacker’s fancy while traveling. It’s become so much more in the nearly two decades since, like many of us, I’m sure. Yes, the popularity of methods have changed, but it’s how I view myself and others within teaching as a whole that has undergone the most significant changes. Thanks for the look into your career, Scott.

30 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thans, Tyson – yes, the ‘professionalism’ of ELT has certainly been a theme in my own career. When I started, for example, teaching was very much a ‘backpacker’s fancy’ as you put it. Or as a last resort when all else fails. The Cambridge Dictionary’s entry for the phrasal verb ‘end up’ used to be ‘After working her way around the world, she ended up teaching English as a foreign language.’

Ironically, it was the popularity of that much despised ‘4-week course’ that helped the (still unfinished) process of professionalization: as the need for moderation of a proliferating number of courses became urgent, teachers, teacher treainers and school administrators started to talk about ‘standards’ and even, eventually, career paths.

29 03 2015

Don’t have quite your longevity or influence Scott but your retrospective after 40 years has very much resonated with my own look back at changes in ELT since my initial training at the very same IH Hastings where you began your teaching.

Looking at the responses from teacher trainers to my survey on current teaching frameworks to inform my talk at IATEFL, it doesn’t seem that so much has changed, in initial training anyway. Front-loading and practising language via PPP is still the default model, although the ‘ presentation ‘ is more likely to be via text than our much loved situational presentation. There is less emphasis on the audio–lingual aspect than in your training a few years before mine – though I still push my trainees to drill meaningful chunks!

There is some talk of getting trainees to deal with emergent language in feedback to tasks but the consensus is that Dogme is still a step to far for inexperienced teachers –and I’m inclined to agree. Danny Norrington – Davies, Nick Hamilton and others at IH London are doing some great work encouraging Celta trainees to try out intuitive responsive teaching in some of their TPs and , of course, Anthony Gaughan is unplugging away on his courses in Germany. I do try give trainees informed options in my own courses rather than straitjacketed frameworks and to encourage them to try out non-course book lessons but I wouldn’t go as far as Anthony in throwing out course books altogether. Ironically, his idea of getting trainees to create their own lessons from scratch is very much a throw back to the initial training you and I underwent back in the pre-Headway 70s – with perhaps only a Kernel Lessons to refer to!

30 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Bill – I have to say I find your research findings both depressing but also predictable. Predictable because teacher training won’t change while the publishers still push ‘front loading’ type coursebooks, where the focus is on the explict learning and controlled-to-free practice of discrete items of (largely) verb tense grammar. Why should pre-service courses NOT prepare their trainees for this paradigm? At the same time, I am encouraged by the chinks of light you report. Let the sunshine in! 😉

29 03 2015
Peter Cox

I did CELTA in 2008 as a retirement hobby and although it was a good way to orient myself to English teaching, the content was still very much as you describe but it cost me £1000 and not £65! I soon found that teaching all these rules and regulations was pretty useless and settled into secretly using a more conversational and exploratory style of facilitating learning. Only then did I discover dogme that thank goodness legitimised what I was doing and help me to develop skills.
I’ve not taught for more than a year now as I’ve developed other interests and was getting increasingly irritated by the behaviour of industry managers but I have enjoyed many hours of working with some excellent and interesting people – maybe even helping them on their way.

30 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, Peter – it interests me greatly to hear from people for whom ELT has been a retirement choice – as I mentioned to Tyson, TEFL has for a long time served to ‘book end’ careers – but we don’t hear enough from people like yourself who have come to it from the other end, as it were. Doubly satisfying (for me at least) that you should have experienced the positive effects of dogme!

30 03 2015
Peter Cox

I don’t know how it’s possible to survive on the pitiful rates of pay available here in the UK and note that the majority of teachers are post-grad students, the elderly (like me!) and people whose partners are the main bread-winners. We, in effect, subsidise the schools with our pensions. I got involved to keep my brain active, which it certainly did, enjoy the social aspect of the common room and to earn a bit of beer money. Of course I found that having lived a life and been involved in many aspects of business, travel and having natural curiosity enabled me to interact in an engaging manner with the learners. I use the “Hanashi” style of teaching which is intensely learner focussed and I believe to be effective (the feedback supports this) but like all other Dogme/unplugged/CB free approaches, it requires a good deal of self-confidence and life experience for it to work. “English as a life skill” seems to be the new buzz word and one wonders what EFL has been previously! I find the claim that this has been recently invented by a publisher or Director of Academic Studies somewhat insulting but I suppose that they are paid to come up with stuff and this is the best they can do, reinventing wheels (it works for the business consulting industry after all!).

Your work to legitimise Dogme has to be one of the most significant changes and we should all be thankful for that.

29 03 2015

Like Peter, finding out that some things were useless. In my case, there was a clear shift from conducting lessons and thinking about how to deliver clear explanations, TO learner training, in particular focusing on whether learners are progressing. I started monitoring from behind, paying extreme attention to their performance, implementing think aloud protocols to find out about their strategies, etc. Basically, when I started teaching, I thought that if I taught the lesson well, my students would learn. Now, I feel that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. So teaching is about working near to the water, doing our best to get learners to develop a thirst for language learning, working on that ZPD. I obviously didn’t think that way when I became a teacher in 2008.

30 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Natibrandi – what you describe (the progression from the teacher as ‘conductor of lessons’ to the teacher as ‘facilitator of learning’) seems to map on to the professional trajectories that scholars like Jack Richards have researched, when seeking to distinguish the characteristics of expert as opposed to novice teachers – though unfortunately it is (or has been) the nature of EFL that – as a backpacking option – many teachers never got to second base. As ELT becomes more of a career choice rather than a gap-year diversion, I’m hoping that the trajectory you describe will become the norm – if it is not already.

29 03 2015

nice to get an insight into how you started out in the profession. I’ve only been teaching for 5 years or so – it’s hard for me to judge what’s changed in that time. I’ve heard that the grammar translation method is having a bit of a renaissance (e.g. Guy Cook), is that right?
Your post has encouraged me to reflect… I can’t believe how much I’ve changed in 5 years, and how much I’ve learnt! My attitude towards observations has become very positive, that’s something I’d never have expected.

30 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Punster: it’s good to hear that in 5 years you have experienced perceptible and positive development. How much does this have to do with the kind of institution you have been working in? For me, I was incredibly lucky that at the various IH schools in which I was ‘formed’ there was always a very active culture of professional development, mediated through seminars and – as you mention – classroom observations.

30 03 2015

My initial training was at IH Budapest and that set me up I think. The school I am at now don’t do much in the way of teacher development, but they do give me loads of freedom to try out anything I want in the classroom, and provide plenty of resources for self-study. I took the distance DipTESOL recently – I found that a massive help. I’ve learnt a lot about my strengths/weaknesses, my preferred approaches, but above all it gave me heaps more confidence. I still have a long way to go, but professional development is an exciting journey! My next role will be with the British Council for their summer school in Vietnam – I can’t wait to work for them!

30 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Vietnam – lucky you!

3 04 2015

My experience in teaching is rather a new, I still learn many things from each lesson I deliver even from my students. I started teaching by using the direct method five years ago, then I learned about CLT and TBLT when I came to do my MA in one of the UK universities. That has completely changed my view of SLA, it is not about me teaching, talking most of the time, but it is about my students They are at the center of the learning process. However, I am quite concerned about how that is going to work in my country, sometimes I fell that this way of teaching is so western. This absolutely won’t prevent me of trying my new ideas in teaching.

4 04 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Hana, for your comment. The extent to which communicative language teaching is a ‘western’ import, and therefore inappropriate for non-Western contexts is a debate that is ongoing. And it is complicated by competing – and conflicting – views as to (a) what language learning is for (b) what education is for, and (c) whether cultures – and their associated activities, such as education – are essentially different or essentially the same. However, whether CLT ‘works’ or not in non-Western contexts is a decision that should be made by the people in those contexts, not by those from outside them.

13 05 2015

It was nice to read your first experience. I started learning English with Direct Method and now after 7 years of experience when I look back all I see is have been teaching a little bit away from the direct method. It is so hard to change, isn’t it? despite having deep knowledge of CLT and TBLT I find them so hard to implement. I used to teach in Iran, and people of my country are open to these approaches, but the fact is that I never was motivated enough to reflect on my teaching. I have lost my motivation for teaching and I do not know why!!! anyway, I see the changes so dramatic that it is more like a starting a new career! Direct method and TBLT! such a big distance. However, one thing that I am sure of is that I need to learn how to teach according to TBLT to prevent DI get transfer to the next generation:)

20 05 2015

humm every class changes me. But, what really changed me was doing my Delta in 2013. I did things because this is how I see them and see other teachers do them. I didn’t put them in theories or anything. The first module of Delta was an eye-opening though I so much struggled with the terms and everything.

I am still having tough time as a teacher when I ask myself at the end of the class “what the hell I was thinking by doing this?!” The thing is that it frustrates you when you can’t contextualize that thing or do it the way you were taught

BTW: hellos from Cairo 🙂

30 05 2015
Evan Simpson

When I started teaching in South Korea in 2003 it was rare to meet someone who had a CELTA let alone a DELTA, MA or PhD. Now, it seem that if you that having an MA in TESOL is the bare minimum for all non-backpacker positions.

While I’m all for increasing professionalism in ELT, I wonder if requiring the pursuit of ever more theoretical degrees is the best path forward.

27 04 2017

Nice story Scott. Well for me it’s 40 years since some good friends in London invited me to join them on the new TEFL wave. But although TEFL would have satisfied one of my 2 main goals – travel, it wouldn’t have satisfied the other – money (or so I thought), so I chose a direction that satisfied both. I was also a bit skeptical about teaching through mime etc, after all, I’d never studied Latin or French that way!

So fast forward to five years ago. I decided to retire, but found myself managing a language school instead, in a beautiful part of the world where many of the kids have never seen westerner, never mind talked to one …

And I’m still a bit skeptical about mime! I agree, as you’ve hinted here, and expressed more directly on one of your BC posts, that the early CLT was more like the Direct Method. Sadly it still seems to be in many cases.

I’ve spent more of my life in N-NES environments than most teachers of European descent (let me call them TEDs for convenience), and honestly I feel like I’m on other side of a glass wall. The sheer naivety, which often comes across as arrogance, of most TEDs really never ceases to amaze me.

Our school has achieved exceptional performance by objective measures. We are in a rural area where at least 50% of the community is engaged in farming. Consequently our income is low, and are salaries commensurately so. Can I get the interest of any suitable TED? Not on your nelly (but plenty of reprobates)! I’ve even attempted to locate suitable TEDs via the alumni offices of the universities where I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s, no way, they only seem to exist to flog follow on courses. BC – you must be joking! And given my globe-trotting life, my own ties with Europe untied a few decades ago.

Anyway rant over. The only thing I’d take issue with you about on this topic is “distinctions between English as a foreign, or second, or international language are blurring to the point of illegibility.”

Believe me Scott, when you’re on the periphery of the periphery there is still a huge distinction. And that to me is no bad thing, I am not at all convinced that the spread of English is as desirable as most of the TEFL industry would like to believe (usually for their own self-serving interests), oops sorry shades of Widdowson popping out here!

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