M is for Model

12 04 2015

modellingmodel n [C]: someone you should imitate because of their good qualities or behaviour [Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English]

Today, at IATEFL, I’m taking part in a debate, hosted by Cambridge English, which celebrates the publication of a new volume in the Studies in Language Testing series, called Assessing language teachers’ professional skills and knowledge (edited by Wilson & Poulter). One of the papers in this collection, ‘Teachers’ language competence: issues of appropriation and appropriacy’ by Jenny Johnson and Monica Poulter, reports the results of a survey in which teacher trainers worldwide were asked (among other things) about the level of English required for acceptance on to CELTA (i.e. pre-service) courses. One respondent replied:

‘The key, for me, is that they should be a good model for students. I wouldn’t want candidates to be teaching incorrect things to students’ (p. 187)

This more or less echoes the views of the majority of respondents, it seems, and in turn chimes with Cambridge English’s own assessment criterion (2d), viz. [the candidate should be seen to be] ‘providing accurate and appropriate models of oral and written language in the classroom.’

Which set me thinking: isn’t there something a little superannuated about the role of teacher as ‘model’? Do teachers have to be ‘someone you should imitate’? And what exactly are these ‘incorrect things’ that they might be imitating? Doesn’t this all have a vaguely behaviourist ring to it? And a ‘native-speakerist’ one, at that?  By whose standards, for example, is ‘correctness’ judged?

It’s certainly a view that has a long history. E.g.:

‘It is a sad thing to think that all over the world teachers are busily teaching incorrect pronunciation to thousands of children daily! … Yet it is within the power of nearly every teacher of English to achieve a level of speaking which is a very close approximation to the natural speech of a native speaker of English who speaks carefully and enunciates clearly’ (Gurrey 1955: 14-15).

salle de classeI once had a trainee on a Diploma course who confessed to the fact that, in an earlier life, he had been an art teacher – not by choice, since he can’t draw. But he said that this wasn’t actually a handicap. If you’re a good teacher, you can teach anything – he argued. But you don’t have to model it.

Couldn’t the same be said about second languages?

Isn’t the teacher’s main role to provide the conditions of learning? And isn’t a key condition of language learning language using? Imitating a ‘good model’ is hardly using the language – compared, say, to authentic communication. And, anyway, if it is exemplars that are needed, we now have the technology to provide any number of samples of a huge range of accents, registers and speaking styles. Not to mention writing. Moreover, these exemplars can be selected so as to match the learners own needs and aspirations. After all, the ‘model’ that a learner aspires to, or can realistically achieve, may not be the teacher’s.

And, crucially, if the teacher’s role is construed less as a model to imitate and more as a facilitator of learning, the invidious distinction between NS and NNS starts to collapse. NNS teachers need no longer feel that they are somehow deficient, simply because they can’t simulate a native speaker. Why should they? As Vivian Cook (1999: 194) argues, “People cannot be expected to conform to the norm of a group to which they do not belong”.

So, is it time to inter the notion of ‘model’ once and for all?


Cook, V. (1999) ‘Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching’ TESOL Quarterly, 33/2: 185-210.

Gurrey, P. (1955) Teaching English as a foreign language. London: Longmans.