T is for Teacher Knowledge

5 05 2013

teacher ny 1920What you do need to know in order to be able to teach?

The question concerns not only teachers, but also teacher educators and methodology writers, since the way we answer it impacts on the design of training programs and their related materials. Do teachers need to know a lot about grammar, for example? Second language acquisition? Educational theory? Curriculum design? Developmental psychology? And so on.

Those who study these things have hypothesized a number of different kinds of knowledge that appear to be implicated in teachers’ decision-making, including subject matter knowledge, general pedagogic knowledge (such as classroom management skills), and contextual knowledge, such as knowledge of the curriculum, of the students, of their social context and so on. At the same time, this slicing up of the pie should not obscure the fact that, in the actual business of teaching, these knowledge bases are deployed simultaneously and interdependently, and constitute ‘an integrated and coherent whole’ (Tsui 2003 p.59). ‘It is the melding of these knowledge domains that is at the heart of teaching’ (op. cit.p.58).

Nevertheless, in the interests of teacher training and evaluation, and for the purposes of  course design, it is often necessary to tease apart these diverse domains and organize them into a structured programme.

One such attempt at isolating and itemizing the components of teacher knowledge in our own field is embodied in the Teaching Knowledge Test (TKT), a teaching award offered by Cambridge ESOL. Aimed primarily at teachers whose first language is not English, and in response to a perceived need for affordable training opportunities in a wide range of contexts, the TKT was originally ‘designed to assess English language teachers’ knowledge about teaching, including concepts related to language, language use and the background to and practice of English language teaching and learning’ (Harrison 2007 p.30).

teacher romania ndInitially conceived purely as a test of knowledge, the TKT did not at first include an assessment of teaching ability in the classroom. Yet there was evidence to suggest that, for some teachers at least, the TKT was perceived as being as much a test of ability as of knowledge. An impact study on the TKT in Uruguay, for instance, found that ‘even though TKT is a test of knowledge, 61% of respondents seemed to expect the test to have an impact on their teaching practice’ (Valazza 2008 p.22). This expectation may well derive from the widely-held belief that knowledge does in fact equate with ability and that the more you know, the better you teach — that, in short, the naming of parts is tantamount to being able to use these parts. But, as Freeman (2002 p.11) observes, ‘One needs the words to talk about what one does, and in using those words one can see it more clearly.  Articulation is not about words alone, however.  Skills and activity likewise provide ways through which new teachers can articulate and enact their images of teaching’.

Just as important, therefore, as identifying, naming, and describing the knowledge bases of teaching is understanding how they are proceduralized in practice and developed over time.  It is now generally accepted that learning to teach involves a dynamic interplay between knowing and doing. As Tsui (op. cit. p.65) puts it, ‘teachers’ knowledge shapes their classroom practices, but their classroom practices in turn shape their knowledge, as they reflect on their practices during and after the action, and they come to a new understanding of teaching’.  For this reason, teacher training programs, whether pre-service or in-service, ideally (some would say necessarily) involve some kind of hands-on practical component, where planning-for-teaching, teaching, and reflecting-on-teaching are integrated into a continuous developmental cycle.

To their credit, Cambridge ESOL have now incorporated a practical test, involving 40 minutes of assessed teaching, into the packet of core modules on offer as part of the TKT.  This can only be a good thing. But ‘core’ does not mean compulsory, and there is always the risk that, because of pragmatic and economic considerations, the practical component will be side-lined, and the ‘knowledge modules’ alone will be considered a sufficient measure of classroom teaching ability.

As publishers, training and examining bodies scramble to address the very real needs of language teachers worldwide, shouldn’t we be asking: What is the minimum a professional development program should offer teachers?

teacher mexico 1923References

Freeman, D.  2002.  ‘The hidden side of the work: Teacher knowledge and learning to teach’.  Language Teaching, 35/1.

Harrison, C. 2007.  ‘Teaching Knowledge Test update — adoptions and courses’.  Research Notes, 29, University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations.

Tsui, A, B. M. 2003. Understanding Expertise in Teaching: Case Studies of Second Language Teachers.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Valazza, G. 2008.  ‘Impact of TKT on language teachers and schools in Uruguay’. Research Notes, 34, University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations.

This post is an adapted version of a review of Jeremy Harmer’s Essential Teacher Knowledge (Pearson, 2012) that appeared in the ELT Journal, 67/1, January 2013.

T is for Teacher development

27 05 2012

This is a summary of the keynote talk I gave yesterday at the IATEFL Learning Technologies and Teacher Development Joint SIG Conference, titled With or Without Technology, held at Yeditepe University, Istanbul this weekend.

Why Dogme is good for you.

Because the conference theme focuses on teacher development (TD), in both its ‘plugged’ and ‘unplugged’ manifestations, it’s perhaps timely to review the case for ‘teaching unplugged’, otherwise known as Dogme ELT (hereafter just Dogme), and try to situate it in relation to teacher development generally.

In its relatively long life (12 years and still counting) Dogme has generated a fair amount of heat – more, indeed, than its co-founders bargained for, and indicative, perhaps, of how surprisingly subversive it is. Formerly, this heat was confined mainly to the Dogme discussion list itself, but it has now migrated into the blogosphere at large, where, far from having been diffused, it seems to be burning more fiercely than ever. (I’m not the first to point out that you can increase the traffic to your blog exponentially by cocking a snook at Dogme!)

Among the criticisms that have been levelled at it these are some of the most frequent:

  • it doesn’t work for beginners
  • it doesn’t work with large groups
  • it doesn’t work with young learners
  • it doesn’t work with non-native speaker teachers
  • it’s not new
  • it doesn’t work because there’s no input
  • it doesn’t work because there’s no syllabus
  • it doesn’t work because there’s no attention to form
  • it doesn’t work in [insert name of the country where you work]
  • it doesn’t work with [insert any nationality] learners
  • it just doesn’t work, period.

Yeditepe University

Far from attempting to refute any of these claims, I would argue that they are in fact irrefutable. Method comparison, as a science, is dead in the water. There’s no controlling for all the variables, and sample sizes are usually too small to generalise from. And so on. So, for argument’s sake, I will simply accept that for some teachers these claims are plausible (just as for others the claims made for Dogme are equally plausible), and I will move on. (At the same time, whether or not the above claims are true, I don’t think Dogme has done anyone any harm. It’s not like HIV-denial or the anti-vaccine lobby. I don’t know of many students who have died because their teachers didn’t use coursebooks. But I may be wrong).

There is, however, one thing to be said about Dogme which is incontrovertibly true. And that is that – for a great number of teachers – Dogme has provided a framework for highly productive self-directed teacher development, involving cycles of experimentation and reflection, essential components for any developmental program. It has done this principally because it invites teachers to question some of the received wisdoms about language teaching, such as

  • that language learning is an incremental and linear process
  • that language learning is a purely cognitive process
  • that a grammar syllabus represents the best ‘route’ for language learning
  • that imported materials are better than learner-generated ones
  • that lessons have to be meticulously planned
  • that accuracy is a pre-condition for fluency
  • that teaching is better with technology

Dogme is by no means the first platform from which these claims have been challenged, but for reasons I still don’t entirely fathom, it seems to have been very successful at articulating its critique and broadcasting it to practising teachers. (The concurrent boom in online communication may have had something to do with it – an irony not lost on Dogme’s critics).

A glance through the quantity of postings on the list demonstrates the fact that many teachers have used one or more of the tenets of Dogme, either to initiate change in their own teaching, or to explain changes that they had already initiated – and often with spectacularly positive results, as this early post suggests:

…I’m buzzing at the moment ‘cos I’ve been lucky enough to hit on a couple of new groups who seem to have invented dogme themselves, and the things we’re coming up with together are stunning me into a state of ‘I’ve never loved teaching so much before – but is this really teaching?!’.

Well, it certainly seems to be learning – enthusiastically and really joyfully – for all of us.

And thanks to everyone in the group for helping me better appreciate what’s happening!

Some of the dogme blogs

Like the Dogme critics, the Dogme enthusiasts have also turned to blogging to get their teacher development message across. One notable instance of grassroots, collaborative Dogme-inspired teacher development was the ‘teach off’ that Chia Suan Chong initiated last month. Whatever doubts you might have about its scientific rigour, the buzz that it generated was truly remarkable.

Finally, and in advance of the conference, I did a little exercise in crowdsourcing, by tweeting the following question: ‘How has Dogme helped you develop as a teacher?’ Here is a small selection of the many replies I got:

@michaelegriffin: #Dogme helped me c that I wasn’t crazy to think that books weren’t a curriculum and that the people in the room are the key

@AnthonyGaughan: it encourages confidence in exploring my teaching self #DogmeTD

@dalecoulter: playing with variables in the lesson and reflecting on the results #DogmeTD

@kevchanwow: watching lively exchange within Dogme community makes me more comfortable trying new approaches in my own way & own classes

@kenwilsonlondon: #DogmeELT I couldn’t understand why my best lessons were when the class more/less forced me to abandon the plan. Now I know!

@esolamin; Haven’t followed Dogme as such, but ‘unplugged’/improvised activities produced more ss participation & interest, I found.

@englishraven It marked my progression into actually being a teacher- the whole deal, real thing. Not an instructional attendant #DogmeELT

@sx200i how has Dogme helped me. Pure enjoyment in my lessons. Confidence. Never bored! #DogmeTD

R is for Rapport

15 01 2012

As part of my job on the New School MA TESOL program, I’ve been collating evaluations of the last semester’s online courses. What really stands out are the extremely positive ratings of the teaching faculty: not surprising perhaps, given their collective expertise, but when you consider that the students never actually see their instructors, such positive evaluations are quite remarkable. Here’s a sample:

  • The instructor’s ability to motivate the students was a key ingredient to making this course successful.
  • Great instructor, sensitive, effective with helpful comments throughout the course.  And always available by email if I had a question.
  • This was an excellent course because the professor was extremely involved, helpful and articulate.
  • I cannot praise this instructor enough. He was infinitely patient with my questions, frustrations and problems. He was encouraging without being coddling. He was articulate about the subject matter and one could tell he enjoyed the material, and teaching the material. He was very active in the DB [discussion board] and very responsive to emails and queries. He is an excellent professor!
  • I’ll always remember her inspirational model of what effective teaching is and carry that with me into my future teaching practice.

What these teachers seem to have achieved – despite the potentially alienating effects of the medium – was to establish an excellent rapport with their students. But, when it comes to inducting new instructors, how do you explain what rapport is?

I remember puzzling over this same question as a tutor on the old DTEFLA (now DELTA) inservice courses, where observed lessons were assessed according to three main criteria: planning, execution – and manner. Under this last heading were listed descriptors of the type: Is able to establish a good rapport.   But not only was it unclear as to how, as a trainer, you developed this capacity, it was also startlingly obvious that the rapport factor almost always outshone all other factors, including planning and execution. That is to say, a good rapport made up for any number of infelicities in the actual design and implementation of a lesson.

But what is this thing called rapport? Like me, Jim Scrivener, in Learning Teaching (2005), is equally baffled: ‘The problem is, whereas rapport is clearly important, it is also notoriously difficult to define or quantify’ (p. 23). However, he does go on to suggest a number of things the teacher can do to create a positive learning atmosphere, and, by extension, to establish rapport. These include:

  • showing respect
  • being fair
  • really listening to the students
  • giving clear, positive feedback
  • being authentically oneself

Jeremy Harmer (2007) devotes several pages to rapport (incidentally, in An A-Z of ELT I ignore it entirely!) and lists four core capacities that make it up:

  • Recognising students – including knowing their names
  • Listening to students
  • Respecting students
  • Being even-handed

He also suggests that the quality of ‘respect’ cuts both ways: not only does rapport entail the teacher respecting the learners, but  ‘successful rapport derives from the students’ perception of the teacher as a good leader and a successful professional’ (p. 113). Professionalism includes being ‘well-organised and well-prepared (that is, they [i.e. the teachers] have thought about what they are going to do in the lesson)’.

‘Professionalism’ might be more easy to train than such qualities as ‘being authentically oneself”, perhaps, but it raises the question as to whether the two qualities (being professional and being authentically oneself) are always compatible.  That is to say, can you ‘be yourself’ and ‘be a teacher’ at the same time?  (Cynics might argue that Dogme-style teachers trade on ‘being authentically themselves’ to mask a lack of preparedness. Certainly, it would seem to be difficult to establish rapport if you don’t actually talk  to the learners, and talking to the learners is at the heart of the Dogme philosophy).

I guess the real question is: is rapport an essential component of good teaching, or is there a danger that it substitutes for good teaching? If the former, how can it be nurtured, and is it more likely to flourish in situations where teachers have more freedom to respond to the learners’ needs and interests?

In his memoir, Teacher Man, Frank McCourt recalls how, when he began his teaching career, he won over his classes of restive New York teenagers:

Instead of teaching, I told stories. Anything to keep them quiet and in their seats.
They thought I was teaching. I thought I was teaching.
I was learning.

His staffroom colleagues warned him against telling the kids anything about himself, lest they take advantage of this ‘weakness’:

‘They have teachers all figured out. They’ll know if you’re even thinking about grammar or spelling, and they’ll raise their little hands and put on that interested expression and ask you what games you played as a kid or who do you like for the goddam World Series. Oh yeah, and you’ll fall for it. Next thing you’re spilling your guts and they go home not knowing one end of a sentence from the other, but telling their moms and dads about your life’.

McCourt ignored his colleagues’ jaundiced advice: ‘I had to find my own way of being a man and a teacher’. This was his life’s work and – judging by the book – the rapport he achieved is what sustained him.


Harmer, J. (2007) The Practice of English Language Teaching (4th edn). Harlow: Pearson Longman.

McCourt, F. (2005) Teacher Man: A Memoir. New York: Scribner.

Scrivener, J. (2005) Learning Teaching: A Guidebook for English Language Teachers  (2nd edn). Oxford: Macmillan.

Illustrations by Victor Bertoglio, from Byrne, D. (1967) Progressive Picture Compositions (Pupils’ Book). London: Longman.

V is for Visualization

26 12 2011

Pep Guardiola, coach of ‘the best team of the world’ [sic] describes how he prepares his players:

I ask the players what they are capable of doing so that, above all, they feel confident before they go out on to the pitch. This is what I did when I was a player: before going out I would see the game up here (he taps his brow). With my eyes shut I could see the game clearly. That way I had it all wrapped up, and I enjoyed it¹.

I was reminded of this last week on getting the following email from Zahid Sheik:

I’m writing to ask you about your thoughts on an idea that has recently popped into my head.  I’ve noticed that on several occasions, some of the best lessons that I’ve had were lessons where I simply jotted down a few cursory points about what I’m planning to do in class without going into the detail that’s often required on a typical lesson plan, followed by a brief visualization of the class in my “mind’s eye”.  I was wondering if any research has been conducted in relation to the benefits of visualization and lesson planning.  How do you feel about this phenomenon?

As can be seen by the Guardiola quote, in the sports world there’s a healthy tradition of visualization as preparation for performance. The story of the pentathlon athlete, Marilyn King, who, after a debilitating accident, ‘visualized’ herself back into Olympic-standard performance, is often cited in this respect.

Visualization has impacted on language learning too. Jane Arnold (e.g. 1999, 2007) has written extensively on this subject. She recalls that her interest in visualization in language learning was prompted by an account of “an American scholar who, before going to a conference in Europe, eliminated blocks about speaking French and Italian by working with imagery”.  After visualising himself travelling through these countries and speaking fluently to everyone he met “it was found that his fluency improved notably and with his Italian his accuracy did also” (1999, p.269).

More recently, visualization has attracted the attention of theorists of motivation, specifically those who argue that the (language) learner is driven by the need to reconcile his or her present self with some idealised, imagined future self. As Dörnyei & Ushioda (2009, p. 4) put it: “If proficiency in the target language is part and parcel of one’s ideal or ought-to self, this will serve as a powerful motivator to learn the language because of our psychological desire to reduce the discrepancy between our current and possible future selves”.

Accordingly, visualization has been recommended as a means of bringing into sharp focus one’s ideal self image – the better to realise it.  ‘The first step in a motivational intervention… is to help learners to construct their Ideal L2 Self, that is, to create their vision’ (Dörnyei, 2009, p. 33).

This might involve visualizing a situation in which you, the learner, are successfully using the target language for the specific purposes for which you have been learning it, whether social, business, academic, or whatever. The visualization is likely to have more motivational power if it is clearly and concisely elaborated, with details of time, place and people explicitly articulated.

Subsequent phases in the visualization process (as outlined in the literature) include: substantiating the vision, keeping the vision alive, operationalising the vision, and counterbalancing the vision. Of this last, Dörnyei says, “In language learning terms this would involve regular reminders of the limitations of not knowing languages” (p. 38).

Zahid’s email, (above), however, raises the intriguing question as to how visualization might apply to teacher development. Could it be a tool on a teacher training program, for example? Does it assume a degree of familiarity with lesson planning and classroom teaching that might preclude its use with novice teachers? Do the so-called ‘foreign language lessons’ on many pre-service courses (wittingly or unwittingly) offer newbie teachers a vision of their ‘ideal teaching self’?  To what extent are our ideal teaching selves modelled on charismatic teachers from our past – or even from Hollywood?

At a more pragmatic level, is it possible to imagine one’s way into a lesson, in the way that Pep envisions a successful football match? When I asked Zahid to expand on his use of visualizations as a planning strategy, this is what he said:

Basically, I visualize the different stages/activities that I cursorily wrote down on my lesson plan, what the students might respond with, and I keep going through the lesson with whatever comes to mind.  I see myself and my students in the classroom interacting etc… and I sometimes close my eyes to do this.  I’m pretty much picturing the whole lesson in my mind in its different (planned) increments and potential asides, the latter point being related to the “potential problems” section of the CELTA lesson plan.

Has anyone else experienced visualization as either a language learning or a lesson planning strategy?

¹Thanks to Jessica Mackay for this quote.


Arnold, J. 1999.  Visualization: language learning with the mind’s eye’. In Arnold, J. (ed.) Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arnold, J., Puchta, H., & Rinvolucri, M.  2007. Imagine That. Helbling Languages.

Dörnyei, Z. 2009. ‘The L2 motivational self system’. In Dörnyei & Ushioda (2009).

Dörnyei, Z., & Ushioda, E. (eds.) 2009. Motivation, Language Identity, and the L2 Self. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Illustrations from Hartley, B., & Viney, P. 1978. Streamline English: Departures. Oxford University Press.

M is for Metaphor

20 11 2011

As part of the interview process for candidates wanting to do the CTEFLA (now CELTA) course at IH Barcelona, we used to ask them to discuss the following question:

In your opinion, which of the following jobs would best prepare a person for language teaching? (Choose one only).

  •         sports coach
  •         actor
  •         social worker
  •         tour group leader
  •         lecturer
  •         sales person
  •         nurse
  •         driving instructor

What's your metaphor?

The idea (fairly obviously) was to try and tap into their mental image of a teacher, on the grounds that the trainee teacher’s (often implicit) conceptualisation of teaching will impact on the extent to which they identify with the program’s goals. For example, the metaphor TEACHERS ARE LECTURERS clearly doesn’t sit comfortably with the more facilitative teacher role that the CELTA promotes. (Note that it is customary in metaphor studies to represent metaphors using the convention X IS Y).

This interest in teacher’s metaphorical representations dates from a task that was set on my MA at Reading: we were required to experience a series of foreign language lessons (in our case, Japanese) and then – both as a group and individually –  to draw some teaching implications.  Discussing the experience with my fellow ‘students’ , I was struck by the amount of metaphorical language we were using, such as:

“I don’t think the message got through there.”

“I got lost in the amount of information.”

“It was quite difficult to hold on to both structures.”

“You start to see how it falls into place.”

“I couldn’t process it.”                           ¦

“One should’ve focused on the bits of grammar.”

These metaphors became the focus of my assignment, which in turn evolved into an article (Thornbury 1991: you can read it here).  Put simply, I concluded that the metaphors that teachers use to construe learning offer a window into their belief systems, which, in turn, might impact on their teaching. If, for example, you employ the metaphor LEARNING A LANGUAGE IS CODE-BREAKING you may, as a teacher, focus more on the code than on communication, and, by extension, on the way that knowledge of the rules of grammar helps ‘crack the code’.  A recent talk of mine – 7 ways of looking at grammar – takes a similar approach to the history of methodology: the ‘big theories’ of grammar can be captured in different metaphors for the mind.

Other researchers have gone in pursuit of similar quarry.  In an article published in 2001, Rod Ellis used metaphor analysis to compare the way that language learners are construed by researchers and the way that language learners construe themselves. To do this he analysed a small corpus of academic articles on SLA, and found that two dominant metaphors were LEARNER IS A CONTAINER, and LEARNER IS A MACHINE, both of which ‘position learners as lacking control over what they do and how they learn’ (p. 73) . He then looked at learner’s metaphorical constructions of themselves (based on their diary accounts) and found that learners used metaphors of suffering, struggle and of journeying. These metaphors highlighted the affective nature of language learning that the somewhat de-humanised metaphors of the researchers seemed to overlook.

In another very small-scale study (Thornbury 1999) I used metaphors to access learners’ expectations of what a good lesson is like. Using the formula A good English lesson is like [a story, a symphony, a meal, etc)] because…. I found that A LESSON IS A FILM was a popular choice, one reason being that “in a good class there have to be changes of rhythm, it has to be agreeable, amusing, and it has to take place without you realising it. Another student opted for A LESSON IS A PLAY “because one moment you can be enjoying yourself and then at another you have to pay attention to how the play is developing.” I argued that these ‘performance genre’ analogies offer useful pointers to effective lesson planning.

Why is language learning is like ...ing?

All this suggests a useful classroom idea that might raise learners’ awareness about the language learning process: ask them to complete the sentence Learning English (or Japanese or Swahili etc) is like …… because…..  which they then discuss in small groups and in open class. Some picture prompts might help trigger their response.

Finally, as I argued in Thornbury 1991, metaphors offer a potent instrument for teacher development. By reconfiguring classroom practice in terms of novel metaphors, teachers might be assisted in re-imagining their craft.

Rather than, for example, asking “What would be the effect if I did this instead of that?” a more generative approach to problem-setting might be: “What would be the implications if I thought of learning as, say, empowering? Or mythologising? Or as the sonata form? Or as barter? Or as government? Or as dance?”

Dogme ELT represents just such an attempt. By construing learning as emergence, and teaching as scaffolding, teachers are encouraged to shift the focus from knowledge transmission to ‘assisted performance’ (Tharp and Gallimore 1988) with all the methodological implications that such a view entails.


Ellis, R. (2001). The metaphorical construction of second language learners. In Breen, M. (ed.) Learner Contributions to language Learning: New directions in Research. Harlow: Longman.

Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornbury, S. (1991) Metaphors we work by: EFL and its metaphors. English Language Teaching Journal 45/3: 193-200.

Thornbury, S.  (1999).  Lesson art and design. ELT Journal, 53, 4-11.

Illustrations from Granger, C., & Hicks, T. 1977. Contact English 1 Students’ Book. London: Heinemann Educational.

J is for Jargon

6 11 2011

A student on my MA TESOL course posed the following question last week:

“Before becoming a teacher OF teachers, how much did you find yourself grappling with jargon specific to the discipline when teaching your students? … I guess my main issue is that I have an internal conflict with theory and jargon … and when I find it difficult to apply a concept in a concrete manner, it tends not to stick with me very well.”

In response, I paraphrased this extract from the introduction to An A-Z of ELT:

Training and development involves not just the acquisition of new skills and techniques but also a specialized language to talk about them and to make sense of how other professionals talk about them. Specialized language – called jargon by outsiders, but terminology by those who use it – is the discourse of any particular group of professionals. It facilitates communication within the group, and it identifies individuals as belonging to the group. Professional training and development, therefore, means becoming a member of a discourse community, and becoming comfortable with its language (p. vi).

Becoming a member of a social or professional group, then, means learning to ‘talk the talk’. Inevitably, as seen through the lens of an outsider, this ‘new language’ can at first seem obscure, even perverse. In an illuminating study of the development of professional discourse, Heather Murray (1998, p. 3) comments that “it is a common phenomenon on English teacher training courses that trainees regularly complain about the EFL jargon used by trainers at the beginning of the course, but rarely do so at the end”. The initial resistance not only gives way to acceptance, but the jargon becomes part of the trainee’s active vocabulary. Jargon becomes terminology.

Murray tracked this transition on a pre-service course over a seven-month period. In describing classroom events, initially the trainees would use non-specialist wordings, such as a foreigner or mistakes in the verbs. By the end of the course, however, they were substituting these for more specialist terms such as non-native speaker and poor control of tense.

Murray makes the important point that the use of the terminology may constitute the first step towards an understanding of the concepts that these terms encode: “Not only is the acquisition of professional discourse a sign of concept development, but seems in fact to drive concept development” (p. 6, emphasis added). That is, you need to be able to talk the talk before you can walk the walk.

This (Vygotskian) notion of speech preceding, and determining, thought is nicely captured in the following extract (that I came across by chance when researching ‘ownership’ for the previous blog post) in which Courtney Cazden (1992, p. 191) quotes from one of her graduate students’ journals:

As I began work on this assignment, I thought of the name of the course [Classroom Discourse] and thought I had to use the word ‘discourse.’ The word felt like an intruder in my mind displacing my word ‘talk.’ I could not organise my thoughts around it. It was like a pebble thrown into a still pond disturbing the smooth water. It makes all the other words in my mind out of sync. When I realised I was using too much time agonising over how to write the paper, I sat down and tried to analyse my problem. I realised that in time I will own the word and feel comfortable using it, but until that time my own words were legitimate. Contrary to some views that exposure to the dominant culture gives one an advantage in learning, in my opinion it is the ownership of words that gives one confidence. I must want the word, enjoy the word and use the word to own it. When a new word becomes synonymous in my head as well as externally, then I can think with it. I laugh now at my discovery but realise that without it, I would still be inhibited about my writing.

This is the processs that, with reference to other, sometimes less benign, contexts, Fairclough (2003) calls ‘inculcation’: “Inculcation is a matter of, in the current jargon, people coming to ‘own’ discourses, to position themselves inside them” (p. 208). And he adds that “people may learn new discourses and use them for certain purposes while at the same time self-consciously keeping a distance from them” (ibid.). This seems to me to be where my student is at, at the moment.

In an attempt to facilitate this process of inculcation, last summer on a methodology course that I was teaching, I gave each of the 15 trainee teachers a card with a key word on it, such as authentic, communicative, performance, fluency, inductive, etc. Their task was to individually research their word, paying particular attention to its specialist meanings, and, at strategic moments on the course, I would call on the ‘owner’ of one of the words to briefly gloss it. In so doing, they became the ‘expert’ with regard to that particular concept. This seemed to work well, and I plan to repeat the procedure next time round, but with the additional instruction that they should be prepared to compare and contrast the non-specialist and specialist meanings of their selected word. (This also raises the question as to how the same activity could be engineered during the online version of the course).

In short, what I’m arguing is that teacher development and professionalization is the process whereby jargon becomes terminology. But is there a danger that the terminology functions to exclude, as much as to include?  Do teachers and academics really speak the same language?


Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus: Essays on literacy in the United States & New Zealand. New York: Teachers College Press.

Fairclough, N. 2003. Analysing Discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London: Routledge.

Murray, H. 1998. The developement of professional discourse and language awareness in EFL teacher training. IATEFL TT SIG Newsletter, Issue 21, pp. 3-7.

Illustrations from Kucera, E. 1947. Método Kucera Inglés: Curso elemental. Barcelona: Enrique Kucera.

A is for Autonomy

23 10 2011

Autonomy is definitely the flavour of the month. As I write, preparations are well underway for next week’s Realizing Autonomy conference in Nagoya, Japan, which, in turn, celebrates the imminent launch of the collection of papers of the same name, edited by Kay Irie and Alison Stewart (and featuring a chapter by me, as it happens).

Also, shortly to be published in the IATEFL Learner Autonomy SIG Newsletter is a joint interview with me and Luke Meddings that arose out of the Teaching Unplugged conference in Barcelona in May, and which draws links between Dogme and the learner autonomy movement. And, on top of this, plans are being finalised for my participation in the Learner Autonomy SIG pre-conference event at the IATEFL Conference in Glasgow next March.

That’s a lot of autonomy for one week!

But what I want to talk about here is not learner autonomy so much as teacher autonomy. This was triggered by a lively discussion on the Dogme ELT discussion list last week, about the plausibility of such a thing as a ‘Dogme coursebook’. This in turn precipitated a number of posts attacking coursebooks in general, and, by association, coursebook writers. Uncharacteristically, perhaps, I felt obliged to rally to their defense.

Based on my experience observing classes in a number of developing world contexts, such as Palestine, I argued that, due to a lack of training and support, as well as uncertainty about their own English language skills, coupled with learner and other stakeholder expectations about the role of the teacher, “many teachers feel insecure and disempowered.” For teachers such as these, the coursebook is their lifeline. To suggest that they should abandon coursebooks and engage with the language that emerges from the socializing and communicative needs of “the people in the room” is simply disingenuous.

Classroom in Palestine

A similar argument was made my Ramin Akbari (2008) in a TESOL Quarterly article a short while back, where he argued (with particular reference to the Iranian context, but his argument could apply in any public sector context): “Teachers in many contexts are not different from factory workers in terms of their working hours; in many countries, a typical language teacher works for 8 hours per day, 5 or even 6 days per week… The financial and occupational constraints they work within do not leave them with the time or the willingness to act as iconoclasts and social transformers, roles that will jeopardise their often precarious means of subsistence” (p.646).

In my post to the Dogme list, I suggested that a parallel could be drawn with Abraham Maslow’s (1970) ‘hierarchy of needs’. If you recall, at the bottom of the ‘needs pyramid’ are the basic survival necessities such as food and shelter. A person cannot attend to higher needs until these basic needs have been met. Higher up in the pyramid figure community needs (‘a sense of belonging’) and still higher are self-esteem needs and finally ‘self-actualisation’ . But, at all levels, satisfying one’s needs presupposes that the lower level needs have first been met.

Using this analogy, I argued that teachers, too, need to satisfy lower level needs (such as simply controlling the class) before they can ‘graduate’ to a point where they are less dependent on coursebooks, for example, and better equipped to centre their teaching on the learners (and that’s where the notion of autonomy comes in). “We could argue,” (I wrote), “that dogme is what every teacher might (even should) aspire to, but, achieving this ‘state of grace’ means satisfying – and then outgrowing – the lower level needs first. In some contexts (e.g. small private language schools on the south coast of England) one might hope that this developmental trajectory would be fairly rapid and relatively painless. In others it might take generations”.

This is not to say that a Dogme-style approach to teaching is necessarily ‘late-acquired’, i.e. a prerogative of only very experienced teachers – just that it assumes a certain degree of freedom in the way one operates professionally, coupled with a lack of insecurity at the most basic levels.

How, then, can insecurity be reduced and autonomy leveraged, even in difficult circumstances? Serendipitously, in this same week a colleague sent me an article in which he argues for the ‘collaborative nature’ of teacher autonomy (Ding 2009), and adds that “there is a significant body of research examining the potential of technology and in particular ACMC [asynchronous computer mediated communication] to facilitate collaboration and autonomy” (p. 67). Put simply, this means that online communities of teachers can (theoretically, at least) provide the necessary support and motivation to help outgrow lower level insecurities, and achieve a measure of professional self-actualisation.

It just happens that the provision of this kind of collaborative online environment for professional development (and here comes a shameless plug) is one of the goals of the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi), of which, proudly, I am the academic director, and which launches very shortly. You can read more about it here.


Akbari, R. 2008. Postmethod discourse and practice. TESOL Quarterly, 42/4.

Ding, A. 2009. Tensions and struggles in fostering collaborative teacher autonomy online. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 3:1,65 — 81.

Irie, K, & Stewart, A (eds.). 2011. Realizing Autonomy: Practice and Reflection in Language Education Contexts. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Maslow, A.H. 1970. Motivation and Personality (2nd edition). New York: Harper & Row.

P is for Practicum

10 07 2011

Teaching practice, MA TESOL at The New School

As part of a Methods course I am teaching at the moment, I am observing teachers-in-training working with especially constituted classes of ‘guinea pig’ students.

Trainers who work on CELTA or DELTA courses, or on other pre- or in-service schemes, will be familiar with the teaching practice (or practicum) set-up. The trainee teachers plan their classes collaboratively, and then take turns to teach a segment of the overall lesson. The trainer (me, in this case) takes a corner seat, mutely observes the succession of ‘teaching slots’, and then conducts a joint feedback session with the trainee teachers either immediately afterwards, or on a subsequent day.

The more I do this, the more uncomfortable I feel with the process on at least two counts. One I’ll call logistical, and the other—for want of a better term—I’ll call existential.

First: the logistics. The trainer’s role, as silent, impassive observer, noting every move,  and delivering the feedback retrospectively, seems to run counter to what we now understand about skill acquisition. Cognitive learning theory has long recognised that feedback in ‘real operating conditions’—i.e. while you’re actually engaged in a task —is generally more powerful and more durable than feedback delivered after the event. More recently, a sociocultural perspective argues that skills are best learned through ‘assisted performance’, where the expert and the novice work collaboratively on a task, the former modelling and scaffolding the necessary sub-skills, and mediating the activity by means of well-placed interventions, such as commands, gestures, or gaze. In this way, and assuming an optimal state of readiness (aka the zone of proximal development) novices begin to appropriate the necessary skills, until they are capable of regulating them independently.

All this would seem to argue against the traditional practicum structure, with the trainer detached from the activity, and the feedback delivered ‘cold’. In fact, I’m finding that, on my present course, the sessions in which we ‘workshop’ lessons as a group in a micro-teaching format, with the trainees teaching their colleagues and me intervening as they do so, are both less stressful for the trainees and (I think) more productive in terms of their developmental outcomes. Here is an example of what I mean: a group has prepared a presentation of used to, and one of the team has volunteered to demonstrate it to the class.

The milling activity

Of course, micro-teaching lacks the authenticity of real classrooms, so the next step might involve taking a more interventionist role during the actual teaching practice, in the form, for example, of team-teaching, or of ‘coaching from the sidelines’, i.e. intervening more actively during the teaching practice lessons. In fact, I did this last week, gesticulating like a football coach in order to prompt the trainee who was teaching at the time to stop what he was doing and to pre-teach a question form, in advance of the milling activity that he was about to launch into. He got the hint, took the necessary steps, and the activity—I think—was all the better for it.

And now for the ‘existential’ problem, which goes much deeper. Sitting at the back of the room, or even intervening from the sidelines, I can’t help wondering what my role really is here. All these teachers I’m watching are so different, in terms of style, personality, experience, professional needs and aspirations, teaching contexts, and so on. And yet I get the sense I am trying to shoehorn them into a way of teaching that is very much ‘one-size-fits-all’.

Thinking back, I realise, uncomfortably, that, over the years that I have been working with teachers-in-training, my intentions as a trainer have always been more prescriptive than I would have admitted at the time. Initially, as a fairly inexperienced Director of Studies, these intentions took the form of wanting to turn my newly-trained teachers into clones of myself: “Do it like this (because this is the way I do it)”. Then, as a CELTA trainer, it was all about getting the trainees to teach in the way that the ‘method’ dictated. Of course, we used to deny that there was a ‘CELTA method’. It was all about eclecticism, surely. Looking back, I now realise that, if the CELTA course offered a range of methodological choices, this range was in fact fairly limited. Or even, very limited, given the way that a small set of global coursebooks determined (and still determine) the prevailing approach.

When I became an in-service trainer, working on DELTA courses, I paid lip-service to the notion that it was professional teacher development that should drive the agenda, and hence encouraged my trainees to look beyond the narrow confines of their CELTA ‘method’, to experiment, to reflect, and to adapt their teaching to their specific contexts. This, of course, ignored the fact that DELTA is an externally examined course, with a very clearly specified syllabus and success criteria – and, moreover, that the teachers are still using (and therefore are still constrained by) the same coursebooks.

Now, as I sit and watch and take notes I realise at least two things:

1. Whatever I say and do, these teachers will change only to the extent that their own beliefs, values, self-image, personality, previous experience etc will allow them; and

2. Whatever change that they do make, they will likely revert to their ‘default’ setting as soon as my back is turned. The teacher who is the entertainer, or the lecturer, or the football coach, or the social worker, will always be the entertainer, lecturer, football coach, etc.

Hence, all I can hope to do is help them become the best (= most effective, but also the most fulfilled) teacher that they themselves can possibly be – irrespective of how I myself teach, or whatever method is the flavour of the month, or whatever materials they happen to be using, or whatever context they happen to be teaching in.

And how do I do this?  Probably not by sitting at the back of the room and taking notes.

D is for Dreams

13 02 2011

“I have a recurring ‘teaching dream’, usually on the night before a new teaching semester. I am required to teach a class, but arrive there to find that it is not a square classroom but an L-shaped one, so that I can’t see all the students. Those around the corner are of course doing something else and I am helpless to stop them”.

An article in the New York Times, about dreaming in different languages, reminded me of some data I collected a few years back on the nature of teachers’ dreams – particularly teachers in training. The example above (‘The L-shaped classroom’) is typical.  The (somewhat informal and never published) research was prompted by the following comment in a trainee teacher’s journal:

“Throughout the whole night I dreamt I was making lesson plans, teaching, practising etc. I don’t know if it’s normal, or if I’m going a bit nuts”.

Having had plenty of teaching dreams myself (these days I have conference dreams!), I decided to investigate, and collected a number of dreams, both from trainees on pre-service courses at IH Barcelona, and from the wider world, via online teachers discussion lists.

The study – if you can call it that – subscribed to an ethnographic research tradition that legitimates personal narratives as a means of accessing how student and novice teachers experience and cope with change. As Donald Freeman puts it, “The notion of teachers’ stories is useful and powerful in considerding what teachers know and how their knowledge develops over time” (Freeman 1996, p. 101).  It was also predicated on the belief that, in Kagan’s (1992) words, “the practice of classroom teaching remains forever rooted in personality and experience and that learning to teach requires a journey into the deepest recesses of one’s self-awareness, where failures, fears, and hopes are hidden” (p. 163). Teachers’ dreams seemed but one way of accessing these ‘deeper recesses’.

What I was particularly interested in was the extent to which teachers’ dreams reflected the concerns of both novice and experienced teachers as documented in the literature on teacher development.  Fuller and Bown (1975), for example, found that the concerns of preservice teachers are typically

early concerns about survival. … They are concerned about class control, their mastery of content to be taught, and evaluations by their supervisors. They wonder whether they will ever learn to teach at all. This is a period of great stress (p. 38).

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my ‘dream corpus’ displayed similar anxieties. These I categorised as

1. Problem-setting dreams, as when the dreamer dreams incessantly about lesson planning;

2. Rule-breaking dreams, when the dreamer realises he/she is behaving delinquently;

3. Loss of control dreams, where the teacher is incapable of maintaining order; and

4. Role mis-match dreams, where the dreamer’s identity as a teacher is ambiguous or confused, as in this example:

“I dreamed that I was talking to this girl who I was in highschool with, I told her I was going to be a teacher and she just started laughing (What? You! A teacher?) and tried to talk me out of it”.

More experienced teachers also have loss-of-control dreams, but, more typically, dreams about not being prepared, as in this example:

“I suddenly remember that I will begin to teach a class in a few hours that I have totally forgotten about. I have done no preparation at all. I enter the classroom and see a roomful of hostile looking students. They glare at me and begin to chant ‘Teach me teach me’ over and over. I try to come up with an appropriate idea to explain. I explain it and then stare at them. I begin to sweat, and stutter. I can see that they are unimpressed by my ideas.  I usually awaken at this point”.

Other common dream types include dreams about institutional constraints, including getting to class on time:

“I discover that I’m one hour late for class and then I can’t remember which building it’s in, or I’m in the wrong building across campus, or I suddenly realize that classes started the day before and I missed a whole day”.

And, very occasionally, teachers’ dreams are not about their fears at all. Just as the principle underlying the invention of the sewing machine was reputed to have been conceived in a  dream, some dreams are actually creative, as in this example:

“One feedback session, [the teaching practice tutor] made a general suggestion that I incorporate mime into a warmer for a lesson I was preparing. The idea struck me as being interesting, and it burbled around in the back of my mind all that evening. I planned my lesson, and inserted a mime item in the warmer.  As I drifted off to sleep, mimers and mime ideas drifted along with me [and] I woke with the clearest vision of what to do with mime in the warmer. I followed these new ideas in my lesson, and that part of the lesson went like a dream”.


Freeman, D. 1996. ‘Redefining the relationship between research and what teachers know’. In Bailey, K., & Nunan, D. (eds.) Voices from the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fuller, F.F., and Bown, O.H. 1975. ‘Becoming a teacher’. In Ryan (ed.) Teacher Education: The 75th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education Part II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kagan, D. 1992.  ‘Professional growth among preservice and beginning teachers’. Review of Educational Research 62:2, 129-69.

Illustrations from Alexander, L. 1968. Look, Listen, Learn! London: Longman.

S is for (Earl) Stevick

21 11 2010

In a comment on my previous blog post, Diarmuid Fogarty suggested, if ever I get tired of the A-Z format, I might simply go through the book titles on my bookshelves and write a blog post per book. As it happens, when Diarmuid wrote that, I was already planning to focus on a book that had been a key influence on my development as a teacher, a copy of which – second-hand but in mint condition –  I’d recently managed to unearth, courtesy Amazon.

The book is Earl Stevick’s Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways, published by Newbury House in 1980. This was the first book on ELT I read of my own volition. (I’d of course read at least a couple of books on the intensive Diploma course I’d recently completed at IH London).  For some obscure reason, Stevick’s book was available in the bookshop of the International House affiliate I was in charge of, in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early eighties.  I either borrowed it, or bought it for the school (I’ve never had a copy of my own until now).

ILI Alexandria: with some of the locally-recruited staff, circa 1981

The book made a profound impression on me, at a stage of my development as a teacher and teacher educator (I was supervising a dozen newly-recruited teachers at the time) where I had already begun to question some of the ‘givens’ that underpinned my initial training five years earlier. For instance, I was no longer sure that a methodology of elicit-and-repeat would ever result in conversational fluency. Nor was I comfortable with a methodology that reduced learners to the role of passive consumers of ‘grammar mcnuggets’ . But I still hadn’t fully grasped the critical role that affect plays in learning – language learning not least. Learning, for me, was still  a purely cognitive process. By opening my eyes to the emotional and attitudinal dimension of learning, under the umbrella of humanistic learning theory, Stevick’s book marked a milestone in my professional development.

Earl Stevick

Early in the book, citing his own much-quoted dictum that “success depends less on materials, techniques, and linguistic analysis, and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom,” Stevick adds that he has been able “to pursue this principle more deeply, and at the same time to practice it more broadly, than before”.  As a result, he continues, “I have begun to suspect that the most important aspect of ‘what goes on’ is the presence or absence of harmony — it is the parts working with, or against, one another.  How such a thing may happen within and between the people in a language course is the subject of this book” (p.5).

In successive chapters, he describes his own quest for harmony in teaching, recounting how he had experienced, both as a student and as a teacher, such humanistic methods as The Silent Way, Community Language Learning, and Suggestopedia. For me, the realisation that success is more likely when the learner “is learning as a whole person, with body, mind, and emotions in harmony with one another” (p. 11) precipitated a major restructuring of my self-image as a teacher.

In order to capture something of the significance of this discovery, I drew up a series of ‘resolutions’ that were intended to set a new agenda for my teaching. Each resolution was based on a key ‘principle’, and elaborated in terms of its practical applications.  For example:

1.    Find out what the students want/need. Learning increases in proportion to relevance. “Pre-course” chat; sts write, conduct, collate results of their own survey; individuals choose thematic (lexical) areas to research and re–present to class; individual projects…
2.    Allow the students to bring their own interests, enthusiasms into the class, into the way the lessons are structured. Learning increases in proportion to personal investment. Use only materials with which there is a chance of generating discussion, argument; have sts bring things they have read (news) or heard; “show & tell” — photos, souvenirs, etc

Some of my resolutions (click to enlarge)

There were 17 resolutions in all, and I still have the original typewritten document, which, photocopied and distributed to my teachers, became a focus for discussion at our regular meetings. Our communal attempts to realise these ideals formed the platform on which all my later thinking about teaching was constructed.

I have read a lot of books on ELT since then, but none has had anything like such a profound impact, not just on my thinking, but on my actual classroom practice. This post is my tribute to its author: Earl Stevick – a great scholar, humanist and guide.

And (because it’s customary to end on a question): Do you have a ‘book that changed your life’?