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.

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?

O is for Ownership

30 10 2011

Can you own an idea?

In the lastest issue of Voices, the IATEFL newsletter, in a page of teaching ideas, there appears the following activity:

Holiday photos

1.Teacher borrows a notepad from a  student and draws 2 big rectangles.

2. Teacher imagines these are family photos and describes the people and the event.

3. Students draw 2 big rectangles on their notepad page.

4. They do step 2 with a partner or small group.

5. Report back to group about their partners’ photos.

(Gobel, 2011, p. 11)

Nice activity. Except that, apart from one or two small details (only one rectangle, not two, and the fact that the teacher doesn’t describe the ‘photo’ so much as invites questions about it), this is my idea. I happen to know it’s my idea because, unusually, it came to me in a dream. (I swear!)  I’ve never written it up, but I’ve often done it in Dogme-style workshops.

So what? No one owns an idea. Moreover, there’s such a thing as synchronicity, when several people think of the same good idea at the same time. Maybe that’s what happened.  So I’m not losing sleep about losing ownership of my idea. But it has got me thinking.

Several years back I was at the other end of a more serious breach of ‘intellectual ownership’. In a methodology book I wrote, I used a term that had recently been coined and popularised by an American academic of considerable repute. Not only did I use the term, I used it in the context of describing a view of linguistics that this writer herself had recently developed and was busily promoting. I felt it was right, therefore, to acknowledge her influence by putting her name at the head of the list of the people I wished to thank.

Imagine my surprise, however, when – having received a complimentary copy – the writer in question emailed me to express her (barely concealed) anger that I had not credited her sufficiently, particularly with regard to the term she had coined.  My response – that my book, not being an academic text, was deliberately thin on referencing – didn’t wash. “We are nothing if not our ideas, Scott,” she wrote. After a hastily convened conference-call with my series editor and publisher, the aggrieved academic was somewhat mollified by the promise that – in the next edition – the wrong would be righted (a promise that was fulfilled, I might add).

“We are nothing if not our ideas”. At the time I thought this was somewhat pious, pretentious even, or just plain sad.   Having since spent time on the fringes of the US academic community, I now understand better where she was coming from.  There is a very different professional culture operating there than, say, in Britain or Europe. It is both more competitive and more proprietorial. Ideas matter.

But for how long?   On yet another occasion, I was taken to task by a reviewer of another of my books for not acknowledging the fact that one of the practice activities in that book had been invented by (the late) Donn Byrne, way back in the 1970s. I honestly didn’t know.

But be reasonable: how long does an idea have to be around before it enters the popular domain?  Does anyone have a patent out on Alibis, for example, or on dictogloss? Who owns running dictations? At what point can you safely stop referencing Stephen Krashen when you talk about comprehensible input, or Jerome Bruner when you talk about scaffolding?

Nevertheless, ideas do matter – some ideas, at least. I’m not going to lose sleep – as I say – about the holiday photos activity. But I did tick off a fellow blogger, a few months back, when he mentioned ‘teaching unplugged’ without attribution. And this – from a post on the Dogme discussion list last week – caused a brief but sharp spasm of wounded pride: “The founders, the producers, actually don’t “own” this story [i.e. Dogme], this story is time-old: it belongs to life and language learning itself”.

So much for one’s precious ideas.


Gobel. G. 2011. ‘Practical Teaching Ideas’. Voices, 223. Pewsey: IATEFL. p. 11.

P is for Profession

30 01 2011

Hard times?

In a leading Spanish daily a couple of weeks ago, there was a feature on an up-and-coming actress, in which she recounted her years of ‘penury’ before achieving stardom. This is how it was reported (loosely translated): “Her career has suffered fits and starts. [She recalls,] ‘I worked as an ice-cream seller, a mime at Ikea, a teacher of English, and a teacher of drawing…'” The newspaper comments: “These are the privations that many of her actor friends have had to put up with, grabbing whatever they can …”

And in the 1995 edition of The Cambridge International Dictionary of English the following citation appeared under the entry for end up: “After working her way around the world, she ended up teaching English as a foreign language”.

This perception of English language teaching as being a slightly disreputable last resort, or, at best, a gap-year option, is one that is endlessly perpetuated, and is a source of both embarrassment and indignation on the part of many dedicated English teachers.

One way of redressing this negative stereotype has been to claim professional status, arguing that language teaching, being highly skilled, requires (or should require) extensive training and rigorous gate-keeping. In this spirit, organisations such as IATEFL and TESOL make it their mission “to develop and maintain professional expertise in English language teaching” (as the TESOL website puts it).

But is TEFL really a profession? Is teaching even a profession? In his seminal book, School teacher: A sociological study, Lortie (1975) suggested that — compared to the prototypical professions like law, medicine or engineering — maybe it is not. Why? Because, unlike doctors, lawyers, architects, etc:

  • teachers continue to be employed subordinates who are employed in organizations where those that govern do not belong to the occupation;
  • there is no consensual base of professional knowledge;
  • membership is not carefully screened by the occupational group itself;
  • entry to teaching is eased by society, as compared to other professions: entry requirements are relatively lacking in rigour and length and the decision to enter can be made at almost any age.

Whether or not this is true for mainstream teaching, it certainly does seem to reflect the reality on the ground for much of TEFL, and accounts for the relatively low levels of professional self-esteem, often exacerbated by poor pay and long hours.

"The technology model"

What is to be done? As I wrote a few years back (Thornbury 2001), “those working in EFL who are concerned by this implied lack of status have responded by attempting to construe EFL in terms of one of two distinct models” (p. 392). These I labelled the academic model (aimed at establishing ‘a consensual base of professional knowledge’, through, for example, research and publication), and the therapeutic model, where, by enlisting certain new-age discursive practices, the somewhat mundane activity of teaching is re-invented  as a form of healing. (I am less convinced, now, that the therapeutic model has as extensive a following as it did in the 1980s and 1990s. If anything it has been eclipsed by the technology model, whereby respect is conferred by donning a lab-coat and swearing allegiance to the doctrine of Vorsprung durch Technik. Meanwhile, the academic model is stronger than ever, judging by the number of MA TESOL programs on offer – on one of which – declaring an interest – I teach).

As an alternative (to the academic and therapeutic models), I argued that teachers might achieve a measure, not just of self-respect, but of personal and professional excitement, by acknowledging the fact “that they occupy a privileged space on the frontier between languages and hence on the frontier between cultures, and that they are uniquely situated to mediate contact through dialogue” (p. 394).

A dialogic model of pedagogy, grounded firmly in an educational tradition, as opposed to an academic or a therapeutic or a technocratic one, still seems to me to offer the best way forward. As Claire Kramsch puts it: “A dialogic pedagogy is unlike traditional pedagogy… it sets new goals for teachers – poetic, psychological, political goals that … do not constitute any easy-to-follow method. .. Such a  pedagogy should better be described, not as a blueprint for how to teach foreign languages, but as another way of being a language teacher” (Kramsch 1993, p. 31).

I concluded my article by suggesting that:

as a profession we should worry less about what other people think of us and concern ourselves more with what we are good at: being out there, at the front, in the firing line, on the edge. Few jobs can offer as much. The lightness of EFL is dizzying. But we need to guard against respectability. As Auden wrote: “The sense of danger must not disappear” (p.396).

Ten years on: is the craving for respectability still as strong as ever?


Kramsch, C. 1993. Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lortie, D. 1975. School teacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chcago Press.

Thornbury, S. 2001.The unbearable lightness of EFL. English Language Teaching Journal, 55/4, 391-6.