L is for Language arts

13 08 2017

language arts blackboardAt the very end of an intensive summer of methodology and language analysis, one of my MA TESOL students, who I will call Alice, confessed that it had taken her until that point to realize that TESOL is ‘different’. “You need to understand that I come from a language arts teaching background,” she told me. “It seems that teaching ELLs [English language learners] is not the same”.

On reflection, this insight explained a lot about the struggle Alice had been having, both in her practical teaching classes, and in her written assignments, especially those that required an understanding of how texts could be exploited in class. In her classes she had often used her energetic and engaging manner to focus her students’ attention on unusual or literary features of language, such as idioms and the use of figurative language – irrespective of her students’ level, and at considerable cost to their comprehension.  When her display questions elicited blank stares she seemed to assume it was because they lacked knowledge of the topic, not that they lacked the necessary language – particularly the vocabulary – with which to understand her or to respond. And, in her written assignments, she chose texts or topics for classroom exploitation that were way beyond an average ELL’s capacity to process.

Alice’s ‘epiphany’ made me think that perhaps we don’t do enough – at the outset of the program  – to distinguish between these two very different disciplines, i.e. language arts teaching and language teaching. Because they both involve language, and, specifically, the English language, it is tempting to assume that they share the same goals, methods, and learner profiles. And that the experience of teaching one would be ideal preparation for teaching the other.

But I would argue that there are more differences than similarities.

language arts free expressionTo start with the most obvious: students of language arts are, generally speaking, already fluent in the language of instruction, for most of whom it is their first language. What’s more, they come to class with a receptive vocabulary of several thousand words. They are equipped to understand most everything their teacher says to them, or gives them to read.

ELLs, on the other hand, are seldom already fluent (that’s why they have enrolled in classes in the first place), and have a limited lexicon: the average low-intermediate student may have a sight vocabulary of fewer than a thousand words. Apart from anything else, this makes reading and listening of anything but the most simplified texts an enormous challenge. Hence they need help – not in appreciating the writer’s style, or inferencing the text’s covert message  – but in cracking the code and releasing its literal (not literary) meaning. And they need a teacher who is able to grade her language appropriately to ensure understanding.

Moreover, the kinds of texts they will need to unpack are unlikely to be expressive or poetic ones, but utilitarian, even prosaic ones, such as instruction manuals, legal documents, academic abstracts, and so on. This doesn’t mean that there is no room for expressive and imaginative writing in the ESOL classroom, but that there is little point in having learners engage with ‘higher order’ texts until their basic reading strategies are in place.

language arts libraryLikewise, the goal of language production, whether speaking or writing, is first and foremost, intelligibility. Again, this will require a core vocabulary and a basic grammar – not a style-guide grammar (as in Never use the passive voice when you can use the active) but a nuts-and-bolts grammar (such as Adjectives generally always go before the noun and To make a question, invert the subject and the auxiliary verb).  And, of course, they will need pronunciation and spelling that are comprehensible even if they are unlikely ever to be native-like.

To sum up, then: here are some of the major differences between teaching language arts and teaching language. (Is this perhaps something we should introduce to trainee language teachers on Day 1?)

language arts chart

(This post first appeared on The New School MA TESOL blog Uncharted ESOL in September 2015).

P is for Power

26 04 2015

What about ‘The English Woman’? Or ‘The Non-English Man’? (Language school in Barcelona)

The recent IATEFL Conference at Manchester has been generating quite a bit of heat on the social networks on issues that, to my way of thinking, relate to questions of power: specifically, who has it? who ought to have it? and who has earned it?

For example, in their presentation on the alleged invisibility of women in ELT, Nicola Prentis and Russell Mayne suggested that the predominance of a clique of (not quite) dead white males in ELT (all named and shamed!) has effectively blocked access to opportunities for aspiring writers and presenters, especially women. (I wasn’t there so I’m simply inferring the gist from what I’ve been reading on Facebook – I’m prepared to be corrected). Their concern echoes that of the Fair List, an initiative to encourage a higher profile for women speakers at ELT events, which had hosted an awards ceremony the evening before.

Where are the women in ELT? Well, while it may be true that women are underrepresented in the power structures of ELT (ignoring, for the moment, that the incoming and outgoing presidents of both IATEFL and TESOL are all women), the situation is probably healthier than in many professions. A quick check of a website where speakers from a whole range of disciplines (sciences, the arts, media, sports etc) advertise their wares shows that roughly nine out of ten speakers in all categories (Keynote, Celebrities, Motivational, Leadership etc) are men. By comparison, the ELT conference circuit seems relatively inclusive.  There is certainly room for improvement, but it does make me wonder if the gender debate isn’t distracting us from power issues that are much more pervasive and equally, if not more, pernicious.

Such as? Well, not one of the alpha males (in the list that Prentis and Mayne’s research identified) is a non-native speaker. Yet non-native speaker teachers comprise the vast majority of the teaching population worldwide – upwards of 95% by some estimates. This – more than the gender disparity – seems a much more serious indictment of the present state of ELT, and suggests that the ‘discourses of colonialism’ (Pennycook 1998) still permeate the profession, a situation in which, as Holliday (2005: 2) puts it, ‘a well-resourced, politically and economically aggressive, colonizing, Western ‘Centre’’ imposes its values, standards and beliefs on ‘an under-sourced, colonized ‘Periphery’.’ in class 1950

Ironically, these colonizing forces are particularly conspicuous at conferences in the so-called periphery itself, where the alpha (NS) males – myself included – really dominate. Is this a case of what Kumaravadivelu (2006: 22) calls ‘self-marginalization’? I.e.:

The TESOL profession is replete with instances where, in certain periphery communities, program administrators “require” or at least “prefer” native speakers to carry out teaching and consultancy, and teachers and teacher educators look up to native speakers for inspiration thinking that they have ready-made answers to all the recurrent problems of classroom teaching … By their uncritical acceptance of the native speaker dominance, non-native professionals legitimize their own marginalization.

As I’ve found, it’s very hard to persuade the head of a teachers’ organization in, say, Bangladesh or Armenia, that I have nothing of value to add to what the locals already know. TaW SIG

Meanwhile, a group calling itself TAW (Teachers as Workers) is lobbying IATEFL for Special Interest Group (SIG) status, on the grounds that it represents the interests of working teachers (‘pushing for the rights of ELT teachers in an era of precarity [sic]’), but, so far, with little success. It is a little odd, let’s face it, that a teachers’ organization (which is what IATEFL purports to be) can’t make room for a group that provides a forum for chalkface teachers. Teacher professional development, after all, is professional development, which surely includes issues of job security, working conditions, access to training, and so on. As Bill Johnston (2003: 137) writes:

I believe that all our talk of teacher professional development is seriously compromised if we ignore the marginalisation of ELT that is staring us in the face, that is, if we treat the professional growth of teachers as something that can be both conceived and carried out without reference to the sociopolitical realities of teachers’ lives. To devalue this central feature of work for huge numbers of teachers is to fail to grasp the significance of the drive for professional development. I believe that the ELT professional organisations have unwittingly colluded in this artificial separation of the professional and political. For many years, for example, the TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Convention, the annual meeting of the TESOL organisation, was almost exclusively devoted to matters of classroom techniques and materials. These things are of course important and useful to teachers. What was lacking, however, was any sense of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted, or of its role in those contexts.

teacher ny 1920So, don’t be put off by the somewhat hectoring rhetoric of the TaW collective. Even if it is unlikely to prosper, their cause is a worthy one.

Finally, while some are banging on the doors of IATEFL trying to get in, there are others who view IATEFL and similar organizations, not as the solution, but as the problem. From his bunker somewhere in Catalonia, Geoff Jordan lambasts IATEFL and all it stands for: “The IATEFL conference is about self-promotion, it’s held to justify IATEFL’s existence and to give the huge commercial concerns that run the ELT industry a chance to flog their shoddy goods.”

Whether you agree or not, this – like the other issues I have touched on – is clearly an issue of power: whose interests does IATEFL really serve? Does it kowtow to the publishers? What discourses does it privilege, e.g. those of professional development, or of social justice or of big business?

And, taking the wider view, is ELT still tainted with its colonial past? Does the centre still hold? Is it really all about ‘the English Man’? In short, how cognizant are we (to borrow Johnston’s phrase) “of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted”?  How is power distributed in these contexts? How could it be distributed more equitably?


Holliday, A. (2005) The Struggle to Teach English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnston, B. (2003) Values in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006) ‘Dangerous liaison: globalization, empire and TESOL’, in Edge, J. (ed.) (Re)locating TESOL in an Age of Empire. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pennycook, A. (1998) English and the Discourses of Colonialism. London: Routledge.