I believe students have always benefited from my heightened language awareness. When answering a student’s question about the difference between “comfortable” and “convenient”, I can say that “convenient” usually refers to time and location (e.g. Would 5 o’clock be convenient to you? or I live really close to the school so I can just walk, which is really convenient).
I can give the following examples to help students who confuse “worthy” and “worth”:
worthy of admiration
worth a fortune
Thanks to my heightened linguistic awareness I can give students the following pronunciation tip:
always almost also are pronounced as if they start with "all" as in call, fall, small
Or point them towards more natural and common ways of saying things, for example, "It’s grammatically correct to say 'It’s possible to see a castle from here’ but we don’t usually say that. I’d say 'You can see a castle from here'…”. Generally, verbs of sense such as hear, smell, see tend to go with the modal verb can as in “Can you hear (that strange noise…)?” rather than “Do you hear…?”
I think every language teacher – whether _______ (2) or _______ (3)- should invest time and effort in their language awareness for the benefit of their students. However, a recent discussion on TEFL Equity Advocates has left me dispirited and doubtful of my beliefs that knowing language you’re teaching is a prerequisite to entering the field. How could I have been so wrong? How come the knowledge of subject matter which would be reasonable to expect of any teacher of any subject is suddenly deemed discriminatory and elitist in ELT?
One step ahead
|Photo by Hana Ticha via eltpics on Flickr|
By this standard, 8th graders can teach 7th graders, 9th graders can teach 8th graders and so on – after all, they are not one step, but a whole year ahead. Nobody would conceive of a swimming or driving instructor who hasn't learned to swim or drive yet. Or drive well. “Sorry, I can’t show you how to perform a 3-point turn – I’ll do it next year after I’ve mastered it”.
Admittedly, driving is probably a false analogy here, but what they do have in common is that both are skills and not content subjects. A one-step-ahead approach implies precisely this erroneous notion: language is a subject like biology or physics with content which can be transmitted from a teacher to a pupil item by item, bit by bit, Grammar McNugget after a Grammar McNugget.
Moreover, such an approach would be based on the teacher’s 'built-in' syllabus, i.e what the teacher has mastered, rather than the needs of the learner. And how would one-step-ahead teachers field learners' questions which are beyond the scope of their language proficiency? “I’ll get back to you next year when I’ve gone a step up”? And how would one-step-ahead teachers be able to recognize errors and suggest - how shall I put it - better ways of saying the same thing? (we’ve become so politically correct, you see, I am afraid to use the term error correction).
I speak a few language to a varying degree of proficiency. Can I teach them? Probably, if I have a textbook and follow it page by page by studying a new grammar rule ahead of my pupils. But is that the kind of teaching we wish for our pupils? A mechanical, paint-by-numbers approach with a teacher as a transmitter of bite-sized bits in an atomistic and linear fashion?
As if the discussion on TEFL Equity Advocates wasn’t perplexing enough, it gets weirder when those who argue against standards of proficiency for teachers suggest that learners can learn a language themselves. But this just goes against their own argument! Those who have taught themselves a foreign language probably succeeded in doing so because they were exposed to rich input, something students would be deprived of with a one-step-ahead teacher.
The role of input
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[CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]
The discussion also seems to miss the point of what constitutes content knowledge in a skill-based field such as English. Is it procedural knowledge, i.e. an ability to use English, or declarative knowledge, i.e. knowledge about language? Clearly, English teachers need both. For Stephen Andrews (2007), both types are subsumed under the umbrella term “language awareness” – the kind I thought I possessed – which, he argues, has an effect of teaching effectiveness. Language awareness is essential in that it enables teachers to mediate the linguistic input for pedagogic purposes, anticipate learners' difficulties with language and make certain features of the input more salient through consciousness-raising activities or input enhancement.
In light of all this, another comment in the discussion thread comes as a surprise – that pedagogic skills can compensate for the lack of language proficiency. A surprise because it comes from Scott Thornbury, whose book About Language – one of my favourite ELT books – opens with the following preface:
The assumption underlying this book is that teachers of English not only need to be able to speak and understand the language they are teaching, but that they need to know a good deal about the way the language works.
Nevertheless, other commenters in the thread seem to agree that pedagogic skills are superior to linguistic competence, and language proficiency should be de-emphasised in teacher training programmes.
If you have done peer tutoring with adult students, that is when students take the role of a teacher for part of a lesson, those students who are teachers themselves almost invariably stand out from others in peer teaching sessions. But as I discussed above, language teaching involves much more than 20-minute presentations of the rules of a grammatical structure. Language knowledge plays a crucial role in language teacher’s pedagogical knowledge because the content and the medium of instruction are inextricably linked. How can pedagogic skills be divorced from the discipline you are teaching? By this token, a good PE teacher can be a good language teacher?
Language proficiency and effective teaching
Finally, I think it would be arrogant of us to assume that English teachers who were not born in and English speaking country (avoiding the bad word again!) do not want to improve their English. Studies show that there is a connection between teachers’ English proficiency and self-efficacy. Chacon (2005) surveyed 100 secondary school teachers in Venezuela. The results of her study indicate that the more proficient the teachers across the four skills, the higher their sense of efficacy. The author stresses the importance of preparing EFL teachers who are competent across the four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing).
Similar studies conducted in other countries point to the same conclusion. To give just another example, Wang (2000) reports on the positive effect study abroad programmes have on the levels of proficiency of Chinese EFL teachers maintaining that the language component as essential in the training of EFL teachers. Summarizing language policies and teaching practices in several Asian countries in TESOL Quarterly, David Nunan concludes that “proficiency of many teachers is not sufficient to provide learners with the rich input needed for successful foreign language acquisition.” (2003: 607).
Touching upon the subject of NESTs and non-NESTs, Nunan questions whether expensive government schemes aimed at recruiting large numbers of NESTs in Hong Kong and Japan are justified and argues that “this investment would be better spent on programs to enhance the proficiency and professional skills of local teachers.” (2003: 608).
ConclusionTeachers in my PLN come from all over the world – Poland, Greece, Belgium and Brazil. They have an excellent command of English which I am sure they have worked hard to achieve. Calls for abandoning standards of language proficiency reduce the role of teacher to that of a cheerful activity coordinator, ignore the role of quality input – probably the most important component of second language acquisition – and lend legitimacy to the popular myth that "those who can't, teach".
Andrews, S. (2007) Teacher language awareness. Cambridge: CUP
Chacón, C. T. (2005). Teachers’ perceived efficacy among English as a foreign language teachers in middle schools in Venezuela. Teaching and Teacher Education, 21(3), 257-272
Nunan, D. (2003). The Impact of English as a Global Language on Educational Policies and Practices in the Asia‐Pacific Region. TESOL quarterly, 37(4), 589-613
Thornbury, S. (1997). About language. Cambridge: CUP
Wang, D. (2014). Effects of study abroad on teachers’ self-perceptions: a study of Chinese EFL teachers. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 5(1), 70-79
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