May 14, 2016

Those who can't

I'm a ________ (1) teacher of English (what has recently become a bad word has been blanked out as to not offend anyone). As readers may have gathered from the content of this blog, I love language. I’m also a language learner. I’ve spent all my teaching and training career improving my knowledge of English and honing my understanding of how it works. Especially since I started teaching more lexically, I’ve been paying more attention to how words combine into patterns and how vocabulary interacts with grammar to create meaning.

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
Dispirited is actually putting it mildly. Frankly, I was actually in a state of shock when I read some of the responses to the question "Proficiency: Is there a minimum level for a language teacher" . Not only do the participants of the discussion argue that there should not be, some comments go far as to claim that as long as the teacher is one step ahead of the pupils we are fine, and the knowledge of students’ L1 is more important that the knowledge of English.

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?

The role of input

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.

Photo by Brett Patterson via Flickr
[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 on 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).


Teachers 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
Chac√≥n, 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

Key to the blanked out words

(1) near-native
(2) native
(3) non-natve


  1. Why not a mechanical, paint-by-numbers approach with a teacher as a transmitter of bite-sized bits in an atomistic and linear fashion? Sounds so awesome to us!

  2. A well argued article. It's full of common sense which sadly seems to in danger of extinction.

  3. Hi Leo, I absolutely agree with you about the importance of input and I'm not sure that anyone on the TEFL Equity post is really arguing against the need for it. I think there are still plenty of contexts in the world where the teacher may be the only source of input in English that the learners get exposed to, so teacher talk as input is doubly important here. I've worked in quite a few places like this and observed lots of classes there, and I'd say it's completely unrealistic to expect high levels of English from most English teachers in contexts like this. Teachers are underpaid and undervalued and don’t get the input they need themselves (You might say 'one step ahead only’ deprives the learners of the rich input they need, but I've seen classes, particularly in Government schools in Pakistan, where some of the learners seem to be one step ahead of their teachers!) I do think that a good awareness of methodology can compensate for a lack of proficiency in these cases though. It’s also far better to be only one step ahead of the learners, rather than too many steps ahead of them and not able to modify your language to meet their needs. Lots of beginning native speaker teachers suffer from this problem, of course. If I think back on my own experiences as a beginner language learner, in Brazilian Portuguese for example, I’d say I really valued the non-native speakers around me as a source of input – particularly those with English with an L1, but also Peruvian and Chilean friends. When they spoke Portuguese I could understand what they were saying, whereas Brazilians speaking just sounded like noise. In the same way, I’m sure that those kids in Pakistan would understand their teacher much better than they would me as a non-speaker of Pakistani English, and also as a non- speaker of Urdu.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Nick. Insightful as usual. It is sad indeed if learners are one step ahead of the teacher. But I don't see how one step ahead is better than many steps ahead. Being able to modify (or simplify?) your language according to learners' needs is precisely the kind of teachers' language awareness I've been talking about. And proficiency is at the basis of this awareness combined with methodological skills.

      I think in your example with Brazilian Portuguese, the speakers were proficient but not linguistically aware and without pedagogical skills - they were not teachers were they? Hence, there were unable to supply modified input pitched at your level, i.e. what Krashen would call i+1.

    2. I didn't mean that one step ahead was better than many steps ahead. I meant it was better to be only one step ahead than to be lots of steps ahead but without the skills to grade and modify your own speech. Of course the ideal situation for a teacher would be very proficient language user, with the skill to grade their own speech. In my experience as an ex-Celta tutor, I'd say lots of beginning NS teachers simply don't have this skill and if they don't know the L1 of the learners they are less likely to be able to do this effectively. I don't agree that proficiency is at the basis of this skill - I think being able to talk to learners effectively in an i+1 sort of way is a more of a methodology issue. Some people do it naturally because they are only at this level themselves - others need lots of practise and training to get better at it.

      I also don't agree with you about the non-native speakers of Portuguese. They weren't teachers, but neither were all the native speakers around me that I was hearing. The native speakers around me provided input +100 (too far away for me to even process) whereas the non-native speakers were much closer to where I was and I could identify with them in a way that I couldn't with most Brazilians. Of course, things changed as I progressed and I started to value the input of Brazilians much more.

    3. When I talked about Portuguese speakers, I was referring to the natives - sorry if it wasn't clear. You said Brazilians sounded like noise so I suggested that since they were not teachers they were not linguistically aware. Unfortunately I can't recall being in the same situation so I can't compare whether it would be easier for me to communicate with natives or non-natives as a beginner learner. But I have witnessed quite a few situations in the UK where Brits would not simplify their language for poor tourists asking for directions or help thus causing a breakdown in communication.

      Regarding Celta courses, well, this opens up a whole new debate as to whether four-week courses are sufficient which I don't want to go into now :) But basically I understand from your comments that you believe that non-NESTs who speak students' L1 are more effective teachers. The fact that L1 is an effective tool (especially for beginners) has indeed been borne out by research: but nevertheless there have been methods and approaches which have relied on target language only without recourse to L1. TPR comes to mind, for one. So NESTs cannot be automatically discarded as 'bad teachers' just because they don't speak students' L1.

      To avoid misunderstanding, I'm not saying that your comments imply that :) but many other comments on TEFL Equity do. Not only imply - they explicitly state it. And that's what I find wrong with the whole NEST/non-NEST debate - that defending the rights of non-NESTs doesn't mean that NESTs should be vilified.

  4. Yeah, Leo, in a post somewhere I said that I was being made to feel that I should apologise for being a XXXX. And that the arguments that XXXXXs understand the trials of their students better because they have gone through the process of learning ESL doesn't hold water because many XXXXs are multilingual (I am). Maybe I should put marbles in my mouth when I go to an interview to level the playing field (this is what the complaint seems to be about - level playing field). Well, I have a South African BE accent so the playing field in Canada is also not level for me even though I am a NEST. I have worked hard to understand the differences in SABE and CE and focused on making myself a specialist in teaching pronunciation
    (workshops, courses, books,articles, anything and everything) so that I will not shortchange my students (and so that my native SA accent won't count against me from getting a job.) It frustrates me that most NESTs and
    NNESTs I know who are in unionised jobs DON'T go about constantly improving their English skills and their craft - once in they are " protected", no matter what. Unions do their part in fighting for job equity - those members that let their skills degrade(and they do!) and do not stay up to date are letting the unions down. They also strengthen the POV of employers who insist on the right to determine who they shoukd hire - and keep.

    1. Thank you for joining the discussion here too, Claudie.

      I think those who argue about non-NESTs understanding learners' trials better have different NESTs in mind - backpacker EFL teachers in flipflops travelling around Thailand come to mind, not multilingual speakers like you. Talking of which, I compared two speakers of English as a third language for one of my MEd papers a while back - it was incredible how linguistically aware they were about nuances and differences between languages. And they were not teachers.

  5. Great post Leo! You said everything I wanted to say, but better. Regarding this: "But is that the kind of teaching we wish for our pupils?". Amanda Ripley, in her book "The Smartest Kids in the World," argues that many countries (e.g. the US) are failing kids because we only demand mediocrity from our teachers whereas countries where educational excellence is the norm (e.g. Finland), teachers are held against a high standard are not only experts in their subject but also of pedagogy. Shouldn't we hold all teachers to a high standard if we purport to do the same with our students?

    1. Yes, and in places where teachers measure up, like Finland, up there they actually find some air to live on.

    2. Thank you, Anthony and Thom

      I agree that our learners deserve better.

  6. Aww Leo, your post, and even more so, Anthony Schmidt's comment here, reminds me of a blog post I wrote in 2012 The problem with language teachers is that're good at languages LOL
    Although I do suffer when I hear my collegue (through the door) telling her class "You must answer to the question" ... such mistakes apart, her students make progress during their (short) time with her - and hey, what's a fossilized mistake between friends (still smiling).
    An important point in the original discussion is that State schools, where most ELT takes place, do not have much chance of recruiting a NEST, since employment in this sector requires a "local teaching qualification"
    I find myself frequently in the company of NESTs who, because they can't get a job, go around with a giant chip on their shoulders complaining about the "proficieny" of the ELTs in the area, and the slightest mistake reported as having been made by an ELT takes on enormous proportions.
    It's a tough world ;-)

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth.

      I know what you mean by NESTs complaining about non-NESTs :) But, as you pointed out, NESTs can also have difficulty getting a job in state schools because they don't have a local qualification - so the discrimination goes both ways :/

      Good to have you here!
      I've read your post.

  7. An interesting, well-argued case. Wrong conclusions IMHO, but you deserve a proper, well-considered reply.

    Geoff Jordan

  8. Hi Leo
    Thank you for this thorough reflection on, and reaction to, our current discussion. I really enjoyed reading it.
    I must say I tend to agree with most of what you say and I've been on the side of those who believe both the proficiency (min C1) AND competence of the teacher should be prerequisites in recruitment, rather than their nationality, which ultimately is the bottom line of the debate. Isn't it?

    1. Hi Hada,
      Thank you for dropping by and leaving a comment.
      Do you think C1 is a realistic goal for primary school teachers? Not challenging you, just wondering...

      A report published by the British Council has revealed that the majority of primary school teachers in the world are somewhere in the B1/2 region.

  9. Hello,

    I think your post is spot on that language awareness is important, and I agree that native speakers (like myself) have advantages when it comes to this. But I think there is a political issue here which your post fails to address. With politics facts can be tricky things, we tend to agree with those that already match or hunches and prejudices. Over at TEFL equity advocates the professional NNS may be compared to the NS backpacker. Here you pick up on the idea of the 'coach' or 'one-step-ahead' teacher and compare it with your own level of experience.

    When I started teaching I got a foot in the door on account of my place of birth, plus I sounded a bit posh and keen (read: easily exploitable). I had no understanding of declarative grammar, classroom management skills, methodology or student motivation. I remember telling a student that 'bitten' was the past tense because we use 'bitten' in "I was bitten by a dog". The student patiently explained the verb forms and how the past participle was the third form of the verb used in the perfect aspect or passive voice. This was when I realised that many language learners knew more grammar than I did.

    It took me many years of study and experience (minimum CELTA + DELTA) before I felt I could see myself as a professional. Even though non-native speakers are less likely to have the advantages I had in terms of procedural language awareness they can easily become better teachers through hard work and study, just as I had to do. People can, for example, use corpora and authentic texts for the rich input that you rightly state is important. However many NNS teachers who have worked very hard to deserve professional status are not treated fairly in our industry.

    While I think that a lot of this just boils down to personal politics, my opinion is this: As professionals in ELT there is more that connects us than divides us. There is a real problem with discrimination in some parts of the industry and we need to be aware of that and accept that. Native speakers are not being vilified, but we should be aware that we have received preferential treatment as an accident of birth. The post (and discussion) at TEFL equity advocates was penned to challenge this discrimination. Your facts seem right and your arguments are well constructed. But is it possible that your challenge could be used to justify unfair hiring practices?

    1. Hello Ben,

      Thank you for your long and thoughtful comment. Your point about NESTs having an advantage in terms of procedural knowledge and NNESTs in terms of declarative knowledge reminds me of the popular belief that NESTs are better at teaching vocabulary and NNESTs are better at teaching (or explaining the rules of) grammar. Have you ever heard this?

      Could my post be used to justify unfair hiring practices? I suppose anything can be twisted and used for any purpose (but that's as political as I'm willing to go on this blog :) The other day somebody was using my post The return of translation: opportunities and pitfalls to justify L1 as the medium of instruction in the EFL classroom while completely ignoring all the pitfalls I listed

      Like Hada above as well as Anthony and Thom before her in this thread, I believe that proficiency and competence should be prerequisites for the job rather than the teacher's birthplace.

    2. I am not sure about the vocabulary/grammar explanation point as I haven't read any research. It sounds like the kind of common sense notion that may hold a lot of truth while failing to capture the complexity of different contexts and situations.

      About the second point; yes I agree 100% to proficiency and competence as a professional. But upon entry to the profession I would suggest that NSs are often given a pass on competence in many countries, and go on to excellence. Generally speaking most NNSs are expected to have both from the start. So it seems totally fair to me to relax proficiency requirements somewhat (for competent teachers in other areas) in order to allow for more equitable access to the global TEFL industry. Wouldn't you agree?

    3. Sorry for posting again but I wanted to clarify something. I really do agree with your last point. Language proficiency and teaching awareness and competence absolutely should be prerequisites. I would love to see an industry where only the well qualified were hired. But I think either we should all be well trained and qualified, or we should accept that different people from different backgrounds have different strengths and weaknesses and open up entry to a wider range of candidates.

  10. One point not mentioned in this post was English as a Lingua Franca. Who owns English? How does ELF relate to proficiency?
    I was a little surprised by the following 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'…”.
    As a “NEST” and a fan of CL, I don’t disagree, but I wonder who the “we” is here? I think a French person and an Italian person speaking English could/might/would possibly choose the “It’s possible” option.

    I’m a Business English teacher in France and most of my students rarely interact with native speakers (unless they are planning a weekend shopping trip to London). They interact successfully with other L2 speakers using some variety of ELF.
    English in used in very specific situations and contexts. For example, the best teacher for a French student who has conference calls with his supplier in Shenzhen is probably Chinese and not necessarily C1/ C2/native proficient.
    Perhaps in some cases we are teaching “international communication” rather than language.

    I realize that a high level of proficiency makes it easier to adapt language to any context, and “to mediate the linguistic input for pedagogic purposes”.
    Sometimes though, proficiency in international communication needs to take priority over language proficiency.
    The whole issue is very context-dependent.

    So perhaps the best way to measure language awareness and ability to communicate/adapt internationally is to take into account bilingual/multilingual proficiency.
    Some kind of specialization in a given field (such as Claudie in pronunciation) is another good sign that the teacher has taken the time to get to know their context and what students will need.
    Jamie Keddie and Luke Vyner demonstrated this question of ownership well in this short video:

    1. Hi Eily,

      You're absolutely right. "It's possible" is often used by French and Italian speakers. I have absolutely no qualms about correcting or, if you like, pointing out to learners that "You can see..." is more common. Leaving the whole EFL/ELF debate aside, I'd say that if we don't do that, we are not teaching the modal verb "can" properly. Learners might not be aware that "can" can also be used in English on this occasion (to express possibility), especially if in their L1 the equivalent of "can" is only used to express ability ("can you drive/swim?"). Generally I find the English modal "can" has more uses than its equivalent in other languages. But going back from cross-linguistic analysis to teaching, I think times situations like this are exactly opportunities for some work on grammar/vocab or 'emergent language'.

      Regarding the video you've shared, just like Jamie at the end, I'm not convinced. The choice of the word is not very fair. Touristique / turistico / touristisch in many European language means "touristy" but to speakers of these languages "touristic" sounds more similar and thus makes more sense. It's like choosing the word "actual" for this experiment. In all other languages I know "actual" means relevant, current; it's only in English that "actual" means something else. But, of course, the issue of ELF is a subject for a whole separate blog post.

      Thank you for your comment, Eily. Good to have you here!

  11. My Latin teacher at high school, Mr Cramond, was not a native speaker of Latin. In fact, he couldn't speak Latin at all, as far as I could tell. But he taught it. To the point that, after four years, we were reading Virgil and Ovid. He taught it incredibly badly, I have to say, but that was not because he couldn't speak it. It's because he didn't know how to teach.

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