Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

I’ve always preferred teaching adults to teens and young learners, though just occasionally being able to run a good teen/YL class can be a great boost to my confidence. Erica Napoli Rottstock’s post has some useful tips that could make a real difference next time I head into the teen classroom!

I am pretty sure that on seeing the heading to this article you will have immediately and unconsciously nodded your head and maybe added a decisive ‘no way’. As a matter of fact, teenagers are often seen as moody and undisciplined and their lack of motivation can be a ‘nightmare’ if we are teachers.

However, taking a break to teach teens can be a real boost for demotivated teachers, an unexpectedly refreshing experience that ripples through to the rest of your EFL praxis.

I think everyone has experienced times when things don’t go as we assume; maybe you have felt tired and demotivated. The first thing to do is to find the real reason why you have lost your enthusiasm. If you think you need more fun and you strongly believe that connecting with people can help you, in this case a change is as good as a rest. Taking time out to work outside of one’s comfort zone may bring new inspiration to routine, in this case take also some time to watch this inspiring TED talk. Based on my personal experience, one year teaching in a teen class could be your solution.

The first thing to consider is that the so-called moody, undisciplined teens’ behaviour is strongly influenced by how teens’ brains are wired, ruled by the limbic system, since the frontal lobe, specifically responsible for controlling emotions, takes significantly longer to develop. This may be the reason for their short attention span, their laziness or lack of interest, but on the other hand teens are ready to get involved very easily. A trustworthy teacher with an engaging topic will soon spot ways of driving and channelling such traits.

Secondly, allow for flexibility. We can be less like control freaks and thus much more likely to enjoy the lesson. Even if we have a syllabus to follow, we can still be flexible. Interestingly enough, by releasing control, we gain students’ trust and attention. Surprisingly, if you listen to them, you get their attention and you feel less tired! I would suggest you enter the class with a multiple-option lesson plan – say a plan where you let your students decide how to develop it. I have noticed that if you start your lesson with a sort of declaration of intent, teen students are happy to follow you and are extremely pro-active. This environment is stimulating for their learning and also a boost for ‘tired teachers’. Even classroom management can become less stressful if you can let students move freely in their class, choose their peers for their activities and decide when they need a break. By respecting their pace you can have less stress indeed.

The third thing to consider is that teens are very curious, so when you teach them you can make your lesson very personal and arouse their interest. Clearly, this doesn’t mean sharing one’s closest personal issues. You can simply offer up your point of view, your personal opinions, bringing an element of humanity and showing we are far from being superheroes. I can assure you that this is not only very conducive to learning but also very positive for your well-being.

Last but not least, the environment of your class will become more relaxed and you can simply work on emergent language without wasting any opportunity for learning. Besides, you will notice that students themselves will ask you to practise more if they become aware of their limits. Teaching teens becomes a real boost, if you consider a more autonomous learner approach. You can foster students’ autonomy by developing their awareness with self-assessment, you may guide students to be aware of their own weaknesses and strengths, with a reduction of your workload or at least less time-consuming ways to evaluate your students.

Also, I recommend stimulating learning beyond the class, so that you can build a deeper rapport with your students, as you can understand their needs and interests better. In my experience, WhatsApp was extremely useful, not only in terms of conducting on-going class service communication and light conversations outside the classroom, but also when it came to assigning/performing and giving feedback on written, oral and aural homework (short writing/speaking tasks performed via voice and video recordings and text messages). This particular means of communication provides the added value of reduced practitioner workload in terms of evaluating learner performance on a day-to-day basis. We ask parents’ permission to have WhatsApp groups with students when they join the school.

To sum up, if you want to feel regenerated, go for a teen class; they have an extremely positive attitude provided one is prepared to embrace flexibility and promote autonomy.

If this is still not enough to boost you, then perhaps a good long holiday is actually in order! 🙂

About the author

Erica Napoli

Erica is a DELTA-qualified teacher with an MA in foreign literature. She has been teaching English for more than 15 years, but she likes to be considered as a life-long learner herself. Previously DoS and founder of a little private language school in Milan, she then decided to become a full-time teacher at high school and she’s currently engaged teaching teens at Istituto Europeo Leopardi in Milan. This article is based on her talk from IATEFL Brighton in April 2018.

Christian Tiplady asked me if he could share his ideas for shifting the focus of official observations with the readers of this blog. I think you’ll agree that they are minor tweaks that could make a big difference.

Why do we focus on the behaviour of teachers during ‘official’ classroom observations? Is there an alternative way that is more in line with current thinking on learner-centred approaches?

So many institutions, including ones where I have worked, still cling to the idea that teachers need to be evaluated for quality assurance and that the best way to do this is with a formal observation, often compartmentalised and homogenised, taking the form of an hour-long observation by a senior member of staff. The observer uses a standardised feedback form with variables by which the teacher’s lesson is graded, and then leads feedback analysing what went well or badly. Oftentimes this observation takes place only infrequently, perhaps once a year, and there is often no follow-up to assess observation outcomes.

This style of evaluative observation is not only outdated but also ill-conceived. It assumes that the activity of ‘teaching’ can be rated, and that this can be done with the kind of standardised grading to which we have grown accustomed. In order to have much value at all any assessment of teaching needs to be thought through carefully. It needs to be done over a longer period with more frequent observations to avoid a ‘snapshot’ view and therefore the danger of misguided evaluation. Feedback needs to be cyclical and iterative in nature and co-constructed with the teacher as part of a reflective process to ensure that the teacher is on board with continuing development.

But there is a much more important point to be made here, which is that to focus on what the teacher is or isn’t doing in a classroom (and to rate that) is surely at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous if this is without explicit reference to the world of the learner. My contention is that we still do this way out of pure habit, and that at least in part, this undoubtedly comes from vestiges of ingrained beliefs that still linger, even if as teachers we know these things to be untrue.

Firstly, the status quo derives from the mistaken belief that teaching equals learning. However in reality we know that the teaching is only part of the equation and that learners will learn in their own way and at their own rate. As Freeman reminds us “teachers are influential in classroom learning but that does not mean they cause it to happen.” (Freeman, 2006; 254). Indeed we can teach what we might consider to be the best lesson, only to note that in terms of the learning it did not have the impact that was desired. Or conversely we can teach a lesson which at first sight did not go to plan or very ‘well’ in practice, but where there was nonetheless significant learning.

Secondly it comes from the implicit assumption that teaching behaviours can be classified and evaluated and that ‘more’ or ‘less’ of that thing is better. For example, typically ‘student talking time’ is inevitably valued within today’s language teaching, where a premium is placed on communication, and ‘teacher talking time’ should be reduced at all costs. In reality, purposeful teacher talk can be very useful as part of the learning process and in some lessons it may be vital.

Another example is the use of the English in the classroom versus the use of the student’s L1. The former has conventionally been highly valued (probably to encourage an element of immersion), whilst the latter i.e. the use of L1, has been relegated to the fringes with infrequent activities such as ‘translate these sentences into your own language’ given for homework, but with little real acknowledgement that use of L1 in the learning process can be extremely useful.

Although such thinking has increasingly been challenged over recent years, it still tends to be pervasive in the realm of teacher observations. We continue to focus on what the teacher should and should not do in the classroom (theories on this will likely come and go), and judge things by our own semi-conscious ideas of what is right and wrong. More importantly, by taking our eyes off the ball, we often miss the real action i.e. we neglect the impact (or lack of it) of the lesson on the learner. A typical example might be the types of praise given for a communicative speaking activity, which a teacher organised well and the learners dutifully performed with high levels of talking time, but which had little intrinsic value in terms of developing the learners or engaging them in meaningful expression.

By focusing on the behaviours of teachers in the classroom, we are also reinforcing a model that is teacher-centred and are thus potentially affecting teachers’ beliefs and behaviour. If we (learners, teachers, teacher trainers, managers etc.) desire lessons to be learner-centred then surely we need to promote that in everything we do, including the observations of teachers. Evidently, the main thing that is useful to focus on is learning and the learning process for the learner. In short, we need to rethink our observations of teachers to refocus on how teachers may best facilitate this learning.

So how do we do this? Assuming we still have to follow an institutionalised system of official observations, (which I still think can be reclaimed for the good), these can be redesigned with an onus on the learners with surprisingly minor structural adjustments, but with a fairly radical shift in our philosophy.

First of all, the usual observation template can be changed to make all criteria more learner-centred. Criteria such as ‘relevant learner outcomes established in conjunction with the learners’ and ‘lesson managed in a way that promoted achievement of lesson outcomes’ can be included to promote learner-centredness. The emphasis of wording is all-important; thus a criterion such as ‘use of English in the classroom’ can be amended to ‘English/L1 used appropriately for learner needs’ and ‘teacher talking time’ can be amended to ‘learner talking time suitable for learner needs’. These changes may seem somewhat pedantic, but in my experience such small adjustments can promote a major shift in the thinking of both the observer and the observed teacher alike. For instance, the phrasing of the latter criterion on learner talking time intrinsically leads both parties to ask themselves questions such as: ‘What was witnessed in terms of learner talking time?’ ‘Was the learner talking time appropriate in amount, form and quality at various stages of the lesson, as well as overall in the lesson? If not, why not?’ ‘Did the amount, form and quality of learner talking time mean the aims of the lesson were achieved for the learner? If not, why not?Clearly this change of emphasis might necessitate some ongoing training for both teachers and observers of lessons, but is nonetheless quite possible.

Secondly, the observer needs to truly focus on the learner – on their reactions, behaviour and likely learning – during the observed lesson. Often the observer sits at the back of the classroom to watch the teacher but cannot see the students’ faces or reactions. What the teacher does in terms of facilitation is important, but how the learner responds and whether they demonstrate that they are learning is of ultimate importance. Therefore the observer should try to ‘climb into the learners’ skin’ and see it from their perspective. The simplest act of the observer positioning their chair to the side of the classroom, to see the learners’ faces, how they react, and what they are doing, can make a huge difference to the observer’s understanding of the effects of the lesson on the learners and their learning.

Thirdly, the information gathered by the observer should ideally be backed up with further evidence to reduce subjectivity, preferably in the form of a video recording. Silvana Richardson (2014) has done some interesting work in this area, which she calls ‘evidence-based observation’. Software is also available which allows the observer to annotate the recorded video with questions and comments for the teacher, thereby facilitating a feedback process focusing on the learner, though it’s not always particularly easy to access.

Finally, however much the observer and the observed teacher try to adopt the mindset of the learner, and back it up with evidence, they can never claim to know the thoughts of the learner. The learners’ voice therefore needs to be included within observation feedback for any lesson or series of lessons. Thus the observation process should seek to include feedback from the learners, for example, their assessment of how engaging the lesson has been and how successful they think the lesson has been in terms of their learning. This can be factored into evaluative feedback as long as the process is handled sensitively.

Any additional comments learners have on the lesson(s) are also vitally important to inform the feedback process and can change the evaluation of a lesson significantly if they happen to disagree with what the observer and/or the teacher believe. When experimenting with this approach, I observed a lesson where I thought the learner might have been overloaded with the amount of topics that she was asked to speak about. However, in her feedback the learner maintained that that the amount of topics was at about the optimum level for her. This first-hand vantage point significantly changed my perception of the lesson.

In most institutions, how often does the observer of a lesson really solicit the opinions of the learners as part of the observation process? I would suggest very seldom. By contrast, including the learners’ voice in the observation feedback implicitly encourages the teacher to engage with learner feedback in the same way. Reframing the observation in terms of the learners not only allows a more relevant learner-centred perspective but also models good practice for the teacher as part of wider classroom culture.

Can this focus on the learner be equally beneficial as a basis for peer observations? Absolutely, yes! In fact gathering information on the learners provides an excellent focus and helps to avoid any evaluative critique of teaching, which many teachers may have come to habitually expect as the ‘default model’. So whilst evaluative observations look set to stay, let’s at least focus on what matters, namely the learners.

References

Freeman, D. Teaching and Learning in Gieve S. and Miller, I. (2006) ‘The Age of Reformin Understanding the Language Classroom. Basingstoke: Pelgrave-Macmillan.

Richardson, S. (2014). Evidence-based observation – tips and tools. British Council webinar: http://britishcouncil.adobeconnect.com/p8slnclkd8e/

About the author

Christian Tiplady

Christian Tiplady
BSc (Hons), Trinity Cert. TESOL, PGDip TESOL, MA TESOL

Christian is a freelance teacher trainer based in the UK. He has worked in both EFL and Modern Foreign Languages (MFLs) sectors for over 25 years, teaching, teacher training and managing in private language schools, NGOs and government organisations. Most recently he served as Pedagogy Manager at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office organising CPD for tutors who teach MFLs to diplomatic staff. He has set up TrinityTESOL and Cambridge CELTA courses and is currently a CELTA tutor and assessor. He specialises in the creation of CPD programmes, developmental observations and feedback. Christian currently produces the teachers’ podcast Developod for the IATEFL Teacher Development Special Interest Group (TDSIG).

Contact Christian at: christian.tiplady@outlook.com

Geoff Jordan recently relaunched his blog with a new tagline:

Screen shot of the tag line of Geoff's blog: What do you think you're doing? A critique of ELT teacher trainers

At the end of the post ‘Teacher Trainers in ELT‘, he posed the following five questions:

  1. What is your view of the English language? How do you transmit this view to teachers?
  2. How do you think people learn an L2? How do you explain language learning to teachers?
  3. What types of syllabus do you discuss with teachers? Which type do you recommend to them?
  4. What materials do you recommend?
  5. What methodological principles do you discuss with teachers? Which do you recommend to them?

In this blog post I am going to attempt to answer these questions.

The learning process

I have recently started to visualise the learning process using the fingers on one hand, like this:

(thumb) 1. You don’t know it exists. (index finger) 2. You know it exists, but you don’t really understand it. You can use/do it successfully 10-20% of the time, but you need a lot of support/input. (middle finger) 3. You have a 50/50 chance of being able to use/do it successfully. You still need help and support at times, or to be reminded of it, but you’re improving. (ring finger) 4. You have an 80-90% chance of using/doing it successfully. Most problems are slips, and if somebody reminds you, you can correct yourself. (little finger) 5. It’s automatic. You don’t have to think about it any more. It can be hard to believe that you ever didn’t know this.

I think the learning process is the same regardless of what skill it is you’re learning, whether that be English, how to teach, or how to tie your shoelaces. Sometimes you can skip through stages 2-4 pretty quickly, and sometimes you get stuck at one of those stages for a long time without feeling any progress. However, with perseverance, motivation, practice and time you can get to stage 5 with anything you truly want to learn. Support, guidance and input can help you get there faster, but none of them are essential, not even for getting from stage 1 to 2: if you pay attention to the world around you, you can notice the existence of things yourself.

Of course ‘English’ and ‘how to teach’ are both huge concepts, and should be broken down into many smaller concepts. The degree to which you break them down when using this metaphor is entirely up to you, dependent on who you are talking to and why. Below are a few examples.

Learning how to teach

On a CELTA course, you are working with a truly pre-service trainee, somebody who has never been in a classroom before. You have four weeks/120 hours to introduce them to the basics of being an English language teacher. By the end of the course, here are some of the areas I would expect a straight Pass candidate to be at stage 3 in:

  • Giving clear instructions.
  • Monitoring for task completion, and adjusting tasks accordingly.
  • Including peer checks consistently between individual and open class work.
  • Clarifying the meaning of new vocabulary/terminology efficiently and concisely.

In contrast, I would expect a teacher with some prior experience before the course to be at at least stage 2 in all of the above areas when they join the course, or even stage 3, and at stage 4 by the end of the course. Realistically, on a pre-service course with only six hours of teaching, six of observation, and 120 of input, I think it’s very difficult to reach stage 5 in any of these areas if you’re starting from scratch, though some Pass A candidates may manage it in some areas.

Working with early career teachers over the course or a year or two, as I do most of the time in my Director of Studies role, it is possible to break things down more and focus on components that could make up each area above. Take ‘giving clear instructions’ for example. Individual components might be:

  • Getting and maintaining attention while giving instructions.
  • Showing the materials to be worked with to help students follow what you’re saying/doing.
  • Working through an example for unfamiliar task types.
  • Getting a student/pair/group to work through an example in open class.
  • Checking instructions.

By the end of their first year, I would expect teachers at our school to be at stage 4 or 5 in all of the above areas.

There are also areas which they are unlikely to have come across or which were only mentioned in passing on their pre-service course, and I would expect them to be at stage 2 or 3 after their first year with us, and 3 or 4 after their second. These might include:

  • Teaching 121 students in a way that differs from their approach to group classes.
  • Conducting a needs analysis and acting on it.
  • Managing a classroom of teen students.
  • Assessing learner progress within levels that they are familiar with.
  • Varying the pacing of a young learner lesson to keep students engaged throughout.

As far as I’m concerned, all of the examples above are connected to the skill of teaching in general, and would be equally applicable to an EFL teacher, a Maths teacher and a History teacher.

Learning a language

When it comes to learning any language, I think the five stages are the same. As I learn other languages and notice my own learning process, I can feel myself going through the stages for different aspects of the language.

Here are some examples of elements from English grammar:

  • Knowing when to use third person -s.
  • Choosing between the present simple and the present continuous.
  • Selecting the correct article in a given context.

And from Polish grammar:

  • Knowing whether a noun is masculine (animate or inanimate), feminine or neutral.
  • Associating case endings with prepositions.
  • Deciding whether an action is seen as complete or incomplete (perfective or imperfective), and choosing the correct verb form.

But of course, a language is not just grammar. Learning and retaining lexical chunks is a 5-step process too, and skills and learning techniques can also be broken down:

  • Understanding the relationship between yourself and your interlocutor, and choosing appropriate forms of address or vocabulary to reflect that.
  • Not worrying about whether you understand everything in an informal conversation, but joining in when and where you can.
  • Letting yourself read for reading’s sake in your L2, not just to list the vocabulary that you encounter.

By showing teachers my breakdown of the learning process, and by encouraging them to learn languages and experience it themselves, I try to help them see that regardless of what they do in the classroom, students still need to go through the stages at their own pace. Classroom learning can speed it up in some cases, by providing input, guidance, a supportive environment, opportunities for practice and a time and space for language use, but ultimately, nobody can learn faster for their students – they have to do it themselves. This is true of any subject, not just English or languages.

Materials and more

We use coursebooks for most of the classes at out school. We aim to maximise the amount of speaking that students do through careful lesson planning, and the coursebooks we use help us to keep the range of input high across the school, by ensuring that a certain amount of content is touched on every year. I do not see a coursebook as a ‘chain‘ to be freed from, but rather as a skeleton structure to base our teaching on which forms part, though not all, of the students’ learning.

A large majority of our students join groups at the school as near or total beginners, and progress through 8 years of study culminating in them successfully passing the Cambridge First (B2) exam. A handful of them get there a little slower, repeating a level or two if they’ve really struggled. Some of them get there faster, through increased exposure outside the classroom, particularly if they are teenagers who watch a lot of English-language films/series/YouTube videos or play a lot of computer games. That’s not to say that students couldn’t all reach that level of English much more quickly and efficiently, but that requires a level of motivation, self-discipline and exposure to the language that few people have. Despite being highly motivated to learn languages myself, I have sometimes found in the past that attending regular classes was necessary to make sure that I studied in between – I didn’t need to learn much in the classes, but I did need somebody to be accountable to for my learning, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

For one-to-one and company classes, I point out to both teachers and students that despite having a coursebook, they are under no obligation to go through it from cover to cover. In fact, one of the first things we suggest teachers do with a new student/closed group is to take the contents page of the coursebook and ask students what they do and don’t want to look at, and what else they would like to do that isn’t in the book.

I regularly remind teachers that there are certain grammar points that it’s not worth getting het up about, as students will internalise them (get to stage 5) much later, even if they’re ‘taught’ much earlier by coursebooks. For Polish learners of English, all three of the grammar points I selected above fall into that category as there is no corresponding structure in Polish. It’s important for everyone to remember that teaching does not necessarily equal learning, and you never know exactly what a student will take away from a given lesson. Having said that, they should always take something away from the lesson, otherwise there was no point to them attending!

As Geoff said in another post:

[…] students don’t learn a second or foreign language by being led through the units of a coursebook like this – language learning simply doesn’t work like that.

We know that two 90-minute lessons a week alone does not create high-level users of English, and we show teachers as many ways as possible to encourage students to practise and use the language outside class. Some of these ideas include borrowing books from the school library for extensive reading, listening to podcasts for extensive listening, using websites like Quizlet and Memrise to increase vocabulary, and doing something in English for 5 minutes every day, regardless of what it is. We also encourage teachers to share their own experiences of what has and hasn’t worked for them as language learners.

Through a strong culture of professional development and a very supportive environment, I believe that we are able to provide a level of quality in lessons that would not be consistently achievable without coursebooks, as teachers are able to focus on adapting the materials for their students, rather than on finding suitable materials in the first place. They are also free to omit or replace anything in a coursebook that they feel is inappropriate or unnecessary for their students – there is absolutely no obligation to do every exercise on every page. That is more than enough challenge for early-career teachers with anywhere between 40 and 65 students on their registers covering 4 to 7 different levels, levels that they perhaps can’t confidently differentiate between until they’ve completed a year or two of teaching. (And that’s without all of the other things that first year teachers in a foreign country need to get their heads around!)

Working with teachers year-round

I endeavour to remember to remind teachers (I’d say I’m at stage 3 for this!) that if they have chosen to ‘cover’ a particular grammar point, range of vocabulary items, aspect of a skill, or language learning technique, at any given time they will probably have students at all five stages of the learning process for that thing. They need to adapt the lesson accordingly, and remember not to get frustrated if they have students at stage 1, even if they ‘did this last year’ and at stage 5, who don’t really need more input on it. This is still something I sometimes find challenging as a teacher.

Working with the same teachers consistently in collaborative planning meetings at our school, I try to put this into practice. I encourage teachers to get students to show them what they know first, rather than automatically assuming that an item needs to be presented/covered at this particular level. Examples of ways students can show their knowledge include doing a gapfill for homework before the lesson, saying all of the words in a vocabulary set as quickly as possible with their partner or completing a task at the start of the lesson. I then show teachers how to notice problems students are having and how to deal with them. I have found that monitoring for language output is an especially difficult skill for new teachers, particularly when all of the students are speaking at once and it can be a challenge to tune in to individual voices. In our collaborative planning meetings, we come up with ‘monitoring tasks’ to help the teacher direct their focus, and we anticipate areas which students might have trouble with.

Here’s an example from one of last week’s meetings, working with pre-intermediate students from English File Pre-Intermediate 3rd edition. I’m trying to learn more about task-based learning, and share this with teachers (again, I’m at stage 3 of this!) – this is an example of how I’ve interpreted it, using the task in the coursebook to provide scaffolding and examples of language which a teacher might listen out for during the initial attempt at the task.

Holiday speaking from English File Pre-Intermediate 3rd ed SB p13

This activity was chosen as the first speaking assessment of the year for these students. Holiday vocabulary was introduced and practised in the previous lesson. The 70-minute lesson plan that I sketched out with the teachers included the following steps (roughly!):

  • Students do tasks 6a, 6b and 6c. Monitoring task: listen for use of the past simple and whether students are actively showing interest in what their partner is saying. Make notes on a Word document.
  • If students had few problems with the past simple, display the Word document on the board, elicit corrections and reasons for why that language was incorrect/unsuitable, and supply any language students were lacking. Complete a story-based exercise from the book where they choose which form is correct. Write ten key words from the story and retell it. Monitoring task: notice problems with the past simple forms from the story (this is easier than in task 6, as there is a more limited range of forms which may come up, so teachers are more likely to spot them).
  • If students had lots of problems with the past simple, read about two people’s holidays and complete the associated tasks from the book. Use the examples taken from the text to notice the grammar rules. Complete one or both of the controlled practice exercises, depending on the students’ needs and how much they seem to understand. Work on the pronunciation of -ed endings using the coursebook, if necessary. Display the Word document, as above.
  • If students were showing interest in what their partner said without any trouble, fine. If not, introduce and drill the phrases from the green box shown above. Elicit a few other follow-up questions that could be asked or statements that could be made.
  • All students repeat task 6 as the final stage in the lesson, this time as an assessment – in theory, they should all be better this time round. I told the teachers what aspects of speaking to assess here, and gave them tips on how to assess 12 students simultaneously over the course of about 10 minutes.

This lesson plan is not perfect (no plan is). However, I am confident that the teachers will be able to teach it, and that all of the students in the classroom will learn something from the lesson. The aim of the lesson is not to ‘teach the past simple’, or talk about it, but rather to improve students’ ability to ask and answer questions about holidays they have had.

My own development

I would say that I am an intermediate to upper intermediate level teacher (if you take language levels as a guide), and a pre-intermediate to intermediate trainer (thank you to Geoff for stating that I am a ‘top teacher trainer’, but I certainly don’t believe this!), and that I still have plenty to learn. The day that I feel that I’m ‘finished’ as a teacher or a trainer is the day that I leave this career.

Even after ten years of teaching, I still don’t always feel that my students have learnt as much as they could have done in a non-coursebook lesson – both of my groups this year are non-coursebook-based, to push myself to develop in this area. I certainly know that having used coursebooks over a number of years, I have a much clearer idea of what to expect of students at different levels, and what is often far beyond their abilities. That doesn’t mean I won’t try to teach them some of those ‘higher-level’ things – that might push students from stage 1 to 2 after all, or provide the i + 1 that Krashen proposes, or help them get into Vygotsky’s ZPD, if my understanding of those concepts is correct. Rather, I don’t agonise over something ‘above their level’ if they haven’t managed to pick it up by the end of the lesson or remembered it next lesson.

Looking back at Geoff’s questions, I know next to nothing about different types of syllabus, despite having read Syllabus Design [affiliate link] as part of my Delta, and having to justify the kind of syllabus I came up with for my extended assignment. I’m not sure there is an ideal kind of syllabus anyway as learners can only learn what they’re ready to learn, and I’m unlikely to be in a position where I create an entire syllabus any time soon. I don’t feel in any way qualified to recommend a particular type of syllabus to another teacher, as I feel that teaching should be at the point of need wherever possible, despite what I said about coursebooks above.

I’m not entirely sure which methodological principles I discuss with teachers either. I’m not sure I necessarily recommend any in particular either, though you may be able to spot some that I can’t in what I’ve written above.

I know a little about second language acquisition, through theoretical modules during my university language study, reading How Languages Are Learned [affiliate link], and many many hours spent learning a range of languages myself to a greater or lesser degree of success using a wide range of techniques. I try to take that into the classroom and the training room, partly by reminding students and teachers that learning will happen when you’re ready for it, but that we can try to create the conditions for it, for example by providing more ‘hooks’ to help it stick for longer. As I mentioned above, patience, time, practice and motivation are the key ingredients.

Everything that I have written here is based on my own experience as a teacher, trainer and language learner, and my (all too limited) reading. Limited as I’ve only been teaching for ten years, always in private language schools, and the resources I have access to are those at the schools I’ve worked at, those online, and those I have paid for myself. I am grateful to all of those people who are trying to share teaching research more widely, making it more accessible for people like me. At some point in the future I will probably do an MA, but that requires time and money which I don’t have at the moment. I look forward to being able to access and evaluate more of this research myself.

What I teach

I strongly believe that the most important thing I can do in a classroom is provide a supportive space for students to learn, regardless of whether they are learning a language or learning to teach.

When training on pre-service courses, my focus is on reflection: being balanced in your assessment of your own teaching, identifying areas you can continue to work on and thinking about how, and areas which are already fine that you can endeavour to repeat and build on.

When in the English classroom, my focus is on experimenting with producing and understanding the language, trying things out, and ironing out problems.

Whatever they’re learning, I try to help trainees/students to see the gaps in their knowledge, and improve their confidence with what they know. I hope that what I share with the teaching community reflects the ideas I have described here.

I would never pretend that I am teaching them teaching or teaching them English, but rather that I am one small piece in the puzzle that can help them reach their final goal. Ultimately, what they take away from my lessons is entirely dependent on what stage they are at in their learning and is up to them.

Geoff, I hope that goes some way towards answering your questions.

Doctor Classroom

It’s been a long day. At least, long by the standards of my current job. I got to work at 10, and didn’t really stop until 9, even planning two lessons while I was eating at the local shopping centre this evening, because I know I won’t have time tomorrow. It’s the busiest time of year, with a new batch of teachers, timetables still in flux, lots of placement testing, one-to-one students waiting for timetables, constant questions, and the inevitable teething problems that go along with all that. Freshers’ flu is very much in evidence, with quite a few of the teachers suffering from all the new bugs we’ve been exposed to, and I’ve been hovering on the edge of a cold all week.

But despite all that, I feel great 🙂 I covered a late lesson this evening, hence the long day, and I feel like I spent the majority of it giggling. It’s a great group, who gel brilliantly and are very supportive of each other. They’re open to correction, and because they’re advanced, it’s possible to have some in-depth conversations about language with them. They regularly made me laugh, and I forgot about the cares of the rest of the day. The injection of teaching was just what I needed 🙂

Unfortunately I couldn’t attend Karin Krummenacher’s IATEFL 2018 presentation on providing differentiation on initial teacher training courses like the Cambridge CELTA or Trinity CertTESOL. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this kind of course, they generally last four weeks full-time, including workshop-style input sessions, observation of experienced teachers and peers, and (crucially) six or more hours of observed teaching and feedback from tutors. There are as many kinds of four week course as there are tutors, and no two are exactly the same as long as they meet the criteria of Cambridge or Trinity, but one thing that is extremely rare is differentiation for the trainees. Karin has kindly agreed to write up her presentation as a guest post, so we can all find out more about how this might be possible.

To differentiate and challenge our students based on their prior knowledge and current abilities is something we teach our trainees in pre- and in-service teacher training courses. At diploma level it becomes a key criterion and there is tons of literature about it. And then many of us trainers go on and make trainees with outstanding language awareness sit through over half a dozen basic grammar input sessions throughout a 4-week TEFL course in which they will learn close to nothing, most likely receive no differentiated tasks and might be asked not to reply to the next question because we already know they know. I would not be particularly impressed with a trainee handling a strong student in a lesson like this and I get more and more annoyed by us trainers doing it.

And while the reasons are obvious to a degree (that’s the course they signed up for), I don’t think they are good enough to keep doing what we’re doing the way we are doing it. Once upon a time, when the CELTA still had a different name, the groups of trainees were homogenous and what the course taught them was, in a way, revolutionary and useful. Nowadays, trainees identifying as non-native English speakers outnumber trainees that identify as native English speakers on the majority of courses. Our one “strong student” has become half the class by now and we still tell them to only answer when prompted instead of questioning our approach.

Jason Anderson has investigated at length how experienced teachers with MAs in pedagogy take 4-week initial training courses because Trinity Cert TESOL and CELTA have become a global seal of quality. The course is no longer what it used to be and the fact that very often it is still taught the way it was taught in the 1990s makes me picture John Haycraft, who first designed CELTA, rotating in his grave.

“CELTA has to change or die” said Hugh Dellar when I talked to him last year. He’s far from being the only one who’s unimpressed. Since the courses started they have been criticised (see, for example Anderson, Hobbs, Fergusson and Donno [behind ELT Journal paywall] and Borg [behind paywall]) and the voices have become louder and louder. I agree with all the criticism by experts and practitioners when it comes to short initial teacher training courses (ITTCs), but letting them die is not an option for me. It may be because I myself entered the profession that I now consider my career and vocation through an ITTC that I come from a place of great love and admiration for these courses and the educators who train people on them. I believe in the concept, I believe it works and I do not want it to vanish because I think we would miss out on some excellent teachers. Most experts suggest making the courses longer. However, as much as we would all like that, from an economic point of view, this makes little sense to course providers and is not the appeal it has to customers either.

I set out to find a way of differentiating on ITTCs. My colleagues laughed at me.

It’s too difficult, too much admin, too complex.

You’re already working 12 hour days. Do you really want to add to that?

If it could be done, it would have been done.

It may be a late effect of being the only female in a male clique when I was a teenager (strikingly similar to my work environment nowadays, by the way) but dare me and I’ll do it.

At least 13,000 candidates per year take the CELTA or Cert TESOL (based on numbers from Green 2004 and information requested from Trinity). That’s not even considering all the TEFL schools accredited by less rigorous organisations. And all Cambridge Assessment and Trinity College London tell us about these people is whether they identify as native or non-native English speakers. If you are a trainer, you will know that there is so much more to our trainees than that. One of the reasons why I, and many of my colleagues, love the job is that there is no group like any other, no trainee the same as the next. You can divide them by nationality or place of birth but there will be disappointingly few conclusions you can draw from this. In a single group of trainees, you can find so many different people with different motivations to take the course, different backgrounds and different aims. Some people take an ITTC because they want to change their lives, start a new career and plan on doing the diploma two years later. They’re in it for the long run. Others simply need to prove to their parents that the Eurotrip they paid for is not just drinking with people you met in a hostel. Many want to fund their travels before they return to their “real job” back home. Some want to lose their fear of public speaking. The ones that usually end up most disappointed are the English literature majors who want to spark the love for the English language in their students. It’s tough to love a language and make it your job to hear people butcher it 10 hours a day. Trainees have told me they wanted to build up their confidence or are just in it because their boyfriend wanted to do the course. Some see it as a challenge and aren’t planning on teaching a day in their life after the course. More than you would think are experienced teachers that want to go international.

A mixed group of Karin's trainees

So again, why don’t we do with our trainees what we do with our students? That is, a thorough needs analysis. The idea is to do this in two parts:

Part 1: A diagnostic test. Applicants take an online test and you feed their results into Excel. I’ve come up with a formula that will assign sessions based on performance and spit out a tailor made timetable for each trainee. Meaning the ones who answer questions on verb tenses wrong, will be assigned sessions on verb tenses. The ones who answer them right will not. All trainees will still have the same number of input sessions, just not the same ones or necessarily at the same time. Multilingual candidates will be assigned sessions on using L1 in the classroom, so they can do so deliberately and without feeling it is the wrong thing to do. Trainees that aren’t quite confident about their own proficiency will get an English for specific purposes course that really polishes their teacher language and makes them feel more confident while monolingual trainees learn a little bit of a foreign language, so they can empathise with their students. This all means we offer trainees a schedule based on their background and abilities. This is something I’m still trialling, but the diagnostic test may contain tasks such as:

  • Identify the verb tenses in the following sentences
  • Identify the parts of speech (based on a given list) in the following paragraph
  • Match the words with the correct phonemes
  • Mark the word stress in the following words
  • Match the sentences with the grammatical structure (e.g. conditionals, modals for obligation vs. speculation)

Diffentiation graphic - needs analysis on left, timetable icons in the middle (different colours), mid- and end-of-course reflection on right

Part 2: Setting aims. The teaching practice tutor will agree on personal aims with their group of trainees. This means that feedback on teaching practice will be as focused and personalised as possible. The trainer and trainee assess progress in the middle and at the end of the course.

The diagnostic test can be redone as a summative test at the end of the course. Together with the achievements of their personal aims, this will then be the starting point for professional development. This is something really important that in my experience is not done at the moment or not done enough. Partially, this is down to the way ITTCs are sold. The marketing says that you are a teacher and ready to go out in the world after 4 weeks. And people take that at face value. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to change and stands in contrast to the fact that these courses were never meant to provide a standalone solution to teacher training. But what we can do is equip our trainees better and make them more reflective beginner practitioners. They will benefit tremendously from having a better understanding of where they stand and what their strengths and weaknesses are. And to get our marketing teams on board, it is a unique opportunity to advertise our programmes beyond teacher training, like workshops, online courses, diplomas or in-service training.

Finding out what our trainees need is the first step. The obvious question is, how can we give it to them? Not every centre has the capacity to entirely revamp their course and I’m not saying that’s necessary, but I believe we could get a little more creative and offer more differentiated input sessions. That would mean though, that we wave goodbye to input sessions being mainly delivered face-to-face. I have thought of different ideas on how to deliver input and have come up with different puzzle pieces that can be combined as needed.

Jigsaw pieces with these things written on them: Action research, observation tasks, peer teaching, boot camps, flipped inputs, Q and As, online/face2face, specific pre-course tasks

Whether trainees get tailored pre-course tasks, attend very intensive sessions on linguistic systems, such as grammar, in so called boot camps, benefit from Q and A sessions with tutors or teach each other in designated peer teaching slots, whatever works best in your context will be the right thing to start differentiating. This can be a slow addition to the course over several months and does not have to be all at once. Maybe some sessions can be added to the regular timetable, others delivered through online learning. Common needs could be addressed through video summaries. It will depend on the groups’ needs and the resources, tutors and space available. For most centres, a mix will be the right way to go.

In this way, timetables for trainees could become more varied and trainees would get more personalised content that better prepares them for the challenges they will face. It would free up timetables for more interesting content. Instead of teaching basic phonemes, these would be learned independently, and class time can be spent on how to teach phonology to students, the really interesting stuff.

Obviously, there would be some flexibility required from accreditation bodies. The Unknown Foreign Language in its current form could no longer be part of the assessment on Trinity Cert TESOL courses. And while CELTA has a very flexible syllabus, centres would benefit from being encouraged to make more use of it. At the same time, this could be an exclusive opportunity to promote more professionalism in initial teacher training and remind customers that these are in fact level 5 qualifications on the UK Qualifications and Credit Framework and therefore have an academic aspiration.

Overall, the idea is to take our trainees’ backgrounds and goals into consideration more. No matter how small we start, these initial courses need to change or die trying.

About the author

Karin Krummenacher

Karin Krummenacher is a freelance teacher trainer on Trinity Cert and Dip TESOL courses, researcher and international conference speaker. She holds Cambridge Delta and is currently working towards an M.Ed. TESOL, researching the role of ITTCs and their implications for professionalism in the industry. This article is based on her IATEFL talk from April 2018 for which Jason Anderson, Hugh Dellar and Ben Beaumont were invaluable sounding boards. She has recently started blogging at thekarincluster.wordpress.com. Give Karin a shout at karin.krummenacher@gmail.com or on Twitter @thekarincluster.

I’m very pleased to announce that ELT Playbook 1 is now available as a paperback via Amazon. It is a little more expensive than the ebook to cover the cost of printing, but it is still great value!

With thirty tasks in the book, each with multiple reflection questions and four reflection ideas, that’s hundreds of ways to think about your teaching or to help others to think about theirs.

What are you waiting for?

Get your copy now! [affiliate link]

ELT Playbook 1 on Amazon screenshot

And for those of you following the process of my self-publishing adventures, it took me about 7-8 hours in total to turn the ebook manuscript into a paperback, including reading two proofs and making the associated changes. Definitely worth it, as it was very excited when I held the proofs in my hand!

Delta conversations: Jo

This is part of a series of posts showing you all the different ways you can approach the Cambridge Delta. They are designed to help you find out more about the course and what it involves, as well as helping you to choose the right way to do it for you, your lifestyle and the time you have available. If you’ve done the Delta (or any other similar higher-level teaching course, including a Masters), and you’d like to join in, let me know by leaving me a comment or contacting me via Twitter @sandymillin.

Jo Gillespie

Jo got her BA way back in 1994 in Christchurch, NZ, with a double major in Linguistics and Education, knowing that she wanted to teach English. After gaining the Trinity CertTESOL, she began teaching in Christchurch at various English schools. Although she changed careers a couple of times, she always knew that teaching ESL was what she wanted to do, so finally in 1999, she took courage and left for a year’s teaching in the Czech Republic. While travelling, she met her husband, who is Italian, so moved to Italy, where she has been living and teaching ever since. She began the Delta in 2010, and finally completed Module 3 in 2016. After six years as a primary school teacher in a small international school, she has just moved to a DoS role at a local English school (and has started a blog about it), while maintaining a part time role as primary coordinator at the primary school. She’s about to begin an MA in TESOL, Leadership and Management.

How did you do your Delta? How did you arrange the modules? 

I did the Delta part time, and all three modules were done through International House Accademia Britannica in Rome. I did them in order and think that was very helpful, as it moved from the theory to the practical, and then putting it all together in Module 3.

Module 1 was blended online. There was also an online-only option, but I wanted to meet the people with whom I was studying. We were divided into study groups in a WikiSpaces classroom and met face-to-face on a Friday for input sessions about theory. We studied mock exam questions and prepared for the exam itself.

Module 2 was again part time and blended, with the face-to-face sessions on Fridays. We had input sessions in the morning, and then teaching in the afternoons. We worked in TP groups both online and at the centre.

A face-to-face course was also arranged for Module 3, which I attended, always part-time and always on a Friday. We looked at each part of the extended assignment, and began to draft our Extended Assignment (EA). However, after the course finished, it took me another 3 or 4 years to get my EA completed and submitted (oops).

Why did you choose to do it that way?

I had just completed the IH Certificate in Teaching Young Learners and Teens (IHCYLT) at the same school, and I really liked my colleagues and the tutors. As I knew that a couple of people from the YL course would be going on to do the Delta, I decided to join them. Rome is not very far from where I live (it took about an hour and a half each way), and my employer was flexible and happy to give me Fridays off to study, so it was a good fit all round. Doing it part-time also meant that it wasn’t such a financial burden, and I had enough time to dedicate to it, even though I was working almost full-time, and I had two small children. I probably put in about 2-3 hours of study each day during the week, then intensive study face-to-face. The M3 EA took a lot longer than it should have because I changed jobs between Modules 2 and 3.

What do you think you gained from doing the Delta?

Oh, so much! A much better grounding in the theory and practice of ELT. An understanding of the research that goes into the theories – and a desire to keep learning. The confidence to experiment in the classroom. The desire to conduct action research with, about, and for my students. My M3 EA was about CLIL [Content and Language Integrated Learning] with young learners – which has led to a key role in an Erasmus+ project about that very subject. The Delta has also opened doors and has led to a move into a Director of Studies position, and teacher training.

What were the downsides of the method you chose?

I really don’t think there were any. It was a great balance of tasks online, and face-to-face workshops. It was intense, but doable.

What were the benefits of the method you chose?

I was able to combine it with work. I met people who were doing it at the same time and developed lasting relationships with them. The extended timeframe meant that I could get all the reading done (mostly).

What tips would you give other people doing the Delta?

Get your hands on a reading list as soon as you start thinking about enrolling and start working your way through it! Make notes and mind maps about everything. Use tools like Quizlet (where there are already many Delta M1 quizzes) to help you memorise the definitions of all the terminology. Start watching teaching videos online with a critical eye, in preparation for M2. And start thinking about your EA very early.

In retrospect…

I don’t think there is much I would do differently except: study a tiny bit harder for M1; choose anything BUT a listening lesson for my final TP (the one where Cambridge is watching) – or else, use commercial materials instead of trying to make my own (ugh – lucky I passed!) I was going to say “spend less time fretting over M3” – but I chose something relatively unexplored and with hindsight, I am glad it took me as long as it did, because the end result is something of which I am very proud. I am even thinking of squeezing in another M3 EA, this time with the ELTM specialism! That’s doable, right?

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