Change or die trying: Introducing differentiation on initial teacher training courses (guest post)

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 Give Karin a shout at or on Twitter @thekarincluster.

Hold ELT Playbook 1 in your hands!

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?