Thesis on ELT, Part Three

20. There are more than twelve million English teachers active in the world today  (British Council, 2015), so second language teacher education (SLTE) is, like materials production and exams (discussed in Parts 1 & 2), another billion dollar business.

In most of the world, pre-service courses consist of a Masters or a post-grad. TEFL certificate, but in Europe, no degree is required, and a short, month-long course suffices.

21.1. The most popular certificate course is CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), while Trinity College, London, offers the rival Cert TESOL.  

More than 2,800 centers in 130 countries around the world offer the CELTA course, which involves about 120 hours of work (homework apart) and lasts between four and five weeks. The CELTA Syllabus consists of five modules:

  • Topic 1 – Learners and teachers, and the teaching and learning context
  • Topic 2 – Language analysis and awareness
  • Topic 3 – Language skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing
  • Topic 4 – Planning and resources for different teaching contexts
  • Topic 5 – Developing teaching skills and professionalism.

There are two assessment components:

Teaching Practice:participants teach for a total of six hours, working with classes at two levels of ability. Assessment is based on overall performance at the end of the six hours.

Written Assignments: Four written assignments count towards assessment: one focusing on adult learning; one on the language system of English; one on language skills; and one on classroom teaching (Cambridge Assessment English, 2019).

21.2. CELTA is the most widely recognized English teaching qualification in the world. It is the qualification most often requested by employers: three out of four English language teaching jobs require a CELTA qualification (Cambridge Assessment English, 2019). It is recognized by the British Council and by a large number of employers and governments worldwide, and it is endorsed by almost all of the most widely published teacher trainers and educators in the UK, with the notable exception of Scott Thornbury (see below).

CELTA’s widespread recognition and endorsement is not surprising; its curriculum reflects the interests of corporate ELT, i.e, the very commercial publishers, examination boards, teacher education bodies and course providers who persuade the public that proficiency in English as an L2 is best accomplished by doing a succession of courses from A1 to C3, using their syllabuses, their coursebooks and their exams, taught by teachers who have done their SLTE courses.

21.3. The CELTA course pays almost no attention to how people learn languages. The only mention of learning a second language is in the first written assignment, but even here, there is no requirement for trainees to investigate the process of second language learning or to discuss teaching implications.

The course simply assumes that ELT consists of teachers working through a synthetic syllabus presenting and then practicing pre-determined items of English and developing the four skills. Inauthentic spoken and written texts, mostly taken from coursebooks, are used as vehicles for skills and language work. Most of the course is devoted to how to present and practice grammatical forms or to carry out isolated skills-focused activities. ELT is seen as consisting of a systematic, item by item study of the language, followed by relatively controlled practice.

21.4. While there is no requirement in the official CELTA course outline that General English coursebooks are used, these coursebooks are, in fact, widely used in the tutorials, class discussions and teaching practice. No mention is made in CELTA course descriptions of the distinction between synthetic and analytic syllabuses, or of the need to engage in any critical evaluation of the methodological principles which might inform pedagogical procedures.

21.5. In CELTA, isolated practice of the four language skills is a major part of the syllabus. As Kumaravadivelu (1994, p. 31) argues, the principle of skills practice in ELT is adopted “more for logistical than for logical reasons”, since skill separation makes little sense and is in fact, “a remnant of the audiolingual era with little empirical or theoretical justification”. As we saw in Part 1, communicative use of an L2 involves the interrelated and mutually reinforcing use of skills, and teaching is therefore likely to be far more efficacious when students are given the chance to learn and use language holistically. No matter how much teachers are advised by CELTA tutors to use ‘skill-building’ activities to help their students ‘automatiize’ what they learn in the presentation stage of the lesson, research shows that learners will, nevertheless, use language skills in different combinations. and not learn the L2 to automatized native speaker levels one structure at a time. Kumaravadivelu concludes that “all available empirical, theoretical, and pedagogical information points to the need to integrate language skills for effective language teaching” (p. 35).

21.6. In her study of CELTA, Brandt (2008) reports a number of problems with the teaching practice part of CELTA. Brandt first draws attention to the large number of trainees who felt that their limited teaching time put great pressure on them to teach according to the different tutors’ expectations and preferences. Teaching practice on the CELTA is evaluated by the tutors, and success involves being seen to adequately use key techniques, such as transformation drills, marker sentences, counselling responses, concept questions, elicitation, and Initiation-Response-Feedback (IRF) routines, to name just a few. But, as Brandt points out, the problem is that different tutors have different, often contradictory, views about teaching techniques – some love drills while others frown on them – and it is thus vital to trainees’ success or failure to discover and keep in tune with the particular preferences of whichever tutor is observing them.

Other issues highlighted by Brandt were that trainees felt they were not free to experiment and make mistakes without being judged; that they were given few opportunities to reflect on their performance; and that they perceived the purpose of their short teaching practice sessions (lasting from 40 to 60 minutes) as being to show what they could do, rather than to help the students to learn. This feeling among trainees that the teaching practice was something of a sham, that they behaved more like performing monkeys than genuine teachers, was echoed by responses from tutors who complained about experiencing “a dual, conflicting, role: that of guide (to the practising, developing teacher) and that of assessor (of the trainee’s performance)” (Brandt, 2008, p. 256).

Brandt concludes that the CELTA course amounts to learning a set of techniques so that the trainees’ use of these techniques might then be judged. Such a framework fails to recognize the diversity and opportunities of each language learning classroom, and also fails to take into account the distinct contexts in which the course is offered around the world. The course encourages a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, restricting trainees’ opportunities to adequately prepare for the challenges they will face in their local environment, and promoting a view of teachers as “contextually-isolated technicians” (Brandt, 2006, p. 262). Furthermore, as suggested above, the teaching practice tends to treat language learners as ‘tools’ and ‘guinea pigs’, expecting them to jump through a set of hoops for the teachers’ convenience, and the lessons given by the trainees are thus a means of assessment, rather than opportunities for genuine practice.

21.7. Finally, here is the view of Scott Thornbury, co-author of best-selling books for student teachers and tutors of CELTA (Thornbury and Watkins, 2007a; Thornbury Watkins, 2007b). In his blog The A to Z of ELT, in a reply to comments on his post P is for Pre-training, Thornbury (2017) confirms that the “vast majority” of CELTA courses are “coursebook centerd (i.e., teaching practice is based on coursebook lessons, and example materials are taken from coursebooks)”. Further characteristics of the CELTA courses pointed out by Thornbury are as follows: 

  1. The general assumption made by tutors is that a grammar-based, structural syllabus (i.e., the syllabus laid out in the coursebook) will be used.
  2. Tutors encourage the use of a “direct method methodology” which proscribes the use of the L1.
  3. Initiation-Response-Feedback exchanges and display questions are the predominant style of teacher talk.
  4. The demonstration classes given by the teacher trainers are characterized by a superficial treatment of texts, a high activity turnover and the prioritising of ‘fun’.
  5. The courses are ‘hermetically-sealed’, “i.e., there is little or no reference to, or integration of, local context”.

In short, the CELTA course has severe limitations in its preparation of teachers. Today, it is likely to produce teachers who lack any proper understanding of how people learn languages, and who adopt a coursebook-driven approach to ELT, largely unaware of the evidence-based arguments against it.

22.1. In the last twenty years, SLTE has taken a socio-cultural turn, where the constructs of ‘teacher cognition’, ‘teacher thinking’ and ‘teacher-learning’ are ubiquitous. An early and influential contribution to the socio-cultural view is Freeman and Johnson’s (1998) article, which argues that SLTE should focus on understanding how teachers’ professional lives evolve, by focusing on their cognitive worlds and personal teaching practices. Johnson (2009), Freeman (2016), Borg (2015), Norton (2013), Richards (2012) and Barkhuizen (2017) have developed the argument that SLTE must reject the traditional “transmission of knowledge” approach to teacher education, in favour of a concern with ‘teacher learning’ and ‘practitioner knowledge’ which help teachers to understand and articulate their own beliefs, assumptions, and knowledge about subject matter and pedagogical practices.

22.2. Woods’ (1996) influential book on teacher cognition is the first to make teachers’ ‘beliefs, assumptions, and knowledge’ an acronym – BAKs. The three components of a teacher’s BAKs together are said to make up teacher cognition, which crucially affects how teachers translate information on teaching into classroom practice – they explain the mismatch between what teachers are told to do and what they actually do, and also between what they say they do and what they actually do in the classroom. Thus, the socio-cultural perspective on SLTE concludes that awareness of teachers’ BAKS must be the starting point in reflections and play a key role in teacher education programmes.

Richards (2008, p. 162) puts the case as follows:

“Teacher-learning is not viewed as translating knowledge and theories into practice but as constructing new knowledge and theory through participating in specific social contexts and engaging in particular types of activities and processes. This latter type of knowledge, sometimes called “practitioner knowledge”, is the source of teachers’ practices and understandings.”

He suggests that SLTE should be based on the “theorization of practice……, making visible the nature of practitioner knowledge”. Learning, says Richards, emerges through social interaction within a community of practice, and participants in SLTE courses should be seen as a community of learners engaged in “the collaborative construction of meanings” (p. 163).

22.3. While paying attention to student-teachers’ BAKs may well be recommended, and while the research into teacher cognition and decision making has produced some interesting findings, there is surely a problem in putting so much emphasis on teacher cognition. There is also the prior problem of deciphering the peculiar style of socio-cultural postmodernist discourse, of working out what it all means, and what the point of it is. What, for example, is Richards getting at when he urges us to see student-teachers as a community of learners engaged in the collaborative construction of meanings? How do people collaborate in constructing meanings? What do these constructed meanings look like? What ‘postmodern frame’ is Freeman referring to? What does he mean by “the storied character of teachers’ knowledge”? What point is he making?

22.4. Freeman’s claim that “different people will know the same things differently” reveals the relativist epistemology of the socio-cultural approach. Those adopting a scientific approach to research adopt a realist epistemology, which assumes that an external world exists independently of our perceptions of it, and that it is possible to study different phenomena in this world, to make meaningful statements about them, and to improve our knowledge of them. The main way in which phenomena are studied is by testing hypotheses (tentative explanations of the phenomena) using logic and an appeal to empirical evidence. So, for example, we notice that all our L2 learners seem to learn certain parts of the target language in a common order, regardless of their L1. We decide to do a study of the phenomenon of what we suspect might be staged development among L2 learners, and we find that the participants in the study do indeed go through a series of “transitional stages” towards the L2 target language (see Part 1). Now, if we accept a realist epistemology, we assume that the external world will remain stable enough for different observers who carry out the same study in similar conditions with similar participants to observe the same things. Thus, replication studies, if done carefully, can test the robustness of our study’s findings, by providing evidence that either supports or challenges the results of the first study.

22.5. Those adopting a sociocultural perspective reject this realist epistemology, which they refer to as the “positivist” epistemology of scientists, whose research methods, epistemological assumptions, and authority they roundly reject. Early on in her book extolling the virtues of a sociocultural perspective on SLTE, Johnson (2009, p. 7) explains the need for a “shift” in teacher education towards an “interpretative epistemological perspective”, which involves “overcoming” the “positivist epistemological perspective”. Johnson urges us to adopt the view that there is no one fixed, immutable reality, but rather, a multiplicity of realities, all of which are social constructs. Since the construction of reality is a social process, it follows that there are simply different ways of looking at, seeing, and talking about things, each with its own perspective, each with its own set of explicit or implicit rules which members of the social group construct for themselves. From this new perspective, it follows that the ‘knowledge base’ which Johnson, Richards, Freeman and others refer to has no common, objective base at all: what one teacher ‘knows’ at the end of a teacher education course about interlanguage development or criterion performance tests, for example, will differ from what another teacher will ‘know’. Every teacher has their own ‘knowledge bases’ and sees the same ‘knowledge’ differently.

22.6. One can hardly dispute the need to appreciate what pre-service teachers’ prior experience and set of beliefs bring to any learning task, and to take into account the many contextual factors which affect the implementation of any particular SLTE program in any particular context. Equally, it’s certainly the case that different teachers will learn different things from the same SLTE programme, and that every teacher’s practical classroom work will be crucially affected by the local context in which it takes place. But none of this warrants the view that there is no such thing as objective knowledge, or that there can be no rational assessment of rival theories of language learning and language teaching, or that SLTE should focus only on reflecting on teachers’ subjective feelings, beliefs and experiences. After all, what is the actual content of teachers’ BAKs? How do we evaluate that content?

Imagine a seminar on language learning. The question of ‘learning styles’ comes up, a student teacher says it makes a lot of sense, and the teacher trainer goes to some lengths to explain that there is not one shred of evidence to support the ‘neuro-linguistic programming’ (NLP) view that all language learners have a predominant learning style (visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic). The teacher trainer explains how the NLP theory first appeared, its popularity, its demise, and encourages the student teachers to talk about their own beliefs and experiences of NLP, how they were taught, how their bosses and colleagues and students might react to NLP, and so on. In the end, there is general agreement that NLP is baloney and that ELT should not be influenced by its so-called principles.

Now, according to the epistemological perspective adopted by Richards, Freeman, Johnson and others, the fact that there is no scientific evidence to support NLP counts for little, so what sense does it make for the teacher trainer to focus on getting the student-teachers to articulate their beliefs about NLP?  What is the point of everybody becoming more aware and able to articulate what they think about NLP? It would only have a point if their reflections led them to change their beliefs, but why should they? On what authority can we say that neuro-linguistic programming is mistaken, or not worthy of belief?  In general, how do Johnson, Freeman, Richards and others decide on the content of any SLTE course, on recommendations, on what they want the participants to learn? Trapped in the Humpty Dumpty relativist world, how do they escape the culture of navel-gazing?

22.7. In education, as elsewhere, we need to improve our understanding of things in order to get things done and to make progress. Assuming a realist epistemology and recognizing the usefulness of the scientific method has led to enormous progress, and seems like a more promising way of going about designing and assessing SLTE than shifting towards the ‘interpretative epistemological perspective’ adopted by Johnson and others. Let us accept that many of the SLTE courses currently being implemented do not meet the needs of its participants, and that Tarone and Allwright (2005, p. 12) are right when they say “differences between the academic course content in language teacher preparation programs and the real conditions that novice language teachers are faced with in the language classroom appear to set up a gap that cannot be bridged by beginning teacher learners”.  The conclusion to be drawn is surely that the SLTE courses must change in such a way that the gap is bridged. We must critically evaluate courses, recognize their shortcomings, and listen carefully to suggestions that ensure that teachers are better prepared to meet the challenges of their jobs. Engaging teachers in reflective practices, uncovering their assumptions and beliefs, improving collaboration and feedback channels, introducing more and better-organized teaching practice and peer observation, all these are welcome suggestions. But they do not comprise a persuasive argument for making teacher reflection on learning to teach the main focus of SLTE.

23. Jordan & Long (2022) argue that a teacher’s competence is made up of a range of knowledge, skills, behaviors, attitudes and values which can be discussed and evaluated by appeal to empirical evidence and rational thinking. Thus, SLTE should begin with the critical examination of theories which attempt to explain the phenomena of second language acquisition and in particular of instructed second language acquisition. These theories can be evaluated in terms of their coherence, cohesion, logical consistency and clarity, and their empirical content.  From the basis of an understanding of the reliable findings about (instructed) second language acquisition which emerge, we may then examine various approaches to ELT in terms of their methodological principles, pedagogic procedures, syllabus, materials and assessment procedures. How such content is best delivered in SLTE courses, will be discussed in Part 4.


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