Language development for teachers (LDT)
(This post was published on January 19, 2014 on www.richmondshare.com.br)
First of all, it’s an honor to be blogging here on RichmondShare along with some of the brightest stars in the Brazilian ELT market, and also a little scary! Thanks Richmond for the invitation and thank you all for reading!
Now to the topic at hand: language development for teachers.
Scott Thornbury (1997) wrote – and I love quoting him – that among the consequences of (…) a limited knowledge of language are: a failure on the part of the teacher to anticipate learners’ learning problems and a consequent inability to plan lessons that are pitched at the right level; (…) an inability to deal satisfactorily with errors, or to field learners’ queries; and a general failure to earn the confidence of the learners due to a lack of basic terminology and ability to present new language clearly and efficiently. I could quote several other authors in the pantheon of ELT who think along the same lines, and I believe it’s safe to assume no one would disagree with the fact (and it is a fact) that sound knowledge of our subject matter, i.e. English, is necessary and to be expected from language teachers.
I’ve been very fortunate to take part in the three last IATEFL conferences in the UK, and was always blown away by the array of topics covered by speakers from all over the world: technology in the classroom (an absolute favorite!), approaches to grammar, phonology, music, games, video, classroom management etc. You name it, they had it. It goes without saying that choosing what to see was always a nightmare, for I simply wanted to see everything! There was one topic, however, which was nowhere to be found, and that was language development for teachers. The same can be said about the recent issues of some of the most prestigious ELT magazines in the world: online teaching, technology, using comic books, Cuisenaire rods (which I happen to love!), connected speech and so on, but nothing on teachers’ language development.
According to Braine (2010), some eighty percent of English teachers worldwide are nonnative speakers of the language, and I believe we can all agree that being a native speaker of English does not mean you are necessarily qualified to teach it. In other words, teachers need to study English, much more so than their learners, I believe. That being the case – and I would love to hear/read your thoughts on that – why is there so little discussion in ELT nowadays about the issue of a teacher’s knowledge of English?
My monthly columns here on RichmondShare will be dedicated to: discussing the issue of English teachers’ language development – especially nonnative teachers in Brazil, but not exclusively –; addressing particular language difficulties English teachers often have; and, finally, suggesting ways in which we can all work on sharpening (one of) our most important tool(s): our English.
Thanks for reading and see you in February. I look forward to your comments.
Thornbury, S. (1997) About Language. Cambridge.
Braine, G. (2010) Nonnative Speaker English Teachers: Research, Pedagogy, and Professional Growth. Routledge.
Why study language
What does it mean to know a language? Or, more to the point, what does it mean for a teacher of English to know the language?
Without getting very technical and/or long-winded, it is my opinion that a teacher of English as a foreign or second language must be able to get his messages across –speaking or writing– with no (or very little) difficulty, being able to employ the most effective words, chunks and structures for the situations in hand, and do all that in appropriate register and with excellent (or at least very good) pronunciation. In other words, he must have sound knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, phonology, discourse, as well as excellent speaking, writing, reading and listening skills. He must also be able to describe what he knows, i.e. be able to use the appropriate terminology to describe the language, irrespective of whether he normally uses this terminology in his classes.
In his book About Language –which I’ve quoted from before and will certainly do so many more times– Scott Thornbury says that among the consequences of (…) a limited knowledge of language are: a failure on the part of the teacher to anticipate learners’ learning problems and a consequent inability to plan lessons that are pitched at the right level; (…) an inability to deal satisfactorily with errors, or to field learners’ queries; and a general failure to earn the confidence of the learners due to a lack of basic terminology and ability to present new language clearly and efficiently.
Harmer (2007, 30-31) says teachers need to know a lot about the subject they are teaching (the English language). (…) Language teachers need to know how the language works. (…) a knowledge of the grammar system and understanding of the lexical system. (…) They need to be aware of pronunciation features such as sounds, stress and intonation. He also says students have a right to expect that teachers of the English language can explain straightforward grammar concepts, including how and when they are used. They expect their teachers to know the difference between the colloquial language that people use in informal conversation and the more formal language required in more formal settings.
In a nutshell, it goes without saying that sound knowledge of what you teach –English, in our case– is paramount, and we should be forever seeking to know more, to use it better, to be able to explain it more clearly.
In this first of a few posts on the topic of teachers studying language, I’ll begin by discussing grammar.
Grammar is partly the study of what forms (or structures) are possible in a language; the study of the syntax –the system of rules that cover the order of words in a sentence– and morphology –the system of rules that cover the formation of words. (Adapted from Thornbury, 1999, pgs 1-2).
The way I see it, there are two main problems concerning a teacher’s knowledge of grammar that need to be addressed: a) not knowing (much) about particular areas of grammar; b) an overgeneralized/incorrect grasp of some areas of grammar. Let’s look at them in turn.
a) Can you answer the following questions?
– Is there a conditional form in English that accepts will as part of the if-clause? e.g. If you will… Which ‘conditional’ would that be? Fourth?
– Can could and to be able to be used interchangeably to talk about ability in the past? Why (not)?
– What’s used to? Simple past? A modal verb? Something else entirely? Is it pronounced the same way as the verb to use? (Is pronunciation part of teaching grammar, by the way?)
– What’s the difference between who and whom?
– Do we always put the verb one stage back in the past when using reported speech? Why (not)?
What the questions above have in common is they’re all part of an A1-B2 syllabus; or, in other words, part of what the vast majority of English teachers teach on a day-to-day basis. Are you 100% sure of the answers to them? Would you say all your colleagues are?
b) Are the following teachers’ explanations true or false?
– We use some in affirmative sentences and any in negative and interrogative sentences.
– We use will for predictions based on personal opinion and going to for predictions based on present evidence.
– We double the final consonant of a word when adding a suffix if the word ends in ‘CVC’, consonant-vowel-consonant.
– Could is the past of can (overlapping with question in the above section)
– You never use verbs such as like, love, hate etc. with -ing.
I’ve again focused only on structures at an elementary/intermediate level, certainly the levels we teach the most. Are you confident about the answers in each case? Do you think most teachers would be as confident as you are?
More experienced teachers will (or are going to?), of course, have a lot less difficulty tackling the questions above than novice teachers would, but the fact that these are not absolutely clear to all of us facing real students in real classrooms out there only goes to show the importance of at least acknowledging the issue. We, teachers of English, must study English even more than our students. And many of us don’t.
As I said here last week, I believe reading is the most complete exercise one can do to boost their knowledge of a language. However, thinking specifically of studying grammar, here are some suggestions I’ve tried out myself and with teacher students over the years:
Books: Researching into one area of grammar per week is a very effective way of brushing up your grammar. An even more effective way to go about it is to ask yourself questions about a certain area of grammar (such as the ones above) and then look up those topics in –preferably– more than one grammar book, as opinions and explanations tend to vary a bit. Some great grammar books for teachers I’d recommend:
– Advanced Language Practice – Michael Vince – Macmillan (especially if you’re preparing for CAE or CPE)
– Grammar for English Language Teachers – Martin Parrott – Cambridge
– Practical English Usage – Michael Swan – Oxford
– Advanced Grammar in Use* – Martin Hewings – Cambridge
*no, not English Grammar in Use. We’re discussing advanced grammar of English, and “Murphy” –as it’s commonly called– is an intermediate grammar book!
Study groups: I’m a big fan of teachers’ study groups, and if you can put one together with fellow teachers, that’s probably your best choice.
Get together with a group of teachers and either: a) establish that each of you will be in charge of studying an area of grammar thoroughly every week (or every couple of weeks, depending on how often you meet) and preparing a presentation and exercises for the other group members; b) everybody must study a certain area of grammar and come up with questions to quiz each other when the group meets.
Courses*: Although you won’t find specific grammar courses for teachers in the market (at least not in Brazil), preparing for high-level language exams such as IELTS, TOEFL, ECPE and, in my opinion, especially CAE and CPE tends to provide you with considerable grammatical input and opportunities for practice. I would recommend seeking schools and courses which specialize in working with teachers (there aren’t many, but they’re out there), rather than those that mix up highly motivated teachers and regular students or teenagers who often have little or no interest in sitting the exam in question.
*If you want specific suggestions of courses at this level, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Thanks for visiting! We’ll soon be looking at the issue of studying phonology.
I look forward to your comments and other suggestions of how we can improve our knowledge of grammar. Also, if you can spare a few minutes, I’d love to see your answers to the questions posed here.
Thornbury, S. 1997. About Language. Cambridge.
Thornbury, S. 1999. How to Teach Grammar. Pearson.
Lewis, M. 2002. The English Verb. Thomson Heinle.
Harmer, J. 2007. How to Teach English. Pearson.
A note of thanks
Before anything else, I’d like to thank everybody who commented on last week’s post and emailed me so many interesting ideas and opinions. I’m also very happy to have seen the record of visits to this blog on a single day broken twice this past week, which I believe goes to show a great many teachers do care about working on their language skills. Great news!
That being said, let’s get cracking.
I believe it’s important to say that much as I’ll try to use theory and research to underpin anything I suggest here, there’s a lot of empiricism attached to most of it; that basically means I’ve tried (and been trying) these ideas out myself and with my students and teacher students, with considerable success, for the past few years.
The importance of reading
The way I see it, reading vastly and variedly is the most important language-learning exercise there is. Extensive reading — which Thornbury (2006, p 191) defines as being the more leisurely reading of longer texts, primarily for pleasure, or in order to accumulate vocabulary, or simply to develop sound habits of reading — helps develop general language competence; develops general, world knowledge; extends, consolidates and sustains vocabulary growth; helps improve writing; creates and sustains motivation to read more. (Click here for article on ER). It also makes you more interesting, more fun to be around and even more attractive. 🙂
The article mentioned in the paragraph above also focuses specifically on why ER is good for teachers. Out of the many reasons listed (and I highly recommend you read the whole article), the following stands out: “It (ER) also helps teachers to keep their own use of English fresh. (…) the research on language learner reading shows how extensive reading feeds into improvements in all areas of language competence. (Krashen 2004) If this is true for learners, how much more true for teachers, who risk infection by exposure to so much restricted and error-laden English or who only read professional literature? Regular wide reading can add zest and pleasure to our own use of the language.” (“zest” — I checked — means “enthusiasm, eagerness, energy, and interest”)
In a nutshell, reading rules. If you don’t already read a lot, now is a really good time to start.
The ‘reading is boring’ myth
Brazilians are not famous for being avid readers. According to MEC (Ministry of Education and Culture), in 2010 Brazilians read on average 1,8 books per year. In 2012, an Ibope survey suggested the number of books per capita in Brazil was 4, although only 2,1 books per person were really read until the end. This is disastrous.
This is not because reading is boring, though. I’m of the opinion that one of the reasons Brazilians — and I’m sure they’re not alone in that — don’t read that much is that at school we’re given all the right books at the wrong times to read. Imagine, for instance, a 12-year-old grappling with Machado de Assis and then being tested on it into the bargain. It’s not a very success-oriented approach if we want them to have fun reading, is it? Add to it the fact that most of these children come from households where reading is not really a habit, and a country where books are obscenely expensive, and the result is a nation of non-readers, of which teachers are part.
What to do then?
A less elitist approach to (teaching) reading might help. It’s funny how some people — even those who don’t really read that much — have a penchant for waxing eloquent about the importance of reading Dickens, Hemingway and Shakespeare, and an even greater appetite for trashing the likes of Nicholas Sparks, Dan Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert. Teachers, and especially language teachers, can’t do that. Dan Brown really knows his prepositions, just as Gilbert has no problem with collocations and varied use of grammatical forms. Sparks is amazing at text organization and punctuation, and… you get the idea. All reading is good reading, and should be encouraged.
Harmer (2010, p 110) says ‘not all students become active readers. While some are highly motivated and consume books avidly, others don’t have the same appetite. We can’t force students to read, of course, but we should do everything we can to encourage them to do so.’ We are not going to encourage a non-reader to take up the habit by giving them Paul Auster from the get-go, just as we won’t become readers ourselves starting with Ian McEwan. As teachers –and readers(-to-be)– we should be grateful to J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, Stephanie Meyer, E. L. James, George R. R. Martin, John Grisham, Suzanne Collins… These writers have helped create a whole new generation of readers, and might hold the key to turn us into avid readers as well. And who knows? Nicholas Sparks might conceivably lead to Flaubert, although it’s perfectly OK if he doesn’t.
How to read for language development
I honestly believe that the sheer fact of being reading constantly and on a wide array of topics — books of different genres, newspaper articles, blogs, reports and so on — for information and/or pleasure is good enough and will be extremely beneficial linguistically. I will list below, however, some of the ideas I’ve tried out and which will hopefully help you as well.
– Have a vocabulary notebook at the ready whenever you’re reading at home or at work, but be selective. You’re not going to look up every word you don’t know in a dictionary, for that would make the whole process really tiring, and we’re aiming at fun! When making notes of a new word/phrase, be sure to include its phonemic transcription, part(s) of speech, definition and perhaps most importantly, the word in a sentence; that can be the context you found the word/phrase in and, even better, also in a sentence of your own.
– Establish language goals for yourself as you read. E.g. a) In this chapter I’ll focus on adjective-noun/verb-noun/adverb-verb collocations, and will try to find at least one example of each; b) in the next two chapters I’ll focus on phrasal verbs and idioms/dependent prepositions/perfect forms, and find at least X examples of each. – Make sure you write them down in your notebook as suggested above.
– Another interesting activity on collocations you can do is select random sentences from texts and books you’re reading and try to come up with different adjectives and verbs which would also collocate with the nouns used in the text, or think of other conjunctions which could replace the ones used etc. You can then use http://books.google.com/ngrams to check which of the uses/collocates is the most common. You can do that by typing two or three words or phrases in the search bar, separated by commas. Then click on ‘search lots of books’. (This Google tool was brought to my attention yesterday by Natália Guerreiro. Thanks, Natália!)
– Start a book club with a few teacher friends. Choose the books to read either by vote or on an every-member-chooses-one basis. You can set yourselves a few of the tasks mentioned here or others, and get together at least once a month to discuss the book. There are many books that come with pre-prepared questions for book clubs, and as you discuss the books you can try and use some interesting language someone will be in charge of bringing to each meeting, e.g different ways of saying ‘I think’, interesting adjectives/idioms etc. to describe books and characters (English Idioms in Use Advanced has a unit –24– devoted to that).
– Read reviews of books you want to read (You’ll find great ones here) and explore them the same way you would a book/article. They’ll help you a lot with choosing what to read next and also with language to describe books, films, plays etc.
– Write reviews or a book recommendation of what you’ve just read, and have a fellow teacher read and give you feedback on it. As payment for their services, give them the book you were reading! 🙂
This week’s tasks
That’s it for today, then. More to come next Monday. To wrap up, however, I’d like to ask for your participation:
– As a comment to this post, share with us the three best books you’ve read recently (not the best you’ve read ever, as that’s too difficult!);
– Are there any other reading activities you can recommend to us?
Have a great week and see you all next Monday!
– Thornbury, S. 2006. ‘An A-Z of ELT’. Macmillan.
– Harmer, J. 2010. ‘How to Teach English’. Pearson.
– Aebersold, J. A.; Field, M. L. 1997. ‘From Reader to Reading Teacher’. Cambridge.
Following up on last week’s post, I’d like to start addressing the language aspect of teacher development today, an aspect I suggested here last week – unjustly so? – was all but completely ignored by our segment – coursebook writers and publishers, school owners and coordinators, ELT professionals dedicated to professional development, and, most perniciously, teachers themselves.
I have since that post spoken to many friends who are ELT professionals – both native and non-native speakers of English – and in the opinions of the vast majority, this seeming ‘gap’ in the market is really there, glaring. Some excerpts (some translated from Portuguese):
– I know a few teachers who did the CAE test at the beginning of their careers and now, 5 or 10 years later, don’t have that level anymore and would possibly not pass the CAE today. Some schools offer free courses for teachers taught by more experienced, more proficient teachers, but many don’t take those courses and keep on teaching lower levels. (…) I don’t know any SIGs or magazines that deal with that.
– Nope. (…) Not a single book (in the area of language development for teachers). They (schools) tend to lump teachers and advanced students under the same generic umbrella. But if an advanced student says “slangs” it’s not the end of the world. If a teacher does, it’s another story I think.
– Some don’t, some do (answering the question of whether teachers care about their language development). Some people don’t really know their limitations and have never had proper feedback. There are people who look for courses and ways of improving, but they’re still a minority, even if there are more people nowadays in that group than in the recent past, I think. As for the ELT market, I think there are many schools that simply don’t want teachers to develop. They want someone who teaches a half-baked class and is happy with R$ 10 (USD 5,00) per hour.
– I don’t know anything that exclusively concerns itself with language development. There are chapters in some books talking about teacher’s development, but not specifically about language development. Richards (2011) talks about the importance of developing confidence and fluency, but does not talk about how to do so.
Some harsher than others, but there seems to be very little doubt in their minds – and in mine, most definitely – that we tend not to consider language development as being an integral part of teacher development. It’s apparently more important – in today’s TD discussions, anyway – to be proficient in classroom technology than in English. Demanding high from our students (or not even correcting their oral mistakes) is also apparently a lot more worthy of study and discussion than proficiency in English. Actually, there doesn’t seem to be a single topic in the realm of TD that is not more important than a teacher’s language proficiency. Now, I’m a great enthusiast of technology in the classroom, Demand High (DH), extensive reading, oral correction, Dogme (not so much) etc, but I just can’t get my head around the fact most of us believe knowing (a lot about) English is not, at the very least, just as important as anything else, or that we somehow take for granted every teacher is linguistically – for lack of a better word – ‘ready’.
Thus, I am very interested in LDT. I’ve actually been very interested in this area for many years, especially as I myself am not a native speaker of English and am constantly striving to get better, to know more. From here on in, I will devote most of my future posts on this blog to the question of (non-native) English teachers’ language development. How can we get better? What’s available for us in terms of courses, books, blogs, apps etc. I hope many colleagues and friends in the ELT area – both native and non-native – will contribute, suggest, comment and help me and any and all readers of this blog to keep on sharpening that which is our most important tool, our most important means and, ultimately, ours and our students’ intended end.
Finally, If you are in ELT, I’d appreciate it if you could answer the following questions. You can do so by commenting on this post or by emailing me (email@example.com). Feel free to remain anonymous:
– Do you think you give your own English language development the necessary attention?
– What areas of the English language do you feel you need to work on the most?
– What do you do to improve your knowledge of English? (What, how often, who with etc.)
See you next Monday!