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English Language Teaching Global Blog


Teacher training: a waste of time?

Group of teachers working togetherGraham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.

It is fair to say that teacher training is one of the central pillars of ELT. Anyone who attends an ELT conference is likely to hear about teacher training in one way or another – maybe in a talk or presentation, or maybe through marketing information and advertising. If we browse through an ELT book catalogue, we will find texts which discuss teacher training. The International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) has a Special Interest Group focused on Teacher Training and Education. ELT Journal publishes articles about it. And, of course, the majority of teachers have experienced some teacher training at some point, maybe on a pre-service course before taking up a job, or maybe on an in-service programme in the course of their working lives. Alongside, for example, materials writing, testing and assessment, and, of course, teaching itself, teacher training is one of *the* core activities of the ELT profession.

At this point, we should distinguish between the kind of teacher training being talked about here, the more formal kind which tends to involve participating in a course and contrasts with teacher development, which can be characterised as informal, collegiate, probably independent of any formal qualification or programme of study (although it may be coordinated by workplaces or teacher associations) and so on. And obviously, training courses for teachers vary enormously. Pre-service programmes might range from degree-level programmes lasting a number of years to short taster courses lasting a few hours or days; in-service courses can vary from a day’s training on a specific aspect of pedagogic or professional practice to a month or even year-long course involving observations, reflective discussions, further study and written assignments.

Yet what teacher training seeks to do is to equip teachers with the skills and abilities they need to help them, or help them develop, in their work. If we are talking about beginner teachers, these skills and abilities could perhaps be labelled ‘professional competencies’, perhaps the ability to analyse and explain language, or key techniques and approaches for managing classrooms (we should note, however, that the label ‘professional competency’ arguably has a discourse of its own, conveying an impression of teaching as a body of knowledge and activities that can be learned – see below!). More experienced teachers might develop reflective skills as well as ‘higher level’ insights into classroom practice.

And yet… although many people assume that a training course is an important – even essential – preparation for and part of professional English language teaching, does training really help or is it just a waste of time and money? Don’t we learn much more through experience, and by reflecting on what we do in the classroom? How can a training course, which inevitably will be one-step-removed from our teaching, capture the diversity and complexity of classrooms which we might eventually or currently teach in? Is teaching ‘just’ a body of knowledge and competencies that can be passed on in a course? Aren’t teacher training course, by their very nature, going to be somewhat prescriptive, pointing us towards certain ways of teaching and of thinking about teaching, rather than truly encouraging us to think through for ourselves the full range of possibilities for our classrooms?

These are some of the key concerns which surround teacher training, and many readers and bloggers will have valid responses and retorts to these questions.

But the issues will be discussed and debated again and in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Birmingham (UK) on Thursday 14th April, 2016. There, Peter Grundy will propose the motion ‘This house believes that teacher training is a waste of time’; Penny Ur will oppose the motion. For more information about the conference, go to http://www.iatefl.org/.


Let’s celebrate 70 years of ELT Journal

Birmingham LogoThis year Oxford University Press is excited to join IATEFL in the effort to bring more teachers to the 50th annual IATEFL conference in Birmingham through the Scholarship scheme. Sponsoring a scholarship seemed to be the most natural way to celebrate our own anniversary – the 70 years of ELT Journal, a quarterly publication for all those involved in English Language Teaching (ELT), whether as a second, additional, or foreign language, or as an international Lingua Franca. The ELT Journal has long had strong links with IATEFL, and the ELT J Debate has become an eagerly anticipated fixture in the IATEFL conference programme.

We hope that through this scholarship practising teachers will get a chance to take advantage of the IATEFL conference as a professional development opportunity – both in terms of ideas and theory shared at the talks and workshops, but also as a great time to network with fellow teachers from around the world.

The IATEFL annual meeting gives a truly global overview of contexts, experiences and practices, and to many delegates that is most valuable aspect of the conference.

It is not necessary to be a member of IATEFL to apply, and the applications must be submitted to IATEFL by 23 July 2015. Detailed criteria for the scholarship are available on the list of current scholarships.



The award consists of:

  • Registration for the Pre-Conference event of the winner’s choice
  • Registration for the IATEFL Annual Conference
  • A year’s IATEFL membership
  • GBP 1500 towards conference related costs, including travel, accommodation, and visa costs
  • An annual individual subscription to ELT Journal online
  • An Oxford Teachers’ Academy online course of the winner’s choice

To qualify you must:

  • Be a practising teacher in primary, secondary, tertiary or adult education, state or private
  • Be interested in continuous professional development
  • Agree to submit a blog post about your conference experience by June 2016, to be published on the OUP blog: oupeltglobalblog.com
  • Agree to be interviewed (on video) by OUP about your conference experience, to be published on the OUP ELT global YouTube channel

To be considered for this scholarship you must submit a statement between 400 and 500 words in which you:

  • Outline your teaching context, including a brief description of your teaching community and the part you play in it.
  • Outline the professional development opportunities available to you in your context.
  • Identify key professional challenges NOT addressed by the professional development opportunities available to you in your context.
  • Outline an action plan for how you intend to take the learning gained during the conference to your teaching community.




Janet Enever reflects on the #ELTJ Debate at #IATEFL 2014

Janet Enever at the ELTJ Debate at IATEFL 2014At this year’s ELTJ Debate, Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) argued against the motion that ‘This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good‘. Janet shares her thoughts on some of the points that came out of the debate. You can watch the full recording of the debate on the IATEFL Online website, or catch up on the highlights in our Storify story of the event.

Firstly, I’d like to say how pleased I was to hear so many interesting and relevant points raised at the ELTJ Debate. Together, they provided fruit for a really valuable round table event – perhaps this would be a more productive format for developing shared understandings and creating networks than the adversarial stance of a debate.

Here, I’d like to pick up on a few points raised that I felt were particularly important – just to start the ball rolling for additional perspectives to be aired.

There’s proof in the pudding

Firstly then, the exciting new evidence from Eva Wilden in Germany! A study of over 6,500 children at the end of the German primary school phase (aged 10/11 yrs). She reported clear evidence of greater progress in receptive skills by approximately 50% of the sample who began English earlier. This large scale study is very significant evidence. In addition, the study linked higher achievement with stronger reading skills in German (national language – which may or may not be the children’s first language). Can we extrapolate from this that higher level literacy in the language of schooling/L1 works hand-in-hand with higher achievements in English?

I’d like to add a note here on the broader question of literacy and politely take issue with Fiona [Copland]. There is now strong evidence on the potential of early language learning to contribute positively to literacy in L1. The references are now too numerous to list here, but perhaps I can include one quote and suggest that for anyone interested, it would be worth following up on this particular source. So: Fernandez (2008:8) summarises evidence, that:

far from detracting from the development of literacy, learning a second language actually enhances and enriches children’s language experience and offers unique insights and opportunities for the development of cognitive skills, which are unavailable to the monolingual learner.”

It seems possible that Eva from Germany has evidence of just this happening – I’m glad to say that she has now agreed to present at our conference in Umea this June – so join us if you can to hear more! Of course, OUP are one of our proud sponsors!

Political buy-in

Secondly, I’d like to mention the contribution of a colleague from Bangladesh. I haven’t had the chance to spend time there so cannot pretend to be knowledgeable on the challenges, though I’ve heard this account many times and seen many of these challenges elsewhere in the world. The current problem for Bangladesh seems to be that there are very few positive aspects to this policy decision! Here I will take up just one.

From the ELLiE study we learnt that primary English teachers need a fluency level of at least B2 if they are to be able to respond to the unplanned, informal everyday requirements of English in the primary classroom. In many contexts this continues to be a distant goal, but this does not diminish its importance. At a language planning stage we need to ‘help’ politicians to fully understand this and strategically plan to achieve this target. Years ago when I worked in Poland (soon after the political changes), I witnessed thousands of teachers of Russian losing their jobs. Some, astonishingly, managed to speedily turn their hands to rapidly learning English and became excellent English teachers instead. The shift in language choice that has occurred there over the past 24 years is certainly remarkable, with a national policy now established for introducing the first foreign language (mainly, but not only, English) from the start of schooling. However, in a country of 40 million, this has taken a generation to implement – and they are still working on it. Evidently, Bangladesh has much greater challenges – probably not only in the teaching of primary English, with large classes and a struggle for adequate resources.

How much is too much?

The final point that I’d like to discuss relates to the question of ‘how many languages are possible at primary level?’ This is indeed a difficult question to answer – probably impossible! A delegate from Switzerland outlined their current debate. Last year I attended a national discussion forum on this in Bern where I learnt that English was creeping up the agenda in a number of cantons, and concerns were rising particularly about the decline of their fourth language – Romansch. From informal coffee break conversations I gained the impression that the German speakers in particular no longer saw French as so important/valuable as English.

This topic links also to the question raised by a British Council representative from Senegal in Francophone West Africa. Similarly, there, current discussions consider whether children will suffer from overload if they have to cope with learning two languages in addition to their home language/mother tongue/language of schooling (various terms may apply in different contexts). In response to the question of: ‘How many languages are too many?’ we can cite countries such as India where it is often the norm for young children to shift between 3-4 languages in their daily lives – but these are generally languages that are widely used in the community. We can also cite smaller-scale examples where three languages are taught in schools from an early age – e.g. Luxembourg, Belgium, some regions of Spain such as Catalonia and the Basque region. However, again, at least two of these languages are widely used in the community, whilst the third (English) is seen as a high status international language.

From this and other evidence then, we know children can cope, but we have to ask whether the contextual conditions are sufficient to provide enough support for them to make progress. With good teachers, good resources and a supportive wider community (both in and out of school) I’m sure it can be done. However, achieving this on a wider scale takes substantial national/political commitment. Of course, it also takes a significant amount of class time so it’s important to consider the priorities and take care not to create a primary curriculum that suffers from overload. In Africa, I know it’s a real dilemma, with some former colonies having opted for non-local language as the medium of instruction from the start of schooling and then later recognising this might result in only limited progress in basic education. The theme of Medium of Instruction deserves a separate discussion I feel – and was not the focus of the Debate. Here, we are discussing the introduction of a foreign language, together with the teaching of a former colonial language (English or French mainly).

My expectation is that the outcome is unlikely to be balanced bilingualism. Nonetheless, the experience of learning two languages early, in addition to the first language, will certainly provide a valuable foundation for later further development – assuming the conditions are sufficient to ensure good provision. Of course, Harry Kuchah’s contribution from Cameroon serves as a salutory reminder on how difficult it can be to achieve satisfactory conditions for learning.

There are so many more points I would like to discuss, but I hope the above provides some food for thought and provokes further discussion. As you can see, there are so many perspectives to consider.

If Janet’s points on the ELTJ Debate have interested you, or you’d like to challenge them, feel free to leave a comment below. And don’t forget to watch the recording of the Debate or read our Storify highlights.


#IATEFL – This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good

Thumb up and thumb downAhead of the ELT Journal debate at IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate, Graham Hall, editor of ELT Journal, presents an introduction to the motion of the debate.

The ongoing expansion of English language teaching for Primary age learners and teenagers has been a notable feature of ELT in recent years. In many countries, English is now compulsory in primary as well as secondary education, whilst English for Pre-school learners is also increasingly common. Some estimates suggest that up to 80 per cent of English language teaching globally is directed, in diverse contexts, at students in Primary or Secondary schools. As the exact cut-off point between Primary and Secondary education varies around the world, let’s assume for this blog that we’re referring to teaching children of pre- and/or post-11 years old).

As both parents and educational authorities seek to increase younger learners’ English language skills, we can’t assume that an earlier start to learning English is automatically better. The advisability of an early start to learning English can be affected by a number of factors, ranging from the availability of suitably skilled teachers and appropriate resources to concerns about the possible implications for the teaching and learning of other languages, and from the development of suitable classroom practices and methodologies to the relationship between a child’s first language literacy skills and their English language development.

So, it’s perhaps time to step back and take a little time to reflect on the extent to which the expansion of Primary ELT is, in fact, straightforwardly ‘beneficial’. If we, the ELT profession, teach millions of Primary age children English around the world, does this automatically lead to advantages, both for individuals and societies more generally, or is it possible that Primary ELT brings with it significant problems and difficulties? Does, in fact, Primary ELT do more harm than good?

There are perhaps 3 key reasons for the growth of Primary ELT. Firstly, there is the widespread assumption that ‘the earlier a language is learned, the better’; in other words, younger children are (or are more likely to be) more successful language learners. Secondly, the expansion of Primary ELT is a response to the increasing demand for English, which results from globalization; governments and policy-makers around the world would like an English-speaking workforce, which they see as leading to economic success. And finally, parents would like their children to benefit from learning English.

Yet, although age clearly influences language learning in some way, the exact nature of this relationship is rather less clear than is popularly imagined – the actual evidence in favour of younger learners’ superiority in L2 learning is rather inconsistent, especially in non-immersion situations, where encounters with English might be limited to a few hours a week in the classroom. And we might also worry about a top-down ‘rush for English’ in which policy is not thoroughly thought through and issues such as teacher training and education, and classroom methodologies and materials for teaching Primary ELT, become problematic. Is a gap developing between policy and practice, and between our goal of how Primary ELT ‘should be’, and the realities of often under-resourced classroom life?

These issues will be discussed and debated in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate (UK) on Thursday 3rd April (11.30-12.45 BST). There, Fiona Copland (Aston University, UK) will propose the motion: ‘This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good’; Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) will oppose the motion.

For more information about the conference and to access the debate online visit Harrogate online. You can also follow us on Twitter as we live-tweet highlights from the debate and other IATEFL speaker sessions.

Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.


What’s the use of book reviews?

ELT Journal April 2013 coverAlessia Cogo, Reviews Editor for ELT Journal, considers why book reviews are important in the field of ELT.

When I recently took on the role of Reviews Editor for ELT Journal, I started to ask myself what book reviews are for. Who reads them, and why? What makes a good review?

I remember that when I was an English language teaching practitioner — and when I did my postgraduate studies — there was little time for reading. I often relied on book reviews to get an idea of the latest publications in ELT and to understand what was going on outside the field of research I was exploring. Is this still true? I was curious to find out, so I asked outgoing ELT Journal Reviews Editor Philip Prowse, to tell me more. After 17 years as Reviews Editor, Philip knows a thing or two about what makes a good review!

You can watch the full 4-minute video of my interview with Philip below, but if you need a quick answer to the question about what reviews are for, then read on!

Keep up to date with developments in the field of ELT

Reviews are tremendously important for busy practitioners who want to keep up with developments in our field. They keep you informed about what is being published, without having to expend a lot of time and energy.

Make an informed choice

Reading a review before you rush to buy the latest titles you found online will help you make an informed decision about the books that are most relevant to you.

Check out the key facts

A good review includes useful information:  a clear summary of what the book contains and the intended readership. For research-based publications, the review will also explain how the publication contributes to the area of research as well as what has been happening in the field.

Opinion and evaluation

Ideally, the useful information on content and readership is accompanied by the reviewer’s opinion and evaluation of the book. Taken together with the factual information about the publication, you have the ingredients for a delicious dish: a good review.

In-depth Survey Review

Sometimes a title-by-title review is not enough. If you teach in a school or a university, ELT Journal’s Survey Review, which compares several textbooks from different publishers, is invaluable. Survey reviews help you decide which textbooks you might want to use in class, or what you might want to recommend to your students for independent study or for developing specific skills.

To hear more about what makes a good review and to hear about the best ELT Journal reviews, and more, watch the interview with Philip Prowse.

Read  Alan Maley’s Review of Reviews to find out more about ELT Journal reviews from the past 17 years.


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