IATEFL Webinar: What makes a good language teacher? (Carol Griffiths)

It is Saturday 2nd November 2019 and Carol will be talking to us about what makes a good language teacher. Slightly more than a decade ago she did a book about the good language learner and now is doing one from the teacher’s point of view. The ideas she presents today come from this book that will soon be available.

She starts by saying teaching is a very demanding profession. The hours spent in the classroom are only the tip of the iceberg. What are the characteristics of a good language teacher? Do we define in terms of qualifications, student success rates, popularity ratings, experience? All these have their limitations. The good teacher is a hopelessly elusive notion – and what is good anyway? However, she will attempt to throw some light on the factors that contribute.

Carol suggests that in order to be good a teacher needs to be autonomous, reflective, culturally aware, sensitive, knowledgeable of things like ELF, methodologies, feedback techniques, assessment procedures, and be able to manage all sorts of things from relationships, to grammar, to vocabulary, to skills. She wants to take a human perspective, recognising that teachers are not machines but real human beings with feelings, needs identities and lives of their own – which she believes is an underrated aspect of teaching and learning.

Identity

Learner identity has been around for a long time, recognised as a powerful force but what about teacher? (e.g. Barkhuizen 2017) but what about teachers? Only recently being recognised as much as it should be. What a teacher does in the classroom and the effect this has on the classroom is connected with it.

Cognition

Teacher cognition = knowledge, thoughts, understanding, attitudes and beliefs – influence what teachers actually do and the way they do it. Although their cognition is recognised, also by themselves, good teachers are able to adapt as the need arises, flexibility is important.

Intercultural awareness

An extremely important goal in education. One goal is to heighten learners’ sensitivity to different ways of seeing others. Can be profoundly motivating for learners. Arouses interest in them and therefore the teacher doesn’t have to struggle to raise it.

Reflection

We have to think about what we are doing, an important aspect of CPD and teacher reflection whether on or in or for action, it is important for the enhancement of situated cognition, teaching process and sound decision-making

Autonomy

An indispensable characteristic. Need to be able to create links between theory and practice. Need to overcome contextual constraints. Autonomous teachers are reflective and self-directed. Tends to promote learner autonomy as well.

ELF

This has aroused a great deal of controversy. Hotly debated. The relative importance of accuracy over intelligibility. This can be problematic. Which is more important. Given that students have to pass exams, and are expected to pass exams, this is an important factor which good teacher, all teachers, have to consider. You can’t just do as you like. In the face of these conflicting questions, we need ELF aware teachers who can exercise judgement within context. Needs to be developed at the teacher training stage. By the time the teacher is in the classroom, survival is the priority. If they are already ELF-aware, then hopefully this will come through in what they do in their classrooms.

In addition to these macro-perspectives, there are other things that teachers need to be aware of. In terms of method, good teachers are aware of different methods and ways of doing things and will choose what best suits their learners. Adapting what they do to meet the needs of their students. Technology is another important factor, it is everywhere these days and it is important to get up to speed with it in the classroom.

Classes are full of individuals and we have to manage to accommodate these individuals. One class is never the same as another. The individuals in a class dictate what is useful, good, interesting etc. Differences may include cognitive, affective, societal. Good teachers factor individual differences into their classroom practice.

Assessment – we are expected to assess our students regularly. We have to equip ourselves with strategies for doing this. How they are assessed can have far reaching effects on their motivation and trajectory. Very serious. Good teachers need to be assessment literate, well-versed in the use of assessment tools.

Classroom management is essential – without it a classroom is chaotic. We have to develop ways of managing a class effectively which can at times be challenging. Good management will promote learning. Good language teachers are able to adapt their own personal style to adapt what is required to suit a particular class.

Corrective feedback – lots of ways to provide this which we come across in training and through experience. Another area which can be challenging. Students tend to expect it. If you don’t correct them, they think you aren’t doing your job. It’s something that we do have to consider very seriously. Overcorrecting or correcting the wrong kind of way can be demotivating. Knowing how to correct well and effectively is an important skill to develop as a teacher. Need to provide appropriate feedback according to context and learning targets.

Relationships – often underestimated but gaining in recognition for its importance. The teacher is an important person. Learner-centred-ness goes back to last century and is important but the greatest single influence on what a student learns is the teacher and relationship with the teacher, the quality of it. It is a great responsibility. Our relationship with students also contributes to our own motivation and job satisfaction in a demanding job.

Strategies. What do we actually do in the classroom? What are we required to present in the classroom? Language learning strategies have been studied extensively from various viewpoints. Controversial but that is not for this talk. In Carol’s research, the best students use a wide variety of language learning strategies and they use them frequently. These students outperform those who use strategies less. Not always that simple but overall. It is also important to develop teachers’ awareness of strategies and their perceptions and beliefs about these strategies. Need to be aware of the need to promote strategies, provide modelling, whatever it takes to encourage students to use their own strategies. This relates to autonomy, helps learners to be autonomous. They need to learn to do it for themselves, the most useful thing we can teach them.

Pragmatics. Long considered the Cinderella of the language learning scene. Probably still underdone in relation to other areas but has received increasing attention. Important that students know when is appropriate to use particular vocabulary when they learn it. While a student may know both vocabulary and grammar, they may not always know how to use it in a real life situation. Good teachers are aware of the need to develop their pragmatic cognition and assess their learners’ pragmatic competence.

Vocabulary is important. You can’t say anything without it. In recent years study of vocabulary has been revolutionised by the use of corpora. Dunn and Webb (2020) say that teachers have four roles with regards to teaching vocabulary – planning, training, testing and teaching. Need to set goals, select activities, evaluate progress and train learners.

Grammar. There is consensus that it needs to be taught but not about how. How it should be introduced, practiced or corrected. However, it is agreed that learners need the opportunity to practice and automatise their use of it meaningfully.

Pronunciation. A slightly thorny one. Teachers often dodge around pronunciation. Carol says it is because grammar is reasonably easy – you can refer to a book to know what is correct. With pronunciation, it is pronounced in so many different ways. It goes far beyond the British-American dichotomy. Even in Britain it varies enormously from place to place. What do we teach? What do students want to learn? Some kind of model needs to be decided on and students themselves need the freedom to choose how they want to pronounce the language. The idea of whether pronunciation is right or wrong has become unfashionable, the question of intelligibility is more important. Somehow the importance of speaking the language has to be dealt with and the teacher has to deal with these issues.

Listening. Not developed merely through exposure or repeated tests. Need to seek to develop orchestration of skills and strategies, which can be facilitated by metacognitive awareness.

Speaking. Another very important skill. Good speaking allows students to participate in social and academic interactions in an environment when the language is spoken. There is often a lack of explicit instruction of skills and strategies needed. Exam washback is an issue. In the end, what passes the exam doesn’t necessarily mean that the learner can perform in the target language environment. Good language teachers help learners to develop spoken accuracy and fluency and heighten their metacognition to regulate their own performance, and also realises that speaking in an unfamiliar language can feel threatening. If a student makes mistakes, it’s important that the teacher supports and encourages them to continue and keep trying.

Reading – the mainstay of previous language learning programmes. Although it’s long been regarded of a cognitive process irrespective of context, there is an ecological perspective which is getting quite popular – the context of the learner environment is important. As with other things we have talked about. Every environment has a mixture of affordances and constraints. Good teaching arises through interactions between people in a particular context. Reading is still very important and should not be underestimated. A book is much more patient than a human listener. You can learn a lot from reading and go back and read again, check the dictionary. We should not underestimate the importance of reading.

Writing is the last skill to develop after listening, reading and speaking. Not everyone is good at writing even in their own first language. Even more difficult in a foreign language. If we’re teaching students who are going on to university, it is an extremely important skill. For us as teachers if we want to going to publishing and for students. It is a process. It doesn’t just happen. You don’t just write something and its perfect even in your own language so can’t expect it from students. Can’t pick up a manual and read the rules, you need to practice. Teachers need to not only have an interest in classroom practice but also writing and learning about writing. Those teachers who do writing themselves may be better able to communicate enthusiasm to students. Good teachers need to adapt to different genres and requirements. We need to lead students through the process.

Burnout. Teachers are very prone to burnout. The time we spend in the classroom, as said before, is only the tip of the iceberg. Teaching is a performance and stressful, so it takes its toll. Attrition is high among teachers. Good language teachers have ways of coping with that stress. It is a real issue and needs to be talked about more. Carol says of teachers she has trained, few stay in for very long as it is too hard. Some don’t even go on to teach after the training course. Good teachers need to find ways of dealing with it in order to stay in the profession, as the job is extremely challenging and demanding. This issue needs more attention and discussion.

Conclusion: good language teaching is multidimensional. Not just one thing. can’t say you have qualification x therefore you are a good teacher or you have experience therefore you are a good teacher. It is more complex than that. They know about all of the things mentioned in this talk.

The book is/will be called Lessons from Good Language Teachers.

Interesting webinar. Feeling reflective as I come away from it!

 

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