When reading About Language (Thornbury, 1997) for the very first time, one word in the introduction caught my eye. Thornbury argues that “it would seem to be axiomatic that knowledge of subject-matter is a pre-requisite for effective teaching, whether the subject is mathematics, history, geography, or, in this case, a second or foreign language”. Prior to that, I had never heard of the word axiomatic, so I immediately grabbed my dictionary and looked it up. Cambridge dictionary defines it as: “obvious and not needing proof”. Thus, the fact that English teachers need to know about English goes without saying, right? But what if they don’t?
I am positive that not many English teachers would dispute that being knowledgeable of their subject-matter is vital – especially when our job is to help students develop communicative competence (Hymes, 1966). It is worth pointing out that this goes far beyond the realms of knowing ‘the present perfect’ or ‘third conditionals’. Communicative competence encompasses linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic competence.
Arguably, a superficial knowledge of our subject-matter might result in giving poor instructions, inaccurate explanations, and low-quality input – not to mention an inability to deal with emergent language effectively/appropriately/competently. Having worked with English teachers for quite some time, I do not believe that most teachers who have a poor command of the language they teach are happy with that. Also, I do not think that they have a low-proficiency language level because they are lazy or neglectful. On the contrary, I strongly believe that most of them are aware of their weaknesses and are desperately trying to change this, but some of them may not even know where to begin. So, how can we help them?
To gain a better understanding of this issue, I started doing some research when I found a paper by Professor Jack C. Richards entitled Competence and Performance in Language Teaching. In this paper, he states that research has shown that a language teacher’s confidence also depends on his or her own level of language proficiency. A teacher who perceives himself/herself to have a weak command of the target language will have less confidence in his/her teaching ability and not an adequate sense of professional legitimacy (as cited in Seidlhofer, 1999). Moreover, he argues that this might explain why research into what teachers’ views of their needs for professional development normally identifies the need for further language training as a high priority (as cited in Lavender, 2002).
Richards claims that teachers need to have the following 12 language-specific competencies in order to teach effectively.
1- To comprehend texts accurately
2- To provide good language models
3- To maintain use of the target language in the classroom
4- To maintain fluent use of the target language
5- To give explanations and instructions in the target language
6- To provide examples of words and grammatical structures and accurate explanations (e.g. of vocabulary and language points)
7- To use appropriate classroom language
8- To select target-language resources (e.g. newspapers, magazines, internet)
9- To monitor his or her own speech and writing for accuracy
10- To give correct feedback on learner language
11- To provide input at an appropriate level of difficulty
12- To provide language-enrichment experiences for learners
He adds that “learning how to carry out these aspects of a lesson fluently and comprehensively in English is an important dimension of teacher-learning for those whose mother tongue is not English”. Personally, I would argue that even native speakers may also have to learn how to carry out such aspects effectively.
First of all, being a native speaker does not necessarily equate to being a highly competent user of the language, does it? We all know, for instance, native speakers of Portuguese who have serious problems in understanding texts or producing coherent and cohesive messages – spoken and written in their own language. In my experience, most highly competent native speakers might not be able to give accurate explanations of language points since most of their language knowledge is procedural rather than declarative. Thus, these aspects are important for all English teachers regardless of their mother tongue.
For English teachers whose mother tongue is English, Richards suggests that 4 other discourse skills also need to be acquired. He describes them as skills that will enable the teacher to manage the classroom:
1- To be able to monitor one’s language use in order to provide suitable learning input
2- To avoid unnecessary colloquialisms and idiomatic usage
3- To provide a model of spoken English appropriate for students learning English as an international language
4- To provide language input at an appropriate level for learners
All things considered, I think that Richards’s language-specific competencies are by no means exhaustive, but they give us something to think about.
So, how can we help unconfident, low-level proficiency English teachers?
A short answer would be: start preparing for the CPE and take the CELTA. These are wonderful goals. However, telling B1 level teachers who are having confidence issues with an inadequate sense of professional legitimacy to pursue these goals is unlikely to help them right now. We all know that there are no shortcuts or quick fixes that will turn someone into a highly competent user of the language overnight. Therefore, we ought to consider other ways of helping teachers going through this stage.
Arguably, the best immediate course of action is to help such teachers build up their confidence by helping them use the English they already have to carry out some of the tasks mentioned above more effectively. After all, we are not talking about teachers-to-be, but teachers who are already teaching and frequently are left to their own devices. Some of the items which Richard presents require a higher level of English proficiency, and that is why teachers must also carry on studying and working on their English in order to become better and better.
I believe that it is our duty to help teachers who are struggling to improve their English as well as their teaching skills to help their students learn more and better. By helping them, we are also helping learners and the whole ELT in Brazil. #togetherwearestronger
Competence and Performance in Language Teaching – Aug 02, 2010. [online] Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0033688210372953 [Accessed 15 Apr. 2017].
Hymes, Dell H. (1966). “Two types of linguistic relativity”. In Bright, W. Sociolinguistics. The Hague: Mouton. pp. 114–158.
Thornbury, S. (1997) About Language. Cambridge.