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Proficiency: is there a minimum level for a language teacher?

Two days after Silvana Richardson’s brilliant plenary: The Native factor (read more about it here), there was an equally fascinating Q&A session. However, since it was impossible to address all the questions posed by the audience then and there, Silvana and I decided we would continue the discussion on this blog. We gathered all the questions and divided them into four groups according to the emerging topics:

  1. NS and NNS labels: a false dichotomy? – read the questions, the comments, and join the discussion here.
  2. Proficiency: is there a minimum level for a language teacher?
  3. NS and NNS identity: issues of self-confidence, language ownership and authority.
  4. What can we do to advance equality in ELT? How can I get involved.

This is the second post with questions on the topic of language proficiency. We’d like to invite you to answer the questions below in the comments section. We’ll then gather the answers and post a follow-up article also including our comments.

  • How do we define proficiency and how do we measure it?
  • What is a minimum proficiency level for a teacher? Why?
  • Should NS also take proficiency tests? Why (not)?
  • Should there be a difference between hiring a NNEST with a strong L1 accent and one with a neutral accent?
  • How important is being bi or multilingual for an English teacher?
  • For the next two weeks we will post the remaining two topics, one every week. So if you’re interested in continuing the discussion, stay tuned. Follow the blog on Twitter, FB or via email so you don’t miss any of the discussion. You can also read the questions, comments, and get involved in the discussion on NS and NNS labels: a false dichotomy from last week here.

    And if you’re interested in reading up a bit on NS and NNS issues, native speakerism or English as a Lingua Franca, check out the Reading List section with links to academic publications that are freely available on the internet. If you prefer to watch something, check out Videos section for a selection of talks and interviews.

    You might also be interested in these three podcasts recorded by the TEFL Show which focus on some similar themes:

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    121 Comments
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    Debbie Lifschitz
    Debbie Lifschitz
    4 years ago

    Just joining here. Teacher training for over 30 years… Surprised that determining that NNS teachers don’t need to be proficient in English in order to teach…So they model mistakes? They can’t correct mistakes because they don’t see them, or don’t see them as mistakes? They choose low level texts because their vocabulary is so limited?…They can’t explain why “closing” the fire is incorrect nor what the correct form is (in this L1 fire an electricity share a semantic field)… I am not sure what the criterion “one step ahead of the class” means. This teacher may be able to teach… Read more »

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that, all things being equal, the more proficient a speaker/writer a teacher is, the better (although against what standards you measure that is problematic) but the reality of the situation is that the majority of teachers in the world (especially in the public sector) are not proficient and probably never will be. But this fact shouldn’t be allowed to discredit them as teachers if they have compensating pedagogic skills. By the same token, a teacher who speaks ‘good’ English (as in the case of the putative native speaker) should not automatically be considered a… Read more »

    Thom
    Thom
    4 years ago

    Hi again, the point to be argued is exactly the point. I cannot see how one can solve the problem of discrimination by calling off the idea that it is a good thing for a language teacher to feel comfortable using the language. Could it be that anglo-saxons deal with a guilt complex? Is this the WASP version of ELT? The shadow of linguistic imperialism? I think it is a mistake to deflate the value of language proficiency. As you pointed out, advancing from B2 to C1 is quite an accomplishment (I use the CEFR scale for convenience, not because… Read more »

    peter
    peter
    4 years ago

    Sorry, Scott, but this seems a little muddled. You seem to presuppose that everyone should use the same standards and hire according to the same criteria. As this is clearly not the case, nobody risks being “disenfranchised”. You are absolutely right when you insist that “(e)ffective teaching involves the interaction of a number of factors”. In my context, this includes (!) being a native speaker. Clearly, not every context is the same, as you correctly observe when you state that teaching “is locally situated”. Hence my hiring criteria will very probably be different from yours. The pejorative “native speakerism” seems… Read more »

    Joe
    Joe
    4 years ago
    Reply to  peter

    Well it’s worth mentioning that it would be illegal to do so under EU law, so it would be considered immoral in that sense in the EU at least. Obviously in certain countries there are visa rules that restrict work permits only to native speakers. It would be interesting to know why in your context, you consider being a non-native speaker to be a disqualifying attribute. People have mentioned impossible standards so far, and yet I’ve known a number of people in my life who wouldn’t meet your criteria for being a native speaker, yet speak with accents indistinguishable from… Read more »

    peter
    peter
    4 years ago
    Reply to  Joe

    My goodness, Joe. What is illegal is immoral? I seriously suggest you rethink that one. This kind of egregious category error pervades all things PC.

    By the way, my Spanish colleague tells me I can read pages of Spanish prose accent free. I only speak a few words of Spanish, however.

    Joe
    Joe
    4 years ago
    Reply to  peter

    What are laws if not codified versions of the prevailing moral values of society? You might not consider it immoral, but that’s not what I said. I stated that the EU views it as immoral, and therefore has laws against it.

    peter
    peter
    4 years ago

    Personally, I’m not a great fan of proficiency tests. I do, however, pay very close attention to a candidate’s language facility during the demo lesson and job interview. As I have stated elsewhere, for a number of reasons my policy is to hire only native speakers with a strong teaching record (I won’t go into what constitutes a native speaker here. Your definition may differ from mine). If someone’s native language competence seems below par by my standards (which also reflect the requirements of the context in which I operate), then I won’t hire them (irrespective of whatever result they… Read more »

    derekkeever
    4 years ago
    Reply to  peter

    Hi Peter,

    While I agree that teaching is locally situated and contextual factors will, in part, affect hiring, your policy is discriminatory by definition, as you exclude a particular group from joining your team. No? You may have very good reasons for this, but you haven’t given them. You have simply stated your policy, but i think to explore the issue in greater depth, it would be useful to understand WHY you have such a policy and why your context limits and constrains your hiring practices. Don’t you think this would add to the discussion?

    Elizabeth Bekes
    Elizabeth Bekes
    4 years ago
    Reply to  peter

    Peter, I am not familiar with your context, so I cannot judge, but would you hire a “non” like myself with 40 years of teaching experience, being a highly proficient (NEAR-native) speaker of English (beside my Hungarian, Russian, Spanish, and modern Greek with a bit of Amharic and Achuar thrown in). Just so that I don’t apply… I’m only teasing … But, really, I would like to know what is behind your policy. Silvana mentioned a couple of the usual arguments (students’ expectations, etc.) and refuted most of them. The thing that she is not able to change single-handedly is… Read more »

    Joe
    Joe
    4 years ago

    I’m not sure she refuted the idea really. She talked about a few studies with mixed results that suggested that students consider other factors are more important. But surely a more appropriate measure would be what students actually spend their money on? I find it hard to believe that schools would spend vast amounts of money flying teachers around the world, paying them many times the local average salary, if there wasn’t a business need for it. Are we really pretending that the expertise of a 4 week CELTA course is worth that sort of investment? They do it because… Read more »

    Debbie Lifschitz
    Debbie Lifschitz
    4 years ago

    In the 4 year undergraduate program in the college where I teach there are proficiency tests at the end of each semester in the 4 skills. Passing grade for each skill in 1st year is 75, in 2nd year 80 and in 3rd year 85. Exemption level in any skill is 90 or over. Surprisingly, not all NS students pass writing or reading comprehension with a 90 in first year. So much for over rating NS. By third year a significant percentage of NNS achieve a 90 exemption level in one or another skill. This gives a great boost. True,… Read more »

    peter
    peter
    4 years ago

    Wow. Not hiring someone who is not a native speaker now somehow makes me responsible for their self-image (“inferiority complex”). Really, Elizabeth? And “derekkeever”, hiring per definition means excluding large groups of people. Always, and in any profession. It is the ineluctible consequence of setting standards (an increasingly old-fashioned concept, apparently). Among other reasons, I need staff who can teach clientele with C2 level English in all four skills. They are highly demanding customers who refuse to accept teachers who do not have a native speaker’s feel e.g. for subtle shades of meaning, obscure cultural references and malapropism, all of… Read more »

    Mariana
    Mariana
    3 years ago

    I had this very motivated intermediate student who would come up to me after almost every class and ask “Mariana, this word we had in the textbook, I’ve found another in the book I’m reading, the translation is pretty much the same. Are they synonyms? How are they different? Could you give me more examples, please”? What would a “one step ahead” teacher do? Would they say “just learn the one we have in the textbook”? And how would that affect the student’s motivation? Then, I’ve seen teachers crossing out some good language in their students’ essays just because they… Read more »

    ltpickens
    4 years ago

    What is a minimum proficiency level for a teacher? Why? In theory, a teacher can be simply one step ahead of a student. Teaching what they themselves have just learned. Until the student asks a question that goes beyond the scope of the teacher’s knowledge. One of my more successful classes I taught was an a tutoring session for java programming in college. I was teaching my classmates.. as in, we were in the exact same class. The difference was I seemed to grasp it quicker. I was very good at reteaching what we had learned earlier that day so… Read more »

    Silvana Richardson (@laIoli)
    Reply to  ltpickens

    Thanks for your reply, LTPICKENS.
    Can I be cheeky and ask, in whose theory can a teacher ‘be simply one step ahead of a student’? The example you refer to is one of peer teaching an learning where everybody was a student in the same class. Does it apply equally to professional practitioners, in your view?

    ltpickens
    4 years ago

    We were all in the same class, but I understood the material, they did not. That was the one step ahead. My tutoring session I offered was not a study group. I lead the instruction and fielded questions. But I didn’t charge any money for the lesson. I could have though. My classmates were beyond grateful that I was able to help them in a class where our professor could not. As for your second question, I believe I answered it when I said “in the business of TEFL,” meaning professionals, “should be qualified,” meaning have far more experience in… Read more »

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago
    Reply to  ltpickens

    If anyone saw the Dogme 1995 film ‘Italian for beginners’ you will recall that it takes place in a small town in Denmark where a group of locals get together regularly for an Italian lesson in the local town hall. On the occasion of the sudden death of their teacher (a native speaker of Italian, of course), and wanting to continue their Italian experience, they elect one of their classmates to take over the role of teacher – on the strength of his slightly better than average Italian, owing to his obsession with football. By drawing on their collective interests… Read more »

    Thom
    Thom
    4 years ago

    Hi gain,
    Which makes me think that the thirsty horse not only goes to the water, it will also drink it. I fear that most of my students do not meet the free voluntary language student criteria. And consequently I find myself developing a learning-in-spite-of methodology for students that happen to meet English along their way to graduation.

    Thom
    Thom
    4 years ago

    *again

    Kara Aharon
    2 years ago
    Reply to  ltpickens

    The “one-step-ahead” theory doesn’t work as well in language as it does in other subjects. An elementary school student isn’t likely to ask a math teacher questions about geometry or calculus, but very often will ask an EFL teacher how to say a sentence far beyond the level they’re learning, since their native language is much more developed. This may be okay for a group of adults who know that their colleague is just a step ahead of them, but can cause a teacher to lose a lot of respect among students who don’t always want to be there.

    Anthony Ash
    4 years ago

    I think the main question here is whether there should be a minimum proficiency level or not. To teach anything, you need to have the knowledge. If a teacher teaches only elementary level, then surely they only need to be one step ahead of their learners – at best at pre-intermediate level. I’ve sometimes taught German – I’m by no means near-native but I can teach German until a certain level. If you want to teach CAE, then you’re going to need to have a high level of English. In my case, I doubt I’d do a very good job… Read more »

    anthonyteacher
    4 years ago
    Reply to  Anthony Ash

    Would we require elementary teachers to be just one step ahead of children in math?

    This was a major problem I saw in Korea. Many teachers with little to no proficiency (sometimes having never even studied it) were forced to teach English, with terrible results. I’ve seen one-step ahead teaching. It’s not pretty.

    Anthony Ash
    4 years ago
    Reply to  anthonyteacher

    Well I’ve seen plenty of one step ahead teachers and it’s worked well. This includes English teachers whose English was bad but absolutely fine for elementary level as well as subject teachers, such as GCSE English and maths, where the teachers knew everything they needed to teach that level of maths and English in a British school but they didn’t have a degree in maths or English

    Silvana Richardson (@laIoli)
    Reply to  Anthony Ash

    I wonder how ‘English teachers whose English was bad’ were ‘absolutely fine’ for elementary level. How could they be adequate models of language, in all its aspects (spelling, pronunciation, grammar, lexis, discourse…)?

    Anthony Ash
    4 years ago

    Is this a serious question? “I’ve got a pen” and “Have you got a bad” came out of them just fine. Besides, no matter how well and natural the teacher pronounces “have you got…” the learners still pronounced it like learners do at this level, so it wouldn’t even matter how ‘naturally’ or well the teacher pronounces it 🙂

    Sue Annan
    Sue Annan
    4 years ago

    I run cert courses for Trinity, and expect my trainees to have a high level of proficiency in the language. I interview each and every one to test their spoken and written skills before offering a place on the course. I don’t discriminate between natives or not. Our students expect the best we can offer them, and as they are paying clients we must deal with their needs. I find that more and more of them have a high level already- in particular the teenagers, and it would be disingenuous, and unfair, to offer a teacher who cannot help them… Read more »

    Eve
    Eve
    2 years ago
    Reply to  Sue Annan

    I also run cert courses for Trinity and I agree that to be able to do the Cert you really need that C1 level, for the written workload required as much as the level demanded by the teaching practice, but I think CELTA / Cert are very much for a particular type of teacher and the high entry level acts as a barrier for entry that many cannot access. In recent years this has been recognised and Trinity are now developing a new qualification, the Cert PT, which has elements that are similar to a Cert TESOL but it has… Read more »

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago

    “Is there a minimum level for a language teacher?” The question is reductive and leads right back to asserting native speaker standards, since ‘levels’ are always defined in these terms (look at the CEFR). Thus any putative measure of an optimal level will always be framed in deficit terms, i.e. NOT C1/C2 etc. It is also a fairly idle question, since, *theoretically* (and I emphasise that word advisedly) there is no reason that a teacher need know the target language AT ALL. He/she need simply have the pedagogical skills to create the conditions for learning it. This is after all… Read more »

    Anthony Ash
    4 years ago

    This is along the lines of what I was saying in my comment earlier on in the thread, though you’ve worded it much better. I particularly agree with the notion of a teacher who is ‘proficient’ in creating the right learning conditions.

    Silvana Richardson (@laIoli)

    Hi Scott, I think we are moving away -slowly, though- towards a better understanding of what it means to be bilingual/plurilingual – i.e. being bilingual/plurilingual no longer means speaking two or more languages with the same level of competence and confidence, but it is currently understood as a person’s ability to use two (or more) languages to varying degrees and for distinct purposes. Anyway, my question to you is: if you were to teach calculus or lip-reading without knowing anything about these disciplines using the resources available online to set up and monitor appropriate pedagogical tasks, how would you …… Read more »

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago

    The discussion is running in parallel on Facebook, and, at the risk of being indiscreet, I’m copying a post from a trainer in Uruguay, because I think it addresses some of your concerns, but in a non-Utopian way: I want to say that when I worked in Uruguay as DoS of a school that had centres across country I met several B1 teachers and I feel that they did a lot for their students, they were able to communicate, they were able to teach a lot of things (I did oral examining and lesson observations). I get it, ideally, those… Read more »

    Elizabeth Bekes
    Elizabeth Bekes
    4 years ago

    My experience has been the same so far in Ecuador and was the same in Ethiopia. In both countries, there is a drive to introduce English at early stages in the curriculum along CLIL lines (especially in Ethiopia). Owing to how the existing Ethiopian teacher generation was taught, we have a situation where a young, inexperienced teacher has to teach maths (of which she has limited knowledge) in English (of which she has basic knowledge) to students who have no knowledge of maths or English. I have seen English classes at university level in Ethiopia where not a word of… Read more »

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago

    “What I’m trying to say is that teacher training and language proficiency should go hand in hand” Yes, and your account of your experience doing this is truly insightful.

    nickbilbrough
    4 years ago

    Much of the teacher training work I do is in contexts like the one described by Nicola above and I wholeheartedly agree that the ability of the teacher to motivate, to inspire and to manage a class with a background awareness of methodology is more important than the level of English of the teacher. Everywhere I go teachers sometimes lack confidence in their own voice as a source of input. I often hear teachers saying that their learners need to listen to native speaker models in order to improve their proficiency in English. Where does this idea come from? In… Read more »

    nicroseper
    4 years ago
    Reply to  nickbilbrough

    Nick makes an important point. A lot of teachers I’ve worked with feel their students need a native speaker model. I agree with Nick that the teachers’ own variety of English is the important one but persuading teachers and convincing them of the reasons for this and the benefits isa real challenge.

    Elizabeth Bekes
    Elizabeth Bekes
    4 years ago

    Sure enough, Marek, I’ve been there. However, I feel more empowered and self-confident when I learn something, be it a new classroom activity or the correct (i.e. internationally acceptable, because intelligible) pronunciation of ‘schizophrenic’… 🙂 Knowledge is empowering as many of the TED talks I use will testify. Perhaps, a more interesting discussion is which part of a teacher’s language proficiency should be developed. Certainly not pronunciation (being mindful of the intelligibility criterion, though), but other areas where we may expect quick returns: vocabulary (corpus linguistics might provide a pointer), collocations, listening comprehension activities chosen for English as a Lingua… Read more »

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago

    All the more reason not to impose impossible-to-reach benchmarks, Marek, no?

    TeamBritanniaHu
    4 years ago

    Reblogged this on hungarywolf.

    Marc
    4 years ago

    I thought Anthony nailed this with ‘one step ahead’ of the learner but on further reflection I disagree. Minimum proficiency is a problem because the minimum will be context sensitive. In Japan, most private kids teachers are about B1 or above. Elementary school teachers, who have to teach across the elementary subjects might be as low as A1. I think there are more questions than answers. 1. Where’s the money? 2. What is the target for learner proficiency at the organization and/or societal level? Obviously proficiency alone is not enough, but not is pedagogical ability. There has to be some… Read more »

    Ahmad Zaytoun
    4 years ago

    I think there shouldn’t be a level that the teacher stops at for many reasons: first, the teacher (here it’s mainly about NNEST, which I’m one) should provide an example to the student that you can learn English, because NNESTs were once learners of English at elementary level. Second, I think it’s ok if the teacher makes some mistakes once in a while in the classroom, but I don’t think it’s ok to make too many of those, as it would affect the image of the teacher (I heard many students talking about their teachers and how they make way… Read more »

    sueannanSue
    4 years ago

    I teach cert courses for Trinity. Before anty course there is an interview, at which potential trainees must show a high level of written and spoken English competence. I do not discriminate between natives or others. Our clients are becoming more sophisticated and even the teenagers are arriving with good levels of language to begin with. It would be a bad idea to offer a teacher who doesn’t have the language competence to help them reach the next level. As the CertTesol itself contains a high level of written assignments, it would quickly weed out anyone who hasn’t the proficiency… Read more »

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago

    I agree, Nick. I find it dispiriting that the tyranny of the native speaker standard has been replaced by the ‘almost-a-good-as-a-native-speaker’ non-native speaker standard. If the rule is that you have to be good at English to teach English, then this simply sanctions the native-speaker only mindset.

    harris
    harris
    4 years ago

    Good point. On tefl.com ns became ‘ns level’ on all ads seemingly overnight. It’s as if someone had run a find/replace function. At first I was glad this changed, then I realized it’s the same old thing with a different name.

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago

    Let’s assume that your typical teacher of English is a non-native speaker who would probably be ranked A2 or B1 on the CEFR. What’s the most cost-and-time effective way of investing in their professional development – by raising their English level one point (roughly 200 hours of instruction) or by giving them an opportunity to improve their teaching skills – maybe 20 hours? I vote for the latter.

    Gerhard Erasmus
    Gerhard Erasmus
    4 years ago

    I agree and disagree. Considering how pressured teaching as a profession can be, we need to optimize the time we have to develop. It is however a profession that we should approach professionally. If a cricket player has a good cover drive and cut shot, but is weak against the short ball, do we spend 20 hours improving their cover drive and cut shot, or 200 hours fixing their game against the short ball? What would offer them the biggest long term gains? I also think it is time that we start looking as proficiency and L1 knowledge as part… Read more »

    nicroseper
    4 years ago

    There are a lot of of questions around whether courses are the best way to help these teachers. Coaching/mentoring programs are possibly a better idea. However, I think the message is clear: this discussion needs to be less about language proficiency and a lot more about teaching skillls. How can we get that message through to owners, parents and students themselves?

    russmayne
    4 years ago

    Hmmm haven’t you problemtised ‘good English’ without doing the same for ‘good teaching’ though?

    What is a ‘good teacher’ and what is ‘good teaching’? Seems like these are hard questions to answer objectively.

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago
    Reply to  russmayne

    “What is ‘good teaching’?” Even harder to answer than what is ‘good English’? – but all I can say is that the one needn’t assume the other.

    Joe
    Joe
    4 years ago

    Given the number of people who successfully teach themselves a language, it’s obviously true that it’s possible to teach a language without any knowledge whatsoever of the language (although it’s worth mentioning that successful self-taught learners do typically go out of their way to regularly communicate with proficient speakers of their target language). Of course then you’re heavily reliant, at least initially, on the quality of the materials. So the question then becomes what value does any teacher add to the ability of their students to learn, and what level of English do these skills in particular require? I speak… Read more »

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago

    Just to sum up my thoughts on this issue (because re-reading them, I realise they are somewhat incoherent!): It seems to me that teaching ability comprises at least three components: 1. Knowledge of the language – that is to say declarative knowledge about its grammar, phonology etc; 2. Proficiency in the language – that is to say the ability to speak and write it intelligibly; 3. Teaching ability, including the ability to plan and execute appropriate lessons, and to manage classes effectively. (And I would echo Joe’s point that 1. and 2. should not be confused.) Few teachers, especially at… Read more »

    Gerhard Erasmus
    Gerhard Erasmus
    4 years ago

    Totally agree, but wouldn’t you include in declarative knowledge of the language “the ability to make judgements on what to teach?”

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago

    Yes, I would, Gerhard, plus ‘the ability to make judgements about what to correct’, although both areas may relate more to ‘teaching skills’ (what is sometimes called ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ which includes “an understanding of what makes the learning of specific topics easy or difficult” [Shulman 1986]).

    Silvana Richardson (@laIoli)

    Scott,
    ‘Few teachers, especially at the start of their career, could claim to be fully proficient in all three categories.’ Sure. But isn’t it in many cases because their initial teacher training programme is not fit for purpose?
    Demonstrating knowledge of the language, proficiency in the language and teaching ability is not asking too much as outcomes of a sound initial teacher education programme sustained over time – of course, very difficult to achieve in a 4-week TEFL-I course!

    Joe
    Joe
    4 years ago

    Perhaps the more pressing question is are the rewards there to convince anyone that a longer and more in depth course is worth their time and money? If I’m going to spend a year or two of my life doing a PGCE style course, with the associated fees and debt, then I’d expect a job at the end of it with a similar salary/benefits as a newly qualified state school teacher. As long as those jobs aren’t there, no-one is going to invest in themselves in that way.

    geoffjordan
    4 years ago

    Thanks for the articulate summary, Scott. The reference you make is to a good article: Shulman, L.S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57, 1-22.p.8. Shulman has written other interesting articles too. Classroom based SLA research hasn’t concentrated enough on pedagogical content knowledge, but the indications are that this, not declarative knowledge, and certainly not language proficiency, is the crucial factor. In Spain, for example, the disappointing results of the “early start” programme of English in schools are due not, as is often suhggested, to the teachers’ poor level of English proficiency but to… Read more »

    geoffjordan
    4 years ago

    I should have made it clear that I recognise the advantage of a good level of declarative knowledge for EL teachers, and that some proficiency in the language is required. But I agree with Scott that emphasising proficiency perpetuates the mind set that has so far prevented NNESTs from getting fair treatment, and that it also underestimates the results that can be (and have been) achieved by teachers whose speaking skills might be judged “intermediate”. It’s good to discuss this issue, and I hope it will help to tease out the issues and the arguments. It might seem a bit… Read more »

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago

    I would add that one should be a little wary of anyone arguing for a specific level of English proficiency for teachers because chances are they are trying to sell you something. 😉

    Thom
    Thom
    4 years ago

    This is an odd discussion. Suggesting a no English English teacher paradigm and teaching what one cannot do as an answer to discrimination against non-natives does not seem to address the unfairness in the discrimination. Do students benefit from good teaching along with teacher’s own language competence? I’d think so. Must one have a british passport to do so? no. I am not sure where the herring is with the piano teacher. One can listen to instructions about interpretation. But understanding is facilitated when the the teacher can demonstrate what is taught. I’d think that demonstration is often superior to… Read more »

    Thom
    Thom
    4 years ago

    Proficiency for multilingual teachers proves a point for students: It can be done; I know what I talk about; I know what it feels like; I have been there; I know how it works, etc. For monolinguals it is credit they have to pay back in class.

    Silvana Richardson (@laIoli)
    Reply to  Thom

    Absolutely, Thom. What you have described is a good example of an inspirational and possible model for students.

    Thom
    Thom
    4 years ago

    Hi Silvana, how have you been?
    Being non-native has actually been liberating for me. At least nobody expects me to be perfect :). My most accomplished sentence after high school English was “Tim has a clever parrot”.

    ELTebooks
    4 years ago

    I will chip in by supporting the ‘you don’t need to be an expert to teach it’ argument. I would say that a lot of my teaching falls into this and possibly always has. For instance, I taught history, geography, RE and even PE as part of my postgrad and knew very little of them but passed every course and assessed teaching practices. How? I prepared. I used what I knew and prepared lessons that I could deliver with teachable points. I more recently taught British Literature which I would say I have a low level of but I prepared… Read more »

    Joe
    Joe
    4 years ago

    Are there any studies into how much effect, if any, the teacher’s proficiency in communication has on the progress of their students?

    To add another possibly not very useful comparison, would we suppose that being better at a particular sport makes you better at coaching it?

    Thom
    Thom
    4 years ago
    Reply to  Joe

    Hi Joe,
    I would think that it certainly helps. I cannot think of a coach who has not also been a player, at least mediocre player. And then you have people like Cruyff, Klinsmann, or Zidane.

    In a similar vein, I have heard people compare themselves to conductors who manage an orchestra without knowing how to play the instruments. This idea is based on ignorance; all* great conductors are also accomplished musicians some outstandingly so, Barenboim, Bernstein, Toscanini, etc.
    (*I don’t know all, so I am sure you find somebody playing the recorder badly and conducting quite successfully:)).

    Thom
    Thom
    4 years ago

    Hi Marek,
    I think nobody tries to make the point that proficiency has an absolute correlation with teaching skills. The word guarantee leads us off track.

    As one attempts to establish a guideline one would look at common patterns and not at exceptions. So, how many successful teachers are also competent users of the target language? Is it possible to become proficient without also being a good language learner? Do good language learning habits transfer over to teaching habits? (and then the terrible final question–how much of teaching leads to learning?)

    Joe
    Joe
    4 years ago

    Bloody hell, $41. And people wonder why ordinary teachers don’t read research. Thanks anyway. Do you remember how exactly it hindered their performance? As in the students learned less effectively?

    Thom
    Thom
    4 years ago

    Again, I am astonished how we language teachers can be taking the side of “no skill but teaching” as a worthwhile aim. If you have to fake it until you make it as part of a growth experience, sure, no problem. There is probably no way around it. But why would we downplay the language side of things? Why diminish the importance of subject expertise? I have read some celebrity teacher (John Gatto) claim that you can become a surgeon in a couple of weeks. You do not need all the reading in biology, chemistry, anatomy, etc. to cut out… Read more »

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago
    Reply to  Thom

    If ‘sound judgement feeds on experience’ (and I wouldn’t disagree) doesn’t this mean that- all things being equal – the ideal teacher is a native speaker? Can you argue your way out of that?
    Or is this whole debate just an attempt to make the best out of a bad job (even literally) by calibrating a set of variables that are never ‘ideal’?

    Anthony Gaughan
    Anthony Gaughan
    4 years ago

    Yes Scott, this whole argument boils down to that conclusion – OTRE, I would prefer an NS teacher of any language I was learning and I see nothing controversial or flawed in that preference (just as were I learning calculus, OTRE I would prefer a calculus expert to you!). OTRE, better really is always better. But OTRE is a theoretical construct, and in reality it rarely if ever applies, so this preference of mine in theory cannot reasonably be my primary parameter in reality. . Language proficiency is just one of several parameters defining a good *language* teacher; whether you… Read more »

    IELTSTeacherMelanie
    2 years ago

    OTRE?

    Thom
    Thom
    4 years ago

    Hi Scott, if the things being equal refer to pedagogy, empathy, “world-knowledge”, and all the rest, and the only difference is the fact that one teacher has the language competence of an educated native and the other doesn’t, well yes of course the language competence makes the difference. Why would I want to argue this away? If I preferred a person simply on the basis of ethnicity or nationality, that is, in this case, I favor the non-native, wouldn’t I have to face the charge of discrimination as well? Having said this, in reality things can never be equal. The… Read more »

    Thom
    Thom
    4 years ago
    Reply to  Thom

    … and then of course, who am I telling this. You must have worked with more teachers, natives and all colors…than I have had students 🙂

    derekkeever
    4 years ago
    Reply to  Thom

    Hi Anthony, Nice to converse with you outside of your home turf. I think you make an interesting point when you view this from the learner’s perspective. In some (many?) places, it is the students that prefer native speakers, which makes it difficult to impossible for NNSTs to get teaching positions. This is no doubt influenced by the prevailing narrative that good teachers are native, that they look like western celebs (and the young, beautiful and upwardly mobile in coursebooks), and that NNSTs are in a privileged position to impart the culture and language. A more native model is also… Read more »

    peter
    peter
    4 years ago

    At university level, I only ever hire teachers who can satisfy these conditions (among various others, of course):

    1. They know how to analyse language structures.
    2. They can demonstrate the ability to teach well.
    3. They are native speakers in the language they teach.

    Your criteria may differ from mine, depending on your goals, the legal context in which you operate, the expectations (and indeed language ability) of your clientele etc.

    Gerhard Erasmus
    Gerhard Erasmus
    4 years ago
    Reply to  peter

    Don’t you think the term “native speaker” is problematic? How would you define it?

    Gerhard Erasmus
    Gerhard Erasmus
    4 years ago

    I’ll be able to agree or disagree (probably agree) if we can find an acceptable definition of what a native speaker is? The dictionary definition is utter rubbish. Until then we’re like drunk guys in a bar comparing kung fu and karate.
    Or better, once and for all move away from the term as it is heavily loaded.

    peter
    peter
    4 years ago

    There is actually no need for us to agree on one definition of what a native speaker is. Definitions are very rarely objective; they fit the context in which they are used or reflect the purposes of those using them. In my case that means something like socialised and educated in their L1 environment. If that doesn’t work for you, no problem.

    nicroseper
    4 years ago

    Depends how you define ‘proficient ‘ I suppose. Your comment seems to be incredibly prejudiced though. If TEA is really just a front for NS bashing, then I’m outta here.

    peter
    peter
    4 years ago
    Reply to  nicroseper

    Thi one’s for “marekkiczkowiak” who says ” By requiring the candidate to be a NS, it assumes that a NS is always better or more proficient, which I think is prejudiced.”

    Sorry, that’s muddled thinking. It does not assume that a native speaker is “always” better. I wouldn’t hire a native speaker with low native language competence.

    peter
    peter
    4 years ago

    At university level, I hire candidates based on three basic criteria (among others, of course):

    1. They understand language structure.
    2. They know how to teach well.
    3. They are native speakers.

    Your criteria may differ, of course, based on the institutional context, legal requirements, the needs and demands of your clientele, economic pressure etc.

    peter
    peter
    4 years ago

    Sorry for the double post. I thought the first one hadn’t gone through.

    Elizabeth Bekes
    Elizabeth Bekes
    4 years ago

    One of the best things that a “non” can do is to show her students that she is a good learner, who wants to become better at what she’s doing every day. I believe teachers can create better conditions for learning when they are in command of what is to be learnt. Pedagogical skills involve not just the technology but knowing the subject matter, too. This is something we would expect from any teacher, why would English teachers be an exception? True enough, about 85% of all English teachers (maybe more) don’t speak English as their first language. Whatever level… Read more »

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago

    Too many posts for me to respond to individually, so I’m just going to risk repetition by summarizing the main points of my argument against benchmarking an optimal level of language proficiency: 1. As far as I know, there is no research evidence to suggest that there is optimal level of proficiency for the teaching of a language (or of anything, for that matter), and the argument of ‘common sense’ doesn’t stand up against anecdotal evidence of effective teachers with relatively low levels of skill in their subject, or of virtuosi who were unable to teach the skill they were… Read more »

    Scott Thornbury
    4 years ago

    Thanks, Marek, for your comments – and for referring me to the research. (I had recently asked a ‘grey eminence’ in the field if he knew of any research that attempts to correlate language proficiency with teaching effectivness but he drew a blank – so it’s good to know that there is at least one study. But it sounds like an area that has been seriously under-researched). As for developing teachers’ language proficiency, of course – and maybe hand-in-hand with teaching ability, as Elizabeth Bekes suggests above. But, at the same time, teachers shouldn’t be penalized if their language proficiency… Read more »

    Debbie Lifschitz
    Debbie Lifschitz
    4 years ago

    According to Lee S. Shulman there are three knowledge areas for teachers: Content knowledge, Pedagogy of Content Knowledge, and General Pedagogy. The latter pertains to general knowledge of teaching, for example classroom discipline. Pedagogical content are those pedagogical questions that deal with the specific discipline. And content knowledge is the deep knowledge of the content being taught. Deep knowledge. There is no choice or priority here between these three areas (GP, PC, CK) they are each of primordial importance. The fact that some schools can’t find teachers who have all three qualities in whatever discipline,, doesn’t make the alternatives acceptable,… Read more »

    trackback

    […] Two days after Silvana Richardson's brilliant plenary: The Native factor (read more about it here), there was an equally fascinating Q&A session. However, since it was impossible to address all the questions posed by the audience then and there, Silvana and I decided we would continue the discussion on this blog. We gathered all the…  […]

    nickbilbrough
    4 years ago

    Hi Marek, With regard to your first question about how we define proficiency, one of the issues in my opinion is that proficiency for teachers is still defined in many contexts around the world with a behaviouristic mind set. Learners are increasingly being assessed in terms of fluency, but for teachers it’s often just all about how accurate they are. We champion communicative competence and embrace mistakes made by learners as a necessarily part of development, but if teachers make mistakes in their own use of language they are often regarded as incapable. This leads to teachers who are so… Read more »

    Lexical Leo
    4 years ago

    Just posted my thoughts on my blog:
    http://leoxicon.blogspot.com/2016/05/those-who-cant.html

    trackback

    […] Source: Proficiency: is there a minimum level for a language teacher? […]

    James
    James
    4 years ago

    I’m joining this discussion late and haven’t read all of the comment so apologies if I repeat points which have already been mentioned. 1) How do we define proficiency and how do we measure it? In TESOL, proficiency seems to be defined by the standard English ideology which is based on inner circle varieties of English. Perhaps in future, measurement of proficiency will move toward code-switching competence and English based on an ELF corpus (e.g. VOICE) rather than the current native speaker corpora, but this will depend on the predominant language needs of students around the world. 2) What is… Read more »

    trackback

    […] Proficiency: is there a minimum level for a language teacher? – read the questions, the comments (99 and still counting), and join the discussion here. […]

    Chayan
    Chayan
    4 years ago

    I have some colleagues who have gotten 5 or 5.5 in IELTS !?!?!?!? According to CEFR, 5 is B1! I personally think that they shouldn’t teach. How can you teach something that you don’t know?In the university that i work, some of the students have complained that they know English better than the teacher! ( we have A1, A2, B1 and B2 students)

    trackback

    […] of what terminology might take the place of native speaker: native-like, near-native and so on. Levels of language were also mentioned with some wondering if the industry could insist on recognised language levels […]

    trackback

    […] have a better linguistic competence than a native speaker, now the question is, how does this influence the teaching process? Non-native speakers actually underwent the learning process themselves and know what it is like to […]

    trackback

    […] Source: Proficiency: is there a minimum level for a language teacher? […]

    channamasala
    2 years ago

    “How do we define proficiency and how do we measure it?” I’d suggest a definition along the lines of “how well one uses the language skills and systems – reading/writing/speaking/listening via lexis/grammar/pronunciation/discourse to communicate accurately and fluently (without effort), and to what level of abstraction or complexity”. At least, although I haven’t looked up a definition, this seems to fit what the “best” proficiency tests measure. At least, that’s ideal. In the real world, many do often measure proficiency off of how close someone sounds to an Inner Circle native speaker. Of course, there is a point at which sounding… Read more »

    channamasala
    2 years ago

    I just realized how late I popped in here, but this just appeared on my Facebook feed, so…oh well

    nicroseper
    4 years ago

    My last teacher training project was in Jordan with state school English teachers. At some time in their past, they had done a degree in English. That was their qualification to be an English teacher. On the CEFR scale, the majority would be somewhere in B1, with those taking post-graduate courses moving into B2 and maybe C1 in some skills. How well they taught was less about their language proficiency and more about their understanding of the methodology and motivation to do a good job. I offer this for a number of reasons. Firstly, isn’t this ‘proficiency’ issue just another… Read more »

    Silvana Richardson (@laIoli)
    Reply to  nicroseper

    Thanks for your comment, NICROSCOPER.
    I’m not sure ‘the proficiency issue’ just another form of elitism. In my view it’s about being able to identify what knowledge, understanding and skills are needed for qualified and professional teachers of English to be able to teach students their subject in different contexts and for different purposes. It’s part of the exercise that every profession engages in in order to specify core competences.

    nicroseper
    4 years ago

    The aim of my original post was to point out that there are many many different contexts and conditions in which English is taught. Private language schools have drawn very narrow parameters around their definitions of what a teacher should be because they are run by business people and driven by sales. It is in this environment that ‘native speakerism’ is an issue that needs to be fought. In other environments it seems to be less of an issue and less of a reality (personal opinion, not based on research). Scott’s post from the Uraguay teacher resonated with me. This… Read more »

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