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:

    121 thoughts on “Proficiency: is there a minimum level for a language teacher?”

    1. 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 that my classmates would be at the same level of understanding as me. We all passed that class. But I am far from a qualified teacher of programming.

      Another perspective— a elementary school math teacher does not need to be proficient in calculus, or even algebra or geometry. But knowing how the children will apply these fundamentals in high levels of math give the teacher an appreciation of what and how they are teaching.

      Now as a native speaker of English who teaches all levels, I cannot imagine teaching the tenses to a beginning student, without understanding how fundamental the structures are to later, more complex grammar topics (such as conditionals).

      A teacher can be anyone who is capable of sharing their experience and knowledge, regardless of their proficiency. However, in the business of TEFL, a paid teacher should be qualified and have a mastery of the language.

      1. 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?

        1. 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 the field than “one step ahead” of the students.

          1. 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 and motivations he is able to keep the class on track, such that they all end up taking a package holiday to Venice together and just about manage to make themselves understood. The film is a joyous vindication of ‘comity’ and the power of collaborative learning – not to mention the maximum use of minimal materials.

            1. 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.

      2. 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.

    2. 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 of teaching German to this level, as my German is far from perfect.

      And I think it’s better to consider people on an individual basis. I know two people who have the Cambridge Proficiency certificate and you would think that means their English is pretty much perfect, yet they make mistakes in every other sentence. Is that important? It’s only important if I want them to teach proficiency level, but if not then it probably doesn’t really matter.

      1. 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.

        1. 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

          1. 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…)?

            1. 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 🙂

    3. 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 form of elitism. If we are going to define some form of proficiency, surely it needs to be in a range if skills that enable good teaching – an understanding of how to motivate learners and develop successful learning techniques, for example. (I decided not to go on with that list, it’s too long).

      Secondly, I get the feeling that a lot of people involved in this discussion and this issue work in private language schools. This is a very specific area of language learning, only for those who can afford it.

      The majority of language learners in the world are doing so under very different circumstances.

      1. 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.

        1. And perhaps the appropriate proficiency level (if such exists) would differe depending on a number of factors, such as sts level, teaching context, type of English taught (Business, EAP)?
          I also agree with Nic that we shouldn’t get to obsessed with proficiency and that there are other important skills we should take into account when assessing teachers. I see the issue of proficiency, though, as a positive step forward in order to move away from the NS fallacy. With the latter, any NNS is forever seen as inferior as you can’t really become a NS. With proficiency, it is something that can be learned and achieved. I agree that for some, it might be more difficult than for others, but it’s not an impossible proposition to ask teachers to work on their proficiency as we’d ask them to work on their knowledge of methodology, for example. What do you think?

          1. 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 is the reality in many parts of the world. Better to take the teachers you can get than no teacher at all. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve standards but as one of the threads has been arguing, which is more valuable language proficiency or teaching skills. I believe, in the environment of state school English teachers, in a lot of countries, knowing how to teach well will bring more benefits to learners than a high level of English. I also feel that this approach, i.e. focusing on ability to teach instead of language level, is one way to solve the dichotomy that is central to this discussion. If we agree that being a NS is not a criteria for being a good teacher but having teaching qualifications and experience is, won’t this help to recalibrate how the private language school sector recruits it’s teachers?

            1. Very good point. I agree with you that native speakerism is really only an issue in the private sector in language schools (in some countries also in universities). As you point out, state schools are usually free of it, perhaps because in many countries you can’t get a job unless you have the local teaching qualification necessary to teach (usually a BA or an MA). So 90% of teachers are locals.
              Yes, I like the focus on teaching skills. It takes us away from the obsession with native-like proficiency, which I think ELT (especially private sector) is still very much locked in.

    4. 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 to develop further.

      1. 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 a much lower language requirement. If I’m not wrong, I think the Cambridge ICELT might be something similar. Perhaps what we need for the ELT community to become more aware of qualifications like these so that teachers with a B1-B2 level can get a recognised qualification and it can have the same level of prestige as say a CELTA or Cert.

    5. “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 what, in 1818, the French schoolteacher Joseph Jacotot did when he developed an innovative method of teaching Flemish (of which he spoke not a word) by basing the whole course on one (bilingual) text, Fenelon’s Télémaque (1699). It is also the principle underlying ‘minimally invasive teaching’ as advocated by Sugata Mitra. Thus, I could teach calculus or lip-reading (neither of which I know anything about), if I were able to use the resources available online to set up and monitor appropriate pedagogical tasks.

      I think a more important question to be asked is: to what extent should the teacher be a speaker of the LEARNER’S L1?

      1. 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.

      2. 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 …
        -know if both the content and the tasks offer the right level of challenge for each of your learners, and address their learning needs?
        -be able to assess whether what your learners are producing is correct, accurate, appropriate, etc., and make adequate pedagogical adjustments if necessary?
        – what feedback to give them to address partially understood or misunderstood content, and to help them improve and achieve more?
        Are those not key aspects of teaching?

        1. 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 of us who’ve studied at uni and were lucky enough to do CELTA, DELTA etc, we think teachers should have a better command of the langauge (But it costs a lot of money and u can’t get it everywhere)… Think about rural areas or remote places.. so I do think that a B1 teacher is better than no teacher at all, especially if s/he is aware of his/her limitations, and looks for other models, tries to improve his/her pron, etc… students if motivated, if interested, could even develop a better command than the teacher.

          1. Elizabeth Bekes

            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 English was uttered to the 120 students present.

            As a teacher trainer, I always use my sessions both for methodology / didactics and language improvement. It is never about how to teach – I run my sessions as a series of activities that almost always have implicit language proficiency points.

            This is why I am often aiming for the 360 degree treatment. In Ethiopia, thanks to a co-volunteer, we had enough copies of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner to start a Reading Club for English teachers. They read a chapter week by week, had a quiz on the content, made drawings that depicted the most tumultuous moments of Afghanistan’s history and debated the issues brought up by the storyline including the extremely sensitive topic of male rape. In the second half of each session, we listened to Khaled Hosseini reading his own book on an audio CD. At the end of the semester, we watched the picture and argued about the merits of each genre: book vs. film adaptation. I do acknowledge that this is not exactly a “low resource” situation, since getting the books, the audio CD and the DVD required time, patience and money. But I took my colleagues on a journey, and the urge to share and discuss was so strong that it pushed them to the limits of there proficiency and beyond. It was left to each of them to decide on the power of group work, plenary discussions, quizzes, and the use of authentic materials…

            What I’m trying to say is that teacher training and language proficiency should go hand in hand. I can’t much see the point of doing the former in L1, because the best way of learning is by doing. So, perhaps, there isn’t such a chasm (and difference in time and outcomes) between the two and rather than going for the quick fix we should go for the relatively quick fix that combines teachers acquiring improved methodology AND higher levels of language skills.

            1. “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.

    6. 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 fact non- native teachers in these contexts are in my opinion usually the best models of English for their learners. They tend to speak a variety of English which is closer to that of the learners and therefore more attainable, and they are also models of good language learning since they have gone through the same process that the learners are trying to achieve.

      1. 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.

        1. This is a very important point. And the funny thing is that no matter how proficient you get as a NNS, you’re still very likely to feel inferior. It’s actually been given different names: ‘schizophrenic teacher’ (Medgyes, 1983); ‘impostor syndrome’ (Bernat, 2008) – available here:; ‘Stockholm syndrome’ (Llurda, 2009).
          So perhaps as Nick points out, the issue isn’t so much trying to push for a higher proficiency level, but rather empowering NNS and increasing their self-confidence?

          1. Elizabeth Bekes

            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 Franca…

            (A Hungarian English teacher who taught English in Ethiopia and was able to understand some of the problems her Amharic speaking colleagues had with English not because of speaking Amharic, but because Amharic and Hungarian have some common grammatical features.)

            1. I agree – there are other things that can empower us as teachers aside from proficiency. But tell it to the NNEST teachers who feel like ‘impostors’. Sometimes I feel like a psychologist – I’ve had quite a lot of chats with NNESTs who despite their complete proficiency still felt like their lg skills were inadequate. Difficult to persuade them otherwise, but I did try (using similar arguments to the ones you used above).

            2. I suppose so, yes. I wouldn’t say C2 is impossible, though. It might not be appropriate in certain context, where teachers don’t have the resources to reach that level. It might also be slightly unrealistic. We also need a different model of proficiency which isn’t pegged to the idealised NS model.

    7. 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 kind of balance.

    8. 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 too many mistakes.) And also it would affect the students’ input since many rely on the teacher as the source of input. Third, a teacher of English is probably going to teach through out their lives, so why not get really good at it? And if we tell our learners that they can DO it, shouldn’t we DO it? I think there’s no excuse to not develop as a teacher.

      As for the accent, we all agree that what matters is an intelligible accent, so I think teachers should work on their pronunciation to be able develop the students’.

      What I tried to comment about was mainly the language ability; not the pedagogical ability.

      1. I think you’ve made an important point there, Ahmad. As a teacher, you can be a successful example of a language learner. Very motivating for students. But then again, if you have elementary sts in primary skills, do you need the teacher to be at C2 level? I’d say what’s much more important there is teaching ability.
        I do agree with you, though, that as a language teacher you should try to develop professionally and if proficiency is your weakness, then try to improve it. Having said that, for some teachers in remote regions, villages, who don’t have access to latest technology, books or TV in English, it might be difficult. So I wouldn’t necessarily disqualify a teacher who’s got low proficiency, but excellent pedagogical skills, great rapport with leaners, etc.

    9. 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 necessary to pass.

    10. 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.

      1. Very good point, Scott. If you look at job ads, especially in the EU, NS only is being replaced with NS-like or NS-level, which is of course a way of keeping the old recruitment policies while still complying with EU law (illegal to advertise for NS).
        With all its shortcomings, it would be much better if this was replaced with a level on CEFR, e.g. C1. At least it’s something you can achieve. Mind you, I’d also require NS to take a test to prove their proficiency level.

        1. Good point. On 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.

    11. 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.

      1. Gerhard Erasmus

        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 of a bigger skill set and start analyzing exactly what it is that proficiency or knowledge of the L1 of learners bring to the classroom. Swan’s “Learner English” would be a good starting point only if teachers who do not share the L1 of their learners actually know what they are looking for. It’s a very complex issue that seems to be manipulated through a power struggle between many parties who have forgotten the learners in the equation. A good start I think would be to divide proficiency into user and analyst. And by analyst i mean a teacher who can make informed choices about what to teach based on age, level, frequency etc. Now the question for me is, how much of a proficient user do you need to be for me to teach you that. In my experience, for teaching yls in elementary school, strong A2 or B1 is sufficient. But then we need to get the whole world to stop thinking about language in terms of error. It is however a very solid point and I’m leaning strongly towards the 20 hours option being much better. And consistent exposure to 10 20 hours courses will inevitably have an effect on language proficiency.

      2. 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?

      3. 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.

    12. 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 no Spanish, for example. I could easily go on the internet and find some materials to build a syllabus for someone wanting to learn Spanish. I could easily create a lesson with tasks that encourage communication in the new language. But what would I do at the point of a breakdown in communication? I would be entirely at the mercy of the prepared materials. How would I recognize errors in use and be able to offer more appropriate ways of saying the same thing? Incidentally, with self-taught learners, this is where they might use proficient users of the language to give them feedback and input. If we accept that feedback and input at the point of need are important (and maybe they’re not), then the teacher has to be able to offer that. So the question becomes at what level of language ability (in relation to the learners, perhaps) is the teacher able to competently do that task.

      A few people on this thread have been comparing teaching English to knowledge-based subjects, but that’s not an accurate comparison. Speaking a language is a skill, so the idea of the teacher having knowledge one step ahead of their student is not an accurate portrayal. An A2 level speaker or English may “know” the present perfect, but they will almost certainly make lots of mistakes when using it. In that sense, it might be like learning a guitar from someone who usually makes a mistake when playing the target song. That, of course, doesn’t mean that the students can’t learn the song, but as said earlier, you then have to question what value the teacher is adding and how much the students are merely teaching themselves.

      1. Hi Joe,
        Thanks for commenting. Some very interesting points. I agree that feedback and input are important, though, mind you, the latter can be obtained without a teacher (internet, recordings, books, etc.). To give good feedback, I’d thing you’d need more than just proficiency – you’d need language awareness.
        I think one thing that a teacher can add to sts learning outcomes is to show them how to learn. Most sts aren’t that great at learning lgs, and despite the abundance of free materials on the internet, they don’t seem to succeed, so they come to us, teachers. A teacher can also choose appropriate materials and teaching approach to fit the students and maximise their learning. And for that you’ll need pedagogical knowledge. Of course, you could just put a proficient speaker in the classroom to do conversation classes, but that wouldn’t be teaching. Would this person know how, when and what feedback to give? I doubt it, unless they have some pedagogical training or experience. Equally, as you point out, someone with very low proficiency, but high pedagogical training mightn’t succeed either. On reflection, though, if I had to choose, I’d prefer the latter teacher. If I want a conversation partner, I’ll do a free language exchange. Or talk to people down the pub.
        Ideally, you’d want somebody who’s highly proficient and who has teaching skills, but most of the time this isn’t possible.

    13. 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 the start of their career, could claim to be fully proficient in all three categories. ‘Native speakers’ are famously deficient in the first, for example. But, of all three, perhaps the most important is ‘teaching ability’, because this can be deployed to compensate for weaknesses in the other areas. Thus, a teacher who has little or no grammatical knowledge, but is a proficient user of the language, can adopt an approach which requires no explicit teaching of grammar, but simply involves learners interacting with her and with each other. On the other hand, a teacher who has only rudimentary speaking skills in the language can adopt an approach which does not require her to be a model and/or one that is more rule-based and deductive. And, theoretically, as I pointed out before, it might be possible for a teacher to have no knowledge in one area but such superb teaching skills that it didn’t matter.

      Hence, any discussion about the optimal level of (spoken and written) English that a teacher needs must take into account their capacities in the other two areas (not to mention other context factors such as the age, level, needs, educational background, expectations, etc of the learners).

      And, from a training point of view, there is probably more mileage to be had in developing the teacher’s teaching skills in order to make the best use of her knowledge and ability of English, rather than improving her language skills, which everyone knows is a long, hard slog.

      That is the pedagogical argument. The moral argument, if you like, why I find the question unhelpful, is that any measure of a teacher’s language proficiency is going to involve benchmarking her against a native speaker standard. Trying to avoid this by defining the optimum level in terms of appropriacy (e.g. The teacher’s level of English is appropriate to the needs of her learners) is too vague and begs too many questions.

      1. Gerhard Erasmus

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

        1. 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]).

      2. 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!

        1. Perhaps you’ve identified the elephant in the room, Silvana. Maybe we should talk more whether the 4-week prep model is adequate (probably isn’t), and how we could improve it.

          1. 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.

    14. 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 their pedagogical content knowledge. The most efficient way to improve results of classroom-based SLA is to invest in good teacher training.

    15. 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 counter-intuitive to say that we shouldn’t insist on carefully defining the required level of language proficiency needed by NNESTs, and it’s easy to say things like you’d expect your piano teacher to be good at playing the piano and other appealing red herrings, but I think Scott is doing a good job of making the reasonable case that we should be very careful in deciding how to judge language proficiency, that we should not exaggerate its importance, and that we should give much more weight to the criterion of pedagogical content knowledge.

    16. 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. 😉

    17. 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 declaration. Students will pick up more things from observing than by, let’s say, copying from the board.

    18. 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.

        1. 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”.

    19. 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 lessons, analysed texts and created lessons. Yes, the students probably knew more than me but they learned and passed the test.

      With this in mind, I could probably have a decent stab at teaching Klingon if I got some examples. As long as you have specific frames or limits and measurable objectives, you should be OK. Opening up Q&As and being asked for error correction and examples can spell trouble.

      Very good examples are when I see ‘student’ English teachers delivering lessons prepared for them as teachers are absent or unavailable. The student goes through the steps, students follow and there is some learning. Not ideal but still maybe better than a newly or unqualified teacher AND the L1 conversation, support, discussions etc are more comfortable, imo, for most learners.

      From what else I’ve seen, perhaps we are just discussing 2 types of teachers in schools. Maybe you have seen this too where there are lower English level and teaching experienced teachers working with kids and higher ones with adults. There’s nothing wrong with either.

      We can continue arguing the ‘subject expert vs. teaching expert’ issue. I am firmly for the latter but I have realised that now I have maybe made my teaching a subject so I can teach that, as I did last term. The majority of my colleagues are subject specialists but they can teach too. How you define ‘teach’ is up to you though. It differs widely and if anyone has a good definition of it, I’d like to know. Personally I prefer to focus on learning though most of my students just want to pass tests. Not learn, not revise, just pass and that means finishing the course.From that perspective, uni is just a series of tests to get through. If the subject specialist is better at aiding in that or the teaching expert, I’m not sure.

    20. 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?

      1. 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:)).

        1. I can, Thom: Mourinho 🙂 Being a skilled lg learner certainly helps, but it doesn’t guarantee being a good teacher. You can also be a good teacher without being a skilled language learner (or at least without being completely proficient in a foreign language).
          Re studies on proficiency level and performance, see Richards, H., Conway, C., Roskvist, A., & Harvey, S. (2013). Foreign Language Teachers’ Language Proficiency and Their Language Teaching Practice. Language Learning Journal, 41(2), 231–246. They studied teachers of different foreign lgs in New Zealand. They’ve concluded that low proficiency in the target language did hinder teachers’ performance in class.

          1. 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?)

          2. 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?

            1. Unfortunately 🙁 And the worst thing about it is that the authors don’t get even a penny out of it. All goes to the journal’s pocket…
              Richards et al. looked at how effective teachers were based on seven criteria derived from Richards and Farrell (2007) and supported by many others:
              (1) exploitation of target language resources,
              (2) provision of appropriate language models,
              (3) provision of corrective feedback,
              (4) use of the TL to manage the class,
              (5) provision of accurate explanations,
              (6) provision of rich language input and
              (7) ability to improvise.
              Their conclusion was: “teachers with low-level TL proficiency were able carry out some aspects of effective language teaching [as defined by Farrell and Richards, 2007]. However, teachers need to have an advanced level of TL proficiency so they can also provide meaningful explanations, rich language input for learners and respond spontaneously and knowledgeably to their learners’ questions on language and culture. Teachers also need an advanced level of proficiency in order to take learners beyond the beginner level of study.”
              The main shortcoming of the study is a very small sample (7 teachers). However, they used observations, which I think is a big advantage over other studies which sample larger groups through questionnaires, but rely on teacher’s self-assessment of their effectiveness.

    21. Debbie Lifschitz

      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 the text-book, but will they be able to explain where a student went wrong on solving a math problem? Will they be able to explain why homeostasis is important and know all the biology involved when a student asks? Will they be able to spot a grammar mistake and explain why it’s a mistake? And if not, why is this not important?
      It seems to me that the question is not merely whether a teacher with limited knowledge can teach, but what is the learner learning? Can “deep” learning (understanding) take place with such a minimalistic approach to teaching?
      Haven’t we just exchanged a imperialistic view of “proficiency” with an imperialistic attitude that learners don’t really need good teachers?

      1. 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 good teacher, as is often the case in the private sector. In short, there is more to teaching than simply intuitive (read native or native-like) knowledge. To argue otherwise is to assert native-like standards over non-native ones, and, ultimately, to privilege native speaker teachers.

        1. 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 I like it). You relate the acquisition of teaching skills to language skills in a ratio of 20 to 200. If this is correct than the value of proficiency, if anything, goes up. Finding a teacher that has the teaching skill AND the proficiency is a neat thing, as it is more likely to find teachers with poor language skills that got trained to teach well.

    22. 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 a rotten tonsil. Is it a sign of ignorance to judge something complex simple?

      Let me take another illustration. Anybody can teach chess studying the rules for 15 minutes (oh dear, that’s what my language students hope for). But what happens when I am asked to predict an outcome for a given board position? Grandmasters can do this because they fall back on thousands of stored patterns. They can make sense of actual games. Similarly, in undergrad school we were asked to identify good poetry by picking our samples from a pile of anonymous poems. We failed miserably. We could spell and maybe define what a conditional was (although I had not heard the term until I started teaching) but we had no idea what good poetry sounded like. I was told at the time, that sound judgment feeds on experience. You must have read tons of poetry to detect the good stuff.

      1. 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’?

        1. Anthony Gaughan

          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 allow it to be your prime concern says something about your view of how reality works.

        2. 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 fact that the non-native’s point of reference is English as a learned language biases his or her teaching. It is common for individuals to follow their own implicit learning path. The grammar syllabus still reigns because non native teachers have been raised on it. I have observed non natives calling natives to attention when using English ungrammatically. Students, where I live, often prefer the local teacher over the gringo, as local teachers understand the difficulties of learning a foreign language, as local teachers “teach better because they correct my grammar mistakes”, etc. In fact, the backpacking TEFL teacher hardly competes with the locally trained language teacher—the former’s reputation is too bad.

          1. … 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 🙂

          2. 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 seen as preferable to those who are sitting standardized proficiency exams like IELTS or Toefl– these are high stakes tests and the key to unlocking many of their future plans.

            But, yes, I would agree, as Scott has eloquently stated below, that language proficiency is only of several parameters defining a good teacher. To his list, if it is not assumed, i would add the ability to relate to and connect with learners, and perhaps other colleagues in the field.

    23. 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.

      1. Gerhard Erasmus

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

          1. Gerhard Erasmus

            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.

            1. 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.

          2. 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.

            1. Hi Nic,
              Apologies if you took my comment as bashing NS or as prejudiced. It wasn’t meant like that. What I was trying to say is that being a NS isn’t a guarantee of proficiency or of teaching skills (as it has often been assumed). If we really care about equality and professionalism in ELT, then we need to go beyond the prejudices and stereotypes, and give equal opportunities to all candidates, which Peter’s recruitment policy does not. By requiring the candidate to be a NS, it assumes that a NS is always better or more proficient, which I think is prejudiced.

            2. 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.

    24. 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.

      1. No worries! 🙂
        Just to reply to your comment above. I don’t think it’s muddled thinking. By ‘always’ I meant ‘always in your teaching context’. If you don’t assume they are better than NS in terms of lg proficiency, then why not give a NNS who can demonstrate high proficiency a chance?

    25. Elizabeth Bekes

      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 they start from, they probably want to improve and the best way for them to learn is to teach. I don’t measure myself against native speakers; I take pride in being a lifelong learner of English instead (how sad is that, Scott would say). We have a built-in, natural urge to do things better through practice and experience: it’s a challenge that human beings cherish. Let alone the fact that in low resource classrooms the teacher is the main input and she cannot outsource the learning process to what is available on the internet. There are so many qualities we expect from a good teacher: empathy, sensitivity, creativity, classroom management skills, fairness, patience and a sense of humour. That lady will want to speak good English, too.

    26. 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 acclaimed for;
      2. Effective teaching involves the interaction of a number of factors, of which language proficiency is just one, while a deficit in one area (e.g. language proficiency) may be compensated for in another (e.g. language awareness, or teaching ability).
      3. Any attempt to fix an optimal level of proficiency is likely to invoke native speaker standards (e.g. “native-like accuracy or fluency”), which (re-)asserts the hegemony of native speakerism, leading to the view that, all things being equal, a native speaker teacher would be best;
      4. In an ideal world all teachers should be proficient in the target language, but we don’t live in an ideal world, and the vast majority of teachers in the public sector would be disenfranchised by the arbitrary setting of difficult to achieve benchmarks.
      5. If resources are to be spent on raising standards, there is more ‘bang for the buck’ in improving teaching skills than in attempting to make significant changes to teachers’ proficiency levels.
      6. The motives of those who set benchmarks are not always disinterested – there is money to be made, for instance, from language courses for teachers.
      7. Ultimately, teaching is locally situated and contextually adaptive, and arbitrating generally as to what teachers should or should not be able to do ignores these particularities.

      1. Great comment, Scott. Thanks for that. Lots of important points.
        1. See Richards, H., Conway, C., Roskvist, A., & Harvey, S. (2013). Foreign Language Teachers’ Language Proficiency and Their Language Teaching Practice. Language Learning Journal, 41(2), 231–246. They studied teachers of different foreign lgs in New Zealand. They’ve concluded that low proficiency in the target language did hinder teachers’ performance in class. Admittedly, small sample and the choice of good teaching principles could be contested. But interesting attempt to scientifically approach the topic we’re discussing here.
        2. Totally agree. It’s not right that in ELT we accept teachers with next to know language awareness, but expect other to be at C1 or C2 level. We need a more sensible approach that would take into account the different variables.
        3. Could we come up with a new proficiency model that doesn’t invoke NS norm? Perhaps it’s something we really need now. Most leaners aren’t learning English to interact with NS as their primary aim. Have you read this? Davies, A. (2011). Does Language Testing Need the Native Speaker? Language Assessment Quarterly, 8(3), 291–308.
        4. Yes, but shouldn’t we as teachers strive to develop professionally? If lg proficiency is one of your weaknesses, then you should perhaps aim to improve in this area, no? Unless, of course, there aren’t resources available to you, or there are more pressing weaknesses to tackle.
        5. You’re right here, but I feel a bit uneasy about not trying to improve proficiency of teachers.
        6. Absolutely, but in ELT we’ve been ignoring these particularities for the last few decades. If teaching is locally situated, then a global teaching qualification such as CELTA is based on a false premise: training teachers to be able to teach globally. So is the global course book. And the search for the ‘right’ teaching method.
        Thanks again for commenting.

        1. 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 develops only slowly. That is the nature of the beast. Ministeries in particular seem to have a skewed idea of how long it takes to work your way up the CEFR ladder, assuming that a two-week summer course in the UK is going to precipitate you from A2 to C1!

          1. You’re welcome. I’ll see if I can dig out any more studies into this. Part of my PhD thesis and research is on effective teaching, so there must be more on proficiency and effectiveness in class. Of course, the problem here is how we define effective teaching…
            That’s very true. Imagine if we required teachers to have C2 in language awareness. We’d run out of teachers tomorrow.

      2. Debbie Lifschitz

        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, satisfactory or good. The lack of proficiency of a teacher who may know HOW to teach English (Pedagogy of content) does not make a good teacher. It makes a “that’s -all- that’s -available” teacher. But let us not raise such a compromise to the level of “good”.
        Nor do we need to prefer NS to NNS. I find that they each bring different strengths to language teaching. The NNS have a instinctive understanding of the REASON for many mistakes that their learners make. They are also better at choosing level appropriate texts. NS have other strengths, like rich word knowledge. Pairing NS and .NNS is a winning formula, and we have many public schools that have such pairings. With experience, the differences between good NS and good NNS teachers almost entirely disappear.
        Obviously, the stronger the tertiary education of a country is the higher the required standards of language skills of teacher trainees. Where I live, a teaching certificate in the 50s and 60s was a two year degree. Then it became a three year degree, and today the basic requirement of a teacher (in any subject) is either a 3 year BA in subject matter plus a two year teaching degree; or a four year B.Ed. degree (with subject matter embedded). Teachers cannot become tenured without the required certification. And despite these requirements, the periphery often lacks fully trained teachers with attendant over-all poorer results or lower results of learners on national matriculation exams. I do not believe (and forgive my pessimism) that we will ever achieve 100% coverage in this country or globally, although, to quote Shakespeare “it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
        In certain countries, the conditions may not allow for good teacher-training. But that does not make these teachers models of good language teaching. It may make them the best the country has to offer. I think the distinctions between what proficiency should be, and what proficiency IS in certain localities needs to be maintained. Local conditions are not arguments for changing what Lee S. Shulman has taught us about teacher training, and in English,
        Content Knowledge means deep language knowledge and language proficiency.

    27. Pingback: Proficiency: is there a minimum level for a lan...

    28. 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 to suggest that those who need/want native speakers apply no other relevant criteria when hiring teachers, perhaps even implying that the recruiting policy is unprofessional – or worse, immoral. I would strongly take exception to such a claim.

      Finally, where is the problem with “difficult to achieve benchmarks”? Don’t we all want the best teachers we can get (whatever your definition of “the best” entails)?

      1. 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 American or British people. For all intents and purposes, they are identical in their English usage to native speakers, but because of an accident of birth, they wouldn’t be qualified to teach in some schools because of where their birth certificate was printed.

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

    29. Apologies for not joining the discussion earlier. I must say I never expected this post would cause so many comments. Great discussion, but I feel we’ve not answered some of the other questions, especially:
      1. How do we define proficiency and how do we measure it? (perhaps without referring to an idealised NS proficiency as most exams do now).
      Also, should NS also take proficiency tests? Why (not)? At the moment, a NNS always has to prove their good enough to be considered a teacher, while a NS is assumed to be fully proficient in the language.
      Finally, How important is being bi or multilingual for an English teacher?
      Would love to hear your thoughts 🙂

      1. 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 worried about this that they play safe when they are teaching and use overly simple language, rather than pushing the class to cope with more challenging input. Worse still they may end up not using English at all for classroom language and instructions, thereby robbing the class of more opportunities to experience English being used communicatively.

        1. Good point. It’s interesting, right, that if as a teacher you make a mistake in lg use, you’re judged incapable. Lots of NNS fear it. But if we were so critical of mistakes teachers make with class management, board work, instruction giving, or any other aspect of teaching skill, we’d have to fire 99% of teachers. There seems to be a huge obsession with being completely proficient, but we tend to be much more lenient in terms of teaching skills or lg awareness.
          A larger issue I see is that proficiency is still defined in terms of (in)conformity with an idealised NS model. If you look at CEFR, you’ll find lots of examples

    30. 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 may have achieved on whatever kind of proficiency test). Moreover, if a candidate speaks with a pronounced local dialect, e.g. a thick Scottish brogue, I would expect him/her to be able to tone it down while teaching.

      On the issue of multilingualism, I don’t think it is “important” per se, but it can certainly help understand and anticipate the kinds of interference issues, false friends etc. learners might encounter on their individual journeys towards proficiency.

      1. 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?

      2. Elizabeth Bekes

        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 the schizophrenic attitude of the NNSs, who consistently suffer from an inferiority complex even if they are what Penny Ur calls “highly proficient and (pedagogically)competent users of L2″…

        1. 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 they know it brings students in who buy into the idea of studying with a native speaker.

          Silvana mentioned a few other attributes that students consider more important in a good teacher. What I think she failed to recognise is that in some contexts, the assumption is that a native speaker is synonymous with those attributes. The customer may think that the native speaker is by definition more of an expert than a non-native speaker. This was certainly the case in my last role, where the impression I got from students was not only that the local teachers weren’t proficient enough in the language, but their methodology was also lacking. Now that might be the case, or it might just be that trying to teach a class of 50 disinterested kids in an ill equipped classroom, with little preparation time, and an aim of passing a badly-designed multiple choice exam, is harder and less engaging than teaching 12 engaged students in a specially designed language classroom where the aim is to improve communication skills. Either way, it wouldn’t be hard to see where students with experience of both systems would get their ideas about native teacher superiority in more than just language proficiency.

        2. Debbie Lifschitz

          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, NS have a head-start in skills, but they often haven’t the faintest clue about grammar (NNS do!!) and they all learn subjects like linguistics, and psycho linguistics together. Results on course exams are not related to being a NS or NNS.
          Last year, the two students who got in the 90s in my pedagogy class were both NNS!!!! And that included the ability to express their pedagogical thinking cogently.

    31. 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 which are all but impossible to attain for an L2 at this level of ability. And no, I will certainly not convince them to focus on communicative ability instead, as they are very experienced language learners and quite capable of setting their goals and formulating their own wishes.

      Anyway, I’m leaving this discussion for now. Have fun!

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    33. 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 a minimum proficiency level for a teacher? Why?
      It depends on the needs analysis and the context. If the students need to learn linguistic theory, proficiency isn’t likely to be an issue, but if the students need to fine-tune their conversational skills in one-to-one lessons (e.g. in a business context), then the teacher’s proficiency is going to be far more important.

      3) Should NS also take proficiency tests? Why (not)?
      If we say yes, we may open a can of worms because the issue of language variety elitism enters the discussion. For instance, should a NS teacher from Chile be asked to pass a proficiency test based on European Spanish? And in the case of English, how would an Australian teacher feel about sitting a proficiency based on British English? In both cases, I imagine it could generate a sense of neo-colonialism, so if we are to argue that NS teachers should sit proficiency tests, the tests would have to be designed carefully.

      4) Should there be a difference between hiring a NNEST with a strong L1 accent and one with a neutral accent?
      If there is a difference, then there will be a difference. That is to say, if the accent of a teacher is a requisite for a position such as to teach a pronunciation course and an applicant has an accent which affects their intelligibility, then there will be a difference in who is selected for employment.

      5) How important is being bi or multilingual for an English teacher?
      As for the response to Question 1) above, it depends on the needs analysis and on contextual exigencies. If the learners all share an L1 and are likely to codeswitch/use both the L1 and L2 in future linguistically interactive circumstances, then they are likely to benefit from a bilingual teacher. In contrast, if the learner group is multilingual and they will be using English largely mono-lingually, finding a teacher who can speak each of the students’ languages would be very difficult and probably unnecessary.

    34. Pingback: What can we do to promote equal professional opportunities for NS and NNS in ELT? How can I get involved? – TEFL Equity Advocates

    35. 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)

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    39. 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 don’t know anything beyond the book they use in class. That doesn’t seem right at all but it happens when teachers know “just that much”. Plus, can we even imagine this kind of teacher communicating in class? The students copying wrong grammar and pronunciation?
      Another thing to consider here, I believe, is that students deserve to have a teacher to look up to, a role model, in a way. Even if they are elementary or beginner level, they can differentiate between professionalism or lack of it. I remember myself back at university, my teachers were exceptionally good and I remember thinking “if they’ve managed to reach that level of proficiency, probably, I can too”. So, as I see it, even though “one step ahead” teaching might work short-term in certain situations (like in the example above with peer teaching in a programming class), it definitely can’t be the norm, if it is, it means the job of a teacher has lost its value.

    40. “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 too far from the most common international norms of English (which are all Inner Circle and yes, there is obviously a racial/cultural imperialistic reason for that) will make you genuinely incomprehensible to enough other native speakers that it’s a problem. But, rather as we define intelligibility between dialects and where that line is to be contextual, based on the dialects in question *as they relate to each other* and not by some overarching definitive standard, we can also rate proficiency in non-Inner Circle varieties of English based on how well that person can communicate *in the contexts they will have to communicate in*. If someone speaks, for example, an idiolect of Singlish that is comprehensible to other Singaporeans, and doesn’t have to use it more widely, I think we can define that person’s proficiency in context as being satisfactory. But, if that same person does want or need to communicate more widely, that will be a problem.

      (As for what to do about the problems of Inner Circle Englishes being the most widely comprehended varieties, I have no idea. I’ve thought a lot about it but I have no good suggestions.)

      “What is a minimum proficiency level for a teacher? Why?”

      That too is highly contextual and has been written about a lot, with the general consensus I’ve seen in such debates being that the speaker should be able to teach, with no extra language effort, the level they are being asked to (there will almost certainly be pedagogical effort and metalinguistic effort – e.g. learning how to teach and brushing up on the metalanguage of teaching and learning – but the language itself they are being asked to teach should be well within their grasp). So if the teacher is being asked to teach ABCs and basic phrases and words, I see no reason why they’d need to be, say, a CEFR C2 or IELTS 8 or 9. But if they are being asked to teach academic writing or business English, they will need to be at that level as well as have a strong grasp of the kind of English they are being asked to teach – e.g. they should at least be good academic writers themselves within the conventions of the writing they are being asked to teach, although they might have to brush up on the pedagogical skills of delivering that knowledge before actually beginning work. Many native speakers would actually not be qualified for this (“native” – however you define it – does not necessarily correlate to “highly proficient”. We all learn an L1 but not everyone learns it to the same level of proficiency.)

      If I were to offer a base level proficiency, I’d say maybe B1: lower than that and while you may know the basics, you likely still struggle with pronunciation issues, and may struggle with the metalanguage of teaching. But, at B1 level, you won’t have a wide range of classes you are qualified to teach (in my opinion – this is all me, not the literature): probably A0 (true beginners), false beginners and A1 only.

      In my experience as a teacher trainer – again all very subjective – a good proficiency level to have is at least 2 IELTS bands up from what you are teaching. (Using IELTS as a measure because I know a lot about it, so I just picked something I’m familiar with).

      “Should NS also take proficiency tests? Why (not)?”

      I can see the benefit of that. As above, not every native speaker masters their L1 to the same proficiency level (and there is corroboration of this in the literature). A native speaker might be a terrible writer, or have unclear pronunciation or not really be able to express complex thoughts clearly. I would not want to see, say, Sarah Palin or Donald Trump teaching English to anyone. Not every native speaker gets a perfect IELTS 9, for example (though it’s rare that a native speaker would even take the test, I’ve met a few.) I highly doubt it is practical to implement, and while I believe strongly that schools, not pre-service teachers, should bear the cost of this, we all know they won’t.

      “Should there be a difference between hiring a NNEST with a strong L1 accent and one with a neutral accent?”

      It depends on context. Not just where you are, but who the learners will be speaking to, and not just how strong but how *comprehensible* the accent is to people outside of that language community (not just Inner Circle listeners, I’m also thinking of things like, say, Korean accents and how they sound to Taiwanese listeners, Nigerian accents and how they sound to Indian listeners…etc. etc. ad infinitum). A strong accent isn’t a problem but an incomprehensible or difficult to comprehend one is, and where that line is can only really be decided by the school doing the hiring based on their assessment of the learners’ needs.

      That said, I think we would benefit from having teachers with non-Inner Circle accents teaching more outside their own contexts. I work in Taiwan, and this is one of the major issues I face. Many Taiwanese speakers can understand me just fine, as they can with most (not all) other Inner Circle teachers. However, they struggle with non-Inner Circle varieties, in part because none of their teachers have been anything other than Taiwanese or Inner Circle. Despite their proximity to the rest of Asia, you don’t even see non-Taiwanese Asians teaching English in Taiwan, in their own accents. There is a lot of racism and discrimination – it has been hard for a friend of mine from India to get and hold a teaching job here.

      This problem would disappear (in time) if Taiwan would hire teachers from around the world, but they don’t.

      “How important is being bi or multilingual for an English teacher?”

      I find it advantageous to speak two languages in terms of understanding my own learning process as well as very occasionally and carefully bringing L1 into the classroom. It also puts my learners at ease, knowing communication can take place where their proficiency level ends, which helps them feel like real people with inner lives communicating real things, not stupider, semi-dumb/mute versions of themselves talking about where uninteresting textbook characters Jack and Becky went on public transport. However, I would not say it’s vital, and in some cases (such as a multilingual class) it’s impossible. It helps when the learner is struggling with metalanguage as well. While there’s a benefit to, say, trying to teach a language point or give instructions entirely in English as it simply exposes them to more English, if that fails, it’s good to know there’s a safety net where they won’t be embarrassed that they just don’t *get* it.

      While I have heard stories of teachers who speak the learners’ L1 defaulting to it to the point where not a lot of English actually gets used in class (!), generally I am not anti-L1 in class and have a major issue with schools who don’t want to hire teachers who speak the learners’ L1 at all (in Taiwan, some schools prefer to hire foreign teachers who can’t speak Chinese. Speaking it is considered a detriment, not a plus, on one’s resume).

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