What makes an effective English teacher? A research project

Last weekend I had the pleasure to present at IATEFL Poland annual conference.

The program was full of interesting workshops and talks, and I was particularly interested in seeing Jasmina Sazdovska‘s and Zsuzsanna Soproni‘s presentation What Makes an Effective English Language Teacher?

There is so much discussion about ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ that we actually often forget about what actually matters; that is, teaching effectiveness.

We argue endlessly whether ‘native speakers’ are better pronunciation teachers (coz they have the ‘natural’, ‘original’ accent, right?).

We provide evidence why ‘non-native speakers’ are better at teaching grammar (coz they studied it, so they must know it, right?)

While this line of research has been incredibly popular – starting with Medgyes’ Who’s worth more: a NS or a NNS? – it has since been criticised as the comparative fallacy (Mahboob, 2005; Moussu & Llurda, 2008; Selvi, 2014).

To me, it’s always seemed that it did little to promote equality and a lot to further perpetuate the divide between ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers. In a nutshell, it’s a bit like fighting stereotypes with more stereotypes (see this post by Michael Griffin about it).

After all, the fact that SOME ‘non-native speakers’ are quite effective at teaching grammar, doesn’t mean ALL or even the majority is. Nor does it mean that they should be assigned grammar classes because they are ‘non-native speakers’.

Unfortunately, in many contexts ‘non-native speakers’ ARE frequently assigned grammar classes (surely, they must know it inside out, right?), while their ‘native’ counterparts might commonly be given conversation classes (you know, they probably don’t know the difference between past simple or present perfect, anyway…).

While no one – I hope- would ever consider assigning different classes to male and female teachers (oh, you know, surely female teachers are more empathetic and compassionate, so…), we do assign different classes, and different stereotypical strengths and weaknesses, to ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ teachers.

What I also find worrying is that the supposed strengths and weaknesses of ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ are immediately attributed to their ‘nativeness’, or lack thereof. This is in fact what essentially Medgyes’ (and colleagues’) research has done.

Such an approach could be argued to further perpetuate native speakerism (rather than contribute to tackling it), which is something we wrote about with Robert Lowe in our paper Native-speakerism and the complexity of personal experience: A duoethnographic study, which you can read here.

In other words, some ‘non-native speakers’ are NOT effective at teaching grammar BECAUSE they are ‘non-native’.

They are effective at teaching grammar, because they studied it. Because their teacher training program emphasised it.

Teachers are good (or bad) teachers not because of where they were born, or which language they unwittingly picked up as kids.

They are good (or bad) teachers because of the training they received. Because of their experience. Because of the professional development they have engaged in.

The reasons can be numerous. And what makes an effective English teacher is also a complex issue probably also dependent on the sociocultural and educational context.

Which brings me back to Jasmina’s and Zsuzsanna’s research, which – as they put it – aims to “look into different English teacher profiles and qualifications, as opposed to the mere native/non-native divide”.

The research is still ongoing, and Jasmina and Zsuzsanna are still collecting responses from participants. If you’d like to take part, click here to complete the survey.


Lowe, R. J., & Kiczkowiak, M. (2016). Native-speakerism and the complexity of personal experience: A duoethnographic study. Cogent Education, 3(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/2331186X.2016.1264171

Mahboob, A. (2005). Beyond the native speaker in TESOL. In S. Zafar (Ed.), Culture, Context, & Communication. (pp. 60–93). Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: Center of Excellence for Applied Research and Training & The Military Language Institute. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/816218/Beyond_the_native_speaker_in_TESOL

Medgyes, P. (1992). Native or non-native: who’s worth more? ELT Journal, 46(4), 340–349. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/46.4.340

Moussu, L. M., & Llurda, E. (2008). Non-native English-speaking English language teachers: History and research. Language Teaching, 41(03), 315–348. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444808005028

Selvi, A. F. (2014). Myths and Misconceptions about Nonnative English Speakers in the TESOL (NNEST) Movement. TESOL Journal, 5(3), 573–611. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesj.158

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