Who is qualified to teach English? by Amy Thompson

The answer, of course, is someone who is a competent user of English with specific training in the field of language pedagogy.

Why, then, do we still see job advertisements requesting that the applicants be native speakers of English? Is this a lack of understanding on the part of the employer?


Is it discrimination against particular demographics?

Most definitely.

Arguably, companies who will only hire native English speakers to fill teaching positions are selling an image to their customers – an image of an “authentic” product in their eyes; the companies promote it, and the customers buy it.  However, the instances of “image over quality” are abundant. Galloway (2014) tells the story of a multilingual Eastern European who was required to take on a fake American identity for her job in Japan.  My bi-racial former MA student was not allowed to take part in a marketing campaign for the language school where she worked in China because she looked “too Asian.” A friend’s husband was only offered a job teaching English in Eastern Europe by telling them he was from “America” (South America, in fact, but the employer didn’t bother to dig deeper).

One oft-used argument of hiring native-speaking teachers is so that students will have a good model for pronunciation. However, results from Levis et al. (2016) refute that argument with finding that “there was no significant impact of teachers’ language backgrounds on students’ overall improvement of comprehensibility and accentedness” (p. 22). Similarly, findings from Huensch and Thompson (2017) indicate that “many students in this FL context did not perceive their instructors’ nonnativeness as an obstacle to successful pronunciation instruction” (p. 17). Thus, in cases when both English (i.e. Levis et al) and languages other than English (i.e. Huensch and Thompson) are the target languages, there is evidence that both native and non-native speakers are successful at teaching pronunciation.

Is it the case that this obsession with native English speakers is driven by the potential English language students, or is it the misguided attempt at authenticity on the part of the companies offering English language instruction? What can be done to promote the idea that “native speaker of English” and “English teacher” aren’t synonymous?

One way of approaching this point of inquiry is to ask students. This asking, however, has to be done carefully, as to avoid what’s known as a type of “linguistic priming,” which means to include terms that would sway answers one way or another. In other words, how do you ask students what they think about native English-speaking teachers (NESTs) and non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) without mentioning the term “native speaker” or “non-native speaker”?

Aslan and Thompson (2016) set out to do just this. In a series of carefully constructed questions involving teacher characteristics, 76 responses were collected from ESL students taking classes at an English language program that, at that time, employed 23 NESTs and 19 non-native NNESTs (i.e. an almost balanced number). A semantic differential scale inspired by Gardner’s AMTB was used.  Each item was composed of two opposing adjectives, such as these examples below from the original article: Attitudes toward students – approachable vs. unapproachable; Teaching style and practice – tolerant vs. strict; Personality – nervous vs. relaxed.

The results?  Of the 27 adjective pairs, there was only one significant difference: the students found the NNESTs to be significantly more creative that the NESTs.  Otherwise, there were absolutely no significant differences.

The conclusion is that when the politically and culturally charged terms of “native speaker” and “non-native speaker” are not mentioned, students are likely not to perceive a difference in the quality of their English language instruction between these two groups of instructors. And, indeed, why should they if the hiring entity offers employment based on qualifications as opposed to the native language of the employee?


Aslan, E. & Thompson, A.S.  (2016).  Are they really ‘two different species’? Implicitly elicited student perceptions about NESTs and NNESTs. TESOL Journal. Early View, 1–18. doi:10.1002/tesj.268

Galloway, N. (2014). ‘I get paid for my American accent’: the story of one multilingual English   teacher (MET) in Japan. Englishes in Practice, 1(1), 1-30.

Huensch, A., & Thompson, A. S. (2017). Contextualizing attitudes toward pronunciation: Foreign language learners in the United States. Early View, 1 – 22. Foreign Language Annals. doi:10.1111/flan.12259

Levis, J. M., Sonsaat, S., Link, S., & Barriuso, T. A. (2016). Native and nonnative teachers of L2 pronunciation: Effects on learner performance. TESOL Quarterly, 50(4), 894–931. doi: 10.1002/tesq.272

amy thompsonAmy S. Thompson, Ph.D. (Ph.D. Michigan State University, 2009) is an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and currently the Associate Department Chair in the Department of World Languages at the University of South Florida.  She is also currently the graduate director for the Ph.D. program in Linguistics and Applied Language Studies (LALS), teaching a range of graduate level theoretical and methodological courses in applied linguistics. Her primary research interests involve Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition and the interaction of these IDs and multilingualism. In conjunction with these topics, she also incorporates ethical issues regarding perceptions of native and non-native speaker language teachers. Examples of her research can be found in journals such as the Modern Language Journal, TESOL Quarterly, Foreign Language Annals, and the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. You can read more about her and her research here.

English as an International Language – lesson plan by Sarah Priestley

This lesson plan can be adapted to any level from Intermediate to C2, depending on the difficulty of the audio recordings you use in the listening stage 3 and the vocabulary used in stage 4.  I did it in an 80 minute lesson with a C2 adult class.  If you’re short of time you could skip stage 2 (the discussion) or shorten the number of tasks for this part. You can download the pdf handout here

1. Warmer

Don’t tell ss the topic of the lesson yet.  Instead, ask them to note down the qualities of a good language teacher. Get them to compare with a partner and have brief group feedback.  Here’s what my C2 conversation class came up with in June 2016:


Interestingly enough, I asked my group whether knowledge of the language was a quality to consider, as I noticed that nobody had mentioned it.  They all said how they simply presumed that the teacher would have this. 

After sharing ideas tell the class that you will return to this topic later in the lesson Now move onto the next stage.

2. Discussion

I used the materials from New Cutting Edge 3rd Advanced page 10 to start a class discussion on English as an international language.  To make it more interesting I covered the numbers in the infographic and got the ss to guess which number went with which fact.  After revealing the answers the ss then did question 2A and B and then discussed question 3. (Answers for Q2 = fact ‘More English words begin with ‘t’ than any other letter – about 25%.  This is wrong.  It’s actually 16%. Fact ‘Doctors speak to simplify communication between doctors.’  This is wrong.  No such thing exists.

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3. Listening & accents

** Before the lesson I recorded 4 teachers talking about their summer holiday plans.  They were a mixture of NS and NNS teachers.  Don’t tell ss about the background of the speakers yet.  Each teacher spoke for about 1 minute [in here we could only share 3 of the 4 recordings].

In class ask the ss to listen to 4 speakers talking about their holiday plans.  The first time they listen they note down the type of holiday the speaker describes ( beach holiday, city break, activity holiday, study holiday).


Then ask the class if they notice anything about the accents or pronunciation from the recordings. Ss do question 1 below.  Then do the 2nd listening task, question 2 below.


Ask ss for feedback on question 1 and 2 before revealing the background and nationality of the speakers.

The teachers I recorded came from Northern Ireland, India and Italy and my students had great fun trying to identify their backgrounds!  I told the class that they are all my colleagues and asked them if they had ever been taught by a NNS teacher.  This led us onto the final stage, 4.    

4. The advantages of NS and NNS teachers

Remind the class of the background of the 4 speakers from the recording.  Now divide the class into small groups and ask the ss to copy the empty Venn diagram below.  Then, half of the groups think of the advantages that a NS brings to the classroom and the other half think of the advantages a NNS teacher has.  After a few minutes show the class some possible ideas and ss now add them to their Venn diagram.

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Bring the class together for whole class feedback.  Link in your warmer to the Venn diagram and ask ss to identify any common points.  Link back to discussion question 3 and ask if ss are more likely to speak/use English with native speakers or other nationalities now and in the future.  Ask them what 2 advantages of having a NNS teacher they consider most important.

This part of the lesson really made my students reconsider the advantages that NNS teachers have.  The idea that a NNS teacher could be a language learning role model was a new revelation for my class.  The fact that a NNS teacher may have a different accent but that this reflects their real life interaction in English was another learning point for my class.

Finally get feedback from your ss by asking them to complete the exit ticket below in 140 characters or less and give it to you as they leave the class.

If you’d like to see a blog post I wrote about spreading the NS NNS word with my teaching colleagues and customer service staff then click here.  If you have any ideas or comments about this blog then post them below and/or tweet them to me at @Sarah_TTrainer .

sarah priestleySarah’s teaching and teacher training career over the last 20 years has taken her to Eastern Europe, the Far East and Europe, where she currently works at the British Council.  A Cambridge CELTA and Young Learner extension tutor, she has trained both teachers working in the state sector and in ELT.  She is currently Coordinator of the Bilingual Education Consultancy Service British Council Italy and teaches adults and young learners. You can follow her on Twitter @Sarah_TTrainer