[This paper was given at a recent European conference and takes a critical look at some current issues in English language teaching. ]
Download this as a pdf and view the presentation slides on ELT Buzz Teaching Resources.
English language teaching has experienced many changes and challenges since its formal inception as a separate field of education. Our current time is no exception and given the pandemic many issues now starkly confront English language institutions, schools and teachers.
Those new to English language teaching might think the only issues are those about how to teach in class – methods. Which activities work best? Which approaches we should take? What makes a good curriculum (textbook or not) or teacher?
However, the field is a wide and deep one and consists of a lot more than just this one domain of classroom teaching. Currently, there are a lot of issues under debate which teachers need to form beliefs around – beliefs that will inform their teaching practices and educational philosophy. As part of the standards of practice for any teacher, being informed, aware and reflecting on the important issues and challenges in the profession as a whole is an essential part of all teacher education and development.
We aim in this paper to review the current issues facing the profession of English language teaching. It takes a critical stance on many of these issues, believing this is the proper perspective in which to assess the nature of change happening. More questions than answers will be offered but that’s just part of assessing the future, a future we just never can 100% know with certainty.
Precarity refers to a social condition whereby a teacher’s means to earn a living is uncertain, filled with possible pitfalls and struggles, monetary and other. One lives day by day, job to job, never sure of the future. No savings, no secure retirement planned, little possibility to move up the teaching food chain.
In taking about post world war Algeria and how the French uprooted Algerian society, Bourdieu writes,
“… everything is stamped with precariousness. No regular timetable, no fixed place of work; the same discontinuity in time and space. The search for work is the one constant factor in an existence swept to and fro by the whim of accident … . The whole of life is lived under the sign of the provisional.” (Bourdieu, 1963)
Teacher precarity is tied to both an economic philosophy and globalization. Globalization as it relates to English language education is at its root, the effects of the growth and domination of English as a means of communication across the world (Crystal, 2003). The huge demand for English language teachers, tutors and technology sets in motion a framework by which precarity may flourish. Companies and schools seek higher and higher profits and returns – education is less a concern than the financial bottom line.
Private sector institutions and schools are a large part of English language teaching. Teachers are replaceable workers, good for a semester here, a course there. There are no long-term investments in human capital. It has become even worse with the disruption of online learning and “fast language”.
Like fast food, English is consumed by learners in small meals through apps and tutors. This “uberization” of the English language teaching sector has begun in full force and language teaching as a profession is being cheapened. Teachers are sought at the lowest cost, often Filipinos who can sound “native” and be paid a pittance. Online teachers are now “contracted” workers. “Free” in the Orwellian words of neoliberalism but without any health care, pension, benefits or long-term job security. Curriculum designers are hired and paid by “ the piece” with no long-term commitment to the materials they create.
Of course, there are some winners. Those seeking to supplement another income. The retired. Those wanting to teach while traveling the world cheaply. But overall, precarity triumphs and has many harmful effects on student learning and the English language teaching field. The high teacher turnover is not beneficial for any school or school culture. Teachers are overworked, under-motivated and this leads to poor performance, poorer educational outcomes. We are living in a teaching world of shattered glass.
“(This) model is not exceptional in today’s language industry. Whether a company oversees a language learning app, a live tutoring platform, or some hybrid, a perusal of its job listings and employee roster will lead inevitably to the conclusion that the majority of its permanent employees are software engineers and interface designers, followed by marketing professionals, data analysts, product managers, accountants, linguistics researchers, and leadership. The labor force that generates the actual language content, by contrast, is mostly freelance and therefore ineligible for benefits such as health care.” (Fast Language, Boston Globe, 2020)
Keywords. globalization, workers’ rights, visas, unions, disruption, neoliberalism, colonialism
Some questions we might ask:
Why are so many language teachers underpaid, under-respected, in a precarious career position? Why is the profession filled with neo-liberal, race to the bottom, disrespect of human capital? Why isn’t ELT a respect part of general education locally, in many countries? Or is everything fine? It’s the nature of the beast. It is what it is?
‘Native-speakerism’, a term coined by Holliday (2006), is used to describe the preferential treatment which ‘native’ English-speaking teachers (NESTs) tend to receive over ‘non-native’ English-speaking teachers (NNESTs). These privileges may include preferential work visas, higher pay than “local” teachers, social status and better work conditions (housing, benefits, hours, types of classes).
Native speakerism is a remnant of colonialism – essentially linguistic imperialism on the ground
(Phillipson, 1992) and evokes elements of superiority, racism, injustice, social privilege and is anything but meritocratic. Even the term “non-native” is a litote, a word defined in the negative to support its opposite and carrying with it a pejorative connotation.
The job market still continues to use the term “native speaker” and hire based on this innate quality and not on the basis of ability, language or teaching proficiency and qualification. Often the argument schools and employers give is that “students want native speaking teachers”. But research shows that this is really a myth. Students after experiencing a teacher, just want a good teacher (Baronello, 2021). No matter where they come from or what womb they were born of. Also, beyond the marketing element of native speakerism, there are many teaching skills and strengths that a teacher with the same L1 as their students brings to the table. Also, often “local” teachers (I use this term instead – contrasting it with “foreign” teachers) have learned English or other languages and been through the process of language learning and have a deep understanding of what it takes to learn a language and what does and doesn’t work.
Native speakerism still exists throughout the domains of English language teaching. Conferences still feature white, foreign gurus. Now not “parachuted in” but zoomed in. Publishing is rarely truly local and there is more and more a push for “ever true” and “evergreen” topics that work everywhere, across cultures. Content is homogenized, rarely localized.
Keywords. racism, colonialism, discrimination, culture, power, leadership, globalization, gender, inclusion, terminology, imposter syndrome
Some questions we might ask:
Is there truly such a thing as a native speaker? Does it matter if? Why is ELT ruled by white, older male, “native speakers”? Why do students want to sound and have a “native speaker” accent? Why aren’t NNESTs (non-native speaking teachers) given their due respect and equal job opportunity?
Evidence-based teaching is one of the big buzzwords currently in English language teaching. Teachers are expected to both 1. be aware and on top of current research findings in SLA and education 2. Follow the research and implement it into their teaching practices. This remains problematic on several levels.
The Research Gap
Currently, research suffers from the over-jargoned and often obscure language it is written up in. It is very hard for teachers to sift through papers and interpret findings and inform their classroom teaching. Further, the plethora of research that is published makes the task even more daunting. A gap forms between valid research findings and actionable delivery in classrooms.
The replication crisis is a further problem. Much of the research, especially in the hard and social sciences is simply not reproducible. So are the findings to be believed? Whose truth and evidence is to be believed. There is just too much pressure for academics to publish research. Too many journals publishing “findings” informing education. Often, many studies get hyped and teachers fall into teaching based on what appears in the mainstream media. An example would be the “students learn better if wearing cozy socks” articles from several years ago. Teachers actually bought into that and schools instituted policies for all students to wear only socks during classroom time.
Recently there has been much interest in the cognitive sciences and how its findings might apply to English language teaching. Despite the fact that most cognitive scientists caution at this stage, applying any of their tentative findings, many teachers interpret the research and urge teachers that the key to the brain’s inner workings has been discovered. This is far from the case and buzzwords like “brain-based learning” and “neurolinguistics” are just terms and fields in their very infancy. Cognitive science remains at its very infancy and we should be very reticent in jumping to any conclusions in how the neural networks learn and retain a language.
Keywords: higher education, linguistics, SLA, applied linguistics, cognitive psychology, theories of learning
Some questions we might ask
Why don’t teachers read and follow the “evidence” and teach using practices that are supported by research? Should a teacher do this or just follow their “gut” based on what they have tried and seen work on the ground, in their own classrooms? Why does research have such a hard time reaching the eyes and ears of teachers?
There is little doubt that most of the English teaching world and what happens in classrooms remote or brick and mortar is through a set curriculum, mainly a coursebook. Despite its strength as an approach, CLT (communicative language teaching) has really never truly been adopted wholesale in its strong version.
Coursebooks follow a synthetic syllabi based on verb tenses or vocabulary frequency and a set belief in an order of acquisition. Language is dolloped out in bits and pieces – controlled. But does SLA – Second Language Acquisition research support such? Many would say not. Why not, task-based teaching and teaching through a more student-focused approach (such as Dogme or ELA – Emergent Language Approach)?
Keywords: curriculum, form vs function, grammar, activities, methodology, approaches, lesson planning
Some questions we might ask
Why do teachers teach like they do? Why is language instruction so robotic and formal, “Prepare, Practice, Perform – Engage, Study, Activate. Why do we teach explicit language points, rules, lists, structures when implicit teaching is supported by research. Why do schools use textbooks and set curriculum? Why is this type of organization of content so popular and such a big part of all teacher training? Why aren’t task-based approaches and analytic syllabi given much credence?
There are today many teaching practices under review and being challenged. This is very healthy for the profession and one of the bright spots in ELT.
Translanguaging is being encouraged and the L1 more often used as part of the teaching process.
Homework is being reassessed. Many are finding it unproductive for student learning and engendering student autonomy.
Lesson plans are now being rethought. Are they a must? Also, the notion of stating lesson objectives is being challenged.
Grading and the competitive nature of schooling is of interest again and we are rethinking our approachesof comparing all students with each other.
Error correction. More and more it is being used less and less and only under strict conditions.
Keywords: delivery, TTT (teacher talk time), classroom management, extensive reading/listening, motivation, assessment
Some questions we might ask
Does error correction work, how should one do it if? Do students pick up errors they hear? TTT – teacher talk time. How much should a teacher speak during class? Lesson plans – do they help, are they necessary? Do grades help or hinder learning? Should you give homework or is it a waste of time, no learning? How should you group students? How much control should students have in the classroom? Is free speaking worth actual class time? What issues are “proper” for the language classroom – which are taboo (PARSNIPS)?
Conferences are being re-imagined, both given the pressures of the current pandemic and also in terms of making them more practical and translating into improved teaching.
Conferences are changing form and by moving online, many are taking advantage of the flexibility this provides. Also, conferences are changing and becoming much more inclusive. There is a drive to “deconference” and make teacher professional development more practical. Ed Camps and Unconferences are examples of this.
Teacher professional development is massively divested in English language teaching. Teachers often do it on their own dime and their own time. This is a serious issue in English language teaching – the noninvestment in teachers. Hattie (2014) in his groundbreaking study on the factors affecting student achievement shows that the biggest effect size comes from effective teacher efficacy. So support of teacher professional development is paramount.
Keywords: teacher training, CPD, reflective teaching practices, policy, self-care, teacher wellbeing
Some questions we might ask
Is there much benefit in terms of teacher professional development by attending conferences? Or do teachers just confirm their own beliefs and biases? How can we make conferences more practical and better at informing teacher practices? What is the future of conferences now that virtual communication is so powerful? Does the role of the “parachuted in” guru still hold water? What about our ecological footprint – how to lessen this?
The COVID 19 pandemic has once again thrown ed-tech into the limelight, as teachers have had to turn to online tools and communicative interfaces to do their day-to-day teaching.
Technology has always been touted, promoted and described in a positive and game-changing fashion. Optimism abounds and technology is the panacea curing all of education’s ills. History tells us this really isn’t the case. Audrey Watters (2019writes eloquently about all of ed-tech’s dismal failures (think of the failure of MOOCs) and its underlying incorrect ethos.
Schools and institutions are rushing towards online solutions but if the recent pandemic is any indicator – teachers are not satisfied and student results are abysmal. There is a large consensus that emergency online teaching was a huge failure in most cases and parts of the world (if it happened at all).
The issue of how best to use educational technology remains and blended learning, a “hydrid” approach combining online and face-to-face classes seems to be coming to the fore. But teachers face the challenge of technology eroding their value and even their authority. How pervasive do we want technology to be in the learning/teaching process? Surveillance technology investment is massive and the future of technology in teaching may be knowing everything a student is doing. Do we really want that? In many cases, this might be very helpful but it also will allow institutions and teachers to control students and for learning to become just about giving the tech what it wants and beating the algorithm – not true learning.
Keywords: affordances, apps, tools, video, IT, media, digital literacy, media literacy, surveillance, digital resources, learning online, synchronous/asynchronous learning
Some questions we might ask
Does using technology really benefit a language learner or a teacher? If so, how? Will technology replace teachers? Will technology make teachers less valuable and poorer? Is the disruption of ed-tech worth its contribution to teacher precarity? What is good ed-tech, what is bad ed-tech? Do the scions of Silicone Valley actually know anything about how people learn best and best practices for language learning (does Duolingo grammar-translation work?)? What will be our response to surveillance technology used on students studying online? Does this really benefit learning, covert tracking and control of student online study?
Testing. Will AI and advanced in speech recognition technology allow for better testing and measured results of student English language fluency? Will tests become cheaper as a result? Cheating, how prevalent is this and what can be done about it?
Certification. Will English language teaching develop uniform requirements for certification of
teachers? Is it good to demand all teachers have some level of certification in order to teach? What does basic certification consist of now, given the changing teaching dynamics?
Teaching Resources. OER (Open Educational Resources). Will all teachers be assured to have free access to high-quality materials for teaching? What will the new digital textbooks look like in the future? Is the prevalence of free, high-quality authentic video and audio changing the face of English language teaching? Is it ok for teachers to sell the teaching materials they design? Who owns them? The school or the teacher?
Online Teaching. Has the pandemic changed education fundamentally or will we all return to our brick and mortar classrooms in a year or so? Is online synchronous teaching as effective as face-to-face? What is the role of blended learning and asynchronous study in the language classroom? Why do teachers feel so tired and why is there a general feeling that online teaching isn’t a panacea? Is the future of teaching a camera and monitor? How will we know students are learning and we aren’t really just all going through the motions?
Gamification. Students learn English through a gaming experience, rewards, points, goals reached. Once a big buzzword, what does the role of gamified learning hold for English language learning and teaching? Is it a fad and marketing ploy or is it something that works, keeps students motivated to interact with the target language?
Virtual Reality. Is this the future of English language experience and will it replace the immersion travel experience to help students learn English? Will virtual reality technology be cost-effective for language lessons and working joe teachers and schools?
Bilingualism. It is being acknowledged now that bilingualism provides students with benefits beyond just the addition of another language. Will parents seek to raise their children in a multilingual environment? How young is young enough for learning multiple languages? When is a good time for a child to start learning a second or third language?
YOUR OWN ISSUE? Please comment.
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Speck, David, Pupils Learn Better Wearing Cosy Socks,(2019), https://www.tes.com/news/pupils-learnbetter-
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Watters, Audrey (2019). The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles. Hack Education. https://hackeducation.com/2019/12/31/what-a-shitshow
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Instruction? Boston Review. https://bostonreview.net/class-inequality/yuliya-komska-alberto-bruzosmoro-
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