Clarifying Diplomas, Certificates, and Expertise in TEFL

In a previous post, I brought up the issue of certificate and diploma training for ESL/EFL teachers. My point was not to endorse these as methods of educating teachers equivilant to more conventional training, such as MATESOL. Rather, I hoped to raise the issue that TESOL / TEFL is invoved in a certification process quite different from that of public school educators. Certificate and diploma training are just the most dramatic examples of these.

Certificates and diplomas are not just qualifications at a lower level of training; they are a different type of preparation for the classroom. The training received in CELTA / DELTA or TEFL International is apprenticeship training remarkably similar to the methods that are used in Canada and the USA to prepare tradesmen for the workplace; candidates who work for commercial organizations occasionally leave employment to return to more formalized classroom training and up-grading. A comparison between CELTA / DELTA and MATESOL is therefore much like a comparison between electricians and professional engineers; the difference is that I have never seen electricians argue that they are qualified to fill the same jobs as professional engineers. In fact, the critiques of certificate and diploma training from Mark Frear and those posted by Ari Sha Dupp on Dave’s Cafe follow from this comparison.

But engineering is not language teaching, and from an historical perspective, much of the role of universities in the training of professional occupations has more to do with American global dominance than its superiority as an alternative method of preparation. Is it possible to train effective language teachers outside of a university? I have the sense that TEFL International hopes to be involved in an experiment with this goal in mind. The problem is that they are just as elusive with responses to direct questions as any CELTA trainers. So while they may want something different, it may be they want it without the willingness to do anything differently.

One of the major differences between apprentice training in Canada and certificate / diploma training is that the government of Canada rigourously supervises all trades training. As part of their supervision, governmental agencies are constantly evaluating the effectiveness of their training methods and modifying the practices and procedures used. Language teaching certificates and diplomas are private ventures. They are run for the financial profit of everyone involved, and this fact has not escaped criticism.

While CELTA and other diploma trainers may have financial motives, I’m not sure that they’re worse than those of other educators, and certainly not worse than those of other professionalized occupations, like physicians and lawyers. Nevertheless, my question of interest is slightly different than the one of many involved in this discussion; is it possible to develop English teaching outside of the university as a highly professionalized, knowledgeable occupation whose recipients are recognized as such by employers and governments?

May 08, 2004 in The EFL Professional Project | Permalink


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Scott, thanks for the note. My own point of view about the EFL/ESL split is that in EFL, you generally have to function in an alien school system, so there is no escaping that the educational goals are really quite different. These goals, because they apply over the entire system, influence all of the aspects of the teaching in such a way that it is really putting on blinders to suggest that because they both deal with teaching English, they should rely on the same training. While I’m sure that some skills are transferrable, I’m thinking that it might be 25% at best.

This is not to say that an apprenticeship system that would focus on the 25% would not work.

One of the prestigious distance programs in the UK (the name escapes me now) has as its final a demonstration lesson that you perform where you are teaching, and the grader comes out to watch you (though it may now be videotaped) though IIRC, the washout rate was quite high for the program.

In this model, an program with an apprenticeship based component would be a strong incentive, and therefore, this works quite well in Europe (note that the general educational philosophy is much more uniform, so an apprenticeship deals with perhaps 60% shared skills), though my experience was before the open borders that now exist. But with the constrained geography, the large startup group that can then be weeded out through these kinds of programs, the need for continental Europeans to learn from native speakers (this is not to claim that someone can’t learn to a very high standard from a non-native teacher, as this is the blurring of perceptions and efficacy, but I don’t want to get into an either/or fight) makes it much easier to set up in Europe, and much harder to set up in Asia.

As for apprenticeship programs in the context of US programs, in principle, there is no problem, but the market and academic pressures that drive TEFL/TESOL departments are not going to permit it. Its advantages would be in identifying what components are necessary for good teachers, but as it stands now, most programs reflect the general academic hierarchy of valuing research over practice.

Posted by: joe tomei | July 26, 2004 02:32 AM

My interpretation of the American/British difference is more historical. Britain is one of the last places in the modern world to adopt university-based training for professional. In fact, I have some interesting stats on this, if you’d like to know them.

I am interested in you comments about why an apprenticeship system is not possible in the American system. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on the ESL/EFL gap and what this means for teacher training.

I also like your comments about the possibility of an apprentice-based system. I agree that it’s possible and that some schools are even trying to develop such a system. I am NOT a believer in the necessary superiority of a university-based system, but I have trouble imagining an apprenticeship system for professionals that could be better than the way we do it now. I hadn’t thought about SIT in those terms, but then I don’t know that much about them. TEFL International seems to be trying to move in that direction, but with much less success.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | July 26, 2004 12:41 AM

It is important to remember that certification still plays a role in public school teaching. I am (or at least was) certified to teach high school in Mississippi. This was based on me taking a specific number of courses that may or may not have been required by my degree.

On the other hand, you are right that teaching English as a foreign language is a strange hybrid. I think that there are a number of reasons for this. The first is that for a long time (and this is a view still held by a surprising number of people) the main qualification for teaching English to foreigners is native speaker fluency. Thus, a logical step is the rise of short term courses which legitimize practitioners, which would arise in the UK because of the geography of the country. On the other hand, in the US, where geography constrains the rise of a apprenticeship system if there is not an overriding concern on the part of either the consumer, government or the guild itself. The BA/BS has become a defacto ‘minimum’ standard (at least for Japan, to get a teaching visa, you must hold a 4 year degree), yet a BA/BS in EFL would pigeonhole the graduate too much, so the masters level is the logical niche for such a program. However, because it exists in the context of the research driven university system, there is an absence of practical oriented education and a concentration on theory. Many of the MATesol etc programs are terminal, so people who are going into them are second rate citizens in terms of the US university, and the only way to get a PhD in TESOL, EFL/ESL is to make a ‘contribution to human knowledge’. Sorry, a new kind of information gap exercise doesn’t count.

What is interesting in regards to this is the market trend for upgrading credentials. Shorter term courses are obviously more suited for this, but many universities are competing by developing distance programs. For those of us in Asia, the rise of Australian institutions, which have always had a need for more flexible schemes (because the working population is smaller and the option of leaving one’s job to get a graduate degree and then reentering the job market was not as possible) are now attempting to market distance learning to provide the academic weight/gloss of a graduate degree with the practical orientation of the shorter term courses as well as the flexibility of committment. British universities are also doing this, and both are being driven by market oriented reform that dictate they develop pay as you go schemes.

This focus on the bottom line is what drives people to hold up their degree as the sine qua non and disparage others. Are they going to say ‘I took this certification and it was really a waste of time’? To do so is to devalue one’s own qualifications.

There is also another split to think about and that is the EFL/ESL split. The needs and requirements of the two sets of students are diverging rapidly and I believe that the market is not big enough to support two separate certification standards, and the boundaries of the two fields are fuzzy enough to defy separation, so programs will continue to try and straddle the gap, even though it results in a loss of focus. Also, ESL teachers are generally subject to public school certification standards (taking ed psych, handicapped education, various other courses) so a ‘teaching English to non-native speakers’ certification is either going to have to be run in parallel to the standard public school certification or it will have to incorporate large chunks of things that don’t really mean anything to the foreigner working overseas.

I think all of these trends prevent the possibility that there could be an apprenticeship/practitioner certification that would be accepted as a standard. The stakes are too high for unis, for those who have gotten their certification from unis, and for those people who have gotten apprenticeship like certification that may not be recognized as the ‘correct’ one.

However, in principle, I don’t think there is any reason to believe that a certification program like the one you suggest couldn’t work. I believe that there are a number of teachers here in Japan who have become quite successful through acquiring skills through practice. However, these people have had to start their own private language schools and develop their own customer base. SIT begins to approach the kind of certification that you are talking about. But again, they have had to establish their own ‘brand’, and would not want to ‘dilute’ it by casting their standards in with a more general standard.

Posted by: Joe Tomei | May 8, 2004 09:29 PM


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