The Expertise of English Teaching

I don’t know if you’ve been watching the thread on Dave’s ESL Cafe’s Teacher Training Forum about ‘authentic TEFL courses’. This discussion concerns the certification of English teachers and may seem a little arcane for readers unfamiliar with the field.

English teaching has several forms of certification. The kind that we are most familiar with is graduate training in ESL/EFL. This is similar to what you see in other professional schools, such as those that prepare MBAs; candidates who may or may not have a background in Education or Linguistics, are exposed to advanced research related to language teaching and often expected to do their own original research. Most programs now feature teaching practicum.

A second form of certification is referred to as ‘certificate’ or ‘diploma’ training. Certificates are typically 1-month courses that prepare candidates for the language teaching classroom in a very ‘hands-on’ way. Diplomas are the advanced version of this and usually require that candidates have a certificate and several years of teaching experience. The most well-known versions of these are the CELTA / DELTA and TEFL International. Both of these forms of certification are taught through commercial language schools. In the case of the CELTA/DELTA, training centers are chartered by University of Cambridge English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). TEFL International is an independent organization.

The holders of CELTA/DELTA certification are ferociously loyal to their brand of training. With striking regularity, you can find postings on Dave’s ESL Cafe comparing the DELTA with MATESOL training. While this may seem strange, at this moment, debates about the merits of such certification take up almost the entire Dave’s ESL Cafe’s Teacher Training Forum.

The claim frequently made is that teachers prepared through DELTA are superior classroom teachers because their training is more practical. Typical of the kind of comments I refer to are

“…I called a few schools and asked and they wouldn’t interview me without holding a CELTA or DELTA…More M.A. TESOL programs need to incorporate a CELTA or DELTA practical approach or component to their programs.”

“Regarding hiring – I will not hire teachers with MA but no practical teaching qualification. Face with a teacher with an MA or one with a Trinity or UCLES Diploma – I’ll take the Diploma holder every time. “

“Those with a CELTA or DELTA know “how” to teach. This is not the case with all who finish an M.A. TESOL. “

One post that appears to be from the manager or operator of a commercial school said,

“To choose between a dip candidate and a masters to teach (sweeping generalization coming, I know) its like being asked to choose between someone who can describe the history and theory behind cooking and someone who can prepare a good meal.”

Another claiming to have both a master’s and a DELTA stated,
“As for personal development, I found the DELTA immensely helpful for my classroom teaching.”

All of this raises a number of issues. The first of these is the historical development that this conflict represents. Certificate / diploma training emerged from Britain. While there are plenty of American certificates available, the granddaddy of them all, the CELTA, is British, or to be more exact, English. It appears modelled after a British form of professional training that relies on apprenticeship, rather than university-based study. While British universities have jumped on to the professional ESL bandwagon, the remnants of an earlier form of workplace preparation continue through private channels.

One of the interesting implications of this is that teaching holds a very different place in the lives of candidates. In universities, teaching is viewed as a vocation. Typically, candidates in schools of education have little or no classroom experience and are taking the training out of a ‘love of education’ or some such goal. Certificates and diplomas are aimed at people already working in education at an entry level that does not demand any formalized background. It is similar to the way that tradesmen and women are trained in Canada and the USA, with periods of employment interspersed with highly practical classroom instruction. Many of the British universities involved in TESOL / TEFL graduate training appear to follow a similar model; aiming their programs at working teachers who may not be able to attend class regularly and may lack even a first degree. This difference in interpretation of the role of the teacher is quite important to note, since it implies a need for a very different kind of knowledge.

Another more significant problem concerns the content of certificate / diploma training. Candidates for this form of certification do not appear to be trained in any formal fashion in the evaluation of student progress. It is not clear to me what the above quotes are referring to when they state that DELTAs are “better” teachers than MATESOLs. Certainly they could not mean that student achievement is better for those taught by DELTAs, since no such research exists. One posting on Dave’s Cafe speculated that the DELTA-advantage might not necessarily be related to efficacy (Although I think he had a different intention in mind for his quotation.).

“The Masters Degree will get you short-listed and into an interview. But then it’s like, ‘show us what you know’ The DELTA will help you with your presentation of the teaching demo and any other technical questions or skills that are asked to demonstrate.”

I suspect that the real effect of this form of teacher preparation is unknown. In fact, there are too many variables to even begin suggesting what happens in these programs; the training is performed in an unstandardized way by trainers of differing qualifications, the candidates come from very different, unstandardized backgrounds, etc. Only a well-designed empirical study can really answer this question. Anything short of that is speculation…or worse.

Perhaps my greatest concern is that certificate / diploma training appears to lack any theoretical grounding, so it is not clear to me what could be taught. I have to be cautious here, since I have no first-hand experience with these programs, but this is a claim often made by the proponents of this form of training. While I can’t find the postings, there have been debates on Dave’s where the claim is made that practitioners of any EFL teaching methodology can take and pass a CELTA / DELTA, since there is no prescribed theory of language acquisition inherent in the training. While strong arguments have been made that this is not really correct, it does appear that some involved in this form of training believe there is no theory of language acquisition implicit in the instruction.

I have a lot of comments and postings from CELTA trainers and spoken to holders of qualifications about what happens on their courses. I am not completely satisfied that there is any theoretical basis to what they are learning and teaching. It appears to be a system for presenting language-based information to students. Properly prepared candidates will reproduce the system more accurately. My suggestion is that this is much like the military method of instruction that I learned in the Army, which is highly effective for instruction in that situation, but of limited value outside of it. Since language learning often appears to take place for some students even in the worst learning environments, there will be students who show effect no matter what else happens. Of course CELTA / DELTA does not create the worst, most disordered language learning environment, but…really…how does anyone know? The fact that some students emerge successful is not proof of anything. Nor is the judgment of other practitioners of the same system, since the system lacks any external verification.

What I really think needs to be done is a formal evaluation of this type of training. In fact, right here, I am offering to begin work on this sort of evaluation. If someone is willing to give me access to candidates training for certificates or diplomas, there are some measures I would like to try just to see what kind of changes are going on in candidates. I’m not sure that I could do all the research that needs to be done on my own, but I’d sure like to try this…if someone would give me the chance.

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