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English Language Teaching


This guide is for anyone who is considering working as an English language teacher.
It assumes you know nothing at all about the profession but it does assume you went to school.


Mirror image teaching

Teaching any language is fundamentally different from teaching knowledge-based subjects.  Here's how:

Information-based teaching
The purpose of education in most settings is to broaden the knowledge and skills base of the students.  That remains true at all levels of study from primary schools to post-graduate courses at universities.  How the teaching happens is very variable and may be impressively imaginative and enthralling or downright dull and boring.
Whichever it is, teachers start from the premise that they know something their students do not and they use their common language to enhance and expand the experiences of the learners.
What is meant here is that most teaching requires the teacher to use the language he or she has in common with the learners to help them acquire new information and skills.  For example, in teaching a general school subject such as mathematics, history, sports or literature, teachers and learners share a common language but have experiences which differ.  The object of teaching is to use the language to bring the experiences of the teacher and the learners closer together.
This may be done by telling people facts and asking them to remember them, by leading them to discover them for themselves or by showing them how things work.
Learners in this setting are assumed to have the communication skills they need to learn about, talk about, read about and write about the world.  What they do not have is the knowledge to do so and that has, somehow, to be transmitted.
Language teaching
Language teaching is the mirror image of most teaching.
It assumes from the outset that teachers and learners share common experiences of the world but differ in the medium through which they talk, listen, read and write about them.  The object of language teaching is to bring the language the learners use into a closer alignment with the language which the teacher is there to help them acquire.
Learners in this setting are assumed to have a sound knowledge of the world and its systems so do not need to be taught facts.  What they do not have is the ability to talk about, hear about, read about and write about the world in English (or whichever other language is the target) and that is skill that has to be developed and practised, not transmitted.
We cannot teach people a language in the way that we can teach chemistry or history but we can engender the environment in which language is learned and acquired.

If you prefer a graphical explanation:

Information-based teaching
Language teaching

In both activities, the central mediating role of the teacher remains the same.
However, the inputs and outputs are reversed.
Briefly, the terms on the left can be summarised:


Subject matter

Deciding what to teach in information-based education is a comparatively simple matter.
Although the details of constructing a rational syllabus may be fiendishly complicated, the process is one of deciding which bits of information should come first and then building on them as you go up the ladder from complete ignorance of the topic to full mastery.  Few ever reach the top of the ladder, naturally, and in some subjects, no-one ever does.

It used to be the assumption that language teaching can be designed in roughly the same way by taking the simplest grammar and vocabulary first and building on it until full mastery of the language is attained.
That meant, for example, starting with easy grammar such as:
    My name is John
    That is a desk
going on to more complex structures such as:
    If I had known you were coming, I'd've baked a cake
    John told Mary she should have consulted Fred and then decided what they will have been able to accomplish by the end of the year
and building up to the ability to speak at length and write the occasional novel or encyclopaedia in English.
It is now pretty much accepted in the profession that focusing on the forms of the language is not enough.  There are, basically, two approaches but they often work in harmony and happen in the same lessons, like this.  (When you have looked at the diagram and made some sense of it, click on it for an explanation.)


There's a bit more to it than that, of course (well, quite a lot more, actually), or nobody would need a training course but, essentially, these are the two routes to follow.


The learners

Because of the slightly strange nature of language teaching compared to information-based teaching, it is not the decisions about subject matter which come before consideration of the learners but the learners who often determine the subject matter.
When, for example, we set out to write a syllabus and design a course in nuclear physics, we are mostly concerned with the nature of the topic and select what is to be taught first and at what level of detail.
When we come to writing a language syllabus and designing a course, we are, naturally, concerned with what to teach but we base that on questions (and answers) about the learners:
    What level are they?
    What do they need to be able to do in the language?
    Where are they going to use the language?
    Who are they going to communicate with?
    Will they need to speak, read, write and listen equally and equally well?
    Are they learning the language to function in the workplace?
    Are they learning the language to study in it?
    Are they learning the language to talk to native speakers or other learners?

and so on.
Apart from children learning a language at school, who may have no idea why they are learning it and may, in fact, not want to learn it at all, most learners have a reasonably good idea about why they are learning, what they will need to be able to do in the language and how well they will need to be able to do it.
For example:

In summary, taking into account the needs of the learners leads us to focus on:


The teacher

The roles people associate with teachers they have encountered are usually:

  1. An informer / knower: transmitting information in some way, by dictation, elicitation and leading, questioning, demonstrating and so on.
  2. An instructor: telling people what to do, setting tasks and tests, directing people to resources, giving homework and so on.
  3. An assessor: marking homework, evaluating the quality of people's work and contributions etc.
  4. A planner: designing courses and the lessons within them.
  5. A counsellor: advising on learning, careers, further study and so on.
  6. A disciplinarian: telling people off, making rules, policing the environment and so on.

Language teachers, too, need to take on these roles from time to time but also to adopt a range of other roles which include: 

  1. Contributor: taking part in discussions and conversations, being part of a brainstorming group, taking part in a role play and so on.
  2. Diagnostician: spotting errors, analysing gaps in knowledge etc.
  3. Facilitator: helping and making things a little easier by supplying language or models of language.
  4. Language resource: a walking, talking grammar book and dictionary for your learners.
  5. Monitor: checking that people are on track in tasks and being aware of how well they are doing.
  6. Narrator: telling stories and anecdotes, personal or otherwise.
  7. Relationship builder: maintaining a good rapport between all the members of the class.  Learning a language can be a threatening and stressful experience.
  8. Methodologist: judging approaches and materials in the light of the learners' needs and the settings in which they will use the language.

Now you know why you need a training course.  To be able to do all of this, you need to know your subject and know your methodology.
There is more to the former than the ability to speak the language and much more to the latter than being helpful and friendly.


Some terminology explained

English Language Teaching, in common with many professions, has its own terminology with which practitioners need to be familiar.  There are glossaries on this site, linked below, to help.
You may come across the following if you are researching courses and training programmes:

English for Academic Purposes: for people who need to study in an English-speaking environment.
English for business purposes focusing on the roles and language people take and use in commercial or other business environments.
English as a Foreign Language: a general term for all types of English Language Teaching, whatever its specific aims.
English as an International Language: English used as a system of communication between people who do not speak it as a first language.
English as a Lingua Franca: as for EIL but generally a simplified and pared down form of the language, almost a pidgin in some people's views.
English to Speakers of Other Languages: in any setting whether the surrounding society is English speaking or not.
English for Specific Purposes: English for people with specific occupational, academic or other purposes for learning the language.

Related guides
Is ELT for me? a short guide with some frequently asked questions and a link to a test to help you decide if the career is right for you
advice a guide to how to decide on a training course and what to avoid wasting your money on
the CELTA index a section of the site devoted to helping people before, during and after an initial training course
glossary index here you will find links to a range of glossaries defining and exemplifying terminology
a basic ELT course this is no substitute for a proper qualification but will help people entering the profession