Every English language school, department and centre has its own ways of doing things, with a style of teaching, or maybe even a self-designed method, which its teachers work to in the classroom. However, the goal of any language education institution is to help its students increase their language proficiency and get demonstrably better at English. This in turn is down to the skills of the teaching staff and how they deliver the content and language that they teach. But how can a Language centre be sure that it is getting an ESL teacher that can get results from the students? Whatever the purpose, curriculum or method used, there is a set of core skills which facilitate language and skills development, and it is these skills which should be the focus of any teacher recruitment strategy. This article outlines some of those skills, and shows why they are desirable additions for an English language centre and its staff, and how you can assess these skills in new teachers when they join the staff at your language school.
1) How teachers gain evidence of their students’ progress
Whatever the setting, from kindergarten through to university English departments, it is essential that both teachers and students know why they are succeeding (or not). Without clear evidence of language and skills development, learning happens in a vacuum, and it becomes very difficult to gauge progress or make any changes to teaching and learning routines that may be necessary to improve classroom delivery.
Evidence-based instruction is based on the demonstrated performance of students in communicative or productive tasks towards the end of a period of study. The evidence for students having learnt a particular language item, or having successfully understood an exam question, for example, is their recorded performance in that area: whether they use the language freely in their own speaking or writing, and whether they process the exam task in an effective way to achieve a good result. Without the record of this achievement (or otherwise), and the teaching that led up to it, it is difficult to justify what is happening in the classroom as effective.
To find out how a teacher is working with this evidence of learning, three factors are important to consider:
1) Do the students in the teacher’s class have the opportunity to incorporate the language they are learning in to their own ideas freely (i.e. not as part of a heavily constructed task such as a gapfill or question-answer exercise)?
2) Does the teacher respond to emergent language (i.e. language which has come from the student during this free production of forms being taught) by changing their approach in order to facilitate greater development in that area? And,
3) Can the teacher relate the teaching activity that they performed during the class and the quality of language produced by their students?
If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then the teacher is probably very aware of the ways in which their teaching can affect their students’ learning in different ways, and will be able to address student difficulties on the spot and in appropriate ways. If not, there is a risk that students may be improving despite the teaching which is happening, not because of it.
As a recruiter, useful questions to ask a teacher coming to your centre regarding evidence-based teaching are: ‘How do you know your students are learning anything in your classes?’, ‘When are you happy that your learners have understood what you are teaching?’, ‘What role does extended speaking / writing take in your classes?’ or ‘Why do we ask students to communicate freely about the topics we teach?’. As a teacher, think about how you would answer these questions; they are fundamental to the job that we do.
2) How teachers can engage learners in different ways
Learner engagement is another key aspect of an effective language educator. Keeping students on-task and wanting to achieve what we give them in class simply leads to greater retention of what we teach. In addition, engagement precludes distraction and increases focus, helping us to pinpoint areas of need and instruct our learners accordingly. Learner engagement is much more than simply having fun in the classroom, it relates to the different ways in which learners’ interest can be sparked, making them want to go further and deeper into the content you are teaching. Engagement of this kind is essential to language and knowledge development, and results in more rounded, interesting and interested learners who have a drive to feed their curiosity and move on in their studies.
The language classroom is a pedagogically very diverse environment, so different kinds of engagement come into play at different times depending on the types of task and activity that the learners perform. Visual, social, cognitive and creative engagement can be harnessed through their respective stimuli during videos, discussions, puzzles and mind-games, and project-based tasks, so a teacher who can adapt their approaches depending on the preferences of the learners in the class to keep them moving in the desired direction is likely to be an effective member of the teaching body, and their students’ results will reflect that.
Evidence of high engagement levels includes: students wanting to ask questions in class, an atmosphere of discovery and involvement in the topics being taught, in-depth discussion of key ideas being presented, and extended periods of interaction about content and language that go beyond what the teacher plans. If this is the kind of activity which goes on in a teacher’s classroom, they obviously have a strong hold of how their students work, and teach accordingly.
Questions to ask new teachers on this topic could include: ‘How do you ensure that your students stay focused in class?’, ‘What different techniques do you apply when teaching a group of students with diverse interests?, or ‘What do you do if a student in your class often gets distracted?’. Again, as a teacher, these are questions worth thinking about in terms of your own classroom work. Do you have a good answer for them?
3) How teachers can personalise their teaching
Related to learner engagement is the technique of personalisation. This simply means getting to know your learners, their lives outside the classroom, their wishes, motivations and interests, in order to appeal to their ways of engaging with the content being taught. The more a teacher knows about their learners, the more opportunities there will be to find common ground between them, and to appeal to their preferred ways of doing things in the classroom. Personalisation leads to greater engagement and motivation to learn, and therefore a better quality of learning can take place.
The effects of personalisation include increased rapport, greater student satisfaction, and a feeling of personal attention, which is essential for a supportive classroom environment where students feel they are being addressed as people, not just as grade statistics or passive subjects. Tailoring lesson content to the interests of the students can also help them find out more about each other, which facilitates greater interaction and sharing among learners, a key aspect of the communicative classroom which also helps them to draw together in a learning community.
Questions which can reveal whether personalisation and individual attention to learners’ needs are within the skill-set of a teacher are: ’How do your students influence how you teach?’, ‘How do you find out what your students enjoy doing in the classroom?’, or ‘How do you ensure that individual students’ needs are catered for in your lessons?’. Asking about the processes behind how teachers work with their learners as individual people is a good predictor of the type of class environment that will result.
4) How teachers can create and adapt materials
Tasks and activities are at the core of language education - they get students working together to achieve the steps which build to greater language proficiency, giving them more control over how they pick up language, and increasing interaction between learners. For this reason, the ability to design effective tasks and materials is essential for a language teacher to give their students what they need.
In addition, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to language education; every group of learners is different, and has different strengths and weaknesses, interests and motivations. When working from a published textbooks, it is therefore important for a teacher to have the ability to select, adapt and improve published materials for specific groups of learners.
Aspects of task design which an effective teacher should consider are: clarity and presentation, ordering of task elements, the amount of language support given to learners through the task, and when this is reduced or removed (scaffolding) and how opportunities for communication are built in to the material. These points can be turned into questions for teachers to show how they think about materials design in their own practice, for example: ‘What was the last piece of teaching material you designed for a class?’, ‘Why did you order the tasks on the material in that way?’, ‘How did the students interact when you delivered the activity? Why?’.
As a teacher, these questions can also help you to focus your materials on language, communication and free student production of language, not just correct answers and final scores.
5) How teachers can differentiate their teaching
As we have seen, different groups of students can have very different profiles in many ways: based on their learning preferences, interests, motivations, language strengths and needs, confidence levels and other aspects of their characters. This mix of profiles requires language teachers to provide different levels of support to different students, and potentially to teach the same language and tasks in different ways for different groups or individuals in the room. This is the essence of differentiation, and an effective teacher will have some techniques to diversify their teaching for the different learners in the class.
There are various ways that teaching can be differentiated: tasks and activities can be instructed differently depending on what kind of activity a teacher would like specific students to perform, or different versions of the same task can be presented to different groups, to provide the support that they need, or engage groups in different ways. A teacher can interact with different members of the group in different ways, and provide more or less visual support for different groups. This level of flexibility shows that a teacher is considering the make-up of their class and working to their needs accordingly.
Useful questions that teachers and language centres should consider in this area are: ‘How do you respond to the needs of mixed-ability classes?’, ‘How do you ensure that all of your different learners are catered for in your classes?’, or ‘How do you ensure that everyone in your class gets the most from the materials you give them?’. Having different solutions for different profiles of learner is another mark of an effective language educator.
In summary, the five areas outlined above are by no means the only attributes of effective language teachers, but they represent aspects of the job which go beyond the day-to-day teaching from a coursebook and preparing for tests. If teachers consider these areas of their teaching, and centres look to develop them in their staff, then the more engaged, focused and proficient the students will become.
Tom Garside is an international education developer and founder and Director of Teacher Training at Language Point. He has published a methodology e-guide for teachers of ESOL, a Pronunciation activity book centred on pronunciation card games, and will be speaking on ways of ensuring sustained development for English Language Teachers at the Future of ELT conference at Regents University, London on June 15th.