How Effective Can An English Language Training Be?

Max de Lotbinière
Friday January 19, 2007
Guardian Weekly

The sun set on the British Empire half a century ago, but it took a lot longer for Britain’s ELT training empire to lose its dominion over the rest of the world. A decade ago Britain was still seen as the font of ELT expertise and the ambition of any serious teacher was to travel to the “mother country” to perfect their British English and sit at the feet of her instructors and academics, preferably in the corridors of academe.

Much has changed, and many of those currently involved in ELT training in Britain would be the first to welcome the redrawing of the ELT map. The world they now work in is a very different place, English is being learnt in many different contexts and there is no longer a place for a one-theory-fits-all approach.

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The challenge facing Britain’s course providers is to deliver training that will have lasting impact for the people who access it. So does it make sense any more to base that training in Britain, far removed, very often, from where teachers work?

A recent study by a Japanese postgraduate researcher suggests that the study abroad option is still valuable. Last year Chizuyo Kojima explored the experiences of a small group of secondary school English language teachers from Japan who had been sent to Britain to improve their English and to get ELT skills training.

She wanted to find out whether the teachers changed their beliefs about their role in the classroom as a result of their training. Other literature on this subject claims that teachers do not easily change beliefs that many have formed even before they first began their training. Yet the group Kojima questioned all said that the experience of training in Britain had helped them to change their views, particularly about teaching.

Kojima says that the special “closed-group” course designed for them by a British university not only taught them skills which they were keen to put into practice, but also gave them confidence.

“One participant realised he could and should use English to teach with in class. The British tutor advised the teacher to use English even if it was not native-like English. In Japan a lot of teachers hesitate to use English if they think they are not perfect.”

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Kojima thinks that the location of the course was a positive factor and helped them to appreciate that teachers’ abilities and attitudes affect the process of learning. “Taking lessons from several teachers in Britain – both good models and bad models – made participants aware of the role of a teacher,” she says.

Kojima’s research does not show how long these changes in belief stayed with the teachers once they returned to their classrooms, and this is the challenge facing providers of closed-group training in Britain.

Dr Simon Gieve, of the University of Leicester’s Centre for English Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, says that the research into the long-term effectiveness of training once teachers return to their home countries is slim. He thinks that courses delivered in Britain need to be carefully researched and designed in order to have lasting impact, but that resources for this kind of preparation are scarce.

Instead of simply demonstrating new skills, teachers need to be taught how to “recontextualise”, he says. “They need to learn how to take the knowledge, ideas and skills and make them work in their contexts.”

Dr Malcolm MacDonald, who runs the University of Exeter’s doctor of education Tesol course, predicts that the internet will make it possible for teachers to access more training without leaving home and that this will improve effectiveness.

“More materials and training is being delivered on the web, which allows students to engage with problems in their context. In 10 to 20 years we are going to see a major change in mode of delivery.” says MacDonald.

Dave Allen has been providing in-service teacher training for more than 30 years and is head of the Norwich Institute of Language Education. He says that this change is already happening with more courses offered as a mix of face-to-face training in the teachers’ country, online training and short courses in Britain.

But Allen also believes that changing attitudes through training is a long-term process. “It has taken 25 years of communicative teaching training in Bavaria to get the education authorities to change their attitudes,” says Allen. “But we achieved it last year when they started teaching and assessing spoken language.”

David Hng

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