A ramble through the 21st century.

Some people call their writing far-reaching, others will go for the more honest term ‘rambling’. This one is a ramble but I wanted to see where it went. Quite by chance I recently had something of an ELT flashback on the internet, when I came across some activities and recordings from a course called ‘Access to English’, by Basil Coles and Michael Lord, published in 1974 by OUP. It was the first course book I ever used.  Looking at it now, of course it seems dated, innocent almost. But it made me think a lot about how the world of ELT has changed, and indeed how it hasn’t.

‘Access to English’ is based around a character called Arthur Newton and his life in a town called Middleford. The storyline revolved around Arthur’s adventures and, in particular, his relationship with the focus of his romantic attentions, Mary Stephens.

Looking at ‘Access to English’ and at more recent course books, while the HOW, the approach to teaching, has changed significantly, (notably in the way we teach the four skills), the WHAT, the language itself, has not. At least not that much. What a quick look revealed is perhaps rather less flexibility of usage in certain grammatical forms than we have now, lots of very stilted and formal language and a lot less functional language. For me, the lack of a book map in the student book is a remarkable indicator of how the students’ relationships with their own learning has changed. This, and the fact there is very little labelling of what the students are supposed to be learning shows how the role of the teacher has evolved too. There are of course some inevitable changes in vocabulary – Arthur would after all have been a stranger to ‘mansplaining’ and ‘sexting’.

One of the big content changes that has been happening in ELT course books over the last few years, and it’s really buzzing now, is the addition of the higher order thinking ‘21st century skills’. There are many ways to classify these skills, but I find these four categories useful:

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving;

Collaboration and Communication;

Creativity and Imagination;


If you want to know more about this, visit the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, http://www.p21.org/index.php.

The job of ELT teacher is in my view getting a whole lot more complex. Arguably, 21st century skills are not new in ELT, some of them have certainly existed in our course books before in other guises with other names, but their overt presence and teaching is relatively new. I’m really very positive about this, ELT needs to be much more embedded in real life. As a profession, we need to provide support and inspiration for our students’ journeys through their studies and working lives, as well as general preparation for this increasingly connected and globalised existence.

There are however some issues about the teaching of 21st century skills. The problems, it seems to me, fall into at least two areas.

Culture and politics.

Students from certain cultures can find it difficult to respond to, and indeed put into practice, the high degrees of questioning that can be needed for problem-solving and decision-making or critical thinking. This is not necessarily some sort of cultural imperialism, but I think it’s fair to suggest a degree of cultural over-assumption might be at work here. If you know your theoretical frameworks, these are the cultures that are high on Geert Hofstede’s ‘Power Distance Index’ or low on his ‘Individualism vs Collectivism Index’. Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner’s model would refer to ‘Communitarianism’ and ‘Inner Direction’ to discuss these cultural characteristics. You can visit http://geerthofstede.com/ and http://www2.thtconsulting.com/ to find out more. The cultural issues are of course complicated when the political regime that certain students find themselves living under is not one where questioning is either encouraged or indeed possible. The way we teachers deal with these circumstances requires a lot of teaching and classroom management skill, particularly in mixed culture groups where barriers and anxieties can emerge.

Personality and emotional intelligence.

Many of the 21st century skills require a degree of public performance – presentation skills and many of the collaborative tasks, creative and teamworking activities that we set spring to mind here. This type of performance and involvement does not suit the psychology of some students and learning can become an ordeal, with self-confidence plummeting. As 21st century skill mastery becomes closely linked to success in English classes, there are serious risks of feeling left behind or somehow excluded for the more reticent students. While this phenomenon is not uncommon in ELT classes, an increasing expectation of effective public performance seems to be allied to some 21st century skills teaching.

Intimately linked to the two points above is the question of how we assess or measure performance in 21st century skills, if at all. The ‘if at all’ seems the key issue, as while we as teachers are reasonably well-equipped to assess language improvement I am not sure if we have the tools to measure collaboration or critical thinking for example. The backdrops of culture and personality complicate this even more. There are certainly ways of identifying and measuring outcomes from 21st century skills activities but these may be beyond the ‘comfort zone’ of many English teachers. The issues around assessment are also muddied by the distinction between 21st century skills activities that are language-specific or language-dependent and those that are free-standing. By ‘free-standing’ I mean those activities in which success is measured in pure outcomes rather than linguistic performance. For example, a student with a low level of spoken English can be the most collaborative member of a working group, employing gesture, demonstration and a positive attitude.

There seem to be two directions that we need to explore to ensure that 21st century skills are integrated smoothly into our ELT classes. The first direction, as ever, is teacher development. 21st century skills (and study skills) are becoming so central to our work that they need to feature in initial teacher training such as the CELTA.  A straw poll I did suggests that some CELTA trainers do reference them, but here and in DELTAs there is a need for some allocated time to be spent discussing the issues. Ad hoc teacher development and long-term CPD need to reference 21st century skills too, especially in post-adoption orientation sessions for new material.

The second direction is more teacher-driven. The importance and ease of application of the 21st century skills might be more apparent to students if the general classroom ethos reflects the values of these skills. For example, collaborative ‘noticing’ and discussion of grammar points, increased student-led learning and encouragement of peer correction and support all help to reinforce the work done on 21st century skills, especially if the teacher makes overt reference to this.

We seem to live in turbulent times and the ability to make informed decisions, separate fact from ‘fake news’ – lies in other words, and the ability to collaborate and share with others seems more important than ever. We are English teachers, yes just that, but our responsibilities and opportunities go well beyond the language.

“..  and this your mountainous inhumanity.” William Shakespeare, ‘Sir Thomas More’.


Brexit for Beginners.

This is not really a post about ELT. It’s about a news story that has been spreading around the world a lot in the last few days. ‘Brexit’, the decision in a referendum for the UK to leave the European Union.

So why am I writing about it on an ELT blog? Well I know that many English teachers have, for obvious reasons, an interest in the UK – even an affection for the place – and will want to know more about these momentous political changes.  I also imagine that many students will have read or heard about ‘Brexit’ and will turn to their teachers for more information. By the way, we British too are all pretty confused about these surreal times too!


I am not a supporter of ‘Brexit’ and my personal position is that the UK should remain a full member of the EU.


On 23 June 2016 the UK voted by a small margin in a national referendum to leave the EU. The referendum is non-binding as we are a parliamentary democracy and the government does not have to follow the result and leave the EU. It does however seem that they will accept the result, while parliament itself appears to have a huge majority against leaving the EU across all parties. The results of the referendum were not standard across the country, with Scotland and Northern Ireland voting overall to stay and most of England voting to leave. London and several major cities voted to stay.

The referendum was called by Prime Minister David Cameron, and it seems that he wanted to settle the issue of UK membership of the EU once and for all, and also to fix some internal politics within his own Conservative party. David Cameron wished to stay in the EU and resigned his post the day after the referendum.

The UK is still in the EU and will be for at least 24 months after it invokes Article 50 of the treaty it has with the EU. David Cameron has said he will not do this and indeed it’s not clear when or even if the next Prime Minister will do it. But whatever happens next, the UK is in a very dangerous situation indeed and has neither effective government (now the Prime Minister has resigned) nor opposition (the leader of the Labour Party will likely soon resign) at the precise time we need a safe pair of hands.

So why did the UK vote for ‘Brexit’?  In my opinion the key issues were these.

There is a series of very real educational and socio-economic divides across the nation and this referendum has shown, sadly, just what a divided nation we are. There are large parts of our population that do not feel the benefits of EU membership, and they find the immigration that they sense (wrongly) that comes with that membership threatening to their jobs and culture. These tend to be people in ‘blue collar’ industrial or agricultural jobs, often away from the large cities and in the more economically deprived parts of the country. There are a lot of these deprived areas and ironically, the biggest leave votes were in the areas that receive most EU financial subsidy.

We have a disconnected political elite – both on the right and the left – who have failed to empathise with the working class electorate and their genuine concerns, especially around immigration and jobs. This political elite has made no real clear attempt to inform the electorate of the issues around membership of the EU. The campaign for the referendum was very much a spiteful personal war between politicians rather than an open fact-based discussion of the issues.

We seem to have a low calibre of politician at the moment and it is clear many significant lies were told during the referendum campaign. OK OK, politicians lying is not really a new idea!

The UK has always had a shaky relationship with the EU. There have been constant discussions since we joined over 40 years ago about whether we should remain members, and around the exact nature of our relationship with our European neighbours. Being an island and the strong post-colonial and linguistic connections with non-European countries may partly explain this as does – I fear – my next point below.

There is an ever-present xenophobic undercurrent in this country. We are quite good at hiding it, but if you look a little you can find it.  Some sections of the tabloid press display it very openly but the sad fact is that the UK is not as open and international-looking as it appears. Well, parts of it aren’t.

The EU is seen as run by an oligarchy of self-serving bureaucrats who are not directly accountable to the electorate. There is more than a little truth in this. The EU does need considerable reform but is slow to move and very bad at explaining the benefits that it provides to ordinary people.

The Fallout

So what’s next?  The UK is in a very deep crisis that is political, economic and above all – in my view –  moral.  The ‘Brexiters’ never thought they would win – hence the fact that they have no obvious plan. The referendum result alone has damaged the value of the currency, made 50% of the UK (Scotland and Northern Ireland) want to secede, lost us a PM and almost certainly the leader of the opposition too, reduced our GDP and in one day alone put 3,000 jobs at risk with more losses coming.  Yet this was the will of the people. It is also important to bear in mind that that IF parliament votes they may well reject the whole thing and then what do we do?  Several constitutional lawyers are saying that parliament must have the final opinion.

I have no idea what is around the corner. Our two main political parties are in the middle of civil wars and the country itself is very divided, with real hatred and anxiety being expressed in many places.  We may not leave, may half leave in some way, or may leave completely. I don’t know.

I am very worried.

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe”.

Lewis Carroll, The Jabberwocky.

‘The Native factor’ what’s next after Silvana Richardson’s IATEFL 2016 plenary

Notes and ideas around a recent panel I was on at IATEFL. Thanks to Marek.

TEFL Equity Advocates


It was Day 2 of IATEFL 2016. 9am. Silvana Richardson gave her plenary ‘The Native factor – the haves and the have-nots’. A plenary that is bound to go down in history. One of the best things that could have happened to our industry. It’s a plenary that should be a must see for all future plenary speakers. It received a standing ovation. It was interrupted several times by loud applause from the audience. Some had tears in their eyes when it finished. A perfect mix of pathos, ethos and logos. So if you haven’t seen it yet, please watch it now. I’ll wait for you.

Amazing, wasn’t it?

It’s probably not surprising then that the social media have exploded with blog posts about the ‘Native factor’. Lizzie Pinard wrote a great summary of the plenary. She also wrote a follow-up post which really hit the nail on the…

View original post 909 more words

The Native Factor: the discussion continues

An essential read in the native speakerism debate.

Lizzie Pinard

Hands up, dear readers, those who of you who think I am a ‘native speaker’ of British English.


Hands up if you think I am from England.

“Where are you from?”

It’s one of the earliest questions we teach learners how to ask. And yet it can be one of the most difficult and complicated to answer.

I was born in Chichester, a little town in the south of England.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 14.38.14

I’ve never lived there. I spent the first two years of my life in a little village near Bognor Regis (Felpham, for any Sussex dwellers!). My earliest memories of this part of England, though, come from visits to relatives subsequent to moving to the other end of the world.

From the age of 2 to the age of 17, I lived in Botswana, though I went to a boarding school in South Africa (Mafeking) for secondary school. 2000px-Flag_of_Botswana.svgsf-lgflag

My mum is English…

View original post 1,935 more words

“The whole answer is there on the canvas.” Edward Hopper in the ELT classroom.

If there is one thing that English teachers agree on (apart from their poor pay!) it’s that they all need ways to stimulate meaningful spoken English in their classes. Creating that need and desire to communicate can be a challenge – yes, the language can be an issue, but the content also needs to be carefully considered.

I agree with the consensus that familiarity of topic and relevance to the day-to-day existence of the students are good benchmarks for selecting content or adapting what the course book offers. We are all egocentric to varying degrees and prior knowledge of the topic must be some sort of facilitator.

I do have a real sense, however, that both adults and teenagers like and need to be stretched out of their comfort zones and this stretching can provoke them into using the language. I love seeing teachers creating curiosity, a challenge or a mystery. I love seeing students discussing expectations, agreeing and disagreeing and reacting with their emotions.

Pictures are one of the most effective items in a teacher’s armoury to generate the kind of reactions I mention above. I am a course book liker, an appreciator of what they do for us in the classroom. The pictures are often their weakness though, as they can sometimes be rather anodyne and suited to simple descriptive work, but not to stimulate curiosity or the kind of emotional reaction that makes students want to talk.

But course books are not carved in stone and teachers can now choose pictures from so many online sources to use in class.

All of this brings me to Edward Hopper. Wikipedia will tell you that:

“Edward Hopper (July 22, 1882 – May 15, 1967) was a prominent American realist painter and printmaker. While he was most popularly known for his oil paintings, he was equally proficient as a watercolourist and printmaker in etching. Both in his urban and rural scenes, his spare and finely calculated renderings reflected his personal vision of modern American life.”  The full story is here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Hopper.

So why Edward? I think his work is ideal for generating the kind of reactions that will encourage people to speak. The paintings are essentially simple, clear and usually with no action. They also nearly all possess a degree of uncertainty that makes all who see them begin to construct questions in their mind and develop assumptions and curiosity for what others might think. Yes, there is often a degree of sexual tension in some of the pictures that is not lost on many students, but that makes reactions and language even more emotive.

And another yes; they are very culture-specific, but it’s a genre that can work in many settings.

Let’s take a look at some examples aimed at intermediate and above classes for adults or teenagers. I’m not ashamed to say these are some of my favourite Hopper paintings.


‘Nighthawks’ from 1942 is Hopper’s best known work and Tom Waits aficionados will see something they recognise in the title.

For me, this picture provides great input for a ‘Think Pair Share’ type of activity with lots of chances to practise language areas around speculating and assuming, and agreeing and disagreeing. Who are they? Why can’t they sleep? Money worries, guilt or are they just late home from work?  These are real issues that generate real emotions and allow the real voices of our students to be heard.

Here’s another one:


‘Conference at Night’ 1949

This scene is particularly enigmatic I think. Interpretations I have heard of it include a couple hiring a hit man, lovers who have been caught by the husband or an estate agent with two clients. It lends itself to a small group activity where three students decide what is happening in the scene and then write a collaborative summary of what they think is going on and what happened next. They then swap summaries with other groups and defend their own interpretations of the scene. This task can be an effective open practice for a range of present and future tenses as well as encouraging that always beneficial activity, collaborative writing. This picture never fails to create engagement and debate.

The final painting:


‘Four Lane Road’ 1956

It seems clear that something bad has happened to this couple.  Once students look further and consider the name, they will likely spot that the couple runs a petrol station that appears to have been bypassed by a new road and is thus going bankrupt. All-in-all an emotional picture. A possible student activity here is for half the students to assume the role of the people in the picture and decide what they think the couple’s story is. The other half of the class are journalists who need to agree some questions to ask the couple.  The students then pair up and role play an interview.  The language focus would be ‘used to’ and third conditional for expressing regret.  Students should be encouraged to speak as if they were these desperate people and the emotions that the students feel often push them towards using more challenging language.

So there you have it. Pictures that stir emotions, curiosity and creativity being used – with a little teacher imagination and varying degrees of guidance – to generate language. It doesn’t have to be Edward Hopper of course but as he once said to a journalist, “the whole answer is there on the canvas.”. We just need our students to seek it.

Highlights and thoughts from the English UK SW Conference

A great conference report with a lot of practical ideas. Thanks Emma.

A Hive of Activities

image Fantastic goodie bag!

Since working at the University of Durham, I’ve been doing my best to earn a living in my home town of Exeter.  It’s not as easy as it was in Spain because most jobs are zero hours and the money doesn’t go as far as in Spain. There’s also the feeling that we teachers of English are not as well respected here in the UK as elsewhere.  This can make for a rather demotivating worklife, so I was encouraged and grateful when the school I work at on a casual basis offered to send me to this conference in Street, Somerset, organised by DDOSA (the Devon Directors of Studies Assocation).

As with my post on the Image Conference in Cordoba a year ago, I don’t intend to relate the content of someone else’s talk in this post but in the spirit of critical engagement I’d like to share what I think are…

View original post 927 more words

We need to talk about native speakerism.

My experiences as a teacher recruiter at the sharp end of the native speaker non-native speaker debate have made me a strong advocate of non-native speaker (NNS) rights in ELT. However, as a white male native speaker (NS) with an EU passport, I am only a small part of the ELT mosaic and I was keen to have a wider spectrum of views about the debate and what we might do about the challenges that our profession faces.

This rather long piece is based upon 12 questions that I posed to five non-native ELT practitioners, with some commentary from me (Chris/ed).  There is no ‘house style’ or consistency and is not designed to be a piece of research. Rather it is here to flag up some directions the debate might take. I have edited the responses but all the writers have seen and agreed to this final version.

They are:

Asma Bouali from Algeria.

Anna Loseva from Russia.

Assel Baibatyrova from Kazakhstan.

Marek Kiczkowiak from Poland.

Nick Michelioudakis from Greece.

Their mini bios are at the end.


Question One

How would you describe your relationship with the English language? What role does it play in your life?


Once I started studying English and then teaching it, it did have a huge role in my life. It determined the kind of books I read, the films I watched and even the music I listened to. It was a kind of passion and more of a way to push myself forward. The English language influences both my professional and personal life – I’d rather have friends and colleagues who are able to interact with me in English than those who are not.


I definitely use it much more in my daily life than I use my first language, Polish, so it’s definitely become an integral part of my personality. I’m no longer sure whether I’m a NS of Polish or English, or Spanish for that matter, which I also use more often than my L1. I guess I’m all of them at different times, depending on the situation.


For almost 15 years, English has been a major part of my life; my studies; my work; my hobby; my reading; my writing; my connection to the world and means of communication. Frankly speaking, I can’t even separate English and non-English in my life now, it has all blended smoothly together now that I live away from home. I communicate in English daily, 90% of the time.


I am totally in love with the English language. My love started when I was a schoolgirl. I have always wanted to be connected to it and that is why I entered a language university in the pedagogical department, to eventually become an English teacher. I cannot imagine my life without the English language present in it.


I love English and it’s a huge part of my life. Out of 1,300 or so books/audiobooks in my flat, less than ten are in Greek. Many/most of my friends are native speakers of English and, given a choice between Greek or English, I always use English. I think if you want to be good at something you have to do it all the time.

Chris. I wish I could bottle these ideas. No not ideas but emotions, and preserve them as the spirit of non-native speaker teachers.  The passion that so many NNS feel towards the language for me underpins their success in the classroom. Of course, many NS teachers have immense passion and commitment to their language, but it is precisely this extra investment and commitment that NNS have had to make that requires our profession to treat them equally. For many NNS it seems to be more than a job.

A final extra point from Anna illuminates the myth of the native speaker.

…. , there’s more to be said about my feelings towards my own English ability. I used to be hyper-conscious of my English and worried a lot about pronunciation, range of vocabulary, complexity of grammatical structures and whatnot. As I got to know English teachers and professionals online, I learned that there are different (and many more!) variations of English, subtleties that count or do not count, unique language expressions. This helped me to gradually embrace my “Russianness” in English.

Question Two

How do you feel about the pre-eminence of native speakers in the ELT profession, as writers, speakers and trainers?


It does not really bother me. Being a Russian English teacher in Russia (and please take it as a subjective opinion), one wouldn’t think of pondering this question. It simply is not an issue as school teachers, university professors and language school instructors of English would primarily be Russian. Native speakers are invited guests at Russian conferences and ELT events, valuable and almost rare, clearly very special species. At least that is what I have encountered.

Chris. I too have felt that I am a rare and special species at events around the world.  A native speaker is coming to talk to us so he must be good! I prefer to be judged for my ‘what’ and my ‘how’ and not my ‘who’.


Up until recently I had no feelings about it whatsoever. I hadn’t considered it, to be honest. It’s just one of those things that one might take for granted and never question. Now that I’ve read a lot on the topic, I find it disturbing. I must agree, unfortunately, with what Kumaravadivelu (2014, p.17) wrote in his recent article: “seldom in the annals of an academic discipline have so many people toiled so hard, for so long, and achieved so little in their avowed attempt at disrupting the insidious structure of inequality in their chosen profession”.

If you look at the history of ELT, it is self-evident why there are so many NS at the top and so few NNS, i.e. the latter have never (up until very recently) been allowed to get to the top. Our industry has for decades actively propagated methods, books and teaching practices produced by and for the benefit of the centre, while the periphery scholars were to be passive consumers of those products (see e.g. Linguistic Imperialism by Phillipson). Having said that, I am convinced that any NNS would have had to publish much more and have worked much harder to have climbed to the ELT top. For example, Kumaravadivelu (2014) admits that his “life as a non-native professional was being managed and manipulated by subtly invisible, and seemingly invincible, forces”.


I feel like the monkey in this fantastic video. Does this answer your question?  (We’re all monkeys, Nick, but I love the video; ed.) Let me say at this point that it is NOT the case that our NS colleagues actively discriminate against us – far from it; the vast majority of them are in favour of equity in the field. Yet facts are facts. I think there are a number of reasons for the current state of affairs – mostly historical ones.

Marek again

Not that it’s the fault of the NS though, or that there’s some kind of anti-NNS conspiracy on the NS’ part. Many (if not all) of the NS who are out there as famous writers, speakers or trainers have worked VERY hard to get there. They have published articles, done research, written books.

Chris. Calm responses, but I sense there’s some anger hidden away down there. Rightly so. I also don’t think there is a conspiracy to keep NNS “in their place” but, equally, Marek and Nick may be being a little too generous.  I have put various pro-equality postings on some of the EFL groups on Facebook. The responses have varied from calling me anti-NS – no, I just want equality – to really vitriolic and personalised trolling. Facebook forums are hardly scientific and some of the responders are what my dad would have called nutters, but there is a strong anti-NNS movement out there. I think there is a type of NS that feels somehow threatened and does not wish NNS to progress in the profession. Sad but true.

Question Three

What are the advantages to the students of having a bilingual teacher?


Many in fact, though I’m not somebody who supports the idea of using a lot of translation in teaching a foreign language, but any teacher can find him or herself in a situation where his or her students ask about something in the mother tongue. Students feel happy not to see a question mark on their teacher’s face! Moreover, it’s way easier to use the mother language when initially setting discipline and behavioural expectations.


I imagine a bilingual teacher probably shares the same mother tongue and cultural background as the students. This can have an effect on students’ learning if it is utilized as an opportunity rather than seen as an interference. A bilingual teacher theoretically has the power to appeal to students’ knowledge and understanding of their L1. In practice, it is, or can be, more than just translation. It is analysing differences and similarities in sentence structure, recognizing patterns and drawing comparisons that help. Additionally, there is the personal successful experience of a teacher of learning the language to tap into and draw from.


There are two main ones: a) a bilingual teacher is likely to be more aware of the difficulties a homogenous group of learners has and  b) they are likely to be more efficient in using the L1 (e.g. in order to gloss an abstract term).


A bilingual teacher can quickly eliminate doubts about translation of, for example, false friends, whereas a monolingual teacher may fail.

Chris. So it seems pretty clear the view is that bilingual teachers who share the students’ mother tongues have significant benefits over the NS who has little or no knowledge of the L1. I’d like to think there is a little dispute about this, but know in reality there is.  All the benefits outlined above seem to be countered by the phrase “not a native speaker”.

Marek looks at this issue from a slightly different angle:


Numerous. Would you like to have a ski instructor who says they can’t ski? I wouldn’t. I find it shocking that there are NS teachers out there who’ve never learned any foreign language, even to an intermediate level. It’s unacceptable, really. How demotivating would this be for your students?! And if lack of interest is the reason, then perhaps one should look for a different profession.

As Ellis (2006), among others, has pointed out, learning a foreign language should be a compulsory part of any language teacher training curriculum. It gives you an insight into how languages are learnt and allows you to give first hand tips to your learners. It makes you the walking proof that it is possible to become fluent in a language. It forces you to go through the same pains and difficulties as your students, which is an invaluable experience.

Chris. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, in my recruiting days I would always look for at least some proper language learning experience on a CV.  Not as easy to find as you might perhaps imagine, but Marek’s skiing analogy says it all.  Demonstrating how having studied English themselves is a key asset that NNS have should be put in our armoury of arguments to use with parents and employers.

Question Four

Why do you think students so often ask for native speaking teachers? Or do they?


If students do, it’s just because they have the perception that a native teacher is better since it’s his or her first language. But of course, not every native speaker can be a teacher. It is absolutely not enough to have been born into the language.

Asma makes the point clearly – being a native speaker is not a qualification – but a quick scan of online job posts tells a rather different story.


One thing which the ELT community is perhaps less willing to acknowledge is that language schools have made NS their unique selling point, for decades promoting and propagating the view that a NS is always a better teacher, regardless of anything else. This inevitably must have had, and still does have, an effect on students’ perceptions of NS and NNS and their decisions as customers.

Chris. Marek hits the nail on the head here.  The NS myth is like the famous English dish, The Ploughman’s Lunch.  A marketing device.

Marek again.

Having said this, I can’t see why we should shy away from dispelling the myth of NS superiority. Students are not informed clients. To the contrary, they come to us because they don’t know how to learn a language themselves. They might not even be aware of the whole NS vs NNS debate. If we really care about our learners, we must educate them. Discuss native speakerism with them. Make them aware of the fact that your L1 is as relevant to how well you can teach as the colour of your hair.


Sometimes they do ask and in most cases they (or their parents) prefer them. It’s a simple heuristic device. We use accent as an indicator of someone’s language knowledge and language knowledge as an indicator of something else – teaching competence. A teacher needs to have a) a good command of the language, b) good command of methodology and  c) a nice personality. The last two are hard to assess easily, but in seconds we think we can make a fairly good assessment of how good one’s language level is. We rely on such heuristic devices all the time, especially for screening processes. Degrees are a good example; I know a lot more about psychology than about ELT, (you know a lot about ELT, ed.) but I cannot work in the former field because I lack a degree in the subject.

Chris. So, Nick is suggesting that it’s all about the pronunciation. That’s the assessment tool commonly and wrongly used to measure a NNS teacher’s “language knowledge”.  Yes. He’s right.

I tend to agree that pronunciation is a key issue in all this; employers believe they need NS because of their accent.  There is universal agreement that education of students, parents and employers is the way forward, so one set of arguments we need to make is about pronunciation, accent variety and how much it all matters anyway for most EFL students.

We might also need to engage with employers about how we assess the language skills of NNS teachers.

Question Five

What benefits does a native speaker bring to the classroom?


I realize now that in my personal 23-year history of learning the English language, I have never had a native speaker for a teacher. This means that my ideas of the benefits for learners could be pure speculation, at least from the perspective of a learner (which is probably what matters). In my view, the most significant benefit is automatically creating the atmosphere, in which communication in English would be natural, given the native speaker is able to give that space. No matter how imaginative, creative, resourceful I am as a teacher, the fact that I am a Russian teaching Russian students makes the classroom experience somewhat artificial. We share the language which is not English, so we have to “pretend” (aka create situations of meaningful communication). With a native speaker in the room, the artificial air can vanish.

Chris. Anna, I tend to understand rather than agree with your suggestion that the lack of a NS teacher creates an air of artificiality in class. My take is that all classrooms are artificial, theatrical even, and we are all playing roles. I’m not sure that the fact that you and the students share an L1 is any more than just an element in the artificiality of it all.


I’d rather stay clear of the ‘who’s worth more: a NS or a NNS?’ (Medgyes, 1992) debate. It leads to creating more stereotypes and prejudices. For example, that all NSs are better pronunciation models. Or that all NNS are better at teaching grammar. Different individuals have different strengths and weaknesses, but I feel that the antagonistic divide into NS and NNS is counterproductive. We’re all English teachers, and we all need professional development, as well as pedagogical and linguistic training, to be any good at teaching.


Mainly three a) more ‘standard’ sound production and prosodic features, b) a better feel for what would be considered as ‘natural English’ (e.g. collocations) and  c) a more reliable instinct about what language (words, phrases etc.) is likely to be more useful  for the learner (e.g. in terms of frequency, context-specificity etc.). 

Chris. I need to take issue with this, Nick. Anything in language that is labelled as ‘standard’ or ‘natural’ or even ‘instinctive’ makes me wonder for whom? I think some of these may be arguments employed by the dissenters in this debate, but surely the range of Englishes spoken in the world rather mitigate this?


When students ask for native speaking teachers in my opinion they want to hear real English, authentic pronunciation, they are sure they will get much more language practice than with a non-native teacher.

Chris. Assel again I don’t really agree – see my discussion with Nick above. What is ‘authentic’ and why will a NS give them more language practice? Some NS will of course, but not because they are natives.

Question Six

Have you ever had resistance or comments from students based upon the fact that you are not a native speaker? If you have, how did you handle the situation?






No, never. I’ve taught in six countries in Europe and Latin America. I’ve also never felt or been told by the DoS that any of the students were unhappy about my L1 or nationality (I’ve never tried to hide it, mind you). I think most students, once they get to know their new teacher and overcome any initial reservations they might have towards a NNS teaching them English, will be concerned about more important things, such as making progress. If they feel they are, then they’re bound to be content.

Chris. The idea that the students are not the problem, not the resisters, has been mooted above. Three of you seem to agree based upon your experience. Hardly a major research project, but I think it might stand up to scrutiny. Marek mentions nationality. Visa issues aside, this is a whole new can of worms in the ELT employment area. British and Americans of say Chinese, African or Pakistani heritage do suffer from discrimination in the ELT recruitment field. That heady mix of language, nationality and ethnicity.

Question Seven

How do you feel about L1 use in the classroom and bilingual rubrics and notes in course materials?


There is nothing wrong with using L1. I recently attended a talk by Philip Kerr where he argued persuasively that the use of L1 is both useful and unavoidable.  Having said that, the use of L1 on the part of the teacher should be a conscious choice, rather than a crutch to fall back on because their level of English is not good enough. Though I do realise that a NNS can be a very effective teacher even if his/her level is, say, C1, I feel their ultimate aim should be C3 – not C2.

Chris. Nick, I spot another can of worms being opened here! What level of English does a NNS need to be a competent EFL teacher? This is a question that I regularly collide with in my teacher development projects around the world. The answers, I suppose, depend upon who the intended students are and what goals they have. And the context. The context matters, because levels of economic development, English medium educational traditions and the quality of ELT in universities will all impact on the levels of English in a given country and thus upon the levels of English in the local teaching community. Overall it is worth making the point that a five-year degree in English for a NNS teacher does not make an English teacher, any more than their culture of birth does for a NS. Teacher training and ongoing CPD make teachers.

How we assess the language skills of the NNS of course needs to be explored – classroom language always seems to be overlooked – and Nick’s point above about pronunciation being the measure is a thought-provoking one.

NS also need a form of assessment – I could tell you stories from my recruitment days about so-called teachers’ mangled versions of simple past vs. present perfect. Or the guy who refused to answer grammar questions as they “aren’t relevant”. Go figure.


In my context in Kazakhstan, bilingual rubrics are useful for our students and clients as they are used to Soviet methodology where there were translations everywhere in the books.


It’s one of the seven deadly sins of TEFL that Anthony Gaughan talked about a couple of years back, isn’t it? It’s been stigmatised, for no good reason really, because it certainly has its time and place in any language classroom. Arguably, it’s the fifth skill. All bilinguals (or multilinguals), like myself, do it all the time. We translate, abruptly switch between or gently slip from one language to the other. It’s much quicker when it comes to vocabulary clarification. It can be a great tool for raising awareness of false friends, as well as similarities and differences between the structures of the languages. Of course, as with anything, translation should be used judiciously as it can create an over reliance on dictionaries or the teacher.

Question Eight

What type of certified training might suit you best or have you actually done, a Cambridge CELTA, a DELTA or an MA/MSc?

Chris. I asked this to see to what extent NNS have an awareness of what is out there qualification-wise and to begin to see if the ‘traditional’ NS routes into and across ELT are being taken by NNS. I also wanted to see how much TKT and ICELT would be mentioned.


I think teachers should never stop learning. The day I stop learning as a teacher is the day I should stop teaching. It’s the teacher’s job to self-reflect, define their needs and choose the training that suits him or her. I personally am thinking of DELTA and have taken the TKT.


I’ve done CELTA, DELTA and have a BA in English Philology. I’m starting a PhD in TESOL in October.


I have done all three. For me, CELTA is an excellent starting point and DELTA is almost exactly what teachers need. In my experience (and from what I have heard from colleagues), most MA/MSc courses have little to do with what an EL teacher needs ‘at the chalkface’ (would ‘at the IWB-interface’ be better here?). Some of the modules taught are almost entirely useless.

Chris. Nick I’m not sure if Marek will agree with the last bit!


I graduated from Moscow City Pedagogical University, in what was the prevailing five-year Soviet system, granting me a specialist degree, which counts globally as an MA. While I now realise how it could have been better training for me, as well as what could be done to improve the official teacher training university curriculum there (arrogant!); I think the time was exceptionally valuable and I wouldn’t trade it. The intensive programme in both linguistics and teacher training served me just right to help me become the English speaker and teacher I am now. I don’t plan to do any of the above-mentioned certified training but I might get serious about pursuing a PhD someday, when and if I feel my research will make a difference.   

Question Nine

Are there any specific professional development needs that native or non-native speakers might have specifically because of their language background?


No. Each teacher is a distinct individual and the CPD should be adapted to their particular needs.


Setting aside issues of language knowledge, I cannot think of any.

Chris. I think we need to have an adult conversation here.  The fact is that there is a significant proportion of NNS needing language improvement work.  For many reasons, the levels of English amongst teachers varies widely globally.  I work all over the world and thus have a real sense of where the provision is making the grade. Saying there are NNS out there whose English is not up to scratch is not playing into the hands of the NNS haters. In fact, recognition of the issue and a call to action in terms of developing the language improvement elements of initial training and PD seems to strengthen the case.

However, as Marek points out in his answer to question 11 below, the industry also needs to explore language knowledge levels amongst NS. The CELTA selection process should weed out those who have very poor language awareness, but in my view the CELTA bar is set pretty low and I suspect most new entrants don’t go through that process anyway. The lack of language knowledge amongst some NS is as concerning as the levels of some NNS teachers.

Question Ten

What moments of self-doubt, if any, have you had about teaching English?


The most memorable times of self-doubt and self-flagellation for me are connected to non-language related aspects of teaching: managing a class; creating the right dynamics; keeping discipline under control; building up interpersonal relationships between and with the students. In other words, the environment and atmosphere in class are crucial for the way I approach teaching, and I wish I had more training in that.


Never. At least, I cannot remember any.


None really. I’ve been angry a few times. Discouraged as well. Inevitable, I guess, when you receive an email saying that, while your qualifications and experience are more than the school could ask for, your L1 makes you ‘unsuitable’ for the job. I’ve tried to vent this anger in a constructive way though, and this is how TEFL Equity Advocates was started.


I have often marvelled at how much more seriously (on average) NS are taken compared to NNS. A good example are the IATEFL interviews that one can see on YouTube. You find yourself wondering ‘Were there no NNS at the Conference? Is it that they did not want to be interviewed?’

Chris. There is no reason why NNS should have any more self-doubt about their classroom practice than NS teachers but if they look at some of the ELT forums they might begin to feel insecure after seeing the opinion of some NS. Anger is fully understandable and Nick’s point about NNS representation at conferences is telling – I have a sense that things are getting better, but some research on this needs to be done or, if already done more widely disseminated.

Question Eleven

What do you do to maintain and develop your level of English?


I have already said a lot about it in answering the first question, but I am happy to add more. I think at the moment, my way of maintaining and developing my English is primarily by welcoming (and agreeing to) opportunities to write in English (like I am doing now) and to speak in English (e.g. by presenting at conferences). I create challenges for myself, then procrastinate and eventually try to address them as best as I can.

In pre- Twitter and Facebook times, my relationships with the language were artificially, meticulously created by studies day-by-day. After graduating from university I panicked; for five years I’d had daily encounters with English. Now there was no outward pressure to do so, which appeared to be a looming danger. My response was a frantic search for ways to return English into my life by reading books non-stop, filling up my personal library with literature of all genres, including (for the first time!) books for teachers and teaching, handy materials for hypothetical teaching contexts I imagined having in the future. Most of those books are still untouched, as so often happens.


Nothing in particular, it’s just that I have changed my life in such a way that I do everything in English as far as possible. Everything I read is in English, I listen to audiobooks in English, I never watch TV (only DVDs or videos on YouTube in English), the default language of my PC is English and whenever I go out with my students I speak in English. Unfortunately, finding an English-speaking girlfriend (or indeed any girlfriend) can be a bit of a challenge sometimes as they have a say in the matter …… . (Come on Nick you’re highly eligible! ed.)

Mind you, there is a risk here. I believe that in order to be really good at English, you have to change your identity somewhat. As humans tend to be very ‘groupish’, you may find you do not really belong anywhere. You sort of ‘smell funny’ to your compatriots, and no matter how excellent your English is, you can never properly join the ‘other’ team.


I try to read lots and lots, watch films in English and go on whatever training courses I can. All the reading and research I do for my professional development work is in English. 


I read books, newspapers, listen to podcasts, watch films and talk to my friends and colleagues. I think that as a NNS you must get to at least C1 level and make sure your English is good enough to be teaching. After all, they pay you for it, don’t they?

If we are to be fair, though, we would have to ask all NS who might be reading this a similar question: what do you do to maintain and develop your knowledge ABOUT English? Let’s not forget that language proficiency (knowledge of) and language awareness (knowledge about) are a different kettle of fish all together. As David Crystal pointed out, “All sorts of people are fluent, but only some sufficiently aware of the language to be able to teach it”. If we are to have a level ELT playing field, we need to be demanding high standards from both NS and NNS.

Chris. Once again enthusiasm and dedication, but tempered with Marek’s comments on language awareness for both NNS and NS.

Question Twelve

As a profession, what can we do to deal with discrimination in employment practices?


We need to try to involve local and national teaching associations or raise this issue in national and international EFL/ELT conferences.


Act against it! Talk to your students. Educate them. Discuss native speakerism in class. Introduce it as a topic during CELTA/DELTA or in-house CPD programmes, most of which tend to steer clear of this issue. Include ELF, World Englishes and NNS accents in course books. Most students are likely to interact with other NNS anyway. Speak out against it. Write about it. Talk to your colleagues. Don’t let the industry fool you into thinking that your mother tongue makes you a better, or a worse, teacher


Here are three ideas:  a) we can raise people’s awareness of the problem (thank you, Chris!)  b) we can ban discriminatory practices (e.g. ‘NS wanted…’)  c) we can take affirmative action (e.g. by introducing a quota system for plenary speakers).

Chris. To address Nick’s second point, to advertise for a NS teacher is illegal in the EU but remains common practice. Yes, we need to spread the word and make counter arguments to those put forward by that part of our community that is against equality. But what concerns me is why there is so much opposition based not on alleged pedagogic arguments but upon simple prejudice.  Countering this is our biggest challenge.


  • Ellis, E. (2006). Language learning experience as a contributor to ESOL teacher cognition. TESL-EJ 10(1).
  • Kumaravadivelu, B. (2014). The Decolonial Option in English Teaching: Can the Subaltern Act?. TESOL Quarterly. doi: 10.1002/tesq.202
  • Medgyes, P. (1992). Native or non-native: Who’s worth more? ELT Journal, 46(4), 340-349.

Asma Bouali, Algeria.

Asma is an English language teacher at middle school level for the Algerian Ministry of National Education. Her first training was a four-year university course after that she has taken a number of professional development programmes with her ministry, the inspectorate and with the British Council. These include the TKT and ‘Train the Trainer’ sessions.

Anna Loseva, Russia.

Anna has been involved in English language education for over nine years, most of that time teaching a variety of English courses to university students and adults in her native Moscow, Russia. In April 2015 she moved to Japan to teach English in a private high school in central Tokyo. She blogs at her own http://annloseva.wordpress.com, blogs for and curates the iTDi Blog , and enjoys presenting at conferences in different parts of the world. The best possible pastimes for Anna at the moment are reading, writing, musing on a bench or on the beach, travelling, and sleeping.

Assel Baibatyrova, Kazakhstan.

Assel was a teacher for eight years at University and private language schools in Almaty, Kazakhstan. She holds a BA in English Pedagogy, the IH Certifcate in online tutoring and the IH BET. Now she is an ELT consultant for Oxford University Press in Kazakhstan and has been with Oxford for seven years. In her free time, she enjoys travelling, singing in English, reading and driving.

Marek Kiczkowiak, Poland.

Marek has taught English in six different countries and is currently teaching EAP at Brunel University in the UK. He holds the CELTA, DELTA and a BA in English Philology and is a PhD in TESOL student at the University of York. He’s an outspoken advocate of equal employment opportunities for NNS through TEFL Equity Advocates, and a keen blogger at TEFL Reflections. In his free time he loves travelling and meeting new people, is an avid reader and a passionate language learner.

Nick Michelioudakis, Greece.

Nick (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been working in the field of ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner and teacher trainer. His love of comedy has led him to start the ‘Comedy for ELT’ channel on YouTube. He is particularly interested in student motivation as well as Social and Evolutionary Psychology.  For articles or worksheets of his, you can visit his blog at  www.michelioudakis.org.