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What makes a good language teacher?

This is a tricky post to write and one I have avoided in the past, perhaps because it seems arrogant to propose a model for others, but having read "What makes a great teacher?" from the headguruteacher blog byTom Sherrington I'm going to have a crack. I write this having taught for 34 years and observed a good few talented colleagues at work. The qualities and abilities I describe are in no particular order. Some are generic teacher qualities, some specific to language teachers because there is inevitably a large overlap. Statements may be hedged with words like "probably" because there is no one way to be an excellent language teacher.

Subject knowledge.

This comes in two forms in our subject area: linguistic skill (range, fluency, pronunciation) and "declarative" knowledge of vocabulary and grammar - namely, being able to explain to pupils how the language works. Most non-native speakers are better at the latter than the former. For me, the former is more important. If you believe that providing lots of good target language input is important then the teacher will be better if he or she can help provide it. Although we have plenty of other audio and video sources of input, the teacher is the one who can fine-tune it best. This needs a good deal of fluency, good pronunciation and accuracy to do well. A teacher lacking this skill will be hampered. Good language teachers improve their skills and keep their language fresh by listening and reading to as much target language as possible.

Expectations.

The best language teachers drive their classes as far as possible, often working at pace, often expecting quick responses. They correct by giving good models, but not in a way to discourage students. They set work at a challenging level, focusing a good deal on comprehension and skilled manipulation of structure and vocabulary. They set plenty of appropriate homework because they know that maximising input is crucial and that practice makes perfect. They do not set work which needs masses of corrections. They have a clear sense, derived from experience and/or by asking for student feedback, of what students find hard. They know when it is important to stress accuracy or fluency. They are very intolerant of lazy work and may simply ask for it to be repeated. Good student behaviour is assumed and low level disruption not tolerated.

Relationships.

These come in all sorts of forms, but the best language teachers establish a relationship which encourages students to concentrate, work hard, want to please and to take risks. This can be through a caring, warm, nurturing style, or by something more formal and businesslike. There is no one recipe for this. They may well have a good sense of humour, appreciated by the class. They probably praise, but not excessively. They probably admonish rarely, but effectively. They raise their voice rarely. They have a very good sense of what makes each individual pupil tick. They share their enthusiasm for the subject. There is a trusting and usually warm rapport between students and the teacher.

Organisation.

As in all teaching, the best practitioners plan ahead, have clear lesson objectives, arrive on time, plan lessons well (usually building in a variety of tasks), keep good records, file efficiently, revise from one lesson to the next, probably do not just stick to published course materials, assess regularly, give feedback, mark promptly and on a regular basis. They plan homework carefully to reinforce the work done in class. They follow up students rigorously if work is incomplete or behaviour unsatisfactory. They prioritise the important stuff. They play an active role in the department, supporting its ethos. They take part, wherever possible, in trips, study trips or exchanges. They encourage contacts with students abroad and other native speakers.

Good assessment for learning.

They might not call it this, but they share short and long term objectives with classes, respond sensitively to the needs of individuals, have a good sense of what children find difficult (or just ask if they are not sure), use data to set goals (not just numerical ones). They may explain to students why they are doing particular tasks. Their students should know what they need to do to improve. They may use a mixture of "hands up" and "no hands up" work. They will use subtle differentiation during interactions with pupils. They prepare students thoroughly for tests and exams, whilst not being scared of doing non exam-related activities.

Sound methodology.

They have some idea of how language learning takes place, believing that target language input is the key to acquisition. They use effective questioning and drilling, choose input at an appropriate level, find interesting content, know when to use games, pair work, group work, computer-based work, avoid time-wasting tasks. They do not take on new fashions unquestioningly, but are willing to experiment and fail. They believe that "practice makes perfect". They have a good repertoire of activity types. They explain the language clearly, in a way students understand, but know that progress comes more from practice than explanation. They work very largely in the target language, but know when this is unproductive. They have a keen sense of when students may be getting bored and when it is time to switch to plan B.

When I trained as a teacher a tutor once told us that there was no recipe for good teaching, no list of "tips for teachers". I would only partly agree with this. There may be no one recipe, but there is plenty of good advice.




- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Comments

  1. When I trained as a teacher, a tutor told u say the beginning of the year, that we were now all teachers....end of advice! The methodology tutor showed us a video of a primary school teacher holding up flashcards and mispronouncing names of animals.....end of advice.........

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for commenting. I would hope that training is a good deal better these days, but I doubt that it is consistent. I was lucky enough to have had a good grounding at the West London Institute back in 1979-80.

      Delete
  2. From Julia Whyte via email:

    Very well written Steve. You use common sense and experience and aren't just following trends and whatever, as you say, is the fashion of the moment. One thing for me is about TL usage. I think it is a wise teacher who knows how and when to use it as there will be some classes that will feel threatened by a blanket use of it. I cannot see the point of persisting with TL all the time when it can be counterproductive and will leave some pupils baffled. It can compromise a good relationship with pupils, which as you allude to, is important.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post Steve, I am passing this on to my faculty!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great post Steve. I am passing this on to my faculty!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for leaving a comment. I'm glad you find it useful.

    ReplyDelete

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