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Knowing Your Subject

The title of this blog is borrowed from an article by Mark Enser in the latest edition of Impact, the Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching. Mark reminds us of research carried out by Robert Coe et al (2014) which indicates that having good subject knowledge is one of the main keys to effective teaching. In another publication by Rosenshine - Principles of Instruction (2012) - one of the defining characteristics of effective teaching is claimed to be the ability to provide detailed explanations of the material being taught.

This got me thinking again what subject knowledge entails for language teachers. For the purposes of this blog post, I would split our own subject knowledge into three parts:

1. Linguistic skill - comprehension, fluency, instantly retrievable knowledge of vocabulary and a wide range of structures and idiom.
2. Meta-linguistic and cultural knowledge - knowledge of the rules of the language; the ability explain to classes how the language works; knowing about the target language culture.
3. Pedagogical and theoretical knowledge - how to present and practise language most effectively and how second language acquisition takes place.

Some teachers are stronger than others in each of those three domains. The native or very fluent speaker teacher has an advantage in (1) but may have a slight disadvantage in (2) since they may be less aware of the difficulties facing native English speakers learning a new language. Native speakers are likely to have the most cultural knowledge. Fluent speakers will find it easier to teach intermediate and advanced students and be able to manage interactions more easily. They may also have more credibility in the eyes of some learners which may, in turn, have an effect on their motivation. Their easy use of the second language may allow them to be more relaxed with their classes, inspiring greater confidence and spontaneity.

Many teachers are stronger at (2) than (1) since it is easier to learn about grammatical rules than to speak a language fluently. Limited fluency may be less important for beginner and low intermediate classes, but there is a danger that such classes may pick up poor pronunciation habits or have less access to high quality listening input and spontaneous interactions. Teachers with good meta-knowledge but weaker linguistic skill may also play to their strengths and spend more time talking about the language than actually using it for communication. (This was often the case in the grammar-translation era when many teachers had limited fluency.) They may also stick to more limited exercise types which do not stretch the most able learners.

With regard to the "detailed explanations" referred to above, it's generally thought that language teachers need to find a suitable balance between accuracy and simplicity when explaining grammatical rules. If your cognitive empathy skills are strong you will have a good idea where the "sweet spot" is for your particular class. In general, though, meta-linguistic knowledge is no substitute at all for linguistic skill. The teacher with excellent meta-knowledge may also be tempted to go into too much detail with classes.

Whether you are a fluent or less fluent teacher a sound knowledge of theoretical and pedagogical issues is very useful, some would say vital, for effective teaching. But I have known teachers who have relatively little theoretical knowledge of second language acquisition but who nevertheless have a brilliant sense of how to get students to achieve. They sense, for example, that using a good deal of target language and providing a variety of activities at the right level are vital, and they know how much explanation to give and when. They are also aware of the psychological challenges children (and adults) face when learning a new language. Teachers like these have an excellent knowledge of pedagogy, therefore, if not so much theory.

That said, there is much to be learned from research and theory even if it does not tell us the best way to teach a language in every context. To take one example, it is well established from research that vocabulary is best acquired when words and chunks are encountered many times in different meaningful contexts. So teachers should be aware that learning single words from lists alone on one occasion, without frequent review, is an ineffective way to acquire vocabulary. Research is also clear that "comprehensible input" is a key to acquisition, so teachers who neglect using the target language enough in understandable ways do their pupils a disservice.

What about the non-specialist teacher? Some teachers may have very good generic teacher skills, but be more limited in (1), (2) and (3). Teachers in this position, e.g. those who have been thrown in to classes or who are covering for absent colleagues, may do an adequate job, but are unlikely to help students develop their skills very effectively. And yet, if you have (1), (2) and (3) but cannot empathise with or control a class, learning will not take place. It's a sad fact that teacher supply and demand means that too many classes are fronted by teachers with limited subject knowledge. This is not the fault of the teachers.

As Mark Enser points out in his article, teachers who feel they are lacking in any area of subject knowledge do have means to improve, including immersing oneself in input and interaction for (1), studying and interacting with other teachers and "experts" for (2) and (3). (1) is the hardest to fix, of course, since it takes lots of time but the internet makes this so much easier than it was decades ago.

References

Enser, M. Knowing your subject: The role of disciplinary knowledge in effective teaching. Impact Issue 3, Summer 2018 (Chartered College of Teaching) p. 68-9

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. et al (2014) What makes Great Teaching?  Review of the Underpinning Research, London: Sutton Trust

Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1) 12-19


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