4.1 Changing Roles for Teachers

At the beginning of the Learning English unit we asked you to respond to the following questions:

    • ● To what extent do you consider English to be like other subjects your students might be studying? Is it more like some subjects than others, or is it not really like a school subject at all?
      ● To what extent do you regard what you do as similar to, or different from, what teachers of other subjects do?
      ● Do you think your current students are learning English in the same way that they are learning the subject matter of other classes that they might be taking?


   In Depth

In the discussion board of a community website associated with the first edition of our book Mapping Applied Linguistics (Hall et al., 2011), we asked teachers of English to post their responses to these questions. Read the following excerpts from their replies.

    • (1) “I view English and any language learning as being slightly different in their natures to other subjects as languages are not something one can learn overnight but rather you develop your skills gradually based on a great deal of practice. If you don't pay attention in history or science for example, you can swot the night before whereas languages generally require a longer, steadier commitment.” [Teacher from UK]
      (2) “I think teaching English, or any other language in general, requires far greater degrees of flexibility, fluidity, and creativity on the part of the teacher, who needs to plan the lessons and design the syllabus according to learner needs. That's one of the main features that characterises language teaching compared to other subjects. Take Geography, for example. Most of the information presented is very systemised, allowing learners to acquire the knowledge through research, reading and listening. That's pretty much due to the fact that Geography, along with many other subjects, is very book-based. […] Whereas languages are much less rigid in that learners' success involves the teacher's active participation in the learning process to ensure that the learners cognitive development is taking place during the process.” [Teacher from Indonesia]
      (3) “The knowledge of any language is accumulative. What I teach today is complementing what other language teachers have taught over the last few years. Similarly, the language rules that I teach today would remain the basics for tomorrow. Yes, other subjects can be accumulative to a degree, still the transfer of learning or 'internalising' languages is the basic for moving to the next level. It's like climbing up stairs. In geography, for instance, I can learn the geo of Asia even if I have forgotten what I learned before about Africa.” [Teacher from Gaza, Palestine]
      (4) “Some of the best language lessons I have taught or seen are those in which the teacher sits back and observes after having set up the activity. In a language lesson, active student participation is paramount – the teacher must take a supporting role for substantial periods of the class. Of course a teacher must take a much more active role in the elementary stages of language learning, but once the student is starting to become an independent user the focus is always on the student developing their own skills as a communicator.” [Teacher from UK]



activity  Activity

What appear to be the main beliefs about

    • learning English and other subjects
      teaching English and other subjects

that characterise these responses? To what extent do you share these beliefs?


Like the teachers from the UK, Gaza, and Indonesia, you may also view the learning and teaching of English as different from the learning and teaching of other school subjects. If so, you probably see your role in the classroom as one of facilitating and supporting active learning in a flexible way. Your classes may include the following:

    • ● needs analysis (what can your students already do with their English, what are their learning goals, how do they prefer to learn?)
    • ● learning goal negotiation (talking to students about how realistic their goals are, what the consequences of achieving their goals are, alternative goals)
    • ● learner training (learning how to learn)
    • ● many opportunities for students to practice achieving their goal-related tasks and identities
    • ● negotiated feedback/correction (asking students what and how they intended to communicate before assuming they have made a mistake)
    • ● flexibility (students’ output in English is unpredictable, their goals may change)



 Discussion point 4.1

Perhaps you already do some of these things. If so, share your classroom ideas and experiences here.

But classes of this kind are not common to all ELT contexts, as we saw in [3.4]. Here is another teacher posting, which reflects a different perspective.

    • (5) “In terms of students’ learning style, it seems that English learning for Japanese students is one of the subjects, such as math, history. They seem to be satisfied to get good score in the test, or pass the entrance exam. Moreover, their learning style is to memorise vocabularies and grammar etc. In other words, their interest is how much score they got in their examination. They seem not to think about why they make mistakes. It is traditional way in Japan.” [Teacher from Japan]

This teacher from Japan reminds us that the beliefs and experiences reflected in (1) to (4) are not universally shared. Depending on your own cultural context, for example, you might have been puzzled by some of the ideas expressed there. From Mexico to China, Russia to Botswana, there are dominant cultural beliefs and practices in which the teacher has the active role as a respected source and imparter of what is to be learned, and where English as ‘language subject’ rather than ‘object language’ is the default focus.

Like the teacher from Japan, you may worry that your students will not learn what they need to pass an important English test. Perhaps your employer requires you to teach a particular textbook as if you were teaching geography or history. Perhaps your students expect you to decide what they will learn and how they will learn it, or perhaps they expect you to know ‘everything’ about English. Maybe your colleagues are disturbed by the noise that your practice activities sometimes involve. Maybe you feel that you don’t have time to plan lessons that adapt, extend, or don’t involve, a textbook. If any of these concerns are relevant to your teaching situation, you might want to consider:

    • ● asking your students to bring texts they are interested in or ideas for activities or projects to class (see the section on ‘bridging activities’ later in this unit); giving them plenty of time to prepare their texts/ideas will be key to the success of these lessons;
    • ● talking to your students about Englishes (including World Englishes and ELF) and about their role in the construction of their own version of English (and how English complements their existing communicative resources in other languages);
    • ● sometimes including tips on exam strategy in your class or working through past papers with your students (while reminding them that they are practising scoring points in an exam, which is not the same thing as learning a language for communicative purposes).



 Reflection 4.1

Do you plan to talk to your students about English(es), learning English, and/or teaching English? Reflect on how you might go about it, what your students’ reactions might be, and how you might respond to them.

If you already do so, what are the challenges such discussions raise and the benefits they bring? Record your reflections here.