Teachers’ beliefs in ELT

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Teachers’ beliefs in ELT - such an undervalued topic for discussion in teachers’ rooms and on TESOL courses the whole world over.

As teachers of the English language, we owe it to both ourselves and our students to look back on our careers, analyse our current approaches to teaching and define what our beliefs are.

With the help of some fascinating articles and books written by Professor Jack C. Richards and colleagues on the topic of teachers’ beliefs in ELT, I’ve been on my own little journey to pin down how my current beliefs as an English language teacher have been shaped.

In this post, I’ll share some of my teaching experiences and discuss how they led to the evolution of my own beliefs as a teacher. I will also discuss how my approaches to teaching have changed as a result of my journey of discovery. 


SCHOOLING AS ONE OF THE MAIN SOURCES OF TEACHERS’ BELIEFS

When it comes to teachers’ beliefs in ELT, a teacher’s experiences at school undoubtedly have an influence on the development of their belief systems.

One point put forward by Clark and Peterson (1986, summarised and discussed in Breen, ms., pp. 47-48) is that “core” teachers’ beliefs are built as a result of teachers’ own schooling while observing teachers who taught them.  

As I discuss here in greater detail, I have no idea how I got a top grade in my French school-leaving exam because after five years of learning the language, I could barely say a single thing about myself. 

In my first few years as an ELT teacher, I had little opportunity to reflect on my school days and begin to cement my beliefs as a teacher.

Why was that?

I was so intent on being organised, sticking to coursebooks and following the advice of my superiors.

When I began to study for a master’s degree in ELT at The Nottingham Trent University in 2009, I had more time to reflect on my experiences as a language learner and teacher. The dreaded audio-lingual method was rubbished by my tutors, and I also came to the conclusion that my French and German teachers at school were out of touch with reality. 

To be fair to my language teachers at school, they were probably just following orders to turn pages in set textbooks.

So, yes, Clark and Peterson, our experiences at school do run around our minds, but it can take time for them to boil to the surface, especially when we’re just starting out as ELT teachers - or have bosses who are addicted to audio-lingualism and will not allow any other method of teaching in their school.

Oh yes - as I shall discuss soon, I went through all that. 


ON BEING A NOVICE EFL TEACHER

My first taste of EFL was back in 2006 as a trainee teacher doing CELTA at the former International House in Kraków, Poland.

I’m not going to dive into an extended analysis of the pros and cons of CELTA right now, but the course did little to instil any positive beliefs in me.

Even during the CELTA, I shuddered at the idea of creating lessons plans which revolve around PPP (presentation, practice, production) and there was no chance of me sticking to such “methods” post-CELTA.

If a teacher presents a grammar item to students at the beginning of the class, is it really possible for low-level students to accurately apply this grammar point in the production activity at the end of the lesson? 

Moreover, what if half the class seems to be already familiar with the “grammar item of the day”? 

And don’t get me started on other CELTA-related acronyms, such as CCQs (concept checking questions). My stomach still churns.

The biggest influence that CELTA had on me was an almost manic obsession with timing and organising the sequence of activities. Thus, one of my first beliefs as a teacher was born during the CELTA:

“If I am well-prepared and plan activities to the exact minute, I won’t fall apart during lessons”


Naturally, when one is freed from the shackles of CELTA tyranny, any initial beliefs gained with regard to timing and sequencing should begin to dissipate.

My first job was at Brytania School of English in the town of Dębica in southeastern Poland. 

First impressions - very positive. Good students, a mostly hands-off yet supportive Director of Studies, a non-interfering boss and an experienced colleague from England who was always willing to advise me.

Hence, additional time may need to be devoted to giving certain students additional help or explaining a tricky topic or structure to the whole class. 

Thus, three months into my teaching career, my beliefs regarding meticulous to-the-minute lesson planning began to shift:

“I should prepare activities well, but I don’t need to plan to the minute. Allow for some spontaneity and surprise”


My second full-time job was at a well-run language school in northeastern Bosnia. I quickly realised that my boss was an audio-lingual buff. For nine long months, I did little else but do choral drills with seemingly baffled kids and adults. 

The amazing thing is that my boss’s enthusiasm for the audio-lingual method whipped me up into a choral-drilling frenzy, even though my students could not say anything with substance about themselves whenever we weren’t in drilling mode.

In Bosnia, I was overworked, exhausted and powerless. I believed in something that was, quite frankly, unbelievable. 

Poor students.


BUILDING EXPERIENCE - PRINCIPLES DERIVED FROM APPROACHES AND METHODS

Broadly speaking, I have experience with four approaches to second language teaching - communicative language teaching (CLT), the audio-lingual method, the  lexical approach and task-based language teaching.

I’ve already mentioned my audio-lingual crazed boss at the second language school I worked at. I’ll never forget the day she rubbished the communication-based style I had adopted at my first school, thus: “So, Steven, you just chatted with your students”.

After my experiences with CLT and audio-lingualism at the two aforementioned language schools, I moved to Nottingham to study for a master’s degree in English Language Teaching. 

Naturally, I was introduced to lots of new ideas and approaches on the course. But it was the Lexical Approach, inspired by linguist Michael Lewis, which began to capture my attention.

Words, words, words - I’d always had a fascination with words. I was the best speller in my primary school. So, it dawned on me that my best bet was to encourage my students to focus on learning words and phrases.

I wrote my thesis on the vocabulary recording strategies adopted by Chinese students on a set of blank flash cards.

The rest is history. A very deep belief was born while I was just about to wrap up my master’s degree:

“Students need words. Not just individual words - phrases and collocations as well. They need to learn the phrases that native speakers use on a regular basis. From now on, grammar will come second to lexis in my classes”


Aside from the occasional task-based activity I occasionally set students, the Lexical Approach has almost wholly defined my teaching since 2012. 

As I shall discuss later, I also believe that this approach helped me to master the Serbian language in quick time.


THE LEXICAL APPROACH - JUST A SPRINGBOARD FOR MY OWN IDEAS AND METHODOLOGIES

I read a little about the Lexical Approach whilst studying for my master’s in 2009.

Perhaps I didn’t have to read much. Something clicked immediately. My future students would need to learn plenty of phrases and collocations, or “lexical chunks” - words that are commonly found together.

After gaining my master’s in 2011, I worked in a private language school where I had to use coursebooks once again. However, I put far more emphasis on vocabulary learning, some collocation learning and getting mostly elementary and pre-intermediate students to create personalised sentences using target vocabulary and collocations.

At the beginning of 2012, I arrived in Łódź, Poland, to teach General English and Business English to high-flying CEOs and managers working in logistics and a range of SMEs.

It was the first time I did not have any syllabuses and coursebooks hanging over me. My boss’s instructions were more or less: “Use as few materials as possible and learn the art of getting people to talk about themselves”.

I couldn’t quite get myself to turn up to class without a plan or an article, like my boss often did, but I began to revel in the newfound freedom I had with selecting materials and demonstrating vocabulary and collocation learning strategies to students. 

I began to immerse some of my students in authentic materials - that is genuine materials created for native speakers. It was a breath of fresh air for me to be able to read and analyse news articles and listen to TED talks with students. I discovered that, by utilising authentic materials, opportunities for incidental vocabulary, collocation and grammar learning were plentiful. 

Without consciously knowing it, my teaching began to bear the hallmarks of many of Lewis’s key principles of the Lexical Approach (pp.vi-vii):

  • The grammar/vocabulary dichotomy is invalid; much language consists of multi-word ‘chunks’
  • A central element of language teaching is raising students’ awareness of, and developing their ability to ‘chunk’ language successfully
  • Grammar as structure is subordinate to lexis
  • Task and process, rather than exercise and product, are emphasised
  • Receptive skills, particularly listening, are given enhanced status
  • The Present-Practise-Produce paradigm is rejected ...


OUT OF THE CLASSROOM AND ONTO MY LAPTOP

Apart from four successive summer stints teaching EAP at The University of Southampton and a two year lectureship at The University of Novi in Serbia, the years 2013-2019 saw me turn to self-employment and online teaching.

I would no longer have face-to-face contact with students, which led me to believe that I would need to adopt a more engaging and novel approach to materials design.

The solution I came up with was to create my own texts in which I share some of my life experiences and opinions on current affairs.

My texts are written in the first person and are full of phrases commonly used by native speakers. Therefore, the language in my texts is more representative of spoken English rather than formal written English. 

You can read a little more about my texts and find an example text here.

Based on my students’ apparent enthusiasm when it comes to working with my texts, and their ability to recall the language and phrases in them, the following belief has remained with me since 2013:

“A teacher’s self-written texts can serve as a wonderful bonding mechanism between both the teacher and student. This is because students look forward to receiving glimpses into their teacher’s life. This intrigue leads to greater text interaction among students and, in turn, improved recall of structures and collocations”


LEARNING SERBIAN MADE ME A BETTER TEACHER

In between online classes I was taking with a very good teacher of Serbian from Belgrade, I was conscious of the fact that I needed one or two innovative language learning strategies which would help me to keep track of all the phrases and vocabulary I was learning in lessons and hearing outside in the real world.

The answer - a Word-Phrase Table.

In essence, I realised that I needed to create personalised sentences which contained newly-learned words and phrases. 

As I discovered after only a few months contact with the Serbian language, I was able to recall these true sentences about my life, hobbies and experiences etc in the conversations I was having. I like to say that these sentences were “swimming in my brain”.

And that is the essence of fluency - having words, phrases, clauses and personalised sentences rushing around the mind and on the tip of your tongue.

Hence, a new belief was born, and I began to pass on my language learning hacks to my students of English. Most of them were intrigued by the concept of “personalisation”:

“I can teach students lots of words and collocations - but what then? I need to get them to create personalised sentences which contain these newly-learned words and collocations.  I need to create a PELC Word-Phrase Table for them myself, give them an early motivational boost by adding a few recently learned words and then create true sentences based on what I already know about them. I will always be at hand to check their Word-Phrase Tables”


I began to notice how several of my students were focusing on some rather rare and unhelpful lexis, so I also had to teach students to be selective with their vocabulary/collocation learning:

“It’s not necessary to record every single new word and collocation in one’s Word-Phrase Table. I need to help my students and tell them which words and phrases are used by native speakers on a regular basis, and which phrases could really make a difference to their fluency”


When I was learning Serbian, it wasn’t all about collocations and my Word-Phrase Table.

I saw my teacher was a “guide”. I always had plenty of questions for her based on some of the language and phrases I was hearing on the streets of Novi Sad, Serbia. I also began to find texts which interested me, and I would discuss them with my teacher and pick her brain about some of the grammar points and lexis.

It dawned on me that teachers shouldn’t have to spoon-feed students. Students should also take some initiative by finding their own materials, and noting down questions and personalised sentences ready for their teacher to check:

“I shouldn’t spoon-feed my students so much. They have interests. They have passions. They surely must read something in English. They must listen to podcasts and interviews. Let them plan classes for themselves from time to time”


SELF-IMPROVEMENT AND BLOGGING

2020 is just around the corner, and I’ve just secured copies of three books either edited or written by Michael Lewis, as well as books about Task-based language teaching, the use of corpora in language teaching and prepositions.

I can’t see my beliefs divulging much from the importance of learning and personalising collocations and lexical chunks, but it’s time for a fresh injection of ideas.

If I had one criticism of myself as a teacher, it would be that I can easily become stuck in a comfort zone and not see things through my students’ eyes.

Therefore, in recent months, I’ve introduced some of my students to tasks which are a far cry from the usual “send out a news article and get ready for a discussion” approach.

Some of these tasks include telling a made-up story based on a set of pictures. Students are encouraged to use a list of phrases and words. 

One story that my students have had to make up is of an eventful bus journey they had in London. Here’s a link to the task.

All in all, what a breath of fresh air these tasks have been for both my students and me. Everybody’s stepped out of their comfort zone a touch, and my students’ language skills will be all the better for it in the long run. 

One student was really thinking outside of the box when he used most of the phrases to tell a true story about a bus journey he experienced in Cambridge.

_______

Writing this blog has also prompted me to pull my finger out with regard to assessing my beliefs and introducing my students to challenging and unfamiliar tasks.

I haven’t read much ELT-related literature since 2011, and it’s been refreshing to dip into some articles and books again.


CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Teachers’ beliefs in ELT - we owe it to our students to reflect on and critically analyse our practises and approaches. 

It hasn’t been easy for me, but I’m beginning to implement new ideas and techniques in my classes. Students have been preparing admirably for these tasks.

I’ve just been on a deeply reflective fourteen year journey.

Are you ready to step out of your comfort zone as well?


References:

Breen, M.P. (ms). A pragmatics of language teaching: From practice to principles. Manuscript.

Lewis, M., 1993. The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward, London: Commercial Colour Press

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  • jack richards
    Reply

    Hi Steve
    I really enjoyed reading your blog and particularly your account of how you applied yourself to the task of mastering new vocabulary and phrases. You have shown how motivation, perseverance as well as an awareness of how to break through to communication in a target language can make a huge difference in mastering a second language.
    Jack C Richards

    • Steve
      Reply

      Dear Professor Richards,
      Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed reading my blog.

      Regards
      Steve

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