Unless you are a teacher, I doubt you would be familiar with CELTA. I didn’t either until 2013 when I started researching the quickest way to become a qualified teacher with international recognition and voilá.
When I enrolled for CELTA, I had never read a research paper, didn’t know what ‘pedagogy’ meant and hadn’t successfully learned any foreign or local language as an adult, though I’d tried 🤓 Fortunately, for me, none of these were a prerequisite to take CELTA. Let me compare my journey as a teacher, since the first day of my pre-service, with a popular fiction-comedy-drama Hindi film ‘PK’; one of my favourites.
In the film, a humanoid alien (the lead male actor) lands on Earth on a research mission (probably to understand humans?) but loses (someone steals it) the communication device that he needs to return to the spaceship. His quest to find the device takes him through various popular beliefs and practices prevalent in India. As you would have guessed, his entire quest is marinated in a gamut of emotions, from frustration, failure, confusion, helplessness to moments of joy, empathy, and, eventually, success and lots of new learning.By the end of the film, he has a little better understanding of what it means to be human and, in fact, falls in love with one (the lead female actor). But the director wasn’t done yet –he had one last twist. The movie ends with the humanoid alien returning to earth with a new set of aliens who are about to commence their journey, but before they do, the returning alien issues injunctions (key learning from the previous expedition) to avoid the same pitfalls.
This brings me to the purpose of this post. No, I am not getting on the CELTA roller coster again, but I would like to put forward a few suggestions on how to transform CELTAinto a comprehensive pre-service teacher training program instead of just a starting point where trainees are expected to learn the ropes of teaching on the job.
Stricter barrier to entry
Would you hire a personal trainer at a gym who doesn’t work out? Or, will you consider hiring a social media strategist who doesn’t have a social media account?If we agree that the process of learning our first language is different from learning an additional language as an adult, then the concern that troubles me a lot is: how can a teacher who has never experienced the failures and triumphs of learning another language as an adult genuinely understand and empathise with an adult language learner, let alone teach them?
The turning point in my teaching career came when I started learning Thai to communicate with my in-laws. The disconnect between my approach to learning Thai and teaching English to others was an eye-opener. If I were gifted a time machine and asked to choose a point in my past to go back to and resume life, it would definitely be to my first day of teaching to a group of university learners in 2015.It pains me to realise now that I might have discouraged some of my initial learners from pursuing English further due to the frustrations they felt for not being able to perform according to “the aims of the lesson”.
Well, we can’t change the past but it can certainly inform our future. Hence, I am of the opinion that one criterion for pre-service teacher training should be experience of learning a language as an adult. If the candidate doesn’t have any experience, they should be asked to take up a language during the training period and prove their success (B1/B2 level fluency in familiar contexts?) to qualify as a teacher.The idea is to experience the process of learning a language in order to be able to connect with learners on a more humane level.
Not a crash-course
At times, I find myself wondering whether this course was originally created to quickly train individuals from English-speaking countries to cater to the ever-growing influence of English in other parts of the world? To be brutally honest, it shudders to think that with less than three hours of teaching practice – out of which none were with ‘beginners’, I was unleashed on a classroom full of vulnerable learners. Imagine flying with an airline pilot with similar number of hours. Fortunately, you can’t because pilots require a minimum of 250 hours1 of flight time to get on the co-pilot seat.
Quality and confidence come with time and practice. In my humble opinion, the training period should be extended to anywhere between six months and a year. Probably, after the initial exposure to underpinning theories, trainees should be assigned a mentor or an experienced buddy teacher to assist in gradually scaffolding their classroom presence – from giving instructions for an activity to facilitating a complete lesson.At the end, trainees’ success should be determined by taking 360° feedback, including from the tutor, assigned buddy teacher(s), learners, admin team and other trainees. This might seem impractical or cumbersome, but that’s my plan for the future pre-service teaching training program at EngVictus.
Going beyond the subject knowledge and methodology
Here is one of my biggest realisations post CELTA:
“Success depends less on materials, techniques, and linguistic analyses, and more on what goes on inside and between people in the classroom.’’2– Earl Stevick
Underhill (and others) chimes with the above thought by saying “that a major variable in successful learning lies in a zone beyond both the topic being learned and the teaching method employed, and that it has to do with relationship with oneself and with others”3
He goes on further by outlining three varieties of teacher;
Teacher as “lecturer”: knowledge of subject matter
Teacher as “teacher”: knowledge of subject matter + practical skills & methods
Teacher as “facilitator”: knowledge of subject matter + practical skills & methods + beneath & beyond methodology
If you believe our central role as teachers is to be the bridge between learners and what they are trying to learn, then you might feel the urge to encourage the course designer(s) to broaden the aims a little.
Here are a few topics that, I believe, can help provide a much more firm grounding to teacher trainees:
Topic: Learning L1 vs Learning another language Topic: How do we learn languages in the real world? Topic: (Self-) Identity in a language classroom Topic: Influencing learning: what, who, how and why
Now, if you find the three suggestions a little naive and half-baked, hopefully, the following ones won’t come across that way:
create teacher trainee forums and include research paper discussions
include practice-teach classes to ‘beginner’ level learners
ask teacher trainees to come back after a year of teaching independently, to reflect and share their experiences of teaching in the real world
appoint tutors who have learned or are learning a foreign language themselves
appoint tutors who are still connected, in any form, to a real world classroom context
Just yesterday, I watched Nick Peachey’s webinar (thanks Rachel Tsateri for sharing it) suggesting practical ways to leverage Chat GPT for teacher training programs. It is evident teachers can now generate generic lesson plans within seconds using the tool. Hopefully, course designers are ahead of the game and currently busy fine-tuning the course content and assessment criteria.
What do you think? Do you feel the need to update CELTA? I am open to learning and evolving. 🤓 Looking forward to reading your comment.
By the way, the purpose of this post is not to undermine the value of CELTA. On the contrary, this course has played a pivotal role in helping me realise two of my cherished dreams. 😇
Two months ago, I started an informal mentorship program with one of the batchmates I got to know on the GMILE course with Scott Thornbury in 2021. I have written about my experience of the course over here. It was a unique course for me because never before had I been part of a formal book club facilitated by one of the top names in the ELT. Ironically, the popularity of the course (30 participants) dissuaded me to join the following years. However, as fate would have it, a handful of us from the course decided to continue meeting regularly to finish the remaining chapters of the book: “Meaningful Action: Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching”. It’s been almost two years now, and we are more than we started and have ventured beyond Earl Stevick’s work.
Coming back to my mutually beneficial mentorship project with this batchmate, a former head of a language centre and now almost about to retire as an ELT instructor with an M.A. at a German university More importantly, for me, a well-read gentleman glowing with compassion and an expert in intercultural communication. I say ‘mutually beneficial’ because, I happen to be his first mentee on his journey of pursuing mentoring professionally other young and budding teachers like me (I meant the budding part😂) who would greatly benefit from his vast experience and benevolence.I feel extremely fortunate to be his first ‘unofficial’ mentee. 😇 To consolidate my learning from this collaboration, I have decided to write regular blogposts as part of my reflection and homework. 😅
In our latest meet, I shared my concerns about lesson planning. Because I don’t use any course books or a set-course structure (a fixed set of lessons), I tend to plan lessons on a daily basis, which means I don’t plan far ahead in advance; not even a week ahead. This puts pressure on preparing lessons daily. At this point in time, with fewer learners, I might be able to manage this but it will become a cause for concern when the numbers go up. To be honest, I sometimes feel I should have materials and a plan at least for a week ahead. However, I also feel it might constraint me in managing the emergent language or other language concerns that come up during a lesson.
From our discussion, it was clear I was doing the right thing by being a ‘reactive’1 teacher and letting learners guide the lessons, but the practice of creating daily lesson plans isn’t sustainable in the long run. I realised my biggest folly — although my learners were guiding the lessons, I was doing the heavy-lifting of determining ‘what to learn when and why’ of the lessons. Thanks to my mentor’s self-reflection questions and suggestions, we were able to come up with three specific steps that have allowed me to share some of the responsibilities of lesson planning with the learners.
Our courses usually begin with an activity asking learners to write their SMART goals for the course. Then, at the end of the course, they would assign a percentage of achievement against each of those goals. However, it has dawned on me that I don’t have to wait until the end. We could do this at the end of each week or fortnight. Hence, now, I encourage learners to select what they would like to be able to do first from their list of goals. Of course, it requires some scaffolding before they can wisely as well as confidently choose the topics and more importantly mind the ‘M’ & ’A’ of SMART.
Fortunately, for me, my first couple of experiments with weekly goals have turned out to be successful, as two of the learners had urgent needs. One of them wanted to be able to present her campaign results to the global team without a script, which she hadn’t done before. And the other one had to prepare a response to ‘Where do you see yourself in five years time?’ for her interview last week. This might sound like I’m tooting my own horn, but this learner has just returned from her vacation in Pattaya, celebrating the new job, which, coincidentally, she starts today. Now, that’s a goal! 🥳
2. Offer choices prudently
Thai and Indian public education systems are quite similar in their “jug and mug” style of teaching. Learners don’t have much of a say in their learning journey, which makes the notion of choosing what, how and how much to learn quite daunting for my learners. I had a terrible experience when I threw one of the learners in at the deep end of autonomy by asking (and I quote), “What would you like to cover in our Zoom session tomorrow?”. After a few days, during the reflection stage of a lesson, she hesitantly asked me “Is everything okay?”😟. Apparently, she thought that something had gone wrong, and I was punishing her by asking her to choose what she wanted to learn. That’s what I would call an “own goal”. 😂
Now, I’m much more prudent and start off by offering a few choices on what kind of activities they would like to do to reach their goal(s). My choices are influenced by their learning preferences, identified goal(s), areas of interest or opportunities, and mood. Here is a message I sent to a learner a couple of days ago.
How would you like to spend our time on the call this evening?
1. Read the next 10 pages of Julie Zhou’s book and discuss 2. Practise making small talk 3. Practise delivering a presentation you have delivered before 4. Practise speaking about the Songkran holidays (practicing past tenses) 5. Listen to a podcast and discuss 6. Do a combination of above
3. Ask and listen
Teachers are trained to ask questions, though I don’t think my pre-service course explored the concept of listening compassionately and non-judgmentally to our learners. It feels like I was trained to listen for giving feedback. This reminds me of the anecdote3 about a teacher who starts chatting with learners and asks,
T:…did you have a good weekend?
(one of the)Ls: I got married.
T: (smiling) You got married! You certainly had a good weekend then. (laughter and buzz of conversation)
T: Now turn to page 56…
Over the past couple of years, particularly after the onset of COVID, I have trained myself to listen to my learners as I would to any other adult human being I am having a genuine conversation with. The discussion I had with my mentor reminded me of the importance of “listening for understanding”4 Here is a list of seven questions I find myself often asking because learners’ responses to these have eased some of the burden of making decisions on their behalf:
How was your day today? (pre-lesson small talk)
How do you feel? (right after a production activity / post detailed feedback)
Why do you think this error is difficult to remove? (during delayed error correction stage)
What did you find most useful? (reflection stage)
What was the most enjoyable part of the lesson? (reflection stage)
What did you find least engaging today? (reflection stage)
What is your biggest takeaway? (reflection stage)
Without fail, I write down exactly what, and sometimes how, they respond to the above questions in my post-lesson reflection log. The more qualitative data I am able to gather, the less time I spend thinking and planning ‘our’ lessons.
How do you reduce your lesson planning time? Do you have any suggestions for me? 💭
(1) (3) Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. (2009) ‘Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching’, Delta Publishing House, 11
(2) Doran, G. T. (1981) ‘There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives’. Management Review. 70 (11): 35–36.
(4) Stevick, E. (1998) ‘Working with Teaching Methods: What’s at Stake?’, A Teacher Resource Book, Heinle & Heinle, (5)
In the first week of January, this year, Ross Thornburn celebrated the 200th episode of his podcast by asking two, in my opinion, pivotal questions to eight easily recognisable names in the ELT world.
1. What common practices would you like to see less (in a language classroom)?
2. Which less common teaching practices would you like to see more?
Although each of them shares their profound wisdom, it was Rod Bolitho and Tessa Woodward’s thoughts that truly struck a chord.
Following are excerpts from their responses.
LESS COMMON – MORE OF THIS
Teachers to be more reflective…then go talk to different people, get different perspectives…’
COMMON – LESS OF THIS
A test-prep teacher who only believes that the students don’t know what to do, the teacher, in the precious time of preparation, needs to give the students as much as possible by lecturing them.
LESS COMMON – MORE OF THIS
One thing I found students really enjoy is translating a sentence or looking at the translation of a particular word or phrase within a context and….there is a lot going on, it’s fun, it increases awareness of language….
COMMON – LESS OF THIS
…teachers stop asking students to read (aloud) a new text, cite reading, a reading aloud round the class…there is a place for reading aloud after the student know the meaning of the text, know what they are saying…
LESS COMMON – MORE OF THIS
…so assuming that the learning outcomes can be formulated in a way which makes them assessable you also need to have some initial diagnosis of their existing knowledge or skill and plan it in the lesson some form of evaluation…
COMMON – LESS OF THIS
…choral drilling when it stays at the whole class level…who are all chanting discordantly in rugged fashion whatever it is the teacher wants them to do again. What purpose does that serve?…
LESS COMMON – MORE OF THIS
…I believe…it can be useful for teachers to admit their own uncertainty. I feel that it’s importantat times, as it might be useful for me, to share my own experiences ofbeing a language learner
COMMON – LESS OF THIS
Over the years I have learnt to tone down my own tendency to try to ‘correct’ students’ errors …Years ago, De Wright and I decided, in a 1991 publication, to talk about treating students’ errors instead of correcting students’ errors because only students can correct their errors, its only the learners who can do the learning.
Professor/Chairperson IRF for ELE
LESS COMMON – MORE OF THIS
I’d like to see teachers, myself included, ask the question, ‘How could I be wrong?’ …’What does it mean for me to say this is working?’….this idea of working and not working is really not a frozen, static idea, but it’s one that moves with our understanding of learners and learning.
COMMON – LESS OF THIS
I like to see teachers do less of the things they think work…
LESS COMMON - MORE OF THIS
COMMON - LESS OF THIS
LESS COMMON – MORE OF THIS
…including the learners …focus more on what learners want to learn.
COMMON – LESS OF THIS
…to stop talking too much…it sucks the time away from learners to process things.
A few weeks ago, Rachel had published a post sharing her first DELTA input session reflection, which dealt with ‘teaching reading’ and urged readers to share their thoughts.Someday, I am going to watch her live, in-action, and observe her make magic in the classroom but until then I make do with writing comments on her posts, which is part of my professional development. In thiscomment, I had highlighted that none of my learners, barring one; all young adults in their mid or late 20s, are interested in reading long-form texts like blogs or books. Hence, one of my primary aims, which Stevick would call ‘a deep aim’, is to inculcate the desire to read more.
Before I could chart a path to the desired aim, I had to ponder over the reasons for my learners’ dislike or sheer ignorance of reading longer forms of texts. Of course, they do read texts (subtitles, keywords, carousel posts, posters and a few more) posted on social media platforms. They sometimes even take the pain of reading the post caption and, if the content is really engaging, they might go as far as reading some of the comments posted. But beyond that, you are expecting a bit too much.
Here are three of my yet-to-be-completely-successful attempts to mitigate the issues highlighted above.
Make them curious
This is something I know quite a few teachers do with their young learners; an MFL teacher brought the characters of a story book alive by sharing just about enough for kids to get to the edge of their seats and listen. I remember a Thai teacher (teaching Thai) inviting a musician to the class, who along with the teacher sang the story from this book while playing guitar.
One of my learners has to regularly share complex data with her team by creating visual infographics. I introduced her to some of Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic’s work and she got curious. To my great satisfaction, we have now reached the third chapter of Knaflic’s ‘Storytelling with Data’ and she isn’t bored yet, in fact, she is eager to reach chapter 4.
Help them notice
Underhill taught me the value of making ‘… the inner moves of learning more visible,’. The other day, upon asking, my learner explained to me how she was coping with the complexity of the language in the book (Dealing with Difficult People by Rob Lilley) we are currently reading; the author has used dry humour, local slangs and excessive words. She told me she usually skips words which don’t add to the central idea of the text and was willing to take the risk of adding meaning to words or texts from her limited understanding. The fact that she gets to discuss the chapter with me over the call has boosted her appetite to take risks. This also helps her not disrupt her flow while reading a chapter.
Another vital component is urging learners to articulate how reading something is benefitting them as a person; not just a language learner. The same learner during the same conversation had confessed she is now able to read more than mere two pages at one go without feeling drowsy. She went on to add she is now able to focus more on things; apparently, her level of concentration while indulged in any task has increased. During this entire reflection process, she saw a direct positive correlation between her reading habit and her ability to focus.
Make it active
Not one learner, except the exam-prep pupils, so far, has included improving reading proficiency as part of their goals when they started with me. Hence, simply asking them to start reading in their spare time would have landed on deaf ears. One way to get around that was to bring the text alive during our interactions.
Currently, I am involved only in one-on-one online teaching, which I divide between Zoom sessions and Line (similar to WhatsApp) calls.We utilise a lot of these Line calls to discuss our takeaways (I too read the book), from the set of pages we pre-determine to read, express disagreement and/or clarify doubts. This urges them to interact with the text and provides an impetus to sustain their new habit. Here are some activities I use to coalesce the text (book/blogpost) into the overall scheme of improving language proficiency;
I mentioned earlier these are yet to be completely successful because I still have a couple of learners who just won’t dare pick up a book no matter how convinced they are of the benefits. One of them once innocently confessed and summed up the hesitation, ‘Girish, I know reading is good but I know myself more.’
One of the ways I try to inculcate the habit of reading among my learners is to choose a book that is highly relevant for their career or education in the present and read it along with them. We do this by participating in 15 to 20-minute telephonic discussions on a chapter or a section of a chapter where we share our takeaways as well as raise questions.
‘Stop Talking, Start Influencing’ wasn’t my first choice for this learner who works at a prominent social media company as a small & medium business account manager. I had heard about Jonas Berger’s ‘Contagious: Why Things Catch on’; hence went to my local library to borrow, but, unfortunately, found out it was ‘on loan’ for the next 10 days. So, I unwisely decided to go to the section this book is usually placed in to sift through the rows of books in the desperate desire to find an alternative.
To my credit, I did manage to cherry pick a book, but now that I sit and write this post you would realise it has very little to do with social media account management, which means the said learner never read this book. Coincidentally, the learner, while window shopping at a downtown mall, came across a book fair and found the book recommended to her, months ago, by one of her friends. What luck!
As they say, ‘No knowledge is a waste.’, and because I was curious I did end up borrowing Horvath’s STSI. Boy, am I glad I did! To express the extent of my gladness, I think this book is going to become one of the main features of our future teacher development programs. Yes, you read that right; this book is for teachers (among others).
What is astonishing to me now is that the book does exactly what it says, ‘start influencing’, right from the moment you lay your eyes on it. Let me share how it unconsciously influenced my decision in singling it out.
*I don’t usually sift through rows of books by analysing their spines rather I go through their front covers.
Here are my top THREE reasons that make this book an influential read, especially, if you are a teacher
1. ‘…you experience the book.’ – Dr. Todd Rose
In every chapter, the author backs up his insight not just through science but also by demonstrating it through different activities. If the book cover wasn’t a good enough example, try this.
Plug in your earphones and listen to any podcast episode you haven’t before
Either continue reading this post or pick up a book and start reading a page you haven’t before
Your goal is to simultaneously understand both the words coming from the podcast speaker and the text you are reading.
It is humanly impossible to do both. You could do the same experiment by listening to a presenter and reading a presentation slide with dense text. Sorry, but you will have to let go of one to understand the other.This is because there is only one passageway (the Broca/Wernicke network – don’t I sound like a neuroscientist? 🤓) and it can allow only one stream of information pass through it at any one point of time. However, like me, if you push back by stating, ‘but I can listen to music and read simultaneously or listen to a podcast and read a text message?’. Well, all I would say is ‘Read the book.’
By the end of the book, the author makes you experience Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve theory and effectiveness of retrieval practice.
2. Accessible language and simplified concepts
This reminds me of Einstein’s quote, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ Horvath’s use of easy-to-understand language with relevant images and practical examples makes this book accessible to teachers. You don’t need to have any prior knowledge or a science background to comprehend the concepts presented in the book.To illustrate my point, in chapter 11 ‘Stress’, Horvath dexterously demystifies the neural activity between the Hippocampus and Amygdala and its physical as well mental impact when we experience stress by creating an analogous story using characters we all know and understand i.e. a dense forest, a castle, seeds, etc. Wish, science was this interesting at school. 😞
3. Explains the why and the how of learning
I bet, if you are a teacher, you have experienced this. A learner is valiantly trying to recall a word recently learnt but isn’t able to and just when you provide a clue specific to the context that word was learnt in and voilà!Well, my friend, let me put my neuroscientist glasses on and tell you, this is called the PPA (parahippocampal place area) processing. The PPA, a small area located at the base of the hippocampus, constantly encodes and embeds all the information associated with the information being processed. Hence, in this case, everything associated with the word being recalled, was processed by the PPA when the word was first encountered by the learner.
Thanks to the book I now understand the science behind some of the lesson planning stages and techniques I learnt during my CELTA (activate schema, elicit prior knowledge, vary tasks, delay or spot error correct, etc.).
You could dig deeper into the concepts, if you like, by reading through some of the listed references in the book.
Stop Talking, Start Learning by Jared Cooney Horvath