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Getting started in TEFL

What constitutes a good EFL teacher-training programme? Stated differently, 'What qualifications, knowledge, skills and abilities are EFL employers looking for in their newly hired EFL teachers?' By identifying and listing the knowledge, skills and abilities found in the competent EFL teacher, it should thereafter be an easy task to describe and discern what constitutes a good EFL teacher-training programme.

What qualifications are required? The most essential prerequisite is to have a good command of English. If you have this, there are a number of routes into EFL. The best known of which are as follows:

  • Cambridge University's Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) or Certificate in English Language Teaching to Young Learners (CELTYL).
  • Trinity College of London's Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certificate or Certificate in teaching English to Young Learners (CTEYL).
  • In-house initial teaching certificates such as those offered by EFL schools like Language Link.
  • A Bachelor's Degree in TEFL.

What knowledge is required?

Knowledge falls into three broad categories.

Grammar and Phonetics: The first category, and unfortunately that which is most lacking in EFL teachers today, is a thorough knowledge of the terminology and grammar of the English language. Without this, it is impossible to succeed in the TEFL field. For any who consider learning grammar to be a waste of time for native speakers let me assure you that it is not. Without this knowledge you will never become a real EFL teacher. Though Teaching English as a Foreign Language is not an easy endeavour, it is made unnecessarily difficult by failing, or worse refusing, to learn the grammar of the English language. Likewise, teachers should have knowledge not just of English but also about English.

Phonetics, though considered less important than grammar, plays a critical role in assisting the student to understand proper pronunciation. This is especially true when it is necessary for students to visualize the difference between what they think they are saying and what they are saying in reality. Taken one step further, teachers who take the time to compare the students' native language with their own particular dialect of English will have a greater understanding of the potential problems that students are likely to have pronouncing various sounds (phonemes) or sound combinations i.e., words and phrasal units .

Methodology: Knowing what to teach is only one side of the coin. Knowing how to teach is the other. This brings us to the second broad area of knowledge needed by the successful EFL teacher- knowledge of TEFL methodology. There are many approaches to language learning and teaching. Probably the most widely used one today is called The Communicative Approach based on the theory that language is communication. In order to create an environment conducive to the learning of English, the EFL teacher must be able to facilitate the communication process in the classroom. A thorough knowledge of the Communicative Approach is therefore essential.

Trade tools: Finally, TEFL, like many fields of endeavour, has a set of tools which helps and supports the EFL teacher to convey the ideas necessary to the students' learning of English. These, for the most part, come in the form of books, CDs, DVDs, computer programmes, flashcards and so forth. In order to assist the student to learn grammar and to enhance the classroom environment, the EFL teacher must know what literature and materials are available, how to evaluate their worth as teaching aids and how to exploit those that are deemed worthy.

What skills are required?

To be effective, an EFL teacher must possess the skills needed to present, practice and produce language in the classroom. S/he must also be able to check that the language taught has been correctly incorporated. All this must occur within a stable classroom environment conducive to learning. Given this, all of the following skills are, without exception, deemed de rigueur to the competent and capable EFL teacher:

  • how to teach the language skills- speaking, reading, writing and listening
  • how to teach grammar and vocabulary
  • how to elicit, drill and correct errors
  • how to check for understanding
  • how to plan lessons
  • how to conduct classroom activities (games, role plays, simulations, information gaps etc)
  • how to organise pair and group work
  • how to develop student rapport
  • how to manage classrooms

What abilities are required?

With regard to the skills listed above, EFL teachers must be able to adapt these skills to the various learner settings in which they will, at one time or another, be found. Learner settings may be divided by the students' age, type of English being taught and/or language ability. As such, they include:

  • the teaching of young learners and/or adults
  • the teaching of General English, Conversational English, Business English and/or Examination Preparation
  • the teaching of same or mixed ability classes.

Though the preceding lists are by no means definitive, they do serve to highlight two points. First, Teaching English as a Foreign Language is a professional field of endeavour and second, one should not seek to enter this field without some type of formal training. As previously mentioned, there is no such thing as a 'born teacher'. To believe otherwise is ludicrous.

Finding a training course

Having identified the knowledge, skills and abilities that professional EFL teachers should have, what then can be said of the various teacher-training programmes found on the market today?

Currently, TEFL training programmes come in all shapes and sizes. For ease of writing and understanding, I shall divide TEFL courses into three categories: online courses, short taster courses and full-length (note, I didn't say long) practical courses. In assigning these designations, I have used arbitrary criteria which I shall explain. Likewise, it should be noted that some courses have characteristics that overlap others. Where possible, I will mention these.

Full-length Practical Courses: What is a full-length practical course? Essentially, a full-length practical course is one that provides the trainee with enough time to receive adequate input concerning the skills training, as well as some of the knowledge and abilities demanded of qualified EFL teachers. Likewise, such courses include a practical teaching component. Usually such courses include 100 - 120 contact hours and are run either intensively over four weeks (full-time) or semi-intensive over a few months (part-time). Class size is usually limited to 12 - 18 trainees. Finally, like the other categories of TEFL courses, prices vary greatly.

Many large companies which hire lots of teachers also offer their own in-house variety of a TEFL qualification, including Language Link. Normally such schools employ large numbers of teachers, thus they cannot always depend upon having enough CELTA/ TESOL qualified teachers applying for positions. This year, Language Link Russia employed 189 English foreign language teachers. Language Link's Internship Programme is a reputable and honest programme.

Short Taster Courses: Short taster courses refer to short-term, on-site TEFL courses of durations from two days to two weeks. Some go by the name 'TEFL seminars'. Though I have chosen to use the word 'taster', it should be noted that I have not coined the term. In reality, the term refers to short-term TEFL courses (many of which are run by reputable schools) which allow individuals 'thinking about' teaching English as a foreign language the opportunity to sample or get a 'taste' of what a 'real' TEFL course would be like; this of course, for a small fee.

Again, though it is hard to be all-inclusive, I shall try to summarise their characteristics.

For the most part, such courses do not include a practical teaching component, or if they do, it is either a trial (more precisely 'try') lesson or it incorporates time during which the trainees observe teacher trainers conducting lessons. Regardless, the problems inherent in such 'do once' or 'observe once' courses have already been alluded to. If the taster course includes a 'do once' teaching component, how is the teacher trainer able to judge whether the feedback that s/he has given will lead to the trainee's further development as a teacher unless s/he has the opportunity to observe him/her again (and again). As for 'observe once' courses, that's a lot like watching a doctor operate and then saying that you're able to imitate his/her performance. Enough said.

Secondly, the shorter the course, the less the input and scope of training the trainee will receive. Conversely, the longer the course, the more likely it is to incorporate more of the skills training that all teachers need. Given the short durations of some of these taster courses, an online course might, with respect to input, offer the trainee more by way of input and quality.

Finally, regardless of the taster course's length, the trainee is at least freer to ask 'real time' questions than would otherwise be possible online. Unfortunately, the shorter the course, the less time the trainee has to realize what exactly his/ her questions are.

Again, real taster courses were never meant to be an end in themselves (the goal was not to make you a EFL teacher) but rather a means to an end (to discover whether EFL was for you).

Online courses: As an employer of EFL teachers, I am somewhat suspicious of the effectiveness of online courses. Though I would not put them into the same category as schools that offer medical degrees by correspondence course, they have a number of similar limitations. Prior to discussing these, I do wish to point out their pluses.

First, online courses are available everywhere regardless of location, provided you have a computer and access to the Internet. Second, the subscriber can work on his/her course at times convenient to him/her. Third, depending upon the particular course in question, most are 'affordable'. Lastly, although I have never subscribed to any of the commercially available online TEFL courses, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that they are well written and academically sound.

Given that an online TEFL course possesses all these characteristics, it would appear, at first sight, to be a solid investment. Unfortunately, for all the 'good points' that an online TEFL course may have, there is one factor which undermines them all (at least all to my knowledge), they do not, more precisely cannot, incorporate a practical teaching component. Only by entering the classroom and confronting live students can a new teacher trainee discover his/her limitations.

Given that, online courses, if academically sound, do at least give you a foot up on the ladder. That said, most reputable schools are going to tell holders of such qualifications that these qualifications are not sufficient for entry into the field. Some schools such as Language Link will tell holders of online TEFL certificates that, should they wish to seek employment, they will need to apply as intern teachers which will necessitate that they attend a four week Initial Training Programme (skills training + practical teaching component) and thereafter weekly seminars and insets devoted to developing their abilities.

Teaching English as a Foreign language is a professional field of endeavour with its own body of knowledge. Anyone considering undergoing a TEFL training programme should give serious thought as to what they are about to pay their money for. Cutting corners may be cost effective at the outset, but sooner or later you will pay the price. So shop around and shop smart.

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