ESL training

Encouraging teacher development

We teachers might like to think we know it all…… or we’re really uncertain about how to further our own development… or we’re looking for a way to improve our performance, but uncertain of how to go about it.  At the end of the day, there’s always a way to improve our teaching, and usually reason enough to do so, no matter how good one might already be in the teaching profession.

One way to direct our professional development as teachers is through the use of specialized teacher portfolios.  After an internet search, I found two different portfolios, each with a slightly different focus.

Portfolio for Student Teachers of Languages:

This European Portfolio for Student Teachers of Languages (EPOSTL) focuses on concrete issues related to teaching, such as Context, Methodology, Resources and Lesson planning.  Below is a mind map of the topics covered in this portfolio.  There is the occasional  reference to cultural sensitivity, but most of the indicators refer to general teaching skills for a beginning teacher, with the emphasis on language teaching.


Download here:  Teacher-portfolio EPOSTL-EN  

Portfolio for (Pre-) Primary Teachers of Languages

For more experienced teachers wishing to have a deeper look at their plurilingual and intercultural competences, there is another portfolio developed by the European Centre for Modern Languages.  The Pepolino portfolio was developed for teachers of pre-primary education, but it could be used for teachers in primary education as well, depending on your own starting situation.  There are a few indicators for general teaching skills, but also quite a few related to cultural sensitivity and diversity.  For teachers working in multicultural schools, this is an excellent way to test your own development in this area.


Download here:  Teacher-portfolio pepelino-EN-web

Both of these portfolios look really large – and therefore a bit daunting – as they are documents with no less than ninety pages each.  When embarking on using a pre-designed portfolio like this, therefore, it’s important to realize you don’t have to fill in all ninety pages, just the few that focus on the competences you wish to work on.  So look through it carefully, check what areas are going well already, and then decide what areas need your immediate attention.

Online possibilities:

The British Council has on online teacher’s skills assessment you can fill in to get a general idea of what you might work on, to improve your teacher skills.  Of course, this online assessment is linked to an online course (also offered by the British Council), which you can follow if you like.

The nice thing about portfolios is that they allow you to work on at your own pace, on areas that you’ve decided are relevant to your daily practice.  There’s a certain measure of self-evaluation involved, which means you need to look at yourself honestly: not too generously, but not too harshly either.  Whatever you do, be willing to confront yourself with the good, the bad, and the ugly, and realize that a good teacher is a growing teacher.

And have fun!  Because that’s what makes learning work well: a dose of enjoyment while working on our teacher skills.




Following the “method”

English-bookYesterday, I was playing a game with my students called “stand in line”.  I asked questions, they had to figure out what place in the line was theirs, and then they had to give their answers.  Questions such as “How old are you” and “How long does it take you to get to school?” were answered easily enough.  They could order themselves from youngest to oldest, from longest to shortest commute without any problem.

Then I asked a harder question: “How confident are you in teaching English to young children?”  After spending half a semester helping them learn to teach and play with their young pupils, I was hoping that they would feel at least somewhat confident in this aspect of their work.

And indeed, a few students stood near the front of the line, indicating that they felt pretty confident about teaching English to young people, and a number placed themselves a bit further back along the line.  I then asked them the next question: why they had chosen that particular place along the line.

As I expected, the students up front said that they felt good about their own abilities, they’d paid good attention during the lessons and had gotten some good ideas, while others mentioned that they’d had good experiences teaching English to young children and indeed, were looking forward to teaching English again.  Further back along the line, students talked about how they felt about their own English, and how they wished they could speak English more fluently and confidently so that they could pass this on to their own class.  This touched me, and I asked what more I could do to help them in this area.

One student, however, said something quite different.  He hadn’t been coming to the lessons, so I was surprised to see him standing near the front of the line.  I asked him why he’d chosen that spot for himself.  He told the class that he’d chosen that spot because he figured, that if he just “followed the method”, then he’d do just fine.

I need to explain something here.  In the Netherlands, the word for “textbook” is “method”.  A complete misnomer, but one I cannot seem to purge from my student’s understanding.  There is a tendency for teachers and students alike to put their blind trust in those who wrote the textbooks, and this leads to all sorts of strange situations in the world of Dutch education.

Back to my story.  I looked at this student, mouth agape, wondering if I’d really taught them that badly.  I soon remembered that it wasn’t my fault – after all, he hadn’t been coming to class – but was too taken aback by this answer to give a proper response.  Something clicked.  And it wasn’t a happy click.  This student was willingly walking into the trap of becoming a “method slave”, as we call it here; a teacher who simply follows the textbook in the misguided trust that it will lead him and his class to wherever they should go.

Why is it, I asked myself, that I have such a complete aversion to this sort of thinking?  Why can I not just “trust the ‘method'” like so many others?  My answer to that is manifold.  But the long and short of it is, the ‘method’ doesn’t always match the child.  On the one hand, sometimes the ‘method’ is too hard.  On the other hand, many classes have “native speakers” of English, for whom the level of English offered in the ‘method’ is too easy.  Other times, the ‘method’ becomes repetitive, with the same activities offered unit after unit.  Oftentimes, the ‘method’ is flawed, offering too little opportunity for children to practice speaking English with each other, instead focusing on the skills of listening and reading – also necessary, but only half of any situation in which actual communication is involved.

Worst of all are the situations in which a school head decides to implement a new, school-wide, program of English, all in one go.  Materials are bought, in a series of textbooks that assume that the children working out of the highest levels have already tackled the previous levels with some measure of success.  Which, of course, they haven’t.  The teacher is faced with an immense gap between that which the book intends to cover (and teach), and that which the children can actually grasp.  This problem goes far beyond the Zone of Proximity, and children in this situation will be left with feelings of incapability that might even reach into adulthood.

Blindly “following the method” is an unacceptable way of teaching.  That is why it is so important for future teachers to learn to see and observe their children.  Teachers must make note of their children’s needs and know what the next logical step is, in regards to their further development as learners.  They must really take a critical look at what their textbooks and materials have to offer, and decide to what extent these match up with their learners’ needs.  They must understand that when these two parties don’t match, it is up to them, the teachers, to make the necessary adaptations and bridge the gap between the two.  That is what teacher training is all about.

Back to the basics


During the first lesson of English didactics for my university students, I lay out the task: for the run of the course, they were going to work on creating their own “method” for teaching English.  Each student would write two lessons, including a number of activating materials and activities, a cross-curricular connection, and a simple means of assessment.  The lessons were to fit the ability and interest of their class, and fit into a given didactic model.

Of course, the students stared at me, wondering what on earth half of that even meant.  I continued on, explaining that the word “method”, often used by Dutch educators to mean the textbook they use, is actually a misnomer.  We weren’t, therefore, going to actually make up a “method”, but create a series of lesson plans that we would publish for our own class.  Heads started nodding warily, as students realized they still lacked too much information to even begin with this task.

After that, I passed out the post-its.  Time for them to start thinking up their questions.   As they handed in their questions, I sorted them into topic piles.  The students sorted themselves into groups, and I handed each of them a pile of post-its, along with some handy search terms.  They were going to find information – any information at all – that was going to help them figure out the whats and hows for the task at hand.

As I read the questions, I remembered my own beginnings as a young teacher.  The kinds of questions I’d had, way back when.  “How do I keep their attention?” one student asked.  Another: “What is a didactic approach?” or “What is a cross-curricular connection?”  Others asked “How do I know what children like?” and “What is their level of English?”  These questions pulled me back from my lofty dreams and years of experience back to the nitty-gritty of the basics: these Freshmen students were ready to learn, with heads full of questions.  Time to get to work!

We spent some of the next lesson discussing our position regarding the use of L1 during the English lesson.   It’s easy during these discussions to think that one’s own opinion is better or more valid because most people agree on it.  It was a bit of an eye-opener when we realized that just because less people have a certain opinion, doesn’t make it less valid.  It just means we have to listen carefully and take everyone’s opinions into account.


It was important to help students remember what it was like to learn a new language from scratch.  I decided to teach them a short, 10-minute lesson in Russian.  No, I don’t really speak Russian, but I figured out just enough to teach them the words for apple, orange, and banana, and to learn how to ask and answer “What’s this?”  That simple example really hit home, and we refer to it often.  It was only ten minutes, but we learned so much: how to start and end a lesson, how to introduce new vocabulary, basic classroom management, how to play a simple game of pass-the-question, how to keep it fun, and most importantly, how to give the students a feeling of success in a very new and strange environment.

We have a few more lessons to go with our class, and every time we get together I put on my “back to basics” hat, looking at my material with the eyes of the inexperienced.  It’s an enriching way of teaching, to say the least, and one I hope to keep going in the years to come.

Practice makes perfect!

Working as a new college lecturer this past school year, I was grateful to the woman who had held the position before me, as she had carefully prepared nearly everything I would need to do in the course of the year.  Course outlines, test matrices, and student teaching assignments were all ready-made.  Finding myself jumping into in the deep end was made a lot easier due to her thorough preparation.  I later found out that in college, contrary to the grade schools I’d worked at previously, any changes in planning must go through a number of committees whose primary task is to ensure continuity and quality of the overall program of study.  Any changes I wished to put into action, therefore, would have to be carefully planned and documented months in advance.

As I began teaching, I started seeing things in a different light.  How would I like to change this lesson, or that test?  How could I adapt the program to create more space for the skills I wished the students to develop?  I talked about this with my supervisor, and she encouraged me to look at different ways of teaching and testing, so that the program could be optimized.  As a former developer of early ESL programs in The Netherlands, I was finally, truly, in my element.  It was time to roll up my sleeves and develop a program that would take students past the books and truly equip them to teach early ESL in their own schools.

The first question I thought about was, what do future ESL teachers need to be able to do?  I brainstormed, making a list of skills they would need: long-term planning, lesson planning, assessment skills, classroom management (in English), the ability to select appropriate material for their class… at the end of the day, the list was quite long. After that, I pared the list down to a few basic items, resulting in a basic kit of skills that would enable any teacher to teach ESL at beginner level.  Then I focused my attention on the perfect student teaching assignment.

I thought back to my own experience as a starting ESL teacher.  Where did I grow the most?  When did I develop the best?  I realized that I learned the most from my experience when I started teaching parallel groups.  It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the growth resulted from my teaching the exact same lesson three or four times in a row.  The first time, I was trying out new games, new stories, and new songs.  Each reaction from the children was new, and I had to keep up with them, instead of being able to anticipate what they might not understand and what they might find difficult or – on the other side of that coin – too easy.  By the time I did the lesson the third (or even fourth!) time, I was able to anticipate the children’s needs and reactions, making the lessons go much smoother.  No longer having to focus on the material, I was able to make better contact with the children, resulting in more effective learning.

By practicing the same lesson a few times, the students can effectively apply the PCDA cycle.

By practicing the same lesson a few times in a row and reflecting on their experiences, the students can effectively apply the PCDA cycle to their teaching practice.

How could I pass on this experience to my own students?  The answer came equally quickly:  instead of teaching one lesson to the entire class, I decided to require them to teach the same (short) lesson multiple times to smaller groups.  Between each round, the student will have to answer certain questions regarding the level of input, the children’s output, and the match between the two.  The student will also have to reflect briefly on the amount of interaction during the lesson and experiment to increase that interaction.  By giving the same lesson three times in a row, the learning experience will then be deeper and more effective.  The lessons pulled out of that mini-experience will be things that can be applied to the larger group, in a broader context.  Not only that, but the mini-experience will form the basis for the rest of their learning during the course.

With this plan in mind, I can honestly say that I am greatly looking forward to my student teachers’ experiences next year and hearing about what they learned.  Here’s to next year!