We need to talk about English

I’ve recently come across Deena Boraie’s  2013 post on the TESOL webpage in which she lists the latest trends in EFL. Two of these trends immediately caught my eye:

Change in the Goal of Teaching English: Our goals are no longer to transform our students into imitations of native speakers, but into “competent English-knowing bilinguals,” since we assume our students are already proficient in their native languages;

Changing view of an English teacher: The quality and effectiveness of English language teachers are no longer determined by their being native speakers, but by their linguistic skills and their teaching and cultural competences;

I’m glad a big burden has been lifted off our shoulders. When I started teaching back in the eighties, students expected nothing less than speaking with a native-like accent and teachers expected nothing less than sounding native-like. Although, I strived to make that deal work every class, in every single task,  I confess it was extremely exhausting to aim at something out of my depth.  I was too young and inexperienced a non-native English speaking teacher (NNEST) living and working in a non-English speaking country, so now I’m so glad that I can finally speak English with my genuine, charming Brazilian Portuguese accent without fearing looks of disapproval. As I  said before in a previous post, I believe my teaching skills may be just as important as my linguistic skills.

However, as much as teaching skills are basic and fundamental, we still need to talk about English. We still need to reflect on the ‘g‘ word our students hate so much: grammar. What’s more, we cannot overlook its other components — phonology, spelling, and vocabulary, which could still be issues for us teachers. Yet, they come with the job. Therefore, lifelong learning, another trend mentioned by Boraie, can and should include lifelong language learning.

Truth is, teachers’ language issues hit close to home. It’s the kind of thing some teachers frown upon even though they never bring it up  in the staff room; it is the one thing many  school coordinators and Directors of Studies feel uneasy to discuss in post-lesson observation meetings, and ultimately it is the one thing many teachers are too embarrassed to talk about with co-workers and school administration. As a mentor, I’ve lost count of the times teachers have asked for help with classroom management issues or difficult students they admitted they couldn’t handle; I’ve seen teachers ask for help with a new tech tool they found difficult to use, but rarely have I seen a teacher admit they needed help with their overall language skills — even though it’s obvious that as non-native speakers, we do need help once in a while. And you know what, it’s everyday  conversational English I need help with. What about you? What are your biggest language issues?

So, how can we talk more openly about English in the staff room?  Below are a few unconventional and fun ways to tackle our language issues in a collaborative way. You can suggest these routines in your school, or, if you teach private lessons, you can create a facebook page with a group of teachers with whom you can practice these ideas:

Start a school blog

Writing is no easy task — not even in our own native language. When I write in English I google new words, collocations, and check whether my spelling is correct and my sentences make sense, but it surely pays off: We always learn a lot when we write, so why not start a collaborative blog with your colleagues about English grammar, vocabulary, and phonology? Not only will you practice writing and contribute to each other’s professional development, but you’ll also build together an online customized English reference book  based on the needs, interests, and issues of your group of teachers.

English in the Staff room  

Grade your students’ written tasks collaboratively. Lots of questions about grammar, spelling, and collocations arise during this moment, so here’s a great opportunity to help each other. Set a day and time to sit together to grade students’ compositions and written exams. Remember to keep  a record of students’ errors and the corrections for you all  to refer back to;

Grammar and vocabulary quizzes are a great way to boost our English. Plan for  different teachers to make short  quizzes to be done during breaks between classes. Quizzes can be about vocabulary for different topics such as feelings, things in a house, and cooking. Everyone can pitch in and help buy the prizes for the winners;

Set a day when everyone should speak English in the staff room. On this day teachers can ask questions about vocabulary and grammar and write these questions down on a poster on the notice  board so that everyone can contribute;

The staff can take turns giving sessions and workshops on pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary for teachers. Discuss what language issues you and your colleagues would like to tackle and go for it!

Here’s the link to Boraie’s post:



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Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a Master's Degree in Language Studies from PUC-Rio, a B.A. in Linguistics from USP, and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 30 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in Systemic-Functional Linguistics, identity studies, visual literacy, and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language.

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