An alternative UK, pre-service, second language teacher education course

This post is designed to continue the conversation I started before the summer about ways to change, and possibly improve, the current pre-service courses offered in ELT.

Below is a paper by Mike Chick, who kindly sent me his work to read and subsequently gave me permission to republish it here on my blog. Mike has just completed a PhD on pre-service prep of TEFL teachers and he describes this paper as, “part of the first few years’ thinking and research. I have basically been looking at the pedagogical / theoretical arguments for what constitutes a “rounded” ELT pre-service education.

I found the paper very interesting and hope you will too. Please feel free to comment and if you would like to contact Mike directly his email is

An alternative UK, pre-service, second language teacher education course

By Mike Chick, UK


This is a key moment for TESOL teacher educators. There is growing theoretical support for the notion that second language teacher education (SLTE) needs to become more focussed on teacher thinking and prior beliefs rather than on the mastery of particular techniques or approaches (See Borg 2006; Johnson 2009; Burns & Richards 2009). Demand for qualified teachers of English continues to rise across the globe while at the same time employability is becoming increasingly important to those responsible for taking decisions about the future of UK higher education. With these factors in mind, the traditional, one-month, intensive TESOL course found, for example, in the UK and the USA, may no longer be the only player in town.

Short and long courses

Qualifications in the field of TESOL have often been separated into courses which deal with teacher training and courses which deal with teacher education (Richards 1990). Ever since John Hayward’s first crash course fifty years ago, the most popular entry level TESOL teacher qualification in the UK and USA has been a certificate awarded for successful completion of a four-week, intensive teacher training course. This is a type of introductory programme which emphasises the acquisition of a set of core teacherly actions, skills and activities. Conversely, qualifications offered by universities, typically TESOL Masters’ degrees, have traditionally focussed on teacher education. The students on such programmes, usually teachers who have had some experience of classroom life, have customarily been taught through modules based around teaching methodology, SLA research findings, English for Specific Purposes, and so on.

Both training and education courses have been criticised by commentators. For example, Bolitho (2009: 3) highlighted the “classroom survival” aim of intensive training courses, pointing out that there is little time to promote reflective practice on such programmes. Conversely, on most university teacher education programmes practical, pedagogical skills have traditionally played little or no part in the syllabus (Wallace 1991; Bartels 2005). Such programmes have been accused of being too far removed from classroom life and some studies report student dissatisfaction with the amount of theory they have to contend with on their TESOL education modules (Badger, McDonald & White 2001).


Short-term, often four week, TESOL training courses are a hugely popular method of entry into the world of English language teaching. They are, by far, the most common route into teaching EFL for UK practitioners and, indeed, provided me with my first language teaching qualification. The practical, hands-on approach to learning teaching through the adoption of contemporary methodological procedures results, more often than not, in glowing feedback from those trainees who manage to successfully complete one of the most intensive months of their life.

Although it was nearly two decades ago, I still remember being thrilled to realise that teaching and learning did not have to be passive, laborious or mundane. Rather, language and teacher learning could be something centred on the students, involving interaction and engagement. I, like a great many others, learnt a lot from my four weeks of initial teacher training. What I didn’t see at the time was that I had neither the opportunity to reflect on the thinking behind the communicative approach endorsed nor the time to reflect on the efficacy or transferability of the techniques being promoted.

Experience, age and further study have taught me that during my first few years in EFL, I was probably learning far more about teaching than my students were learning about communicating in English. I have become painfully aware of how little I knew then and how much I have changed as a teacher since those early days. That initial course certainly opened up my eyes to a wonderful world of learning, different from my own experience of formal education. However, it hadn’t really prepared me to be an effective, rounded teacher, as no course of such a length ever possibly could.

How then, should an initial teacher training programme go about producing teachers who are “adaptive experts” (Johnson 2009:10)? And how can SLTE best equip its novice teachers to flourish in a ‘post methods landscape’. (Kumaravadivelu 2006)

One obvious answer lies in creating a longer pre-service teacher preparation programme. After all, as language teachers around the world will testify, in many countries where English is not the native language, to become qualified as an English language teacher in a state school often requires the undertaking of courses far longer than the one month that is standard for native speakers. TESOL and TEFL have long struggled to be seen as professions, many viewing the initial qualification as a cheap ticket to travelling the world rather than as a route to a fulfilling career. Ferguson and Donno (2003) suggest that, for the perception of English language teaching by native speakers to change, the period of teacher preparation must be made considerably longer.

An alternative?

The course of SLTE at the university where I teach takes three years. It involves trainee teachers taking two TESOL related modules in each year of their degree programme along with four other modules that contribute to their main or major award, usually an English or a modern foreign language (MFL) degree. UK university students must take six modules in each year of their degree course. This means that for our learner teachers, one third of their degree, or approximately four to six input hours in each week of their three year university study, is concerned with developing knowledge and skills pertaining to TESOL.

The first year involves developing the students’ language awareness through the study of grammar and lexis, along with an introduction to English phonology and its relevance to language teaching. There is emphasis on classroom teaching techniques in the second year, with various teaching methods and approaches introduced and made real for the students through a module devoted to peer teaching. Throughout their final year, students observe experienced language teachers and are also responsible for planning and delivering teaching practice sessions to English language learners. In addition, they undertake various reflective activities designed to help them articulate and justify their teaching decisions.

Next, I’d like to discuss some of the most common concerns regarding pre-service SLTE and describe how an extended course of preparation may be effective in overcoming these.

Concern 1 – Assessment

Most short term courses base assessment on skills that the trainee can be seen to display e.g. the presentation of a language point, clear instruction-giving, or managing a lesson at an effective pace. Researchers such as Hobbs (2013) believe that such a performance-based approach to teacher assessment may inhibit adaptive expertise. Others suggest that it may well lead to early stagnation in teachers who come to believe the skills they have learnt are now applicable in all contexts and are sufficient for a career in language teaching (Diaz Maggioli 2012). In other words, a tick box approach can give the impression that there is a right and wrong way to teach, independent of socio-contextual factors or learner differences that experienced teachers know are crucial elements in effective decision-making. This simplification of the knowledge and skills base of language teaching is the point that Murray (2009: 26) highlights in arguing that a prescriptive, competency-based approach to teacher education fails to capture the essential elements of what a teacher can know and judge.

These are not simple issues to grapple with but on a longer teacher education course, a greater weighting of the assessment can be given over to the development of a broader knowledge base. For example, more time can be spent on discussing the value of SLA research and its links with approaches to teaching or on raising trainees’ awareness of how language is used.

Portfolio work can provide the means by which learner teachers demonstrate their understanding of these issues. Such document collections are also helpful in allowing the learner teachers to articulate their own evolving theories regarding what constitutes effective teaching and learning. The documents provide space for the trainees to make connections between the coursework and the classroom and thus assist the learner teachers in bridging the practice-theory gap.

Concern 2: Opportunities for reflection

The importance of reflection in developing expertise in teaching is acknowledged in both TESOL and mainstream education (Wallace 1991). For this reason, much criticism has been levelled at brief, initial training courses that don’t or can’t allow trainees sufficient opportunities to reflect on their teacher development.

For example, Gray (2004:26) makes the case that allocating time to exploring the reasoning and justification behind decision-making or to undertaking collaborative work and research projects is vital to teacher learning but often not possible when time is lacking. Schedule constraints mean that educators in this position often have to opt for “quick fix” solutions of giving advice rather than engaging in exploratory, productive discussion. Shapiro (2007) supports such sentiments stating that short term TESOL courses are “…underpinned by the assumption that the education of teachers is about the transfer of knowledge and skills from expert to novice rather than the more democratic and active construction of meaning”. She outlines how meaningful development occurs when reflection is connected to an examination of prior beliefs and learning along with critical analysis of classroom practice and theory and argues that short-term courses allow little or no time for such learning.

On longer courses of pre-service teacher preparation, time can be given, for example, to post-observation feedback conferences conducted in a collaborative, exploratory manner. Rather than the transmission of top tips or hasty advice, a spirit of dialogic inquiry can be fostered with the aim of using the feedback discussions to mediate a deeper understanding of the complex nature of language learning and teaching. This form of dialogic mediation is seen by theorists such as Johnson (2009) as a core component of learning since it can act as a catalyst for the development of teacher thinking.

Reflective tasks such as journal writing can also be designed to move trainees’ thinking beyond a concern for the mastery of prescribed basic skills. They can encourage the teachers to think critically about their own beliefs and behaviours e.g. how their own experience of error correction as language students compares to the approach they choose to take in their teaching practice.

Concern 3: Knowledge

There is little space in a crammed timetable to address the various theories of language learning, the most common approaches and methods of language teaching or the principles underlying classroom practices. Furthermore, developing an adequate sense of language awareness in learner teachers must also be neglected on short courses. (Hobbs 2013).

Without this developed sense of language awareness, teachers may well be incapable of responding to classroom events as they unfold and so fail to maximise the learning potential of episodes that arise spontaneously. Indeed, many commentators view the ability to react to such events as key tenets of expert teaching (Malderez and Wedell 2007; Meddings & Thornbury 2009). However, integral to being able to successfully react to the varied, complex and dynamic situations that English language teachers encounter is access to a knowledge base that provides the tools necessary for teachers to arrive at sound decisions. Malderez and Wedell (2007: 24-25) state clearly: “There can be little point in knowing about things and knowing how to do things if you cannot actually use this knowledge / these skills in the right place and at the right time to support learning”

A longer pre-service course can go some way to addressing the issues described above. Time can be devoted to increasing learner teachers’ awareness of language through modules on grammar, lexis and phonology. Areas such as collocation, idiomatic language, modality, formality, synonymy, the phonemic alphabet and so on can all be addressed in the early stages of a longer TESOL teacher development course. In the second and third years of pre-service education the learner teachers can develop familiarity with a range of teaching approaches and techniques. Providing the space to discuss and reflect on repeated peer teaching episodes allows the students to gain an understanding of both the subject and the procedural knowledge that is central to good teaching. But perhaps most crucially, it also provides the trainees with the tools to begin theorising their own practice.

The Pre-service TESOL teacher preparation discussed here, embedded in undergraduate education, provides a course that combines the training and education approaches outlined at the start of this article.

However, frequent challenges emerge resulting from logistical and contextual constraints and realities. For example, the coordination of the timetables of trainees and language learners from across the university is an annual problem. Student engagement and aptitude can also limit the success of the tasks and discussions – regardless of how excited and motivated the educators may be about the syllabus they have devised. It is also a fact that not all students are equally passionate about English language teaching, with the result that a number elect to opt out of the teaching module that takes place in their final year. As in most contexts, common ground also has to be reached with regard to the divergent beliefs and values of the teacher educators involved. Moreover, with no concrete evidence as to how languages are most effectively taught and learned yet available to language teacher educators, the approach can hardly claim to provide ‘the’ answer as to how SLTE should be best conducted.

Much contemporary SLTE research has taken a socio-cultural perspective on learning (Burns & Richards, 2009) with areas of focus such as teacher cognition and the social construction of knowledge closely linked to the concerns outlined above. Given the continued global demand for professional, competent teachers of English, along with the direction that universities are taking towards promoting the employability of their graduates, I hope that this model of SLTE can act as a spur for others. Finally, I believe this article illuminates some of the ways in which a longer course aligns itself with key characteristics that Wright (2010) identifies as emerging in SLTE pedagogy.

  • An emphasis on the student teacher learning to teach and becoming a thinking
  • The programming in to teacher education courses of a great deal of reflective activity on learning experiences.
  • The above also entails a commitment to student teacher inquiry into one’s own beliefs and narratives and into the professional contexts of teaching and learning for which student teachers are being prepared.
  • The appropriation of pedagogies from mainstream adult education whose central idea is learning from experience (e.g. Kolb 1984).

This article was first published in the Teacher Training Journal, 2013.


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The Author

Since 1994, Mike Chick has worked as a teacher and teacher trainer in Estonia, Spain, South Korea, Greece and the UK. He is the award leader for the BA (Minor) in TESOL at the University of South Wales and is external examiner for TESOL degrees at Swansea and Wolverhampton University. At present, he is working towards a PhD in Second Language Teacher Education.