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Supporting teachers

March 16, 2007

Hello again,

In a recent forum post a teacher described her problems in dealing with a student who clearly enjoyed asking tricky questions about grammar and watching the teacher cast around for an answer. This is a...

... nasty situation and it has lots of angles.

First, consider the subject knowledge of teachers. Given the minimal training most EL teachers receive, it is hardly surprising if their knowledge of the English language is limited. It is, therefore, vital for schools to have systems for supporting the teachers. This could take the form of in-service training with, say, weekly seminars devoted to language analysis. Alternatively, a school might have a grammar topic of the week that all classes and teachers focus on and explore in depth, at various levels, sharing knowledge and insights.

However, it is also important to help students see the teachers as facilitators rather than walking reference books. It might be helpful to give students sight of an august tome such as A Comprehensive Grammar of English (Quirk et al.) so that they see just how dense the subject is: clearly nobody can have all that knowledge at their fingertips. Learners need training in how to interact with their teacher. If a question is tricky, they should explore it together, using such resources as the school has and sharing their findings.

Also, learners need to explore the nature of language as something organic, constantly changing in response to new demands. I would be in favour of showing learners the kinds of mistakes that are in common use among native speakers (using less instead of fewer, or not using correct comparative forms: more strong instead of stronger, for example). Thus the strict grammatical forms may not be as important to effective communications students like to think. Teachers might draw a distinction between linguistics experts with an academic interest in language and practitioners like themselves, who are more interested in helping students to acquire language they can use.

Teachers need to have the confidence as well to be honest with learners about their strengths and weaknesses. A new teacher should be able to frank with a class and admit s/he still has a lot to learn.

As for the student who enjoys seeing the teacher squirm. I would be inclined to have a private word and explain that it is not acceptable to try and humiliate a teacher in this way. Explain that you do not always have an immediate answer but that you are always willing to look into a question on behalf of a student.

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  1. Drew Ward Says:

    There is one other view to take on this:

    With so many ESL teachers not truely knowing the language, and even worse, not taking the time and effort to learn about the language may that student is giving the teacher (or uneducated teachers in general) their just desserts.

    I for one am constantly annoyed about how little my coworkers know about the language they are paid to teach.

    A student can sense a BS answer and will only accept incorrect or incomplete answers so many times before they begin to lose faith in the teacher and teachers in general.

    ESL certificate courses are for the most part worthless in teaching the true why's of the language. And with a 4-week timeline for most, little in this arena can actually be expected.

    ESL degrees mainly just teach how to teach, and linguistics degrees cover how to find the why answers but don't provide them in the context of solely English.

    The only way for a teacher to truely know what they are teaching is to find those answers to the hard questions.

    There is always a why to everything in the English language. The job of a teacher is to find out the answer and then to develop a method of teaching that matierial to the student in a way they can understand.

    There is NOTHING in English that is 'just because' or because of tradition, or any of the other crap answers teachers often give their students.

    All those answers do is tell the student that the teacher doesn't know and is unwilling to take the time to find out.

    Before we critique the students, let's not forget to critique ourselves first.

  1. himbra Says:

    I will join voice to the view expressed above and add that it is completely expected of learners to ask questions. In fact, asking questions is a sign of interest and motivation. I would therefore be inclined to side with the student/ learner on this one. There is nothing wrong, however, with being honest and frankly say that the teacher doesn't know while promising to investigate the answer. Answers like " because I say so" or " guess who is the English native speaker around here" are just signs of both arrogance and ignorance. Maybe it is high time these "microwaved ELT certificated pretenders" stopped being accepted as teachers of English.

  1. Philster Says:



    Do us all a favour and learn more English yourself, Drew.

    The majority of teachers are justified in using "Because that's the way it is said/written" as they don't have the time or resources to search for obscure historical/linguistic origins/explanations.

    So, arm yourself with obscurities guaranteed to bore the pants off almost any student you may encounter and bear in mind they'll probably assume your drawn-out explanations are pure BS anyway. Good luck to you Drew, truely (sic).

  1. Frank Says:

    In this situation I would be more inclined to announce to the class that my prized pupil had just earned a very important assignment. That is to research this invaluable question and be prepared to present a supported answer to the class. I, of course, would be more than glad to provide any assistance. ;-)

    After a few doses of this tactic my prized pupil would be looking for another way to amuse himself.

  1. Anne-Marie Says:

    May I suggest you look into the use of apostrophes when you're 'critiquing' yourself?

  1. ssparks111 Says:

    "I for one am constantly annoyed about how little my coworkers know about the language they are paid to teach."

    And I for one think it is laughable to have someone sign onto a forum, criticize others for not knowing anything about what they teach, and then proceed to make basic spelling and grammar errors throughout their ENTIRE POST!

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Oh dear! People are growing tetchy about typing errors in Drew's comment. I think we all need to be a bit more tolerant here.

    As for the substance of the comment, I think we need to be more realistic about ELT as a profession. Firstly, it does not usually offer pay and conditions at the entry level that will attract really expert teachers. Also, the demand for teachers is so great that the factory of four-week courses churns out new teachers in large numbers to meet that demand. Many of these young hopefuls will teach for only a short period while they satisfy their desire to see the world. It is unrealistic to expect too much of them. I think it is the responsibility of the schools to address this issue and decide what measures they can put in place to support the teachers and ensure their students receive good tuition.

  1. Amy Says:

    Drew, your prescriptive post is wrong on so many levels I don't know where to begin!

  1. laura-has Says:

    My guess is that Drew has never actually experienced a student like this. I feel sorry for his students if he thinks he is the end all be all of grammatical wisdom. Confidence and knowledge are certainly important when leading a classroom, but HUMILITY wins greater respect among many cultures. Besides, active learning, which the original author (and Frank) is encouraging, is a much more effective in language retention than dry lecturing.

  1. Charlene Lea Says:

    I do do believe the MANY errors in these comments are NOT typos. I do believe that, clearly, some of these commentators are not qualified to teach English.

    Frank's answer to the question is the best.

  1. brenda harding Says:

    The student isn't the only one that's amused by you esl teachers!

  1. Melanie Cross Says:

    Four week TEFL courses are the reason salaries tend to be so low for qualified TEFL teachers, if you are an employer of such teachers you must realize that if you pay peanuts you will employ monkeys!! I'm afraid these unqualified English language teachers deserve all they get from their clever students and I have no sympathy for them what so ever. If you are going to teach English to foreign students you should never be in a situation where your students know more than you about your own language. They should leave the profession and make way for qualified teachers who understand what they’re teaching. Why should schools set up an in-service training support group with weekly seminars devoted to language analysis or have a weekly grammar topic! It all sounds like a copout to me…. This will never happen in a million years anyway!! The employers should just pay more for qualified staff, but this will never happen either....
    What came first the chicken or the egg?

    I don't agree with Drew Ward in that a TEFL degree teaches you mainly how to teach; In June 2006 I completed a Joint Honours Degree in Education and TEFL. In the first year one of the modules was linguistics and every month for the next 2 years we were given in-depth tests on grammar, which meant we had to have an excellent understanding of the subject; and the only way to achieve this was to do your research and increase your knowledge.

    The 4 week TEFL teachers should always review their lesson plans and if there is anything they don’t understand they should research it… which obviously means they have not been trained properly. I could go on and on about this subject but I would only end up repeating myself…..

  1. gul Says:

    I don't understand where the people making the comments about the typos are coming from. why don't you just stay with the topic, and answer the question about handling the difficult student?
    Sometimes you can get your point across more effectively if you're passionate about it as opposed to always spelling everything correctly and alway using proper grammer. Let's face facts, the english language as we know it today, is constantly changing,new words are being formed due to ever growing technology etc. Esl is all about helping the immigrant student learn effective, natural, comfortable ways of communication and survival in this culture. Some students just need to be reminded that, while their questions are most welcome, knowing complex grammer rules will not necessarily make them better English speakers.

  1. Tom Ladd Says:

    I do not believe that I am being pedantic in expecting all American and British college graduates, regardless of their majors, to have a comprehensive knowledge of their native language's grammar. I teach Korean and Chinese university students, and they all know their own languages' grammars. Why are American and British students so inept in this basic knowledge?

  1. Chinamike Says:

    I heartily disagree with "having a quiet word" with a student who is continually raising esoteric grammar questions. The student thinks (knows?) he has won the battle then.

    Although I know a lot of grammar rules, I still get stumped more than occasionally and handle it by promising to find a citation by the next class. I always follow up -- bless Google!

    I have found it effective to turn grammar questions about his own language back on the student, thusly:

    T - It is often difficult to give a clear answer as to why we do something regardless of our native language.

    S - (sneer)

    T - How do you say in Chinese "What's this?"

    S - Zhe shi shen me? (This is what?)

    T - Hmmmm...can I say "Shen me shi zhe?"

    S - No

    T - Why?

    S - Because you can't. Well, you can, but...

    T - What's the rule?

    S - I,uh...you just can't. People don't say that.

    T - (smile)

    At this point, the other students get the point and the questioning student has lost a small but manageable amount of face. I then promise to get them the information they want by the next class.

  1. owen nair-marshall Says:

    Knowledge of English by EL teachers with a piece of paper , that costs the earth(nearly$Au$3000) takes a few weeks to obtain and is viewed as the be all and end all of El teaching.

    Of course once the name of a recognized University or Institution is attached, this to some, means, the value of the piece of paper is exalted.
    Not so as colleagues have discovered.

    For one thing I have over a lone period of time found that even those who have been trained at university for over 3 years have difficulties with Grammar, Syntax, Comprehension and even simple spelling, because they do not have knowledge of the basic rules.

    Recently I notices a sign posted in a large leading supermarket that stated "If your goods are missed placed we will......I asked who had done the rotten dead and was told it must be correct as the person had a University degree.Yes the sign is still there.
    One must also recognize that the Institution who are employing these EL Teachers are themselves part of the problem. Many of these overseas organizations do not have any mastery of the language and for them to have "native speaker" within their midst is proof that the English language is being correctly administered.

    Maybe that is the reason that the EL system is in such decay and that is, one feels why it will take some time yet to correct.
    Dr Owen Nair-Marshall
    EdD, M.Arts, Grad Dip Ed, B.Arts, Teach Cert

  1. owen nair-marshall Says:

    hi, For any so called teacher to simple pass the question of as a question that has to be answered by a student is begging the question of do you Not know the answer yourself.

    Anybody who seems to think that because the resources are time consuming for them .. have no idea of how time consuming it is for a young not yet developed mind.
    Remember it is You who are employed to answer the question, teach and respond to the students.
    I have had 15 years experience in developing systems , curriculum etc for learning Delayed students. I can tell you that once you say.. go find out yourself you loose their trust and confidence almost immediately, and it does not take too long before all the school knows how badly prepared you are in teaching.
    It is you job to explain and to give young minds the confidence and self esteem to be sure of wht it si they are being taught.
    For any teacher to even believe that a young students can merely go and do the task as a piece of homework is passing the buck .

    Dr Owen Nair-Marshall

  1. David Miretti Says:

    Drew raised some good comments in the diatribe above. However, placing the blame squarely on the teacher or on the teacher does little to help the teacher who is experiencing the know-it-all in class. Often there are unmet needs on the part of the student, where he/she believes his/her worth is based solely on being better than someone else. This is the same trait that comes out in bullies who attack others to make themselves feel better.
    I once had a YL learner who attempted to control the class in such a manner. Upon reflection I realized it was her attempt to adjust and be respected by her peers. I often see this same behavior with adult learners as well. With adults, it is often in the beginning stages of a class when all participants are in storming mode.
    A few things I have found that work: 1. Give the know-it-all open but equal praise. Often they have low self-confidence. 2. Offer the challenger more responsibilities such as tutoring slower learners, or explaining difficult situations in small groups. 3.Avoid confrontation as much as possible. Everyone loses in a struggle to see who is the biggest. After talking to the know-it-all, I am often surprised to find that he/she was never aware of how his/her actions were being perceived.
    Remember, this could also be due to cultural differences in conversation pragmatics. My Italian-American family interrupt and argue as we get more positively involved in the conversation. Even in school, Americans are often taught to argue and debate everything.
    Contrast that with aspects of Chinese culture where the teacher is expected to impart wisdom and the students are expected to absorb it like a sponge.
    For interesting discussion of this, I would suggest reading some of Deborah Tannen's research. It is also important for inexperienced teachers to expect these problems and to think about their responses to such problems before they arise. I would also suggest getting a mentor. (regardless of your degrees and letters after your name, experience DOES teach something more than books because human-beings can be infinitely creative.)
    This was a terrific article and I learned a lot from it.

  1. Vicky Says:

    I am truly surprised at the criticism for 4 week TEFL courses. Teaching EFL/ESL with (most) private institutions is not the same as working for an educational institution that is state run and with state accredited qualifications. The very nature of our industry is a bit “MacDonaldy”. Accept it. Besides, all the 4 week courses I have attended as part of my job has STRESSED the fact that teachers have not stopped learning at the end of the course. They usually equip novice teachers with the means to research whatever language point they need to teach, and note that it does not ONLY involve grammar. Teachers who still believe that grammar is the end all and be all of teaching EFL/ESL has stopped their professional development somewhere long ago. And, sometimes it is just that way and there ISN’T a good enough explanation that would be grasped by students with limited linguistic knowledge and in the time you have available. How long has it taken the teacher to reach “proper grammatical knowledge?” A two hour lesson?

    I agree with the author of the article that the institution is responsible for support and personal development of their teachers.

  1. tony Says:

    Have a look at Drew´s website. Very whizz and cool and clinical. Were you trying to sell yourself as the grammatical maestro, Drew???

  1. dannielle Says:

    I think the notion that the teacher is expected to know everything about 'whys' of the language is a little bit traditional. of course, it is really essential that the teacher must have an above average level of understanding of how the language works, but it does not mean that he or she is expected to know everything....I agree with you, guys, who believes that learning the language is more of an active pursuit where the learner and the teacher work together to find the answer...but of course, the teacher as a facilitator, as well as a designer and planner, should already have a working knowledge on what he or she teaches...

    But, Drew is also right about saying that teachers who does not know what they are teaching are annoying....but of course, these teachers are those who do not know because they simply do not exert effort to discover and learn...if a teacher does not know a certain explanation, but he or she tries to find it out, then he is a qualified teacher....

  1. owen nair-marshall Says:

    To those who think that this student is difficult, becsaue he asks a question that you cannot answer try a class of Students with intellectual disabilities.. yew the other end of the scale.
    Not all students are difficult, they may be different but they are only difficult when you don' have an answer. Prepare your lessons well. (about 2/3 of any lesson is preparation.. bet your not taught that with the expensive 4 week course,the rst is presentation.
    Prepare and make sure you know wht it is that you are presenting.. just don't look at the text book or follow the curriculum(Oh yes I am a curriculum expert 14 years of policy as well) These guides not concrete.

    Dr Owen Nair-Marshall

  1. Drew Ward Says:

    Tony thanks for clicking on my website. It probably shouldn't be the one listed on my profile as I haven't had the time to finish an overhaul of it and it's currently sitting there in incomplete form.

    I am in no way trying to sell myself as any sort of grammar guru. Nor am I attempting to disparage the many ESL teachers in the world.

    I am trying to say this: No amount of university of certificate training can equip you for what you'll face in the classroom. Good teachers are either made or broken within the first 7 days of teaching. Some people no matter what their level of education will simply never be good teachers. It's a talent, some have it, some don't, some never will.

    As teachers we have a responsibility to both our students and ourselves to seek out understanding of concepts we don't know, to verify the accuracy of the things we think we know, and to always be open to criticism and change.

    The only way to know what we don't know is to be asked and realize that we don't know the answer. This is the turning point at which a person has to decide if they want to be a good teacher or if they want to be another BS/backpacker who is abusing the ESL industry to fund his extended vacation.

    A true teacher will admit that they don't know something, go ask someone else, get on google, post on a forum, whatever it takes to find out that answer. Then they will learn what they didn't know before and they will find a way to successfully teach that new information to their students.

    A student who expects you to know everything is a fool. A teacher who thinks they know everything is a bigger fool. And, anyone who thinks teaching doesn't involve constant ongoing learning of new things is the biggest fool of all.

    This job is a job. It's work, and it requires work. That work is often in the form of teaching yourself before you can teach your students. That's what I've been trying to say and I think that's the point many have expressed as well.

    I have also listened to the responses to my initial post that stated that most ESL teachers don't necessarily have the skills, time, or resources to research the individual answers and reasons behind these difficult questions.

    For this reason I have created a website -- a forum in which ESL teachers and students may post questions about the language, discuss possible reasons and issues and tell about related classroom experiences. I have enlisted a team of linguists who have volunteered to do the research and digging required to provide the correct and complete answers.

    Please check it out and register:


    It's free, it's open, and it's meant to help you not be 'caught' by a student. So far there are two posts, one regarding the use of who/whom and one discussing words like knife/knives which change their spelling in plural forms. These posts show the kind of information that will be provided.

    This is my first try at a forum and I welcome any help or comments on it. Again, registration is free, and open to anyone.



  1. Lee Says:

    Awesome topic Brenda! Obviously one that many feel strongly about. Would love to see more like this.


  1. jean Says:

    I can't believe what bad spellings some teachers have. 'Truely' for god sake! Half the people teaching English just shouldn't. Is there nothing else they can do instead?

    If a student asks a difficult question, don't victimise them by telling them not to show you up - how sad is that! Send them off to find out on a website or in the library, then when they come back, you'll have had time to check it yourself and the outcome can be discussed.

    Incompetent teachers shouldn't be allowed out there in the first place!

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