What do ELT Consultants Actually Do?

Several months have passed since my last blog, where I promised to follow up the discussion of what matters most in rasing national standards of English by discussing some features of effective pre-service teacher education programmes. I will post that blog today. But I thought it would also be interesting to first review what it is that has kept me away from my blog for so long.

One of the hardest questions my family get asked is ‘what exactly does Simon do’? My daughter tends to blurt out something about ‘teacher cognition’ (see here for an important early paper) and this remains an area of interest; for example, colleagues at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences are studying metalinguistic awareness in Norwegian primary schools and I am leading the part of the study which examines teachers’ understandings of metalinguistic awareness and how they promote it in their lessons. But I am not a full-time academic and the bulk of my work these days involves consultancy work. But what exactly does this involve? Recent projects are listed here but let me provide more detail about some of these to explain how I spend most of my time.

The status of teacher education and development in Nepal (Aug 2022-Feb 2023). The report for this project was actually launched today (read it here) at an event in Kathmandu and due to the time difference I did a Zoom presentation about the report at 0600! With support from colleagues at the British Council and the local research team from Vertex Consult, this project examined current approaches to initial teacher education and CPD in Nepal. Qualitative case studies from three provinces in the country were compiled, and along with a a national teacher survey, provided the basis of 32 recommendations for improving pre-service and in-service teacher education in the country.

Review of pre-service teacher education in Iraq (Sep 2022-Mar 2023)
This project was mentioned in my last blog. Building on research I carried out with Tony Capstick in 2021, I have been working with representatives from the Ministries of Higher Education in Iraq to revise the pre-service teacher education for English teachers. Most of the work has been conducted online, though I was also able to visit Erbil for a two-day workshop in December. The goal of this project is to move from a curriculum which has traditionally placed more weight on literature and linguistics to one which has teaching English as its main focus. The working groups have submitted proposals for revised curricula and this afternoon we are meeting to discuss these.

Professional inquiry for foreign language teachers in higher education (Jul 2022-Mar 2023). This has been a very interesting smaller-scale and more localised project. In 2020 I was invited to the Language Centre at the University of Bochum to run a workshop on professional inquiry (which is now my preferred term for practitioner research). The Language Centre wanted to promote this further as a new form of professsional development and I have been supporting five teachers as they design, carry out and present their own professsional inquiry projects on mediation in language learning, the flipped classroom and online writing tools. We are all looking forward to the final presentations at an event in Bochum next month.

Evaluation of the British Council’s ELTRA scheme (Nov 2022-Mar 2023). Much of my work as a consultant involves evaluation, most commonly evaluating the impact of CPD programmes (answering questions such as ‘what do teachers learn from CPD?’ and ‘does CPD lead to any change in what teachers do in the classroom?’). Occasionally, though, evaluation work has a different focus, such as in this project. With my colleague Nicky Hockly, we are looking at the impact of a research scheme – what kinds of impacts on knowledge, policy and practice do the ELTRA research projects funded by the British Council have? We are surveying researchers, interviewing them, and looking at their research reports to seek anwers to these questions and make recommendations for how the impact of research on teachers and policy makers can be strengthened.

These are just four examples of projects that keep me busy as a consultant. Perhaps I should share a link to this blog with my family so that next time they are asked what I do they have some answers!

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Improving National Levels of English – What Matters Most?

Two recent projects I have worked on had the common goal of trying to understand at a national level the status of English learning and the factors that influence it. The two countries involved were Iraq and India – very different contexts but both characterised by what are seen to be modest levels of English proficiency amongst school leavers.

In Iraq, one important issue to emerge from the study was that a typical strategy adopted by educational authorities to boost the quality of English teaching and learning was to change the curriculum. It was assumed that by providing a more communicative curriculum and introducing it to teachers through intensive training, the quality of teaching and learning would improve. While a new curriculum can stimulate pedagogical change, the difficulty with this approach is that it does not address gaps in teacher competence – if teachers lack the knowledge, skills and English proficiency to teach communicatively, providing a new curriculum will not lead to the desired improvements. This has in fact been the case in Iraq and a key contributing factor highlighted by the project was the quality of pre-service education for teachers of English: graduates lacked the English proficiency and pedagogical knowledge and skills needed to deliver a communicative curriculum effectively.

The work in India was recently published here (along with similar studies in four other South Asian countries). The education system in India is incredibly complex and, while the value of English is widely acknowledged, the quality of English teaching and learning in primary education is modest. No single factor explains this but two interesting points were highlighted. One is that while India invests heavily in developing educational policies

National- and state-level educational policies operate simultaneously but may not always be wholly consistent given the autonomy that states have. Policies provide a good basis for reform but are often not supported by mechanisms that lead to effective implementation. (p.12)

The second issue is that

Limitations in pre-service teacher education mean that graduates become primary school teachers of English with insufficient subject-specific pedagogical competence and modest levels of English proficiency. (p.12)

This second point echoes conclusions from the work in Iraq. What both studies suggest, then, is that improving the quality of pre-service teacher education is essential to longer-term progress in the quality of English language teaching and learning. Reform of this kind, of course, takes time, and its benefits will not be immediate either, so it is also important for effective systems of in-service training to be available. However, the provision of high quality graduates is critical to efforts to improve national levels of English. Graduate quality is perhaps even more important than a new curriculum – a competent cook can make an good meal with modest ingredients and equipment, but the best ingredients and equipment are of limited value in hands of someone who is unskilled.

If we accept this argument about the central role of pre-service teacher education in improving the learning outcomes of school children, it is, then, important to identify some characteristics of an effective pre-service programme for teachers of English. This will be the focus of my next blog.

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Assessing Children’s English – Again

If I asked teachers to ‘agree or disagree’ with the following statements, what would most say?:

‘The purpose of assessment is to allow students to demonstrate what they know’.
‘One function of assessment is to increase student motivation to learn’.
‘Assessment should give students a sense of achievement’.
‘Assessment should encourage creativity’.

My hunch is that most teachers would agree with such sentiments. Translating them into practice, though, remains a challenge and the way students’ English is assessed is very often in stark contrast to such ideas. I reflected on this in an earlier blog called ‘Why do teachers assess English the way they do? A recent test paper again highlights important issues in the assessment of children’s English and I would like to comment further.

I will take some examples from a recent English test for 13-year olds in Slovenia (though I am sure the issues highlighted apply more widely). Overall, about 90% of the test involved grammar-focused gap-filling work, with some vocabulary and translation exercises. Here is one example:

The question tested students’ knowledge of phrases following the pattern ‘That looks/ sounds ….’. In this case the student provided three reasonable answers, two of which were awarded zero marks because of spelling errors. There is no recognition of the students’ knowledge of the target expressions and the focus on spelling implies that accuracy is all that matters.

The test also contained a gap-filling vocabulary exercise. Here is an extract:

This looks like a free exercise but students were in fact expected to remember words used in their textbook. So, while ‘went to the USA’ makes reasonable sense and might deserve half a mark, ‘emigrated’ was the expected answer. And, once again, spelling errors are heavily penalised, with zero marks awarded for ‘vulcanic eruption’. I am sure that many creative answers to the item about Scotland were possible – but ‘parliament’ (spelled correctly) was I suspect the only one that would have been marked correct.

Some of the translation items (Slovene to English) were also interesting. One was this:

Question: Vojska Edwarda I je v 13 stoletju osvojila Wales.
Translation: The army of Edward I conquered Wales in the 13th century.

The rationale for such content is that it appears in the textbook and students should therefore know it. But there must be more relevant and meaningful language contexts in which to use translation as an assessment tool. In the example I reviewed, the student scored zero marks on three items of this kind. Overall, they received the lowest possible grade and it is unlikely that the experience will have stimulated in any way their interest in learning English.

How teachers assess is often largely a matter of tradition – things are done the way they always have been and new teachers entering the system are quite quickly assimilated (see my earlier blog on assessment in pre-service teacher education). Changing traditions of this kind is only possible with education, informed leadership , collective engagement by teachers and, importantly, greater overall awareness of the impact (positive and negative) that assessment can have on children’s attitudes to learning English.

Much information is available online to support the development of teachers’ assessment literacy. I would once again recommend The British Council’s Teacher Assessment Literacy project, including this video on assessing young learners. This Handbook of Assessment for Language Teachers is also an excellent resource.

If you are involved in supporting the assessment literacy of pre-service or in-service teachers of English, please consider using the above examples (and those I discussed earlier) and relevant online resources to encourage teachers to reflect on their assessment practices and, very importantly, the impact these have on students’ attitudes to English.

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COVID and Language Teacher Education: New Research

Discussions of the impact of COVID–19 on education are understandably often framed in negative terms; the pandemic has, after all, had a massive disruptive impact on schooling globally. Teacher education – both initial teacher preparation and continuing professional development – has also been adversely affected by the often enforced transition from face–to–face to online modes of learning. A new study examines the impacts of the shift to online teacher education in the field of English language teacher education. Through a series of case studies, it highlights the challenges that teacher educators and trainees experienced, how teacher education changed in response to these challenges and the factors that facilitated such change. The full report will be available in the next few days at www.aqueduto.com/research/.

The study also highlights, though, many positive outcomes for teacher education programmes of the enforced shift to online delivery and in this blog I would like to focus on these. They illustrate how the educational crisis created by COVID–19 was a stimulus for productive change that would have otherwise taken longer to occur or not happened at all.

Nine providers of English language teacher education from around the world – all largely new to online delivery –  took part in the study. Through detailed interviews, they told their story of how COVID–19 impacted on their work, including, despite many challenges, several ways in which the experience had ultimately been beneficial for them. The box below summarises the benefits they highlighted and these are discussed further in the report.

The enforced move to online teacher education led to improvements in ….

Understandingof the value of online education; of the differences between online and face–to–face education
Awarenessof the challenges trainees face in an online environment
Competenceamong teacher educators and trainees regarding online tools and platforms and of how to work effectively online
Collaborationas teacher educators worked together (and with trainees) to find effective online solutions
Opportunitiesto expand business to new online markets
Efficiencyby reducing the logistical demands and costs of face–to–face teaching and learning
Accessto teacher education by a wider range of trainees
Resourcesas teacher educators located, adapted and designed digital materials
Flexibilityin the ways teacher education was delivered and (where relevant) assessed
(trainee refers to both student teachers and in-service teachers)

Many of these benefits (such as collaboration and increased attention to trainees’ needs) have the potential to continue to enhance the work of teacher educators even when they return to face–to–face delivery. Others will continue to shape the teacher education provision of those who sustain an online presence alongside or blended with in–person delivery.

If you are a teacher educator who was thrust by COVID–19 into a rapid shift to online delivery, are you able to identify any benefits of the experience and which might extend the list above?

Report details:

Borg, S. (2022). COVID-19 and the shift to online language teacher education. Available from www.aqueduto.com/research/

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Video-Based Observation on Teacher Development Projects

One of the challenges on large–scale teacher development projects is observing enough lessons to arrive at some general conclusions about teachers’ classroom practices, before, during and after an intervention. Various factors related to budget, human resources, and geography do in fact mean that project evaluations often involve very modest numbers of observations, relying more heavily on self–reported data through, for example, questionnaires. COVID, by limiting travel, has made collecting observational data from classrooms even harder. One assignment I worked on for the British Council recently explored how video might be used to address such issues and facilitate the collection and analysis of a larger number of lessons on teacher development projects.

The first part of the work involved a literature review. The initial aim was to review material where video had been used to evaluate teacher development projects, but it soon became clear that very limited work of that kind was available. So I expanded my searches beyond education, including material from other fields, for example, medicine and engineering. Also, while it was clear that video had been widely used (a) as part of observational research and (b) to support teacher professional development, across disciplines there was little evidence of its use to evaluate changes in behaviour following a development project.

In the end 25 recent papers were identified, and these were analysed for insights into the benefits of using video to evaluate behavioural change, the challenges of using it for this purpose, and ways of using it more effectively to study how interventions impact on what people do. As a result of the review, a number of recommendations were also made for the effective use of video in evaluating behavioural change. If you are interested in reading more about these issues, the paper is available open access at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2021.102007.

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