Tutor feedback to CELTA candidates: why they sometimes don’t listen

by Lee Mackenzie

Below are some extracts of my written feedback to one particular trainee on the last CELTA course I tutored at IH San Diego. The teaching practice students were elementary level and all the CELTA trainees were American:

Day 2:

‘…you established rapport by using students’ names and making eye contact…language grading was a bit of an issue (e.g. ‘go ahead and check your answers together.’) but otherwise a good start.’

Day 5:

‘…great rapport as usual and some nicely designed materials…language grading continues to be an issue, though (e.g. ‘go ahead and answer the questions.’)’

Day 12:

‘…it goes without saying that you have great rapport and there were some nice tasks here…shame you still haven’t been able to use language wholly appropriate to the level (e.g. ‘go ahead and compare with your partner’).’

All trainers have been there, I’m sure. And it is easy to become infuriated with trainees’ inability to take on board what seems, on the face of it, some very constructive feedback. Indeed, the above candidate, who we shall call ‘Alex’; a strong candidate who had shown progress in almost all other areas, had failed to eliminate the ‘go ahead and…’ from her instructions by the end of the course.

Why was this? I wondered. Could it be that Alex wasn’t taking this feedback on board because she had too many other things to think about? Was it nerves? Or could it be that she simply wasn’t listening during feedback? More likely it was my fault and I wasn’t making the importance of language grading clear enough. Or was it a combination of all of these factors?

My final feedback session with Alex’s teaching practice group before the change in levels offered some clues. In the session I gave a handout containing teacher talk examples from previous TPs and got trainees to assess whether these were good examples of teacher talk, or not. The handout contained the following sentences. I will let the reader decide what is wrong (if anything) with these utterances:

  1. ‘I’m just going to write that on the white-board.’
  2. ‘Read the text. You have 5 minutes. What are you going to do?’
  3. ‘What I’d like you to do is talk to your partner and decide who has the best ideas. You have 5 minutes.’
  4. ‘So I’m going to have you discuss that in pairs…wait in groups…okay, in pairs, and then you’re going to switch and tell the other group…I mean pair…so discuss that first in your…er…pairs and then let’s see how you get on with that first…okay? So what are you going to do?’
  5. ‘So we use present perfect continuous to talk about actions which started at some point in the past and are still ongoing… why do we use present perfect continuous?’
  6. ‘Go ahead and compare with your partner.’

The trainees and I discussed each of the above utterances in turn and, interestingly, when we came to the final sentence all of the trainees unanimously agreed that there was nothing wrong with saying to students: ‘go ahead and…’. They told me (a Brit) that in America it is only polite to use ‘go ahead and…’ when giving an instruction: imperatives are considered rude. This led to an interesting discussion in which trainees made several references to ‘the CELTA method’, which one trainee suggested was nothing more than a vestige of the colonial era. This gave me pause for thought. Perhaps trainees were not taking feedback on board because they did not share the same ideas as their tutor about English language teaching methodology.

Another example came to mind. The main course tutor on the course was particularly fond of instruction check questions (ICQs) and seemed to have developed a rather unhealthy attachment to them. Of course, as assistant tutor, I had to ‘toe the party line’ and push trainees to use ICQs every time they gave an instruction so that the message from tutors remained consistent. No problem. I understand the rationale behind ICQs and they are, indeed, very useful, when used appropriately. Then again, if you can’t give clear instructions surely it would make more sense to work on this before worrying about ICQs. Interestingly, Alex was also resistant to ICQs. Again I was curious about the root causes of her refusal/inability to use at least some ICQs in her lesson. Her response was to say that she found them patronizing and unnatural and claimed that she could tell by looking at students’ reactions to her instructions (which, I have to admit, were always very clear, apart from the ‘go ahead’) whether they had understood or not and therefore saw no point in using them as they would unnecessarily increase her TTT.

So she had a clear and logical rationale which demonstrated an understanding of the drawbacks of ICQs. My dilemma: was I to penalize her for ignoring my advice, for not taking on board action points and therefore failing to demonstrate progress in these areas, knowing that the main course tutor probably would penalize her for this? Also, what would the other trainees think if I didn’t point out the lack of ICQs in Alex’s lesson? Would I be implicitly condoning her actions? Perhaps this is a dilemma many CELTA tutors face. Perhaps not. What I started to realize, though, was that even if trainees are given a clear rationale for grading their language, or using ICQs, or doing anything in fact, they may still – perhaps merely on an unconscious level – resist implementation of this feedback in future TPs, or have a valid rationale of their own for not implementing it. Unless trainees clearly see its benefits, I surmised, they are unlikely to take an action point on board, even if they resolve consciously to do so in order to pass the course.

I’ve realized after doing several CELTA courses in the US that American candidates’ use of ‘go ahead and…’ is almost a source of national pride and a part of their identity. Perhaps, just as learners refuse to shake off their accents for fear of somehow ‘diluting’ their identity, so too are trainees reluctant to use imperatives for giving instructions because they too have a clear idea of what their teaching ‘identity’ should be. After all, if learners want to learn American, they should get used to hearing American instructions, no? And as for ICQs – well, Alex had a point there too.

Often I have noticed during input sessions that trainees perk up whenever the subject of how best to learn a language is raised. Because CELTA is a practical course there is obviously not much time in the input schedule to discuss differing views on language learning, but wouldn’t discussing such issues help break down learner – or in this case – trainee resistance? If trainees had more opportunities to reflect on their language learning experiences beyond the ubiquitous ‘foreign language lesson,’ this may lead to more responsiveness to trainers’ suggestions during feedback. They would see our feedback as helping them implement communicative language teaching methodology they essentially agreed with and understood rather than what many trainees continue to believe, even long after the course, is merely ‘CELTA method’ teaching.

And perhaps we should be more lenient when it comes to action points that trainees ‘resist’ implementing, just as we remain patient with learners who are unable to shake off that strong Spanish or Japanese accent, despite our best efforts. Allowing trainees their idiosyncrasies in some areas may allow us to focus on more important aspects of teaching such as task design, lesson planning and clarification of the meaning, form and pronunciation of the target language. Another suggestion – which I’m sure is already implemented by many CELTA centres – would be to ensure that the pre-course task helps raise trainees’ awareness of CLT and the principles behind it. By helping trainees to ‘get ahead,’ we may be able to help eliminate trainees’ use of ‘go ahead.’

Author’s Bio: Lee is currently working as a freelance CELTA tutor in the Americas. He has been worked in EFL since 2004 and in teacher training for the last 18 months and did the DELTA at IH Barcelona in 2009. He has taught in many countries around the world including Austria, Switzerland, China, the U.S., Ecuador, Chile, Venezuela and now Colombia and has also worked as a translator of German.