Developing Teachers Column: A Critical Reflection of the CELTA
by Jamie King
What is this article?
To reflect the face that this is my first entry as the new columnist of the teacher training/teacher development section of the IH Journal, I’d like look at where many of us first start our ELT careers, by doing (and presumably obtaining!) a pre-service, initial qualification such as CELTA. This article will review where the qualification has come from and how well it continues to serve its candidate base today.
Does your CELTA serve you?! My motivation for choosing this topic is that I feel there is a lot to be learnt by reflecting on and critically evaluating our industry practice, just as we expect teachers to do in their own professional practice, especially on training courses. Specifically, I think we need to ask ourselves: ‘How well do these programmes continue meet the needs of the increasingly diverse candidature of ELT practitioners?’
Where does it all come from?
The present day Cambridge English CELTA is a bit of a chameleon that has morphed through a number of incarnations over the years:
|1962-1977||IH Certificate||International House|
(Royal Society of Arts)
(Certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults)
(University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate)
(Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults)
(Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages)
Cambridge English Language Assessment
Despite a 50-year long identity crisis, the qualification has very much stood the test of time; indeed, it’s more popular now than ever.
The story starts with John Haycraft (founder of IH) who conceived of a practical means of training teachers he could then employ. His wife Brita (Haycraft 2003) recollects how it was the first non-theoretical, practice based programme consisting of:
- teaching practice
- lesson planning
Somewhat revolutionary in its day, nothing quite like this intensive, hands-on apprenticeship existed. Haycraft and IH were certainly teacher training pioneers in this respect and set the model for subsequent ‘imitators’ who would base their programmes on the same principles.
Haycraft recalls how:
“Being a new school with new teachers made new ideas possible… Swapping ideas and observing classes became the norm…”
“It was only a two-week course, but quite a gruelling two weeks…The beauty of short courses was that you could see the result within months, rather than years….” (Haycraft 2010, p. 2-3)
Gruelling as it might be, the short turnaround made the course very popular, opening up a viable option for those who weren’t fully-fledged linguists. It soon took off school by school initially all over Europe and North Africa. Just look at this smart newspaper advertisement!
It spite of such sassy marketing, it took Haycraft a long time to convince an accrediting body to take the qualification on. It was the 1960s, and it was still believed that to be any kind of teacher (of anything!), one needed to be an expert. Degrees in linguistics and literature were the norm for language teachers at this time (keep in mind that almost ALL jobs for language teachers at this time were in schools and universities). Therefore, academic institutes had no interest in any qualification that didn’t meet the rigours of an academic discipline. The IH Certificate was offering something quite different; it was meant to be, not academic, but a foundation in practical, classroom-based teaching. This situation resolved itself when the RSA took it on.
The qualification continued to evolve, responding to feedback from both learners and participants and developments in applied linguistics. It was a ground-breaking course which set a benchmark for training teachers in Situational, and later, Communicative Language Teaching. This seeming flexibility means that, despite what In spite of what some candidates claim, there is no ‘CELTA method’ or ‘IH way’. It’s easy to see how trainees might arrive at such (erroneous) deductions, but in theory, the qualification has always been open to a ‘principled eclecticism’ as coined by Larsen-Freeman (2000) and Mellow (2000). In practice, this ‘principled eclecticism’ is of course limited by the eclecticism and principles of the individual trainer!
What’s your problem?
My problem is this: CELTA was conceived of for the private language school sector (TEFL), and significantly vast numbers of candidates taking the course today no longer reflect that sector. The CELTA is in danger of not meeting the needs of its candidates in the teaching situations they are in and therefore becoming increasingly irrelevant – a mere bauble on the Christmas tree of meaningless industry qualifications. Let me explain myself.
There was a time when a CTEFLA/CELTA meant a certain thing. It was a clear indication that the candidate had:
- a grounding in the teaching techniques that had found their way into Communicative Language Teaching, and…
- that they had either native (or very near native) English proficiency.
Some of us will remember the dark days, when something called a ‘non-native speaker’ was very rare on CELTA, because, you know, the course was not for ‘them’. This attitude may have been the ‘rule’ of a few misguided trainers, but it was still present in the expectations/perceptions of many candidates both native English speaking teachers (NESTs) and non-native English speaking teachers NNESTs), learners, and employers.
Historically, the largest part of the target market was preparing these ‘native-speakers’ to go off somewhere (typically Europe for a few years) to teach how to converse better in English, and maybe prepare for an exam. This was the typical TEFL, fee-paying, private language school context. This was in distinction to say primary or secondary schools, universities, or immigrants living in English speaking countries (whose differing needs were met by the ESOL sector, which was often state-funded/subsidised).
With its increasingly international candidature, the CELTA has grown far beyond the target market for which it was initially and largely conceived. My CELTA courses are far from this and more typically reflect the likes of:
- high school English teachers in Ethiopia
- trainers in teacher development projects in Indian primary schools
- subject specialists in English-medium universities in the Gulf states
- teachers who will never set foot in an English speaking country
Today the reality is that the 12,000+ per year candidature on CELTA is increasingly in favour of the NNESTs. The numbers far more closely reflect the real-life number of NNESTs, which greatly exceeds the number of ‘native’ teachers on this planet (whatever ‘native’ means). There are many (of the 300+) CELTA centres in the world where 50-100% of candidates are regularly (or exclusively) non-native speakers.
So the question becomes, ‘How well does a course like CELTA meet the needs of these candidates in these contexts?’ Is there too much that is inherently biased, outdated or prescriptive in a course like CELTA when applied to a broader variety of contexts? I believe there is.
As an itinerant trainer and assessor I have the privilege of training, observing training and assessing all over the world. In terms of our delivery, I think we can improve the following:
- Practice what we preach by adapting/customising the programme to suit the needs of candidates and their context more (within the limits/constraints available)
- Be aware of our own cultural/methodological/professional biases that we bring to our training and how this impacts our expectations in assessment
- Take on a more principled approach to instruction (in line with ‘principled eclecticism’) rather than so heavy a techniques focus
No doubt there are many trainers who do just this! In fact, I would say these are instinctive for any good teacher educator. But for those still getting there, or those caught in the whirlpool of their own prescriptivism, I’d like to offer the following.
Don’t tell me your problems!
At the risk of raising problems without presenting solutions, I suggest we ask ourselves the following questions to inform and modify our practice:
1) ‘How well do I adapt the course to the needs of my candidates?’ Here are a few examples:
- If candidates will only ever teach in their own monolingual environment, show them how to use L1/translation effectively, e.g. instructions.
- If candidates are mostly non-natives who have studied English extensively, minimize input on language awareness.
- If learners are use to and work effectively with traditional approaches such as Grammar-Translation, let candidates know that beyond the course, these can ALSO be valid approaches to teach with sometimes…(though probably not for the purposes of the course itself).
- If a candidate’s English is proficient enough to cope with the demands of the course in the first place, avoid penalising them for errors with incidental language.
- In contexts with minimal-to-no resources, teach them to work with minimal-to-no resources.
- Especially if candidates won’t get much (or any!) meaningful support in their ongoing professional development, be extra vigilant about helping them become more conscious reflective practitioners.
- Provide realistic planning strategies (unless of course they can spend hours planning like they do on CELTA!).
2) ‘What cultural/methodological/professional biases do I bring to my training?’
I think there’s a lot of cultural bias on programmes such as CELTA. Let me play devil’s advocate (a favourite training technique!) with the example of ‘learner-centredness’, which tends to get thrown about left, right and centre as a term/expectation on CELTA courses. This is a concept that has come to prevalent in education across all sectors in the English speaking world, focussed, as it has supposedly become, on discovery, experiential, and cooperative learning, and the ideals of humanistic education. Does a language learning classroom really have to be learner-centred? Linguistically-minded learners often do well regardless of how learner-centred a classroom is. How learner-centred is learner-centred enough? What about the majority of learners on planet earth (and they are the majority) who have little-to-no experience (or even any concept) of what learner-centredness is? The playing field is not level for these candidates when you compare them with say a young American/British gap-year student fresh from their supposedly well-balanced, high school curriculum full of critical thinking and problem-solving. Is learner-centredness even going to work in a cultural environment where learners don’t know how to respond to a simple: ‘Work with your partner.’ let alone a ‘What do you think?’
- ‘How am I training my candidates to jump through hoops at the expense of better understanding the underlying principles of effective learning?’
Another issue I have observed is too heavy a focus on the techniques of teaching rather than the principles underlying them, often leaving them for some magical ‘later’ (what I call the ‘That’s best left for Delta’ mentality). A lot of teacher trainers (including myself!) simply have a lot of ingrained training habits, often based on principles of economy and efficiency. We’re fond of telling experienced teachers that they may have to unlearn a lot of old teaching habits; I believe this is true of us as teacher trainers ourselves as well. Something I observe a lot is insistence that trainees use instruction checking questions (ICQs). These are neither obligatory, nor canon! Use them when, and IF the situation calls for it. Rather than starting from the assumption the learners won’t have understood; focus candidates on planning for or responding to emerging needs. Too often trainers are hanging out for the ICQs to be demonstrated to tick off the hoop-jumping checklist (what I consider a techniques-focussed approach). By comparison, a more principled approach would encourage trainees to better understand the purpose behind ICQs, and to identify situations when/if they would be useful, in response to learners’ needs. This encourages a more ‘thinking teacher’ rather than one who simply jumps through hoops to satisfy expectations or assessment.
According to Cambridge English’s website, CELTA is: “The essential TEFL qualification that’s trusted by employers, language schools and governments around the world.” (CELTA 2016). While this may indeed be the case for the time being, as more governments around the world expect a qualification like CELTA to satisfy benchmarking requirements in their schools, it will serve teacher educators world-wide and Cambridge English well, to make sure the qualification stays relevant to the candidates it reaches.
Author’s Bio: Jamie is a consultant teacher educator. He has an MA in Mis-Applied Linguistics/TESOL and large numbers of IH schools and other such institutes around the world have been blessed with the misfortune of his work. He works primarily in the delivery/assessment of teacher training/development programmes such as Cambridge CELTA and Delta and in course design/curriculum development in a variety of teacher education projects.He works globally and is often to be found in more than one place at once!
CELTA (2016). Available: http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/teaching-english/teaching-qualifications/celta/. Last accessed 9th Jan 2016.
Haycraft, B. (2003). Fifty Years of IH in Broad Brush Strokes. IH Journal. 14 (1), p1-2.
Haycraft, B. (2010). IH in Shaftesbury Avenue – the formative years 1961-66. Available: http://ihjournal.com/docs/ihhistory/list4.pdf. Last accessed 9th Jan 2016.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000). Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (2nd ed.).Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mellow, J. D. (2000). Western influences on indigenous language teaching. In J. Reyhner, J. Martin, L. Lockard, & W. Sakiestewa Gilbert (Eds.), Learn in beauty: Indigenous education for a new century (pp. 102-113). Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University.