* Good Teaching


SLA research can throw very little light on good teaching – it’s not in its domain. Whatever we know about the SLA process, and in particular, what we know about SLA in classroom or teacher-led scenarios, what we don’t know is the effect of “good” and “bad” teachers, and we don’t have any well-tested criteria for evaluating one from the other. Just think about the number of variables at play, and you’ll understand why.

We know quite a lot about what students think makes a “good” or “bad” teacher in general educational terms, and we have lots of data on what students think about their EFL / ESL teachers. We also have lots of data on what teacher trainers, DOSs, and peers think about teachers in both the general education domain and in the specific ELT domain.

First, the general picture. Most educators (a terrible term, sorry) say that good teachers have four essential qualities:

• Subject knowledge,
• Communication skills
• Enthusiasm or Interest, and
• Respect for students.

In the http://englishwithgalih.blogspot.com.es/2013/04/what-are-criteria-of-good-teaching.html blog, it says that “Other major qualities that a good teacher must have are resilience, excellence, determination, conviction, and resolve”. Very bland stuff, right?

In a more considered (award-winning!) text, Leblanc (Leblanc, R. (1998) The top ten requirements for good teaching. The Teaching Professor, Vol. 12, # 6.) gave his top ten requirements for good teaching. To summarise, good teaching is about:

1 A passion for teaching.
2. Keeping on top of your field.
3. Responding to individual student’s needs, respecting others, and being professional at all times.
4. Being flexible, fluid, experimenting, and having the confidence to react and adjust to changing circumstances.
5. Style. Good teachers work the room and every student in it. They realize that they are conductors and the class is their orchestra.
6. Humor. Good teachers are self-deprecating and don’t take themselves too seriously.
7. Caring, nurturing, and developing minds and talents.
8. Having support from strong and visionary leadership, and very tangible instructional support resources, personnel, and funds.
9. Teamwork, and being recognized and promoted by one’s peers. Effective teaching should also be rewarded, and poor teaching needs to be remediated through training and development programs.
10. Having fun, experiencing pleasure and intrinsic rewards. Good teachers practice their craft not for the money or because they have to, but because they truly enjoy it and because they want to.

One more list, this time by Alex here: http://www.alexlandis.com/2008/08/12/qualities-of-a-good-teacher/

Alex says that good teachers love what they do; are good communicators; are admired; use positive reinforcement; are fair and just; are leaders; are committed; are understanding, compassionate and caring; and are confident, prepared and professional.

What strikes me about all this is that it’s rather obvious and of little practical use. Of course, by summarising the views above so quickly, I’ve left out some good discussion of what makes a good communicator, how best to lead, etc., and also stripped the texts of some of their illocutionary force. Even so, the three sources I’ve cited strike me as consisting mostly of motherhood statements: who would disagree with any of this advice? Does it help very much to inform good teaching practice?


There’s no doubt whatsoever that a good teacher is trusted by her students and gives them the feeling that they’re in safe hands; that seems to me to be the crux of the matter. But how is this achieved? Below is my own, quick attempt to list some practical elements which might help. Assuming we’re talking about a general English course, a good EFL teacher

• does a needs analysis at the start of the course and adjusts syllabus content accordingly.
• concentrates on developing general communicative competence. This entails, as Scott Thornbury put it so well, giving students the chance “to undergo repeated cycles of retrieval, production and creativity (aka practice, and, principally, practice in conditions that approximate real language use)”.
• is sensitive to cultural issues and the local context of her teaching.
• plans every lesson and ignores the plan when she thinks she should.
• sets appropriate, specific and challenging goals for every lesson.
• bases her lessons on tasks.
• gives her students a reading list and says that she expects everybody to read at least 3 books on the list.
• treats her students with respect and NEVER makes jokes at their expense.
• explains what’s going to happen at the start of each lesson.
• gives clear instructions for each task and asks somebody to give a counseling response to check.
• gives lots of feedback – negative feedback thru recasts, positive, encouraging, clearly targeted feedback on all contributions.
• makes sure that nobody feels left out.
• answers students’ questions about the language with authority and never bullshits. If she doesn’t have a clear answer she says “I’ll look that up and tell you in the next class”.
• doesn’t stay behind her desk. She moves around and never stands over people.
• elicits what’s happened in the lesson before it finishes, using the whiteboard to get the main points.
• asks for feedback
• sets homework –ALWAYS! And spend time in class discussing it.
• includes at least 2 process writing projects into the course.
• checks how the reading is going and makes room during the course for sessions where the reading is discussed.
• does a formal feedback session at least 4 times during a 100 hour course. The feedback session should be seen as an important part of the course, should use a feedback template which the students fill in individually, then discuss in groups and then report to the teacher. The teacher should take careful note of everything said and not attempt any defense of criticism. The teacher should adjust her plan for the next part of the course, and tell students how she’s going to change, or not change, things at the next class.
• does a proficiency test half way thru the course and another at the end. She tells students when this will happen, but does no preparation class.
• does individual counseling sessions with students at the end of the course.

During the course, the teacher must show that she’s in charge, that she knows what she’s doing, and that she cares about results.

Well, that’s off the top of my head, late at night. Over to you. But please don’t tell me that asking students to read extensively and engage in 2 process writing projects is “unrealistic”: if you believe in their worth, neither of them is.

7 thoughts on “* Good Teaching

  1. Interesting that there have been no comments on this so far. The fact that SLA research can throw very little light on good teaching – it’s not in its domain- is as I have mentioned in the past, something that always surprises me. As does the fact that people undertaking an M.A. in Tesol seem not to have responded to this post. Theory , should inform practice and unfortunately it seems never to do so, rather never the twain shall meet. Legutke and Thomas (91) pointed out :
    ” Our insights are still rather limited as to whether the changes mirrored in academic works are matched by respective modifications in practice. The little we know gives rise to some scepticism” ( page 6 ) this was reported nearly 25 years ago and we are still working it seems in divergent fields.

    Teaching is so much more about the How and not the What, yet little emphasis is given to actually improving or focussing on classroom practice…it is unfortunately still the case that once again in Legutke´s words–” some language classrooms are full of dead bodies and talking heads “( page 10 ) rather than ” a communal product derived through a jointly constructed process” ( Breen 85)

    How much further down the road do we need to go before theory instructs practice and how many more M.A. programmes will exist without any emphasis on the tools of the trade?


  2. By the way I would wholeheartedly suggest that everyone should read “Meaningful Action
    Earl Stevick´s influence on Language Teaching”. CUP 2013 There was a master of his art. A very interesting selection of practitioners in our field talking about the long lasting effect Earl´s work has / had on a whole generation of language teachers. RIP Earl it was a serious priviledge to have known you and studied under you.


    • Hi Connie,

      SLA research has a lot to say about the effects of teaching on learning a second / foreign language, but not much to say about what makes a good teacher. So there is, as you know, a great deal of literature on “instructed SLA” which talks about such things as teaching grammar, types of feedback, teaching the 4 skills, PPP versus TBLT, and so on. But teaching itself, the art and craft of good teaching, the transmission of confidence, the power of a Miss Jean Brody, all that is outside the domain of a theory of SLA.

      And some MAs in TESOL (not most, I’ll grant you) do actually give some emphasis to “the tools of the trade”, although your general point is well taken: if you’re interested in improving as a teacher, you’ll learn more from Earl Stevick and John Fanselow than you will from Rod Ellis and Manfred Pienemann. .


    • Hi Connie,

      Thanks for reminding us about the “Meaningful Action…” book celebrating Stevick. Chapters by David Nunan, Scott Thornbury, Penny Ur, even Chris Candlin,

      We should point out that Earl was quite a regular visitor to ESADE Idiomas, Barcelona for 15 years or more; that you and I did marvellous workshops and MA courses with him; and we were lucky enough to spend many happy summer evenings with him shooting the breeze. I should add that he always had a very soft spot for you!


  3. O.K. I know that I´m on my favourite soap box once again, and I apologise, but it´s a topic close to my heart. I´ve just read the latest post on the Secret DOS blog and this is what set me off, and though effective teaching may be in your words “outside the domain of a theory of SLA” I still don´t see why it should be, as in my opinion a teaching / learning situation is a jointly constructed process between teacher and learner and one can not but help to inform the other. However the gap between theory and practice is ever widening, not narrowing and an M.A in TEFL, ( wherever it is from ) is very rarely ( not to say never) an indicator of that person´s ability to teach well. If one undertakes an M.A. in the hope that this will better qualify them to be a better teacher, they have been sadly mis-informed about the nature of the beast. Most people taking a course of these characteristics will become teachers. Few will become academics debating the latest theories of SLA. I sincerely believe that more emphasis on the tools, more practical effort on the part of the M.A student and a clearer consideration for future learners of the language should form an integral part of any course calling itself a Masters in the Teaching Of English as a Foreign Language .


  4. Hi there,
    A lot of good teaching shares ground with other subjects, math, biology, literature. The relationship part, rapport I guess, will always be in favor of learning. Likewise being clear, organized, coherent, adding fun and interest, will support students’ efforts. Where language teaching takes on its own colors is where SLA (and other discipline relevant areas) comes into focus. I would think the successful language teacher has a way of judging what to do in class that is aligned with the way (we think) languages are learned. This can be implicit, but I’d think an MA should make these ideas float to the top so that they become available for analysis. For example, the practioner might ask students to repeat in complete sentences, to read texts aloud, to translate, use recasting for error correction, etc. (The correctness paradigm shines through the communicative veil). With time, the question comes up, whether these things are really effective. It should.

    In the end, the question can be asked if good teaching should be judged by the learning taking place. That is, is it enough to say “I, he or she, taught well…who knows if students learned.” It is difficult to defend teaching as an end in itself. But if we leat learning through the door, things become really messy.

    (My own practitioner’s trail, with all the dead ends and rabbit holes, made me look for help to solve puzzles about memory. This is how I met E.S.–through his books. I looked for the first M in Memory, Meaning…. Then I looked at Images and Options, which invited me to think differently about teaching and made the second M center of attention.)


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