Those who can teach can't speak the lingo

8th June 2012 at 01:00
A global survey of primary teachers found worrying gaps in their English skills

English teachers in primary schools around the world often need an interpreter to help them through their English-language job interviews. And many consider the rules of English grammar of relatively little importance to their job, according to Helen Emery, senior lecturer in higher education at the University of Essex.

Emery surveyed almost 2,500 primary school English teachers from 89 developed and developing countries. The aim was to find out whether there were any global trends in the teaching of English to young children.

English is now the most popular second language taught in schools, with children starting lessons at an increasingly early age. More than half the teachers surveyed said pupils at their school started learning English at age 6 or younger. Only 4 per cent said children are not taught English until the age of 10 or older.

However, only 6 per cent of teachers surveyed taught children under 5 years old. This, Emery says, "may seem odd, given that the majority of respondents said children started learning English ... before the age of 7".

This was explained by the fact that more experienced teachers were teaching older pupils, while less experienced teachers were given younger children to teach. "This is a worrying trend as it means that, in some countries, the lower end of the learning cycle will always fall to inexperienced teachers," Emery says.

"Undoubtedly some newly qualified teachers are very good, but this trend will deprive young learners of being taught by some of the more experienced teachers."

More than a third of the respondents had completed a degree course, with 25 per cent of all those questioned holding a master's. But a third said that they were not qualified to teach primary-aged children, and a fifth were not specifically trained to teach English.

"I worked in a (Buddhist) temple school for two years, teaching English to poor boys ... training to be monks," one Thai teacher said. "This experience enabled me to pass the teachers' training test."

As a result, there were distinct differences between the teachers who were well qualified and well trained, and those who were not. In one country (Emery does not say which), eight out of nine English teachers had to be interviewed through a translator, as they lacked the language skills to understand what their interviewer was saying. All these teachers said that their teacher training had included a specific focus on English language teaching.

Asked what made a good primary school English teacher, most participants named good English language skills, as well as teaching experience, an understanding personality and good qualifications. The skills deemed least important included knowledge of the syllabus and exam system, an ability to maintain discipline and knowledge of the rules of English grammar.

Post-qualification training was considered important by most teachers. However, while local teachers' unions and associations ran many development courses, fewer than a third of those questioned were members. One possible reason, Emery suggests, is the cost involved in joining such organisations. One headteacher in Cameroon said that he would love to join his local teachers' association, but that doing so would cost the equivalent of two weeks' salary, which he needed to support his family.

Despite pay concerns, almost 44 per cent of teachers questioned said they were very happy in their jobs and 69 per cent said they would like to stay in the profession. Two-thirds also said they would recommend a career in primary English teaching to others.

Tibetan teachers living in exile in India were the happiest of all teachers interviewed. They worked six-day weeks and received less pay than many other teachers. But they said their happiness came from the Dalai Lama's teaching that happiness is internal and can be achieved through focused training of the mind.

"Earning enough money to support your family is ... important," Emery says. "But money on its own is not the driving force behind a teacher's job satisfaction."


Emery, H. A Global Study of Primary English Teachers' Qualifications, Training and Career Development (2012).



1. Conditions for learning

Ideally, schools should only hire English teachers proficient in the language. "This could be done by interviewing teachers in English or asking them to provide certificates showing that they have been specifically trained to teach the subject," Emery says.

2. Initial teacher training

Education providers should recognise that teaching younger children is a worthy goal in itself, and not just the starting point for newly qualified or inexperienced teachers.

3. Professional development

Heads should realise that in-service workshops are valuable to staff. More non-teaching days should be introduced to allow for this.

4. Promotion opportunities

In order to attract and retain high-quality applicants, schools need to offer more of these. Schools could offer educational leadership courses to selected teachers.

5. Teacher satisfaction

Teachers' pay can be poor. People with high levels of English can often take advantage of more lucrative career opportunities. "If the profession is to retain its best teachers, then efforts have to be made to keep teachers happy," Emery says.

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