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Becoming a "Good" Foreign Language Teacher: Knowledge, Skills, and Dispositions
Nov 1, 2014

Most language educators would agree that the ultimate goals of a foreign/second (L2) language education are trifold: language skills, cultural knowledge, and academic achievement. The needs and expectations of L2 learners can no longer be defined in terms of grammar knowledge, or translation skills; rather, proficiency in an L2 is considered a phenomenon that entails ability to communicate one's self authentically in a linguistically and culturally diverse world. To be able to do that, learners must be taught an L2 differently than they would have been taught 40 or 50 years ago. As the world changes, the communication needs of L2 learners also change. As a result, L2 teachers need to adapt to these changes while also constantly updating their professional knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be able to effectively serve their students. Below, I outline and describe the basic professional competencies of a well-trained foreign language teacher.

What are the basic traits that a teacher should have to be able to help students attain necessary language skills and cultural knowledge in an L2? As language educators, we receive this question all the time. Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not an easy one because research involving curriculum analyses, both in the United States and in Europe, has revealed a significant amount of variation in the number of domains and competencies covered in L2 teacher education programs (Richards, 2008). While some programs have predominantly focused on language and L2 acquisition research and theory, others have taken a more linguistics and methods-orientated direction. In general, though, most experts in the field would agree on a number of fundamental competencies.

Competent L2 teachers know who their learners are (1), what language is (2), how it is learned (3), and how it should be taught (4). Furthermore, they have a solid background about the foundations of L2 curriculum (5), the selection and development of instructional materials (6), and the design of a learning environment (7) that is sensitive to socio-cultural differences (8). They also know how to use the L2 as a tool for L2 learners to gain access to academic content knowledge (9). While they are also able to situate the whole language learning and teaching experience within broader learning theories (10), and competently assess and evaluate L2 development and proficiency (11), they are well aware of their professional roles and responsibilities as advocates for successful L2 education in its entirety at all levels, including institutional, national, and international. Indeed, these competencies have been categorized under the five domains of (I) Language Learning, (II) Learners, (III) Instruction, (IV) Assessment and Evaluation, and (V) Professionalism and Advocacy. Before any further ado, let's take a look at what each competency entails.

Domain I: Language learning

This domain includes background knowledge and skills in (1) linguistics, (2) general learning theories, and (3) first and second language acquisition theories. First, L2 teachers need to be highly proficient in the language that they teach. Competent L2 teachers understand the nature of language and basic concepts of language systems such as phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon, semantics, discourse, and pragmatics. They are also familiar with socio-linguistic, psycho-linguistic, and neuro-linguistic factors in L2 learning. Furthermore, they know the functions and register of the L2, including the conventions of written and spoken language, and the pedagogical implications of differences between basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) (Cummins, 1984). In addition, they understand the interrelatedness of receptive (listening, reading), productive (speaking, writing), and complementary (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation) language skills.

Second, competent L2 teachers are familiar with the basic theories and concepts about first (L1) and L2 acquisition, including the language universals (Chomsky, 1965), and the role L1 plays in L2 development. While they understand differences between the processes of L1 and L2 acquisition, they have a solid background in second language acquisition (SLA) theories. For example, they know how to use different ways to maximize the comprehensible input (Krashen, 1987) opportunities for their students through authentic tasks and activities. More importantly, they know that the greatest bulk of an L2 is acquired through self-exposure and social interactions, not learned in strictly structured and inauthentic classroom settings. Finally, competent L2 teachers are able to situate SLA theories within the broader learning theories. For instance, they understand behaviorist (memorization) versus cognitivist (information processing) versus socio-constructivist (socio-cultural factors) views (Pavlenko - Lantolf, 2000) about L2 learning and development.

Domain II: Learners

Current SLA research has revealed that socio-psychological factors affect success in learning an L2. This domain covers teacher knowledge about (1) differences among language learners and (2) their levels of socio-cultural awareness. Individual differences, such as motivation, attitudes, anxiety, identity, learning styles, pedagogical beliefs, socialization patterns, and learning and communicative strategies affect success in learning an L2. For example, many scholars have found that high motivation has a positive effect on L2 learning (Dörnyei, 2005) while learners with high levels of anxiety do not seem be successful language learners (Horwitz, 2008). In fact, researchers have found that learners who strongly identify with the L2 community attain a more native-like accent than those who strongly identify with their native-speaking communities Dörnyei - Ushioda, 2009). Competent L2 teachers know about the role these factors might play in L2 attainment and plan the learning experience for their students accordingly.

Other learner-related factors concern the socio-cultural differences. L2 learners come from different families and geographical regions with different socio-economic and educational backgrounds, demonstrating a significant amount of cultural diversity. Culturally responsive L2 teachers understand the role of diversity - namely cultural products, perspectives, and practices - in L2 attainment. They know not only how to construct culturally-sensitive learning experiences to facilitate the most effective learning, but also what strategies to apply to create among students an awareness of and respect for cultural diversity. Indeed, culturally competent teachers effectively apply skills for communicating and collaborating effectively with the parents/guardians, the community members, and local resources to enhance their students' learning. For example, such teachers not only genuinely value cultural diversity and incorporate it into the curriculum, but also organize extra-curricular activities in appreciation of diversity as an added value for advancement.

Domain III: Instruction

Under this domain, we have instructional competencies including (1) foundations of curriculum, (2) methods of language teaching, (3) learning environment, (4) instructional materials, and (5) language and content area integration. First, competent L2 teachers know the history and policy foundations of L2 education and use this knowledge to plan and implement effective L2 programs (Richards, 2001). They are able to select the most effective types of programs that are appropriate for the needs of a particular learner profile in a particular setting. For example, while most scholars agree that bilingual and immersion programs are the most effective, the most common English as a second language (ESL) programs in the U.S. are the pull-out ones, also known as the least effective programs that are primarily based on the development of BICS skills while neglecting the teaching of CALP via content-based curricula.

Second, competent L2 teachers are also able to choose and implement the most appropriate and current methods of language teaching. Such teachers know that we have come a long way since the grammar translation and audio-lingual method (Richards - Rodgers, 2001), however, we no longer adhere to one particular method because we live in the beyond-methods' era (Kumaravadivelu, 2006). Nonetheless, this does not imply a senseless, eclectic approach; rather it entails being flexible within a consistent theoretical and pedagogical framework often referred to as "principled eclecticism" (Larsen-Freeman, 2003). Third, as the current ecological L2 learning theories would suggest (Brown, 2006), just as only a balanced amount of sun, water and care, in a nurturing environment, can lead to the healthy growth of a flower, instructional methods can lead to success in L2 learning only if the learning environment is meticulously designed.

Last but not least, an important part of what constitutes a nurturing environment is the availability of effective instructional resources. Competent L2 teachers are not only well-informed about the strengths and weakness of commercial and authentic materials but also possess the necessary skills to select, adapt, or develop their own materials based on the specific needs and goals of their students. Indeed, competent L2 teachers use the instructional materials that integrate the language and content area goals, supporting L2 learners' BICS, CALP, and academic achievement (Cummins, 1984). For example, most English-medium universities overseas have English preparatory programs to prepare students to be able to receive, say, engineering or economics content in English; however, instead of conducting a needs analysis and basing their EFL instruction on the content of these majors, most of these programs select generic commercial materials that often times include linguistic input predominantly about shopping, holidays, food, and friendship.

Domain IV: Assessment and evaluation

This domain covers knowledge and skills about the assessment and evaluation of L2 learners' language development. It includes background in L2 testing skills related to the placement, diagnostic, achievement, and proficiency of L2 learners. Competent L2 teachers know the commonly used national and international standard assessment tools, such as TOEFL. Such teachers also know the basic concepts and practices related to test design, development, and interpretation. In addition to understanding the validity and reliability of testing methods and tools, they understand potential relationships among the national standards, instruction, and L2 testing. More importantly, in their classrooms, they effectively apply knowledge of formal/informal, direct/indirect, and dynamic and authentic assessment. Most importantly, however, competent teachers are familiar with the construct of the "backwash effect" - the effect testing might have on student learning (Hughes, 2003). Successful learning will not take place if teaching and testing goals and/or methods are incongruent. For example, if writing skills are tested by multiple choice tests, students will invest their time and effort in developing their skills to respond to such questions, not in working on actual writing skills that they will need in real-life tasks.

Domain V: Professionalism and Advocacy

As part of the last domain, L2 teachers are required to possess certain professional qualifications and individual characteristics to be able to support L2 learners' linguistic, cultural, and academic development. This domain lies at the heart of the profession. Competent L2 teachers demonstrate knowledge of the history of L2 teaching, keep up-to-date with new trends and current educational research, and follow domestic and international issues related to language planning and policy, as well as other advances in L2 education. Moreover, considering language learners spend only a limited amount of time with language teachers, it is very important that L2 teachers collaborate with the mainstream teachers and build partnerships with outside resources and parents to support the linguistic, cultural, and content areas of development. Also noteworthy is that such teachers claim responsibility for L2 learners and are able to apply effective strategies to advocate educational and social equity for their students, both at the institutional and broader community levels (Crawford, 2004). For instance, such teachers serve as a resource to promote a school environment that values cultural and linguistic diversity, and they advocate for equitable access to resources for language learners by becoming members of organizations (e. g.: TESOL) that support L2 learning and teaching.

Furthermore, in order for teachers to apply these professional competencies in actual classroom practices, they need to posses certain individual characteristics and dispositions that complement their professional qualifications. Unlike learning other subjects, language learning requires a great deal of patience and perseverance. Hence, L2 teachers need to be caring, compassionate, understanding, self-sacrificing, and patient. They need to establish a good rapport and empathy with their students, offering them timely motivational support. Only by doing so can they understand their students' socio-psychological well-being and invest additional personal time and effort in students' learning.

Last but not least, L2 teachers need to remain positive and enthusiastic about their students' progress, because the process of L2 development is a bumpy road with lots of ups and downs. To help their students, teachers need to be able to identify their students' struggles correctly and provide them with developmentally appropriate support. In addition, they need to be fair and treat all of their students equally. In doing so, they need to know their students very well and think outside the box, supplying innovative in-class and self-study strategies. Finally, in order for L2 teachers to be able to competently demonstrate these personal traits, they need to have effective communication skills. While such teachers are very good and empathetic listeners, they also need to be able to communicate their thoughts and feelings effectively, and with mutual respect and appreciation, to support their students' learning.

Saban Cepik is Assistant Professor/Department Chair, ELT, Zirve University.


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