The 2012 Chilean National English Test results recently came out. Although progress had been made, there was a tremendous amount of criticism of teachers. “These poor results are the teacher’s faults,” reasoned the critics. “If they were better trained, the students would have better results.”
Of course, this is a powerful argument, because it sounds intuitively logical. If teachers teach, and the results are poor, it must be the teachers faults. Who could argue with a vision of teaching and learning English that sees the native speaker as the best teacher? Evidently, very few people, even today, in 2013.
Adding insult to injury, Mineduc provided a sample of only a handful of teachers to the press that apparently pointed to poor levels of English in over 30% of teachers. It seemed like our worst fears were coming true: Teachers, who can’t speak English, were trying to teach English…
However, nothing could have been further from reality.
Nonetheless, the sample soon became an urban myth in Chile:
“Over 30% of the teachers of English in Chile don’t have basic knowledge of English.”
This incorrect statement made it into news reports, television interviews and even into the opinion columns of prestigious newspapers. One prominent, well-known researcher was also fooled by the Mineduc partial data, writing that the data applied to “the practicing teachers” of English in Chile.
Here, it is best to repeat: Not true. False. Wrong. Incorrect.
It was only a sample, in no way representative, and taken grossly out of context. In other words, it was a sensational misrepresentation of reality, and entirely outside of the intended uses of the data that had been collected by Mineduc.
The data had been collected as a way of “helping teachers” by providing more relevant training opportunities for public school teachers. Further, the test was optional, not a requirement. Even further, teachers at private schools had been excluded entirely from the Mineduc data collection efforts.
Again, all this makes the point that the public reports of linguistically incompetent teachers was inappropriate, and indicative of misinformation. Beyond this, no consideration had been made for the grade level teachers were asked to teach. For example, the language requirements of a high school teacher of English and an elementary school teacher of English are tremendously varied.
Teaching a first year beginner versus a student with 6, 7, or 8 years of English learning experience is a vastly different proposition. Seen from this angle, I found 87% of Chile’s teachers of English to be linguistically competent, using the exact same criteria!
Therefore, this aspect of language teaching has to be considered, but it was not taken into account. It thus provided a source of misinformation for everyone concerned. At worse, it did no justice to the professionalism and linguistic competence of the teachers of English in Chile.
When closely examined, it does not stand up to what we know about the relationship between teaching ability and knowledge of English. To be clear, knowledge of English is but one variable to consider, an important one, yes, but insufficient to predict whether or not a teacher can teach English well.
For example, if language competence in English were the only thing to consider, then Chile could make a tremendous improvement in its National English test results simply by hiring an army of native speakers. This has already been tried however, most notably in Vietnam, Korea, Japan and China. Not a single one of those countries can boast that the experiment has been successful on a massive scale.
Why not? Most people would intuitively agree that a native speaker of English is superior to a non-native speaker of English. Then why don’t native speakers have more success as teachers of English?
Let’s turn to Peter Medgyes for an answer. Peter has studied the question of whether or not a native English speaking teacher, or “NEST” is superior to a Non-Native English Speaking Teacher, or “NNEST”. It may come as a surprise what he found out:
Medgyes enumerates six points where a non-NESTs is better than a NEST:
(1) “Only Non-NESTs can serve as imitable models of the successful learner of English” (346).
(2) “Non-NESTs can teach learning strategies more effectively” (346).
(3) “Non-NESTs can provide learners with more information about the English language” (347).
(4) “Non-NESTs are more able to anticípate language difficulties” (347).
(5) “Non-NESTs can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners” (347).
(6) “Only non-NESTs can benefit from sharing the learner’s mother tongue” (347).
Medgyes concludes that these advantages tend to balance the non-NESTs’ language competence deficiencies. Therefore, he states, “The more proficient in English, the more efficient in the classroom is a false statement” (347).
In conclusion, as Chile begins the process of analysing the SIMCE English test results for 2012, it would be wise to expand the analysis to more profound and potentially rewarding areas than simply laying the blame on the language competence of the teachers.
Incredible as it may seem, there’s more to teaching English than simply knowing English well.
By itself, it’s not enough to achieve success in teaching and learning English, not in Chile, not in Japan, not in Korea, not in China, not in Vietnam, in fact, nowhere on the planet…