How do you teach English when you can't speak it? by Eleanor Watts

In many parts of the world, primary school teachers are now being asked to teach English, a language in which they are not fluent. This article is a rationale for a course involving teachers and trainers working in low-resource contexts. It is designed to address some of the interrelated needs of:

1. teachers who cannot speak English fluently,

2. trainers who have no primary experience.

The course has been planned for India, but features could be transferred to other countries where teachers are not fluent in English.

In India, state primary school teachers have received little or no training in teaching English and their own experience of learning the language was through the grammar translation method. While the communicative approach emphasises oral skills, especially at the elementary level, they are usually more comfortable with the written than with the spoken word. They tend to feel they should be the givers of knowledge and their pupils the takers. They fear a loss of face in being required to teach open-ended oral skills and feel safer with grammar which has clearly right answers. Their government expects them to use the communicative approach, but the collaborative ideology that underlies it may be anathema to them.

Their trainers, on the other hand, are familiar with the latest theories of English teaching, but typically have never taught in primary schools. They do not know how to control classes of over eighty children with no resources but a blackboard. Their experience is with smaller groups of highly motivated adults in relatively well-resourced classrooms. They have little credibility with teachers they train because they have no practical experience.

The liberal expert is now in the embarrassing position of having to choose between two popular western constructs:

· the communicative approach towards language teaching

· the reflective model of teacher training propounded by Wallace (1991) among others.

If the communicative approach is chosen, the trainer becomes a kind of missionary, seeking to convert teachers to what they perceive as "alien methods". (Canagarajah, 1999, 116) If the reflective approach is chosen, the trainer does not intervene, but takes "the role of 'facilitator' or 'developer', giving little or no information, but encouraging trainees to develop their own body of knowledge." (Ur, 1996, 8)

If, as Widdowson suggests, "teacher disposition … should be preferred to researcher imposition" (1993), teacher disposition is likely to go for grammar translation methods. The very liberality of the reflective paradigm rules out attempting to change the teacher. If, on the other hand, researcher imposition is preferred to teacher disposition, the imposed "alien methods" are unlikely to stick. The westernised teacher trainer who believes that the communicative approach can be imported as a job-lot into another culture is bound to meet with "tissue rejection" - like a body that rejects a surgical implant. (Holliday, 1994, 132)

In my view, it is irresponsible to take either approach to extreme. Non-interventionist facilitators are abnegating their responsibility to offer new ideas to practitioners. However the pedagogic missionary can be both arrogant and ignorant in attempting to impose a foreign teaching style where it is both culturally and practically inappropriate. In devising a teacher education course, both the communicative approach and the reflective paradigm must be modified to fit the context.

A modified communicative approach to English teaching

An obvious response to the problems of teachers with poor oral skills is to improve their spoken English, but there simply is not the time or money for this. What is possible is to give teachers a tool-kit of lessons that can be adapted in various ways, enabling them to use the little English they have in a genuinely communicative way. These lessons will involve minimal use of resources. Blackboard skills will be taught, enabling teachers to get away from the textbook and create at least a few lessons about the immediate environment. Teachers will not be required to lose face by uncontrolled use of the target language and suggested lists of classroom language will be provided. The teacher will usually be at the centre of most lessons, preferring singing, story-telling and teacher-directed games like Simon says to more open-ended participatory games. Pair work will be preferred to group work because it involves less movement and possibility of disruption. Noise will be kept to a minimum to avoid disturbance for nearby classes. While all suggested activities will initiate contextualised and enjoyable oral work, the emphasis will be on the do-able.

It is not necessary for the teacher to be a fluent English speaker to initiate limited opportunities for authentic language use within the classroom. After all, the non-specialist primary school teacher does not need a mastery of trigonometry to teach two-digit addition. She does not need to be fluent in English to lay the foundations for fluency in English.

The approach to training teachers and faciliators

I guess that some hackles may have risen at my use of the term tool-kit! Is the profession, nay art, of teaching to be reduced to the status of labour, or at best craft? Michael Wallace (1991, 15) distinguishes between three models of teacher education: the craft model, the applied science model and the reflective model. In the craft model, the master practitioner demonstrates to the student teacher how things should be done. In the applied science model, the findings of scientific knowledge and experimentation are conveyed to trainees by experts. In the reflective model (that favoured by Wallace), trainees combine received knowledge with their own experiential knowledge of the classroom.

Indian teacher education falls largely within the applied science model, since it relies heavily on theories delivered by non-practising experts. I suggest that, to redress this imbalance, the craft model is preferred initially, as trainers cannot reflect upon experience they do not have and opportunities for reflection in a week long course are very limited. The proposed course will focus on a video of demonstration lessons conducted by a competent, local primary school teacher, a teacher's handbook and a cassette of songs, thus stressing practice over theory.

A modified reflective model for the facilitators

The training for facilitators will fall largely within the reflective model. It will consist of a one or two week face to face training, followed by an on-line course of several months. Participants will be able to use the video machine, which will later be used in teacher training, at their local teacher's centre. Since cybercafes are now widespread in towns of the Indian subcontinent, it should be possible for participants to read the email tasks of all the members of their group and make follow-up comments without leaving their normal place of work.

They will work in groups of fifteen with a tutor who reads their written submissions each week. They will be required to watch the video, read the teacher's handbook or other readings and then try out lessons in an ordinary primary classroom. This will give them much needed practice in the methods they advocate. As English is good, they should be able to express their responses to their experiences over email. In general, they will follow a reflective model because they will have the time and resources to do so.

A modified craft model for training the teachers

The training for teachers will fall largely into the craft model. It will consist of a single week-long training, probably in a class of fifty teachers as there are no resources to train the primary teachers at greater depth. Therefore, there will be little time for assimilation of new ideas or reflection. A video machine and audio-cassette player will be provided at the teacher's centre so that the videos can be discussed and the songs practised. However, the on-line element is not practicable for primary teachers, partly because it would be impossibly expensive to conduct with the thousands of teachers who need training. In addition they will not have the English skills to frame their thoughts over the email and many live in villages where there is no access to computers or video machines.

While I believe the reflective model to be the ideal one, it may not be realistic. Teachers in India face very difficult working conditions and are frequently under-educated and poorly motivated. When the teachers go back to their own classes, they will not have videos or audio-cassettes (many do not even have electricity in their schools) and will need to rely on the handbook, assisted by their memories of the video lessons and tunes they have learnt.

In the proposed course, there would be an unashamed attempt to "convert" trainers and then teachers to using certain carefully chosen communicative activities. However, the trainers would be encouraged to criticise and adapt the ideas in both the face to face and email sessions. It is to be hoped that they would take something of this critical spirit on to the teacher trainings they subsequently conducted. They would also gain much needed practice - and therefore credibility - in using the methods they advocate.


Canagarajah, A.S. (1999) Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching Oxford OUP

Holliday, A. (1994) Appropriate Methodology and Social Context CUP

Ur, P. (1996) A Course in Language Teaching CUP

Wallace, M. (1991) Training Foreign Language Teachers: A Reflective Approach CUP

Widdowson, H. (1993) "Innovation in Teacher Development." Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (1993), 260-275 CUP


Eleanor Watts is a freelance teacher trainer, teacher and writer. She has published more than thirty primary school textbooks for India and Africa, The Blackboard Book (an ideas book for teachers in low-resource contexts) and several children's stories.Eleanor has also devised two teacher training videos for

To the original article

Back to the articles index

Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us — Online Development Courses — Lesson Plan Index 
Phonology —  English-To-Go Lesson  Articles Books
 Links —  Contact — Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page

Copyright 2000-2014© Developing