Tue, Oct 16, 2007 - Page 8 News List

What is a good English teacher?

By Kao Shih-fan 高士凡

Several readers have written the Taipei Times to say that one of the ubiquitous problems in the nation's education system is incompetent English teachers (Letters, Aug. 16, page 8).

But what makes a "good" English teacher? Can teachers with a competent level of English skills be considered good English teachers?

A list of attributes of a good teacher of English as a second language (ESL) would be very subjective. With that in mind, I would like to discuss the characteristics of a good English teacher based on my own research and experience.

There are two common misconceptions about English teaching. First, a professor with a doctorate is not necessarily a good English teacher.

Second, a native speaker of English is not automatically an effective teacher. If fluency were the most important variable in language instruction, a native-speaker -- especially one with a doctorate -- would undoubtedly be superior to those who are not native-speakers.

I have found this logic questionable. I have been taught English by native as well as non-native speakers, with doctorates in literature, linguistics or ESL, who were disappointingly ineffective and unprofessional.

On the other hand, I have been taught in a private language school by an English teacher who comes from Bangladesh, only has a bachelor's degree and speaks with a heavy foreign accent. Students from all walks of life are eager to study under him because they enjoy his fun, down-to-earth and interactive teaching style.

I've noticed that even shy students are motivated to speak up in his class. Many students obviously consider this Bangladeshi teacher a "good" English teacher.

Personally I think that obtaining a degree in ESL and having a good command of English are necessary and crucial qualifications for being a good English teacher. However, these qualifications are not enough.

For example, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Yuko Goto Butler, conducted research on Japanese and Korean students studying English in their native land and found that the most important traits of ESL teachers are a friendly personality, English fluency, cultural knowledge in the English-speaking world, a good command of students' native language and the ability use technological aids to teach.

Another study showed that students in Taiwan expect their English teachers to be welcoming, professional, humanistic and enthusiastic -- characteristics unrelated to nationality and English proficiency.

Douglas Brown, a distinguished ESL expert, provided a fairly comprehensive list of characteristics of good English teachers, which can be classified into four categories: technical knowledge, pedagogical skills, interpersonal skills and personal qualities. Good technical knowledge means understanding the mechanics of the language, such as phonology and grammar.

Pedagogical skills include a contextualized approach to language instruction, the ability to stimulate interaction, presentation skills and so on.

To be an effective English teacher requires interpersonal skills to engage students through enthusiasm and humor, valuing the opinions and abilities of students, and seeking opportunities to share ideas with students and colleagues.

As for personal qualities, good English teachers are flexible when classroom activities go wrong, maintain an inquisitive mind in trying new teaching methods and have goals for professional development. Language teaching is a very complicated art.

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