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August 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

Classroom Language and Teacher Language Proficiency – Ideas for Course Design

Khanh-Duc has an MA in TESOL and has been teaching English since 1995. Currently in the Department of English as the University of Siegen, she teaches a range of language courses which she assesses creatively, often encouraging more learner autonomy at the same time. She is always on the lookout for activities that encourage greater student participation. She is Events Coordinator for her local teaching association as well as the IATEFL Teacher Training and Education SIG and is TESOL/NGL 2021 Teacher of the Year.



English is the most commonly spoken foreign language in the world and is also the most commonly taught foreign language in the school systems of most countries. EU data from 2017 reports that nearly all primary school pupils in Cyprus, Malta, Austria and Spain were taught English as a foreign language (EFL). At secondary level, 96% of upper secondary pupils had been taught EFL (Eurostat 2019). Not only is English being taught as a foreign language at all levels of education, it is also increasingly becoming the language of instruction. In India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore pupils and students are taught in English even though this may not be their mother tongue. At tertiary level, it is estimated that in Europe 60% of postgraduate courses are being taught in English. Undeniably, most of the teaching in these contexts – compulsory education and tertiary – is carried out by non-native English-speaking teachers (NNEST). These teachers are considered competent in their subject, and because of this competence, there tends to be an assumption that they are able to teach through English. In fact, there is a general assumption that English teachers as subject experts, will also be proficient users of the language.

This assumption is reflected in teacher training and education programs. Certificate and diploma courses, as well as teacher training degrees focus on subject knowledge and methodology. While qualifications such as the Trinity and Cambridge certificates and diplomas require trainees to have a high proficiency in English, usually C1 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), entry requirements to other programs and university degree courses is less regulated and the proficiency of candidates may vary from country to country. The rationale behind this is that language proficiency can be attained through the study of subject and pedagogy.


Teacher language proficiency is not general language proficiency

However, as pointed out by Freeman et al. (2015), what we expect as teacher language proficiency is not equivalent to general language proficiency. Teacher language proficiency is ‘a specialized subset of language skills required to prepare and teach lessons’ (Freeman et al. 2015:129). Almost a decade before Freeman et al., Pasternak and Bailey (2004) recommend that teacher language proficiency be recognised as an element of professionalism in teaching. Every activity and routine that we engage in while teaching, requires proficient use of language. Likewise, it has been observed that teacher language proficiency has an important role in classroom practice (e.g. Le & Renandya 2017) and has an impact on how well a teacher can teach the second language and manage the classroom (Richards 2017). Cullen (2002) notes that many core classroom procedures will be difficult for a teacher with a weak command of English. A teacher’s ability to improvise and react spontaneously in the classroom is very much influenced by language proficiency. Kamhi-Stein’s (2009) observation that language proficiency has an impact on a teacher’s confidence is very much rooted in what we have do in the classroom – the language we use to frame and execute all our activities, routines and classroom procedures cannot be planned out in advance. We adjust and rephrase language according to the reactions (or non-reactions!) from our students; we need to improvise according to the classroom situations, some of which can be quite unforeseen. Not having the language to do all this quickly makes the teacher appear less than professional.

The importance of teacher language proficiency and classroom discourse skills have been acknowledged (e.g. Elder 1998, Freeman 2016, Richards 2013) and while many have supported the idea that language proficiency courses should be included in teacher training (Barnes 2002, Lavender 2002, Snow, Kamhi-Stein & Brinton 2006 for instance), few teacher training courses include teacher language in their curriculum. The reason for this may lie in the fact that no one really knows what teacher language actually is, what and how it should be taught and how to assess this. It is therefore simply easier to expect a high level of general English proficiency from potential teachers. It is possibly also a deep-rooted belief that a person with a high general language proficiency will also have the necessary language competence to teach in that language.

Like Freeman et al. (2015), quoted above, Richards (2017) points out that teaching English through English requires teachers to have knowledge of a ‘specific genre of English’ as well as discourse skills for teaching. Following this, English for Teaching (henceforth EfT) can be considered a variety of ESP since in EfT courses, we focus on the ‘occupational needs of learners, … on the necessary language, genres, and skills to address these needs’ (Anthony 2018:10). The goal of the learners in such a course is to be able to have the language skills to function in the school and the classroom. Like any other variety of ESP, determining what the relevant language, genres and skills language teachers require in order to perform well in their jobs should be done through a needs analysis. This analysis is the first step in the design of any course. For EfT, previous work by Elder (1994), Richards (2017) and Freeman et al. (2015) highlighted key classroom routines and language skills necessary for a teacher. Further, in their work, Freeman et al. (2015), following an ESP needs analysis perspective, identified specific tasks and routines in instructional settings and grouped these into three functional areas: managing the classroom, understanding and communicating lesson content and last, assessing students and giving feedback.


What is teacher language? What is ‘English for Teaching’?

However, how does this translate into actual course design? One of the few, and earliest course books on EfT were produced by Willis (1981) and Hughes (1981) which presented teacher language from a functional perspective. In the former, the author divides language into the language of the classroom which covers functions such as taking attendance, discipline or dividing the class up and the language of instruction. The latter, on the other hand, lists the various language functions related to classroom management under four key headings: organization, interrogation, explanation and interaction. Each of these headings refer to language functions, and within them contain more precise functions. Looking at language functions relating to organisation in the classroom for instance, the teacher should be able to confidently and effectively give instructions, sequence a lesson, and supervise her students. For each of these sub-functions, there are further, more specific functions, many of which are part of common classroom activities and routines.

One routine for instance, is sequencing. This isn’t simply about staging the lesson and how this is communicated to students but also includes the checking of learners’ progress, moving from one stage of a lesson to another, moving from one activity to the next as well as setting time limits. All of these actions are articulated through language, and a teacher has to be confident and competent in managing these. While set phrases such as, ‘Let’s now move on to pg. 6, activity 3.’ can help a teacher get by, the teacher still needs to be able to react and intervene quickly and efficiently in unforeseen circumstances. What can the teacher say if the majority of the class has not brought their book? Or what about when the teacher has given the instruction but the students have not done what was asked of them?

Looking at the other key functions, in interrogation, a teacher should be able to both ask and answer a variety of questions and engage in all other sub-functions related to questioning. In explanations, a teacher should be able to use metalanguage, such as giving written and spoken instructions for exercises, make reference to background information or give a verbal commentary to audio and visual input. Interaction, the last key function, refers to being able to express a range of feelings such as anger, interest or sympathy as is needed in the classroom, as well as make appropriate responses to common social situations such as welcoming students back to school after the holidays. Some of these functions can be accomplished quite easily by proficient speakers of English, but others, such as writing worksheet instructions for lower level learners, for instance, needs to be learnt through awareness raising and other practical activities.


Course design

How then do we begin to design an English for Teaching course? Taking the view that such a course is no different than any other course in English for Occupational Purposes, or English for Specific Purposes (ESP), we can take a backward design approach. Begin with the end in mind. Taking classroom language as ESP, we first ask ourselves what the occupational communicative needs of our trainees are. This is the needs analysis. Then we align our curriculum, content and assessment with these specific needs and transferable skills.

In backward design then, we begin by asking ourselves what the desired results of the course should be and determine the knowledge and language skills that learners need to have attained by the end of the course. In terms of transferable skills, we ask what participants should be able to do in the classroom – what classroom language skills they should have. Many needs analyses for English for Occupational Purposes in workplace settings are task-based (Flowerdew 2013) as this helps to clearly identify task-based language needs. This would be a good approach for any EfT course. While determining classroom language can be tricky and at times, difficult to sort out, a good starting point would be to identify the things teachers do with language in the classroom. What activities and routines shape our lessons?

The second step is to consider how learning will and can be assessed, how is deep learning measured? In assessment, we want to find out if students have understood the content enough to transfer their knowledge beyond this course. When they are teachers in class themselves, what can they remember, what can they apply situationally and independently? Are they able to analyse different communicative situations and use language appropriately? Learning can be measured through reflective journals, practical work either as simulations of classroom routines and activities or where possible, real in-class work with learners of English or even language portfolios.

On the basis on these considerations for results and assessment, the content of the course can then be put together. In order for the course to work, it is crucial that the learning experiences and instruction should support knowledge transfer, meaning making and skill acquisition. Learning experiences need to be as authentic as possible and should also take the home culture and occupational setting, that is, the culture and workplace where the trainee will be working in, into consideration.

How does all this translate in our actual teaching of such a course? First and foremost, the desired results of the course are aligned to the occupational language needs of our trainee teachers. Trainees are best assessed during and at the end of the course by demonstrating that the content has been understood and can be transferred beyond the classroom. This is what teacher language proficiency is about. The content that has been created for the course is relevant, and the learning tasks and activities are aligned with the desired results of the overall course goals.



While often discussed and also acknowledged important, teacher language proficiency is still not as widely incorporated into teacher training programmes. Teacher language proficiency is an important reflection of professionalism and impacts every aspect of teaching and plays an important role in a teacher’s confidence in the classroom. Designing an appropriate course on classroom language in order to develop teacher language proficiency can be done by viewing English for teaching as a variety of English for Specific Purposes. A backward design approach is most appropriate as it takes the goals of teaching as its starting point and works back from there.  Furthermore, the ESP and backward design approach would ensure that the course content and assessment is relevant and transferable to the occupational needs of the trainee teachers.



Anthony, L. (2008) Introducing English for Specific Purposes. Abingdon: Routledge

Barnes, A. (2002) Maintaining language skills in pre-service training for foreign language teachers. In H. Trappes-Lomaz & G. Gerguson (Eds.) Language in language teacher education (pg. 199 - 217) Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Cullen, R. (1994) Incorporating a language improvement component in teacher training programmes. ELT Journal 48(2) pg. 162 – 172

Cullen, R. (2002) The use of lesson transcripts for developing teachers’ classroom language. In H. Trappes-Lomaz & G. Gerguson (Eds.) Language in language teacher education (pg. 219 - 235) Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Elder, C. (1994) Performance testing as benchmark for foreign language teacher education. Babel: Journal of the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Association 29(2) pg. 9 – 19

Flowerdew, L. (2013) In Paltridge, B. & Starfield, S. (Eds.) The Handbook of English for Specific Purposes. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell (pg. 325 – 346)

Freeman, D. (2016) Educating Second Language Teachers. Oxford: OUP

Freeman, D. et al (2015) English-for-Teaching: rethinking teacher proficiency in the classroom in ELT Journal 69(2) pg. 129 – 139

Hughes, G.S. (1981) A Handbook of Classroom English. Oxford: OUP

Kamhi-Stein, L. D. (2009) Teacher preparation and nonnative English-speaking educators. In Burns, A. & Richards, J.C. (Eds.) The Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Education (pg. 91 – 101) Cambridge: CUP

Lavender, S. (2002) Towards a frame for language improvement within short in-service teacher development programmes. In H. Trappes-Lomaz & G. Gerguson (Eds.) Language in language teacher education (pg. 237 – 250) Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Le, V.C. & Renandya, W. A. (2017) Teachers’ English proficiency and classroom language use: a conversation analysis study in RELC Journal 48(1) pg. 67 – 81

Paltridge, B. & Starfield, S. (2013) The Handbook of English for Specific Purposes. Oxford: Blackwell

Richards, J.C. (2017) Teaching English through English: Proficiency, pedagogy and performance in RELC Journal 48(1) pg. 7 – 30

Snow, M.A., Kamhi-Stein, L.D. & Brinton, D. (2006) Teacher training for English as a lingua franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 26 pg. 261 - 281 

What proportions of pupils learn two or more languages. (2019, December 13). Eurostat.

Willis, J. (1981) Teaching English through English. Harlow: Longman


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