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CELTA Syllabus
Topic 1: Learners and teachers, and the teaching and learning context


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topic 1

Cultural, linguistic and educational backgrounds


Cultural backgrounds

Culture can be defined as:

the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society

The first obvious problem is to define what is meant by 'people' and 'society', of course, but most will equate these in some way with nationality for the purposes of English language teaching.  The term is still, however, rather slippery because we talk of the culture of nations and also of parts of nations: German culture, American culture, the culture in the north of England, European culture and so on.

The second obvious problem is that we need to be careful to avoid national stereotyping.  Talk of someone being typically French, typically Chinese, typically Asian and so on is easy but all of these sorts of stereotypes are fraught with danger:

  • Very few people actually consider themselves to be typical of their own culture.  Do you?
  • China is a nation of more than 1.3 billion people speaking at least 12 distinct languages and including a huge amount of cultural variety.  There can be no talk of Chinese culture, therefore.
  • Asia is even more of a uselessly loose term.  That means everyone from Siberia to Sri Lanka, Turkey to Taiwan and Japan to Jakarta – over 50 countries and 4 billion people.  To speak of Asian culture is plain silly.
  • Talk of cultural stereotypes can lead quickly to value judgements which have no place in our profession.

We need, therefore, to identify what parts of which cultures we need to consider in the English-language learning setting.

think write Task 1: For the purposes of looking at the way learners from non-English-speaking backgrounds behave in language-learning classrooms, can you think of two or three elements of culture that will be important?
Click here when you have made a note of something.

It bears repeating that:

  • People as individuals often behave outside their cultural norms
  • Even defining what constitutes culture is perilous

Linguistic backgrounds

As a rough estimate , some 50% of all errors made by adult learners are traceable to the influences of their first language(s).

think write Task 2: Can you think of the sorts of things that will be affected by people's first language patterns?
Click here when you have made a note of something.

For more in this area, you will find Swan, M and Smith, B, 2001, Learner English, Cambridge University Press a usually reliable guide.
On this site, you will find a guide to false friends and a set of exercises dealing with them.  Most of the language guides in the initial plus and in-service sections include some consideration of problems caused by the influence of first languages.




Motivation usually refers to people's reasons for learning English.

think write Task 3: Can you think of three reasons why people might want to learn English?
Click here when you have made a note of something.

There are four basic forms of motivation:

I.e., that which comes from inside the learner.  People who enjoy learning and speaking English for its own sake fall into this category.
I.e., that which comes from outside the learner.  People who need English for work will fall into this category.
This is often considered a form of extrinsic motivation and refers to people learning the language to do something else, e.g., a person learning English to read books or fit in with a culture.
This is also often classed as a form of extrinsic motivation (and sometimes not) and refers to the need to learn a language to integrate into a society.
It applies to immigrants (who are sometimes referred to as ESOL students (English as a Second or Other Language)) but also to people living, studying or working in a country for a short time.
It may also refer to people who want to integrate into businesses and large multi-national corporations who use English as the internal language, whatever countries they operate in.  There are lots of those.

Rather obviously, the more you know about your learners' reasons for learning, the better able you are to plan accordingly.  The CELTA course will assess your ability to do this.

There is a lot more technical stuff on this site about this area in the guide to motivation.



Learning and Teaching styles

The argument here is that people have unique mixes of learning styles and that teachers should match their approaches and the tasks they set to take advantage of (or at least accommodate) the various styles and preferences of their students.  There are those who doubt the validity of all this so tread carefully.

There is a guide to learning styles on this site and also an article attempting to debunk the area.

If your tutors are in the learning styles camp (as Cambridge English seems to be), you may be well advised to go along with them, whatever your personal view and make it clear in lesson plans and elsewhere (particularly the written assignment focusing on the learner) that you are aware of the learning styles of the people you are teaching and, incidentally, of your own style.

There is little doubt that learners do have preferences for how they are taught and much of that may stem from their educational backgrounds and experiences (see above).  You'd be foolish not to take preferences into account, of course.

See the guide to how learning happens for more on the ways people may approach learning.



Context for learning and teaching English

This is not rocket science.
You need to take into account when you are planning and teaching (and show that you have done so):

What resources are available to you to make your teaching lively, interesting and engaging
This may include the use of aids to learning such as projectors, whiteboards, video players and so on and there is a guide to using aids on this site which you should follow for more help.
The learning aims and motivations of your students including their preferences and their styles (see above)
There is a guide to conducting a needs analysis on this site but you will only need to skim through it for the purposes of CELTA.  You are teaching lessons, short ones at that, and not being asked to design a course.
The surroundings and layout of the classroom
Is it a pleasant environment?
What can you do to make it more so?
How are the tables and chairs arranged so that they are appropriate to the learning and the tasks you plan? There is a guide to organising a classroom on this site which you should follow.
The environment
If you are teaching in an English-speaking country, are you taking full advantage of the opportunities it affords?
If you are teaching in a non-English-speaking setting, are you using on-line and other technical aids to make the language more vivid and authentic?
The special needs of any students in the group:
Physically: are there any with disabilities such as poor sight, mobility or hearing?
Mentally and emotionally: extreme shyness, boisterousness, dyslexia etc.
How have you taken these factors into account?
You need to consider these factors both when you are planning and when you are delivering the lesson and also show that you take them into account in the written assignment focusing on the learner.
think write Task 4: There's obviously no right answer to this one.  If you are doing a CELTA course currently or any teaching at all, pause now and list the factors you have identified and what you have done or intend to do about them.

The list may look something like the following:

Factor Action
Jorge is hard of hearing Make sure
a) he
sits near the front and
b) I'm very clearly enunciating instructions and explanations while
c) looking at him more than the other students
Felicity tends to be too enthusiastic and shout out answers all the time Make sure I nominate (by name) other students fairly and be firm with her
Marcia tells me she is dyslexic and has trouble reading and writing Pair her with Mary who is a good reader and will be sympathetic and helpful
and so on.
Such a table would be a good addition to a lesson plan.



Varieties of English

There is a guide to varieties of English on this site.

Additionally, there is a guide to English spelling which covers some of the main differences between British English (BrE, conventionally) and American English (AmE, conventionally).
There is also an answer to a question concerning differences in grammar between British and American English.
If you follow those guides, you will know all you need to know for the purposes of CELTA.

Then you need to make sure that you consider which variety of English you should be using in your teaching.

There's no suggestion here that one variety is somehow 'better' than another.  It is a matter of appropriacy and an understanding of where and with whom your learners will use English.  If, for example, your learners are only going to use English to communicate with people from India then teaching Indian Standard forms and pronunciation is entirely appropriate but in other circumstances, for example, if your learners need English as an international language, teaching regionally-specific forms, words and pronunciation will be harmful to them.

Finally, you need to think about your dialect (yes, everyone has a dialect) and decide whether using non-standard forms in the classroom is acceptable in your setting.
As the conclusion to the guide to varieties of English points out, there are implications for us as classroom practitioners:

  1. We should avoid (or at least be careful about) teaching regionally specific language.
  2. We should know what our learners need English for.  Occupational and topic registers are important here.
  3. We should use language in the classroom which is not heavily influenced by our own dialect and accent.  If that means learning to speak without such influences, so be it.
  4. We should avoid teaching language which is confined to specific class- or topic-influenced settings.  If that means cautioning students not to use non-standard grammar such as gonna or ain't, so be it.
  5. We should expose our students to the main Englishes they are likely to encounter outside our classrooms.
  6. We should be careful about the kinds of materials we use in class.  If a song or other authentic text contains instances of non-standard or regionally-influenced grammar or lexis we should consider whether we should be using it and if need be warn the learners not to use it as a model.



Multilingualism and the role of first languages

You may be surprised to learn that monolingualism (the ability only to speak one language) is actually rather unusual.  The majority of people and the majority of countries speak more than one language.  For a full list of languages spoken in most of the world's countries, try the Wikipedia article.
Britain is slightly unusual, in fact, in not having an official language at all and is home to speakers of hundreds of other languages as well as the indigenous ones.
Most of Africa is multilingual and the same can be said of Asia (with certain exceptions, such as Japan).

When it comes to the role first languages play in learning English, something has been said above but there are two concepts that are helpful in talking about this area:

First language interference
refers to the way in which a learner's first language(s) can negatively affect the learning and use of English, e.g., by leading to grammatical, lexical or phonological errors.
First language facilitation
refers to the way in which a learner's first language can actually help in learning English because of parallels in structure or vocabulary.
For example, there are many more words in German and English which both look similar and mean the same things than there are false friends and the same applies to many Italic languages such as French and Spanish.  Clearly, the less closely related languages are, the less facilitation there can be.
Equally, e.g., if a learner from Japan already speaks another European language then she will find it easier to acquire English and vice versa.

Many of the language analysis guides on this site make reference to the learners' first language(s).  In particular, a good example is in the consideration of word order.
Word order is an area in which the influence of people's first language(s) can be most striking and leads to errors such as:

  • *The vase most beautiful (by a speaker whose first language routinely puts the adjective after the noun, e.g., French)
  • *She walked the road along (by a speaker whose first language routinely uses post-positions rather then prepositions, e.g., Turkish)
  • *This is the house of Mary (by a speaker whose first language routinely places possessive structures after the noun, e.g., Spanish)
  • *She walks often to the shop (by a speaker whose first language routinely places adverbs of frequency after the main verb, e.g., German)

and so on.

For more, go to the guide to word order or guides in the in-service section of the site which more consistently consider questions of other language structures (the guide to teaching article use, for example).


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