John Wilson

Are TEFL qualifications necessary?

Let's consider what can go wrong after TEFL courses.

On joining a TEFL course a friend of mine complained, ‘Having a qualification does not mean the applicant is a good teacher.' I agreed with him. There is certainly no necessary connection between having a qualification and being a good teacher. But there are some contingent ones.

I pointed out that, at the very least, a TEFL qualification shows that the applicant has bothered to get a qualification. That, in itself, shows willing. And a certain visceral - though possibly temporary - conviction that a qualification is worthwhile getting. The time, energy and money invested by the student-teacher testifies to some kind of diligence concerning the job.

Later on, I thought my argument was wishy-washy. Surely there is more to a TEFL qualification than acceding to the need to get one. What, then, distinguishes the qualified applicant from an unqualified one if the difference may sometimes prove spurious?

Open-ended activities

To support my friend's argument, graduates of TEFL courses quickly become aware that some activities they learnt on a course simply do not work with certain groups of learners. I quickly discovered that open-ended group activities do not work well with oppositional teenagers. Such activities more often offer an incitement to riot: as the noise in the room rises to Armageddon proportions, the teacher is lucky if she can get a word in, let alone jointly summarise the results at the end. Again, with Thai learners, one cannot wisely use activities that encourage confrontational discourse. Unfavorably, oral communication activities sustain the extrovert learner and embarrass the quiet ones. The list goes on.

To my knowledge, issues such as these have not been inadequately discussed on UK teaching courses and it goes to show that simply expanding one's activities repertoire does not imply universal success. TEFL course organizers have not considered sufficiently the social dimension of language teaching. Nor the peculiarities of different cultures and the curious atmospheric divergences between one class and another. All this rallies against universalizing-indiscriminate activity choices can even damage the teacher's reputation in an organization.

When an activity fails to work, it is not Christopher Candlin or H.G. Widdowson who takes the blame - it is the teacher herself who, behind her back, gets a reputation for ‘not being a good teacher'. So, defensively, one learns by induction what are the social norms in a given institution and what activities in the classroom might contravene them. This, once again, is not a frequent topic on teacher training courses. So do we really need them?

Traditional teaching

In other words, if one cannot universalize TEFL methodology, does this not mean that the qualifications themselves are invalid? Does this mean that ‘traditional teaching' (another word for just following the book and writing up the grammar) is better? In many ways ‘traditional teaching' is a safe option: it is what the administration and the learners expect. However, research has shown traditional teaching does not markedly increase learner spoken proficiency when compared to CLT. We all know those graduates of Thai university courses, with an English component, who cannot string a sentence together in speech.

For the fact is CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) works well as a component on any TEFL course today. Learners who have followed CLT courses can speak. They have also learnt courage concerning the use of a second-language and have acquired both communicative and strategic competence as ancillary skills. Despite much hand-wringing during their early days of performer anxiety, they can now participate effectively in a dialogue - whilst the graduates of traditional teaching methods prefer to write or sit like shrinking violets on the outskirts of an interaction.

Another argument against qualifications is that teaching experience itself is enough to guarantee a good teacher. Not so. I have recently been learning French in an institution where my intermediate classmates are often poor performers in their out-of-class interactions. And for what reason? You've guessed it! The teacher does not employ CLT oral activities in the classroom. Assiduous in our note-taking, we remain puzzling ‘passive' grammar freaks. So, a teacher can become very accomplished with a limited repertoire of task activities - multiple grammar productions swarming in print - but that, in itself, does not induce full membership into the target language community.

Some administrations are aware of this - they want their course graduates to talk. Achieving this is done through TEFL-trained teachers using CLT methodology. But, unlike traditional teaching, CLT is not intuitive. It requires learning. Here, then, is the justification for having TEFL trained teachers. My friend was right: having a TEFL qualification does not guarantee a good teacher. But it does mean that the job applicant knows something about up-to-date methods to increase spoken proficiency and, hopefully, will use that knowledge in the classroom.


This dismissive approach to initial teacher training ignores so many of the benefits, whether or not one becomes a 'good teacher'. Teaching methodology, such as boardwork, elicitation, drilling and the experience of teaching real students. Also, applying explicit knowledge of grammmar to teaching, as opposed to 'just knowing it'; this includes an understanding of just some of what as a new teacher you really don't know. Most important of all, it provides some professional standards to try to emulate. Sure, after that starts 'the real learning', but doesn't a good foundation help?

By Cole Davis, London (30th October 2010)

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