Richard McCully

Those stuffy TEFL academics

So much is wrapped in long words and fancy terms to make it sound clever.

I’ve just spent the last couple of hours reading through several academic papers looking for quotes and evidence to support my argument for an essay I’ll submit for an upcoming training course. I’ve lost the will to live. 

I just find the way academic information is given in the TEFL industry to be off-putting and boring. I try to present information in a fun, engaging way in my TEFL classroom, it’s a shame academics can’t do the same in their reports, journals, books or talks. 

One big clique of academics

When it comes to writing essays it isn’t enough to say Thai learners struggle with pronunciation in terms of the L and R sounds, I have to find a source to support that. Apparently my six years teaching in Thailand doesn’t make my point valid, but, someone who’s written a dull book, and probably not taught here as long as me, count more and are a good source to prove my thoughts. Just that is enough to turn me off from academics in TEFL.  

Adding to this, the process for referencing in essays is time consuming. although this isn’t just a TEFL problem, rather an academic one.  The marker is probably going to read the same quote about R / L pronunciation from ten different essays, each with the same source.  Do they need to know the book edition, page number and author’s favorite type of cookie and whatever other nonsense is required in referencing?

In short, the methods and style of current TEFL academic information is a turn off and is probably stopping countless teachers from learning more. The people on the academic side seem to be like a big clique and this was actually discussed by someone on Twitter in regards to the IATEFL conference in Liverpool earlier this month.  

In the response to the IATEFL clique tweet, some people commented that they did feel a little on the outside when attending for the first time and there seemed to be a regular crowd of people who attend and know each other well. Others commented that they were going to bring outside friends with them but that it proved too expensive. Finally others said it was a scene for selfies with the TEFL superstar speakers. It sounds a bit like the episode of Friends where Ross invites everyone to his paleontology conference. 

Common sense surely?

Some of the talks at IATEFL sounded interesting and sharing ideas and information is good of course. A talk on the idea of teacher mental health was a great idea and is something which should be discussed. However, some of the talks seemed to cover basic topics such as how to manage teen students. I felt like some talks were just there as the person wanted to speak rather than having something of great benefit to TEFL teachers worldwide. That’s what I don’t really like about the academic side of TEFL.  A lot of it seems like common sense but is wrapped in long words and fancy terms to make it sound clever. 

I get the feeling that a lot of academics are more interested in giving talks or researching than actual teaching and, whilst that isn’t necessarily a problem, it bugs me when I have to quote these people in essays on training courses. It really puts me off further leaning when the input through talks, books and journals just seems like common sense. I’d love there to be a way of learning that was more inclusive and less focused on using academic jargon and methods that just aren’t practical. 

We all want to understand!

Teacher conferences are a potential way to learn more but I’d want them to be in a more relaxed form. I don’t want to feel like I’m gatecrashing a group of people who are used to using little-known acronyms and words with at least five syllables. I’m not asking for a dumbed down version but just a more inclusive way of getting teachers interested in practical ideas. 

I think practical is the key word when it comes to gaining knew TEFL knowledge. The knowledge I want to learn should be able to be used in the classroom, not just on a computer simulator. 

The other major input is from books / journals and, perhaps, it’s harder for the format of these to change. I can’t wait for people to write new books which will make the ones I’m using now for my course obsolete. It really feels like a punishment reading some of the books I’ve had to in the last week.

The internet is a great way to learn more and hopefully we will see online sources being given more value in academic learning in the future as their format is more inclusive as articles are shorter and many are written by current teachers. This is where I’d like to quote more from but I’ve been advised to focus on books and journals. 

I actually work with a few teachers who have presented at conferences or write teaching blogs and, to be honest, they have ideas that were a little different from most. I also know that they don’t over-complicate things for the sake of it. 

I like reading their sites or listening to them talk about TEFL. Hopefully there will be a new wave of people who are passionate about the academic side of TEFL but more open to making it inclusive, and interesting to all. 

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While acknowledging the majority of stuff published in academic journal is useless, academic/scientific research has a long tradition and is one of the reasons for the dominance of Western cultures around the world and one of the reasons native English speakers can travel around the world and teach their native language. Academic/scientific research can take a fundamental form where we learn just for the sake of gaining knowledge or in an applied form, the two work together. Without hundreds of years of studying the fundamental nature of electricity applied researchers would not have found a way to create the devices we are using to communicate right now. Without the centuries of studying viruses the medical researchers would not have been able to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 in record time.

We can make an argument that these principles might not apply in the social sciences, such as TEFL teaching. But I think the evidence does not support that position. Academic/scientific research into education in the Western world is likely a contributing factor to millions of students around the world going to study in Western universities while only a handful (like me) have left the Western world to study in a non-Western environment. It is believed our current teaching methods are superior to the ones used 50 or 100 years ago, and academic/scientific research and writing in the field of education (not my field) is likely had a part to play in this improvement. Academic writings in educational journals are not really aimed at the on the ground teacher, but more so to the writers of textbooks and those developing TEFL programs. I am not sure taking an anti-scientific stance against gaining knowledge is the proper attitude for an educator, although it is easy to make a good argument academic/scientific research in Education and TEFL teacher could be reformed and made more useful.

By Jack, LOS (9th March 2021)


I totally agree with you on the Academic style of writing. I was in Academia for a long time in Canada and the US. Much of the behavior seems to be designed to support or reinforce their elite status; it is not about education. Many of the publications are written in a convoluted, postmodern style, which is actually just a perfect example of how to write an unclear essay, and may, in fact, be an attempt to hide a lack of knowledge and a paucity of logical thinking processes. In Academia, there seems to be little stress on true communication and the elucidation of a topic, or, to put it quite simply - there is little focus on educating or helping people; instead, it's mostly about their own ego.

By Lynken, Bangkok (1st March 2021)

Couldn't agree more with this post - no matter how many years of classroom exp you have, if can't quote a research paper then your opinion is considered irrelevant

Acrually here is a post which digs at stuffy academics and just read the comments their egos are shattered!

By Dave, Spain (30th July 2019)

Attempts to over-academicize TEFL may actually be a reflection of the sheer emptiness of the EFL tradition, in terms of study skills in the academic world.
That is, many people are drawn to TEFL, without having university education, in fact when I did a so-called TEFL training, the minimum entry requirement was English A level, not a degree. As it happens, I had English A level but also 2 degrees (other subjects) and my approach was seen as a little over analytical and critical of the framework.
Very brief reference was made in training to semantics and linguistics as relevant fields, so although this article cites lower level ESL as a place to find anti-intellectualism, I would argue that the ESL field traditionally hung amid a lower level of educational endeavor.
I recall once telling a doctor friend in Italy that some ESL teachers were 'Essex men' and explaining to him what that meant. He agreed readily, that a DOS at a local language school was exactly that, and didn't meet the criteria he would have wanted for his children to learn under.

By Elisha, Bangkok (26th April 2019)

Anti-intellectualism is nothing new, especially among lower level ESL teachers in Thailand, yet there are many legitimate criticisms of “academia” in every field.

I would suggest using empirical evidence or experience and common sense is not an either/or type of situation, but use of both is often optimal.

Experience can be a great teacher, but it is obviously limited to the little world we have personally experienced. It is also limited due to a variety of observation and analysis biases each one of us has.

Reading books, journals or attending courses allow us to learn about far more of the world than the specific situations from our own specific perspective. we have seen

While there is a whole bunch of BS and poorly designed research published in academia, good academic work tends to let us explore nuances and complexities that can be useful.

For example, let us say you find technique 1 works in your classroom while technique 2 does not. It is likely you will think technique 1 is good and technique 2 is bad and will use this information in your career. Technique 1 worked well in your classroom, but it might be because it fit the context you were teaching in and might not fit a different context. If you learn the theories behind the techniques you might be able to determine in which situations technique 1 is likely to be successful while technique 2 is not. But you might also see technique 2 is not necessarily “bad” but could work well in a different context.

Learning a foreign language is difficult, and something few NES English teachers have actually done.

All academic research is limited and you will not find simple answers to complex questions in a single article.

If you are serious about having a teaching career, I would suggest you get as much education and experience in your field as possible.

While we can find exceptions, the empirical/academic studies indicate in almost every profession salary and income are strongly and positively related to higher levels of education and experience, indicating the market tends to reward us for both. Go ahead and argue against the market if you like, but I don’t like your chances.

I don’t think taking a course or reading some academic journals articles will make you a “good” teacher, but I seriously doubt it will make you a worse teacher.

By Jack, LOS (22nd April 2019)

Thanks for the comments everyone. Think I was due an article you liked Mark!

Nathan - thanks for sharing the links to those sites. ELTresearchbites looks pretty good after scanning through it. Not sure if it will be allowed as a source in an essay though. It's the kind of resource though which is at least readable and to the point.

$49 isn't a lot if something is your passion but for people working in TEFL that are struggling to get by I think it wouldn't be something they'd purchase. It seems another barrier to the academic side of things.

Charlie - Yes these are my opinion and looking through Twitter, Facebook and this site the comments people have given say a lot of people feel the same. Just because I don't like reading a 300 page textbook doesn't make me unambitious, it just means I've got other priorities in life. I love teaching, had a good last couple of years in terms of professional progress and none of that was related to being good at academics. In general I just feel academic books, in general, are boring to read unless TEFL dominates your life or is your ultimate passion. I also think conferences are full of people who'd rather be there than working in a classroom and simple ideas are disguised as ground breaking when, in reality, they're not.

By Richard, Bangkok (22nd April 2019)

Finally, someone said it. Though, I would have been more rash and direct, regarding the grandstanding of the gatekeepers of knowledge in TEFL...and how what they say has little or no influence in regards to getting through the day here in Korea...or Thailand.

I firmly believe that many academics, no matter the field, just like to grandstand and talk in circles, hoping to impress others in their field and keep the lower status of teachers at bay. They never, or rarely, acknowledge certain key FACTS:

1. Learning ANY second language takes practice on the part of the student.
2. If students are not measured on their efforts and results, just being allowed to skate on by and move up the ladder in school, what is the point of even going through the motions?
3. Much of the industry is filled with gimmicks and centers around money. and customer service..not learning.
4. All of your efforts can be wasted if you are not at a good school, working with a good team.
5. The Iron Triangle: Students, Principle/Administrators, Parents.

Anyway..I liked the piece, OP.

Well said.

By Josh, Land of the Morning Kimchi (22nd April 2019)

There's good reason why empirical research needs to be thorough, situated within previous literature, and reported in a way that demonstrates its validity and reliability. That's not to say that I disagree with everything you're saying; it's kind of hard to, since you're talking about a few different things here and lumping them all together. I'd rather not jump into a silly debate online. However, if you're looking for accessible yet still high quality research, try:

Open Access Summaries in Language Studies (completely free)
ELT Research Bites (completely free)

Also, ELT Journal is probably your best bet for peer reviewed articles that are short (4,000 words and 15 references, maximum) and easy to understand. If you are writing a practical paper and need to cite peer reviewed research, ELTJ is a top-tier journal published by Oxford University Press, but it's articles are written and copy-edited with practitioners in mind. Some articles are open access (free), but you really need a subscription. If you're at a university, you probably already have access. If not, you can get online access on a personal account for $49USD per year. If you're writing papers (or even posting articles online like some sort of authority), it'd be a good idea to stay up to date with what's going on in the field. Best of luck. Hope that helps.

By Nathan, Beijing (21st April 2019)

Opinions are not facts. What methodologies do you disagree with? You make blanket statements based on personal feelings. You label teachers and methods of teaching as unambitious, dull, unsuccessful, etc. This seems to be a common thread among your blogs.

By Charlie, BKK (21st April 2019)

Academia is a closed shop filled with people who are mostly unemployable in the real world. You can't join it unless you know the passwords ie. Justifying their own existences to each other. Furthermore, the higher up you go in tefl the more dullards you come across.

By Mr whippy, Cornwall (21st April 2019)

Easily your finest article on this website... by far.

By Mark Newman, The Land of Barely Concealed Rage. (21st April 2019)

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