‘Buying in’ to communicative language teaching: the impact of ‘initial’ certification courses on the classroom practices of experienced teachers of English

‘Buying in’ to communicative language teaching: the impact of ‘initial’ certification courses on the classroom practices of experienced teachers of English

In this paper, published this month in the journal ‘Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching’, I report on my study into the impact of a CELTA course on the self-reported classroom practices of 29 experienced teachers of English working mainly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As my previous blog documents, these teachers are part of the growing majority, (now passing or past 50%) of experienced participants on courses historically designed around the needs of native-speaker teachers with no previous experience. In this paper, among other things, I provide an opportunity for them to voice their opinions of how as experienced professionals, they critically appropriated from a pre-service training course for their own classroom practice.

Link to the paper on the publisher’s site:


Both the research project, and the title, were born of my concern for how, as Cambridge teacher education courses begin to establish roots in middle- and low-income countries, like many of Cambridge’s ELT exams (IELTS, FCE, etc.), they constitute massive investments, “a year’s salary for many of the participants in this study” (p. 12), something that trainers, course providing organisation and Cambridge English language assessment need to be aware of, to understand why for such participants, a Cambridge CELTA is today the ultimate in high-stakes exams, taken primarily in the hope of improving career prospects, but also to develop classroom practice (Anderson 2016b). These participants are sometimes putting life savings on the line to get the qualification, and we need to be aware of this.

I touch upon some of the findings from the paper in my April 2018 IATEFL talk (watch online here) although there is much more that I didn’t have time to mention at IATEFL in the paper itself. Here follows a summary of key points, including extensive quotes. If you can’t access the paper directly, please drop me a message via the contact page of my website: www.jasonanderson.org.uk, and I can send you a copy.

Linking the CELTA to the literature on in-service teacher ‘training’

In the literature review, I provide evidence from the fairly extensive ‘change literature’ supporting the assertion that attempts to change the practices of experienced teachers through training courses in the main have little impact on their long-term practices:

“attempts to introduce innovative approaches to language teaching (especially CLT) to experienced teachers around the world have often involved top-down ‘training’ programmes, and typically reported low levels of implementation, citing a variety of factors as to why success was limited:

(1) the issue of (perceived) cultural incompatibility between the innovation and local culture, something that Holliday calls ‘tissue rejection’ (1994; also see Hu 2002; Kırkgöz 2008);

(2) teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning (Choi 2013; Kırkgöz 2008);

(3) the challenge of teaching communicatively for teachers with relatively low levels of proficiency in English (Freeman et al. 2015; Liao 2000);

(4) poor quality initial training and/or a lack of post-training support (Choi 2013; Kırkgöz 2008; Liao 2000);

(5) systemic resistance to change (incorporating aspects of several of the above), especially when implemented top-down (Choi 2013; Gorsuch 2000; Hu 2002).” (p. 3)

Such training courses tend to ignore the important distinction between development (appropriate for in-service professionals) and training (more appropriate for pre-service teachers or skill-specific learning), which require very different types of teacher education (see: Freeman 1989).

I then discuss the possibility that Cambridge CELTA courses may buck this trend, hypothesised largely from personal experience, not because they represent anything revolutionary in terms of content, but for 5 other reasons:

“(1) The largely intrinsic motivation to participate (Anderson 2018) may increase the likelihood of implementation (Guskey 2002), as may the significant financial investment made (Gino 2008) – the ‘buy in’ factor;

(2) Given that the qualification provides an opportunity for NNEST participants to assimilate into the international community of CELTA graduates, seen to be a desirable goal by many NNESTs (Anderson 2018), becoming part of this community may increase the likelihood of adoption of its practices;

(3) The teaching practice element of ICCs provides daily opportunities for participants to engage in what could be seen as effective (albeit intense) praxis, with daily cycles of practical inputs, lesson planning, observed teaching practice, reflection and feedback on teaching involving both tutors and colleagues. This contrasts with the often-cited challenge on many MA-TESOL courses of participants being front-loaded with theory, then posted into often isolated environments for the practicum (e.g. Ogilvie and Dunn 2010);

(4) Observing the effect of CLT in both their own and colleagues’ lessons during teaching practice may influence participants’ beliefs about its effectiveness. As Guskey (2002, 383) notes, it is the ‘experience of successful implementation that changes teachers’ attitudes and beliefs. They believe it works because they have seen it work’;

(5) ICCs typically require participating teachers to have high levels of language proficiency (C1+), an important factor influencing their ability to teach communicatively (Freeman et al. 2015).” (p. 3-4)

What were the findings?

As hypothesised, respondents reported (and I caution on the dangers of self-reported data in the paper) comparatively high levels of ‘implementation’, both from qualitative questionnaire data and from semi-structured interviews:

“My way of thinking changed, so as a teacher, I started thinking from the point of view of [my learners]…I started putting myself always in my students’ place and thinking how I can just enjoy the class.” (p. 8)

Yet, there is also a consistent theme in the data of the expressed need for the teachers to adapt and appropriate from the course content in order to make it work in their own classrooms. Figure 1 provides a quick snapshot of this tension:

Figure 1: Positive changes and areas of challenge reported 6 months after the CELTA course (p. 7)

This is borne out in many of  the quotes provided by respondents, including this from Abdallah (pseudonyms used), a candidate who comfortably got the highest grade (A) on the course. Here he discusses the responses of his beginner students to his attempts to teach them as he was taught on the CELTA course:

“They are willing to learn, they are very good students, but the problem is that sometimes they are complaining because they find that I am focusing more on eliciting from them information and asking them to speak. However, they are coming to listen to the teacher…they need me to explain more, they don’t want me to follow the CELTA methodology.” (p. 9)

And this from an exam class teacher, Adham, about his learners:

“They’re so worried about their exam, so…the way that you give them language has to be related to the exam… When it comes to reading it has to be reading texts similar to the exam. You teach them reading skills as much as you can and try and use vocab. from the text but it all has to be related to the exam for them to really engage.” (p. 9)

Both these teachers ‘got’ the CELTA message, the sensitivity of insight in the following quote from Adham is testament to this, reflecting his beliefs about effective teaching, as he had demonstrated on the CELTA itself:

“You’re creating a context where the learner can pick up language easily and understand it and see how it’s used, and then also provide an environment for them to practise that language that they’ve learnt. If you don’t do that …It’s pointless. They’ll forget about it by the time they’re out the door.” (p.11)

But he also understood that his learners didn’t want, or need, what the Cambridge pass criteria expected from his classroom practice – they just wanted to pass an exam with no spoken component – Adham’s challenge is shared by many other teachers around the world today.

About half of the respondents were working, or had worked, in lucrative jobs in prestigious private schools in Saudi Arabia – this is the only way that some of them could afford the CELTA. Many of them revealed an in-depth understanding of principles of effective pedagogy in contemporary mainstream primary and secondary education, principles, which they also found, at times, to be in conflict with what they felt the CELTA was telling them to do, including this respondent who was working at primary and secondary levels in a school following the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum:

“My experience working with the IB people, worksheets kill the children’s creativity, kill the critical thinking, especially the gap filling…so this is the challenge facing me that whenever the IB people see me doing controlled practice…[they say:] No, no! You’re not letting them explore the language in a creative way, in their way. They have to try and make sense of the language themselves.” (p. 10)

She also found it necessary to reject many of the CELTA principles and mantras when working with primary age learners, highlighting, as I put it in the paper “the challenge of implementing an andragogic approach with younger learners:

If I tackle freer practice…it’s very difficult, challenging for the kids…How can you make the students use language in free practice for 20 minutes without them stopping…I feel controlling kids is way harder than having adult students do it.” (p. 10)

Increased self-confidence

Despite these challenges, most of the participants expressed clear conviction that the CELTA had transformed their teaching, and there were reports of an increase in confidence from 13 of the 29 respondents, despite my never having asked them about it:

“This course was very beneficial as it helped me to change the way I handled different lessons, and it has a tremendous impact on enhancing my self-confidence. For the time being, I can teach adults more effectively and creating interesting lessons started to be just like walking in the park” (p. 10)

As I note in the paper: “It seems likely that reasons for this increased self-confidence relate closely both to classroom practice and career progression, correlating well with participants reporting greater understanding of what they are doing in the classroom and a sense of value at having what is often viewed as a prestigious qualification (rightly or wrongly) among many non-native speaker English teachers around the world. Both these findings are consistent with research by Anderson (2016[a], 2018).” (p. 10)

3 recommendations from the paper

In the Conclusion, I note that while self-reported data must be treated with caution, the study presents clear evidence of belief changes among many of the participants, both “beliefs about how languages are best learnt and taught” and “a belief in their own ability as a teacher” (p. 11, italics in original). I then go on to make 3 recommendations both to course providing organisations and also to Cambridge English Language Assessment:

“(1) CPOs can provide opportunities (e.g. through workshop/input sessions in the final quarter of the course) for experienced teacher-participants to discuss critically how they will appropriate what they have learnt on the course for their envisaged teaching contexts. Even on courses that include inexperienced participants, such discussions are likely to raise awareness of issues of appropriacy of methodology and social context (Holliday 1994). This awareness is recognised to be an important attribute of internationally-aware English language teachers today (Kumaravadivelu 2012) that is not mentioned in the Cambridge CELTA syllabus. I suggest that it could be.

(2) At least one of the standardised assignments included on CELTA courses, ‘Lessons from the classroom’ can potentially be adapted to help raise awareness of the issue of critical implementation of what they have learnt, by inviting participants to reflect not only how they ‘might develop their knowledge and skills beyond the course’, but how they anticipate needing to adapt what they have learnt to their own teaching contexts. Such reflection through this assignment may serve as a useful prelude to the preceding discussion activity.

(3) Given that many of the respondents to this study describe significant, and often similar challenges adapting what they learnt on their ICC to their current teaching contexts, it is likely that they would benefit from a post-course teacher support network (e.g. online) to enable participants from a specific cohort to stay in touch, discuss successes, challenges and other issues after course completion, something that either Cambridge ELA or CPOs themselves could set up.” (p. 12)

Thanks to the participants

As acknowledged in the paper itself, I am deeply indebted to the “wisdom” and “valuable suggestions” (p. 12) of the participants in this study, and hope that I have done justice to their opinions and given voice to them as professionals with far more experience and understanding of the contexts in which they were expected to apply what they had learnt on the CELTA, than me, their itinerant tutor. Many thanks again.

A final word for CELTA and CertTESOL ‘trainers’

Whether we like it or not, to remain effective at our job, we, as ‘initial certification’ trainers, need to understand not only how to train enthusiastic new native-speaker teachers with a toolkit of skills for their first job, but also how to provide for the very different needs of experienced professionals, many of whom need the qualification to maintain equity with less experienced teachers from Anglophone countries (Anderson 2016b). If you choose not to adapt your courses and your training approach to accommodate their needs, I challenge that you may be a less effective teacher educator than those who do.


Anderson, J. 2016a. “Initial Teacher Training Courses and Non-native Speaker Teachers.” ELT Journal 70 (3): 261–274. Free click-through link on this page.

Anderson, J. 2016b. “A qualitative study into the role of initial teacher training courses in the professional development of experienced non-native speaker teachers of English” MA Diss., King’s College London. Link here.

Anderson, J. 2018. “The Role of Initial Teacher Training Courses in the Professional Development of Experienced Non-Native-Speaker English Language Teachers.” ELTED 21: 37-46. Link here.

Choi, T.-H. 2013. “Curriculum Innovation Through Teacher Certification: Evaluation of a Government Intervention and Its Effects on Teacher Development and English Language Pedagogy in South Korea”. PhD diss., King’s College London.

Freeman, D. 1989. “Teacher Training, Development, and Decision Making: A Model
of Teaching and Related Strategies for Language Teacher Education”  TESOL Quarterly 23 (1): 27-45.

Freeman, D., and K. E. Johnson. 1998. “Reconceptualizing the Knowledge-Base of Language Teacher Education.” TESOL Quarterly 32 (3): 397–417.

Freeman, D., A. Katz, P. Garcia Gomez, and A. Burns. 2015. “English-for-Teaching: Rethinking Teacher Proficiency in the Classroom.” ELT Journal 69 (2): 129–139.

Gino, F. 2008. “Do We Listen to Advice Just Because We Paid for It? The Impact of Advice Cost on Its Use.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 107: 234–245.

Gorsuch, G. J. 2000. “EFL Educational Policies and Educational Cultures: Influences on Teachers’ Approval of Communicative Activities.” TESOL Quarterly 34 (4): 675–710.

Guskey, T. R. 2002. “Professional Development and Teacher Change.” Teachers and Teaching 8 (3): 381–391.

Holliday, A. 1994. Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hu, G. 2002. “Potential Cultural Resistance to Pedagogical Imports: The Case of Communicative Language Teaching in China.” Language, Culture and Curriculum 15 (2): 93–105.

Johnson, K. E. 2009. Second Language Teacher Education. New York: Routledge.

Kırkgöz, Y. 2008. “A Case Study of Teachers’ Implementation of Curriculum Innovation in English Language Teaching in Turkish Primary Education.” Teaching and Teacher Education 24: 1859–1875.

Kumaravadivelu, B. 2012. Language Teacher Education for a Global Society. New York: Routledge.

Liao, X. 2000. Communicative Language Teaching Innovation in China: Difficulties and Solutions. ERIC Document ED443294.

Ogilvie, G., and W. Dunn. 2010. “Taking Teacher Education to Task: Exploring the Role of Teacher Education in Promoting the Utilization of Task-Based Language Teaching.” Language Teaching Research 14 (2): 161–181.


Featured image cropped from original image by Hloom via Flickr / CC BY-SA, 401(K) 2013 under Creative Commons Licence. Many thanks:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/95051110@N07/28394541020










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