Icy Lee

Icy lee has taught in Hong Kong and Vancouver, Canada. She has worked in Douglas College and Simon Fraser University (Vancouver), Institute of Language in Education (currently Hong Kong Institute of Education), Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong Baptist University, and the University of Hong Kong. The undergraduate and postgraduate courses she has taught include ELT methodology, academic reading and writing, written and spoken discourse, language assessment, classroom communication, teaching and learning of reading and writing, and action research. Her publications have appeared in more than ten international journals, including Journal of Second Language Writing, Canadian Modern Language Review, Assessing Writing, System, Teacher Education Quarterly, ELT Journal, TESL Canada Journal, English Teaching Forum, Modern English Teacher, and The Teacher Trainer. She has served on the Editorial Advisory Panel of ELT Journal and is currently a member of the editorial boards of Journal of Second Language Writing, Assessing Writing and TESL Canada Journal. Email: icylee@cuhk.edu.hk | January Interviewer: Davi S. Reis

Could you tell us about your educational and professional background and what led you to become an educator?

English was always my best subject when I was a primary and secondary student. So naturally when I entered university I decided to take English as my major. However, I wasn’t sure if I would like to be a teacher. After graduation, I struggled for two years as I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was trying to search for a job that was meaningful, fulfilling and rewarding, but somehow my first two non-teaching jobs failed to satisfy me. I have to say that it was sheer serendipity that I entered the teaching profession. At the beginning I felt pretty unsure whether teaching would really suit me. But soon I realized that I could derive a great deal of pleasure from seeing my students learn, improve, and develop a love for the English language. After two years of teaching, I felt that my general English degree was totally insufficient to guide my teaching practice. So I enrolled in the part-time Diploma in Education program at a local university to learn how to be a better English teacher.

After five years teaching in the same secondary school, I became accustomed to the job and felt that life was a bit stagnant. I began to ask myself: do I want to stay in the same school for the rest of my life? The students were good, and I didn’t really fancy changing to another secondary school. But I thought perhaps I needed some new challenge, and immediately the idea of teaching in the tertiary sector crossed my mind. It was a remote thought, but a few months later I landed a lecturer job in the Education Department of Hong Kong and became a teacher trainer. It was like a dream come true.

Since then, I have continued to stay in the English language education field, during which time I obtained my MA and PhD degrees, which I both completed on a part-time basis.

As the NNEST IS Chair from 2011-2012, could you tell us a bit about the experience? What did it mean to you? What were some of the challenges you experienced and what were some of your successes?

Serving the NNEST IS as Chair was both an honor and a privilege. Before I took up the job, I was actually a bit diffident. Since I had not been an active member of the IS before, I wasn’t sure if I could do a good job. Also, I felt that I was geographically remote from the majority of IS members and was afraid that I might not be able to network with them in a productive way. My experience showed me, however, that the greatest fear is usually fear itself. After I assumed office as the NNEST IS Chair, I began to implement my plans as shared at the Business Meeting during the TESOL Convention in March 2011. Soon my fear of my ineptitude was gone, gradually replaced by a sense of mission. I guess my greatest success was the online discussion made possible by the NNEST IS blog that I created (http://www.nnestblog.blogspot.hk/).  I was able to get some distinguished NNEST researchers to contribute their blog posts (e.g. Lia Kamhi-Stein and Ahmar Mahoob), which stimulated animated discussion among members.

As the NNEST IS Chair, the biggest challenges I faced were how to attract new members to the IS and how to create cohesiveness and provide networking opportunities among group members. These were not easy, but I hope I was able to take a small step towards addressing the challenges through the NNEST IS blog.

As a L2 teacher educator, what are some of the challenges you see that the field must get beyond? And what are some of the major hurdles for NNESTs in seeking professional legitimacy in ELT, generally speaking? What about the NNESTs you work with in Hong Kong?

In Hong Kong, NNESTs are referred to as LETs (local English teachers), who are differentiated from NETs (native English speakers) – the latter being specially hired by the Hong Kong government to help enhance the quality of English language teaching in Hong Kong schools. In the local community, there is a general impression, especially among parents, that NETs are better able to equip students with English language skills than LETs. The current hiring practice, which sets NETs apart from LETs, is highly divisive and leads to an unequal power relationship between the two groups of teachers. In local schools, collaboration between LETs and NETs is not common. In Mary Wong’s Fulbright research on collaboration between NETs and LETs in Hong Kong schools (with myself and Andy Gao as co-investigators), it was found that much more could have been done to tap into the potential of LETs and the collaboration between LETs and NETs, such as co-teaching in the classroom (the paper was awarded the 2012-2013 TESOL Award for an Outstanding Paper on NNEST Issues). Currently, however, there is a conception that when a NET and a LET appear at the same time in the classroom, the former should take centre stage so as to maximize students’ exposure to native speakers, while local teachers should play the role of an assistant – e.g. to maintain classroom discipline.

My suggestion may seem drastic, but I believe that Hong Kong does not need a NET scheme.  We can hire competent English teachers with diverse linguistic and cultural experiences from overseas but they can be treated like any LET in Hong Kong.

In general, NNEST professionals face a great many challenges. A lot has been said about these challenges in the field and I am not going to repeat them here. Briefly put, what we need is a non-discriminatory policy or practice that puts NNESTs on par with NESTs – they are all TESOL / ELT professionals who should be hired and paid according to their credentials rather than their race or color of their skin. We simply need an equality lens to examine the issue and help us understand a simple truth: as humans, we are all equal.

In your own research, reflection on one’s teaching seems to be a major component of teacher growth and development. Could you speak about how your views may have changed about self-reflection since you started in this field? How does reflection play a role in NNESTs professional development?

Reflection is the cornerstone of teacher professional development. I started my teaching career as a secondary teacher and had little idea about the role of self-reflection. Now as a teacher educator, I believe that self-reflection has a pivotal role to play in teachers’ professional development. What I tell my NNES teacher learners is that whatever “new” ideas they read about or come across, and whatever “tried and trusted” methods they are using, they can always be critical – they can think outside the box, challenge taken-for-granted assumptions, examine the ideas /methods from different vantage points, problematize them, reflect critically, and develop a personal theory of teaching.

You have published several well-recognized articles on error correction and corrective feedback for L2 learners. How did your own experiences as a NNES in the language classroom contribute to your interest in this topic? Also, what is your personal perspective on the long-term effects that error correction may have on NNES? How does your positioning as a NNEST relate to how your students receive error feedback from you?

When I was a student, my teachers paid meticulous attention to errors in my writing. When I became a teacher myself, all my colleagues did the same thing, and naturally I followed suit. It never occurred to me that there could be alternative ways to marking student writing until I read John Truscott’s 1996 article published in Language Learning. I was fascinated by his arguments, and though I did not have any evidence to support (or negate) his anti-error correction stance, his work started me thinking about why teachers have been marking student writing in the same old way even though students do not appear to benefit much from their error-focused approach. In 2002, I began my first research project on error correction in writing and published my first article on the topic in 2004. Since then, I have developed a stronger and stronger interest in not only error correction, but also feedback and classroom writing assessment. In my 2009 article published in the Australian journal Prospect, “A new look at an old problem”, I summarize the insights gathered from my various research projects and invite teachers to re-consider feedback from ten perspectives. I argue that as teachers we are too harsh to developing NNES writers. While we ourselves spend so much time on our own writing, letting ideas incubate, drafting and redrafting, putting aside drafts and re-visiting them, asking peers to review our work, and making lots of mistakes along the way, we ask our own students to submit their writing within a short time limit, not giving them sufficient time and help to produce a good piece of work, and are highly critical of the mistakes they make in writing.  Through my own research, I have developed a stronger empathy and sympathy for the challenges students face in learning to write. As a teacher educator, therefore, I often tell my teacher trainees to be very encouraging when they respond to student writing, and that they should never under-estimate the potentially damaging effects their own feedback can have on students and their motivation in the writing classroom.

Long-term effects of error correction on NNES learners? Such effects could be negative when students receive papers awash with red ink time after time. I think error feedback is useful only when it is based on a principled approach and geared towards student needs. More is definitely not better.

A selection of your scholarly work focuses on the central role that writing plays in the learning process for language learners, particularly the notion of using writing as a formative assessment tool to help students grow through teacher feedback. Can you tell us about how you as a NNES developed into a very effective and professional writer? What, or who have been the primary influences/mentors in your development as a scholar and writer?

Frankly, I never had any opportunity to learn how to write when I was young. In my school days, writing was tested rather than taught. I did not even learn about the topic sentence and paragraph unity back in my secondary school days. My teachers only told me to include three parts in my writing: introduction, body and conclusion. That’s all I can remember. The instructional focus was on grammar and vocabulary.  When I was an undergraduate, I majored in English literature and minored in linguistics. My professors did not teach us how to write. I think I only became aware of the term “academic writing” when I began my MA studies in 1991. The MA course I took was based on a distance-learning mode and I did it on a part-time basis, and I basically learnt how to do academic writing through working on my assignments all by myself. As far as scholarly publishing is concerned, to begin with I did not have any mentor. I learnt how to write journal articles through writing, through trial and error, and through all the rejections I have got. I would describe myself as a self-taught writer.

You have very engaging suggestions for how to prepare nonnative English speakers for EFL work in Hong Kong and overtly recognize NNESTs’ ability to be in touch firsthand with the needs of the students. You also mention the need for ongoing language improvement to keep upgrading NNESTs’ English proficiency to native or near-native competence, which may be seen as controversial to some NNESTs. To what extent do you believe NNES should value or focus on attaining this native or native-like competence? To what extent have you made this a personal goal?

To engage in ongoing self-improvement is my personal goal. When applied to language teaching, I believe that both NESTs and NNESTs have to keep upgrading themselves. As a NNEST, I personally think that ongoing language improvement is necessary because English is not my mother tongue. I put forward the goal of attaining near-native or native competence as an epitome of ongoing efforts on the part of NNESTs to keep improving themselves with regard to language proficiency. Perhaps we can never get there, and this is exactly why the goal is an important one – because as teachers we model life-long learning, and we ourselves should be life-long learners.

In fact, I am fully aware that “nativeness” is a nebulous concept. If I had a choice, I would like to avoid using terms like “native” and “non-native”. In my previous article I do not mean to denigrate NNESTs by suggesting that they are inferior and that they should aim at becoming “native speakers”. This is an impossible and unnecessary goal. Focusing on native or near-native competence as a goal serves to accentuate the ongoing efforts NNESTs need to keep improving themselves.

In this same piece on Preparing Nonnative English-Speakers for EFL Teaching in Hong Kong, you highlight the importance of elevating NNESTs as role models for native-speaking English teachers in teacher preparation for EFL contexts so that they too may benefit from the unique perspectives and skills of NNESTs. In what ways have you seen this done in your experience, or what strategies have you yourself employed as a teacher educator to promote the strengths of NNESTs among NESTs? Also, can you give some practical suggestions for pre-service teacher educators (like me) that work with primarily NESTs with little or no exposure to NNESTs that may help increase their awareness of the strengths that NNESTs possess?

In teaching English in EFL contexts, NNESTs do have a lot of advantages. In Hong Kong, for instance, the teaching of pronunciation can benefit from the NNESTs’ knowledge of the differences between Cantonese and English and why certain English sounds are particularly difficult for Cantonese speakers, such as blends and consonant clusters. While NNESTs can learn about sounds, stress, intonation, etc. from NESTs, NESTs can benefit from NNESTs’ knowledge of the pronunciation difficulties faced by NNES learners and tailor-make activities to help them cope with the difficulties. To give another example, NNESTs’ understanding of NNES learners’ grammatical errors caused by L1 interference can give NESTs insights about recurrent error patterns in their students’ writing. For example, Hong Kong students tend to write “there has / have” instead of “there is/are” because of direct translation from L1 to L2.

NNESTs are role models for their NNES learners. They can share their own language learning experiences with students, including both successes and failures, which can definitely benefit student learning. For example, I always like to tell my students how much I had gained from the vocabulary books I kept when I was a secondary school student. But I also tell them that I had a misconception about vocabulary learning as I was over-eager to use new words in my writing even when I did not have a clear understanding of how the words should be used in context.  As a result, I failed the first essay I wrote in Grade 10. I still remember the comment my teacher gave me – “flowery language”.

I believe that professional exchange between NESTs and NNESTs can reap mutual benefits. NESTs and NNESTs can share a common vision and work collaboratively to enhance students’ language learning experience. While NESTs may be endowed with some natural abilities because English is their mother tongue, the strengths and potential NNESTs bring to language teaching should be more fully utilized.

You are an extremely active member of the academic and professional community of NNESTs. What impact do you believe your work has had on the NNEST community in Hong Kong and around the world with respect to advancing the professional legitimacy of NNESTs in academic circles? In consideration of your many professional works, how have you managed to achieve a balance between your work as an educational researcher and practitioner in your career? What suggestions could you offer to new NNEST professionals who aim to attain your level of success?

In a colloquium at the 2011 Symposium on Second Language Writing held in Taipei, a number of second language writing (SLW) researchers, myself included, were invited to share their experiences as SLW researchers in the field. In the Q&A session, there was one question about the US dominance of second language writing, and I remember one of the invited speakers suggested I answer the question because I did not study in the US, and probably because I am a NNEST too. Although I can’t remember what I said exactly, I must have said something like the following: Indeed, the USA is considered the center of writing research, and the bulk of L2 writing research is conducted in the USA. I am from Hong Kong, born and raised in Hong Kong, and did not study in the US. I research into Hong Kong writing, which seems remote from what people in the USA do, but my published work is accepted and respected by people in the field. I later learnt from some conference participants that they, especially NNESTs, were greatly encouraged by my words. Not everybody has a chance to study overseas (like myself), but my experience has shown that a NNEST without overseas study experience can publish works that have an impact in the field.

Achieving a balance between my work as an educational researcher and a practitioner is not easy. Perhaps I am pretty good at multitasking and time management. The most important thing is probably because I am VERY interested in what I am doing. I see myself as a teacher educator-researcher committed to making a difference in the lives of English teachers in Hong Kong. It is this mission and vision that keeps me going.

If I am to offer advice to new NNEST professionals, I will say – make sure you have a real passion for what you are doing, be prepared for lots of disappointments, frustrations and setbacks in your career, keep reflecting, writing and researching, and NEVER GIVE UP (my motto). Quoting from Nick Vujicic’s (2010) book Life without limits, I want to emphasize that failure is the mother of success: “… defeat is a great teacher. Every winner has played the loser. Every champion has been the runner-up”(p.130).

NNESTs have undoubtedly made great strides in recent years; however much remains to be accomplished. In your opinion, what do you hope for the future of the NNEST movement?

My answer is very simple: non-discrimination, respect and harmony. As I conjure up my ideal world of TESOL, I see teachers of different races, nationalities and language backgrounds working hand in hand to help our students enhance their language learning experiences. I see everybody striving for excellence in what they do, collaborating with their peers, be they NESTs and NNESTs, with trust, deference and professionalism.


Lee, I. (2004). Error correction in L2 secondary writing classrooms: The case of Hong Kong. Journal of Second Language Writing, 13(4), 285-312.

Lee, I. (2004). Preparing Nonnative English-Speakers for EFL Teaching in Hong Kong. In L. D. Kamhi-Stein (Ed.), Learning and Teaching from Experience: Perspectives on Nonnative English-Speaking Professionals (pp. 230-249). Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press.

Lee, I. (2009). A new look at an old problem: How teachers can liberate themselves from the drudgery of marking student writing. Prospect: An Australian Journal of Teaching/Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), 24(2), 34-41.

Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language Learning, (46), 327–369.

Vujicic, N. (2010). Life without limits: inspiration for a ridiculously good life. New York: Doubleday.

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About Ana Solano

Ana is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Ana holds degrees in Applied Linguistics, TEFL, and TESOL and taught EFL/ESL for many years. She is interested in qualitative, interdisciplinary, and comparative perspectives to the education of bilingual/multilingual immigrant and refugee children in top migrant destination countries.

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