Photo by Martin Seck
Scott Thornbury is a teacher and teacher educator, with over 30 years’ experience in English language teaching, and an MA from the University of Reading. He is currently Curriculum Coordinator of the MA TESOL program at The New School in New York. His previous experience includes teaching and teacher training in Egypt, UK, Spain (where he lives), and in his native New Zealand. HIs writing credits include several award-winning books for teachers on language and methodology, as well as authoring a number of papers and book chapters on language and language teaching. He is series editor for the Cambridge Handbooks for Teachers (CUP). He was also the co-founder of the dogme ELT group (see Articles). And, currently, he is an associate of the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi), an online campus dedicated to teacher development.
Interviewed by Isabela Villas Boas
OBS: This is a transcription of the audio recording in which Scott discussed the questions sent to him by e-mail.
1) Thank you for taking some time off your very busy schedule to participate in this interview. I would like to begin by asking you to tell us a little about your career path and why and how you became an educator.
I started my teaching career like many native speakers those days – by doing an initial training course at International House in London and immediately getting a job teaching in a private language school on the south coast of England, when it was relatively easy to do, and soon thereafter, I took up a job with International House again, in Egypt, at a period where English language was taking off. There was a huge demand and, therefore, it was a good place to be, where there was a lively EFL scene, again all native speakers, and I had the opportunity to work with many new teachers, coaching them, and gained a lot of hands-on experience in teacher education, which fed into my subsequent career asset – trained teacher educator on both pre-service and in service courses, principally in Spain, which in turn led to the writing of books on methodology, conference attendances, and so on – a professional trajectory which was made easier by the fact that I was a native speaker. I don’t think I could have done so well, then at least, had I not been a native speaker, which meant that I only needed the minimum qualifications, initially at least, to survive, to get a foot in the door.
2) You created your internationally acclaimed blog An A-Z of ELT as a follow-up to your 2006 book with the same name. In 2013, you decided to discontinue the blog, but then in 2015 you resumed your regular publications in it. Why did you decide to re-activate your blog?
The blog was originally motivated as an attempt to start work on a revised version of the print book An A to Z of ELT. I’ve stopped and started it a number of times, mostly due to pressure of work. Blogging does take a lot of time, particularly if you take it seriously, publish a post regularly and try to deal with the comments that come in. It isn’t a full time job, but it’s certainly occupied at least one day of every week, if not more, so you have to factor that in when you’ve got also a full time job teaching, as I do, in a TESOL program online. Hence, it is deactivated at the moment. I may well start blogging again shortly.
3) When you write your posts, who do you have in mind and what do you hope people to gain from your highly informative and thought-provoking blog?
I think partly I want to explore issues which at the moment I find important or engaging, either because I’ve been reading something related to a particular theme, or a question or an issue has come up through my other professional activities, watching classes, talking to teachers, etc. And blogging is a good way of exploring, finding out what I think about an issue, by writing about it, but also getting feedback from other people in the field as to what they feel, and that creates a rich discussion, and it is immediate. It’s much faster in terms of feedback than, say, publishing an article.
Moreover, I suppose there is another agenda which is the one of challenging some of the received, if you like, orthodoxies that have gathered around our profession, challenging, for example, the native-speakerism would be one thing that has come up, or monolingual classrooms, or the predominance of native speakers in the profession who occupy positions of power, which is something I will talk about in a second. But also the continuing dominance of the publishing industry in the profession, the pervasive use of course books and grammatical syllabuses and so on. These are well-known themes that I’ve dealt with in the past, but it’s useful to blog about them, to challenge, as I say, some of these kind of accepted practices of our profession and have people rethink, maybe, their legitimacy.
4) You are also well-known for the development of Dogme ELT, which readers can become familiar with through this article and video on your website . Could you briefly explain Dogme ELT to those who are not familiar with it and assess how this movement stands today? Do you agree with the claims that it might be a difficult approach for non-native teachers to implement?
About Dogme ELT, I don’t want to go into a long history of Dogme at this point. It’s well documented on my website, in my other places, and the videos that you have linked to, and of course, there is a book with Luke Meddings called Teaching Unplugged, which charts the background of the development of Dogme and also tries to situate it within its kind of educational and philosophical context. A question has been often put that Dogme has a limited generalizability over a wide range of contexts, not least because it assumes that the teachers have either the experience or confidence to manage spontaneous talk and respond spontaneously to student-generated language in the classroom, and this requires both a good command of the target language and a very thorough knowledge of its grammar and vocabulary, apart from anything else, in order to be able to address issues that come up that are not necessary predictable and, therefore, can’t be planned for. To a certain extent, this is true that a degree of confidence is required. I am not necessarily in agreement, though, with the view that it requires native-like levels of English, and there is nothing in the three basic tenets of Dogme, that is to say, that lessons should be conversation driven, that they should be materials light, and that they should focus on the language that emerges out of the talk in the classroom rather than the text in the classroom. None of those tenets assume necessarily that this teacher has to be a native speaker or have a native speaker-like command of the language. That’s more to do with confidence, and I know many non-native speaker teachers who are confident enough to teach in a more reactive way, and I know many native speaker teachers who are not and who would certainly resist any approach which required them to be more immediately and spontaneously responsive to learner content.
And in fact, if anything, the non-native teacher who has studied over many years, the grammar, the linguistics of English, is better placed to be able to deal explicitly with language issues as they arise, simply because they have that explicit knowledge of the language which many native speakers lack. So I would resist the argument that this is a method or methodology which is exclusively a native speaker one, or even an experienced teacher one, or even a teachers of adults as opposed to children, or teachers of higher levels as opposed to lower levels. I don’t think there’s any context which necessarily excludes Dogme, except an institutional context which does not tolerate teachers having a little bit of autonomy in the classroom to set up and manage the classes in the ways that they would prefer rather than that which is mandated by the organization.
5) Your April 26, 2015 post entitled P is for Power discusses the conspicuous prevalence of native speakers as plenary/keynote speakers in conferences and as consultants to governments around the world. You quote Kumaravadivelu (2006, p. 22) when he says that many times it is the non-native professionals themselves who legitimize their own marginalization when they request native speakers as trainers and consultants. What happens is that conference organizers want “big names” to attract a larger audience. The big names today are all native speakers who have “climbed the professional ladder” and publish course books and other professional development materials. How can this “moving up the ladder” become more accessible to non-native speakers?
I published a post in my blog called P is for Power. I discussed, among other things, the conspicuous prevalence of native speakers as plenary and keynote speakers in conferences. Well, in fact, I wasn’t addressing the conference situation so much. I think other people have covered that. I think it was the general native-speakerism across the board in our profession and the view that is still perpetuated that non-native teachers are somehow second class. It’s a view that’s perpetuated not just at the level of conference organizers, and in fact, I don’t think many conference organizers are to blame; they are very conscious of the need to be more inclusive in terms of their invited speakers. I think it’s at the level of institutions, private language schools, parents and even many students have this perception that the native speaker is somehow better qualified, by virtue of their birth, the geography, of being a better teacher, and this is a view that is completely and utterly invalidated in my experience by countless non-native speaker teachers that I’ve met, watched, trained, worked with, worked under, who have not been in the least handicapped by the accident of birth which qualifies them as being mischievously labeled as non-native.
Nevertheless, it is true that the career ladder, as I said in my own cases, favored native speaker teachers to reach positions perhaps which would have been a struggle for the non-native. I like to think that this is changing, there is certainly a greater consciousness now throughout the profession, as this issue is raised, blogged about, debated at conferences in a very healthy manner, as far as I can see. I hope to live to see the day when the distinction becomes, if not forgotten, at least a trivial one, and that there is more emphasis placed on effective teaching, whether or not you are a good or a bad teacher, rather than whether or not you happen to be a native speaker. That’s the bottom line – how effective you are as a teacher, how experienced you are as a teacher, how respected you are as a teacher, not, as I said, this accident of birth.
6) In your response to my comment on your aforementioned post, you said, “What is impressive in all the conferences I’ve just mentioned (AAAL, AILA, BAAL, etc.) is that – judging by the names at least – there’s a strong presence of non-native speakers: is it ‘easier’ to achieve fame as a NN in applied linguistics than it is in ELT?” I’m throwing the question back to you: Is it easier to achieve fame as an NNES in applied linguistics than it is in ELT? If so, why?
Yes, coming back to the issue of conferences, is it true that it’s easier perhaps to achieve respect at the academic level of our profession rather than at the level of classroom teachers? I think academics can prove themselves; there’s less prejudice towards academics. There’s a long and healthy tradition of academics being from many different nationalities and language origins, and so long as they can write academic English, it’s immaterial. In fact, you read many articles in applied linguistics magazines and there is no way of knowing necessarily, unless you read the biodata, whether the writer is a native or a non-native, certainly you can’t tell from their names, of course, and it’s the case that some of the best minds in our profession at the level of applied linguists do happen to be non-native speakers.
7) The British Council recently released a survey with public school teachers around Brazil in which they state that teachers prefer training conducted by native speakers. How does this strike you, considering what you know about ELT in Brazil? How can we change this mindset within our own profession?
I mean, this saddens me, although I suspect that perhaps one reason they do is not because they necessarily think that the native speaker trainer is a better teacher educator, but it’s maybe that they hanker after exposure to the language, and I think that other teachers do feel sometimes a little bit cut off from direct contact with the language as it is being used outside of their immediate context. But this doesn’t mean to say that they have to sit at the feet of native speakers as if they were going to get some kind of more purified form of the language.
We now know that the language spoken by native speakers, not only varies enormously across native speakers from anywhere from California to New Zealand, from Glasgow to Nigeria, from India to Singapore, but there are also many more speakers of English who are using it on a daily basis to speak to other non-native speakers, so in a sense the value placed upon the native speaker has of course been subverted if you like. But the message is yet to come through, and I think other people have discovered, Jenny Jenkins, for example, in her recent book on attitudes to English as a Lingua Franca, found out, depressingly, that many teachers do still aspire to being like native speakers and do still prioritize or value more highly native speaker varieties of English than their own, which, again, is part of a long history, but I think it`s hopefully changing.
8) You are currently the Curriculum Coordinator of the MA TESOL program at The New School in New York. How do the New School curriculum and policies address issues such as English as an International Language and the NNEST movement?
What do we do at the New School on our MA TESOL program to kind of interrogate these attitudes? One thing we do is we don’t have any policy on admissions based on first language, I mean, apart from anything else, I think that would be illegal. And moreover, in all the courses on the program we promote inclusiveness, we challenge the view, in many of the courses, that native speaker models of English are necessarily the only valid ones for the purposes both of study and for teaching, and we have a whole course now called English in the World which looks exactly at the political and ethical and social and cultural effects of English as a global language, including looking at the sociolinguistics of English as a lingua franca, and challenging the view of native-speakerism and recognizing that the vast majority of teachers in the world are non-native speakers and their legitimacy as non-native speakers needs to be recognized, and the varieties of English that they speak and that they teach need to be validated.
9) What advice would you give to those who are beginning in the profession?
Well, learn another language. I am kind of always surprised and shocked to find how many of my MA students don’t speak a second language or haven’t studied one at any great length. And I don’t think it matters whether it’s the case of formal study through classrooms, formal instruction, or whether it’s naturalistic learning by simply being in the place where the language is spoken. Both processes are equally legitimate and equally interesting from the teachers’ point of view, each equally informative. let’s say, in terms of what they tell us about language learning. So learning another language!
What other advice? I think joining the global interconnected community of teachers who are blogging, tweeting, whatever, online, becoming part of that discourse community and exploiting the wealth of resources that are available out there, and also learning how to be critical of them at the same time, not accepting everything at face value. As much as the Internet is marvelous for providing us with materials, resources, etc., it is fairly unregulated, and one of the great things about traditional print publishing is that you can, to a much greater extent, I think, trust what has got into print because it has been through a more rigorous editing process. I say that here declaring my interest as a series editor for the Cambridge Handbooks for Teachers, which is series of books with a long history of excellent resources for teachers, which have, as I said, been through a rigorous reviewing and trialing process.
So, again, finding out as a new teacher what’s out there, what’s available, what can serve to continue your own professional development once you’ve had your initial training. Don’t stop reading about, talking about teaching, and about language learning generally. It is an endlessly fascinating topic in its own right, and you can feel lucky that you’ve chosen this as your career, because you’re doing a great service to humanity, and you’re also doing a great service to yourself, as a person involved in the two most interesting things that humans do: teaching and speaking languages. Thank you.