Language Proficiency – How much English does a teacher need?

The issue of proficiency is always at the forefront for English language teachers. As English language teachers, we need a certain level of proficiency in the language to teach it so we can serve as models for our students, and provide them with valuable language input that can help them learn. However, there is still no agreed upon level of proficiency that an English language teacher needs to teach effectively, and there may never be. Different contexts, different needs, and the development of English as an international language (EIL), all make the standardization of proficiency levels across contexts somewhat superfluous. For example, an elementary English language teacher in Korea does not require the same type of proficiency as an EAP teacher in Ontario. The contexts are vastly different.

 Recently, the development of English-for-teaching (Freeman et al., 2015), or specific English teacher language, has grown in prominence. In other areas, for example medicine or engineering, there has long been the realization that these fields have specialized language that professionals will need to learn. Thus, when someone in medicine needs to learn English, this focus on medical English in the classroom can help them learn the language they need to succeed in their professional lives. English-for-teaching is essentially the same thing, but for English teachers.

In a wide-reaching project, researchers set out to determine what words and phrases are most commonly used by English language teachers. Drawing on data from contexts around the globe, they were able to discover what language teachers need to teach in English. This is an important development considering the state of English language teaching. More and more teachers are now required to teach English in various EFL contexts, despite this not being their area of teaching. Often, these teachers are thrust into the English language classroom and asked to teach, whether they are ready or confident.

It should be noted that the English-for-teaching project is focused on teachers in EFL contexts who are teaching beginner and intermediate proficiency speakers. However, the issue of separating language that is specific to teaching from overall proficiency is somewhat difficult as many of the words and phrases could be considered common daily language. While medical English has a highly specific vocabulary that most speakers will never need to know, the words English teachers use in the classroom are much more common. While there certainly is crossover, separating specific teaching language away from overall proficiency is an important step for some English teachers. Expecting teachers to acquire a high overall proficiency in some EFL contexts is not possible, and many times, not needed. English-for-teaching serves as a smaller subset of language that is much more achievable for teachers to learn and allows them to manage their classrooms in English and still provide their students with valuable language input.

For more information on English-for-teaching, check out the article below, or have a look at the ELTeach website here.


Freeman, D., Katz, A., Gomez, P.G. & Burns, A. (2015).  English-for-teaching: Rethinking teacher proficiency in the classroom.  ELT Journal, 69(2), 129 – 139.


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