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.

Hello, my name is Michael, and I am the Blog Administrator for Guest Bloggers. I am currently working on my PhD in the Faculty of Education at Western University. My thesis is focused on language teacher education and teacher preparedness, but I take a general interest in many topics related to TESL, including teacher efficacy, learner silence, and others! I live and teach in Toronto, but I also make the journey to London on a weekly basis to teach at Western while I complete my degree. Before coming home to Canada in 2014, I taught EAP in China for two years. Prior to China, I worked on my Master of Education in TESOL at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. I have also taught in Korea and lived in France. I miss living and teaching abroad, but it’s great to be back home! I enjoy my two roles as a novice researcher and an English teacher and I hope to add my unique perspective to the TESL Ontario Blog.


7 thoughts on “Language Proficiency – How much English does a teacher need?”

  1. You make a very good point that the level of proficiency required varies widely depending on the level and type of English taught. After only one year of intensive language study in Japan, I was roped into teaching that language and the culture at a very basic level in both a public school paid position and as a volunteer on Saturdays. Teaching basic greetings, giving 30-40 TPR commands, and teaching these young learners to write and read Hiragana was well within my comfort zone, but that is as far as I would have tried to go as a teacher of Japanese.
    I’m very pleased to be part of a department that includes many non-native English as a Second Language teachers. We complement each other nicely and each bring something different to the team. Since students sometimes mistakenly assume that a native speaker is a better ESL teacher, I always make it known to them when I consult my Romanian-born colleague on a tricky advanced grammar question.

    1. I think there are discrepancies between the proficiency required fir teaching a language as a “foreign language” and as an “additional ” or second language – and between teaching children and adults . This article talks about EFL – and then goes on to discuss English for specific fields (we used to have “Specialized Language Training”. Do we still? Bridging prigrams?)
      The vocabulary and language functions children encounter in their daily lives is more limited than that of adults. Keeping “one step ahead of children” can be done (but still nerve wracking). How do you feel about ESL/LINC teachers keeping “one step ahead” of adults? Teaching literacy or low level learners is often given to teachers with acknowledged lower levels of proficiency ( or experience – new NESTs usually – but not always! – teach lower level at first. I started with a Two. ) But in many ways these are the levels where a thorough grasp of the target language, the understanding of (hehe) grammatical,textual, functional, sociolinguistic, strategic competence issues of a language help in setting the foundation. If someone were teaching me (and I was paying – as I did for Mandarin lessons – I look for more than grammatical proficiency.) I agree that there shoukd not be discrimination in hiring -but I wonder if in pushing for equity we hsve developed a tolerance for lower proficiency in NNESTs tgstvwe woukd nit acceot in NESTs. . Perhaos the question needs to be asked “At what point do you say a person’s proficiency is too low?” How do you measure this?
      In a unionised environment teachers that are “bumped” then move to other positions based on seniority, not proficiency (or teaching skills which is an even more important part of the equation than language proficiency imo) They cannot be removed. Perhaps this partly explains the embrace of PBLA by managers (and frustrated co-workers). A “secondary” perceived ” gain” is to provide “”PD” to those in hopes of bringing them up to speed and/orto provide evidence of just how incompetent they are ( the “teacher accountability” aspect. So the teacher will either give up and resign, or can be let go….

      1. Hi Claudie,

        Thank you for your response. You bring up a lot of good points. The Freeman et al. (2015) article is about EFL teachers who teach beginner and intermediate children, but it does not explore English-for-teaching with adults or higher level students. Logically, as students’ language levels get higher and higher, and language becomes more unpredictable, English-for-teaching would only be useful to a certain point. This gets at the potential need for overall proficiency. However, there is still no link to show that teachers need a high overall language proficiency level for students to learn English. Language teaching requires specialized knowledge and skill; proficiency is certainly part of it, but each context will have different requirements.

        One major issue is with proficiency assessment. There are teacher language assessments, but like many proficiency tests, these are controversial and are not always accurate. Further complicating matters is the development of English as an International Language (EIL). EIL acknowledges the growth of English and the fact that the vast majority of people who speak English are non-native speakers. With EIL, the emphasis is not on native speaker norms or standards, but on how English is used across the globe. When thinking about teachers, if we simply compare to native speaker norms, then we will view those who do not meet the standards as having a deficit. However, from an EIL perspective, this can be considered more of a locally developed English that suits local needs, and not a lack of language ability.

        In Ontario, clearly, there are a lot of proficient speakers. Teachers need to have the specialized knowledge and capabilities to teach English, and proficiency is part of this. However, it is only one part of it. While a teacher may lack proficiency in comparison with native speaker norms, enhanced pedagogical abilities and knowledge may be more important in that context. There is no ‘correct’ answer, but each context will have its own requirements. In some contexts, higher proficiency may be needed, while in others, a greater emphasis on pedagogical (content) knowledge may be required.

  2. Thanks for a great article written by you. Would you please email me on the wide-reaching project you mentioned? What is it? Great thanks!

    1. Hi Amilie,

      Thanks for your compliment! Here is the link to the ELTeach project:

      On the site, click on the ‘Resources’ section and there are lots of great studies and reports about the project. Hope that helps!

  3. Hi Michael,
    Thank you very much! It is very helpful and I will read it through carefully.

    Have a very nice day!

  4. Quite interesting! It is very subjective question, from my point of view.

    To get TESL Certification a person should get 106 points in TOEFL test, when to get your licences to practice medicine in Canada a candidate needs 96 points of the same test.

    I hope it will provide some insight….

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