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Researchers Build a Training Course for Teachers of English Around the World

Focus on R&D

Issue 15

November 2019

By: Hans Sandberg

The Teaching Academic English (TAE) with the TOEFL IBT® test training course is for use by teachers around the world who teach English as a foreign language. It was built by a team of ETS researchers in just six months and is already in use in China. Focus on ETS R&D talked to John Norris and John Davis, two of the researchers behind TAE, about the course.

What is the Teaching of Academic English with the TOEFL IBT test course and who is it for?

Photo of John Davis John Davis: It is a hybrid teacher development course for teachers around the world who teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL). We call it a hybrid because it blends online self-study, a face-to-face workshop and an assessment that can be used for certification. The different components of the course are all facilitated by ETS language teaching experts or ETS-certified expert facilitators. TAE is unique, in that it gives teachers an opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills they need to help their students succeed in academic settings, where English is the language of instruction. So, it is not just about English training in general, but about helping teachers to better prepare their students to communicate in English at the university level.

Photo of John Norris John Norris: English is a key language of instruction at universities around the globe, never mind North America. This means that many students will need English-language training in preparation for the challenging listening, reading, speaking and writing tasks they may encounter at college. The TAE course familiarizes teachers with such tasks and the associated language demands. It also introduces them to cutting-edge ideas, principles and practices in language pedagogy and develops their abilities to teach academic English effectively.

Where did the idea come from, and how does it fit in with ETS's mission?

Photo of John Davis John Davis: Well, you could say that it comes from ETS's mission statement, which states that "our products and services measure knowledge and skills, promote learning and performance, and support education and professional development for all people worldwide." As for English-language education, we have already provided proficiency assessments for many decades, including the TOEFL assessments. This course adds a new and different layer of support in the form of professional development.

Photo of John Norris John Norris: Another reason for creating TAE was that researchers in our English Language Learning and Assessment (ELLA) center suggested that we should offer teacher training and certification to language teachers around the world. Sharing ideas and research about how language teachers can learn to use best practices could "raise the bar" for current approaches to teacher development, which in turn could improve the way English is taught.

We began the work by identifying possible training needs for EFL teachers in many different sectors, including the teaching of young learners, teaching of practical or workplace English, teaching with technology and others. We were soon able to locate multiple regions where there was a strong demand for extended training in teaching techniques associated with the kinds of language skills that the TOEFL iBT® test assesses — in other words, English for academic purposes. We were also able to narrow down the design of the TAE to the hybrid model that my colleague just mentioned. This research was supported by the TOEFL program and ETS's Greenhousing program that encourages entrepreneurial ideas.

How is TAE related to English language assessments like the TOEFL test?

Photo of John Norris John Norris: It is closely aligned with the TOEFL iBT test, and more generally to the TOEFL Family of Assessments. The TOEFL iBT test has been focused on teaching academic English since its launch in the mid-2000s. It was a large-scale analysis of how the English language is used at North America universities, which led to the redesign of the TOEFL test. The analysis looked at tasks that are typical across four basic language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. We can also say that the inclusion of integrated task types on the TOEFL iBT test was an important innovation, since it reflected the reality that academic tasks frequently call on more than one skill: for example, listening to a lecture, reading a passage and then writing an essay.

Photo of John Davis John Davis: We designed the TAE to help teachers develop the pedagogic skills needed to teach a variety of academic tasks. With these skills, they can help learners become proficient in academic English. We also added links to the TOEFL iBT test at the end of each online module, in a section called TOEFL Connections. This section explains how teachers can work with what they have learned in each module to help their students succeed on the TOEFL test, as well as in their university studies.

It is important to understand that the TAE course was not built to develop teachers' abilities to teach TOEFL test prep classes or to share "tricks" to quickly increase students' TOEFL scores. The focus is instead on sharing best practices in the teaching of academic English and encouraging teachers to help their learners become more proficient at communicating in English, and not just to improve their test scores.

What role did ETS's current and past research play in creating TAE?

Photo of John Norris John Norris: Let's first remember that this is not an assessment, but a tool for developing language teachers' abilities to teach academic English. Since this is a new endeavor for ETS, we didn't have a lot of previous research in this area to build on. Of course, we could use research on university-level English related to the TOEFL iBT test. For example, we took advantage of the domain analyses that had been used to create the TOEFL iBT test when we sought to understand university-level language communication. There were also corpus analyses that identified patterns of English grammar, vocabulary and other phenomena that distinguish language use in academic registers and tasks.*

Photo of John Davis John Davis: Having these foundations allowed us to formulate the basic targets for learning academic English. In addition, we wanted to establish an empirical basis for what teachers needed to learn in the TAE. We did this by synthesizing the literature on best practices in language teaching and learning. A useful resource was an ETS-sponsored research project that resulted in the book Second Language Educational Experiences for Adult Learners. John and I wrote the book together with Veronika Timpe-Laughlin, who is also a research scientist in the ELLA center. It covers what we know today about designing and delivering effective language classes and programs for adults. Finally, we were able to draw on the experiences and perspectives of ETS's experts on language teaching in R&D to round out the design of the TAE course.

Photo of John Norris John Norris: The project took only six months, but it resulted in a unique, cutting-edge language teacher development course. That is, however, not a reason to be complacent. We are already planning new research that includes an evaluation of the effectiveness of the TAE, and an analysis of the needs expressed by language teachers in other educational sectors. Looking ahead, we hope that this work will have a positive impact on future language teacher development offerings from ETS and help improve the quality of English teaching worldwide.

John Norris is a principal research scientist and the senior research director in the Research and Development division at ETS. John Davis is a research scientist in the English Language Learning and Assessment (ELLA) group in ETS R&D.

Learn more:

* Chapelle, C. A., Enright, M. K., & Jamieson, J. M. (Eds.). (2008). Building a validity argument for the Test of English as a Foreign Language. London: Routledge.