Are we speaking the same language?

Teaching English as a foreign language can be very rewarding. But in a badly regulated industry, there are pitfalls to avoid.
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The Independent Online

Those who wish to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL) must be prepared to approach a vast, unregulated and rapidly growing sector with caution. Out of the 700,000 overseas students who flood into Britain every year to be tutored in English, only 460,000 are alleged to be attending accredited courses.

Those who wish to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL) must be prepared to approach a vast, unregulated and rapidly growing sector with caution. Out of the 700,000 overseas students who flood into Britain every year to be tutored in English, only 460,000 are alleged to be attending accredited courses.

Andrew Brown, chief executive of the British Institute of English Language Teaching (BIELT), sums up the current situation. "At present there is nothing to stop anybody setting up a language school willy-nilly."

Yet the rewards for those who want a change of direction can be enormous. The demand for English teaching across the world is growing daily due to the impact of the internet and the markets of Central and Eastern Europe and China opening up.

Britain is the largest provider of English-language teachers in an industry worth a staggering £1bn in invisible earnings, yet demand continues to outstrip supply. It is becoming increasingly popular with professionals seeking a career change, or even with those who have taken early retirement and are looking for a fresh start and an element of adventure.

Indeed, those with a background in, say, business or engineering who have opted to become EFL (English as a foreign language) teachers will find that they are highly sought-after by multi-national companies and schools across the world offering English courses for specialists. Furthermore, there is a great demand for teachers who are also skilful writers, due to the rapid expansion of publishing in English language teaching.

Roger Hunt, director of studies at International House, one of the largest TEFL and EFL providers with 116 schools across the globe, says teaching English provides invaluable transferable skills. He says: "Many of our tutors are also authors. And because they build up an interest in languages as well as hone their communication skills they can move into many other professional areas."

A further development at International House has involved mature teachers with sizeable houses offering residential courses in their own homes for EFL students wanting more personal support and comfort.

Simon Sweeney, who now publishes materials for the teaching of business English for Cambridge University Press and Pearson Education, says there are now many opportunities for in-company EFL training. For example, it is not possible to get a senior position in companies such as Volkswagen or Deutsche Bank without being able to speak English. Many medium-sized companies are prepared to pay for one-to-one tuition and favour EFL teachers with an industrial or marketing background. York Associates, for example, specialises in providing courses and teachers for such companies. Mr Sweeney says: "Teaching EFL might not have much status at present but it is very rewarding and challenging."

However, as the industry matures, TEFL is being regarded increasingly as a career rather than an opportunity, prompting moves towards greater professionalisation as well as demands that the sector be subject to greater regulation. Although no single, standard TEFL qualification currently exists, the Cambridge Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults - from the University of Cambridge Local Examinations syndicate and which is externally validated - has become the reference. The Trinity College London Certificate is also widely offered. Both place great emphasis on teaching practice as well as theory.

The DELTA (Diploma), which is a level higher, requires candidates to have the certificate plus at least two years of relevant work experience. International House requires that all of its training tutors hold such diplomas. While it guarantees a job to all of the students that successfully complete its teacher training courses, it also ensures that those who take up teaching posts in its own schools are given educational support and development in their first year. Roger Hunt says: "It's all about offering quality. Life can be extremely miserable for those who go abroad to teach English and find themselves alone and unsupported."

With 8,000 enrolments worldwide per year, CELTA, a four-week intensive programme is clearly the most popular TEFL course. At International House, Mr Hunt says the certificate requires students to study and practice between 12 and 15 hours per day and though the course is short, it is extremely demanding. But there are many other qualifications on offer, some requiring only a few days' study, some requiring no practical trainingat all.

The British Institute of English Language Teaching is an organisation whose aim is to ensure professional standards in the sector. It does not believe that quality in EFL should be the responsibility of individual providers but of the sector as a whole. BIELT is therefore currently putting together a framework, a recognition scheme for teacher-training qualifications, in order to ensure the quality of courses. The Recognition Scheme, which is to be published in January, is intended to set out clear standards for the great variety of qualifications on offer. For example, many universities now offer TEFL modules, many of them largely theoretical, as part of degree programmes.

Andrew Brown, executive director of BIELT, says there is currently no way of comparing one qualification with another, a factor which has made life very difficult for employers. The Recognition Scheme, he says, will set out a checklist of the requirements for a qualification to be included in the framework.

As part of its work BIELT is also lobbying a Government working party into English-language teaching for the accreditation scheme run by the British Council, which ensures standards among ELT providers, to be made statutory. The Government, however, is currently resisting this pressure, arguing that it is up to colleges themselves, as private businesses, to ensure that they are providing good quality services.

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