Silvana Richardson is Head of Teacher Development at Bell and has worked in English language teaching for over 25 years. She holds an MA in Teacher Education, is PGCE and Delta qualified and has trained teachers all over the world. Silvana is a regular guest speaker at events such as IATEFL and a regular author for Cambridge English Teacher. Silvana is the Head of Programme Quality for the Bell Foundation , the charity that works with British schools and teacher trainers to change lives through language education.
1. Tell us a little bit about your career in ELT.
I started teaching almost 30 years ago, when I was only 18. This was because I’d known I wanted to be a teacher since I was eight years old! I started my teaching career in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I taught young learners, teenagers and adults in private language schools and in a state secondary school. I also taught Business English and ESP, and started working as a teacher educator in one of the local teacher training colleges during my time there. I then moved to the UK, where I have been living for the last 15 years, and have taught General English, ESOL to refugees and asylum seekers, and exam preparation classes. But what I like doing best is teaching teachers and teachers of teachers, so I’ve also worked as a teacher educator in initial teacher education courses, in-service programmes, diploma programmes, and an MA programme. I was Director of the Bell Delta Online and Bell Teacher Campus. I am now Head of Teacher Development at Bell, and Head of Programme Quality at the Bell Foundation, a UK-based charity that creates opportunities through language education for excluded individuals and communities. I’m also a speaker at international conferences, a quality assurance inspector and write online materials for teachers.
2. What advice do you have for teachers when they’re developing their skills and knowledge in the professional practice ‘knowing the subject’?
I think ‘knowing the subject’ is a very important aspect of being a professional teacher of English. Therefore, I would encourage teachers to work hard to develop a competent knowledge about the English language and to become proficient users of English so that they can be suitable and inspirational models for their learners. I know from experience that improvement only comes about when we work hard. I don’t think simply being ‘one step ahead’ of the learners in terms of knowledge of the language and language proficiency is sufficient for a professional teacher who is a subject specialist. I also believe that from knowledge comes confidence. If you want to be a confident teacher, having a good knowledge base will certainly help.
My advice would be to:
- immerse yourself in English as much as you possibly can to different genres, registers and accents – from spontaneous dialogues, to podcasts or videos that appeal to your interests, to presentations (e.g. TED talks), advertisements, the news headlines on the radio, interviews with people whose work you like (e.g. your favourite authors, singers, actors, campaigners, politicians, etc. on YouTube), blog posts, research articles, tweets, Facebook posts etc. With the current developments in technology it’s never been easier to access and use such a broad range of texts in English, or cheaper!
- never stop noticing what and how language is used in both spoken and written texts. Make sure you notice unfamiliar uses of familiar lexis, collocations – i.e. what other words tend to occur frequently with a given word and idiomatic expressions, colligation – i.e. the grammatical company that words keep. Texts don’t have to be long to include hidden language ‘gems’– sometimes you can learn new language and challenge what you know from a 140-character tweet, or a headline. Uncover frequent patterns, make hypotheses, and test them. Also, check them with appropriate sources.
- memorise, and practise memorising. This is because Skehan has found that having a good memory is a key component of language aptitude, and Bilbrough that language learning places huge demands on memory. It therefore makes sense to train your memory well, by making sure you memorise new lexis in chunks, review new lexis frequently, test yourself, and repeat in manageable chunks.
3. In an era of information explosion and lots of online resources easily available to learners, how do you perceive the role of a teacher?
First of all, a teacher is a creator of the right conditions for learning to take place. This is still as true today as it was 1,000 years ago. Students learn when they feel safe to take risks and make mistakes, and the teacher is instrumental in developing an environment that is conducive to learning with confidence. Another fundamental task of the teacher is to challenge supportively – to give each student the right level of challenge and to have high expectations while at the same time providing (or gradually removing, as and when appropriate) the support that learners need to succeed. Equally importantly, the role of the teacher is to give students feedback on where they are in their learning, where they need to be, and how to get there. This is in-depth, personalised feedback that grading and marking software cannot currently give as far as I’m aware.
4. What three top tips do you have for non-native teachers to become successful teachers of English?
- Don’t let an accident of birth define who you are, or how brilliant you can be. Being an outstanding teacher has nothing to do with nativeness. Just remember that if you experience self-doubt or rejection.
- Make good use of the strengths that you have as someone who has learnt English – rather than acquired it naturally, for example: your knowledge about language; your empathy (because you’ve been a learner and you know exactly what it feels like and how hard it can be to learn a language); your capacity to predict your students’ difficulties; the fact that you are a bilingual or multilingual resource for your learners; the fact that you are a positive and possible role-model.
- There’s a lot of accessible literature about the so-called ‘non-native English Speaking teachers’ available online. Make sure you read it. You will be surprised by how much of what is said about NESTs and NNESTs is based on ideology, prejudice and vested interests, and how research into students’ preferences tells a different story. This will hopefully boost your self-efficacy, and will also give you ideas about how to fight against discrimination in the workplace to help you play a part in creating a more equitable and fairer profession.
5. If you had to choose one CPD activity that you found most useful for your own CPD, what would it be and why?
I’m a bit of a bookworm, so I learn a lot from reading and thinking deeply about what I read – particularly thinking about how I can apply what I read to my own context. What I like about reading is that it is a very personalised and self-directing activity – I choose what I want to read about, where and when, I set the pace, I re-read if I want to, I interact with the text by making notes, etc. I also love experimenting; putting what I have learnt by reading into practice, which is the next natural step, and then again, thinking critically about whether that experiment has worked or not, why, and how I can improve my experiment, and try again. I am slightly concerned that many teachers are too busy to read in depth, or to read the experts rather than ‘soundbites’. And while it may sound a bit old-fashioned, there really is no substitute for reading in depth to develop one’s knowledge and deepen one’s way of thinking and acting.