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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

December 30, 2008

Can university teachers teach kids (and vice-versa)?

A lot of people seem to think you have to be smarter, more qualified, or have more savvy as a teacher to teach in universities than you do for teaching children. And while it’s true that university positions will invariably require more academic qualifications I certainly don’t see why there is an association between the age or level of the students you are teaching and the qualifications or experience you are expected to have. In fact, given the influence that teachers might have on kids in the early stages of their L2 acquisition, it is arguable that the better teachers should be teaching children, not 18-22 year olds. “Oh, you don’t have experience or qualifications, so you’d better teach beginners, children would be best for you!”. Bizarre. Do we treat pediatricians as if they need fewer qualifications or re less competent than other doctors?

Although I did teach children for a short time several years ago, I would have to admit that after almost 18 years of teaching almost exclusively young adults I might be out of place at first if I suddenly returned to a classroom full of kids. I’d probably find it pretty exhausting and my instincts about what activities are likely to work and how they will go over with the kids would be noticeably rusty at the start. In fact, watching a skilful teacher of children doing his or her thing can impress me in ways that I no longer feel when hearing about new methods or approaches or materials for university-aged learners. And I can imagine that someone going in the other direction, from children to university students, might have trouble at first adjusting to the mood, the ebb and flow, of the uni classroom.

But let’s not take this ‘out of one’s element’ motif too far. Back in the 50’s and 60’s it used to be considered funny to watch Lucy on TV trying to do something that was supposedly for men with the comedy centered around watching her make a complete hash of it. The tables turned in the 70’s and 80’s with movies like Mr. Mom and Three Men and A Baby, where the men were (at first) completely clueless when it came to doing the most rudimentary of ‘women’s’ work. Likewise, there are some in the EFL business who would like to believe that someone who specializes in children’s education would be completely out of their element in a uni class, while someone like myself would be too much of an egg-headed boob to connect with young uns. Like I’d be presented with a group of pre-schoolers and try to explain the subjunctive mood to them or argue that “have” is a matter of aspect rather than tense (as if that sort of stuff would/should even take place at a university EFL class!).

Nah- any teacher worth his or her salt (meaning someone who is already competent as an EFL teacher at any level) could make the shift after a small adjustment period. All you need are the 5 following basic EFL teacher skills:
1. The ability to read the level and responses of the learners quickly and make necessary adjustments (often on the spot)
2. The ability to use the appropriate level of teacher talk and style of interaction with the learners.
3. The ability to devise suitable materials and tasks and have reasonable expectations about the learners’ ability to complete them.
4. A reasonable knowledge as to how people acquire a second language.
5. A real knowledge of the language you’re teaching, knowing how it is organized, how it works as discourse, how it might appear from ‘outside’, a detached understanding. It doesn’t mean you mean have to be a grammar boffin or a linguistics major to succeed, in fact you don’t have to be an academic at all, but you MUST have an awareness of how the language works that goes beyond mere native speaker ‘instinct’.

True, there are university teachers who have academic qualifications but who may still lack some of the skills mentioned above. And there are teachers at other levels who assume that merely being a native speaker will make them a competent teacher. Both sides are fooling themselves. Could anyone who teaches English at a university succeed in teaching children? No. Could anyone who teaches kids function at a university? No. Not “anyone”. But anyone who is a real EFL TEACHER, and when I say that I mean that they have the five skills above, sure, give them a few days in the ‘room, and- yeah- they could make the jump.

« Is teaching English at a Japanese university a cushy job? | Main | Regarding Gregory Clark's comment on foreigners teaching in Japanese universities »


Natural teachers, built teachers, and ported teachers all work as best they can. (I just made up those terms: NT, BT, PT)

Where NTs can adapt to pretty much any situation, BTs work best to fulfill the system, and PTs work to survive.

A good friend is a bilingual pro bowler. She's been asked to teach children and bowling to kids and their mothers at the same time.

Drawn and quartered?

Hey Mike,

Thanks for your article. It is a well-written defense of the craft of teaching at various levels. I teach at a high school in Shizuoka, and sometimes aspire to make the shift to University, mainly for the opportunity to pursue a diverse set of research interests. But I also have come to realize that there are great challenges inherent in high school teaching that take time to master. For now,I am enjoying these challenges and learning a lot about teaching. I figure I can always transition to teaching at a higher or lower student age range in the future. As you say, the skills I am honing with high school students should be, with some effort and adaptation on my part, quite transferable.

Thanks again for your article,


An insightful article, indeed! And if I may add: An effectve EFL teacher has the ability of teaching a lesson in a meaningful way. To be meaningful does not mean following the same methodology and approach in teaching, nor graphing  results solely from paper-pen test evaluation. Nor being indifferent to your students because of the program they are in. The lesson becomes meaningful to students if they feel that the teacher considers their individual learning differences and, most importantly, treats them like humans and not just machines;  yes, the teacher has time bound lessons, reports to submit, and that knack might of a much higher position after the yearly-evaluation so to hell with Gardner and his multiple intelligences, cooperative learning, and peer tutoring. But, a teacher's job is more than all of these things. His job to tap into his students' potential unleashing it to the world and never should he put it in little boxes marked for export.

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