TEFL.net : TEFL Book Reviews : Linguistics : Teacher Language Awareness

Teacher Language Awareness

Author: Stephen Andrews Publisher: Cambridge University Press This book by Stephen Andrews seems to be the first major publication on TLA (Teacher Language Awareness- how much teachers know about the language they are teaching), which initially surprised me at a time when you could easily fill a whole bookshop with books on Linguistics, Applied Linguistics […]
Reviewed for TEFL.net by Alex Case

Author: Stephen Andrews
Publisher: Cambridge University Press

This book by Stephen Andrews seems to be the first major publication on TLA (Teacher Language Awareness- how much teachers know about the language they are teaching), which initially surprised me at a time when you could easily fill a whole bookshop with books on Linguistics, Applied Linguistics and SLA. As I read the introduction, though, his premise that teachers could teach better by knowing more about the English language (with the obvious caveats about needing to know when and how to pass on that information too) seemed so self-evident that I could see why researchers hadn’t been especially attracted to it. To the author’s credit, he fully anticipated such objections from people outside his area and states in the introduction that he hopes he cannot be accused of “stating the bleeding obvious” in this book. I read the rest of the book with interest to see if he could avoid precisely that and whether this developing area of research had anything of importance to show me as a teacher, writer and occasional teacher trainer.

The main way in which the author tries to prove the relevance and importance of his area of interest to the rest of us is by approaching the subject from all kinds of angles, seeking both to see what those areas can teacher us about TLA and what TLA can tell us about those areas. There are therefore chapters on “TLA and the teaching of language”, “TLA and the ‘grammar debate’”, “TLA and teacher’s subject-matter cognitions”, “The TLA of expert and novice teachers”, “TLA and the native-speaker and non-native speaker debate”, “TLA and student learning”, “TLA and teacher learning” and an epilogue on “TLA and teacher professionalism”.

The core of the research included in the book is about the Hong Kong education system that the writer works in, and in fact about 40% of the references in the book are to himself and an even greater amount of the data comes from his own research and other people working with the same kinds of teachers- and occasionally even the actual same group of teachers. This is my first and only reading on the subject of TLA, but I can imagine such a pattern is inevitable in a developing field in which he seems to be one of the leading lights- hence, no doubt, why he was asked to write the book. Although he brings in lots of statements by other well-known and well-respected figures such as Scott Thornbury and H.G. Widdowson on the subject and research from other areas of education, this does leave the data that forms the core of the book quite weak in terms of amount and strength of conclusions. There also doesn’t yet seem to be a lot of impassioned debate on SLA issues, something that would have made the topics more interesting and added to our confidence in the research results and conclusions, knowing that they had withstood attacks. Although all research-based books have their fair share of “more research is needed”, in a book where, for example, the whole body of research on one point consists of four teachers in one study, the author is reduced to making this point even more often than usual.

More research on everything would, of course, be nice (if I ever win the lottery I’m going to have an army of researchers investigating every question I’ve ever had about teaching), so one of the main aims of this book should perhaps be to prove that more research could lead to important conclusions. I feel that the writer has failed to make such a case. Although the (limited) data more or less backs up his case that TLA is an important aspect of good teaching and therefore of student learning, most of the data also seems to suggest that the effect is fairly small and that other aspects such as the ability of teachers to make classroom management decisions in real time in the classroom are more important. More importantly, he makes the common mistake of Applied Linguists in thinking that a stack of results that seem to back up what you already thought is the most valuable kind of data, whereas the history and philosophy of science tells us that results that break down previously held beliefs or are counterintuitive are usually the most significant. With that in mind, his theory that TLA is important even for teachers who do not teach the conscious examination of grammar (e.g. teachers who follow the strong form of Communicative Language Teaching) is indeed an important theory that is well worth further research and possibly a whole book on the subject once the results are clear. I would also be interested in a book on the question of how the comparative importance of TLA should affect the amount of time on teacher training courses spent on it, on which point the research mentioned in this book could perhaps be considered the first half step.

For someone who was already involved in or interested in TLA, this book provides a good summary with plenty of nice quotes, case studies and possible sources of extra reading, and ditto for anyone who was writing or researching something on another area of Applied Linguistics or Teacher Training and wanted to mention something about TLA. Otherwise, for the ordinary teacher or teacher trainer the research in TLA does not seem to have reached the point where reading a book on the subject is likely to be one of your priorities. Having said that, the author has produced a well-written and easy to read book and if you have access to a copy in your school or local library it might be worth a quick look through, if only to read the touching, amusing and occasionally insightful case studies (clearly marked in grey throughout the book). For myself, as well as enjoying those case studies and a few of the quotes, I was able to reflect a little on the development of my own TLA over the years, I picked up a fair bit of ELT jargon (written in bold and explained succinctly throughout the book), I learnt some interesting titbits of ELT history, and I got to feel reasonably well-informed about an area of Applied Linguistics that I hadn’t known existed until I picked up this book.

Reviewed for TEFL.net by Alex Case
June 2008 | Filed under Linguistics
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

Leave a comment...




TEFL.net : TEFL Book Reviews : Linguistics : Teacher Language Awareness