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EL Latin America 2016: Chile confronts challenges

Paula Rebolledo

Andrea Pérez talks to Paula Rebolledo, the English Opens Doors Programme’s national coordinator of teacher education for Chile

The issues which affect English language learners in Chile are unfortunately numerous. First is the limited exposure to the English language. The curriculum allows only enough time to achieve the B1 level expected, and the reality is that this time is reduced. Second, the traditional methods of teaching. The grammar-translation method still seems to govern ELT in Chile even though there is awareness that there are other ways to teach a language. Third is the gap between initial teacher education and schools. Tefl preparation programmes do not seem to fully prepare teachers for work in school settings, where most of them will be working after graduation. Universities and schools rarely work together, which causes this gap to broaden.

Fourth, EFL research is also limited. Teachers and teacher educators are usually governed by what is researched in very different contexts so I am afraid we still haven’t fully studied the different factors which affect language learning and how it should be better promoted in Chile.

Finally, there is a lack of awareness of the usefulness of speaking a foreign language in part of the population. Some still view speaking English as a way to communicate if you travel abroad and not for other communication purposes.

In 2003 the ministry of education launched the Programa Inglés Abre Puertas (EODP). How does this work?

The programme works on three lines of action: learners, schools and teachers. For learners, the programme organises immersion in summer and winter camps for secondary students. We also provide online English courses for those interested. We advise schools on the development of complementary learning activities, which include debates, public-speaking activities and spelling bee contests.

Schools also receive guidance on how to plan and carry out activities to promote the learning of English at school. The programme allocates schools English-speaking volunteers to motivate students to learn English and have intercultural experiences.

The initiatives for the professional development of teachers include the provision of face-to-face and online courses, which can have a linguistic or a methodological focus. We have started to add school-based mentoring sessions to these courses to assist teachers to enact in the classroom what they have learned in the course. Shorter workshops are organised for winter and summer.

The programme also manages English teacher networks across the country. We allocate them resources for the development of their own activities and materials for their self-development, and we have a mentoring scheme in place with the collaboration of the British Council to promote teacher research through exploratory action research projects.

There aren’t any minimum qualifications to teach in the state sector. There are standards which indicate that teachers need to have a B2 level but we are still in the process of raising the level of some teachers. Standards for initial teacher education programmes indicate that students are graduating with a C1 level, so we think teachers’ English language levels may increase in the next few years.

The British Council has mentioned that there is a shortage of qualified English teachers in Chile. Would you agree?

I think this was the case ten years ago. Now there are forty Tefl preparation programmes in the country and this shortage has decreased. We do have a shortage of teachers to teach primary students, since there are only six programmes with this kind of preparation. Usually secondary teachers get hired to teach at primary levels without the necessary training to do so. New programmes are being planned to cater for this need.

Alternatively, the programme has offered a diploma course to primary teachers who are currently teaching English at school so they can improve their English language level and learn about EFL methodology.

The British Council Chile’s Report 2015 found that ‘the largest barriers to learning English are cost and a lack of access to government-funded programmes’. Is this true?

I think in this respect the report is not fully accurate. The report may be referring to government-funded programmes for professionals. At school level, the barriers are related to the issues I have discussed previously. I would say that these issues could certainly be associated with lack of funding.

All of the initiatives developed by the EODP are available for the state sector due to the new educational reforms which seek to return the expenditure on state schools. These schools receive almost exclusively the benefits provided by the EODP, so the issue is not lack of access to government programmes but other issues more related to language exposure, school leadership and ELT.

Chile’s media has expressed fears that over-emphasising English may help extinguish indigenous languages. How far has this issue been a problem in implementing the EODP policies?

There is always concern in the population that promoting other languages can endanger local ones. However, I don’t think the concern is against English over indigenous languages but about the lack of emphasis given to the latter in the past. There are now programmes at the ministry of education which promote the learning of indigenous languages. We think more could and should be done in this matter.

We should acknowledge that promoting English can be seen as linguistic imperialism with hidden political and economic agendas. But as I said before, the main difficulty we have come across and expressed by parents and learners is that they find it sometimes difficult to see the real value of learning English.

Forthcoming EODP training seminars are listed at www.piap.cl/fid/seminarios