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What price proficiency?

Teachers’ self-worth may be undermined by over-valuing language proficiency at the expense of teaching efficacy, according to a story on teacher identity in Chile. Malba Barahona and Ximena Ibaceta-Quijanes, both associate professors at universities in Chile, collected answers to an online questionnaire from 716 Chilean teachers of English at schools, private institutions and universities. Questions focused on teachers’ motivation, feelings about their own standard of teaching, and how satisfied and valued they felt.

The demand for English teachers in Chile has remained high since the 1990s, when English became compulsory in primary and secondary schools, and ELT has become an attractive option for many graduates. In an effort to regulate the profession, Chile adopted the Common European Frame of Reference for Languages (CEFR), requiring, in principle, teachers to achieve a level C1 in order to register as an English teacher.

Many of the study’s findings are common to the teaching profession generally. Respondents were on the whole highly motivated and driven by a love of their subject, and a desire to help students. Job stability was also a factor. Relatively poor professional salaries and recognition, large class sizes and long hours were the main areas of dissatisfaction.

More specific to ELT were teachers’ own perceptions of their legitimacy as teachers and their value to others. This was judged as primarily dependent on their language proficiency.

As the authors discuss, however, several studies have shown that the relationship between language proficiency and teaching efficacy is not straightforward. This makes

sense when applied to other subject teaching. A good maths teacher, for example, requires a specified degree of maths proficiency, but nobody thinks you need to be a maths genius to teach. The assumed relationship between extremely high subject proficiency and teaching efficacy seems to be particular to ELT.

CEFR level tends to be taken as a simple proxy for teacher efficacy, leading to a vicious cycle of non-native English language teachers feeling inferior to native speakers, which then affects their feeling of competency and consequently decreases their actual teaching efficacy. If a solid proficiency threshold is in place, such as the CEFR C1, it may be counterproductive to continually compare such qualifying teachers’ English to that of native speakers, rather than valuing their teaching expertise. After all, the average IELTS score for native speaker candidates in 2019 was just 7.5, well below C2.


Barahona, M. and Ibaceta- Quijanes, X. (2020) ‘Neither Fish nor Fowl: the Contested Identity of Teachers of English in an EFL Context’, RELC Journal, 51(3), pp. 347–363. doi: 10.1177/0033688219847315.

Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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