ETp 1 – a rationale for coaching over teaching

Why are we so wrapped up in teaching? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with learning?

 Imagine two one-to-one teaching scenarios:

1 Good teacher – bad student

2 Bad teacher – good student

 Which student will learn most, do you think?

 If you believe that the second is likely to produce better learning outcomes, then it may seem strange that most of the focus in methodology books, magazines such as this one and talks given at conferences is on teaching techniques and classroom activities, not learning techniques and self-study activities. How often do you see articles, books and talks on helping your students become better learners?

You may say that of course teachers are concerned with learning, that’s what teaching is all about, it’s only natural that they should phrase it from their own point of view. After all, we live in ‘student-centred’ times where best practice is all about catering to individuals’ learning styles, where we make sure that students enjoy their learning experience through songs and games and student-centred activities. All well and good. But this is still a teaching-centred approach which sees the lesson as the focus, some two hours a week of a learning process which has the potential to expand into many more hours of independent study. Time with your teacher is important, certainly, but it isn’t the only learning moment in the week. It’s a highlight, but not necessarily the only one.

So if we are to help our students achieve their potential, there needs to be a shift in emphasis in our lessons towards ensuring they learn effectively on their own. Here are the differences, at their starkest, between teaching approach and a coaching approach.

A teaching focus

A coaching focus

The teacher’s role is to teach English.

The teacher’s role is to help the learners to learn for themselves.

The teacher’s role is to motivate classroom learning.

The teacher’s role is to motivate independent learning outside the classroom

The experience in the classroom is memorable.

The learning process outside school is memorable.

Homework is an expected addition to classroom learning.

Homework, or rather self-study, becomes the core of the learning process.

Learning styles are catered for.

Learning styles are explored and developed.

Responsibility for learning lies with the teacher.

Responsibility for learning lies with the learner.

Learners are dependent on the teacher to teach them.

Learners are independent from their teacher and can learn for themselves.

The objective in the lesson is to learn English.

The objective in the lesson is to prepare the learner for independent learning.

 In the next article we will look at ways to shift our teaching from left to right, from a teaching to a coaching focus.

25 Responses to ETp 1 – a rationale for coaching over teaching

  1. Joe Greenwood says:


    Really enjoyed this blog post. I teach children and teenagers in Korea. There is a huge pressure to learn English in here. Korea spends far more per capita on English education than any other country in the world! Yet the level of English is fairly low considering. My theory for this is that the pressure manifests itself in a negative way. The Learners feel so much pressure to learn English that they do not want to study it in their free time. What I do to combat this is to make my lessons quite relaxed, and quite fun, with a focus on introducing new material, which I then encourage them to follow up I their own time. I then check their progress in the next lesson. In this way I intend to foster an environment where they are interested in finding out more about the subject matter and vocabulary I introduced that day. I also set homework which involves using English media at home, such as the television and the Internet. By doing this, I hope to expose them to English outside the classroom as well, and hopefully increase their interest in it!

    Looking forward to working with you on the Dip!


    • Hi Joe,
      I knew Koreans prioritise education as you say, and that the pressure they feel cannot benefit their English in the long run. It’s not nearly so exaggerated here in Spain, but still quite awful how little thought is given to motivation, affect and long-term affection for the language. It’s amazing how badly so many countries teach languages.
      Still, gives us plenty to be doing, doesn’t it? ;o)
      Looking forward to more chat like this on the forum next week!

  2. Rodica Aliman says:

    I completely agree with the article and I would like to comment on the idea that coaching depends on the cultural context. In the country where I currently teach (Iran) learners, mainly children, teenagers and young adults, need to learn English outside the classroom, although they are not aware of it. The main reason is censorship and the young generation’s desire to move away from traditions. For example, if a student has a project or another kind of school or academic assignment, they might not find reliable information in their own language. Many novels are not available in translation -many readers would not trust them even if they were- or are forbidden, but not in English; they can be found in public bookshops. Moreover, the above-mentioned age categories tend to watch western movies which they usually download from the Internet and which are not subtitled. I think the teacher’s role in this case is to help learners to develop their preferred strategies and discover new ones. In order to achieve this, the teacher has to constantly monitor the learners’ progress in terms of proficiency, the strategies they use, their changing needs and changing interests.

    • Hi Rodica,

      Thanks for introducing this obviously very powerful motivation for Iranians taking learning into their own hands! Tell me one thing: could it ever be deemed inappropriate or even risky for a teacher to encourage his or her students to look to westernised media in order to enrich their English language lives, or are learners already accessing this material so much that there really is no problem?
      Look forward to discussing this more with you on the course!

  3. Hi There

    I have just happened across your blog, interesting reading. The role of the teacher as learning facilitator/adviser/coach is something which I agree with wholeheartedly. Work by Phil Benson, Marina Mozzon-McPherson, David Gardner, Barbara Sinclair, Susan Sherin, Edith Esch and of course the father of the autonomy in language learning movement Henri Holec changed the way I perceived language learning and my understanding of my role in the learning process dramatically.

    The inclusion of the concept of learner autonomy in mainstream teacher training is, of course, very important, but I feel even today, the term is little understood by most and abused, in much the same way as the term ‘coaching’ is. Cursory reference to the term and the ideas of ‘best practice’ seems to me to be all that teachers are offered. IN my humble opinion, actual training in learning, learning techniques and learning strategies is something which should be core to teacher training courses.

    I am curious, in this post not once was the term ‘learner autonomy’ mentioned, why is that? Providing learners with the psychological support and resources to help them develop as individual learners is central to the idea of learner autonomy and seems to be central to this piece.

    Thanks for the blog,


    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, the ‘A’ word. Whenever Duncan or I attend workshops on learner autonomy we are almost always faced with ever more theory and very little in the way of practical techniques. The word autonomy seems to us an academic term with little that strikes us as particularly relevant to most students or indeed teachers. Please don’t get me wrong – I know it is relevant, but it isn’t perceived as such because it is not accompanied with hands-on activities, tips and suggestions, or lesson ideas. If you want to see a few of those, then I suggest you buy the book -a snip at just a few euros ;o)
      Second, we hear proponents of autonomy talking about how to increase learners’ autonomy, as if autonomy was something that some learners have and some don’t, and which teachers have the power to raise, like they might motivation in the classroom. Rather, we believe that autonomy is something we all possess and can use at will. Perhaps we are prevented from doing so by previous experience, our parents’ wishes, or whatever, but autonomy is in us all. Some of my students have demonstrated their autonomy in ways that I wish they hadn’t, by skipping class, for instance, or dropping out because they don’t like English! A student might decide (autonomously) that she just wants to attend lessons and nothing more, and that she wants her teacher to teach her English- that’s what she’s spending her money on. While I don’t think that’s likely to be a very effective way to learn a language, I have to respect her autonomous decision to do it this way. Meanwhile, millions of learners worldwide are quietly getting on and improving their English on their own, unaware that what they are doing is autonomous in any way.
      So that’s why we avoid talking about ‘autonomy’. Coaching is for us an appropriate paradigm as it minimises the theoretical side of autonomy, and emphasises the role of practice.

  4. Philippa says:

    I like and agree with much of what is said here, however, what would you say to a teacher working the context that I am in- a remote developing country, where the parents’ first language is not the national language (so English is the 3rd or 4th language for the child), there is little or no access to television, the internet, reading books, study books or dictionaries for the learner? Understandably when I talk about this topic with the teachers I’m working with, their response that there is no outside support for the young learners, so the responsibility falls back to them.

    • That’s a very good point, Philippa, and a question with no easy answers, as I’m sure you, more than most, would agree! Yes, as with so much methodology these days, there is an assumption that teachers and learners can just tap in to the internet and other resources, something that we see almost as a right in this modern world, but something that many people around the world have no chance of accessing. When I was working in Mexico we faced a similar problem. I was working with adults, and the few newspapers and novels that we could get our hands on were treated like gold dust, and were passed from student to student with care. They were all we had.
      I’d be really interested to know what resources you do have for the children. Do let us know of any ideas you have for encouraging your learners to learn more outside the classroom… a tall order, I’m sure!

  5. Raquel Gomez says:

    Food for thought: “A teacher (…) is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary” Thomas Carruthers.

    • Hi Raquel,

      Thanks so much for introducing me to Carruthers, whose work seems to foreshadow the coaching movement by more than half a century! The first paragraph of this blog post sums up some of his work and could easily describe our goal for English teaching.
      Keep contributing, Rachel :o)


  6. Hi Louise,
    Two points you make reverberate with me. Firstly, the focuses of coaching may be different depending on where your students are. Yes, that’s definitely a factor to take into account; whereas the thrust of learner coaching in the learner’s own culture may concern motivational factors, in an English-speaking environment, we can perhaps assume that motivation to learn is more of a given and so coaching can focus on the exploitation of their situation, as you eloquently put it!
    Second, I like your analogy of handing learners ‘tools’ that will allow them to continue more independently.
    Many thanks for your input! We hope to hear from you again soon!

  7. Louise says:

    I think when learners are living in an English speaking country and are completely surrounded and exposed to the language, the teacher as a coach is vital for the learners so that they know how to exploit and make the most of their situation. Some learners can be a little overwhelmed when they arrive and they’re not sure where to start.
    Likewise, when learners are not in an English speaking country, they need to be guided and coached as to how to use the facilities that are available to them.
    It also means that wherever they are and whether they’re going to a class or not, they have the tools and the know-how to be able to continue their journey with English for as long as they want.

  8. tefltalk says:

    I agree with your article! I think it would be refreshing to guide our students to becoming more independent in their learning. Study skills are often non-existent with students and many schools still don’t integrate ‘teaching study skills’ into their curriculum. I find some of my students even have the attitude now I’ve paid for the course, let the teacher ‘serve’ me the lesson. There is still little awareness that the main learning experience will take place at home i.e. outside of class. I think a student can only make progress in their learning once they have acquired study skills and they start taking charge of their learning.

    I’m looking forward to reading more about this topic on your blog! Billie

    • Thanks for your response Billie,
      Perhaps we could extend your restaurant metaphor, with the teacher as waiter ‘serving’ the dishes. In a restaurant, the customers at least get to choose from the menu. Most schools and teachers as well as learners seem to favour the fixed menu approach! By the way, I’m sure we’ve all got study skills, or learning strategies, even if we’ve never been taught them formally. Looking forward to hearing more from you soon!

      • Billie's Blog - tefltalk says:

        The only thing that I would add now, reading this again, is that teachers act as motivators. I’d like to use the analogy of a personal trainer in a gym. He can greatly help you and motivate you to keep going. If you were simply training by yourself, you might be tempted to give up or shorten the time you exercise, but WITH him you will keep going and push forward to achieve your goal. Of course, you would still have to do the exercises on your own. In a sense that is true for learners I think. Self-study often means learning without having the teacher to motivate you … you have to find the motivation inside yourself and I think you have to be incredible dedicated and self-disciplined to keep that up by yourself. So maybe we should look at coaching learners to motivate each other (like in a gym class)?

      • Hi Billie,

        Yes, we keep coming back to this analogy with sports – it’s so relevant! I love the idea of learners motivating each other – does that go on in gym class? (Not a gym goer, me.) Peer motivation could perhaps work along the ‘buddy system’ lines (scuba divers will be aware of this), where learners pair up and monitor each other.
        Thanks for your comments, Billie :o)


  9. AndyW says:

    I’m really interested in this topic at the moment as I’ve recognised that I need to help my learners with becoming better learners. I’ve also become aware that this is an ongoing process where the teacher coaches the learner through the steps towards becoming a more independant learner.

    I think learners have traditionally over-relied on the teacher for support and expectations are often high, consequently a more balanced role could have much more realistic outcomes where both work together towards their goals.

    These articles and activities are my first steps towards becoming a coach, thanks.

    • Hi Andy,
      Glad you like the blog, and thank you for contributing :o)
      I really like your phrase: “a more balanced role”. It reminded me of the GROW model in Duncan’s latest post. It’s tempting to think in ‘either-or’ terms, where the reality (the R of GROW) is total dependence on a teacher, the goal (‘G’) total independence. But of course, no man is an island, we need the help and support of others and we teachers will always have a crucial role, just as athletes will always need their coaches.
      It sounds as though you plan to follow down this path a while longer. We’d be really interested to see how you get on. Do let us know!

  10. Hi Leahn
    I think people can do with a bit of help when defining their goals and expectations and make an informed decision about how much time they really want to dedicate to practising English. Once they have set realistic objectives its up to us to help them achieve them. As you say, students and parents are not always very clear about what impact classroom practise with a teacher will have. They tend to overestimate this and understimate the value of say watching TV for 20 minutes in English, as Dan says.

  11. Leahn says:

    Hi Duncan,
    I agree with what you say. For learning to really take place, we need to help motivate learners to study outside of the classroom. Classroom time is so limited that for any real improvement to be noticed, students have to work outside of class . There are many problems here though, as students are under the false impression that going to class for two hours a week wil be enough.
    How do we encourgae adult learners with busy lived to take more time out of their shedules to study English? I couldn’t agree more with your comment that “Responsibilty for learning lies with the student”. We have to change teachers and students so they understand this and parents too! .

    • Hi Leahn,
      I like your mention of parents here. Kids are learning English from as young as three, and parents have it within their power to turn their kids into English users who make use of the world around them, especially TV, to learn it in a natural way. By the way, Leahn, do you have any suggestions for the questions posed in this week’s post?

  12. duncan says:

    one factor influencing people to learn more independently may be financial. learners who typically invest in 3 hours per week with a teacher may feel they can achieve as much with 2 hours teacher guidance and more independent work, especially, as Monica says, now that there are more resources available than ever for doing this.

  13. I’m glad you like the theme of the blog, Monica. I’m interested in what you said: “They are constantly forced to learn independently whether they are aware of it or not”. I’m wondering what you mean.
    Looking forward to hearingmore from you in the coming posts!

  14. Monica Leon says:

    Couldn´t agree more – I believe that times and teaching have changed, just the mere fact of greater accesibility to information and materials ( of all sorts) makes the swift of learning outside the class a need for students. They are constantly forced to learn independently whether they are aware of it or not. What we should do during class time is to develop the right strategies to ease learning on their own.


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