Interviewed by Jaime Kim
Freddie Gay is an English teacher and teacher trainer currently working at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. Previously, he worked as a senior training consultant for the British Council China where he was jointly responsible for delivery and academic management of British Council EMI teacher training courses and EAP courses for university academics. EMI, ESP and EAP are all keen academic interests of his.
1. Could you briefly tell us about your personal and professional background?
I have always loved travelling and as soon as I finished undergraduate study in the UK, I qualified to become an English teacher. Since then, I’ve lived and worked in a number of countries including Thailand, Malaysia, Colombia and Peru. All of my previous teaching experience has been within the field of English language teaching. I’ve taught English in a range of different contexts including young learner courses, university foundation, EAP courses for students and university lecturers, exam preparation courses such as TOEFL and IELTS. Over the last few years, I have been mostly involved in teacher training rather than teaching.
2. What are the key differences between training English teachers and subject teachers?
English teachers are highly responsive to learner-centred and communicative pedagogical approaches. These have been a major trend in English language teaching over recent years and widely accepted as representing sound practice. Many subject teachers arrive in training with the traditional notion of a lecture strongly ingrained in their minds. They may be reluctant to try out new approaches and need convincing of their validity within EMI contexts. Hence EMI trainers need to consider how they can encourage content teachers to reflect on and see value in learner-centred and communicative pedagogy and consider how such techniques can be integrated effectively into a subject context. Subject teachers might not have the same degree of language awareness as English teachers and so work on modifying input and using concept checking techniques is of more importance, especially given that subject teachers have to regularly explain advanced concepts. Finally, developing critical thinking skills is of great importance in university settings and this therefore often takes a greater prominence on an EMI teacher training course than it would on a training course for English teachers. EMI teachers often need support for integrating the promotion of such skills into their teaching and lesson planning.
3. Your recent work largely involved EMI training in Chinese university settings. How did you become interested in this area?
When I joined the British Council China as a senior consultant trainer in 2018, I was immediately asked to become involved in EMI training, as demand for such courses had been growing for some time. I began to read into the issues surrounding EMI policy and practice and was fascinated by the challenges involved in effective EMI implementation and the number of questions into crucial issues that were unanswered owing to a lack of research.
4. What are some challenges of using EMI to teach subject knowledge in the Chinese context? How can teachers overcome these challenges?
The Chinese EMI context is complex because you have different forms of EMI being implemented and a strong tradition of transmissive-style classes. I mentioned earlier some of the challenges of promoting learner-centred methodology. In Chinese monolingual classes, this challenge might be further confounded by student attitudes as they may be reluctant to take an active role in class. Many view the teacher as an authority who should not be challenged and they may be reluctant to express ideas for fear of being incorrect even when talking to peers in a classroom discussion. Hence EMI teachers may easily revert back to teacher-talk dominated lessons because they feel their learners do not respond well to learner-centred techniques. In these lessons, there is often no formative assessment, few questions or checking of understanding, and little attempt to modify input or use concept checking techniques to cater to the linguistic needs of the learners.
In order to help subject teachers become more learner-centred in their approach, EMI trainers should have realistic expectations of how much transformation will take place after an EMI teacher training course. Many EMI trainers come from a language teaching background rather than a subject-teaching one and should bear in mind a content class at a university will inevitably retain a higher ratio of teacher talk than learner talk and they should not expect content teachers to adopt a full-on communicative language teaching approach. Start with simple modifications that are easy to make first, e.g. checking understanding and basic formative assessment techniques. A gradual transformation to a more learner-centred classroom is likely to be a gradual process and it will also involve reflection on the part of the subject teacher. EMI teachers can be encouraged to try out one new technique each class and ask themselves ‘adopt, adapt or reject?’ to guide their reflection. When implementing communicative activities such as pair and group work, language support for speaking is particularly important so teachers should consider whether there is sufficient support for learners to produce language provided when they set up an activity. They may consider allowing Chinese for planning a discussion or speaking activity in English, as the L1 can often provide support for understanding advanced concepts.
It is also becoming common for Chinese teachers to teach multi-lingual classes of international students. In this context, they may be concerned about their own English language ability, especially pronunciation and grammar. Often though, the mistakes in these areas that teachers typically make do not cause comprehension problems for the listener. Such teachers should be encouraged to adopt an international English model as one to aspire to, rather than any standard English model. This would help them to prioritise developing language areas that have the most impact on effective communication.
5. What significance do you think EMI has to the internationalisation of Chinese higher education?
The Chinese government is keen to attract international students and their numbers have been increasing year-on-year. This trend will only be sustainable if increasing numbers of teachers are trained to deliver EMI courses, as most of these international students have already spent years learning English and so wish to pursue academic study in English.
6. Do you think EMI training would also help teachers who speak English as their first language?
Broadly speaking, EMI courses focus on language or pedagogy. Language areas designed to improve teacher’s proficiency would obviously not be relevant. I feel that learning about learner-centred pedagogical techniques could be valuable. From my experience studying at post-graduate level in the UK, lecture-style classes still dominate and so such techniques could lead to increased levels of learner engagement. There are also large numbers of second language learners who study at Western universities and I feel many of the techniques that are aimed at explaining concepts clearly, checking understanding and developing critical thinking skills would be valuable for the whole class, not just non-native speakers of English.
7. What aspects of EMI do you think should be the focus for future practice? Why?
More and more research is being conducted in EMI settings and it would be great if teaching practice was informed by research as much as possible. I have personally been involved in conducting classroom research with a group of Chinese mixed English-ability EMI students and have found that providing these learners with online training in using online tools (learner dictionaries, corpora, thesauruses and collocation dictionaries) and applying strategies for learning new vocabulary led to statistically significant gains in EMI assessment outcomes. Hence training in using such tools and strategies has validity in this particular context.
I am a big fan of the concept of the flipped classroom. This approach means that learners do the lecture-style activities before the class (e.g. listen to a podcast and make notes). The class itself can then be much more practical in nature with activities like discussions, presentations, and interactive problem-solving activities taking place. I mentioned earlier the need for a gradual transition to a learner-centred classroom and so perhaps a problem with the flipped classroom is that it is too big a jump to learner-centredness for most teachers. Indeed, whilst teachers often say the flipped classroom sounds like a good idea in principle, they usually believe it is impractical. There is also little institutional support for Chinese EMI teachers to implement it. Teachers are constrained by the syllabus, the final exam, the classroom environment they teach in, etc. Buy-in has to happen at the institutional level too if EMI training programmes are to have an impact. In the future, institutional policy may well need to change to accommodate a more learner-centred pedagogy.