Pre-service teacher education in Bulgaria – critical evaluation

Written by: Diana Yankova, Irena Vassileva

Aim.
The aim of the present study is to establish the correlation between the objective social needs for EL specialists, the students’ subjective motivation for taking up English language studies and their career expectations on the one hand, and the actual type of education in terms of knowledge and skills they are equipped with after graduating from the Bulgarian universities on the other, since, as is duly pointed out by Foldes (1994:3) “The market demand does not correlate automatically to the established social and individual needs as they may also be influenced, for example, by requirements of the educational system (administrative requirements, certificate recognition, etc.) or by tradition and prestige.”

The study is based on evaluation of: questionnaires to students and university lecturers, the existing curricula, job offers in terms of skills requirements, the need for teachers versus other career opportunities.

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Critical analysis of ELT in Bulgaria.

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High Schools.

The current ELT policy in Bulgaria has a long way to go. At present the bulk of practising teachers are either state-university graduates who have not been expressly trained for the job or people not qualified at all. At the same time, there is a marked shortage of EL specialists. It seems that Bulgarian educational authorities have no clear-cut FLT policy since there is no single compulsory FL in secondary and high school; students have to choose among available courses, contrary to tendencies in most European countries. The Ministry of Education has tried to prevent the influx of unqualified teachers into Bulgarian high schools by forbidding school authorities to appoint them. The students of English, on the other hand, are not fascinated by the idea of becoming secondary school teachers due to the low social prestige and payment of the job. The ensuing outcome is a further decline in the level of high school graduates as far as their knowledge of English is concerned, thus closing the vicious circle.

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Pre-service teacher training.

The 50-year long tradition in English language and literature studies at university level has undoubtedly its strong points. Bulgarian universities have produced highly qualified English language specialists well-versed in linguistic theory and literary studies who have achieved considerable standards and international recognition of their academic research. All this, however, has been at the expense of more practically oriented teacher training programmes. Present curricula, adopted with practically no substantial variation by all state university English departments in the country, aim at providing students with comprehensive knowledge of the English language as a system and British and American literature in the course of 8 semesters (BA degree), followed by 2 semesters of specialized MA courses.

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The BA course.

In contrast to current practice in other countries (e.g. Germany), graduate studies at Bulgarian Universities are English-language medium based with the aim of further developing students’ linguistic competence, which has proved to be both time-consuming and costly. This traditional practice is still adhered to in spite of the high general English admission level of the students (approximately Cambridge advanced).

The basic compulsory courses are covered during the first 6 semesters and the specialized courses (electives) appear as late as the 4th year. Compulsory courses may roughly be divided into the following categories with the respective percentage of overall teaching classes: General English (seminars on the lexical, grammatical and phonetic level of the language plus translation) – 47%; Linguistics (lectures and seminars) – 30%; Literature (British and American) – 20%; Culture studies – 3%.

The data presented above demonstrates clearly that the focus falls heavily on acquisition of linguistic competence, whereas recent ELT trends point to the precedence of pragmatic competence, thus courses such as “Shakespeare on Stage and Screen” have marked an economical attendance, to say the least.

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The MA course

is based on the same assumption, at least as far as two of the electives are concerned: the ‘British studies’ programme includes predominantly British literature, the ‘American studies’ programme – American literature respectively, which is in total contradiction to the established fact that cross-cultural competence is an integral part of communicative competence.

Other MA courses include applied linguistics, and translation theory and practice. The applied linguistics course is highly theoretically oriented and far-fetched from any practical applications and no teacher-training course is offered at all.

Teacher-training qualification is compulsory for all university students of English as part of the BA degree and consists of general introductory courses in psychology, pedagogy, methods of ELT and observation of classroom lessons plus 5 weeks of teaching practice. The actual training students are subjected to reminds one of the English language education in Germany criticised by Edelhoff (1995:38) in the following way: “……very few (students) were educated to be intercultural learners and communicative classroom teachers”. And how could they be, having in mind the multitude and diversity of subjects they are made to study? Literature, linguistics and teacher training merged into one major turns graduates into Jacks-of-all-trade and least of all into FL teachers.

Attempts at ‘breaking the rules’ in terms of earlier specialization and orientation of students towards the teaching profession have recently been made by some private universities in Bulgaria. Their programmes pay particular attention to the specificities of ELT to various age groups, to learners with diverse needs (EGP, ESP) in different types of courses (intensive, extensive, etc.), which makes the students better equipped for teaching at all levels of the educational system up to university level. These universities seem to be on the right track in showing greater flexibility and adequate consideration of modern tendencies in teacher training by focusing on up-to-date interactive, co-operative, communicative and interdisciplinary approaches to foreign language teaching. Unfortunately, they are a drop in the ocean and besides, encounter a number of serious problems due to the limited number of students who enroll (as tuition is rather expensive) and the lower admission level of English.

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Solutions and recommendations.

Obviously, there is a dire need for refocusing and reconceptualization of the whole basis on which ELT in Bulgaria functions. All the current socio-political, economic and technological changes have initiated new types of external and internal needs and motivation in the language learner. English-language specialists and educational authorities should reconsider the way English is taught. Language learning should get away from the static but still powerful, especially in Bulgaria, Latin or Greek model. A total discrepancy exists between students’ expectations and social demand for teachers on the one hand, and the qualifications of university graduates on the other. Questionnaires show that graduate students are not satisfied with the teacher qualification they obtain, neither are they fascinated by the idea of becoming high school teachers as the job has an unduly low social standing. University lecturers, on the other hand, do not seem particularly inclined to get away from the classical model of traditional philological instruction. Perhaps most of them simply feel comfortable enough in their old shoes?

At the same time, the conducted survey of job offers in Bulgarian media shows an ever increasing demand at present for EL teachers at all levels in both private and state institutions. High schools suffer an incredible shortage of ELT staff and are forced to offer other foreign languages, thus not being able to meet their students’ needs. Those needs, on their part, arise from the fact that it is practically impossible to get any decent job in Bulgaria without a good knowledge of English.

One way to remedy this situation seems to us to start with changes in syllabus design. From the onset of their university education students should be offered the possibility to choose between a more practically oriented teacher training course or predominantly theoretical linguistic/literary studies. This division of labor would benefit teacher training programmes immensely by providing time in the already tight students’ schedule for important courses such as ESP, materials design, culture studies, teaching English to various age groups, etc.

Besides being a comparatively new theoretical discipline, English for specific purposes finds more and more practical applications with the constant setting up of new specialized high schools and the springing up of new majors at Bulgarian universities such as public administration, management, business studies, etc. As our questionnaires show, there is a marked tendency for instrumental rather than integrative motivation with most Bulgarian learners of English. The needs of the different types of learners determine the content to be learnt, the skills to be acquired, the criteria for learners’ performance. Therefore, future teachers should be instructed how to teach English to lawyers, economists, engineers, etc. – something heretofore overlooked in the curriculum.

This leads to another very important aspect of teaching – that of materials design. With the exception of a few specialized EL schools in Bulgaria, other institutions make use of textbooks and materials produced mainly in Britain which, of course, cannot take into consideration students’ L1 and the possible points of collision between native and foreign language, i.e. those elements of L2 which are especially difficult for a speaker of Bulgarian to acquire. There is a number of English-Bulgarian contrastive studies that could be resorted to in designing textbooks with the aim of eliminating of L1-L2 negative transfer. We do not in any way wish to undermine the use of British and American textbooks, but rather endeavor to suggest that they should be complemented with teaching materials based on the established cultural and linguistic differences and similarities of the respective communities. Few educationalists, however, set about producing such materials perhaps because they find it time-consuming, low paid and not worth the trouble; and above all, because they have not been taught how to do it. Teachers are not equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills for materials development and on entering the teaching profession they tend to stick to the good old textbook approved by the Ministry of Education.

But as any good teacher is well aware, one way to keep learners interested, is going beyond the old chalk-and-talk method by providing more communicative, challenging, suited to learners’ needs activities. Instructing future teachers how to design their own materials and be creative would make the learning process more meaningful, more variegated, more made-to-measure. The choice of materials is not an end in itself, they should be made to work in the classroom and should be effective as representation of language as well as effective instruments of language learning. Teachers should be taught (!) that they themselves shoulder part of the responsibility of what is to be learnt, how it is to be learnt and how to take into account the particular target and learning situations. But first and foremost, language learning should be fun!

Yet another very important concept in FLT is cross-cultural learning. The crux of communication is the capacity of people from different cultural backgrounds to interact. Communicative competence encompasses not only linguistic competence but also cultural awareness without which language cannot be used appropriately in different social contexts. Teachers-to-be should be encouraged to take the role of intercultural interpreters by providing them with the knowledge and skills to digest and relay the socio-cultural environment of L2 community. They should have the capacity to deal with printed and electronic authentic materials which is the link of intercultural experience and facilitates the learning process.

Taking into account all the above considerations and incorporating them into pre-service teacher training programmes would raise the awareness of future teachers of learners’ needs in terms of age and professional interests, of teaching objectives and environment. It would make them more sensitive to ways of facilitating the transition from learning to acquiring a FL, and better equipped to show flexibility and creativity both in the immediate teaching context and in defining long-term goals. We are more than convinced that these measures will mark the right path towards raising the prestige of the teaching profession, which has for so long been looked down upon by society as a whole and neglected by state authorities in terms of funding.

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Final remarks.

The general idea of the present study has been, in a nutshell, to locate, clarify and offer at least partial solutions to the current state of ELT and teacher-training courses in Bulgaria. We strongly believe that what is most needed is a substantial refocusing of curricula towards the inclusion of critical and social theory and the adoption of an interdisciplinary approach, without which ELT in this country would continue to lag behind global modern trends. And even more importantly, we do not consider this to be a problem only in Bulgaria, but also in many other countries all over the world. We sincerely hope that reading this article many educators might stop and think twice about the way English is taught.

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REFERENCES:

Edelhoff, C. 1995: English Language Learning in Europe: Issues, Tasks and Problems. in Best of ELTECS, British Council.
Foldes, C. 1994: Deutsch als Fremdsprache in Mittel-, Ost- und Sudosteuropa. Uberlegungen zu Bestand und Bedarf. in: Deutsch als Fremdsprache 1, 3:12.

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