Quality in foreign language teaching

Written by: Tsvetelina Harakchiyska, Iskra Georgieva and Valentina Angelova

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Introduction

Quality in Foreign Language Teaching (QIFLT) is a British Council Bulgaria partnership project which was launched in October 2003. The project is conducted by a team representing a number of Bulgarian universities, language schools and regional inspectorates at the Ministry of Education and Science and aims to set up assessment criteria for classroom practice in quality foreign language teaching.

It is a follow-up of the Baseline Survey of Pre-Service English Language Teacher Education in Bulgaria 2001/2002[i], which has highlighted areas of satisfaction and dissatisfaction in the provision of English language teacher education in the country and has acted as a springboard for the development of the QIFLT project.

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The Need for the Project

The appearance of a project like QIFLT, which accounts for a dynamic improvement of the quality of foreign language teacher education in Bulgaria and which promotes high standards in education, is a result of the current educational reform in the country which has had as an objective the introduction of a new standards based curriculum and a reform in the in-service training of teachers, school directors, inspectors and local education administrators. All those initiatives have major implications in the Ministry of Education and Science foreign language curricula and methodological requirements for the teaching of foreign languages in Bulgarian schools.

In addition, further investigation in this area has indicated that there are no unified criteria for assessing teaching performance of practising school teachers of foreign languages. Experts have talked about the wide variety of observation and evaluation instruments across regions: some using the same instruments for different school subject teachers (foreign language included) and others having adapted existing forms borrowed from other educational contexts (both published and unpublished).  As a result, the reliability of the assessment is negatively affected. Hence, many teachers do not get a consistent feedback on their performance and realistic guidelines for further professional development.

Having autonomy, higher institutions in Bulgaria are free to use their own criteria for evaluating their students. Nevertheless, initial investigation (conducted between March and June 2003) has shown that there is willingness from the majority of universities and inspectorates to work towards designing and adopting a set of unified criteria for assessing teaching performance in English (and other foreign languages as well), which would provide a common yardstick for meaningful evaluation and higher standards on a national scale.

What remains to be done, however, is the design, piloting and adopting of a set of unified criteria for assessing teaching performance in English and other foreign languages. This project, therefore, addresses the need for unified criteria (in accordance with European standards) for assessment of professional performance of foreign language teacher trainees and practising teachers (both newly-graduated and experienced) within the Bulgarian education system and an examination of their classroom practice. In this way, it is intended that a contribution will be made towards the educational reform currently taking place in Bulgaria.

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Expected Results

Aiming to contribute towards sustaining the educational reform currently taking place in Bulgaria the main focus of work of the project team is the creation of an agreed set of assessment tools, specifically:

  • a set of unified assessment criteria for foreign language trainee performance in use during teaching practice – a means of describing and analysing classroom practice to be endorsed by Bulgarian universities
  • a set of unified assessment criteria for foreign language teachers in use by regional inspectorates to evaluate practising teacher performance at school level

The process of developing the sets of descriptors involves extensive piloting, which will be conducted in Bulgarian schools in 2004. This piloting exercise will include also recording of foreign language lessons in different schools around the country. Some of those lessons will supplement the project’s final document in the form of a CD.

The observation checklist grid has been designed specifically for this piloting exercise. This particular assessment format (involving both the checklist grid and detailed criteria) has been chosen for the following reasons:

  • The assessment grid is simple to use during a lesson
  • The presentation format will be familiar to some Ministry experts
  • The chosen format highlights features considered essential to every lesson, but also contains optional menus which will help to describe occasional features of lessons.
  • The list of features serves as a reference document for “basic” and “good” practice.
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Achievements

The final product at this stage of the project is a result of three main activities of the QIFLT team during the period October 2003 – May 2004:

  • Collection and analysis of all existing and relevant documentation used by Bulgarian universities and Regional Inspectorates (October 2003 – February 2004)
  • Seminar meeting (14 – 17 February 2004) of the team under the consultancy of Desmond Thomas, SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, UK during which the first draft of the assessment criteria and observation grid were created
  • Seminar meeting (25 – 26 April 2004) of the team at which the criteria were updated and reworked as a result of the first piloting phase

The draft set of tools produced so far is structured around the following categories: the Teacher, the Lesson and Classroom Management. Those categories are further broken down into subcategories (see Table 1) and include descriptors (i.e. examples of observable behaviour which would guarantee the objectivity of the observation). The set of descriptors contains both essential (i.e. a minimum requirement features that are expected to be present in a foreign language lesson) and extra features (i.e. desirable features which are also deemed to be present in foreign language lessons).

It should be noted, however, that the design and the choice of format of the standards were subject to a huge debate among team members but we unanimously agreed that the validity of the instrument would be increased if it is approved and adopted by other foreign language educationalists. Therefore, the committed team (with the strong advocacy of the British Council) worked actively towards getting other interested parties involved in the project. The first step in this direction was made during the February seminar, which was attended by the Senior German Language Expert at the Ministry of Education and Science and by the President of the Association of French Teachers in Bulgaria, who valued the designed tool and expressed readiness to distribute it among teachers of German and French.

Moreover, the outcome of the project so far, as well as the bank of recorded materials, will be presented to foreign language state experts at the Ministry of Education and Science(the Chief Expert responsible for French, Spanish and Italian, the Chief Expert for Russian and the Senior Expert for English), representatives of Goethe – Institute, the Head of the Methodology Department of Sofia University and the President of Association of French Teachers in Bulgaria during a two-day seminar (26 – 27 June 2004) at the British Council in Sofia. The event will increase the cooperation between the primary stakeholders and will provide a solid basis for their future challenging work.

This event will be followed by a conference “Quality in Foreign Language Teaching” held 5 – 6 November in Sofia, which will be organized by the project team and supported by the British Council Bulgaria, which aims to further sustain  the communication between interested institutions and stakeholders through drawing their attention to the designed set of evaluation instruments and providing an enjoyable forum for new ideas and professional  insights.

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Conclusion

The project is still in its initial stage and there remains quite a lot of work to be done, however, we strongly believe that it would be a significant step in adopting a common yardstick for meaningful evaluation of foreign language teacher trainee and practising teachers’ professional performance. Moreover, the project would act as a driving force for sustaining increased and on-going communication between interested educational institutions in Bulgaria and would create a sense of a shared perspective in completing current educational reforms.

PERSONALITY | THE TEACHER:
Qualities and abilities Essential features Extra features

  • shows sensitivity to individual learning problems
  • is able to establish and maintain positive rapport with students
  • has a pleasant and lively classroom manner (e.g. smiling, friendly, calm, patient, confident, supportive)
·         demonstrates support for positive self-image in all students (e.g. shows belief in their capacity to learn and uses all opportunities to boost students’ confidence)

Table 1- Selection from the draft set of descriptors

For more information of the project:


[i] See published report: Thomas D., Dimitrova S., Geshev G. & Tashevska S. (eds.), A Baseline Survey of Pre-Service English Language Teacher Education in Bulgaria, 2001-2002, British Council Bulgaria, 2002 or visit: www.britishcouncil.org/bulgaria for an electronic copy of the report

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