Training the trainer: language teaching assistants

Author: John Klapper


Quality requirements mean universities must ensure suitable training for all language teaching staff. Courses for language assistants are most effective when divided into two parts, with a combination of initial intensive input and subsequent reflection on practical experience in the classroom. Foreign language assistants, part-time tutors and postgraduate teaching assistants have differing developmental needs which can be met through modular elements. All assistants can qualify for membership of the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education via one of two routes.

Table of contents

1. Background

Ever since criticisms were voiced in the Quality Assessment reports of the mid-1990s concerning the general lack of support for language assistants, universities have been aware of the need to address their preparation and training of assistants. A recent American volume on the topic shows this is a concern not limited to the UK (Rifkin 2001).

The duties of foreign language assistants (FLAs), part-time tutors (PTTs) and postgraduate teaching assistants (PGTAs) can vary greatly, including ab initio or post-A level work, specialist or institution-wide courses, small conversation groups or whole-group teaching. Moreover, assistants frequently have different degrees of experience. Some, such as German lectors, may be trained and experienced language teachers, and their needs are primarily to adjust to the learning mentality and level of competence of British students. Others, such as Spanish and French FLAs, are often themselves still students in their home country, have no teaching experience and need basic training. Assistants or part-time tutors employed on longer-term contracts, however, may have considerable classroom experience but no formal training and may wish to refresh ideas and explore new approaches. Finally, PGTAs may have different teaching roles from FLAs (e.g. translation or grammar classes) and may be more interested in having their training accredited.

2. Organising training

A model for training assistants is provided by the HEFCE-funded DOPLA Project (Development of Postgraduate and Language Assistants, 1997-2001) involving over 40 English universities (Adam et al 2001; Gray 2001). This promotes a two-part course: the first part is devoted to induction and intensive initial training just prior to the start of the academic year, followed by a period of classroom practice; the second, consisting of follow-up workshops emphasising reflection on classroom practice, can be delivered either as another intensive course or on a 'drip-feed' basis. Both approaches have been used successfully around the country but attendance tends to be more patchy when sessions are held across the academic year.

Bracketing FLAs, PTTs and PGTAs together allows economies of scale, but it can lead to tensions. One way for trainers to ensure the course meets the needs of all is to establish a modular programme providing a common core and separate sessions as appropriate; for example, FLAs might work on exploiting texts for conversation classes or the DOPLA reading module 'Understanding the British Education System', while PGTAs follow the module on translation. All the DOPLA modules are available both in hard copy (Gravestock et al 2000) and in a downloadable electronic format (see References).

3. Training content

A principal aim of such inevitably limited training must be to encourage active reflection on practice beyond the course (Richards & Lockhart 1996). Reflection on practice can be built into any two-part training course. But individual sessions too can promote reflective practice by involving participants in the production of materials and lesson plans and following this up with discussion and trainer feedback.

An obvious criticism of generic staff development is that it lacks relevance to teaching within specific disciplines. This can be addressed by integrating generic elements (e.g. how students learn, surface and deep approaches to learning, principles of assessment and feedback) with subject-specific work on such topics as teaching grammar, communicative oral work, using audio and video. This requires trainers to be drawn from amongst both non-language staff developers, academic linguists and, ideally, PGCE language staff.

The key to successful training is variety. Like any group of students, new teachers display differing learning styles, so it is important that different 'channels of communication' are employed. This can include tutor presentations, handouts, brainstorming, carefully structured question-and-answer sessions and discussions.

The use of workshops is particularly productive. Here trainees are involved in discussion of teaching points presented as problems for which they have to seek a solution. For example, groups might be given a text and asked to exploit it for some specific learning purpose, such as understanding the use of coherence markers; or they might be asked to think of how to teach a grammar point in their particular target language. This could involve working in either cross-language or language-specific sub-groupings, depending on the task set. The results of groups' deliberations are pooled in a plenary session via spokesperson presentations using flip chart or overhead projector, with feedback provided by the trainers. Lesson plans, strategies and techniques can then be typed up and distributed to all course participants - along with handouts provided by the trainers, which trainees can compare with their own ideas (cf. Doff 1988).

4. Accreditation of training

Part-time and temporary staff, or those with a restricted role as a teacher or learning facilitator, can apply for Associate Membership of the Higher Education Academy (HEA). They can do this in one of two ways:

1. Providing they have one year's experience of teaching, they can apply directly to the HEA via a reduced version of the Individual Entry Route for Experienced Staff (see membership information on the HEA website). [ditto] For this they must submit evidence to demonstrate they have satisfied the criteria for Associateship through professional experience, in particular evidence for the HEA's Area of Professional Activity 5 plus any two of Areas 1 to 4. (See also the article on Staff Development for Language Teaching in this guide.)

2. Alternatively, assistants can follow an 'accredited pathway' of an institutional programme, such as the one in operation at the University of Birmingham where DOPLA trainees can qualify for Associate Membership via a pathway of the Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching, the HEA-accredited programme for full-time staff. This involves compilation of a portfolio providing evidence for the Areas of Professional Activity mentioned above. Suggestions for material to support such evidence can be found at the DOPLA site (materials) or in Gravestock et al 2000: 8)


Adam, H. et al (2001). Learning from experience: initial training in six universities. In Klapper (2001), 75-92.

Doff, A. (1988). Teach English: A Training Course for Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gravestock P., C. Gray, J. Klapper & R. McCulloch (eds) (2000). DOPLA Teacher Training Materials. Birmingham: University of Birmingham (Available free of charge from the University's Centre for Modern Languages).

Gray, C. (2001). Training postgraduates and foreign language assistants: The DOPLA approach. In: Klapper (2001), 56-74.

Klapper, J. (ed.) (2001). Teaching Languages in Higher Education: Issues in Training and Continuing Professional Development. London: CILT

Richards, J. C. & C. Lockhart (1996). Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rifkin, B. (ed.) (2001). Mentoring Foreign Language Teaching Assistants, Lecturers and Adjunct Faculty. Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle.

Related links

Website of the DOPLA project

The Higher Educational Academy

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