Language Coaching: The Missing Link in Present-Day English Teaching?

in Professional Development

Language coaching is a relatively new arrival to the wide spectrum of language-related fields. As coaching flexes its muscles in the lifestyle, health, career, business and executive arenas, it’s only logical for the methodology and framework to spread into (English) teaching and education. Gabriella Kovács explains what that implies and why traditional language teaching could indeed do with a spring makeover.

Dethroning language teaching assumptions

As more adults than ever are learning languages, assumptions such as these are being challenged:

  • “Native speakers are better teachers and should be preferred when taking on new staff.”
  • “Language learners must pass CEFR levels or exams to prove their communication skills.”
  • “Workplace language programs should concentrate solely on business English, ESP and corporate skills development.”

In practice, we know these ideas partially help reach expected outcomes, but relying on them is a design for disaster. There have been many signs that “what got you here, won’t get you there” (Marshall Goldsmith).

Are your teaching methods letting you down?

Perhaps you’ve come up against a situation in which a learner enters saying:

“I need more vocabulary and grammar, then I will be a better English language communicator.”

After an initial assessment focusing primarily on these two areas, you choose course books, decide what to photocopy, indicate which websites to favour, etc.

In this scenario you have a plan and build your syllabus with this learner (or class) around your ideas. This is how we have been trained to teach. Only after a couple of hours interest drops, home assignments are not done, even the odd “I couldn’t make it to the lesson, sorry” seeps in. Irritation, boredom, a mixed sense of, “Well, you’re the teacher, you should know what to do…” is more and more apparent.

You push harder, you try to make the lessons funny, bring in business bingo, cards, videos, the lot.  The spark has gone out. You feel defeated, your learners are far from ecstatic, and the lessons roll on, kind of petering out over the course of the programme. What is happening?

What’s often missing in traditional ELT

A number of things are wrong in this scenario. I would like to ask you, dear reader, to take a minute, take a pen and paper and try hard at identifying at least five things holding back the teacher and learner here.

Have you taken your notes? Let’s take a look them, and compare with my selection. They are:

  • little involvement in what skills need developing, leading to low engagement and motivation
  • too much focus on input
  • little relevance for learners in terms of course content
  • too much push and little pull, i.e. control is fully in teacher’s hands
  • learners have little commitment to taking responsibility for own learning
  • little focus on true communication
  • no form of partnership or equality in the situation between parties
  • nobody asked what the learner’s internal motivation or goals were, thus without being identified, none were being addressed (sorry: “I want to reach B2 level” is an external goal, not something a learner can truly develop towards)

There are a few minor ones, but these are the key notions. Of course the scenario above may be extreme (albeit not rare), as is the reaction of the teacher; but I suppose you get the point I am trying to make.

We, as language professionals, want to make our lessons work so hard that we forget one of the most basic of things to keep in mind: we are dealing with adults. What does this imply?

Young learners vs. adults

Adults can think for themselves if given the chance, if asked the right questions; they do not need as much instruction, but rather support, gentle guidance and scaffolding. Discovery and exploration to uncover new language terrain is such an exciting prospect – a challenge they must live up to and take on for themselves; not for the teacher’s sake, not for the company’s sake, nor the sake of an exam.

We must realise that the skillsets and toolkits we possess are no longer supporting our learners the way they did 10-20 years ago. Hard truth, but we need the wake-up call – now, amid the crisis we are experiencing. Control is to become self-control, as responsibility and trust is to be shared, shedding a new light on the whole language teaching/learning process.

Language coaching: a change in direction

But what is language coaching? Not therapy, not consulting, not advice. How does it work? It believes the client (in our case the learner) can come up with their own solutions based on their experience, using their strengths and looking into the future. It is a process based on trust, responsibility and independence. Asking questions and not saying what to do.

The role of a language coach is to support and empower the learner on their self-led learning journey. LC focuses on the learners’ communication outcomes and learning processes in their professional and personal environments, instead of working with pre-defined lesson objectives. 

The objective of every coaching process is to assist the learner in self-reflection and in defining and using the tools they need to progress in their target language. (Source: ILCA* website)

Language coaching addresses a number of the ideas from above. The trend moving towards a rise in one-to-one classes means coaching can infiltrate lessons much more. Thanks to that, you can work on a personalized learning plan, strategies and goals with your learners.

Your learner struggling to present on a call or write a clearly structured email will believe they can do it because you do. Performance often has less to do with “more vocabulary, more grammar” than confidence and communication strategies. Coaching will align goals and processes to fit learner needs. Are you doing that?

Language coaching compared to teaching and training

Teaching/Training Coaching
Goals Focus is on moving upward on CEFR-like scales and developing specific language areas (e.g. vocab building, accent reduction). Supports learners in understanding where they are on their language learning journey; helps learners discover new ideas of how to reach their goals; goals are internally framed by the learner.
Rapport Language professional tells, suggests and gives advice when learners are uncertain/do not understand. Starts from the belief that learners know; coach asks questions that support reflection and help learners come to their own solution. (Yes, this is a skill to be learned.)
Process awareness Language professional explains how the language learning process works and directs it. A strong focus on metacognitive dialogue increases awareness, reflection and inquiry regarding personal experience of the language learning process (conversations often left out of lessons for want of time.)
Content Massive emphasis on external input for language development. Input is primarily learner-led, allowing ample opportunity for learner self-expression. All information is “co-created,” meaning contributions are from parties. (More often than not, coaching starts with an empty piece of paper and a pen.)


Long-term effects of the current crisis on education

How can the current change to remote learning and its long-term impact actually affect education with learners accustomed to low responsibility due to strong control from teachers and institutions?

What is important is that learners understand they need to take more responsibility and control of their learning and decisions related.

Education will no longer be about what it can do for learners, but what learners can do for themselves through education. Gabriella Kovács

Be a coach – support them in unlocking their true language learning potential, in navigating their language learning path, and you will see the motivation and achievement soar. Confidence when using the target language is the one thing all learners wish to work on. Language coaching provides the time and space to find the qualities and strategies to work on this.

Improve learning through asking the right questions

Ask your learners questions that help discovery and self reflection:

  • What will you do differently next time?
  • Is there one thing you could do differently starting tomorrow?
  • What can you do more of that has worked for you in the past?

These are the empowering, strengths-focused questions that can support without instructing thereby opening up a new language learner approach.

Ask yourself:

  • Are you collaborating through strengths and resources?
  • Are you encouraging solutions-oriented dialogues or problem-focused ones?
  • How do you plan to get your learners heading towards autonomous, confident learning?

If you are finding all this the missing piece in your language teaching puzzle – take the first step and visit our website.

Check out our membership and training course offers this spring for language professionals, growing globally and working in collaboration with our team of founding members with monthly free events.

*ILCA is the International Language Coaching Association, co-founded by Gabriella Kovács ACC.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this Gabriella – an interesting perspective of ELT which I am sure reflects your own experience. I agree we can all learn a lot from the world of coaching. Having said that, I don’t think the relationship between ELT and coaching is quite as dichotomous as you describe, particularly if we are talking about adragogy as opposed to pedagogy. For example, concepts like learning strategies and learner autonomy have been part of mainstream ELT for years, and cover much of what you describe as coaching. Likewise, in my experience most serious ELT practitioners see needs analysis, course design and classroom practice as collaborative processes, or dialogues between training provider / teacher and the client /learner; as such they also take many of the factors you mention into account.

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