Dr Jill Boggs talks to Shawn Lee about ESL Learning and Teaching.

As intern for the Applied Linguistics and English Language department this year, I was lucky enough to speak to one of our members of staff, Dr Jill Boggs who taught two of my modules, ALE108 Tools for English Language Teaching and ALE200 English Language Teaching. I enjoyed her modules and also look up to her for her teaching style and compassion for her students, so I was keen to talk to her about her research and work in the field! I hope you enjoy this short interview as much as I did. 

Dr Jill Boggs, Applied Linguistics Department, Swansea

How long have you been working in Swansea and what is your current role?

I started at Swansea in 2018. I teach modules relating to second language learning and teaching in the Department of Applied Linguistics. I also do research in this area.

What are your teaching/ research interests?

My research focus is second language writing, and within that, feedback that teachers provide on students’ written work and what students do with the feedback they receive. I became interested in second language writing and feedback whilst teaching English writing courses in South Korea, where I started asking questions about the learning process. The studies I read didn’t seem to relate to my students. For example, many researchers who investigate second language writing conduct their studies with participants who are on English language university degree programmes or who were preparing to study abroad. It seems like these groups might have a strong interest in the English language, but my students were in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programmes, and they were taking my class because it was required for graduation, not necessarily because they had an interest in English. As such, one of my primary interests remains students who are in compulsory English classes.

What is your current research focused on?

I’ve developed an interest in students’ feedback literacy, which is the extent to which students understand what feedback is, what it’s for, and how to apply it to future work. Researchers and teachers have probably long thought this was key to how successful feedback was, of course, but we didn’t have the tools to define and measure feedback literacy. Those tools are now starting to be developed – it’s rather exciting!

As a researcher and someone who’s knowledgeable in ESL learning and teaching, what are some of the misconceptions about English language learning that needs to be addressed or changed?

If I could give one hint to adult language learners, it would be to view language as something to be learnt rather than taught. 

Once language learners realise this, they are empowered to start taking ownership of their learning. Then are we wasting our time learning how to teach? Of course not! A skilled teacher and a well-designed lesson will facilitate the learning process, making it more efficient, effective, and enjoyable. A knowledgeable teacher will be able to explain nuances of vocabulary and grammar and provide exercises which consolidate new language items.

Regardless, it is the learner who will need to spend out-of-class time working with the information: committing new language items to memory; developing and testing hypotheses about how the language items are used; and creating opportunities to practise reading, writing, listening, and speaking. A good language teacher can help learners with this by providing ideas, helping learners identify what they enjoy and how its potential for linguistic practice can be maximised.

You were in Korea for a period of time so that might have spiked your interest towards L2 English speakers in Korea. If there are students interested in conducting similar research, would you recommend the need to live / teach in their country to understand the learning context?

Yes, my time in Korea certainly shaped my interests. I would say that there are advantages to having a deep understanding of the culture and language of your research participants. A key advantage is that this knowledge can inform your interpretation of your data. Some people might argue that an advantage of not having familiarity with your participants’ language and culture is that it allows the researcher to be less biased. However, I would argue that there is a difference between knowledge and bias; a lack of knowledge does not result in a decrease in bias! All studies have bias; the key is to be aware of this bias and how bias impacts on the study – on the selection of focus, the choice of participants, the methods and instruments, and the interpretation of the results. 

If I could give one hint to adult language learners, it would be to view language as something to be learnt rather than taught.

What would you like to tell students who are considering becoming language teachers?

Many students secretly worry that they aren’t good enough to teach. They worry that they don’t have the right personality, or the right amount of knowledge, or the right level of skill. A message that I try to communicate to my classes is that there are many different ways of being a good teacher. I’ll consider each of these concerns below.

Personality: If we think back on our educational experiences and the teachers we liked, we probably have a range of teachers in mind – some were younger or older, some were more relaxed or stricter, some were extroverts, and some were introverts. Clearly, there’s not just one ‘right’ type of person who can be a good teacher.

Knowledge: In some parts of the world, societies unfortunately attach great importance to the idea of ‘native English-speaking teachers’. This can make those who aren’t ‘native-English speaking teachers’ feel like they aren’t good enough. For example, in some countries, you can see job adverts where ‘native speaker’ is listed as essential criteria, and qualifications in language education is listed as optional! Putting aside the problematic idea of ‘nativeness’, so-called ‘non-native English-speaking teachers’ are valuable for a number of reasons. For example, they serve as positive role models for language learners. What message is communicated to our learners if we show them only models who have been using English from birth?! How unfair that is! Another advantage is that they are able to draw on their own experiences as English language learners to help their students. If they share the learners’ first language, then that’s yet another advantage. However, as English is now used around the world, I think it would be valuable if English teachers also came from around the world: English teachers from China, Korea, France, Spain, Syria, etc. could teach all over the world. This could help remove the incorrect focus of ‘nativism’ and place the emphasis where it should be: on teachers’ qualifications. All of the students in our TESOL modules are gaining their qualifications, so they will have the necessary knowledge.

Skill: In any job, we start out as someone with little experience. All surgeons have to do their first surgery; all lawyers have to argue their first case; and all teachers have to teach their first class. I think most experienced teachers would look back on their earlier classes and think, I could do it better if I could do it again. We become better at our jobs by doing them. Surgeons won’t perfect their surgery skills only by reading books and sitting in lectures, though we can agree that academic knowledge is a very important initial step! It’s the same with teaching: You gain a foundation of knowledge through reading and lectures, but it is when you are in your classroom (including virtual classrooms!) that you will develop your skills. Not all lessons will go smoothly; not all projects will be as engaging as predicted. That’s ok! Students don’t generally expect perfect teachers. They want someone who is knowledgeable, fair, and kind – and I think all of the students I see in our TESOL modules are capable of that!